Northern light

At the end of June I packed up my bike, flew to Whitehorse, and prepared to ride my first 24 hour mountain bike race under the midnight sun. The 24 Hours of Light is something I’ve been talking about for years; plans to ride with friends in 2014 fell through at the last minute. In 2015 I was there as a solo rider, ready for whatever the race might bring.

The first night was the captain’s briefing. I checked into a plain but clean and friendly motel in the centre of Whitehorse, reassembled my bike without too much difficulty, and then rode over to the Beringia Centre. We drank beer and ate pizza amid the mammoth skeletons, were given free pairs of giant souvenir underpants, and learned that laps ridden naked between 10pm and 6am counted double.  I left the centre at 10pm with my sunglasses still on, and went for a little detour through hoodoos, sandy singletrack and meadows full of wildflowers high above the city. It seemed strange to arrive back at the motel in full light, knowing that it was time to sleep in order to be ready for the 24 hours ahead.

10pm in the Yukon

I arrived a couple of hours ahead of the noon start the next morning, with plenty of time to set up my very minimalist campsite in the quiet camping zone (I wasn’t really planning on sleeping, so I had just bought a thermarest and a down jacket), lay out my food and water supplies, and chat to some of the other racers. It was a beautiful morning, with a light breeze shaking the trees and sunlight filtering between scattered clouds. As more people arrived the start area began to develop a carnival atmosphere, with swing bike races and a kids’ mini-course and crowds of family and friends gathering at the edge of the meadow.

Noon rolled around very quickly, and we parked our bikes by the fence and lined up in the starting corral on foot. When the countdown finally began we raced around the meadow in a Le-Mans style running start before grabbing our bikes, leaping on, and pedaling across the line.

24HoL  start line

It’s hard to describe the feeling of riding away down the doubletrack: full of energy and excitement, so eager to see the course ahead, and yet completely calm. For the next 24 hours, I had one task: to ride my bike. The world felt suddenly distilled and simple. It was an entirely different experience to setting out on a road race, where time and speed are of the essence. This was uncomplicated, unhurried, clear and beautiful.

The course was amazing. Just over 12km in length, it began with rooty, gently sloping singletrack through sunlit trees with trunks of ash and silver that eventually took us to a steep, switchbacking climb that led out onto a narrow bench with incredible views across the valley to the distant mountains on the other side. A steep, sandy descent on the far side quickly dumped the elevation in a grinning rush before leveling out into more beautiful singletrack through groves of spruce, with the odd tumbledown hut among the trees. The final stretch back to the start was wider, flatter, and very rooty.

24HoL course

I could have ridden those trails forever and never grown tired of them. Even at the very end, many many hours and pedal strokes later with sandpaper eyes and exhausted legs, it wasn’t hard to go out for a final lap because it was one more chance to ride the course before the clock ran down and I left the wild open landscapes of the north behind.

Early on, though, I rode in a haze of wonder that after all of the time and all of the imagining, the dream was finally real. The riders – around 200 in all – quickly spread out, with the team riders racing ahead while I reminded myself that there was a long way still to go and no-one to step in for me when I tired. I set an easy, steady pace, with plenty of time to take in the beautiful surroundings. I rode for a half-lap with a new friend from Whitehorse, then she stopped for a break and I fell back into the silence of the forest.

The bench, 24HoL course

Aside from brief pit stops to eat and refill my water, I kept going steadily for the first few laps. Then the race organizers fired up the barbecue, and the promise of something more tasty than granola bars lured me away from the course for a while. My legs had lost some of their early spring and I was bitterly regretting the fact that in my hasty departure I’d forgotten to switch up the rock hard seat that came on the Spitfire for something more comfortable, but after two very welcome smokies and a longer break I was ready to roll again.

As evening wore into night the light in the woods seemed suspended in some magical, golden state. In spite of the kilometres already behind me I felt like I could have kept riding in that light forever; it was as though time no longer existed, and it was just me and the bike and the trees and the singletrack winding ahead. All there had been, and all there would be. The climbs were getting harder, but were never so long that the promise of the views on the bench and the wild, laughing descent ahead wasn’t enough to keep my legs moving.

