24 Hours in the Sunny Old Pueblo [Race Recap]

Helena Kotala takes on the 24 Hours of Pueblo - a 24-hour race in Tucson, for a full day of racing without sleep.

The sun was setting as I began my first race lap, painting the sky in every hue of pink and orange and casting a warm light over the cactus-strewn landscape. I could see other riders in the distance, but for now, it was just me and this sweet singletrack that flowed up and down the gentle hills and rollers. It was time to test myself and see how fast I could complete the next 16 miles. 

After waiting all afternoon for my turn, I was so excited to be on my bike that I went out like a rocket, a smile plastered on my face. The air was cooling, a welcome respite from the blistering sun of the daytime, but still warm enough for a t-shirt and shorts. To my left, Mt. Lemmon rose up in the distance from the vast desert, turning purple in the setting sun, patches of snow shining brilliantly in the last rays of the day. It was hard to keep my eyes on the trail with such a gorgeous landscape to distract me, but there were spiky consequences to going off trail, so I tried my best to focus on the sandy dirt ahead of me. 

The author pre-riding the 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo course the day before the event. Photo by Ryan Michelle Scavo (@RyOutside).

This was 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo (24 HOP), a 21-year-old race that takes place in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona just north of Tucson. The event draws over 3,000 people annually, racing it solo, duo, or in teams of 4 or more. Big names in endurance racing come here to test their mettle, some putting in 20+ laps solo (that’s over 300 miles!), but the beauty of 24-hour racing is that all types of riders can have a good time and push themselves however they want. The majority do the race in teams — some duo, some 4-person, some 5 or more. Lots of people wear costumes. Everyone is happy.

Sombreros encouraged.

I had the opportunity to participate in the race with a team of journalists along with folks from brands Archer Components and Hustle Bike Labs. Together, we made up two teams of six, which meant most of us would end up doing three laps apiece. Each lap is 16.5 miles and has just over 1,000 feet of climbing, though most of the climbs are fairly mellow and rolling. The course is generally smooth, flowy, and fast, with just a couple technical sections, mostly near the end. The most sketchy thing about the riding itself are the cacti that are dangerously close to the side of the trail — hit a turn too hot and you might have a body part full of spines — but you quickly get used to their presence. A highlight of the course is the “Rock Drop,” a rock face at the edge of the campground that spectators gather around to heckle the racers as they come through. A small jump just past the rock is an opportunity for racers to show off their skills or add a little flair, with big air or creative tricks eliciting praise from the crowd.

The Rock Drop.

Soon, the singletrack ended on a dirt doubletrack road, and I merged with a couple riders coming in from my left. The course began with an option — racers could choose to either do “The Bitches,” a series of seven short but punchy doubletrack climbs, or they could “Skip The Bitches” and ride a slightly longer section of singletrack. I opted to skip every time — though The Bitches were definitely a little faster, the singletrack was more fun, and in my opinion, offers some of the best trail on the course.

Fellow journalist Jeff Coyle feeling the flow on a morning pre-ride.

Pivot Cycles generously provided me with a Mach 4 SL to ride at the event, which was the perfect bike for the trails we were riding. The bike offers just enough plush to absorb all the little bumps and get rowdy on the descents, yet plenty of get-up-and-go to be fast on the pedally bits. My bike was equipped with the Archer D1X electronic shifting system, which works with any derailleur and can be programmed for any number of speeds (I’m long-term reviewing one of these, so stay tuned).

While I didn’t get to ride them in the race, I also got to briefly try the Hustle Magnetic REM pedals, which use rare earth magnets to affix your foot to the pedal rather than clips, providing the secure pedal connection and extra power of clipless while also allowing for the easy engagement, flexible foot positioning, and stable feel of flats. They definitely took a little getting used to as the motion to disengage isn’t quite the same as for clipless pedals, but after a few laps around the campground, they began to feel a little more natural. 

Media team/Hustle/Archer pre-ride upon arrival to 24 Hour Town on Friday afternoon.

