“Steady away and keep it rubber side down”. The advice was sound so what was I doing sprinting past riders on the grass verge narrowly avoiding spectators, gazebos and pit lane setups. Well, a good start is crucial; there was only 23 hours, 59 minutes and 30 seconds to make up for a bad one!
Here we were at 24 Hours of Exposure, the combined National and European 24 Hour Solo MTB Championship. It’s a great event, as well as crowning champions, it provide a friendly and supportive solos’ only event for newcomers venturing into the crazy world of ultra-endurance mountain biking. This year’s race attracted riders from the UK, Ireland, Portugal, France, Holland, Poland, Hungary and Australia. I’ve never managed to have a proper go at this event with Icelandic Volcanos, work commitments and diary clashes all conspiring to keep me away for the last few years.
2013 was going to be different. I made this my early season target and planned to take my A-game to the new venue of Wasing Estate. It would be very different to previous editions up in the Scottish Borders at Newcastleton, the flatter Southern course would be a tougher proposition than many would expect with little chance for recovery, close racing and big consequences for poor pacing. And that’s without considering the impact the weather could have, a promising forecast the week before soon transformed into a wet one with the forecast becoming reality in the days leading up to the race. Yet the spongy soil soaked up the rain and practice laps on Friday revealed a surprisingly dry course packed with short punchy climbs, flat out doubletrack and twisty, root infested singletrack.
They say it takes more courage to start a 24 solo than to finish one, having done three already, I knew what to expect but you never really know how you will respond and what others are capable of, so I got as organised as possible, tried not to stay up too late prepping equipment in the days leading up to race day and set myself some rules about race strategy. The most important of these was to be consistent and most definitely not get embroiled in racing the 12 hour racers.
With my ‘rules’ back in focus – back to the race. I had a stern word with myself and settled into a more sustainable pace. The few laps were a lot of fun, three 12 hour riders had clipped off the front and a sizeable chasing group formed with me surfing wheels just inside the top ten overall and fourth of the 24 hour soloists. A few random rain showers made some sections of the course slippery but the lap times remained very consistent and I gradually smiled, chatted and rolled my way past the other 24 hour contenders; defending champion Huw Thomas, fancied rookie Martin Smith and Hungarian Gabor Doroghazi into the lead. It was nearly 5pm and I hadn’t planned on taking the lead quite so early, memories of 19 hours in the lead at a muddy Twentyfour12 a few years ago flashed before my eyes, but the pace felt comfortable and we were moving comfortably around the course.
The next 3 hours were probably the most enjoyable of the whole event. The course was riding better and better under blue skies, everybody I passed was super friendly and I was making great progress up the 12 hour field catching Wiggle’s James Braid who was running third. And then it rained. And the rain changed everything. This was a race of two uneven halves. The rain came just before 8pm to end the first half and everybody scrambled and slid their way back to the pits to warm up and put on dry waterproof clothing. Luckily, prior to the rain I’d decided to delay my stop for lights and warm clothing so when I got back to the pits Jo and Chris were ready with Gore-tex everything plus a fresh bike with mud tyres and a new Exposure Reflex.
These are defining moments in 24 hour races. The course was now trashed and would remain so for the next 16 hours as there was no sun or wind to dry the mud. The temperature had dropped and hypothermic riders shivered their way past our pit. But there was still a race on. I didn’t relish heading out onto that lap but I knew everyone else would be hating it even more, so I pressed on. Running the steeper tractionless climbs, committing to stay off the brakes on the tricky descents and riding smooth throughout to balance the effort and look after the bike. At the start of this lap I had a ten minute lead over Gabor and this stretched out as he retired due to the cold and a crash.
He was not alone. Many riders suffered with the cold and called it a day. Each lap became progressively quieter with fewer and fewer riders out on course. It seemed like a completely different event to the one that had been running just a few hours earlier. But as the course became quieter, the support got louder as marshals, support crews, timekeepers and ace MC Matt Carr did everything they could to lift the remaining riders. I was blown away by friends James and Yasue, who had driven up from the south coast after a night out to cheer me on. Approaching midnight, I was well clear of the other 24 racers, with the only Senior rider ahead being 12 hour race leader Tim Dunford. Only 12 hours to go……
Strangely the night flew by. With pit crew ninjas Jo and Chris working miracles to keep the bike running and me warm and fuelled, we just kept on rolling throughout the dark hours, I didn’t even resort to the IPod, my own internal jukebox providing rain related tunes such as Toto’s Africa and Prince’s Purple Rain (could have been a lot worse I guess !) The lap times remaining remarkably consistent and I lapped second place Martin Smith in the night and double lapping him as daylight arrived. Martin put in a brave debut ride and will be one to watch in the future. Also riding well was Mike McCutcheon who’d moved up and passed Martin to move into second. We rode together for a while until I raised the pace to build on my two lap cushion. Mike and Martin would battle it out for the remainder of the race, both pushing themselves to the limit with the Irish rider coming out on top despite the best efforts of Martin’s AQR support team’s final push.
As for me, well back to my friend’s advice. I’d managed the ‘steady away’ part and so far ‘kept it rubber side down’ so just needed to ride out the last few laps. I’d kept a pretty clear head and worked out that I would be able to finish at around 10am as there wouldn’t be enough time for anybody to pull back the lead, so finishing my 28th lap at around 9am I figured just one more to go. My crew disagreed and thought I should do three more just in case somebody blasted out some quick final laps. I’m not sure who they were worried about, I’m pretty sure Olympic XC Champion Jaroslav Kulhavy would be saving himself for the opening round of the XC World Cup the following weekend. Anyway, essential in a successful marriage, we compromised on two more laps and I used the opportunity to thank the marshals who had been out in the woods for so long offering encouragement and a couple more blasts down the final bluebell carpeted descent.
It was a fantastic feeling to cross the finish line to take the win. National and European 24 Hour Solo MTB Champion! I keep saying to myself just remind myself that it’s true.
Huge thanks to the following people:-
Exposure Lights for lending me awesome lights for the race.
Reg for prepping the bikes.
Tim for inspiring me to get into Endurance racing in the first place.
Paul and Sara from SIP Events for putting on a top notch event and supporting us Solo MTB racers. Hope to see this event back on the calendar one day and good luck with your other projects.
Matt Carr for 24 hours of entertainment on the mic.
James Dymond and the AQR support team who helped us out enormously even though I was racing against their rider Martin Smith.
All the other supporter crews, marshals and fellow racers who kept it fun throughout, despite the best efforts of the weather.
And very special thanks to my fabulous crew, my Brother Chris and my ever tolerant wife Jo. They did the real hard work and I couldn’t have kept going without them!