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Laird Knight was named West Virginia Tourism Person of the Year in 2001, and was inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame in 2002.
In 28 years of doing business in West Virginia, mountain bike race pioneer Laird Knight has been exhilarated, frustrated and humiliated but through it all has managed to keep the rubber side down.
The originator of the 24-hour mountain bike race concept, founder of Granny Gear Productions, proud father of the 24 Hours of Moab, and determined father of what has become the 24 Hours of Big Bear is still going strong despite some daunting setbacks.
His biggest mountain bike race events are growing despite demographic trends that are slamming the outdoor recreation industry, and he feels his West Virginia 24-hour mountain bike race has at last found its home.
Knight came up with the 24-hour race concept after running the National Off-Road Bicycle Association Nationals in 1988, and the Tour of Canaan stage race in 1990 and ’91. The 1988 NORBA Nationals was the largest of the year, attracting more than 400 amateurs and some 80 professional racers. The Tour of Canaan also became one of the largest off-road bike events in the nation.
NORBA was surprised, but Knight wasn’t.
"I knew we were surrounded by megalopolis—DC, Pittsburgh, Richmond—and I knew how big the sport was. There hadn’t been a race of this caliber in the east. We got riders from as far as Florida, New York and Vermont. Everybody came to West Virginia back then.
"At the awards banquet in 1991, I announced we would no longer be running the Tour of Canaan. There was this collective groan. ‘But in its place,’ I said, ‘we’re going to run a new event, the 24 Hours of Canaan. It will be a mountain bike team relay race, from 12 noon Saturday to 12 noon Sunday.’ The whole place went silent. Then the buzz began to build."
The first two years of the 24 Hours of Canaan were hosted near Davis.
"The first year we had 36 teams, about 150 riders, and 86 teams the next year. The third year, when we moved to Timberline, we had 208 teams, and by the fourth year, we were already up to 360 teams and probably turned away 100 more.
"The event took off when we moved to Timberline Resort," Knight says. "Racers had access to beds, hot tubs, and kitchens.
"In 2000, we moved to Snowshoe. We had more lodging and facilities, so we bumped up to 500 teams, but it turned out that the course was immensely more technical than anything we had ever run before.
"We had beautiful weather the weekend of the event, but it rained the week prior and the course was a mud slog. It was a terrible experience. I said ‘don’t worry, we’ll rebuild the trails.’ We planned to put over 360 tons of crushed limestone down, to build a trail bed on the entire course.
"The next year we had the money and staff in place, and we slated 12 weeks to do it all. Then the Fish and Wildlife Service stopped us because of environmental concerns. "We ended up with only three weeks to get 12 weeks’ work done. It wasn’t enough. I had promised a rideable course, and when people came, I didn’t deliver. My reputation went in the crapper. That year we had 550 teams. The experience was miserable and there was nothing I could do about it. "The next year plunged to 300 teams. We took what money we had and worked on the trails again. It still wasn’t enough. People mostly had the experience of running with their bikes again. The numbers went down in 2004 to 189 teams. It was so painful."
In 2005, Knight moved the event to Big Bear Lake Camplands in Preston County, and it’s been smooth riding ever since.
"What’s really important in 24-hour racing is the soil," Knight says. "The soils at Big Bear are perfect. They drain and dry in a day. Even when it’s wet, there’s so much mineral content in the soil, it holds up. It’s got a bottom to it. Plus, it’s a super-fun course."
For all the trauma, Knight doesn’t regret the journey. In fact, he has created a six-race 24-hour national point series with Suzuki Automotive as title sponsor, but the newer events have suffered the same demographic pressures, and he plans to scale back.
"I needed to be more realistic about deciding how and if I should have made that push," he says. "I made a big play and I fell down. Now I’ve brushed myself off and I’m proceeding with more caution. My mantra for next year is manageability and profitability," Knight says.
His Moab race is hugely successful, drawing as many as 1,700 racers from all over the world, but Knight says Granny Gear Productions will remain West Virginia-based. Big Bear is growing, and 24-hour racing will remain rooted here where it began.
"It’s funny. Out west, people think that the 24 Hours of Moab is the granddaddy of them all. They don’t know about the 24 Hours of Canaan, but that’s what first put West Virginia on the map in the mountain bike world. I’d never take my event out of West Virginia," he says. "This is where it all started."
Photo courtesy of Granny Gear Productions
By Rebecca Kimmons