It was almost dark now, and before leaving the doubletrack I turned my lights on. The next section of trail was super fast, and before I knew it, I was hitting mile 10 and the Whisky Tree. This is just what it sounds like — a tree in the middle of the desert not too far from the campground where people gather to drink and offer racers whisky. When I rode by around 7 pm, the party was in full swing, with 50 or so spectators dangling handles of alcohol above the trail. Stopping to take a swig evoked cheers, while flying on by was cause for lighthearted heckling. Most of the time, I’m not one to turn down a whisky shot during a race, but this time, I was on a personal quest to see how fast I could do this lap, so I endured the comments and kept on pedaling.

The race begins at noon on Saturday with a Le Mans start. Hustle Bike Labs owner Craig Payne grabbing his bike to kick us off!

The second half of the course is more technical and climby than the first, with a few small rock gardens and a number of gullies and washes that cause the trail to dip and rise back up steeply. The Pivot Mach 4 SL’s suspension took it all in stride and for the most part, I was able to blast through everything at full speed. I was passing other riders fairly often, and it was around this time that I heard a woman’s voice behind me. “Yeah, girl, you’re crushing it!” she yelled enthusiastically.

I grinned, not knowing who the voice belonged to but welcoming the positive vibes. I pumped the pedals a little harder. “Come on, let’s catch the next one!” she shouted as we closed in on another group of riders ahead of us. Together, the mysterious voice and I picked off a countless number of other racers until we reached a section of doubletrack and she pulled up alongside me to pass. I looked over to thank her for the encouragement and was shocked — it was Rebecca Rusch. I managed to squawk out a meager expression of gratitude, which she very humbly brushed off. “Let’s crush this climb,” she said before dropping me as we ascended Highpoint Trail. 

Buzzing from a lap time that was considerably faster than my goal, the exhilaration of flying through the desert at night, and my encounter with Rebecca, I re-entered the campground and the hustle and bustle of the exchange tent with a pounding heart and shaking hands. I’d done my lap so much faster than my predicted time that my teammate who was up next wasn’t even at the tent yet, so I handed off my baton to a volunteer and headed back up to camp to find him.

Camping right next to the race course means action at all hours of the day and night.

24 HOP begins at noon on Saturday and runs until noon on Sunday. 24 Hour Town, the name of the expo and camping area (it is actually a place on Google Maps!) stays open all night. Food trucks sling pulled pork and pizza and coffee at 3am, music gets the riders pumped up, and there’s always something going on. I naively thought that I’d be able to get some sleep in between my laps, but by the time I came down from the riding high, ate some food, and made sure all my equipment was ready for my next lap, there wasn’t a whole lot of time left to get any real sleep. Not to mention the fact that with all the excitement and activity going on around camp and 24 Hour Town, and wanting to see and cheer on my teammates, it was pretty hard to hunker down and rest. It’s pretty amazing that for this one weekend a year, this desolate desert ranch that is 10 miles off any paved road turns into a “town” of 4,000 people who come together for the love of bikes. It’s like a big family, and though I had never been here before, I immediately felt right at home.

Morning camp coffee — there’s nothing better.

Nic woke me up at 2 am so that I could get ready for my second lap. Night in the desert was cold (around 40 degrees), and, dressed lightly knowing I’d warm up, I shivered in the exchange tent as I waited for Watts to come back from his lap. Away from the lights of camp, the stars were bright and crisp. There seemed to be fewer people out on the course now — some choosing not to ride in these wee pre-dawn hours — and I had a few moments of solitude. I took it easier than my first lap, my legs definitely feeling my earlier effort, but still managed to keep my time under an hour and a half. Back in “town,” I laid in my sleeping bag for an hour or so before crawling out to capture the sunrise.

Sunrise over 24 Hour Town.

Before I knew it, we’d all completed our last laps in the morning sunshine and it was time to pack up and head out, the mass exodus from 24 Hour Town returning the desert to the wild.

By 11 am on Sunday, the crowd was amped up as racers completed their final laps.

If you’re curious about 24 hour racing and want to camp and hang out and ride bikes with your friends in Arizona in February, 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo is a top-notch event that will not disappoint. Registration for 2021 opens on October 1, 2020 but you better be ready — the event is usually full within a couple hours.