OCALA. Fla.—It’s a warm, sunny Saturday morning in February in at the Santos trailhead in the Ocala National Forest in central Florida. What better thing to do than to go for a bike ride?
For some folks, that better thing would be to go for a mountain bike ride. And for a very special few hundred, the answer was, to race a mountain biker around a challenging 8.9 mile track—for twelve hours.
Those few hundred participated in the GoneRiding.com Santos Twelve Hours, a difficult, mildly dangerous—and to talk to the riders, tremendously fun and fulfilling—half day of hills, rocks, ruts and roots, a race which started at 10 a.m. on February 15 and ended at 10 p.m., after three hours of racing in full darkness.
Some cyclists teamed up in twos and fours, riding in shifts. Some rode the entire event solo. Some rode the latest full-suspension mountain bikes, the height of 21st-century technology with air springs and shock absorbers. Some rode rigid-frame bikes using the best technology of the late 19th century.
In the end, everyone ended up tired, more than a few ended up scratched and bruised, and the winners knew they had earned their trophies.
GoneRiding has been putting on 12-hour mountain bike races since 1997, and they are very, very good at it. Every team got an electronic transponder which they handed off after each stint, so GoneRiding could offer real-time scoring on a monitor on the door of the trailer, plus detailed timing and scoring sheets which were posted on the trailer’s side, while an announcer leaned out the window on the other side to watch and call the action on the PA as the riders arrived and departed.
The Santos 12 Hours is part of a series of mountain bike endurance races sanctioned by GoneRiding in the Southeast: the Amelia Sixty Nine, 12 Hours of Santos, Hammer Head 100, 12 Hours of Tsali, and the 8 Hours of Labor.
Night Racing: ‘You don’t even get to see the danger’
One factor that sets the Santos 12-Hour apart from every other mountain-bike race is the night—the sun sets with several hours left to go and the race finishes in full dark.
Imagine a rough, rutted, rocky trial in the woods, barely wide enough for one person to walk and so steep that walking it is a challenge. Then imagine riding a mountain bike over this same rocky, rotted, root-crossed trail as fast as possible on a pitch-black night with nothing but that a couple flashlights to light the way. This is what riders do—after six hours of beating their bodies over the same trails in daylight.
Daniel Vendetti, who finished second in the six-hour single-speed class, tried to describe what night-riding is like.
“It changes the dynamics,” he explained. “The first night lap you do it’s like everything’s new—it’s almost like a different trail. You really have to get your lights beamed in and focused on what’s going on. A lot times it helps to be with another rider—you double up the beams on the track to really get your speed.
“It’s really tough to keep the same speed as you would during the day—you normally slow up at least a minute or a two a lap, even if you have a good lap.
“It’s amazing—it’s a very dangerous trail out there during the day; at night you don’t even get to see the danger. You just hope and pray and go for it.”
Venditti said that very little of what a rider sees during the day carries over at night—all the landmarks change.
“The first night lap you kind of get reoriented to what your markers are, what’s coming up next and stuff like that, because the night markers—things stand out differently at night. The second lap you get a little bit more of a groove going on but the first one feels alien. Then all of a sudden you’ll be like, ‘Okay, I remember this,’ but it’s probably less than fifty percent as far as feeling seeing what you would normally use to see which line to take.”
It’s a Race, but Participating Is Winning
The Twelve Hours of Santos is a race, or several races happening simultaneously. There are six- and 12-hour categories, and several classes of bikes, riders, and teams. Serious riders show up for this rigorous test of speed and endurance, and fight it out until the final late-night lap.
Still, while the Santos 12 Hours is nominally a race, most riders came not for the checkered flag but for the whole experience—pushing one’s limits, sharing an exhausting yet exhilarating day with friends, camping out in the beautiful tree-lined limestone pits of the Santos International Helicopter Bombing Range, cooking up every sort of food (GoneRiding supplied free pasta, but many teams set up their own kitchens) and in general creating the kind of memories that the riders could save and share on those rainy weekends when they couldn’t be out on the trails.
Carolyn Ward, a registered nurse when not riding, was part of a four-person coed team sponsored by the Santos Trailhead bike shop. This was her second 12-Hour (in only two years of trail riding.) She was there, she explained, for “the camaraderie—being with all your friends and just having a good day of racing and hanging out.
“We have one or two competitive teams and then we have one or two teams that are here for fun and to be here because we know we’re not as fast as them but we still have the heart and the joy of the sport.”
Twelve hours later, she was just as positive, though a bit beat up.
“I crashed twice in my first lap, went back out on my second lap and everything was smooth. The trails were great. The trails are really nice after six hours of riding—everybody’s broken them in, the corners are smooth got nice transitions.
“I go back to work and people are like, ‘How’d you get so many bruises—what do you do in your free time?” When I tell them I mountain-bike, they say, ‘There’s no mountains in Ocala!’ I say, “Just come out to the trails one day and I will show you.”
“We had a couple good teams from Santos [bike shop] and everybody was motivated and together—the camaraderie is always good.”
Even the hardcore racers appreciated the experience as much as the competition. Kathy Russell, who with Bob McCarty finished second in the two-person category, rode last year’s race solo—about as hardcore as it gets.
“Mountain biking is just a cool sport. It’s a great community and this especially is a great event. Everywhere you ride there are people yelling your name or just cheering you on if they don’t know you. It’s a cool even to be part of. “
Chris Fernandez, owner of the Santos Trailhead bike shop, was part of a four-man team wearing the store’s colors. It was his first 12-Hour; he joked he was forced into it by his teammates.
Eleven hours later, he and his exhausted teammates were trying to do math, calculating whether, being two laps down, they could gain a place in the rankings if they did another lap. Fernandez struggled to describe the experience: “I would say …”
“Invigorating!”‘ a teammate called out. “It’s certainly invigorating,” Fernandez replied. “Enlightening!” shouted another.
“I wish it was more enlightening—I could use some enlightening,” Fernandez said, chuckling. “This is my first experience—I’d have to say it is a blast. Everybody is courteous out there, passing and being passed. It was a nice course—a couple of new sections they added for the race which was a bit of a challenge.
“I loved the camaraderie, the experience, and the challenge of pushing yourself beyond what you normally do.”
Then there are riders like Michael Onklesbay who rode the entire 12 hours solo on a rigid frame single speed, which is akin to beating to beating your lower back and thighs with a hammer for 12 hours. For him the race was not about teamwork, or friendship, but about finishing under self-imposed grueling conditions. After 12 hours, he most definitely felt the effort had paid off.
“I feel great,” he exclaimed.. “I don’t feel like riding any more but I feel great.”
The 2015 GoneRiding Twelve Hours of Santos kicks off at 10 a.m. February 21 at the Santos Trailhead in Ocala, Florida. For rider registration, directions and all other details visit http://www.goneriding.com/index.php/events/2015-events/bike-endurance-events/12-hours-of-sa