By Jody MacPherson
Originally
 appeared in the Western Wheel newspaper, August 11, 2004

From left: Randy Sawatzky, Karel Hofman, Stewart White and Mike Burt

A five-man team from the Okotoks area endured one of the toughest mountain bike races in North America on one of the hottest weekends of the summer.

The team was competing in the annual 24 Hours of Adrenaline held July 17-18 in Canmore. The huge relay race involves individual riders, or teams of up to 10 people, mountain biking a rugged course as many times and as fast as possible over a 24 hour time frame. With 1,600 competitors, it’s Alberta’s largest cycling event.

One member of the Okotoks team was taken to hospital early in the race with a broken collarbone and another completed two laps before severe muscle cramping took him out of the competition. The remaining three members of the team picked up the slack, placing 11th in their age category and only two seconds behind their finish time last year. This was the third year in a row the team has competed in the event.

The team’s founder, Michael Burt, 38, of Okotoks said he decided to enter the race after reading an article about it in a magazine.

“The real challenge was to convince other individuals of limited mental capacity this would be a fun thing to do,” he joked. “Surprisingly, with my group of friends, this was not difficult.”

This year’s team also included Karel Hofman, 45 and Randy Sawatzky, 44, both of Okotoks, as well as Michael Nerbas, 39, a former Okotoks resident now living in Calgary. The fifth team member was Stewart White, 39, of Fort McMurray, who made several trips south to train with the team. They competed in the 200-plus category, which is the total of their ages.

“I think the main reason I do it is to convince myself that I’m still alive,” said Nerbas. “After jockeying a desk all day, it’s good to do something that scares you.”

Nerbas certainly got his wish this year. He was only about 10 minutes into a lap when he hit the steepest part of the course. He decided to let the bike go without using his brakes and even though he had trained on this same section twice the night before, Nerbas says inflating his tires just before the race caused a little more bouncing. He lost control going around the corner, turned his shoulder to protect his face and hit the ground hard. “In a team event like this, you don’t want to let anyone down by giving up, but before I got to the side of the trail, I was pretty sure my collarbone was broken.”

Luckily, Nerbas was wearing a helmet that protected his head even though the brand new headgear cracked on impact.

“With Mike out of the race, I wasn’t too worried about the four of us completing the course since it still gave us a decent recovery time between rides,” says Burt, the team captain and mechanic.

Then White, the first cyclist out of the gate for the team, was near the end of his second lap when his muscles started seizing up.

“My stomach was so knotted, I felt like I was in that movie and an alien was going to pop out,” he says. “I stopped the bike and laid on the ground for a few minutes hoping I would feel better, but then my legs started to go, along with my shoulders and then my neck.”

White managed to limp to the next water station along the course and considered getting into the first aid truck to ride back with another injured cyclist. He opted to walk his bike to the finish line rather than have the lap considered incomplete. In his first lap, White had finished with his best time ever and says the extreme heat (30+ degrees Celsius) probably contributed to an underlying condition.

White seemed strong at the beginning of the race but then became the second team member to drop out.

“When Stew went down, I knew it was going to be a tough finish,” says Burt. “At first, it was exciting—just the three of us against all odds. Then, reality set in.”

Hofman says with two of their teammates out of the race, they decided to slow down to conserve energy.

“But after you get out on the track, it’s difficult to hold back,” he says. “You try to race with some decent speed to avoid being passed by the girls.”

Hofman hopes to eventually take part in the race as a solo rider so he says he took the opportunity to see how far he could push himself.

“It was like racing in an oven,” he says. “There were several moments during my fastest lap when I was wondering how much hotter it would have to get before a person would collapse from heat stroke or exhaustion.”

Despite the heat, eight women and 44 men competed in the solo category, meaning they raced for 24 hours on their own. Marty Bulcock of Calgary was the surprise winner of the race, completing 18 laps in the 24 hours. Bulcock had never even watched the race prior to entering. He beat Ryan Draper of Canmore who was favoured to win. Sheri Foster of Edmonton finished 15 laps in better time than another Canmore favorite, Cyd Fraser, winning the women’s category. Competing side-by-side with these elite athletes is one reason why White says he keeps coming back to the race.

“It’s definitely a unique race in that you get to ride the same course along with some of the best mountain bike racers in Canada,” says White. “What other sport gives you the opportunity to do that?”

After the injured Nerbas was taken to the Canmore hospital, his bike continued to support the team’s efforts. When first-time competitor Sawatzky broke his seat halfway through his third lap, the idle bike seat was removed and used as a replacement. Joshua Burt, 14, assisted with bike maintenance and repairs to give the racers a rest.

All of the team members say they enjoy riding the course at night best of all.

“If you’re looking for a challenge, enjoy goal setting and like the extreme, I’d highly recommend it,” says Sawatzky. “But train seriously because this is no ride in the park.”

At least two of the team members can be seen regularly cycling the Okotoks bike path at night, headlamps on, training for the technical night ride.

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