The 24 Hours of Great Glen Comes Full Circle in 2021
By Sven Cole
The air temperature was so cold that the stopwatch protested the idea of keeping time. Skiers made their way around the course at a new weekly cross-country series called Nordic Meisters at this new Nordic center in Pinkham Notch. The recently appointed marketing and event guy was talking to another guy about events while they timed the skiers crossing the finish line. While they waited for coffee, in an effort to warm themselves up, they talked about summer events. It was December of 1995.
“You should do a 24-hour bike race up here Gib, like the one they did down in Cannan, West Virginia. It would be great; you’ve got a perfect set-up here in the Glen. I think it would go.” That line, or something close, was uttered by Dave Mark, who, at the time, owned Red Jersey Cyclery down in Glen. Dave was a guy that knew a thing or 10 about cycling, skiing, and events. The guy he said it to was Paul Giblin, who knew a great deal about motorsport events, but nothing about the world of cycling. As luck—and legend—would have it, he was about to learn fast.
A few months later, Giblin and Howie Wemyss, the GM of the Mt. Washington Auto Road (MWAR) and Great Glen Trails, jumped in a car and drove to West Virginia for the 1996 “24 Hours of Cannan” race. They had reached out to Laird Knight, the organizer of the race and the godfather of 24-hour bike racing, to see if they could go and get a crash course on the event and to purchase the rights to use his rules and timing.
They jumped in the car, drove over 13 hours, ran around the race venue observing, taking pictures, asking questions, and then about 20 hours later, jumped in the car to make the 13-hour drive back. Their adrenaline was high, they were excited, and now they had about six weeks to put on the event with their newfound knowledge.
RACE #1 – Race against Hurricane Bertha
“If you can build it, they can ride it.” Those were the instructions Giblin gave to Rik Dow, the operations director at Great Glen. So Rik, a lifelong ski instructor by training, headed off into the woods to lay out a track for the first-ever “24 Hours of Great Glen (24HOGG).”
What they lacked in cycling knowledge they made up for in how to put on a good event and how to treat their guests. These were the folks that ran the Mt. Washington Auto Road, the country’s oldest man-made attraction, so they had a lot of history behind them in the world of putting on a good show—and they were about to lean on all of it.
“I’ve always believed that if you are putting on an event, you have a responsibility to put the best product out there, regardless of what you have for a budget, and we didn’t have a budget in that first year,” laughed Giblin. “But we did have some sponsors, and we had a ton of course-making materials in the way of snow fencing, hay bails, and course ribbon—because we also ran the Mt. Washington Hillclimb. So the banners were tight and square, and the course was very well marked,” he continued.
At noon on race day, the cannon fired (a real cannon, albeit small, but nonetheless a real cannon) and the racers ran a short distance to get to their bikes before they headed out on their first lap. That first year saw only a couple of dozen teams, but the race was underway and fun was being had.
At some point that night it started to rain. A bit later it started to rain harder. A storm had moved up the Atlantic seaboard, Hurricane Bertha, and it started raining even harder. Around 10:30 p.m., reports were coming in that the campground by the river was starting to flood. By 11 p.m., Rik Dow was out in a backhoe trying to pull vehicles out of the field to higher ground. At a little past 11:15 p.m., they halted the race and held a rider meeting to decide if they should stop the race or take an hour to make some course adjustments and start again—with riders leaving based on when they came in on their last lap.
Remember Dave Mark, the guy with the original idea? Well, at this point he’s racing, and according to him, “Riders voted to continue at midnight in a hurricane, nearly unanimously. I just shook my head in disbelief and headed out into the rain.”
The riders had spoken, Dow and a couple of other helpers headed into the woods to reroute a section of the course that had disappeared in the rain. While that was happening, many of the racers had retreated to the great room in the relatively new building at Great Glen Trails—a beautiful timber-frame building, and muddy bodies and clothing were strewn about as people tried to find gear to head back out once the race started back up.
“I walked through the great room with Howie and just shook my head and said that it looked like Woodstock,” Giblin recounted.
The hour elapsed and the race … rolled on.
Those who were there in the first year all talk about the hurricane, about the stoppage, about the mud, about the campground flood. They all say it, look down at the ground, shake their head, and smile. Somewhere in their answer
“It was awesome,” is always stated.
