The first-timerBM member Papa Dave made Kona Sleepless in the Saddle his first foray into solo 24 hour racing. Here’s how he got on…
Having ridden 24 hour races as part of a team twice before, I’d seen those poor solo wretches plodding on for hour after hour as we enjoyed six-hour breaks, food, showers and massages then blasted past them for a couple of quick laps. Odd, I thought. Maybe it’s just a “because it’s there” thing. Anyhow, suddenly following Sleepless last year I was going around telling friends I was up for it, and before I knew it my entry was in and my fate sealed.
Then I fell off and broke my wrist. Then I fell off and broke my arm too. Bugger. Only one thing for it, a winter of discontented turbo training followed by a springtime of roadie purgatory. Miles clocked up, gears whizzed round, weight fell off. In mid-August the doc gave me the all clear to ride off road, just in time for the Exmoor Explorer enduro. I shot up the hills and minced back down in fear of another off-coming. Then the best bit – tapering. A week of riding no further than the shops, eating pasta and loafing in the sun.
The big day arrived, my pit-bitch and two bikes were set up to perfection. The morning flew by and 15 minutes before the start we were gathered at the start line. A more bizarre sight you are unlikely ever to see – a thousand mountain bikers running up a hill, crash helmets bobbing up and down, twinkling in the sun, ankles twisting in ungainly shoes over the hard packed ground. And then away on the bike, cheered on by the enthusiastic crowd, up over a steady slope, a grassy bank down and a sharp ascent – it all felt so very good.
The racers were away at the front, whilst us soloists and the funsters span it out at the back. We drifted through the singletrack, dodging the trees and swooped round a few fields to suddenly meet more traffic than the M25 on a Friday night. The marshals were letting us down a steep drop one by one, taking no chances this early on. It had a two-foot step down about half way but a safe landing and everyone seemed to clean it without problem.
A few more miles of singletrack and we hit a jump – yeeheeew – the guy in front of me got about six feet of airtime and I got six inches (ahem, err, taking it easy, of course, you see). A long climb was a cinch in the big ring, as were a few more farm tracks and a rattling, rooty path through the woods. Then it was drop down a bumpy ledge, swerve right, up to the lip, pull back on the bars, pump the pedals and show the photographer the underside of the tyres. “Click!” – nope, too late, that’ll be one of me wheezing as I hit the ground. A few more fields, another climb and we were on a technical ascent through the forest and down into granny. Coming out at the top, I could hear the commentary from the arena where the leaders were just going through, so I pressed on for the last few miles to finish my lap as my friends called that I was still under an hour. One down, 23 to go.
The next five laps just got better as the traffic thinned and the pace settled. I wasn’t feeling hungry but we were now four hours in so I grabbed some food from our neatly-arranged trackside buffet table as I pedalled past. I choked on the flapjack and shoved a banana up the leg of my shorts. Within 100 yards the banana was just mush, squidging down my thigh. Oops. As the sun slid down, lighting the course with its amber glow, I passed through the timing clock for the ninth time and felt the firm grip of the marshal’s hand on my arm. “You can’t go out without lights now, son.” In a haze of fury I blitzed back to the pits, swapped to the “night bike” and shovelled down some grub. A bit of suspension at the back, a fatter seat, proper knobblies and lights of course – comfort rather than speed. By the end of the lap all the food I’d eaten wanted to be reborn, I had a cramp in my stomach and I felt like Alice Cooper looks. I made it back to the pits, fell into the tent and asked to be woken in half an hour. It went in a flash but I was no better ,so I gave it some more time until my guts had settled.
By midnight the temperature had fallen, as had a heavy dew. The wet grass and previously hardpacked ground developed a slimy surface that kept us all on the edge of traction. I’d started to push up the steeper climbs by now, but passing the clock at 2am gave an enormous morale boost – only another 12 hours to go. I kept the fluids flowing and the snacks light, trying desperately to banish images of hot baths, steak dinners and warm beds from my mind.
The hours ticked by and the laps clocked up. By 5am the first chinks of dawn’s light sparkled on the horizon and for the first time I felt confident enough to use high beam in the still dark woods. Until then I’d been conserving the batteries, using low beam most of the time or even off when crossing the fields in the moonlight. Some of the fatigue of the night lifted as we approached the final third distance – I’d kept my head busy with simple equations of how far and how long to go, breaking the 24 hours into more easily digestible bite-sized chunks.
By 10am my biggest problem had become an excruciatingly painful issue. Tractors had used some of the tracks during the week (when the ground was softer), their tyres leaving ruts in the now solid ground; it was like riding over a corrugated roof. My backside felt like it had been flossed with razor wire. I stood up on the pedals where I could but this started to aggravate my right knee and put more pressure on my sore hands. “Everybody cries, and every bloody thing hurts, sometimes. But everybody hurts sometimes, so hold on, hold on, hold on” – I reworded the mournful REM melody in my head. If I was actually singing it out loud like a demented railway passenger lost in his iPod, I apologise unreservedly.
