The dust has now settled (literally). The World Solo Championships is over an I’m left with some fantastic memories of the hottest, hardest and most physically demanding race I’ve ever ridden…
We woke up on the day of the race at the unholy hour of 7.30am. As is customary before a big event, I slept like a restless insomniac after months of quality eight hour snore fests…And of course when I finally gathered my thoughts, I had little appetite. Ah, the trickery of nerves.
The sky was clear blue and even at 9 o’clock when we reached the race site, it was red hot. The heat had been building all week and it was forcast to break 30 degrees with very high humidity. Even many of the Australians, (having arrived from the southern hemisphere winter) were concerned about the heat. Fortunately, the close conditions were similar to the weather we have had in the North of England in preceding weeks, just a heck of a lot hotter! It was good that we had arrived with a week to acclimatise but I was still very aware of the dangers of dehydration.
I make no secret of this; I hate the final hours leading up to the start of a race! (You can imagine how rattly the nerves were for this outing). A solo 24 is different to other mountain bike formats – it’s not just the apprehension of the race that gets you; it’s the realisation of what you are going to put yourself through, irrespective of the competition. You know it’s going to hurt – a lot. And you know there are going to be long drawn out moments of mental turmoil. But this is the challenge. The more 24s I do, the more interested I have become in this aspect. I truly believe that the mental aspects are as important, perhaps more important, than the physical.
But I was ready on both counts and as I stood on the start line, I was struck by a calm confidence, grounded in months of preparation. The race was to begin with the customary Le Mans style run to the bike. I had been concerned about this element as I had injured myself running earlier in the year and had to leave it out of my training regime, but I had been placed in the second row of the field (why?!) and when the gun went I found a nice pace and headed for the inside of the first bend. The run wrapped round the transition area and up a steep fireroad before entering the pit zone where we jumped on our bikes. I think I was about 5th onto the bike and was really pleased to not be redlining it after a red hot run.
Bring the breathing under control…go hard but not too hard…don’t get caught in the pack. So far so good. My game plan was to go faster than I would normally go for a good few hours whilst staying conscious of the heat. Dehydration would prove to be a key factor at the sharp end of the race…
A few leaders pulled away and I was happy to ride my own pace. It was so hot that cramp was a real possibility and in the mid afternoon heat I focused on holding a solid tempo pace whilst drinking as much as possible. For the first five hours or so I was drinking up to one and a half litres an hour… and I could have drank more. Eating was hard, even at this early stage but I found that apples and oranges went down really well, being refreshing as well as energy giving.
The focus was also to stay smooth and efficient because the course was brutal, “Like riding a jackhammer” a fellow racer commented. A week of sun had baked the ground hard… and this was no smooth XC racetrack. The longest descent on the course was steep and rutted. Immoveable angular rocks poked out of the concrete hard ground. Huge patchworks of polished roots criss-crossed the trails creating maze like puzzles that spat you sideways if you put a foot wrong. This was a seriously technical course. And it was dusty. Only a few hours in and it felt like I had lungs full of asbestos. Even continual drinking did not prevent my throat drying up.
The afternoon unfolded and I was pleased with my first few hours of high steady pace. In fact, by the time it was lights on I was sitting in 4th or 5th overall and felt pretty comfortable. Then out of the blue I had a bad lap at about 10 o’clock. Maybe it was the release of tension from the start, maybe it was the heat, or maybe I hadn’t eaten enough. I rectified this on my next pit stop by jamming loads of food down, but soon after I was hit by a charge from the field. A New Zealander and an American hammered past me at what seemed like XC pace and I couldn’t respond. Now I knew the standard would be high but I found it hard to believe they could sustain that pace…Within what seemed like quite a short time, the Kiwi had lapped me! I couldn’t believe it! About 1am the leader and eventual winner (Jason English from Australia) lapped me and we rode together for a time – he seemed a really nice guy and I was really pleased for him when he finally won. At that point he also felt the pace of the Kiwi was unsustainableand he decided to take it down a gear for a while rather than chase. About 2pm the Kiwi was pulled off the course, dangerously dehydrated… He was the first of many casualties. There were a number of heavy crashes. Some sections were clearly beyond the ability of the many of the team competitors, especially when sleep deprived. I counted at least four people carried off on stretchers…There weren’t quite as many happy faces by this stage. Now the race was on!
