Torq In Your Sleep 2014 – Third time lucky ?

 

Pair: a set of two things used together or regarded as a unit.

Having missed the 2013 edition to race the classic Grand Raid Cristalp, it was nice to be back on home soil enjoying the fun and fast flowing trails of Minley Manor. There may have been less climbing than the Swiss marathon epic but the relentless course profile and with at least 6 hours of pedalling slated, this was going to be no easy ride in the park.Not sure if this definition entirely fits the bill for defining a pairs team at a 12 hour mountain bike race. Here’s my definition: Ride as hard as the 4 man teams and only get half as much recovery. To be honest I’d forgot how hard it is compared to racing with a team or even solo (although it’s nothing compared to racing a 24 hour event as a pair !) but here I was again for the 3rd time trying to better my pair of 2nd place results in the pairs race at the Gorrick organised Torq In Your Sleep 12 hour MTB race.

I’d enlisted rising XC star Max Suttie to be my partner, fresh off a podium at the latest National XC, 3rd place overall in the series and victory in the Twentyfour12 Torchbearer. I’ve also been supporting Max this year, advising on training and performance so it was a great way to celebrate a successful year. If I’m honest I was worried about letting him down and hoped my endurance would pay dividends later in the race. With the WEMBO 24hour solo worlds just 6 weeks away, and training consisting of plenty of big volume training rides I wasn’t expecting to be able to deliver XC whippet race speed.

Max on the far left moving into a good position behind the quad bike

Max on the far left moving into a good position behind the quad bike

Thankfully Max took on the challenge of the first lap melee and deftly manoeuvred himself to the front by the end of the parade lap. He then rocketed around Lap 1 mixing it with plenty of Elite XC racers to arrive back in 6th overall and leading pair. Next my turn, I had the good fortune to start the lap with George Budd and I thought it would be a good idea to try to keep him in sight and use him as motivation. I eased into my pace around the arena field and George slipped away but by the time we hit the twisting root laden singletrack of Olympic Ridge I was up to full speed and back on George’s wheel. The (diesel) engine seemed to be firing well and surprisingly there was plenty of power for accelerations on the open sections and out of the many corners.

The course was a blast including classic Minley tracks like Banksy, Sponge Bob and the resurrected Minley Maze as well as numerous new tracks extending the course out near West Minley Farm with a couple of steep drops, some comparatively long (although hardly alpine) climbs and an abundance of loose loamy singletrack. My personal highlights were the final couple of kilometres, re-joining the old course and blasting through the trees down to the gully, onwards to the lower section of banksy, under the bridge to nowhere (where darkness brought tunes and disco lights) and finally the corkscrewing track along the edge of the campsite. I wasn’t such a fan of the steep ramp of Pheasant Plucker Hill but appreciated the glow sticks which appeared as night fell.

Max powering up Pheasant Plucker Hill

Max powering up Pheasant Plucker Hill

Having leeched myself onto George’s back wheel, my first lap was over in under 36 minutes and straight away I was reminded of one of the greatest challenges of pairs racing. Warm down, food, check the bike and then realise it’s already time to warm up and get over to transition. And repeat. Max had flown around the course building on our lead over the other pairs. I did likewise, again using the team riders to drag me around at a decent pace.

Time was flying by and before we realised it, a third of the race was complete and we had built a heathy lead. Despite worrying about sustaining the pace, Max continued to blast out laps, I kept the lap times consistent and the course was riding better and better, sullied only by a growing layer of dust that covered some of the newer sections. A lot of people were growing increasingly concerned by this dust and the crashes it was causing but to be honest, I was more perplexed by the empty fag packet which had been discarded at the bottom of the Sponge Bob descent – who was the previous owner, an elite racer with a secret habit, someone indulging in a new form of hypoxia training or a downhill demon enjoying the afterglow of a particularly satisfying descent? I guess we’ll never know…

Carving the turns on the Banksy trail

Carving the turns on the Banksy trail

One of the greatest aspects of Torq In Your sleep is the diversity of abilities sharing the event and the course. This can cause problems with overtaking, especially on a track comprised of more than 50% singletrack, but complements all round this year as in the main lap’ees’ and lap’ers’ collaborated effectively to keep everybody moving. One of my most enjoyable laps was spent on Jamie Newall’s wheel as he sliced through lapped riders calling to any female racers; “Hold tight darling, coming through on the right”.

