Showdown at Nine Mile: Uncut

The battle for the Men’s Solo Championship at the 2008 USA Cycling 24-Hour Nationals, which took place at the 24 Hours of Nine Mile in Wisconsin, had spectators on the edge of their seats. As the race entered its final hours, Chris Eatough (Trek/VW) and Josh Tostado (Bach Builders) had lapped the field, and reduced the contest to a one-on-one race for the Stars-and-Stripes jersey. The two men paced one another during the event’s final laps, biding their time and plotting their decisive move. The buzz of anticipation in the pits became a palpable wave. Visions of a sprint finish danced in spectators’ heads.

But, alas, it was not to be. As the clock ticked down, Eatough rounded the final turn and roared down the homestretch to take the victory—with Tostado nowhere in sight. Back pain had forced Tostado to dismount, relegating him to a second place finish.

The story of this race is a tale of contrasts. It’s the story of Josh Tostado, privateer and up-and-coming endurance racer, and his one-man support team Ryan Gaul doing battle with the crafty, seasoned veteran Chris Eatough, the five-time National Champion and member of the Trek/VW powerhouse, and his well-oiled support team. It’s a tale best told by the two competitors, in their own words…

Chris EatoughChris Eatough Interview

Dirt Rag: Were you keying on the 2008 24-Hour Nationals and trying to peak for this event?

Chris Eatough: Basically, I’ve been choosing two 24-hour races a year. I feel like that’s my maximum, physically and mentally. They take up a lot of time not only preparing and training and getting ready, but also afterwards you’re pretty much shot for a month. Forget about doing well in any other racing for a month. It’s a big chunk of the season taken out if you do too many of these.

I do the ones that I consider the biggest and best and most worthwhile of the effort. This one is the National Championships, sanctioned by USA Cycling. It’s a legitimate Stars-and-Stripes Jersey event. In 24-hour racing it’s the only event that has true sanctioning like that. So I think that’s important.

The other one that I’ve done and will do this year is the 24 Hours of Moab, which is a huge event and probably becoming the major 24-hour race in the country for solos and for teams, in terms of participation, quality of the field. So that’s just an outstanding event.

DR: What’s your typical preparation coming into something like this?

CE: Mostly it’s racing, to be honest. I do a lot of 100-mile races. I’ve been doing pretty much the whole National Ultra Endurance series this year. I think I’ve done four already and I have three more left. So that was a big part of it. I did the B.C. Bike Race, which is a 7-day stage race up in British Columbia. That was just a month ago. I do enough endurance racing that that’s probably most of my preparation. Obviously, I’m doing some training as well, but, it’s coming mostly from the racing.

DR: Pretty light workouts between the races?

CE: Yeah, if I’m racing every weekend, which sometimes I am, it’s mostly recover in between. Easy recovery rides.

DR: In this race you went pretty hard from the get-go, and then you ended it hard.

CE: I didn’t lead in the beginning. I mean Nat and Josh were both faster than me in the beginning. I was third for the first five hours.

DR: Did that just feel like your comfortable pace you knew to settle into?

CE: Yeah, it was still fast. It was definitely not slow. I think those guys really let it out from the beginning. I’ve learned not to do that .

DR: How did the physical and mental part of this race go? You did great. Did you feel good the whole time?

CE: I never feel good the whole time, but I felt really good when it mattered. In the end, on the last lap when it was time to go, I did feel really good.

DR: You really dropped the hammer.

CE: Yeah, yeah. I wasn’t sure how it would play out. I could tell it was going to come down to the last lap and I was thinking through the scenarios in my head. Josh just all of a sudden…he actually stopped because I think his back was really bothering him. This was with about half a lap to go. Once I saw an opportunity, I just went for it full on. I was either waiting for an opportunity, or I was going to do something kind of later on in the last quarter of the last lap. I was going to try and get away there.

DR: We heard that you and Josh had a gentleman’s agreement that that was going to be the last lap.

CE: Yeah, it was feasible to do another lap. But we’d basically been riding together for about six hours, and the attacks had really died down because we realized that neither rider was going to let the other rider get away, and it was going to come down to the last lap. So it was really just prolonging the inevitable, and there was no need to do that.

So I’d thought about it and I mentioned it to Josh with about a lap and a half to go. I said, “You know we could just agree to make the next lap the last lap.” And just agree that neither of us would go out after that. And he was so happy to hear that he was like: “Oh, I was thinking the same thing. I’m so glad you said that.” So he was really into the idea.

DR: So all you did was determine where the finish line would be, basically?

CE: We knew that nobody else could possibly beat us—it was going to be Josh or I. But it was like: we could either finish with 20 laps or 21 laps. We could have come in around 9:15, with the finish at 10:00 so we could have gone out for another lap.

DR: It was going to come down to the final sprint either way.

