I have been riding for just over four years and racing 24-hour events for most of them. Taking things more seriously this year, I had my first podium at the Kielder Chiller and took on the gruelling 606km This Is Not A Tour. The World Endurance Mountain Bike Organisation (WEMBO) was holding the 24-hour solo world championships in Fort William. It was going to be my only opportunity to race the world champs on home soil for years – I had to take it. After a quick chat with the race organisers, it was sealed – I was to enter the Elite class of the World Championships.
Come October, I was going to be one of the youngest riders in the entire field and probably the youngest in the Elite class! F*ck me!
During the final few months building up to the race, everything else took a back seat. I left work behind when leaving the office, my diet was dialled, and my training became the priority. Putting in >20-hours of training in each week on-top of 37hrs in the office doesn’t leave much time to see your girlfriend (sorry Nic).
Fast forward to October and I had roped in a good friend, Mike, and my girlfriend, Nic to crew. With help from friends, family and a couple of new sponsors – I was set. The bike was rolling well, spares and tools were covered, I was focused and hadn’t been fitter. I held little hope to be competitive on the world stage, but I was ready to give it a shot!
It didn’t sink in until I was there. This was much bigger than I expected it to be.
It hadn’t registered that I was at the World Champs, racing against professional riders in the Elite category until I got there. The calibre of competition was insane. I was there with one steel framed enduro-style hardtail and was racing pros who were sponsored a couple the latest carbon XC bikes. Saying I was an underdog was underestimating it! If I could take on a couple of these guys, I would be happy!
After the practice lap on the Friday it really hit me, and the nerves crept in. The course was long, hilly, technical and rough; the weather wasn’t looking much better. The course was incredibly physical – two main hilly sections, a 2km stretch of rocky downhill and a bonus stage of roots and thick mud. It followed the cross-country world cup track, but we were riding it for the full 24 hours!
With the bagpipes roaring, the crowds cheering – we’re off.
20 mins before midday and it starts raining. Marched out by a couple of marshals on trails bikes and the timers start. Sandwiched in with all the other riders, there’s no room for error – time to get your head down and ride hard. The sections that worried me the day before became easier when keeping pace; the hills were less daunting when racing alongside 150 riders.
My lap times hovered around the hour mark for the first 5 before settling into a steady 1:15 lap. It isn’t where I wanted to be, but I had my strategy and couldn’t ride someone else’s race. Nic and Mike had me laughing when they read out my race position – I was a long way from where I should have been.
The one thing I didn’t account for was wet hands – I had no waterproof gloves. After 10 hours of riding in the rain, my hands and gloves were sodden. The pain in my hands started was taking its toll. 10 hours without drying or warming them and I was getting worried. Reassured that Mike had seen worse when kayaking, I got back out and rode on.
You should always take care of contact points – hands, feet and bum are all key to staying comfortable. My hands were by far the worse!
In the early hours of the next morning I had been going with no stop longer than 20mins for 15 hours. By this point, the course and conditions started taking out a lot of riders. The rocky course pounded your body as you constantly absorbed hits. The heavy rain made the roots and rocks more a slipping hazard, and the racing line kept getting worse with all the riders hammering it. The amount of traffic on the course dropped as riders started pulling out. I just had to keep my head down, keep my focus and keep lapping – I slowly began climbing the table.
There were a couple of howlers just before sunrise. I was down to emergency lights after refusing to change my battery pack and put in another half a lap blinded in one eye due to grit. A couple of sloppy mistakes saw me clipping a tree and ending in a bush, another saw me taking a dodgy line over a drop and having to stop and regroup – but through it all, I kept riding.
Sunrise came and gave a nice psychological boost to all riders. When you can see the sun, you know you’ve broken the back of the race – just 5-6 hours of riding left.
My whole body ached more than I have felt before. Pulling the brakes hurt. Standing up hurt. Sitting down hurt.
The final few laps were a struggle. Your resolve is tested as you convince yourself to get out and keep riding. Nic and Mike kept me going, pointing out how far I was climbing up the class – I was doing far better than expected.
I finished my penultimate lap with an hour left on the clock – there was time for one more. I hit the pits, ditched everything I didn’t need, grabbed a new bottle and shoved some food in my face. Heading back out I had a massive grin on my face. This was it. A victory lap to enjoy my time competing on the biggest stage. I knew I had done better than I expected to. In as much pain as I was, nothing could have wiped the grin off my face.
Just before the final hilly stage, I passed the car park for the last time and spotted Nic and Mike in the distance standing with another couple as they cheer on all the riders. As I got closer, I noticed it was my parents – they got up at 0400 that morning to drive here in time for my last lap! It came from nowhere and I was stoked to see them – and even more happy that I put in that final lap so they didn’t see me sitting in the pits!
Finishing the race I realised what I had just accomplished – and it felt amazing.
I can’t stop grinning as I come over the line. I pick up my race mug, print out of the official standings and medal and have a camera shoved in my face – I am the idiot at the end grinning like an idiot saying how “battered” I was. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tnMVcOj3QBw. Ending with a nice photo shoot and giving my friends and family a big muddy hug.
I ended up 17th in the Elite Male Solos and was stoked. I was beaten by several riders in age categories and was let down by my nutrition plan and lack of wet weather gear… but honestly, I couldn’t care less. I have learned a ton, and the exposure to compete in this field was fantastic. To place as highly as I did with as little experience as I have was incredible! I went toe-to-toe with some of the best riders on the planet, and with rotten hands and a cramping stomach, I kept my focus and kept riding. I couldn’t be happier.
They say it is a solo race, but there are a lot of people I couldn’t ride like this without!
I can’t speak highly enough of my crew. Nic and Mike were ready for me every lap and only got 40mins of sleep each themselves. They did everything that was needed, including helping me get out of wet clothes (sorry again, Nic!), and put up with me the whole time. Their encouragement and happiness made it easy for me to concentrate on my race without worrying about them.
ProBikeTool sorted me with a bunch of the nicest tools I have come across and Jim’s encouragement was fantastic. Jon from Moomar Designs has been helping with this website and contributed to all the spares and gear. Knowing I had everything in the pits ready and waiting, should I need it was a weight off my mind.
My family have always been behind me and have supported me throughout doing these stupid races – I couldn’t have got this far in four years without your support. Finally, another shout to Nic, you put up with me away training and working for most of the week. You put up with me when I am cranky because I am not getting enough sleep. You don’t mind too much when the food bills rocket in the build up to a race. This was the first race you have crewed – and hopefully you now see why I do it.