How did you get into mountain biking?
I started at school, riding the local woods with a couple of friends, pushing each other and crashing more than was sensible, but we were, thankfully, young enough to bounce. At University I made a few friends who had cycled, and raced, to a far higher standard than me, and I was quickly brought up to speed. However, my riding horizons, or ambitions, really hadn’t developed beyond a couple of hours with a couple of mates in the local woods. One holiday we organised a trip to the Peak District, we parked in Edale car park and I was taken straight up Jacob’s Ladder and straight down the other side. I was rubbish and we got lost, from that point on, I was, incurably hooked on big rides in the great outdoors.
Before your maiden 24-hour solo victory at SITS last year, you were mostly an unknown among the UK’s top racers. Where have you been hiding?
I’ve regularly done the odd 100km enduro and 24-hour team of four since I moved to Brighton in 1999, and always raced with my friends, never solo, riding in groups at the events that weren’t teams. But with the South Downs on my doorstep, and having spent 3 years between then and now living in the Peak District, I’ve always loved getting out for a good all day ride by myself for as far as my legs will carry me with a sausage roll in my back pocket as a reward for lunch, often getting up at the crack of dawn to get the outdoors to myself, so it wasn’t a big jump to drift the two together and try solo endurance events.
The emphasis for me was, always, just to try and to challenge myself. Like most people, I just didn’t know if it was possible for me to complete the feats that the established guys like Ant White, Matt Page, Ian Leitch etc. do, let alone rock up to the start line and even dream about competing.
It has helped having the South Downs Way in my back yard. This is a must do for anybody and, two years ago, having finally plucked up the courage to ride it for the first time, grin fixed firmly in place from mile 1 to mile 101, there was a lot of “OK, what next?”
In the year before SITS I’d been quietly learning my trade, with a sub 24-hour South Downs Double firmly in mind, as I love the riding in and around Brighton. At that point my ambition really stopped there. I completed my first solo at the G2 Revolver in Stanmer Park in Brighton, (the event that has been adopted by local riders and has grown into the movement that is the Brighton Big Dog) and was chuffed to bits, and a little bit disbelieving, to finish 8th.
Later that year I completed what is always an end of season highlight, the South Downs MaXx Exposure and announced to my friends, in a moment of optimistic over enthusiasm that I was going to “ride at the front and see how long I could last” – it turns out quite a long way. Two punctures and a twisted chain saw me drop off the front in the final few miles, but I rode the final 15 miles singlespeed to finish 3rd and a whole new level of self belief, and importantly an ambition to push myself further and harder to see just what my body could do, was born.
Many people struggle to finish their first 24-hour race, let alone finish at their first attempt. What’s your secret?
As soon as I completed SITS, I realised that 24 solo is the ultimate team sport.
The secret was a great support crew who just kept me going through the night and kept me on track at that unavoidable point; when it feels like the wheels have fallen off. I was really fortunate in that respect and I owe a big debt to the guys from Exposure Lights, Jenn Hopkins, and particularly to Ian Leitch of Independent Fabrications, who worked tirelessly, putting as much energy and enthusiasm into each pit stop as I could muster for the whole of the rest of the lap sometimes. They just didn’t let me stop and just made me keep tapping along. My wheels didn’t even stop rolling for the first eight laps. Bonkers.
Leading up to the event I’d made a mini, and slightly louder than expected, announcement to the endurance world, with a sub 20-hour South Downs Double. Completing this ride, and enjoying it, was a massive confidence boost. As well as riding regularly, the self belief to finish really came from advice in endurance riding prior to the event by local riders, first and foremost to Rory Hitchens of Exposure, Ian Leitch, Jenn Hopkins and Mike Cotty once they had heard I was going to give the ride a go. The one, consistently repeated, piece of advice I received, which I would pass on to anyone without hesitation is, “Just go out there and do your own ride.” Observing this really took the pressure off and allowed me to enjoy it.
It must feel good to come from nowhere and send a shock to the established enduro racers?
