It takes a special kind of weird-o to sign up for a 24-hour mountain biking event in the middle of winter, but this is exactly what the Kielder Chiller 24 is and that is exactly what I did… with less than 8 weeks until race day!
I have raced the infamous Strathpuffer three years running and came 10th in Mountain Mayhem so I knew full well what I was getting myself in for when it comes to 24-hour racing. What I wasn’t expecting, however was just how brutal a winter in Kielder can be. Freezing temperatures, high winds, torrential rain, what felt like a f**king blizzard all within the ~15hrs of darkness (yes, to add insult to injury, the daylight hours were beautiful and clear).
With a 1000ft of gain each lap, each freezing lap sapped your energy – making the fast, flowy descents a real labour of concentration! The course itself was brilliant. Robust enough to take an absolute hammering for 24-hours straight yet it had enough flow to put a smile on your face well into the 23rd hour of racing, the organisers and builders did a cracking job. The course had everything from technical rock-garden climbs, exposed, boggy peaks, straight shooting forest track and a large chunk of the Kielder’s Deadwater Red route to finish it off.
The race organisation was spot on too. The guys at High Fell Events know how to run these things smoothly, and Barry (race organiser) knows how to make it a truly unforgiving event!
Setting off at 1200 on Saturday 10th, I put in the first 8hours in shorts and t-shirt and hardly stopped for a break, besides putting on some new brake pads. It took me around 5 laps to really know the course and start pushing the pace on the more technical sections.
From sundown until just before sunrise, the weather continued to deteriorate. Starting to spit around 1800, rain heavily at 2100 before turning into a snowstorm from around 2300-0200… all the while the temperature was dropping from 6ᵒC down to -3ᵒC. For a while the visibility was down to around two meters due to the heavy snowfall. The reflection of the snowflakes from your bike lights made you more or less snow-blind while struggling to even see the ground! Imagine racing downhill, piping your front wheel through a 15cm gully when you can’t feel your hands or feet, and you start to understand what the Chiller is all about.
At around 0200 I had to take a break in the main marquee to try to get some feeling back in my hands. At this point I was sitting in first place and that out of 100 solos, pairs and quads, there was an estimated 30 people currently out on track! As soon as I regained some feeling in my hands, I got back to the pits quickly got changed and got back out riding again, trying to make up some more distance.
From 0400 onwards the race changed again. The pain in your legs has been there for hours, the periodic cramping becomes normal, you know the course even in the dark and you get used to the biting cold but at this point the unparalleled fatigue sets in. You know that with sunrise you’ll get a mental boost, but it feels a lifetime away! To make it worse, the course is now covered in ice that has been polished by all other riders spinning out while trying to ride uphill. You just have to put yourself in a position that you just grit your teeth and keep trudging on. You stop to refuel, clean your chain and change your pads, you talk to your crew, you talk to strangers on course… anything to keep your mind going… and just keep pedalling.
Sunrise hits at 0730 and you forget it all. The psychological boost of daybreak is euphoric! You know you can make it now – you’re well into the final quarter. You don’t have to worry about your light battery dying, you don’t have to worry about what is lurking around the next corner and you can see the ground you’re riding on. You just get your head down and keep pumping in the last few laps.
I roped in two friends to crew for me. The effort from Sam and Mike was heroic! They put up with the freezing temperatures while staying in the pits in case I came around. They had hot water and food waiting for me and sorted the bike for most problems… and they did all of this without complaining and putting up with my whining about being cold! It is good to have friends who have your back for these things. Having solo-soloed ‘Puffer, I know the difference they made, and I simply couldn’t have been competitive without them.
My girlfriend, Nic, absolutely hates the cold and she supported me from home. She had every faith I could be competitive from the start, even with only 8 weeks to get fit again! She kept my head and ego in check, while supporting me the whole time.
The Swinley Bike Hub provide the best training ground I have found. Miles of climbing and descending over some solid, weather-proofed single-track keep me fit and ready all year round and some great off-piste trail to get muddier and more technical. They also fixed me up with the awesome Hope R4+ lights that kept me riding all through the night!
Finally, Barry, High Fell Events and all marshals and crew for giving us all the opportunity to test ourselves and our bikes to the limits – it was a righteous suffer fest!
It was so cold the bike froze solid, forks locked, brakes seized, gears got stuck. You’re soaked to the bone from the first quarter onwards. As soon as you stop riding, you start trembling due to the cold. Yet when you hit 1015, you know you’ve been riding for 17hours… but you can push in one more lap, so you dig deep and you keep going!
24-hour winter mountain bike racing is hard going but totally worth it! The people you meet, the random conversations you have when you’re delirious and sleep deprived, the suffering, the physical and mental limits you overcome, the lessons you learn and the huge course of brain-drugs you top out on at the end of it all make 24-hour racing something special. If you put in 2 hours or the full 24, you’re a nutter for entering them and you must respect this.
Kielder Chiller: http://kielderchiller24.com/
Highfell Events: http://highfellevents.co.uk/
Kielder Chiller 2018 results: http://www.durtytiming.com/race-results.html