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Knight Owl: 24-Hour Mountain Bike Racing Inventor Laird Knight

From a small outpost in Davis, W.Va., Laird Knight took mountain biking to the next level. In 1992 Knight put on 24 Hours of Canaan, the world’s first 24-hour race. The initial ride had only 36 teams, and now the format has achieved global popularity. Knight’s company, Granny Gear Productions, hosts three of America’s most popular races: 24 Hours of Moab in Utah, 24 Hours of 9-Mile in Wisconsin, and 24 Hours of Big Bear (the flagship race moved west toward Morgantown). A 2002 inductee into the Mountain Biking Hall of Fame, Knight’s longtime enthusiasm for his sport helped put Canaan Valley on the map as an East Coast mountain biking mecca.

When did you realize 24-hour racing would be successful?
• I had been running a multi-stage race called the Tour of Canaan. We built it up to 500 loyal racers. In 1991, I announced at the award’s ceremony that it was done; I was going to pursue a new format. The place went dead quiet, but I never had doubts. The next year at the first 24 Hours of Canaan I remember standing around at the end of the race knowing I had made the right choice. I was so buzzed from the fun experience. People were walking around with ear-to-ear grins. We couldn’t believe what we had just gone through. It was the fruition of what has become my life’s work.

Two decades later, what’s been the best part?
• I’m really proud that this has become a worldwide phenomenon. Now the largest events are not in the United States anymore. There are races all over Europe, and two of the biggest 24-hour races are in Australia. This format was designed to be fun for mountain bikers. That’s what we’ve accomplished.

Is promoting races for a living still fun?
• A lot of races have come and gone since we started. Many promoters quickly realize how expensive, difficult, and risky it is to put on such a big race. I just purchased 24 Hours of 9-Mile after it was in existence for 10 years. It’s hard to do this year after year. At one point we were doing six events. Now we’re down to three, and it’s a perfect number. My wife and I just adopted three kids from Ethiopia last spring, so I’m a proud new dad trying to manage a lot of things.

24-hour races used to be known for the big party scene. Has that changed?
• That’s still there, but now we’re seeing the kids of racers from 10 years ago coming out. Even whole families are showing up. I want to see more of that. Overall, this generation was not raised on bikes like my peers and I were. There was a boom of action junkies informed by their childhood in the 80s and 90s. I just turned 50, and when I’m out riding my mountain bike I feel like I’m still in my 20s. I am going to pass that mentality on to my kids, and I hope others do as well.

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