CE: It was either going to be the 20th lap or the 21st lap. We were going to wait for the last lap either way. So if we did 21, then lap 20 was just going to be a waste of time. We were just going to ride gently together to get there. So we just decided to do that on the 20th lap, instead of the 21st lap, and race it out.

DR: Were you riding together?

CE: Well, we had been for most of the last six hours. But we both knew that the last lap wasn’t going to be that way. I knew he wanted to win. He knew I wanted to win. It wasn’t going to be any easy finish, that’s for sure. But it was going to be the last lap that that happened on. Somewhere in the last lap.

DR: Yeah, we were all expecting a photo finish.

CE: Yeah, it could have been a sprint. I was ready for it to come down to a sprint. I was thinking it might go that way. We’re very evenly matched. We were very even in the singletrack. We were very even on the fireroads. It was difficult to get any gap anywhere.

DR: What do you think it is about you that is the secret to your success in this type of racing?

CE: It’s probably a combination of things. My endurance is obviously good, but a lot of it comes down to planning and being kind of conservative with pacing and making good decisions. There are so many decisions to make in these races, you know. You’ve got to be on top of your eating and drinking, going the right pace, taking care of your equipment because it’s a long race, and communicating with your pit crew very quickly so you’re not wasting time in the pits. There’s a lot of organization and planning that goes into it, and decision making. I think that favors me. I’ve always been a good planner with that stuff, and I’ve been doing it for a while now too, and I’ve got really good people helping me.

As opposed to cross country. Cross country racing is pretty much just head down and go. There’s no thinking involved. It’s just balls to the walls, go from the gun, maximum speed from the beginning. You can’t do that here. It’s not maximum speed. It’s: how fast do you go? I mean, people who aren’t experienced with that don’t know how fast to go, how hard to push themselves for 24 hours. I’ve got a really good sense of my body and my abilities.

DR: And the strategies and tactics on top of all that combine to determine how fast you can go over time.

CE: Yeah, that’s a big part of it. And also I think my riding style is very efficient. I’m not the fastest guy overall out there. I don’t win big cross country races. I’m an O.K. cross country racer, but I’m not a top cross country racer in this country. But I’ve got really good efficiency. So I can ride quickly, especially on trails and singletrack, without using as much energy as other people because I have a good, smooth, efficient style. I think I’m not pedaling as hard as other people, but I can go the same speed as they are. Sometimes I’m coasting and I’m using less pedal strokes, and I’m making the bike and the terrain work for me. That’s a big part of it, the efficiency.

DR: That’s a big part of this course.

CE: Oh yeah, this course was great for that. Cornering speed is huge here. Making the bike work.

DR: Does this make wins two years in a row now?

CE: I’ve won here three years in a row. I’ve won the National Championship five years, but they weren’t in a row. There’s one year that I didn’t win it. So I’ve won five out of the last six.

DR: What’s your motivation to do these things, as grueling and tough as they are? What keeps you coming back to 24-hour races?

CE: Obviously it’s the challenge to begin with. It’s pretty much the longest, toughest form of mountain biking you can do. That was mostly the initial challenge for me.

But it’s also become something I’ve kind of based my career off of. It’s somewhat of a job for me now. It’s what my sponsors want me doing. It’s kind of how I’ve characterized myself. So to maintain my job, my career, in mountain biking, which is something I did want—24 hours was it.

DR: Is racing your full-time job?

CE: Yes. Racing and representing Trek and my sponsors.

DR: What type of promotions do you do for them? Or is it more testing and marketing?

CE: It’s both. Yeah, I do testing, but also do a lot of things like photo shoots. I’ve been doing a lot of that this year. Showing up at a location with a bike, riding.

I went to the product launch for the 2009 Fuel EX and Top Fuel to meet the media, and answer any questions they had about the bike and my involvement with the bike. I did have input into the design of this bike . It’s awesome. I had two of them. It’s what I rode the whole time. I actually used a 1×9 with a single front ring for this course. You don’t need a huge gear and you don’t need a tiny gear. You can do it all in the medium range. Raced here the last three years, so I knew the deal with the gearing.

DR: Are those photos of your kids on the back of your number plate?

CE: Yeah, I just had a little girl, and have a couple of pictures of her on each number plate. I like having her there with me and I can reach down sometimes and just look at the back of the number plate and see her.

Josh TostadoJosh Tostado Interview

Dirt Rag: Tell us about the light problems you had.

Josh Tostado: I’d built a lead on Chris somewhere between 8 and 10 minutes and was pushing pretty hard, and about 3:30 in the morning lost my lights and had to ride half the lap with some LEDs that were basically emergency lights. You couldn’t ride any of the singletrack with them. So I had to just wait for somebody, latch onto the back of them and try and stay with them. It probably took me three guys to get back to my pit. And then I had problems with changing the lights over, and by the time we got everything sorted out Chris got back all of my lead and we basically rode together until the last lap where he gapped me. I had nothing left at the end .