Thank you! It’s really not quite sunk in, and I still get spooked by the ‘names’ I find myself riding against. I’m having a lot of fun at the moment. I try not to get too caught up in my position in the pack in any race, although my friends regard me as fiercely (and overly) competitive, I am really just trying to make sure I have the best ride I can possibly have so I can go home satisfied with my weekend’s work. I’d rather leave it all out there on the track and come home 17th than finish thinking I could have tried harder and finish on the podium.
You won Set 2 Rise 12-hour enduro a couple of weeks ago. What are your race plans moving forward into the remainder of 2010?
My immediate focus is on having a good ride at Mayhem solo. As always, there’s a very strong field, with any one of six or seven riders capable of pulling out a winning ride. I’m really looking forward to a good race. My aim is to give a good account of myself, to try and leave it all out there on the course and to enjoy every second of it. 24 months ago I never thought I’d be lining up on the start line of Mayhem to try and complete the 24-hours solo, let alone to try and compete.
My big aim for the year is to try and ride the Pennine Bridleway Double at the end of August. Since my first SDW one way ride I’ve fallen in love with the long solo outdoors rides, which was only confirmed by my South Downs Double day in the saddle. This is much more intimidating than the SDW however, so I’ve still got a little bit of navigation practice to put in between now and later in the year, but I’m already very excited about it.
I’ll also be found having fun at TwentyFour12, where I’ll be doing 24-hours solo, the amazing race that is the Brighton Big Dog, the Kielder 100, the Exposure Lights Big Night Out (a must do end of season race if you ask me) and finally Dusk ‘Till Dawn.
As a tall rider you’re clearly faced with more difficulties choosing a race bike than the average height cyclist. How important is the introduction and near widespread adoption of 29in wheels affected your choices?
I’ve been a huge fan of 29ers ever since Gary Fisher announced his first prototype in 2001. I was fortunate enough to be chosen as a guinea pig that year, through enthusiasm for the sport and my size, rather than through ability, for Brant’s (Richards) first 29er prototype as I “was just the kind of oversized freak he was looking for” I recall him saying. The ever innovative USE was quickly in on the project and the frame was shod with a 29er SUB fork. As soon as I rode it I knew 29ers were for me. I’m just glad it’s taken so long for a lot of people to realise, but my big wheeled advantage appears to be disappearing.
As soon as the Santa Cruz Tallboy was announced it became “the” dream bike, so for Leisure Lakes to put one under me this year just keeps on making me smile.
How much riding or training do you do on a weekly basis? Do you have any novel training secrets?
The real change in my endurance came about two years ago, when I made a concerted effort to follow a new year’s resolution to: “get fit enough to ride all day Saturday, have a beer and a BBQ with friends and still have the legs to go play outside all day Sunday without it being too much like hard work”. I say “concerted effort”, what that really meant was that I cycled to work the long way every day, extending my commute from 25mins to just under an hour. Not really a scientific training plan, but I get to commute along the Downs ridge every morning, and for a big chunk of the year I drift my start time at the office to catch sunrise on the way in, and am able to vary my route depending on which trails fire my imagination that morning. I really am a very lucky rider in that respect. I guess this forms the backbone of all my riding.
Team Sky and Dave Brailsford’s attention to detail it isn’t, and every winter there’s mumblings of buying a turbo trainer, starting interval sessions, regular running, but it’s all come to nothing so far. Maybe this winter…
To keep me honest, and to make sure my trail skills stay honed I have the pleasure of the legendary Brighton Tuesday night rides, frequented by legends such as Rory Hitchens, and endurance champions like Ian Leitch, plus the unfeasibly enthusiastic and competitive Morvélo guys, that wind over the miles and miles of twisty singletrack trails that surround Brighton.
Normally the rides are a couple of hours, always involve cake and a hipflask half way round but the occasional 2am finish isn’t unheard of if there’s a clear sky and a full moon! I suspect the fact that every climb or corner is a competition hasn’t done me any harm either. These keep me in my place, and have allowed me to watch riders more talented than I can dream of being, I find riding with better riders and just following and watching (until they disappear!) the best way to learn.
