Time for a simple IQ test. Identify the next number in this sequence: 4-2-?. For those with the numeracy skills of a special needs warthog, let me help you out. It’s 1. That sequence defines my Dusk ‘Til Dawn experience. This year, I had one gear, one sprung end, one sick riding buddy and one pulmonary infection. And probably one lap completed if I was lucky.
Some background called for I think. In 2002 our team of four became a somewhat less balanced three with a dose of chickenpox invaliding me out. Then last year, I endured a “car keys in a basket” partner scenario – yet more prospective partners broke multiple bones rather than ride with me – ending up with young Tim whose fitness and aggression dragged us up into thirteenth place. I rode my full suspension race bike which cosseted my arse and mocked my weary limbs delivering consistent lap times right to the end. In fact, it was so suited to such events that, in a moment of mental instability, I sold it. With the increased number of teams this year, it was clear that either my fitness and attitude would need not only to raise the bar, but leap over it or a different – possibly sly – strategy would have to be adopted. Obviously I went for the latter option, captaining the “singlespeed suicide squad” pair, defined by a combined age normally only recorded on gravestones. We haughtily announced that we would be the fastest unicoggers in the club. First amongst equals, or to be more precise first among one.
I tapered down from not much training to nothing at all during a week’s holiday in France where, after a concerted attack on the European cheese mountain, I risked scaring small children when presenting my bloated seld in Lycra. My riding buddy did far better, sequentially slogging up and down the Chilterns almost every day before declaring himself “fit and ready”. And then contracting pneumonia. In some kind of twisted symbiotic relationship, his disease spawned a bastard love child that germinated in my lungs and left me gasping when tough physical endurance events, such as climbing stairs, presented themselves. Subtract one lung from two and amazingly we were back to that most uninspiring of numbers again.
Fate seemed to suggest that a quick name change to Billy-No-Mates was all that separated me from a 12-hour wheeled trudge through cold and dark forests that – get this – over 400 people paid good money for. The Dusk ‘Til Dawn event at Thetford Forest nearly didn’t happen at all this year but intense lobbying and some mildly undignified logistics built us a field and boy, did we come. The format was unchanged: 12 hours racing on a 10 mile circuit in a light spectrum graduating from black to white via a glorious dawn. Some nutters were doing it solo (and as is the way with these masochistic men and their rigid machines, a few were nutter-squared, decrying gears as “for losers”). Pairs was where it was at though – this class outnumbered both the solos and the larry lightweights whose teams were easily identified by three people looking very cold and checking their watches.
Having been crowned the all-Buckinghamshire Extreme Snot Champion, it became clear that I needed someone to share the misery with. Jon and his famous exploding patellas came to town – albeit some 90 minutes late – and defended his embarrassment of gears on the grounds of the aforementioned dodgy knees. My premonition that this may affect the karmic harmony of the team was to be borne out later that evening. Still, we’re getting ahead of ourselves here and it was good to have a companion to stave off further depression as wet front after wet front attempted to turn the car into a boat. “Clearing up shower this one, Jon,” I’d confidently predict time and again as another bow wave broke over the bonnet. Our spirits lifted, however, as the event field of streams had been successfully annexed by our riding club. The C1XV banner was proudly unfurled for all to see and a tented village of gazebos sheltered the troops from the incessant rain. Tent up, kettle on, bikes unloaded, I decided that since my first lap could potentially be my last, a sighting circuit was probably a dumb way to waste it. Instead I hurried to the Lumicycle tent and, akin to Gizmo when faced with a fluorescent, cried out “bright light, bright light” when the demonstration HID blazed a perfect trail through my wallet. I haggled for a while until the chance remark “this is the only red one we’ve got sir” made a direct appeal to my pimpy gland without passing through Mr. Brain. On leaving the tent, it appeared that the hitherto apolitical MTB community was now the centre of a targeted air strike. The sight of F-15s rolling and banking low over the field held my interest for all the time it took me to plug in a battery and point my latest purchase at innocent passers by, thereby offering an easy to reproduce alien abduction scenario. If the jets don’t get you, feel the power of the ETs’ rectal probe.
I carbo-loaded on pasta and lager-loaded on Stella to pass the time between boredom and nerves. Jon offered only insubordination when I played the Captain’s card and ordered him out on the first lap. So although technically I was at the head of the chain of command, he’s bigger than me and I found myself milling around at 7:58pm waiting to go. Not being a total rookie, race nerves were compressed into a five minute pre-start period resulting in my nearly missing the start when a litre of High 5 demanded to go right now. The hooter sounded and I received a pre-emptive elbow from an XC-Pro-Racer-Wannabe before we’d even started riding. Winded and promising revenge, I was the last of the club to get away – my reward the sight of a hundred lights setting halogen fire to the forest ahead of me. Knowing congestion is always a factor on the first lap, the expected slow quickly became an unexpected stop as the first stack shuddered our brightly lit metal snake to an abrupt halt. Still the way I was feeling, a rest every half a mile was working for me.