DR: Your back was flaring up when he pulled away?

CE: Yeah, my back had been hurting me for four or five hours. It was really getting painful and I was having trouble riding, and basically I just had to stop and stretch it out for like five minutes. It helped a little bit, and then I was able to finish the lap. That was the last lap, so I ended up getting second. But, you know, I’m really happy with how things turned out. I rode well, had a great race. I can’t complain at all .

DR: You’re coming off the Breckenridge 100, not too long ago. Do you think that had anything to do with the back being a little stiff?

JT: I think this course was pretty rough and I usually have two full-suspension bikes. I’d broken a frame four days ago and was able to get a hardtail frame at the last minute. I hadn’t ridden a hardtail in probably four years. It really did a number on my back. So I think that had a lot to do with it.

I broke my back in 2001. It’s not really that I have back problems, but that’s why I stopped riding a hardtail. My back used to just go numb on long rides. I thought maybe it’d be O.K., but it definitely hurt me, for sure.

DR: Is there a good story on the broken back?

JT: I fell ice climbing. Fell like 40 feet and broke my back, L1 vertebrae 50%.

DR: A life-changing experience for you.

JT: Pretty much. Yeah.

DR: Did you take up mountain biking full-swing at that point?

JT: Actually, I was at Montezuma’s Revenge in my back brace in 2001, watching, and was so stoked on the race that the next year I did it.

DR: You hadn’t done it before that tine?

JT: No. I saw it, sitting there in my back brace and I was like: “You know what? When I get out of this back brace, I’m going to start getting ready for this race next year. So that’s what started it all. A broken back.

DR: You hadn’t mountain bike raced before that?

JT: I’d done like one or two. Just local stuff, you know. But just short races. Then I got bored with that and just started riding. I rode my bike a lot, and did long rides. So it kind of made sense to do endurance racing.

DR: So Montezuma’s’ Revenge was your entry into endurance racing. Did you like it from the get go?

JT: I did, yeah. I liked it from the start. I just love going out on long rides, and it seems like I do better at the endurance stuff, so it just made sense to me. The rest is history. I kind of got more and more into it and now I’m trying to do it full time.

DR: What do you do for a day job?

JT: I do construction work. Just pick up anything I can get in the off-season and work around that with training.

DR: How many big events do you do per year?

JT: This year I’m doing nine: 12-hour, 100 mile and 24-hour. And I’m actually doing my first stage race this year.

DR: Were you trying to peak for this race?

JT: This one, especially, I was trying to peak for. I feel like I was on it. I peak a little bit late because where I live we get a lot of snow, and I started riding in mid-February. I do a lot of skiing, and I kind of feel like the last month I’ve been peaking. So it worked out well.

DR: Do you coach yourself? Motivate yourself and everything?

JT: Yep, exactly. Trial and error. Self-motivated. This year it’s been a lot less riding. I did a lot of riding early and then got to a certain point, and now it’s like I’m racing and resting. It seems like it’s working so much better for me, as opposed to trying to do a bunch of races and go super-hard all the time . Which leaves a lot of time for just going out and having fun rides. Which is cool .

DR: Rest is so important.

JT: Yeah, still riding, but doing easy rides. Mellow rides. Just finding some people to ride with. Not going out and going crazy.

DR: What do you have this year. Two wins?

JT: Three. Oh, two… you’re right Cowbell and Breck. I counted this as a win . Almost, almost, I had it .

DR: I guess you and Chris had a gentlemen’s agreement that it was going down to the last lap.

JT: We’d decided on the second to last lap that whatever happens during the next lap, that’s it.

DR: We were all waiting for the Tour de France sprint finish.

JT: It was looking like that, and I basically couldn’t do it. I tried to make it happen that last lap, but I think at a certain point your body just says: no more. Mind over matter stops working .

DR: What motivates guys at the top of this game to do it? What do you find in it that’s alluring?

JT: Obviously the biking aspect. That’s what we’re all doing. Love of mountain biking. But then, I think you just have to be competitive. I think the competitive side keeps you motivated to race. If I wasn’t competitive, I would just ride my bike and I wouldn’t have to pay for it .

Ed Notes: A condensed version of this article was published in Dirt Rag Issue #139. Interview conducted by Karl Rosengarth, with additional questions by Maurice Tierney and Carol Clemens. Photos by Maurice Tierney.

To read Dirt Rag’s in-depth event report from the 24 Hour Nationals  click here.

After the 24 Hours of Nine Mile National Championship race, Josh Tostado went on to win the Men’s Solo category at Granny Gear’s 24 Hours of Moab, battling Tinker Juarez for the win. Chris Eatough had to withdraw after suffering hypothermia. Story here.