The report on the course was that the pro from Cannondale was leading the pack, with the local hot on his wheel. The cannon had fired only about 30 minutes prior when cheering started coming from the final spectacular descent that dropped riders back down to the floor of the Glen. It was a section of trail aptly named “The Plunge,” as it dropped about 75 vertical feet in a very short distance—all to a very flat bridge that brought the riders back toward the start-finish. This was where the crowds were the largest and the loudest. It was also where the spectacular crashes and recoveries were seen. Many a rider would approach with a bit of Kodak courage, only to bail at the crux of the descent and tumble down the face to the bridge below. It was here that “The Pass” took place—and cemented the legend of a kid from Dummer.
Ward Solar was the reigning solo champ of the 24 Hours of Great Glen—having won it several years in a row and setting new lap records each year. Those efforts even got him a slot at the 24 Hours World Championships in 2001. But in local lore, nothing topped what happened when Solar was trailing the pro from Cannondale on the opening lap. “I had never not led, the first lap in all the years that I did the race,” Solar said, “so maybe it was ego, but I had been trying to make a pass on Outback and couldn’t get by, even though I knew I was faster.
I knew the only chance was going to be on The Plunge; I knew there were two fast lines, and as soon as I saw the other guy pick his line, I let go of the brakes and just sent it. I guess the pass looked cool because people were going crazy, I was just hoping I could absorb the transition at the bottom by the bridge. It worked out and I came into the timing tent first.”
The pass sent the crowd into a frenzy. It was caught on video by RSN’s Scott Bowie, who was up in the crane filming, “It was the coolest thing I had seen, it was like he just dropped from the sky.”
Solar had excited the crowd, but also showed a lot of folks that a rider from the area could hold their own against the pros. A few young guns’ eyes sparkled a bit more that day.
Moments like the pass were seen or experienced by hundreds of riders, hundreds of times during each race. That was another part of 24HOGG—the stories that every rider got to take away. It might not have been seen by many like Solar’s pass was, but it was in their minds, and everyone had their own legends that they could share. The stoke continued to grow.
A FESTIVAL FOR THE FAMILY
As the race moved into the mid-2000s, Howie Wemyss realized the event needed to evolve. He noticed people came to the race for one or two years, but then they would not return. Feedback had been very positive about the event, so why weren’t they coming back, he wondered? Come to find out, the preparation and subsequent racing of a 24-hour race, much like putting one on, took a lot of time and energy.
For people who had families, it was hard to leave on Friday and return home a shell of oneself Sunday evening, or maybe even Monday. Up to that point, racers came with their team and maybe a camp helper, but not a lot of families. That was when Wemyss realized that if they turned the weekend into a festival with a lot of other things going on for those hanging out in the Glen, it would be much easier for families to make a weekend of the event. Over time, events like the “24 Minutes of Great Glen” were added to give the younger kids a chance to race like Mom or Dad.
Moat Mountain Smokehouse got involved and brought their legendary food to the venue. Eventually, evening movies under the tent, outdoor climbing walls, and music all became a part of the growing event. The racers were well taken care of, but they already had something to do—this was for everyone else!
With that came themes, from disco to cowboys to this year’s Land of Oz theme. The campground became a pageant show of costumes and decorated campsites. The opening lap would see racers in costume for the Le Mans start. The race became more than a race: it became an event. While there were always racers on the course, there always seemed to be more going on under the tent or in the campground—which made sense, that was where the most people were.
“Keep in mind, at any given time, you only have between 100 to 200 riders on the course at once. For every four-person team, there are three people back in camp. We realized we had to make sure we were putting in as much effort to keep them engaged and happy as we were with the racers. So every year we’d get course feedback, and we’d put a great deal of effort into improving the course, and we’d also get feedback about the overall event. From food to amenities, to other activities. We eventually added real-time scoring that enabled teams to see their standing without having to pour through the manual timing sheets, we added hot showers, and added a ton of food options, entertainment—it really became a festival,” said Wemyss.
This is not to say the racing got soft—far from it. The spirit of competition and the desire to ride hard only grew. But there was a balance between the race on the course and the vibe of the campground.