This part of Norfolk is virtually below sea level. It’s “dog runs away, you can still see it three days later” flat. Except if you’re on a singlespeed when the gentle inclines slice away your energy core and warrant investigation of hidden contours on the local map. The singletrack is superb though and this course cut through the forest in a number of imaginative ways. Firstly there’s some super fast rolling bends interspersed with bombholes and rooty jumps. Then the first fireroad winches you gently back into the trees again where now its tighter and more technical. Keep faith in your tyres and the berms magic you round trunk-based apexes with hardly any loss of speed. The course was bone dry despite the rain and thankfully far less sandy than last year. Soon we’re out of the trees again and into a rapidly clearing and cooling night. The stars are out there somewhere but bathed in 1,000 watts of our big torches you don’t really see them.
The next fireroad is a long one and while I’m still taking it easy, my singlespeed pace takes me past a few riders. I’m just thinking maybe I can keep this up all night when the God of Singlespeeding (long hair, ragged t-shirt, beer belly, lightly stoned and righteous) demands a sacrifice for ‘the geared gate” in our team. This is the only explanation I can offer for my sudden and unexpected balletic rotation over the bars. The impact pings my riding glasses into the shrubbery and flings sand into my eyes. And it’s pitch black as well because my super sexy new light has gone out. I ignore my aching shoulder as I desperately flick the switch to re-ignite it. Just as hope is fading it blazes back into life and, stuffing my glasses back on, we’re off again. But not for long as battery straps trap wheels and glasses mist up and I’m riding on my own personal line in, out and occasionally head on though the trees. Okay, it’s a twelve hour race and I’m being stupid but while adrenaline and competitiveness are the perfect combination for chasing slower riders, they really aren’t ideal bedfellows for faffing with battery straps while those recently passed stream by.
A little more circumspect now and trying to preserve energy for later, I maintain line astern with a moderately paced group as we swoop into the campsite. This isn’t lap’s end, rather the middle of a figure eight that sees us disappear back into the dark again for another four miles. It’s a great idea though. This early on the crowds are big and the cheers are loud. Their enthusiasm drives me to the head of our group as yet more swinging singletrack draws us into the woods again. This part of the lap is easier except for the ‘little dippers’ – small foot deep holes that you really don’t want to take sitting down on a hardtail – which this time are taken with a whoop and a rhythm I never get back the rest of the night.
The course is very different to last year and none of it is familiar until a section of sandy singletrack right angles into a grassy climb and I know we’re nearly done. I’m chatting to another disciple of 32:16 as the campsite hoves into view and it’s almost a shame to stop as warm muscles and forest clean lungs are at their optimum. It was tempting to ride past Jon and back out for a second lap but he looked kind of plaintive and, er, big so I bottled it. He grasped the pink pairs glowstick with somewhat worrying pride and rode off into the night.
He’s going to be back in less than an hour, which isn’t enough time to do anything but get cold. I do all the right things, eat, drink, swap riding tops and ensconce myself in a warm fleece as heavy condensation and visible breaths are the physical symbols of a rapidly cooling evening. It’s dark now and aside from a few cars on the road that cuts the forest in half, there’s a precious silence unbroken by the irritating audible flotsam of civilisation. That is until the generators fire up. Obviously having Honda’s finest chugging away just below the pain threshold is key to your challenge on the leader board. Well, it powered some lights (“hello this is a BATTERY, they work great”) and a kettle (“and we call this a GAS STOVE”) so I’m sure it was worth narrating the entire night with.
Most of the other club teams were doing well. Everyone was racing pairs, some guys who’d never been racing before, some who’d done almost no night riding and a couple of cup-chasing couplets that wouldn’t be that far behind the factory sponsored teams. The other singlespeed team suffered the ignominy of component failure as a crank bolt was discharged into the bushes, never to be seen again. To his eternal credit, not only did Nigel ride six miles on a single pedal, he also overtook a slower rider. Now I know it’s only a bit of fun for most of us, but how would you feel if a bloke on a bike with one gear, one crank and one pedal overtook you? We reckon the passed guy is still in therapy.