Back to the racing. Up ahead XC animals Issac Pucci of Mountain Trax and Phil Pearce of Banjo Cycles were tearing chunks out of each other, while the Torq Performance Stormtroopers were ready to take advantage of any mishaps. As night fell, Mountain Trax had eked out a lead while the Torq troops mugged the Banjo boys for 2nd. Max and I were still mixing it with the quad and trio teams in the top 10 overall and we’d built ourselves a 15 minute lead over the other pairs. Our rivals Team City College Norfolk and Lumicycle would have to raise their pace significantly to catch us but as it was so tight between them, I was wary that their drag race to the finish could eat into our lead. I also knew the Lumicycle guys would keep consistent all the way to the finish relishing the dark laps so there could be no easy laps for us.

Tunes & disco lights under the bridge to nowhere

Tunes & disco lights under the bridge to nowhere

Luckily I love night riding too, and with a strong cup of coffee inside me plus the awesome Exposure Reflex light burning through the darkness ahead, I pressed hard and logged a couple more sub-40 minute laps. Finishing the last of those with only 12 minutes before the midnight cut-off, I headed out for a final blast around the now quiet circuit to secure the win. As it turns out, the Lumicycle pair finished strongly to leapfrog Team CCN and bag P2 but they missed the cut-off so we finished with an extra lap.

Hurrah – victory at last after 3 attempts. Massive thanks to Max Suttie for being a superb teammate. We worked well ‘together’ and definitely won as a ‘unit’, maybe that definition above does apply to pairs mountain bike racing after all. Thanks also to Jo, Cam, Zac and Carol for providing top quality between lap support and the Gorrick crew for putting on another classic event.

Top of the box at last

Top of the box at last

Holeshots and Autopilots

Shock, horror: 24 Hour racer takes holeshot at XC race!

Now I admit it’s not that remarkable really. Plenty of people can ride a mountain bike fast for a few minutes. But this is a big deal for me. I’ve devoted a significant amount of time in the last few years to making my body ride quite fast for a very long time. Part of that process involves smoothing out those surges of energy expenditure so the fuel tank doesn’t run dry. I’ve become pretty good at this, which is very useful in those ultra-endurance races but that strength quickly becomes a weakness when you have a heaving start-line mass of bodies all desperate to get to the singletrack first and empty their tanks in little more than 1.5 hours.

Last weekend’s Southern XC round 1 was different. I took up a front row position. Chose a suitable fast accelerating gear. Got the foot of my strongest leg clipped in. Focused on the end of the start straight. Blocked out the start line chatter. Anticipated the starter’s whistle. Reacted quickly. And threw body and bike forward as quickly as possible. Out of the corner of my eye I couldn’t see anyone else, so I poured more effort into the bike and went full gas, leading up the wide opening section of the course at Wasing Park. I was enjoying the reckless freedom of speed, such a contrast to the super controlled and tactically astute approach I used at this very same venue to win the European 24 hour Solo Championships last year.

Switching the autopilot off

Switching the autopilot off

Inevitably the rush ended. I eased a little and one by one riders slipped past as I realised I didn’t have the power to follow. Some days you have it, others you don’t. Luckily, the course at Wasing is a lot of fun. Following the wide opening loop, the course took us up a sharp little climb which led into the new ‘Snow Drop’ gap jump; more of a test of commitment than anything, although two broken collarbones are testament to the dangers. More signature sharp climbing and twisting singletrack led to the ‘Big Drop’ with a vertical entry it’s an intimidating proposition but the smooth transition at the bottom catches you from the freefall. Personally I love this drop but that’s because in last year’s 24 hour solo I had to climb this thirty times and for half of those the mud made it unrideable. More twists and turns led into a new entry to the final decent through Bluebell Woods, past the Tank and through the finish for four more laps.

I pushed hard throughout but even at that stage the positions were well established so the rest of race was spent honing the handling skills and working the engine. Those skills certainly had an overhaul as the thirty five practice laps I did in 2013 had me riding many sections on autopilot, taking the smooth energy saving lines rather than the faster, more direct options. 8th position was worse than I was hoping for but it was a grand day out in the sun and a cracking race which has highlighted some areas to work on. Hopefully we can get the engine running more sweetly in two weeks at the first round of the National XC series.

 

 

A course of two halves at the Welsh XC Series Round 1

The sun sneaks through the gap in the curtains and wakes me. Normally I’d curse myself for not drawing them properly the night before but I check myself. It’s 6.30am, its light and the sun is shining for the first time in what seems like six months. It’s time to get up, start the day and start the MTB racing season.

I’ve decided to mix things up this year. With my main target, the WEMBO World 24 Hour Solo Champs not until October there is plenty of time to improve fitness, sharpen those skills and have some fun. Along the way I’ve flagged some other goals, to ride more with friends, check out some new race venues and enjoy some great race weekends away, hopefully in the sun.

