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If you’ve been anywhere near a mountain bike in West Virginia, you’ve likely heard of Laird Knight. Through decades of promoting races, including the country’s longest-running race in the Canaan Mountain Series and his globally recognized 24-hour races, Laird has cemented his legacy through mud, sweat, and gears.
As the child of a military family, Laird grew up in many places, including Ethiopia. In 2009, life came full circle when Laird and his wife Barbara Walker adopted three young siblings from Ethiopia. Spurred by the passion of his kids, Laird learned to play and coach soccer in his early 50s. At 62, Laird, now a prominent real estate agent, still gets after it chasing down soccer balls and mountain biking whenever he can. I met up with Laird to go for a classic Tucker County mountain bike ride on Canaan Mountain. We chatted about his path to West Virginia, his first mountain bike ride, his legendary races, and his family. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Where did you grow up?
I’m a military brat; I’m not from anywhere. I was born in South Dakota and then lived in Oklahoma, Georgia, Ethiopia, Kansas, Maryland, Germany [in that order], and then my dad retired, and I went to high school in rural Virginia. Being a military brat was dreamy for me with all the travel and all the experiences.
What’s your coming to West Virginia story?
I was in Boulder, Colorado, pursuing an engineering degree when Ronald Reagan cut $5 million from the budget, and I had to hand back my Pell Grant. I was finishing up a job helping to build this state-of-the-art, off-the-grid solar house when I got a call from Chip Chase, and he said, “Hey, I’ve got a concession at Blackwater Falls State Park to run a cross-country ski center, you wanna run it?” I knew Chip from my days in Virginia, back when he started [the original] White Grass in the Virginia mountains. I couldn’t afford to go back to school, so when I was 23, I packed everything up, drove out to West Virginia, and just fell in love with the place. I mean, how can you not? It had everything and more than Colorado. That first winter, I ran the cross-country ski center at Blackwater Falls. I created the Blackwater Nordic Learning Center and taught skiing for three years. I immensely enjoyed that job.
How did you get into cycling?
I learned how to ride a bicycle in Ethiopia when I was five years old. I learned to ride a bike in the woods in Germany when I was in sixth grade. We built a whole trail network with jumps in the woods behind our house. I had a little three-speed, banana seat, high-rise handlebar bike, the closest thing to a mountain bike there was back then. We used to have races around the military base. I was that chubby, little, slow kid who always got picked last. A bicycle was like a magic carpet, a way that I could go fast and far. When I lived in Colorado, I didn’t have a mountain bike because they just were just showing up, but I rode my ten-speed and bombed down trails. I saw my first mountain bike in 1981 in the display window of a bike shop in Boulder. It was a $650 Specialized Stumpjumper. For a struggling college student, it might as well have been $6,000. Back then, that was ridiculous for any bicycle. Because I rode motorcycles as a kid and rode my bike off-road, I wanted one for sure.
When did you start riding in West Virginia?
When I moved to Davis, I rented a room in the upstairs of the Cooper Building, which is now Stumptown Ales. Flynn Griffith, one of my roommates, had just bought out a bicycle shop in Buckhannon, and had everything stored in the furnace room upstairs. I walked in there and said, “Wow, we could start a bike shop.” Griff said, “Let’s do it,” and we started Blackwater Bikes in 1982. Here I am opening this high-end bike shop in Davis, city of 500. How am I going to make that work? I started running mountain bike races that were really about promoting Blackwater Bikes and getting people to come and ride the trail systems. By spring in 1983, every mountain bike was sold out, you couldn’t get mountain bikes. The bike companies hadn’t even begun to estimate how popular mountain biking was going to be.
Describe the experience of riding those early mountain bikes.
I will never forget the first day I rode a mountain bike. It was a Ross Force-1. Griff and I got them from Steve Whirley, who owned the Bike Barn in Buckhannon and helped us get our first mountain bikes so we could have inventory to sell. They were total garbage, but they worked! It was just so awesome to ride in the dirt; it was everything I imagined it could be. Griff and I had been riding around, just having a hoot, and we gassed it full-tilt through this huge puddle; that was our initiation. We got back from that ride and were just lit up. It’s easy to take for granted how revolutionary a mountain bike was in the first place. The capability, how stable the bike was, what you could do with those fat tires and slack geometry. I was a total adrenaline junkie and just loved pushing it and going fast with confidence. I used to fly down hills and won a few downhill races in the early days before shocks. People don’t appreciate how much suspension you can provide by working the bike and your body.
How did you get into race promoting?