Descending the steep section got really interesting in the early hours. Even if a rider had been through the trail several minutes earlier the dust still hung in the air like a fine mist. The effect was akin to driving in thick fog with full beam light on…
Around 4pm it was Wildlife Hour! In practice I had ridden down a trail behind a Grizzly and the organisers had warned us that at least two bears had camped down inside the open figure of eight style course! Imagine my alarm when peering into woods I saw two juge yellow eyes staring back at me…and the eyes were about eoight inches apart! Just keep moving Rothwell, it was probably an hallucination…Glad I was carrying my mandatory bear bell. Next came the bizzare monkey/racoon/possum type hybrid that followed me down the singletrack, swinging through the trees and poking its head out from behind tree stumps to see where I was going. The beasties were waking up now and all kinds of furry things were flying across the ground. At about this point a fellow racer asked me what rear hub I was running (it was a particuarly well serviced and noisy Hope Pro 3 – they don’t get many Hope bits in Canada apparently). I told him it was a specially engineered Bear Hub. “Really!” he replied, “I gotta get me one of those”! Ah, Bless!
The sun started to rise and I got my second ‘bad bit’. For some reason, and unlike many other soloists, I usually have a low following sunrise. My pace dropped right down and I was struggling. But the word from the pit was that I was in about 7th or 8th overall, (the timing was impossible to follow) but I knew I had an hour plus on my nearest age category contender. So I didn’t worry too much. It was procession time.
Whilst my excellent pit crew had been watching number 12 throughout the early hours, the timing system proved impossible to decipher… Number 71 had clearly put in a massive effort following sun rise and this hadn’t registered on the lagging updates. I received the shock news that he was 23 minutes behind me and going like a steam train! I had accepted that I had won my age category and was simply trying to hold or better a top ten overall place…
I had to put in another two laps… and they had to be very fast. I realised in retrospect that I had got a bit complacent in the early morning and reality struck. This race was not over and I was going to gave to dig deeper than I have ever done in the final stages of a 24. I had put so much time and effort into my training. there was no way I was going to throw it away now.
So I floored it. I stamped up every climb for two laps. It felt like threshold intervals for two and a half hours. I was riding so hard I was nearly blacking out. My legs burned and twinges of cramp shot through my calves, my back and my arms. On the penultimate fireroad climb, still bewildered by the undecipherable timing timing system and fatigue, I asked a fellow rider if theyhad seen number 12 (which was actually irrelevent by this stage). They told me he was 30 metres behind! So in a pool of lactic panic I pushed harder, not daring to look back…
I crossed the lineabsolutely spent and choking on the now hot mid day air. I couldn’t be caught by anyone behind me and there was no way I could have banged out a lap at under one hour and nine minutes (pity as this would have possibly pushed me up a few places).
So I won my age category and finished 8th overall. This is what I had come to do. It had not been the perfect race. I had experienced some mechanical issues, leading me to think what if…. But the race had taken plenty of prisoners. Many top riders struggled, crashed and folded. The heat and excitement of the event played havoc with many people’s pacing and I’m pleased to say that I stuck to my game plan. It was a race I will never forget and the efforts on my finishing laps have filled me with confidence, making me realise how hard I can push myself when under pressure. Will Newton, my coach, certainly prepared me well for the tough times.
I’m already planning next year’s holiday… The Worlds are in Australia next year. Don’t tell my wife Charlotte though. It will be a nice surprise for her….
I can’t thank my wife Charlotte enough for her support, particularly through the long period of training leading up to this event. It’s a cliche, but solo racing is not just about the efforts of the rider. It’s about understanding and compromises made by friends and family. It was also great to have my dad in the pits who endured the whole event on no sleep!
Many thanks to my ultra supportive team Ironhorse Extreme; Rob, Dave and Josh. Due to the costs and time implications of coming to Canada I haven’t been able to join them at as many events as I would have liked to this year. But like friends do, I know they understand.
Kielder 100 next! Bring it on!