First up is round one of the Welsh XC series over at Caephilly near Cardiff. I’d heard good reports about the Welsh courses and hoped this would deliver a good hard race and technical circuit to act as a vinegar, a natural revitaliser to those skills made rusty by a wet winter of mainly road training. Things looked promising as I dropped off the M4 and climbed Caephilly Mountain to the Mountain Ranch Activity Centre. At the top of the hill I was greeted by far reaching views under a cloudless sky. Good start.

What's that yellow ball in the sky ? Shadows, really ?

What’s that yellow ball in the sky ? Blue sky… Shadows… really ?

Now we’ve endured not inches, not feet, it must be miles of rain this winter so I expected the course to be wet but the early part of the lap which traversed the open hillside was remarkably dry. Even the sketchy looking muddy adverse cambered sections could be hit at full speed without fear of wipe-out but this was definitely a course of two halves. A sweeping right hander led into a steep, wet and loose descent with a fair selection of slippery rocks to intimidate the nervous. At the bottom our surprisingly amenable course took on a new character, an altogether more frustrating one as the track ran alongside a stream through ever deepening mud with countless wet embedded rocks to interrupt the flow. In reality, with the 3 ingredients crucial to success for any mountain bike racer; skill, power and luck, most of this section was rideable. Although factor in race effort, traffic and the importance of forward motion I prepared myself for plenty of running come race time. Eventually the course climbed out of the gully and left the mud behind on a well surfaced switchback climb to the finish line.

Plenty of space on the startline, still got swamped.

Plenty of space on the startline, still got swamped.

At 11am we all lined up in waves. With the Elite, Expert, Junior and Youth categories starting first, then others following at short intervals. I’ve never had so much space on the start line, with only about ten Experts in the field and choosing to start on the far left away from all the others I could have ran the widest handlebars in the world without problem. The space didn’t do me much good though as my ageing diesel engine stalled on take-off and nearly the entire field swamped me. I didn’t look behind for fear of seeing that I really was in last place and focused on moving up. The open sections allowed plenty of overtaking but I really made progress in the muddy gulley, while many were determined to show their riding skills, twinkle-toes me danced passed them and up to 2nd Expert by the end of the first lap.

 

Emerging from the muddy valley of doom.

Emerging from the muddy valley of doom.

A sizable crowd gathered at the top of the final climb near the finish line and I’m sure like me they were surprised to hear I had already lost one and a half minutes to the leading Expert, young Manxman Nick Corlett. But that’s the great thing about having and engine like mine, it may take a while to get going but once it does, it keeps going. I settled into a small group of quick youngsters and enjoyed the cut and thrust of racing for gaps and trying to drop each other, while simultaneously pulling away from the other Experts. With just two laps remaining I was on my own, feeling strong and was starting to claw back the leader. As traffic cleared, more of the course could be ridden but I simply ran out of time and had to be satisfied with second place on a challenging day for body and bike ! Well done to Nick on a top ride after he led all the Elites for a few laps. One to watch this year I think.

All in all,a great day. I gave the engine a run out. The sun shone. Arms and legs were uncovered. Summer felt like it was on the way. Hat duly doffed to the Welsh XC organisers. Some moaned about the course but I think they did a remarkable job considering the weather this winter.

 

Steady away & keep it rubber side down – National & European 24 Hour Solo Champs

“Steady away and keep it rubber side down”. The advice was sound so what was I doing sprinting past riders on the grass verge narrowly avoiding spectators, gazebos and pit lane setups. Well, a good start is crucial; there was only 23 hours, 59 minutes and 30 seconds to make up for a bad one!

Here we were at 24 Hours of Exposure, the combined National and European 24 Hour Solo MTB Championship. It’s a great event, as well as crowning champions, it provide a friendly and supportive solos’ only event for newcomers venturing into the crazy world of ultra-endurance mountain biking. This year’s race attracted riders from the UK, Ireland, Portugal, France, Holland, Poland, Hungary and Australia. I’ve never managed to have a proper go at this event with Icelandic Volcanos, work commitments and diary clashes all conspiring to keep me away for the last few years.

Steady away

2013 was going to be different. I made this my early season target and planned to take my A-game to the new venue of Wasing Estate. It would be very different to previous editions up in the Scottish Borders at Newcastleton, the flatter Southern course would be a tougher proposition than many would expect with little chance for recovery, close racing and big consequences for poor pacing. And that’s without considering the impact the weather could have, a promising forecast the week before soon transformed into a wet one with the forecast becoming reality in the days leading up to the race. Yet the spongy soil soaked up the rain and practice laps on Friday revealed a surprisingly dry course packed with short punchy climbs, flat out doubletrack and twisty, root infested singletrack.