The first mountain bike race in West Virginia was in spring of 1983; it was called Mountain Bikes in the Mountain State and was hosted by Steve Whirley at the French Creek Game Farm [now the West Virginia State Wildlife Center]. It was just magical. We spent all night dialing our bikes and organizing our tools. Everybody was so pumped; there was this shared enthusiasm that was just so palpable. The thing that really made me want to be a mountain bike race promoter was the character of the people that I met, just these hardcore, non-whining, fun-loving guys and gals.
What was the first race you produced?
In the fall of 1983, I started the Canaan Mountain 40K, but it was really more like 60K. Twelve people started, nobody finished. I flatted about halfway through the course and ended up walking out because I blew the sidewall on my tire and there was no repairing it. Even Griff, who is the only person who could have finished and won, was so beat that he just went back down the road to Davis. It remains infamous that no one finished.
Tell me about the Canaan Mountain Series, which is one of the oldest race series in the world.
That started in 1984; there wasn’t anything else going on like that back then. It was a points series that took place over three weekends throughout the year. We were drawing people from all the way up the Eastern Seaboard and as far south as Florida. It was the only game in town, and it helped to brand West Virginia as one of the most famous locations for mountain biking. In 1988, I started Granny Gear Productions and held the [National Off Road Bicycle Association] Nationals as part of the Canaan Mountain Series; it was the biggest race in the country that year. We had pro-level teams come out from Colorado, and this guy came up to me and was like, “How do you guys ride this stuff?”
What was the genesis of your legendary 24-hour race series?
Running the cross-country ski center at Blackwater in the short days of winter, we’d want to go skiing after work, so we’d ski at night. We had these cheap headlights that were just junk, but we’d ski out into the woods all night, often seeing by nothing but a dim, orange circle. That got me hooked on the notion of athletics at night. And as a kid, I used to read about the 24 Hours of Le Mans car race. I took elements of Le Mans, night skiing, and team camaraderie, and created the 24-hour mountain bike format, starting with the 24 Hours of Canaan in 1992. I just knew it would be a big hit. I quit my other businesses and launched into Granny Gear Productions as a full-time business. I started hunting around for sponsors with lighting companies and landed NiteRider. The lighting was the enabling technology that put it all together and it took off like a rocket. In 1997, we launched the 24 Hours of Moab. We were operating on a shoestring budget, and I’m so grateful that the teams showed up that first year, otherwise it would have taken my company down. The next step was to build a national series of 24-hour events with six races across the country. We had a killer staff and everything ran like clockwork. Our last race was in Moab in 2017. I was tapped out and just had to throw in the towel.
Are there any particularly memorable race moments?
I think one of the highest points in my career was at the 24 Hours of Moab [circa 2003]. We had a rule that there had to be at least one woman on every team. The coolest thing about that race was that all the men had gone hard and were out early, and it was up to the women. It was neck-and-neck and our announcers were highly tuned in. Over the PA system, we were able to build the suspense around the finish, which was down to all the women racing against each other on the last lap. They were so freakin’ fast, just superhuman. To be able to create that level of drama at that pro-caliber level, and especially to have it come down to the women, that was the peak of my career in what I was trying to create as a race promoter.
Tell me about your family.
I was keen on being a dad. My wife and I were older and settled on international adoption. I thought As soon as we see them, we’re gonna know. I remember the day where we saw a picture of these three kids, a twin boy and girl and their younger brother, and I was like, “That’s them.” It’s been an amazing journey, I’m so grateful to have this experience.
Are your kids into mountain biking and skiing?
Where I totally failed as a mountain bike and ski dad, I succeeded as a soccer dad. One of the things I’m so grateful for is their passion for soccer. I had never touched a soccer ball in my life until I met them in Ethiopia. When we got back to the States, I became an avid player. I started coaching rec league teams and that was a total blast. It was really fun doing something new that I completely sucked at. It’s eminently apparent to me why they call soccer ‘the beautiful game.’
What are you most excited about for the future in West Virginia?
You’ve got to talk about [the National Interscholastic Cycling Association] because it’s the most exciting thing in mountain biking right now. The growth in this state has just been exponential. There was a period where the races were just a bunch of old guys. There were no teenagers, no twenty-somethings; there were barely any thirty-somethings. Now that we’re three or four years into NICA, you’re starting to see all these kids who aged out and are showing up to compete in these races. To me, the most exciting thing is the benefit that mountain biking brings to kids. I helped with the first team in Morgantown, and most of the kids weren’t athletes, weren’t confident; they were shy and reserved. By the end of the season, they had confidence and they had friends. NICA is gonna do more to rejuvenate the sport of mountain biking than anything that’s ever happened.
For more things Laird, check out his 2002 induction into the Marin Museum of Bicycling Hall of Fame.