“You promised me sunshine!"
This was a phrase commonly quoted by wife and crew chief Jo in the run up to and during the WEMBO 24 Hour Solo World Championships. And she was quite right, I had. After enduring 15 hours of rain during our last 24 solo at Bontrager Twentyfour12 in 2010, I figured Finale Ligure in Italy, with on average 300 days of sunshine a year might be a safe bet.
I was wrong: as we lined up for the start at 1pm the rainclouds gathered and the sky looked just as it had for the last 6 weeks in the UK, hiding the sunshine and the stunning views of the Mediterranean.
But the rain couldn’t spoil the spectacularly brutal course which weaved its way across the limestone cliffs and around the peninsular overlooking Finale and Varigotti beaches. We started with a loop of the second half of the figure of eight course. Mostly in the trees, the trail roller coasted its way up relentless short ramps and down loose dusty drops.
This was a lot of fun but required full commitment to ride fast and would present a challenge in the latter stages of the race. The rest of the lap dazzled us with stunning views of the azure waters below, although fast rocky descending and even more steep loose climbing meant you had to pay attention to the tricky trail.
This was my number one priority race and I’d put a lot of work into preparation, even taking advice on the Le Mans start from 2:25 marathon runner (and ex-24 soloist) Ian Leitch. I lined up on the front row and as the Italian race organisers whipped the crowd into a frenzy, I visualised sprinting like Usain Bolt to collect my bike. To be honest my style was more Benny Hill but I did avoid the crowds and left the arena in 5th place, only for the lead group to be sent up the wrong trail by laid back Italian marshals. No drama, we were quickly back on track and as everybody looked at each other I pushed on, leading the first passage of pit row.
A few Europeans and current World Champion Jason English slipped past but I held my pace and returned to the arena to start the first full lap in 6th position. A group formed with myself, Rudolf Springer from Austria (24 hrs of Finale Ligure 2011 champion) and Alexis Matthys from Belgium. The others seemed to be working harder than me and I amused them with introductions, handshakes and dubious European language skills before moving ahead on the long, loose, rocky climb to the course’s highpoint.
Up ahead I could see Thomas Widhalm leading Jason English down the exposed cliff face descent and I was surprised to be so close to them. ‘Don’t do anything stupid. And certainly don’t puncture….’ I said to myself. Unbelievably, a second later I clipped a rock and cut the tyre. Thirty seconds spent trying and failing to fix it, I resorted to riding the flat back to the pits. It was faster than expected and I caught up a few of the places lost, although it was traumatic. I winced a thousand times as the uncushioned rim slammed into rocks.
I was lucky to have ace XC World Cup mechanic Reg looking after my bikes and after a quick change the small time loss was easily made up. The next few laps were an absolute pleasure, fresh legs and growing familiarity with the superb trails kept the pace high and the smiles wide. During the afternoon I traded places with 2010 Race Across America fastest Rookie Matt Warner-Smith. He’d ridden to 2nd place in last year’s 24 Hours of Finale Ligure and told of the beautiful sunrise we’d be treated to in the morning.
During the afternoon I’d backed off the pace to try and preserve the legs as much as possible, but by the evening the unrelenting climbs were taking a toll and lap times were starting to lengthen. At 8pm Exposure lights were fitted to handlebar and helmet and the illumination provided was vital. Not only to maintain good pace on the course but even more importantly to actually stay on a course that passed in parts only inches away from vertical drops into the ocean below.
Fellow Brit ‘Twinkly’ Dave Powell had a very lucky escape after a loose rock grabbed his front wheel and sent him literally flying off a cliff. He was left clinging to a tree and faced an even greater challenge in retrieving his bike from its resting place far below. After some soul searching about the new dangers of 24 hour mountain bike racing, he bravely carried on.
Around midnight I was lapped by leader Jason English, who had dropped the Austrian Widhalm, he was still pushing hard to build the lead although by this stage his rival had succumbed to bike and body problems. Widhalm was not alone; many retired or fell back during an exceptionally tough night. Heading up the rankings was Team JMC’s Jason Miles. He rode a perfectly measured first half and moved into second position during the darkness.
