Interview: Rachel Sokal on winning the 24 Hours of Exposure

A relative unknown in the endurance mountain bike scene, Rachel Sokal proved her mental and physical stamina by winning the 24 Hours of Exposure, becoming the new 2012 European and UK 24 Hour Solo Champion.

It was her first 24-hour solo race. There’s few people who can claim such an impressive debut as that. We caught up with Rachel this week to find out more about her fantastic ride:

You’ve just won the 24-hours of Exposure. Congratulations. How does it feel? Has it sunk in yet?

No! It’s now three days later and I still can’t believe it. If it wasn’t for my jerseys and all the messages of congratulations I still wouldn’t think it was true!

Was this your first attempt at a 24-hour solo race? Have you done any 24-hour races before?

This was my first one. I did a couple of 12-hour solos last year (Twentyfour12 and Torq) to get a feel for what endurance racing felt like but aside from that and a couple of teams at Mayhem a few years ago I’m a bit of a novice. There was probably an element of beginners luck in this and I think there’s a definite advantage in not knowing what’s to come and how you’ll feel at 3am in the morning; ignorance is bliss.

What’s your background? How long have you been mountain biking, and what sort of riding/racing do you normally do?

I don’t really have a background in cycling but got into sociable mountain biking a few years ago through some friends.

Then a couple of years ago I decided that I fancied doing a bit more and booked myself on an AQR (A Quick Release) holiday over in Luchon where I met Mr & Mrs AQR, Kate & Ian Potter, as well as a number of other people who are now friends and riding buddies. I had such a good time that I went out again the following year. It was then that Kate and Ian asked if I’d be interested in riding for the Cotic / AQR Holidays race team. Given I hadn’t done any real racing at this point I was very flattered by this if not a little bemused. It’s through Kate and Ian, who run a coaching company too, that I’ve thought about what I want to do and they’ve given me loads of support to enable me to do it.

How did you prepare for the 24-hours?

Back in Dec 2010 shortly after Kate and Ian asked me to race for them Kate suggested I entered the 12hr of Exposure event the following May which would have been last year’s event. When I finished laughing at the prospect I realised she was serious and so made a deal with her, if she and Ian took me on as a coaching client, then I’d do it. So I trained throughout last winter under Kate and Ian’s guidance with an aim to ride in my first 12-hour event.

I was amazed with the progress I made with both by fitness and skills improving beyond recognition and actually started to believe I could do the 12-hours. Unfortunately about 6 weeks before the event I had a small incident involving a Portuguese rock and my backside and ended up with a fractured pelvis which not only curtailed my holiday riding it also put pay to riding at Exposure and most other races last year.

I was off the bike for a couple of months and was gradually able to get myself going again managing to ride in a couple of events later in the summer. Not only have Kate and Ian been brilliant at working with me through all of this I have been massively supported by Anne Dickins, AQR physio and endurance racer. As an experienced cycling physio Anne has been in charge of my rehab, working with Kate to make sure I’m able to cope with my training. She’s also worked with Ian adjusting the set up on my bike to make fast while keeping me comfortable. It’s been a long road back from last March and we’re all still working on it now.

It’s been really good to get back on the bike properly this winter and I’ve really enjoyed the training that Kate has given me. I went back to Portugal on an AQR coaching week this March and put a few demons to bed by riding down the same trail again but this time staying on my bike; I was very relieved to get home in one piece this time.

What was the toughest part of the 24-hours?

Amazingly my mind, lungs and legs coped with the whole thing pretty well, I guess that’s what you get by being coached by a top 24-hour racer! The hardest part for me was after 3am when my back decided it had had enough of riding and my arms had had enough of trying to compensate for my weak back. Luckily for me Anne was in the pits so she was able to sort me out with some taping and help me work out how to ride without making things even worse and suggested that I really back off from then on. So I did including having to take a fairly long pit stop every lap to give myself a bit of a rest and let Anne work her magic. You can tell this by my lap times when they suddenly drop by 20mins per lap.

What bike did you ride? Did you make any particular changes to it for the race?

Like the rest of my team I ride a Cotic and usually ride a Soda hard tail (unfortunately I’m not quite tall enough for the Solaris 29er as I think I’d have appreciated the big wheels!). For the race I was privileged to borrow Kate’s prototype full-suss (the KP24) which was designed by Cy at Cotic to be the XC racey version of the Rocket. Ian set it up for me to match my riding position of my Soda. I did my first few laps on my Soda and then the rest on the full-suss.

The Cotic KP24 prototype got two podiums last year (Kate and Anne in women’s open and vets 24hr races) and two this year (my team mate Ant also was riding one and came third in the national 24hr male race) so we hope Cotic will put the prototype into production soon!

Riding a bike around the clock is as much a mental challenge as it is physical. How did you keep your head focused on the goal, do you have any secrets?

Not really, sorry all. People tell me that I have a good mind-set for endurance racing not that I really know what that means although I suspect it may not be complimentary! I guess one of the advantages of mountain biking is that there’s always something to think about and concentrate on so I don’t have time to think about other things. I just rode it a lap at a time and enjoyed everyone one of them, the singletrack was so swoopy and fun. It helped that I felt terrible and rode like an idiot on my practice lap so the race seemed easy in comparison.

The Cotic / AQR pit crew were fantastic, and gave me so much support and motivation. I don’t think you had to be a team rider either to get a massive cheer and the ring of a cow bell.

Just chatting to people on some of the steady climbs helped too. It was great when my team mate Ant Jordan flew past me the second time as I knew he was doing really well as I’d worked out when he lapped me the first time that he shouldn’t catch me a second time; the only time it’s good to be lapped. I had a really enjoyable last lap chatting to another rider, Tom, who I’d never ridden with before, it was almost like any other Sunday afternoon spin.

What’s next?

I’m not sure, I think this one needs to sink in and I need to get back to reality, unpack my kit and clean my bike. People have mentioned to me that I have qualified for the World Champs in Canada in September but the thought of that is a bit surreal. I’m looking forward to doing a few team events and being able to support some of my team mates racing as thanks for the great support they have given me.

Thanks to Joolze Dymond for the photos, see more of her photographs at www.joolzedymond.com

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