At the end of 2009 a surprise result at Sleepless in the Saddle first gave me the idea I might be able to give this endurance lark a proper go. In 2010 I decided to enter just about every race going and, although I did have some convincing results, I wasn’t able to get on that elusive podium again. So this winter I wrote myself a proper training plan for the first time and I stuck to it.
In the week before the Strathpuffer I was feeling good, kept myself lurgy-free and preparation had been unusually meticulous. Come Friday though and things took a bit of a dive. The super light 29er and its ice tyres I was due to get my hands on for the race was unavailable and the Highland Hotel had closed its doors for the weekend. So the spare bike became the race bike, the van became our hotel, some boxes and a plastic camping table became my bed and my Mum who I’d dragged along as pit crew slept across the front seats without complaint.
It was forecast to get warmer but rain in the night froze and Saturday morning we woke to a thick sheet of ice covering the whole fire-road climb. It was the least desirable conditions I could think of and a late start meant I hadn’t had eaten anything, hadn’t drunk enough and wasn’t organised but it was too late. There was only 30 minutes until the start. I clipped on my number and made my way down to the rider briefing where, oddly, I became quite relaxed. There was nothing I could do now but ride…
I weaselled my way into a good position near the front and got away on the run pretty well for me but there was something flapping about on my helmet. I put my hand up to see what it was and knocked my glasses off. Ah yes, I forgot I put those up there. I looked around just in time to see them being crushed under the foot of a following runner and spent the next 30 seconds scrabbling around on the floor collecting the bits with 200 people running at me. Not the best start.
On the bike and usually I look to hang back a bit at the start, avoid any battles and keep the old heart rate down but today the legs felt rather good. I didn’t make a conscious decision to get to the front of the pack, and I didn’t put the hammer down, but I wanted to stretch my legs and get up where the action was so I rode like, well, I was in a race.
By the top of the climb I caught Luke Morris, mechanic at the Bikeshed, who was stopping to pump his tyre up. Luke always starts fast so it was a bit of a surprise to see him this early in the race and little did I know I’d just taken the lead from him. As the course topped out with large rock set-pieces to negotiate, small duck-board sections and playful berms I was really loving it.
Then it wound back into the forest and more icy trails. I’d already had a few dodgy moments by now and was gingerly picking my way down. “Ay up Mike, what you playin’ at?” and with that I lost the front wheel and smacked into the ground. It was Luke flying along on the ice tyres and his home made ice spikes he said he didn’t have. We always greet each other like this now, ever since I caught him at Mayhem last year and told him to stop being so lazy. I picked myself up to see him flying up the next climb. The next time I saw him was just after the lap finished pumping his tyres up again – “thought you didn’t have ice tyres – that’ll learn ya!” I shouted.
The last few laps had seen the thaw starting to kick in but melt water on top of the ice only made things worse. The laps were still quick though and I was still trying to hold myself back. By lap five thin lines of fire road were starting to peek out from under the ice and ice tyres were now only an advantage on a few sections of the course. A puncture that should have been a quick fix stopped me for 10 minutes when I found the zip on my seat pack had split and my spare tube was gone. I asked everyone that came by if they had a spare but no-one was admitting to it. Eventually a kind lass in Minx gear saved me and I was back on the chase of Twinkly Dave who had rolled by in the meantime. I’d gone from 10 minutes up to 2 minutes down but while Dave stopped for a brake pad swap, I sneaked by; I’d baked my pads in the oven and they were lasting well.
Cresting the first climb I had a quick toilet stop and noticed a one inch rip in my rear tyre and the tube bulging out just about ready to burst. I quickly let the tyre down as much as I dared and rode on slowly but it was no use and the rip was opening up. I stopped and emptied my pockets looking for anything I could boot the tyre with. Rules of the ‘Puffer dictate riders should carry, among other things, a thermal blanket and I wrapped this and a plastic bag around the tube at the rip to try and stop it expanding, pumped the tyre up a bit and pressed on. By the time I got to the second marshall station the rip was about three inches long and the tube was rubbing against the frame. I gave up and started running, then walking, then pedalling on the rim back to the pits and the stand-in spare bike, a Canyon I’d been testing over Christmas.
Back on the Anthem with lights on now and once again chasing down Dave Powell. I couldn’t find him and the effort of the last few laps was really starting to show. My legs and stomach had been cramping and my legs had gone from feeling super strong to weak and feeble, burning with every turn of the pedals. The pain I could cope with, but the dizziness and lethargy that followed made me anxious as there was little I could do about it.
Eventually I started making mistakes and found the perfectly wheel sized hole on ‘long slab’ and went sailing over the bars. I laid there and let some riders pull my bike off me as I waited for my whole body to cramp up. One of them was Jane Chadwick – a friend and fellow soloist who had represented at the worlds in October. “Bloody hell! You’d better be alright,” she said. “I can’t catch him,” I countered – but she knew what I didn’t… I’d been leading for the last two laps. She didn’t tell me either and I pressed on.
I had tried everything – eating more, gels, coca-cola, medicine for my stomach – but there was still a massive energy deficit and my stomach was in knots. Then finally I got it – how could I have been so stupid? With all the excitement I hadn’t been drinking, in fact I’d been avoiding it to limit the toilet stops. As soon as I started drinking I realised just how thirsty I was. In the next five minutes it was like someone had found the fuse box and flipped the switch, the lights came back on and so did the music, the party was back in full swing!
Through the rest of the night I found my groove and settled in, consistently knocking out the laps at just over an hour each and growing a decent lead. It was starting to creep in to my mind that if I carried on like this I might just be able to win my very first 24-hour race, but I pushed the thought away. There was still a long way to go and a lot could happen, all it would take was another mechanical…
By now my Mum was exhausted and struggling to stay awake in the pit area each time I went through but in the event marquee Rory from Exposure lights was rushing out for a status update, to swap lights over and fill me up on sugary tea and chips. He was in his element so we moved HQ down to the marquee and let my Mum get some well earned rest. The lead grew to a lap but it still didn’t feel like it was in the bag. A couple of longer pit stops, some hot pasta, a bike wash or two and brake pad changes were all made to keep things running sweet. All I had to do now was keep it together, but it still felt so fragile.
My tired brain was constantly trying to calculate with each lap what Dave would have to do to catch me. There was time left for maybe four more laps and I decided I wanted as quick a one as I could muster to deter any last minute attacks – but the difference between flat out and just grinding around turned out to be only a couple of minutes.
Dawn Lap: Last Lap
Dawn broke and as night dragged itself into day I was still a lap up and my paranoia finally faded. All I had to do was finish this lap and if I didn’t see him, I didn’t have to do another. I dawdled round looking at the scenery and enjoyed it immensely. The last time it was light it was so icy I could barely take my eyes off the trail and I had missed everything. This was a lap to savour, it was finally over and I’d won my first ever bike race. 2011 might only have been two weeks old but, with a new team in the pipeline, lots of exciting adventures planned and now this, it’s already looking to be my best year ever!
- Thanks to Rory Hitchens from Exposure Lights and Simon Smith for the photos.