I’d completely run out of swear words by the time the last elite category rider vanished down the trail. Try as I might, the tyre refused to go back on the rim, my ham-fistedness increasing with every heartbeat, each heartbeat increasing its volume in my skull as I started to panic.
Don’t panic. There’s ages to go yet.
I snapped my tyre lever. One of those Pedro’s tyre levers – the ones that hardly ever break. I started to dig deep into the swearword bank.
Eventually, after what seemed like a million riders had ridden past (most of them shouting, “do you want some help?” without actually stopping…), Will stopped and offered me his tyre levers and gave me a hand with the tyre.
After some more swearing and cursing of thousand-dollar rims, I was on my way again, charging after the group as though the race had 23 minutes, rather than 23 hours to go….
Prior to this first-lap, torn tyre debacle in this year’s World Champs, I’d travelled all the way from Manchester to Weaverville, California with Debbie and Budge after a week of last-minute bike spannering, work hassles, packing and dogsitter-arranging. The journey itself wasn’t too bad, we were reassured by the British Airways cabin crew that the bikes had made it to the flight from Heathrow even though our internal flight from Manchester had been delayed. I relaxed and got plenty of sleep….
I wanted to smash the San Francisco airport terminal with my bare fists when the lady behind the enquiries desk broke the news that the bikes were still at Heathrow. A few wanders around the now-empty baggage claim carousels quelled the rage just enough so that I could communicate without spitting. It was Thursday. The race was on Saturday and I’m being told that the bikes wouldn’t arrive in San Francisco until Friday afternoon. On arrival, they’d have to be poked and prodded by US customs then couriered to Weaverville, the thick end of 300 miles north.
My plans for a building the bikes on Friday morning, then wandering over to the race venue and getting in a nice practice lap were looking dashed. In fact, I was staring at the very real possibility of the bikes not actually being here by the time the race started. Fantastic!
Luckily we arrived in Weaverville in the middle of the night to be welcomed by Noreen and Graham – one of the Weaverville families who signed up to take in World Champs racers and two of the warmest, most helpful people I’ve ever met. Along with their children, they turned our trip around by not only providing the three of us with board and lodgings but by taking a lot of the stress away from us by ferrying water and bikes to and fro and by staying up all night to sign for the bikes, when they were eventually delivered at 1am on the day of the race….
Bikes built at 6am, some concerns over the fact that I’d not ridden either bike before lining up at the start, but there was nothing I could do now – here it was, the last few minutes before the lead-out, this time behind some horses and a classic Ford Mustang.
Eventually I got into the rhythm of the race after the first lap trouble I mentioned earlier and I was picking people off, slowly but surely working my way back up the leaderboard. Debbie, Budge and Allan from Santa Cruz were keeping busy in the pits as I came in with a near-constant stream of tyre and ‘missing bolt’ issues while I suffered in the heat of the Californian afternoon. I’ve honestly not experienced heat quite like it – the lack of any moisture in the air and a mouth and nose almost constantly full of dust meant that I was struggling to maintain anything like a brisk pace so I held on as best I could, kept my pits as brief as possible (always aiming to ride straight through with a bottle hand up) and looked forward to the cooler evening temperatures.
Once the sun went down I got on with the job and felt like I had a new pair of legs – my lap times came down and I was able to sustain more effort for longer without overheating. Temperatures continued to fall and as they did, I just got faster. As dusk became full-on pitch darkness, my Exposure lights working at full beam allowed me to ride the long, fast descent as fast as I would in daylight. The bleak first few hours were starting to be forgotten and I was actually enjoying myself.
Lap after lap I toiled away at the 3.5 mile gravel climb, the 1 mile flat bit and the 7-and-a-bit long singletrack descent. The course was hard work, but the long descent did give me a chance to recover well from the climb, provided some flat-out thrills and allowed me to ride the climb harder than I would normally. Eventually I’d pulled myself back into a reasonable position and started to think about getting into the top ten. Getting into tenth place was probably the most difficult and prolonged overtaking manoeuvre I’ve ever had to carry out – I’d overtake the rider on the climb then he’d catch me and overtake on the descent. This went on for two laps until I got pissed off and practically killed myself to open up a sizeable gap on the climb then took one or two risks on the descent. It paid off.
There were a few hours to go and I reckoned I could move up a bit further, at least until the sun came out again. 9th and then 8th place appeared soon afterwards, then I caught Rob Friel in 7th place an hour or so later. By now the sun was shining again and the race was nearly over. I only had enough time to get past Rob at the bottom of the big climb (which to him may have looked like I was all smooth and in control, but really I was in agony) before one more lap and a nice lie down in the shade. Apparently the twitter feed had been going a bit bonkers while all this was going on…
While the few days before the race weren’t ideal prep and the start of the race was frustrating, the outcome and everything that happened in between was brilliant – in fact, I probably enjoyed this 24 hour race more than any other I’ve done in the past (and I’ve done quite a few). The support I had from all of my sponsors – Team JMC, Santa Cruz Bikes, Exposure Lights, Jungle Products, Craft UK, Honey Stinger, 2Pure and Mount Zoom made it possible for me to train for and to be at this race and for that I’m eternally grateful to them all.
Most of all I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my super-brilliant support team of Deb and Budge and the extended Santa Cruz family – Will, Allan, Josh (who was 2nd! Incredible.) and Rob. Lastly, our new friends in Weaverville, the amazing and ever-dependable Noreen, Graham, Melia and Kelvin. I honestly can’t thank you enough.