I’m a bit of a stickler for detail when it comes to preparing for 24 hour races. I put far too much time into getting my body into some kind of shape to be able to do even reasonably well in these things to mess it all up because I’ve forgotten something, or have something break without a spare. I write lists. I have big training plans. I get grumpy when things happen at the last minute. I do pretty much everything I can to give myself a fair shout at a good result and to repay some of the generosity of my various sponsors.
Sometimes I threaten to take the fun out of it. Sometimes I have to stop and give myself a slap for taking the fun out of it. Sometimes friends stop me and give me a slap for taking the fun out of it. Good on them.
Sometimes it all pays off, sometimes it doesn’t. That’s just the way things are. If it goes wrong, there’s always the next race. I’m normally riding five or six 24 hour solos a year anyway.
That’s what I usually do.
Ever since I won Relentless 24 in October last year and was given an entry and flights to the World Championship, this race has dominated my thoughts and pretty much everything I’ve done on the bike. It’s fair to say that I’ve a lot of commitments in my life and I’m not going to get too many chances to take part in a properly big race outside the UK when the kids need shoes, the gas bill needs paying and the cat needs litter.
The fact that this race was happening in Finale Ligure, arguably one of the most beautiful and as I discovered, warm and friendly parts of Europe, was a bonus.
I had to do well. I had to be able to stand confidently on the start line without my usual thoughts of “I’ve not really done enough training for this” and it was imperative that I came away certain that I gave the race everything I possibly could. None of the usual “if only I’d not stopped for that 10 minutes I might have finished higher”.
I trained harder than I’ve ever done. I stuck to a plan as though my life depended on it. I lost some excess weight. I worked on my core strength as though it was the most important thing in the world. I did things properly. I ate beetroot.
Far from taking things too seriously, I was treating it with the gravity it deserves. I was approaching the whole race as though it would be my last.
Once in Italy a few days before the race and the weather forecasts became more certain I decided how I would deal with the race, discussed it with Michael (who would be manning the pit with Angela) and arranged my kit, lights, spares and food. A failed rear brake on the spare bike the day before the race meant a rushed trip to a local bike shop for a cheap disc brake and a missed opportunity to pre-ride the course. A little voice in my head was shrieking “omen! Omen! OMEN!” but I ignored it and prepared some more.
Race was to be ridden fast. No slacking. No long pit stops. Keep total stop time less than five minutes if possible. No fannying around with treats and hot drinks. Just head-down and suffer. Gels, Shot Bloks, carb mix drink. Small, pre-cut pieces of protein bar. The minimum variety of fuel I need in quantities large enough to (as much as possible) remove the chance of blowing up. I’ve got an iron stomach, now was the time to use it.
This pratting around moving things from pile to pile, nervously folding and unfolding small items of clothing carried on until everything was moved to the race site and it was all laid out neatly next to Phil’s and Dave’s kit in the union jack and Elizabeth II portrait-decorated gazebo.
Finally, the time to line up for the short run to start the race arrived. The three of us, me, Dave and Phil, were quieter than usual. I expect they were both as focussed as I was.
I arrived at the end of the run near the front and fought to stay near the sharp end, my limited knowledge of the course told me that it wouldn’t be long before we were riding narrow singletrack and the chances of overtaking would be few. Not a bad start. First job done.
The course was very technical. Lots of slow-speed tricky sections and lots more high-speed sections with consequences for getting things wrong. I was a severe disadvantage here, knowing full well that my technical skills aren’t anywhere near as good as many of the other riders. I had to make up for the perceived shortfall by smashing every climb. Ignore the HR monitor, I was going to have to risk pacing this one by going as quickly as possible uphill but then try to recover going back down.
Fortunately, and I think I might be unique in thinking this, there was a lot of climbing so I had plenty of chances to turn that negative into a positive. Over 400 metres per lap is a lot when you multiply that by 21.
The first few laps were a blur of “I’m going too fast and I’m going to die on my ass” worries and big crashes. I think I had four large spills onto sharp pointy rocks and gained some impressive cuts and bruises that I collected dirt in for the remaining 20 hours.
The bike, an almost brand new On-One Lurcher, wasn’t taking any prisoners though and contrary to popular belief that carbon bikes aren’t ‘trail-ready’, this thing seems to be invincible. And thank God I had a bike with a suspension fork on this course!
The brutality of the course started to take its toll on my back. All the climbs were very loose surfaces so there was very little opportunity to stand up as I would normally do, so it was looking like 24 hours of seated climbing. How nice. Good job I’d been practising those then. I was getting more confident on the downhills too, the various 30mph+, narrow, tree-lined, cliff-edge fast bits were despatched in the same increasingly-confident and relaxed way as the 90-degree slow-speed rocky drops (on the obligatory cliff edge) bits.
It was going well, this.
Deb told me that I was in 8th. Then 7th. Then 6th. Stayed in 6th for a bit. Caught the German lad in 5th and rode with him for a while and then ride away from him at some point during the night.
I saw fellow Brit Craig Bowles up ahead and got a move on. I knew he was in front of me so if I could pass him cleanly and put in a gap, I’d continue the upward trend.
By dawn I’d ridden past most of the race and was sat in second place – the only guy in front of me now was multiple world champion and Australian Marathon Champion Jason English. He was miles off in front so no chance of catching him, but bloody hell eh? Second!
There was hours to go. Six, maybe seven hours in fact. I was really struggling now. For the next few hours I’d struggle around the course, my earlier enthusiasm and focus often drifting away, thoughts turning to ‘how much longer?’. I had to focus. It started to rain. Hard. The course became even trickier.
Occasionally I’d have a fairly good half lap after a drink of protein or a Clif Turbo gel, but generally the tough climbing and the unfamiliar heat was taking its toll on my body and mind. Sensing this and with only a couple of hours left, Craig Bowles’ pit crew alerted him to the fact that he had a chance to reclaim second place and he immediately rode faster to claw back over ten minutes. Deb and Michael then told me this less-than-wonderful news and I knew right then that I needed one more fast lap. I had to go anaerobic for over 11 miles immediately after riding pretty hard for 23 hours. Was this even possible? Michael handed me two caffeine gels, I stood on the pedals with the sound of loud cheers from almost the entire pit lane and I got the hell out of there.
That last lap was the second fastest I rode in the whole race. I’ve no idea how I survived but I did and I rode to second place overall.
Better than I expected, then 😉
Dave and Phil also finished in the top ten, Dave having a few physical and ‘falling off a cliff’ problems early on to scorch the final two hours to overtake 8 riders in front of him to finish 8th, Phil riding a controlled and perfectly-paced race to finish in seventh place.
A round of applause to Fraser, Spook and Chloe at No Fuss Events for making my passage to Italy possible in the first place, to all my ace sponsors, Team JMC, On-One Bikes, Mount Zoom, Exposure Lights, Squirt Lube and 2Pure and extra special thanks to those of you that have helped make the whole trip possible/more enjoyable – Andy and Jane Chadwick, Phil (for translating, being a brilliant training buddy and for generally sorting things out in Italy), Michael, Angela, Deb and Jacqui for being the best pit crew imaginable and to everyone that supported us all during the race via the magic of the Internet.
As for the race, the 24 Hours Of Finale, as it turned out, was one of the most enjoyable, and yet completely brutal, races I’ve ever had the privilege of taking part in. Both laid-back and extremely competitive at the same time, the amazing course is immense fun to ride at first and then becomes a real test of endurance as the physical demands take their toll. It’s also pretty cool watching portaloos being flown to the various marshal points by helicopter…..