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The 24 Hours of Rapelje: better than shooting gophers

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By Victor DeLeo
My shorts looked like a soiled diaper
turned inside out. I’d just shouldered
my bike over a swampy cow pasture,
and now the muscles in my muddy
quads burned to near melting. At the
relay, I mustered a sloppy high-five
for my teammate, MJ. Spectators
were laughing. What could possibly
be funny?
It was our fourth hour at “24 Hours
of Rapelje,” the only mountain bike
race in Montana of its kind. The USA
Cycling sanctioned event has four
race categories: solo riders, three and
five person teams, and Carnival Class,
which has as many people as a cheerleading
squad. The 14.2 mile course is
non-technical single-track; if it doesn’t
rain and your equipment makes it. With
live music, beer and a midnight pancake
breakfast, the race has equal amounts
partying and pedaling.
We came to win—even though there
were no prizes. Victors would take
home a marble plaque the size of a
deck of cards. They’d also have their
pictures put on the wall in the town’s
only eatery, The Stockman Cafe. But
after my disappointing lap, our five man
team was losing.
Rapelje, Montana, is an unincorporated
farming and ranching community of
about 100 people, 24 miles north of
Columbus in Stillwater County. Cattle,
feedlots and silos dominate the town.
“If it doesn’t have a motor in it, we
don’t ride it,” volunteer race director
Mike Erfle told us. His dad, the late
Wayne “Cork” Erfle, started the race
10 years ago. He’s never worn biker
spandex either.
The town of Rapelje has relied on
fundraisers since the railroad quit
coming through. “24 Hours” is the
busiest day Rapelje sees, tripling the
population. The second most popular
event, the Gopher Derby, is a rifle
shoot-out to see who can bag the
most prairie dogs. Locals volunteer
for both. The money raised from the
race supports the Stockman Cafe, the
school and other civic needs.

[dcs_img width=”300″ height=”270″ thumb=”true” framedall=”black”
author=”photo by Pete Bolane” desc=”Racers, including Big Sky’s Ben Macht in red, run to their bikes at the start of the 2010 24 Hours of Rapeje.”][/dcs_img]

When I started my third lap at 2 a.m.,
the rest of my team was asleep. As a
relay, only one team member rides
at a time, so the others may tuck into
a sleeping bag, eat or do keg stands.
But I was focused on rescuing lost
time. Headlamp shining the way, I
locked my attention to the dry trail. I
stood on my cleats, wrenched on the
handlebars, smashed on the cranks.
Bring on the pain. Not gold, I was
going for the marble.
A cow mooed. As I estimated five
miles to go, I was peaking. Then my
light faded to auburn. I fiddled with
the switch, tapped the dim beam,
then gripped the brakes hard. My
battery was dead, and I was blindfolded
by darkness.
By chasing bikers with working headlamps,
I found the relay line, tapped MJ
and returned to my tent. Too hungry
to sleep, too beaten to cook, I had only
one option—the pancake feast at the
Stockman Café!
A non-profit community hub, the café
is owned and operated by local volunteers.
At 4 a.m., the servers doled
out pancakes, and their light-hearted
spirit made me forget I was there to
race. This was a 24-hour treatment
room for the defeated.
Back on the bike at 6 a.m., I needed no
lights. The sun rose over mountain
ranges separated by enough farmland
to feed whole countries. It was my
final lap, and the prospect of relief
gave me new energy. The pain was
almost over, and winning no longer
seemed to matter. We still had beer at
our campsite.
Crowds rallied at the finish line.
When our last man reached the
end, we tallied the scores. I tallied
them a second time. Then a third.
Wait a minute, did we win? Yep, we
were the fastest five-man single speed
team. We’d actually won
before we started. We were the only
team in our class.

[dcs_img width=”300″ height=”270″ thumb=”true” framed=”black”
author=”photo by Pete Bolane” desc=”A grain elevator towers above the race campground at Rapelje, Montana”][/dcs_img]

The beta:

Rapelje, Montana (pronounced RAP -el-jay) is 24 miles north of Columbus, Montana, on Highway 408. If you reach a
stop sign, you’ve arrived. Typically, the annual race occurs the
last weekend of June. Participants camp in a mown field just
south of four grain elevators. RVs are welcome. Showers are

For an entry fee of $60/person, you can enjoy live music, an afternoon barbecue, free pancakes and a farewell dinner. BYOB.

There is a shorter race for kids
6-15, as well as carnival games and a petting zoo. Winners and
losers ride the same country road out of town.

Stockman Café chairman, Mike Erfle is open to new ideas every
year. “Just let us know if you want us to change something,” he
says. “We’ll try anything once.”

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