I’m very fortunate with the cycling scene in Brighton, as when not on the MTB, we’ll all be found down the local cycle track on a Wednesday night for a fixed wheel adrenaline rush and I’ve even been known to try the odd road crit too, but my endurance legs really aren’t suited to that at all. It’s all too much fun to not have a go at though.
I guess what has made the difference for me was “a year of no excuses” and just getting out on the bike to work, avoiding the short cuts, come rain or shine. That I have a great bunch of friends to ride with keeps my riding a lot of fun and keeps the smile firmly on my face helps keep my enthusiastic about riding. Having the opportunity, and time, to ride a long way is a bonus and makes me very happy indeed.
Nutrition is a key aspect of racing for 24-hours, and as a taller than average guy, do you make any important considerations? Tell us about your eating strategy during a long race?
I struggle quite badly with nausea when racing from time to time, not uncommon in endurance events and possibly exacerbated by the fact I’m so much larger than the other guys I need to eat that much more.
I try and keep a variety of textures and flavours of food, both real food and energy products, to hand in the pits as your stomach gets very choosy. Whilst I spend 90% of the time consuming a mixture of SIS bars, gels and drinks, carefully following the product usage guidelines from their website, there are times when a slice of malt loaf or a chicken tikka sandwich (yes, really!) better be ready next lap or there’ll be a properly sad rider momentarily; it can all get a bit emotional after 18-hours or so on the race course. I also rely on my pit to monitor what I’m eating, with a rough plan drawn up before each event so I don’t run empty. 24-hour solo is, possibly, the ultimate team sport, I just happen to be the guy turning the pedals.
For the longer solo rides it’s very different, and there’s less pressure of racing and more time to listen to your body. If I get it wrong there’s always time to slow down and eat my way out of trouble. This works in races too, it’s an amazing feeling when, after 20 odd hours of riding your legs suddenly get refuelled and the ground starts flying underneath your wheels again.
What, or who, inspires you to push yourself to the extremes of human endurance?
My main motivation is to feel progression in my riding, being a better rider than I was yesterday, I’ll always try and have a stronger ride than I did before, often focussing on whatever went I felt wrong previously such as eating, drinking, looking after the bike, riding better or better navigation.
I also feed off other riders and their experiences and passion for cycling, talking to them I feed off their enthusiasm for riding and this really gets me excited about riding and racing.
Your penchant for long distance riding is evident not only from your impressive race wins, but your storming ride in the South Downs Way Double, is this aspect of achievement something that also motivates you?
Absolutely, this all started after a new year’s resolution “to get fit enough to ride all day Saturday, have a BBQ and a few beers and still be able to go out Sunday without it being painful”, just getting out on the trail and to be able to ride further then before was what started me off, not strong a desire to go racing.
After living in the Peak District I watched the Pennine Bridleway being built and now it’s finished I’m trying to find a big space in the calendar to attempt the Pennine Bridleway Double. This is the ride I’m looking forward to most in 2010.
What would you say for all those people who are tempted to try a 12 or 24-hour solo race but haven’t summoned up the courage yet?
If you think you might want to try it, do it!
There’s a lot of advice out there now, the articles and advice collected together from the best and most experienced racers in the UK for the 24 Hours of Exposure on Bikemagic and the information on the event website are a great resource. Most important of all however, just go out and do your own ride, it’s all too easy to get caught up chasing the wheel in front.
When you finish, the satisfaction of finishing is something that no-one can take away from you.
Anything you’d like to add?
I owe a huge thank you to all my friends who have encouraged me to get out and have a go. I also owe a special thank you to the guys that support me in my racing and riding; Leisure Lakes, Exposure Lights, SIS and Morvélo, without whose enthusiasm for racing, and fantastic equipment, I wouldn’t have quite as wide a grin on my face as I do when riding my bike.