Naked tandem at 24HoL

As midnight neared the sky was still light but the sun had dipped below the trees, and the air was cooling rapidly. A fire was blazing in a pit near the start line and as I warmed my hands over it between laps, one of my new friends passed me a beer. Down on the course two naked riders set off on a tandem to cheers and hollers from the campground. One of my goals for the race was to ride a midnight lap, and I set out again as the countdown clock neared the halfway mark. The woods were darker now, and I was glad that I’d had twelve hours to get to know the course. A chill had sunk into the air and in spite of my tired legs I was glad to reach the climb, where I warmed up considerably.

Riding out onto the bench above the valley at midnight was one of the most incredible moments of the 24 hours. The sun was suspended on the horizon at the very end of the bench, a ball of red and gold beneath a darkening sky. I rode directly toward it through swirls of dust that riders ahead had left dancing and glowing in their wake. I didn’t realise that I was holding my breath until I finally swung away from the fiery sky and dropped back into the trees. It was more stunning than anything I could have dreamed.

Early hours at the 24HoL campground

I rode on for a while, then stopped for a quick catnap. The kindness of the strangers who had become friends had made my minimal campsite far more appealing; they’d added a down wrap and a comfy chair while I was out on the course. I hadn’t intended to sleep, just to take a longer break to let my legs recharge, but the down wrap was warm and cozy and my eyes drifted closed for a while. Opening them to find myself lying beneath shadowy trees and a twilight sky on the side of a mountain in the Yukon was strange and surreal. A deep chill had set in, but the lower reaches of the sky were glowing gently with the promise of a beautiful day to come.

In spite of the recharging effects of the catnap, my legs were feeling the hours and the distance. My remaining laps were much slower, with refueling stops for coffee in between and naked riders flying by me on the climbs in brief, surreal glimpses. Gradually the woods filled with light and warmth as the sun rose higher, and the start area started to bustle with people emerging from RVs and tents.

Dawn on the bench, 24HoL

On what I knew would be my final lap, I took my time and tried to soak it all in: the trees, the singletrack, the swooping rush of the Midtown Boogaloo compression, the valley soaking in the morning sunlight from the bench, and the laughter of the descent on the far side. Then a slow, slow pedal through the spruce groves, brief doubletrack, and high fives and hugs at the finish line. I chatted to other riders for a while then suddenly realised that my dust-caked legs were no longer willing to hold me upright, so I found a chair and slumped gratefully into it as the clock finally ran down to zero.

Someone handed me another beer, and I donated my remaining water supplies to the local bike club. My new Whitehorse friends performed one last act of kindness and arranged a ride back to town for me when I mentioned that I’d been planning to call another cab. But first, there was one final surprise left in an event that had been full of so many: I had placed second in the solo women’s category.

Solo women prizewinners, 24HoL

By the time I made it back to my motel the exhaustion had kicked in, but I was also starving hungry and caked in dust. I showered an impressive amount of dirt away, decamped to the motel restaurant where I devoured a burger the size of a rugby ball and a plate of fries that would have fed a small army, and then retired to my room where I passed out cold for the next few hours.

I knew that a 24 hour mountain bike race – especially one ridden under the midnight sun – was going to be one of the most memorable experiences I’d ever had on my bike. It exceeded my expectations beyond measure. The warmth and friendliness of everyone I met, the incredibly beautiful course, the strange and ever-changing northern light, the surreality of being passed in the night by riders wearing nothing but a helmet, bike shoes, and butterfly wings – it was everything I’d hoped and far more. As Robert Service said, there are strange things done in the midnight sun, especially at the 24 Hours of Light.

24 Hours of Light Tom_Patrick_Yukon_News

Photo credit to Tom Patrick of the Yukon News, who also provided a great write-up of the event.

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