I was heading in the opposite direction. Lap times were lengthening and everything was hurting, even sunrise did little to raise my spirits. Amazingly I was still holding 4th place, testament only to the fact that most were suffering just as much. In the next few hours I was moving like a stunned slug. But importantly I kept moving. I remembered a Winston Churchill quote a friend had said to me. ‘If you are going through hell, keep going.’ It couldn’t have seemed more apt.
I refused to quit, we’d all put too much into this to surrender. Too much work, too many 5am training sessions, too much support from my family. During these hellish hours, only the support of my brilliant crew and the ‘Bravo Bravo’ cheers of the passionate Italian marshals kept me going. Some checkpoints were manned by the local fire brigade and I did wonder if we were at risk of forest fire, maybe if the course caught fire the race would be stopped and I’d be spared from this suffering.
It took being caught by German Michael Kochendörfer and dropping to 5th to reignite the fight in me. The team shouted at me to battle back and hold the wheel and in doing so I realised that my rival was no stronger than me and that I had the edge on the technical sections. The rain had started again so I stopped at the pits for more clothing and then pressed on in pursuit of my German rival. I passed Rickie Cotter who going super strong running 2nd Elite Female and we rode together for a while sharing encouragement.
I pressed on again inspired by her achievement and as if by magic my legs were working again. Out of the saddle, pushing hard I clicked up through the gears. I don’t know where this power had been for the last 12 hours but it was back and I was determined to make the most of it. My German rival was quickly despatched and within another half lap I’d caught and passed Matt Warner-Smith to move into 3rd.
I now had momentum and was on a mission, cheered on by the ever enthusiastic Italians I arrived back at the pits 10 minutes earlier than expected, alerting the team to my miraculous recovery. Although they refused to tell me the gap to Jason Miles, they told me he was looking broken and that he was catchable if I gave it everything in the final two laps. So that’s what I did. Attacking the climbs like in an XC race and taking huge risks on the downhills, I knocked over 20 minutes off my previous lap time and more than halved the gap to Jason in 2nd.
With one lap to go his crew alerted him to the danger and pushed him out one last time to try to hang on to his position. Twelve minutes later I passed through an animated pit row. Every team was out shouting and cheering me on, absorbed by this remarkable pursuit match between two Brits. I continued to press as hard as possible, fuelled by more cheers of ‘Bravo, bravo, Big Finish!’ But Jason fought back and pulled out a courageous last lap to hold the gap and more importantly hold onto the silver medal.
It had been an enthralling finale in Finale and the disappointment of missing out on 2nd quickly turned to pride in taking 3rd. The tough course and conditions drew out great performances from the British team, two riders on the Male Elite podium, four riders in the top ten as Phil Simcock rode strong consistent laps for 7th overall and Dave Powell recovered from his cliff diving adventures to finish 8th overall. Rickie Cotter was 2nd Elite Female and overall, with Lisa Kamphausen and Mona Petrie 5th and 6th Elite respectively. Jane Chadwick took the 3rd step of the podium in the Female 35-39 age group.
Britain certainly surprised the other nations. The organisers had to borrow an extra Union Jack flag to fly at the ceremony as they had not expected two British riders to be standing on the podium. But this was a minor flaw in what was a brilliant event. With a spectacular course, great competition and wonderful hospitality from the Italian 24 Hour community, the first WEMBO 24 hour World Championships was a huge success.
Next year’s event will be held in Canberra, Australia to celebrate the city’s centenary. It’s certainly tempting, if they can guarantee sunshine.
Huge thanks to the following people:
Exposure Lights for lending me awesome lights for the race.
My superb support crew; Chris, Reg, Dad, Jon, Jake and Cheryl for keeping me rolling, fuelled, warm and entertained throughout.
The 24 Hours of Finale organising team for putting on a top draw event and making us all feel very welcome. I highly recommend this event to anybody, soloist or team racer. I’ll be back one day.
Russ Baker of WEMBO for pulling together a group of top race organisers. Good luck for the future WEMBO events.
All the supporters, marshalls and fellow racers who cheered me on, whether on site in Italy or watching via the internet.
And most importantly my wife Jo and our boys. Thank you for your unwavering support, tolerating the 5am wake up calls, putting up with this strange sport of ours and being there to push me out on the bike for one more lap.
Photos © Matteó Cappe/WEMBO