Riding any endurance mountain bike event is a test of your physical and physiological limits, and the Bristol Bikefest, with its 12-hour solo race the pinnacle of the events weekend-long offering, was no exception.
It’s been a long while since I last rode a 12-hour race. In fact, I can’t actually place my finger on the last time I did ride a 12-hour – it might even have been the Bikefest a good few years ago. Which probably explains why I felt compelled to return to the format this year, for no other good reason than it’s been a while.
So it was on Saturday morning that I found myself sitting in my tent, stuffing as much granola cereal as I could stomach into my body. Three large bowls later, and washed down with a double espresso from the mobile coffee stall in the main arena, it was time to get kitted up and head to the start.
Ah, the start. What a frantic disorganised affair that was. I’m not a fan of running, that’s why I ride bikes, so having to lay the bike at the side of the track and trot 250metres further down the hill to await the starting hooter, didn’t go down well. I lined up just behind the fast looking team and solo racers, hoping to at least keep up with them on the first lap.
All hopes of this went out the window as soon as the run started; it was chaos. Luckily, having spotted that another rider had roped in a friend to stand by his bike holding aloft a Union Jack flag, I easily located my bike. Getting on the bike was another matter as another runner clattered into me, almost toppling me over into the long grass.
Onto my bike and on the wide gravel track, I managed to carefully negotiate the sea of runners and people mounting bikes. There were arms and wheels flinging around everywhere, it was quite a sight. Back through the start arena, flags waving and hooters blaring, and into the woods that marked the first part of the course, a fantastic ribbon of singletrack that flowed and weaved through the trees.
The downside; it’s narrow. This makes for tricky overtaking and in places it’s impossible, but does serve as an opportunity to catch your breath. Especially useful if you’re riding solo!
The course – one of the best in the UK?
The Bikefest has used more or less the exact same route in its 11 years, with slight variations on the theme over the years. The big change this year was the recent work carried out by Architect, who surfaced the trail and carried out some major repairs. It’s a trail that, so close to Bristol, gets a lot of traffic. There’s even a trail centre-style café being built, proof of the popularity of the area with local mountain bikers.
The upshot of this work is the trails ability to cope with bad weather, which it certainly did. Having been battered with rain just the day before, seeing to it that the camp site resembled a swamp by the end of the day as people were arriving, the course was 99% dry on Saturday. Just a few squelchy patches remained, but fast rolling everywhere and bikes finishing the day with a light covering of dust – fast summer tyres were the order of the day.
Arrival at the end of the first section of singletrack, between 6-8 minutes of riding depending on your pace, brought you out into a flat double track. Crossing a road the course diverted up a wide gravel track of reasonable gradient, which in itself wasn’t a big challenge. The strong unrelenting wind that was blasting down climb for the entire day made it doubly difficult however. I was certainly glad of my lowest gears.
At the top of this climb the course turned left and dived back into the cover of the trees, and onto another man-made piece of singletrack. With two fast open turns and few small doubles, culminating in a large bomb hole and small rise up to the top of the zig zag, it was ample reward fro the lung busting climb.
Down a fast fireroad descent with two sharp corners seemed a waste of hard-earned altitude. The climb back up was equally unsatisfying, a slippery rocky climb that had many off and walking towards the end of the day. Reaching the top, a short downhill double track to catch your breath, and then it was back onto the singletrack.
Slow and arduous at first with a series of 90 degree corners which were harder to carry speed through than they gave the impression of. Example; a Shred rider, having blasted past me on the previous climb, wiped out his advantage by sliding the rear wheel on a corner right in front of me, landing in a heap to the side of the trail. I nipped past and didn’t see him until the end of the lap.
After much wiggling and weaving through the berm-laden trail, another climb winched you to the stop of the optional Red graded trail at Ashton Court. The most challenging section here and while not difficult, carrying good speed through the many rock gardens, steps, doubles and tight corners required good skill. It served as a good test of handling skills.
Popping out of the tree cover again, a quick blast across a field turned you back onto the same gravel track that serves as the earlier climb, only further along. A short section battling against the strong headwind, before turning right and back into the event arena, to hand over to your team mate. Or for the soloists it’s straight on through for another lap.
It was a brilliant course that excelled under difficult conditions. It’s fun to ride and race and is as challenging as you want it to be. It’s welcoming for newbies and a suitable test for more experienced types. It isn’t the toughest cross-country course; there’s not all that much climbing, but I didn’t hear many people complaining.
Well, it went rather well. I hadn’t exactly been training for the 12-hour solo race, I was relying on just getting through it based on experience alone. That’s not to say I hadn’t been riding plenty, I had, but I would say much of it was specially targeted at the event.
So I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started. My approach was to start reasonably quick, following a good start, then back it off to a more sustainable pace and see how long I could keep that up for. As it turned out, I had a pretty torid start, but getting caught up in the middle of the pack did prevent me from hitting the red zone too early.
Being unsupported I had to stretch out my time on the bike as much as possible. With one 500ml bottle on the bike and three gels in my jersey pocket, I managed to ride three to four laps between having to pull into the solo pit area to replenish my stock. W
ith eight 500ml bottles pre-filled with energy drink and a bag of gels, I was hoping I wouldn’t lose too much time here. I was up against some well supported solo racers, with the luxury of having bottles handed up. So I tried to make my stops as brief as possible. In the end, I stopped for 17 minutes, which is far too long when racing against guys who barely stopped at all.
As the race wore on, so the pace started to tell. The short lap (between 29-34 minutes) tested my mental concentration. Staying focused on the simple act of pushing hard on the pedals got harder. Trying to avoid the mental shut down and resultant lapse in pace was hard. I dug deep. And deeper.
I hit some troughs at several points through the ride. Six hours was tough. Eight hours was Tougher. Then, with the finish, and the countdown of laps that I knew I could squeeze in, in sight, it began to get easier. I began imagine the emotional rush that I would look forward to upon crossing the line for the last time. Spurred on, I managed to increase my pace just a little.
I really had no idea how many laps I had completed until Timelaps published the results. And to see I rode 20 laps of the course, well I was shocked. Then, to see that I finished 5th, behind some properly fast guys well known for their endurance racing exploits, well I was stunned. I pushed as hard as I possibly could and managed to keep the effort level up for most of the 12-hours, and to get such a result, well I’m elated. I think it might just be my best ride of the year.
Now, if my entire body would stop bloody hurting…
Thanks to Graham Haller for the photo.