I’ve never really set the world alight at any of the previous 24 or 12 Hours of Exposure races – I’ve been there-or-thereabouts in the top few but I’ve never reached the podium. Various reasons – but mainly because it’s a bloody fast race where the field is normally stacked with talent and there’s normally only a very limited number of steps on a podium….
That didn’t seem to prevent me from being ‘gridded’ again this year. Its always nice to start right at the sharp end :-).
I was taking up a fair amount of room on the front row aboard the Surly Moonlander – one of just four fat bikes in the 12 hour race. My plan, if you read my previous blog post, was to finish reasonably high up but realistically I wasn’t going to be breathing down the necks of the usual podium botherers. A fatbike category win (yes, a fatbike category at our national championships, folks) and a top ten overall place would be good, I decided. There aren’t enough fat bikes in the race to make it a proper scrap, so I’d have to turn my attention to everyone else.
Whatever happens, the plan was to have a good laugh, admittedly look a bit weird but do a nice job of things.
In the minutes before the start, several confused and sometimes pitying glances were thrown in my direction. One or two semi-sarcastic “good luck with that” comments were uttered. Riding this thing for 12 hours looked like it was going to be a slow, arduous ordeal rather than “fast” or even “fun”.
I knew differently, of course. I knew that despite my bike weighing twice as much as those I was racing against (a lot of that mass in the wheels and tyres too so I was always going to lose out in a drag race), I knew that I wasn’t going to be terribly bothered about picking lines across root-infested singletrack and I could stay off the brakes for a long, long time on bumpy descents. I’d need to be throwing my bodyweight around a fair bit because the course was very twisty and narrow in places and I had no idea at all how the tyres were going to perform if the course became wet but I was looking forward to cracking on and seeing how fast I could go.
In time-honoured fashion the race got underway at a ridiculous speed. I was leading the entire race for all of 20 seconds when I started to be overtaken by what seemed like dozens of other riders while I patiently increased the speed of my rolling behemoth. You can see my GoPro “seatpost cam” footage of the start here (the battery in the camera soon ran out though)
It wasn’t long though before I started to catch people up again and within a couple of laps I’d moved back into a more favourable position.
I was loving it. The course was rapidly drying out following the rain of the previous evening and as my familiarity with the course increased, so did my confidence in the bike and more specifically, the benefits that the massive tyres were giving me.
Out of the saddle climbs on steep, loose surfaces were no problem at all. I was tearing up slopes while others had to sit and spin – my rear tyre providing insane amounts of traction. I was able to lean the bike over and corner more quickly than I imagined I would be able to and the amount of cushioning on offer was just phenomenal. Riding downhill was also silly-fast – once I’d got the hang of popping the front wheel up into the air to clear roots and small obstacles and I also started to ignore the brakes more and more, I was tearing downhill and started to record some quite startling lap times. It was almost too easy. I was invincible. I was squashing and crushing and annihilating my way up the field and nobody I went past was going to catch me…..
Cheers rang out as I rumbled through the pit lane, mostly having too much fun to bother stopping. I was actually looking forward to every new lap, knowing for certain that I’d probably be able to knock a few seconds off here and there for taking an even sillier line across some roots or by staying in the air for a bit longer on a bumpy downhill bit.
In actual fact the uphill bits were (somewhat inevitably) starting to get a bit painful after seven hours or so – the weight of the bike was starting to slow me down a little bit but who isn’t a bit sore after riding any bike like a nutter for 7 hours?
“Do you want to put on another layer of clothing?” asked Rachael when I finally came in to pit. “nah, I’m quite warm as I am, thanks” I replied and rode off, leaving my glasses on the table.
Within 2 minutes of starting that lap the heavens opened and pelted everyone with freezing-cold rain and hail. The temperature dropped by a few degrees and the course got very, very wet and slippery as my massive tyres threw gallons of water onto every inch of my body. A few minutes later, mud in both eyes, I stopped having fun and started shivering. The slipperiness of the course, especially the off-camber sections were showing me the limitations of my tyres – fatbike tyres are after all designed to ‘float’ rather than ‘cut through’ which meant that steering and riding forwards was occasionally a challenge – as a result I was having to get off the bike quite a bit so I was getting quite cold.
One slow lap later and a arrived back at the pit where I spent 20 minutes changing my clothes, pulling on waterproofs and shivering over a cup of something warm while the whole pit lane was a furious mass of riders getting changed, drinking warm beverages and helpers running around and digging in various bags of clothes. Dave and Phil separately arrived at the Team JMC pit, both of them in similar states of hypothermia as everyone else.
Suddenly this was a different race. I rode the for the next few hours maintaining my position but often pushing the bike across slippery mud. I knew that I was at this point the 3rd-placed veteran rider (and I was winning the fat bike category) but for how long? My lap times were almost double what they were and despite the deteriorating course conditions affecting everyone it was surely only a matter of time before I was caught by other riders on bikes more suited to mud….
Sure enough, on the final lap of the race, the vet in 4th place caught and overtook me. I recognised him as he took off and tried to increase the gap. Hurrah – a last-lap high-speed dogfight for the final podium position on a muddy course with a bloke on a bike that weighs a fraction of mine. Just what I needed. Ace!
To anyone watching, the next 20 minutes would have been hilarious. Both of us were riding out of our skins – one of us would crash and the other would wobble past until they crashed and then the other wobbled past…and so it continued until the final few hundred metres of the course that went along a gravel track, through the pit lane and into the start/finish area. Yep, the 3rd-place vets spot would be decided in a sprint.
As soon as we got to the gravel track we were off and immediately a gap appeared with me lagging behind slightly as I put as much power as I could through the cranks to get the Moonlander to accelerate. Gravel was spat from the rear wheel as I gradually started to gain on him, the rumble from my tyres getting louder and louder until the noise of heavy breathing was drowned out and I was back on his wheel. Halfway through the pit lane the speed increased again and I moved over and somehow managed to get past – only by a couple of bike lengths – before having to lean the bike over hard to the right into the start/finish….
I was terrified. I expected the front wheel to do precisely what it’s designed to do and float on top of the waterlogged grass and wash out immediately, dumping me out of the podium places in front of the gathered crowd. But it gripped. I made it around the bend and I crossed the line with about 5 seconds to spare.
You want your racing to be exhilarating, but that was ridiculous.
I’d aimed to win the fat bike category and finish as high up the ‘normal’ field as I could. As it turned out I’d ridden the Moonlander to not only the category win but also 3rd place vet and 6th place overall. So yeah, pretty chuffed with that.
(does this mean I’m the European and UK 12 Hour Fat Bike Champion?)
Thanks to Roy for talking the race organisers into having a fat bike category at their race, Judy at Beerbabe.co.uk for making the brilliant trophy, Rachael and Angela for keeping me fed and watered with a never-ending supply of Clif drinks and Shot Bloks and to Keep Pedalling in Manchester for loaning me perhaps the coolest bike I’ve ever ridden.
In other words, I properly enjoyed that 🙂