In mountain bike racing, it's supposed to work like this: Only the big dogs who live, train and race in the high, thin air of the Sierras and Rockies win the major off-road events.
But don't tell that to Baltimore racers Roger Bird, Brad Erickson and David Duvall. Along with Floyd Landis of Ephrata, Pa., the fat-tire competitors make up the Defenders, an ad hoc pro-class team that will compete against some of the best racers in the West at the 24 Hours of Moab team relay race in Utah on Friday and Saturday.
The foursome may do the unthinkable: win the race. In a departure from the normal predictions for this East Coast vs. West Coast rivalry, the Defenders are the team to beat.
After winning West Virginia's 24 Hours of Canaan event three years in a row -- hence the team's moniker -- the Defenders point to an unequaled level of experience in this grueling, through-the-night format.
Moab is one of the most popular mountain-bike destinations in the United States, and the event is attracting many top-notch western pros, including Schwinn star Mike Kloser and Tour de France veterans-turned-mountain-bikers Bob Roll and Alex Stieda.
The Defenders will be one of more than 100 four- and five-person teams competing in the Utah desert in the noon-to-noon event.
Here's how it works: In what is something like a highly condensed off-road bike race stage, teams send out one rider on the course, while teammates eat, rest and even sleep until their turn. At the check-in station, a racer completing a lap passes a small baton to a teammate, who sprints out onto the 13-mile circuit.
For night laps, riders cannot sign in until they demonstrate to a race official that they have a working lighting system and a backup flashlight. The course itself is not lighted.
"Western riders are stronger, no doubt about it," said Defenders team captain Bird, 31, a veteran of 13 seasons as a mountain bike racer and the manager of three Bicycle Authority shops. "But we may prove to be more steady and faster over the long haul. We know what it feels like to ride at 3 in the morning when it's cold and dark."
Or to have a bike frame snap at 2:30 a.m., as Bird's did on the 12th lap of last June's Canaan event. The Towson resident sprinted back to the Defenders' pit area and roused his sleeping mechanic and teammates, who helped him switch his powerful halogen lights to a spare bike. He was back on the course in 40 minutes. The incident cost the team its slim first-place position, but by 10 a.m. it was back in the lead and went on to win.
Another plus for the Defenders is Landis, 19, who burst onto the national racing scene in 1993 by winning the national junior title. He raced with the second-place team in 1994's 24 Hours of Canaan and with the third-place finishers in June.
In an exceptional season for a first-year pro, Landis was the 12th American finisher at the National Off Road Bicycling Association national races in Vermont and Georgia -- the highest placing of any rider living east of the Rockies.
"Floyd has the strength and iron will to be a top dog. He wants to beat everybody," Bird said. "Our chances are better with Floyd. He's got the fire in his eyes!"
The other members of the team are expert-class racers with long resumes of winning results.
This year, Erickson, 25, took second place in the West Virginia points series. Duvall, 27, is the Maryland state mountain bike champion.
Are the Defenders confident of winning at Moab, which would be their fourth consecutive 24-hour victory?
"I can't call it. There will be a lot of 'celebrityism' at this race, including both U.S. and European mountain bike champions," Bird said. "But our motive for going to Utah is to win -- and I'm doing everything within my power to make it happen.
"But it's also a whole new set of circumstances. And you're at the mercy of whatever happens during the night."