He's all about wheeling, dealing

Chris Eatough: Thriving in mountain bike endurance races, the Ellicott City cyclist pushes himself physically and mentally.


August 23, 2005|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Mountain biker Chris Eatough is an overnight sensation.

Fighting inky darkness and trees with mayhem in their roots, overcoming freeze-frame hallucinations that visit in the wee hours, Eatough pedals alone until 24 hours have elapsed.

Then, more often than not, the slender, intense cyclist from Ellicott City crosses the finish line first. Five years running, Eatough has beaten the world's best at the 24 Hours of Adrenalin Solo World Championship. On Labor Day weekend in Whistler, British Columbia, he will try for No. 6.

But he can win without making it an all-night affair, too. He leads the National Off-Road Bicycle Association national marathon series with one event to go this weekend. Last month, he broke the seven-hour barrier to win the Wilderness 101, a 101-mile race in the mountains outside State College, Pa., finishing 28 minutes ahead of the runner-up.

He is so good that this month's edition of Mountain Bike magazine paid tribute to him with a back-page cartoon, calling him a "finely tuned engine" who "knows what to do to win."

The premise of mountain bike endurance races is simple. Ride as many 10- or 11-mile laps as possible in 24 hours. At last year's world championships, Eatough toughed out 21 laps, or 231 miles. Total vertical ascent was 27,000 feet, the same as riding up Alaska's Mount McKinley and New Hampshire's Mount Washington.

It is, he acknowledges, an unusual pursuit, riding alone in circles, your mind racing as fast as your bike to update the mental checklist it takes to keep the competition at bay.

"It requires thinking about clothing, food, pacing and style. It's not going all out, all the time," he says. "You have to be alert. There's rocks and roots and uphills and downhills. You have to be on your toes just to negotiate the trail."

He stops and takes a breath. "It's not for everyone," Eatough, 30, concludes, a slight smile playing across his face.

The worst comes about 14 hours in, from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m., a time, he says, "when the body's not even used to being awake. All you can do is take one lap at a time and remember that everyone else is battling what you are."

But time and time again, at national races and world competitions, when the lights go out, Eatough shines.

His edge is the analytical approach to training and competition he developed while studying for civil engineering degrees from Clemson University and the University of Virginia.

"It's his focus, his commitment to a training plan," says Wendy Booher, a writer for cycling publications. "Mental toughness is 50 to 60 percent of the competition, and he is mentally tough. He's calm, he's shrewd and he's focused. When he's on his game, he can't be shaken in his focus."

Eatough came late to cycling. He grew up in England, moved with his family to Harford County in 1990 and attended Fallston High School, where he met his future wife. (He became a U.S. citizen in 2003, and promptly won the next two national 24-hour championships.)

Soccer, however, was Eatough's sport in high school and college.

His father, a cross-country cyclist and a one-time world downhill champion in the masters division, introduced his son to mountain biking.

"I didn't fall for it right away, I sort of half fell for it," he says, smiling. "Mountain biking takes a high level of conditioning, and I started liking it more as fitness improved."

While at graduate school in Virginia, he honed his riding skills and began racing professionally in 1996 for the Trek/Volkswagen Team.

"It came at a nice time, when I was trying to decide what to do with my life," he says. "I was in the top 10 in cross country, but I wasn't winning races."

The idea of racing around the clock appealed to him.

"Cross country is pretty much a hammerfest. It's all out for two hours. But if you make tactical mistakes in a 24-hour race, it's really going to show," he says.

Like NASCAR racers, Eatough is only as good as the crew that feeds him and cares for his bikes for the 10 seconds or so each hour he is off the course.

Crew chief Jon Posner and Mike and Allison Eatough, the cyclist's father and wife, swarm over him as he enters the pit, stepping off one bike and onto another. They empty his pockets of food wrappers and stuff them with more fig bars, PowerBars, even cups of pasta with olive oil and salt. They wipe his face and replace his hydration pack.

"His efficient crew in 24-hour racing is what separates him from second place in so many races," Booher says. "They execute with military precision."

Back on the course, Eatough frequently finds his crew has taped a motivational message or a joke to his handle bars. The handwritten encouragement and calories keep him pumping the pedals for the hour or so it will take him to complete another loop.

Eatough is a tiny power plant, or, as Mountain Bike magazine calculates:

In 24 hours, he will consume the caloric equivalent of 13 Burger King omelet sandwiches and a case of 16-ounce Pabst Blue Ribbon beers.

He will inhale enough air to fill more than 53 Hummer H2 tires to 30 pounds per square inch, drink five gallons of liquid and pump enough blood with his heart to fill almost 270 15.5-gallon kegs.

His legs will pump out enough energy over the course of the race to power the lights on his helmet and bike and those of eight other riders.

At the world championship race on Sept. 3, Eatough will face four-time national champion and two-time Olympian Tinker Juarez - 44 and in his 19th year of racing - and former national champion Nat Ross, who won the 24-hour race at Moab, Utah, last year.

"I think it was easier the first time," Eatough says of his winning streak. "I had no expectations, and no one expected anything of me. The other riders have stepped it up.."

The past three world championships have been at Whistler, and Eatough is looking forward to his annual reunion.

"It's tough and technical," he says, flashing a big smile. "It suits me well."

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