“It’s always been a race, but my perspective has been from the point of view as a wrench there. A race to get someone’s bike fixed, a race to find parts, a race to make sure the racer can get out there. Because whoever is out there, when they are on course, they are racing. It may not be about the fastest lap, it might be a race for the most style or a competition for the best costume. In camp, it was fun and relaxed, but on course, it’s game on,” as stated by Jeremiah Beach, provider of Red Jersey Cyclery neutral support from 1996 through 2006.
Despite the ongoing evolution of the 24 Hours of Great Glen, the sheer magnitude of running the event began to put a significant strain on the staff at Great Glen Trails, as well as on the company’s bank account. “There were years where we did okay, but for many years the event just couldn’t break even. We never looked at it as something that needed to be a major profit center, but it did need to pay its own way,” Wemyss said. “Eventually the writing was on the wall that this wasn’t sustainable without significant sponsorship. As we came into the 20th year, it just seemed like the right time to put a bow on it and say that it had had a good run. We promoted the event as a last hurrah event—and wouldn’t you know that year we did okay!” Wemyss continued.
But the decision had been made: 2015 was the last race, the cannon had fired for the last time. A lot of fun had been had. A lot of laps had been ridden. A lot of friends had been made. But the ride was over.
MEETING HER FUTURE HUSBAND
The 24 Hours of Great Glen has seen its fair share of riders giving racing a shot. The scenario often plays out like this: someone’s phone rings and on the other end a version of this conversation, “How’s it going? Listen, a group of us are doing this event up in New Hampshire, it’s sort of a team thing, well (insert name here) just dropped out and we have an opening, and, well, I thought you’d be great. Get to ride your bike around and hang out with us all weekend.” The level of details provided varies, but inevitably the person says, “Sure,” with little idea of what they are getting into. Baptism by fire, and everyone comes out very alive.
“In 2009, I had just started getting into mountain biking and I got a call from some friends that needed a female rider for their five-person team. I really didn’t know what I was getting into, but thought it could be fun, so I did it. That was my introduction to mountain bike racing,” said Heather Thomas of Jay, Vermont.
Thomas would do her first race in 2009, and it ignited a fire in her for endurance bike racing. Not just the 24 Hours of Great Glen, but also the 24 Hours of Pats Peak, the Carrabassett Backcountry Cycle Challenge, and other endurance races all around the East Coast. But 24 Hours of Great Glen had a special place. “It’s such a fun event, racing at night, seeing the camping area all lit up. The music, the people,” Thomas said.
That first year she also met a guy. He was on another team from Vermont, and they became friends during the race. Then in 2010, Thomas raced solo, and that guy passed her during the night and patted her on the back with words of encouragement. “I don’t know why I remember that, but it stuck with me. He was super supportive and it was motivating,” said Thomas.
The next year she returned, this time on a five-person team again. And that guy, Matt, he was on that team too. “I was a late addition to that team; another guy’s wife had decided she didn’t want to race for that team and I got the call. Matt and I really hit it off and that was the start of our dating,” Thomas said. They dated, got married, had a daughter, all while continuing to race, eventually taking turns watching their daughter between laps. They even got to take their daughter to the podium when they got second place in the five-person open category.
“We were all so bummed when the race ended in 2015. Obviously, for my husband and I, this race is special—it’s where we met. When we heard it was coming back, we knew we had to be there. I’m racing solo this year and Matt is on a four-person team. We are pretty psyched,” Thomas said. When asked about advice for a first-time racer, Thomas shared, “Have fun, soak it in, there’s nothing like the vibe at this event. Yes, it’s a race, and people are going hard, but people are also having fun. Pace yourself and if you have to walk a section, walk it—there is plenty of time to try and clean it later if you have the legs. But most of all, just enjoy it.”
THE RETURN – August 7, 2021
The race ended in 2015. Twenty years of spinning laps came to a stop. The party was over. In some ways it made sense—the sport of mountain biking had been moving away from cross-country style racing and much of the energy of the sport was focused on flow and gravity style riding. The event took an enormous amount of time and energy from the staff and volunteers, and the reality was it cost a huge sum of money to put on; in the best of years, it broke even, and maybe there was some profit, but most years it lost money. The origins of the race came from a desire to promote Great Glen Trails. It had done that very well, but maybe it was just too much.