Jon came back breathless but happy. I set out for a two-lap stint that was to be my last. I didn’t know it at the time or even as I headed out on the second of these laps. The first had gone well – again I’d taken it easy, not pushed it at all, just a steady pace and if that meant I was passed on the fireroads, well I pretended it was part of a strategy. And it was, because the second lap was supposed to be much quicker driven by more effort, more out of the saddle honking and more aggression in the singletrack. It didn’t happen. I really tried but I couldn’t fill my lungs with the oxygen they desperately needed and rather than kick back and listen to my body, I continued to push. Until I could push no more – which point was about seven miles in. I started to cough and I just couldn’t stop, dry retching over the bars and desperately trying to squeeze in a lungful between coughs. To their credit, most riders stopped to see if whether I was in fact dying or had just swallowed some poisonous bark or something. I feebly waved them away, embarrassed at being spent less than three laps in. After a minute or so – knowing my race was over – I span over the crest of the climb and prepared to get myself back with the least amount of effort. When a guy on a Yeti ignored the dual line in the trees to elbow his way past on mine, it kind of summed up my evening. A mile later his stricken face appeared, caught in the oh-so-bright beam of my HID, disbelievingly watching his lights rapidly fade from white to yellow to black. I probably should have stopped and helped but I didn’t. That’s karma that is. The Lumicycle HID proudly adorning my bars was a highlight (sic) of the event for me. It was so good I forgot about it – no searching for the perfect position, no switching on and off of auxiliary lights, no worrying about battery power. Turn it on and night becomes day for 30 yards. Some would call that cheating but frankly I needed all the help I could get.
Amazingly this was my fastest (remember this is all relative) lap, so Jon was surprised to hear me declaring ‘game over’ at the handover. I wheezed back to the tent, to inhale much-needed coffee and Ventalin from the motorhome/childrens’ bedroom/cookhouse/infirmary. Then I hit the pit and cursed the generator. It’d just gone midnight and with eight hours to go I’d already left. Even wrapped up in the ‘staying awake bag’ layered with fleeces I just couldn’t get warm. On pushing aside the condensation soaked tent flap some four hours later it became clear why. It was bloody freezing. The camp looked like a war zone with combatants sprawled into chairs wearing everything they owned. The early evening enthusiasm for rapid changeovers was now a far more relaxed but brittle affair. Rider A would arrive back at the tent asking politely, or not, whether Rider B fancied a lap. Rider B would point at various body parts while shivering and offer Rider A another lap after which Rider B would ‘probably be ok’. Rider A would espouse his theory that Rider B was a lazy splitter who’d better get his sorry arse back on the bike RIGHT NOW or Rider A would be inserting said bike into a part of Rider B where the sun, was it up or not, does not shine.
I smiled through a coughing fit but still wanted to be out there. My legs and back felt fine and I briefly considered the magical dawn lap. Unfortunately my lungs were shot to hell and just walking round the site left me breathless. I wondered how many laps my team-mate had done in the spirit of shared misery – I was miserable so he can ride the course and be miserable too. I knew it had been worth recruiting him, he’d be out there giving it everything for the team, doing it for the Gipper, enduring because there was no one else to endure, etc. It made me proud. Until, that is, I opened my car door and found said team-mate peacefully snoring away having managed exactly zero laps since he’d come back in. He eventually relented under a stream of invective and emotional blackmail, with his efforts letting us insert “not quite” into a sentence that had previously said only “last”. The rest of the guys fared better with our best team managing 13 punishing laps between them (a true demonstration of a determined mind over a shredded arse at 6:30am) and the rest getting into or close to double figures.
Our club had more teams registered (notice I’ve deliberately not used the word racing here) than any other. It was great to see everyone looking out for each other and a noticeable lack of inter team rivalry. Well, I knew our team was going to get stuffed so made it clear very early on how injured I was, leaving them in no doubt that if I’d been fit and my team mate had been awake, we’d have been mighty. Sadly most of them have known me a long time and smiled encouragingly in that way you do when your three year old explains that they’re going to be an astronaut.
Dawn gently bathed the course in late summer sunshine from around 6:30am and it was full daylight when the hooter signalled the pedal revolution was over. We had a few riders left on the course and hoarsely cheered their lined faces and spasming limbs as they crossed the line. They were all proud of their achievements and rightly so. The club did pretty well – not on a par with the sponsored teams but mixing it with everyone else – but more importantly everyone had a great time. Me too, actually. With the traditional 8am beer in hand and feeding off the joy and relief of those who’d done it properly I knew I’d be back. And I’m due a slice of luck next time.
Dusk ‘Til Dawn is the first event to be scribbled into the calendar. Why? Because it’s a great course, well organised, chilled out and yet to be filed in the “been there, done that properly” box. One night, one gear, one partner, one light and one hell of a lot of fun. Maybe this number has got something going for it.