24-hour solo racing is the hardest form of mountain bike racing. Just to complete the distance is tough, to win takes astounding levels of fitness, perfect preparation and mental toughness of the highest order.
Huw Thomas proved he had the perfect combination by taking victory at the 2012 24 Hours of Exposure, held last weekend in Newcastleton, claiming the UK and European 24-hour Solo title.
Fresh from winning, and concentrating on recovery, we had a chat with Huw:
You’ve just won the 24-hours of Exposure. Congratulations. How does it feel? Has it sunk in yet?
It hasn’t really sunk in yet as the weekend is all a bit hazy, what with the travelling, the manic setting up, the lack of sleep and of course the racing. Looking at photographs, people’s comments on social media sites and looking at both the European and UK national jerseys draped over my sofa is bringing it all back though, and it’s an amazing feeling.
Was this your first 24-hour solo race? Have you done many 24-hour races before?
This was my third 24-hour solo. I first tested the water at 24-hour solo racing at Twentyfour12 in 2010 and came 4th, which got me thinking that I could work on that result. In 2011 I raced at Relentless 24 in Fort William and won the Senior Male solo title. I said to myself before Relentless 24 that if I did well in that then I’d enter the UK and European Championships in 2012, so in the six months between, I trained and prepared hard for it, and it paid off!
24hr solo racing is tough – 2-3 am is always the bit I struggle with. Were there any points when you struggled?
There were many points where I found it tough. For me the time on the clock becomes insignificant, I try not to clock watch as it can soon wear you down mentally. But I guess the toughest time is during the night when your body is telling you that you should be asleep, the hardest part I find is waiting for dawn to break, something that doesn’t come quickly when you’re waiting for it!
I knew I should be able to handle the distance as that’s where the seemingly endless hours of training come into play. But on top of that you have to cope with the attacks from the other racers, and also chasing down gaps between myself and the riders ahead. That’s a mental struggle in itself and 24-hours of it is a long time. Not only that, add the effects of sleep deprivation and the constant battering your body has to cope with and things can get extremely tough out there.
How was the course at Newcastleton? A good route for solo 24hr racing?
The Newcastleton course is one of my favourite endurance event courses. It’s tough, with some 500m climbing over an 18km course. The climbs include some quite steep singletrack sections which are usually wet but you are rewarded with some excellent fun, fast and flowing singletrack and it’s something to look forward to on each lap. After 20 laps (some 360km) I got to know the course very well, knew what lines to take, where the passing places were and what to avoid.
What bike did you ride? Did you make any particular changes to it for the race?
I had two bikes as usual, and being part of the Niner Ergon Stans UK (with Loco Tuning) Team this year I was racing on a Niner Jet 9 RDO and a Niner Air 9. Bike setup is pretty important for a 24-hour solo race and it needs to be sorted weeks, even months in advance so that you get used to the bike and also to give plenty of time to tweak the setup.
I presume you had a support team? How important were they to your success?
My support “team” is my wife, Louisa, and she is with me at every solo race. She’s as much a part of the race as anyone, and I couldn’t complete, let alone do well, at these races without her. She stays up and awake for the duration of the event, pretty much knows what I need, when I need it, and that’s without me asking.
Not only is she at the races she also works “behind the scenes” reading up on nutrition and training so that I can get the most out of the preparation. She gives up as much, if not more, than I do. I’ve never heard her complain about me heading out on the bike for hours on end. Our “normal” life outside mountain bike racing fits around my training and racing calendar.
I said not long ago that all she needed to do was to ride my bike as well and I wouldn’t need to do a thing. I’ve got a very long list of IOUs!
As well as Louisa, I’ve got a lot of very supportive network of friends and family out there that I’m eternally grateful for, from riding buddies, help with training, even just encouragement on things like Facebook and Twitter, it all helps.
I’m also very lucky to have the support from team sponsors Niner Bikes, Ergon, Stans No Tubes, Loco Tuning, Topeak, Geax, Rotor and Exposure Lights, RRP as well as Rab (Sorry for the blatant plug there!).
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?
Everyone has a way of coping with the mental and physical stresses of 24-hour racing and what works for some doesn’t for others. For me, I start by breaking the 24-hours into smaller pieces, starting with splitting the day into 4 slots of 6 hours and go from there. 6-hours is a normal long training ride for me that I do at weekends so I know I can do that – I just need to do it four times for the race!
I also focus on riders ahead and behind me, closing the gap up ahead, and trying to distance myself from the guy behind. That’s the racing side of things.
Also, some other things that help are to stay positive as much as possible. You go through some seriously bad lows during a 24-hour race, but the lows only last 10 to 15 minutes or so and then you’re on a crazy high again. It’s a proper emotional rollercoaster.
I also try to talk to people, just briefly, but even just a hello to someone can make you feel better, and receiving it back is also a huge boost.
There’s also the added bonus of having a great atmosphere in the event arena. Everyone was supporting and encouraging each other on at the 24 Hours of Exposure and I looked forward to all the shout outs as I passed on each lap.
There are also the unexpected things that take your mind off the mental and physical struggles during the race. For example a Gorilla fishing from a footbridge playing a ukulele in the dark. Last year, he was playing an awesome drum solo in the woods. For a gorilla he’s got quite a musical talent.
Congratulations to Huw on an emphatic victory in one of the hardest disciplines of mountain biking.
Thanks to Joolze Dymond for the photos, see more of her photographs at www.joolzedymond.com