“As soon as we heard that 2015 was the last year of the race, we were heartbroken. I began talking to folks about what we needed to do to bring it back, I told Nate Harvey that we’d do anything to make it happen again,” said Don Seib, owner of Barker Mountain Bikes and a 24-hour competitor.
Seib had missed out on many of the early years of the race, as his race schedule had been focused on one-day events like the old Route 66 series. While he got to the 24 Hours of Great Glen late, he fell in love. His family raced, he was on competitive teams, and he loved the vibe. He and his wife had just purchased a bike shop in Bethel, and he saw events like the 24 Hours of Great Glen as vital to the health of the sport, so to see the race fold in the same year he bought the shop was tough. “I knew that we had to find a way to bring it back: it was just too good of an event,” Seib said.
At the same time, efforts were underway to build and open a new hotel on the site of the original Great Glen Trails building. For many at the MWAR and Great Glen, the 20-year run of the race was now a closed chapter, one full of many great memories, but a chapter that had ended. For Nate Harvey, who had worked at Great Glen since he first interned there in 1997, it was an event that he knew still had life in it. He pushed his boss Howie on what it would take. The answer: sponsorship dollars.
Harvey knew that Seib and Barker Mountain Bikes were on board. In fact, Seib had written a verbal blank check to make it happen … so there was momentum. There also was a longtime sponsor in Moat Mountain Smokehouse that was coming up on a 20-year anniversary of the opening of their famous brewery and restaurant. Steve Johnson loved the race, and maybe there was something that could happen.
When Johnson was asked about why getting involved with the race was important, he said, “This race is a great tradition in the Valley, and it’s really important to the area. We’ve been involved from early on and it was a focal point for many of us during the summer season. To have a great partner like Great Glen Trails, and to be a part of this event—it was an easy decision. And this year, our 21st year, the 21st running of the race, in 2021—come on—you can’t make that up!”
For Lisa McCoy, taking on the job as event director for the Mt. Washington Auto Road and Great Glen Trails meant she was stepping into a role that had a lot of history: famed events like the bicycle and running hill climb races, the car race, all of the Great Glen Trails events, as well as hearing a lot about an event that was no longer running. “I would be in town and introduce myself as the new event director up at the Mt. Washington Auto Road and Great Glen, and unsolicited, people would tell me that we needed to bring back the 24-hour race. They would get all excited and tell me stories about how great it was and how there was nothing like it in the area. I knew there was support for the event, but I also knew that while everyone at Great Glen loved the event as well, there was a reality about what it took to pull it off. We have a small staff and a limited budget, and to do this event right, it takes a lot of people giving all they have, and it takes a lot of cash,” she shared.
Harvey chimed in, “And Moat stepped up huge and is making this happen. Once Moat was on board, Barker Mountain Bikes came on board, and next thing we knew, we were in a position where we could make this happen.”
McCoy continued, “The call went out for racers, and it took no time for the race to sell out, and then the call went out for volunteers and a lot of people raised their hands. The support has been huge, and the energy and excitement are through the roof. Then to have the event get put off a year by COVID, the anticipation is only greater at this point.”
“I am excited to see those people that said, ‘Bring this event back!’ I’m excited to see them here having fun in this spectacular environment, and I’m hoping that it all goes well. Obviously, the COVID piece is challenging—to keep everyone safe—but we have good protocols in place to make this work. Things are heading in a good direction, but we all know that planning is a tough thing right now,” McCoy stated.
Harvey’s voice got excited as he said, “People are ready for this. People need this. Moat and Barker Mountain Bikes have stepped up. Voz (Steve Vosburg, chief trail builder) has been working hard on new course features. Racers are ready. Volunteers are excited to be here. And we are going to throw down Moat Mountain style in terms of food and beverage. We’re ready. Let’s get to August.”
If you’ve never seen this event, you owe it to yourself to head up to Pinkham Notch at some point between noon on Saturday, August 7 to some point midday on Sunday, August 8. It will awaken something in your soul. It will renew your faith in humanity. It will make you want to ride your bicycle. It will stir your competitive spirit. It will excite your creative side. It will be a type of fun that will seep into your DNA.
To everyone who has made this event happen, from that fateful December day back in 1995 to now: THANK YOU!
Don’t miss the 2021 24 Hours of Great Glen!
Saturday, August 7 – Sunday, August 8, 2021