My laps were now well over an hour each, I freewheeled downhill and pushed the bike up even the slighted incline. A total sense of humour failure engulfed me. Jolly bikers blatted past me, sprinting out their final laps – “You alright, mate?” they’d chirp. “Ffrgg uurff,” I dribbled back under my breath, without even looking up. At 12.45 I wobbled past the pits for the 23rd time, thought about one more lap and stopped. I was beaten. I’d covered more than 150 miles and couldn’t go on. I sat motionless, thoughtless, breathless for a full 30 minutes before limping pitifully to the top of the last hill to meet the other riders who had called it a day and were waiting for 2pm.
With one minute to go, my energy miraculously returned. The salt on my face stopped burning my eyes, the circulation returned to my hands. I was alive! The final hooter, a roar from the crowd, a glass of champagne was thrust into my hand by some Italians, and it was over.
Why does any sane person want to ride a mountain bike for 24 hours? That’s a question I’m still asking myself five days after the event. Slightly more worrying is that I’m thinking about ways I could improve for next year…
How did he do then?28 seconds after the final hooter went off, Dave crossed the line, having completed an impressive 23 laps, putting him just outside the top 20. The solo category continues to get more popular – 71 started and most rode a dozen laps. The men’s winner, Neil Harrison, won with a mighty 36 laps.
The experienced soloist
The whole SITS experience remains a blur, except for all the smiling faces that cheered me on and all the encouragement I received from friends and virtual strangers on the course, as well as my competition in the women’s solo category. I can’t believe it was only a year ago that I decided to challenge myself to riding solo for 24 hours for the first time. At that point I was very new to mountain biking and had only raced a couple of XC events in the UK, but the whole adventure of riding a bike for that long really excited me. I had no idea what would happen to me, whether I would be found curled up around a tree in the early morning hours or if I could really stay awake until 2pm on Sunday.
My challenge this year was to ride two solo 24 hour events, the first being Saab Salomon Mountain Mayhem and then Kona Sleepless in the Saddle as my final race for the season. I hurt my knee at Mountain Mayhem so I wanted a stronger ride at SITS without any problems.
I thought the Catton Park course was tough, with more climbs than I expected – most people told me it was going to be a very flat course. Although the hills weren’t as long as other events in the past, there were some technical climbs that I enjoyed and some fast descents that really woke me up in those early morning hours. I really enjoyed the flowing singletrack, but after several hours on the bike the course became quite bumpy and my arms and legs started to feel very bruised.
I had the misfortune of crashing twice on the very first lap, but after that remained on course and just focused on riding comfortably. I expected to be passed by international rider Christine Begy, but my aim was to just ride for myself and not to stop until I was physically unable to go any harder. I felt ill for most of the race and suffered with headaches which made it very difficult to consume enough carbs to keep me from blowing. I just kept drinking as much as I could and I think this is what enabled me to keep pedalling for as long as I did.
It wasn’t until the last two hours of the event that suddenly my legs and head turned to jelly. I wanted to keep going but my last lap of 1:30, almost double my earlier lap times, told me it was probably best to stop, otherwise I may not have made it back to the finish line at all.
I was quite surprised to have won the solo women category, but more importantly I was very surprised at how much encouragement I received, including support from my opposition. During the race Christine Begy, who finished second, spoke encouraging words to me during the night and at the end passed on her congratulations. It wasn’t until the end that I realised that she had had no support throughout the race, which I really admire her for – she truly rode the event solo. I’m very grateful for the help I have received at every race, including SITS, from my husband Ian, who gave up his birthday weekend to see me ride in circles for 24 hours. It really was a team effort between us both that helped me get through the event, perhaps next year Ian will be racing and I will be pit support… but I doubt it.
It has been a year since my first 24 hour solo event and I’m definitely hooked. I’ve managed two more 24 hour events since then, both organised by Pat Adams and both once again appealing to mountain bikers across the UK and abroad. The atmosphere is fantastic with riders of all abilities testing themselves against the clock, plus families and friends joining in the celebration by simply being there and offering their support. It’s great to hear solo riders and teams focus on their personal goals, whether it be to ride 10 laps for their team, achieve a top thirty position or simply to stay awake and make it through the night. For others it may be just to finish and to make the most of a weekend with friends riding together for the love of the sport. I wanted to see how many laps I could complete before I started suffering from jelly head and legs. It’s very difficult to think of these events as races as so much can happen over the 24 hour period and you never know how much your body will take before it decides to give in. As the end lies in sight it doesn’t matter where you finish, but hopefully you can make it through the 24 hours to shake Pat’s hand with a smile and with the spirit to want to try another 24 hour race in the future.
I have many people to thank who have supported me at SITS and throughout the 2005 race season: My sponsors Specialized for supplying me with the S-Works Epic and women’s FSR as well as all the clothing and accessories to make racing much more comfortable; Carole Armstrong and the rest of the Starlets Team for their friendship and support throughout 2005; Craig from Powerbar for supplying me with gels, bars and energy drinks; Paul and Russ from A Quick Release Holidays for their support and skills advice on mountain biking; my good friend and Starlets mechanic Abbie, who was also helping Ian during the night; Stu King from Bike Lab, for always offering his support. I also have a very special thank you to my coach Andy Patterson and Team leader Jenn O’Connor who have both taught me a lot this year. Jenn will be racing to defend her G24 title at Denver in a week’s time – best of luck Kiwi. One last thank you to my husband Ian, who I hope won’t get fed up with me forcing him to stay up all night at these events to help me ride my bike for 24 hours.