They say it takes more courage to start a 24 solo than to finish one, having done three already, I knew what to expect but you never really know how you will respond and what others are capable of, so I got as organised as possible, tried not to stay up too late prepping equipment in the days leading up to race day and set myself some rules about race strategy. The most important of these was to be consistent and most definitely not get embroiled in racing the 12 hour racers.

With my ‘rules’ back in focus – back to the race. I had a stern word with myself and settled into a more sustainable pace. The few laps were a lot of fun, three 12 hour riders had clipped off the front and a sizeable chasing group formed with me surfing wheels just inside the top ten overall and fourth of the 24 hour soloists. A few random rain showers made some sections of the course slippery but the lap times remained very consistent and I gradually smiled, chatted and rolled my way past the other 24 hour contenders; defending champion Huw Thomas, fancied rookie Martin Smith and Hungarian Gabor Doroghazi into the lead. It was nearly 5pm and I hadn’t planned on taking the lead quite so early, memories of 19 hours in the lead at a muddy Twentyfour12 a few years ago flashed before my eyes, but the pace felt comfortable and we were moving comfortably around the course.

Keeping it rubber side down

The next 3 hours were probably the most enjoyable of the whole event. The course was riding better and better under blue skies, everybody I passed was super friendly and I was making great progress up the 12 hour field catching Wiggle’s James Braid who was running third. And then it rained. And the rain changed everything. This was a race of two uneven halves. The rain came just before 8pm to end the first half and everybody scrambled and slid their way back to the pits to warm up and put on dry waterproof clothing. Luckily, prior to the rain I’d decided to delay my stop for lights and warm clothing so when I got back to the pits Jo and Chris were ready with Gore-tex everything plus a fresh bike with mud tyres and a new Exposure Reflex.

These are defining moments in 24 hour races. The course was now trashed and would remain so for the next 16 hours as there was no sun or wind to dry the mud. The temperature had dropped and hypothermic riders shivered their way past our pit. But there was still a race on. I didn’t relish heading out onto that lap but I knew everyone else would be hating it even more, so I pressed on. Running the steeper tractionless climbs, committing to stay off the brakes on the tricky descents and riding smooth throughout to balance the effort and look after the bike. At the start of this lap I had a ten minute lead over Gabor and this stretched out as he retired due to the cold and a crash.

He was not alone. Many riders suffered with the cold and called it a day. Each lap became progressively quieter with fewer and fewer riders out on course. It seemed like a completely different event to the one that had been running just a few hours earlier. But as the course became quieter, the support got louder as marshals, support crews, timekeepers and ace MC Matt Carr did everything they could to lift the remaining riders. I was blown away by friends James and Yasue, who had driven up from the south coast after a night out to cheer me on. Approaching midnight, I was well clear of the other 24 racers, with the only Senior rider ahead being 12 hour race leader Tim Dunford. Only 12 hours to go……

Gore-tex everything needed

Strangely the night flew by. With pit crew ninjas Jo and Chris working miracles to keep the bike running and me warm and fuelled, we just kept on rolling throughout the dark hours, I didn’t even resort to the IPod, my own internal jukebox providing rain related tunes such as Toto’s Africa and Prince’s Purple Rain (could have been a lot worse I guess !) The lap times remaining remarkably consistent and I lapped second place Martin Smith in the night and double lapping him as daylight arrived. Martin put in a brave debut ride and will be one to watch in the future. Also riding well was Mike McCutcheon who’d moved up and passed Martin to move into second. We rode together for a while until I raised the pace to build on my two lap cushion. Mike and Martin would battle it out for the remainder of the race, both pushing themselves to the limit with the Irish rider coming out on top despite the best efforts of Martin’s AQR support team’s final push.

As for me, well back to my friend’s advice. I’d managed the ‘steady away’ part and so far ‘kept it rubber side down’ so just needed to ride out the last few laps. I’d kept a pretty clear head and worked out that I would be able to finish at around 10am as there wouldn’t be enough time for anybody to pull back the lead, so finishing my 28th lap at around 9am I figured just one more to go. My crew disagreed and thought I should do three more just in case somebody blasted out some quick final laps. I’m not sure who they were worried about, I’m pretty sure Olympic XC Champion Jaroslav Kulhavy would be saving himself for the opening round of the XC World Cup the following weekend. Anyway, essential in a successful marriage, we compromised on two more laps and I used the opportunity to thank the marshals who had been out in the woods for so long offering encouragement and a couple more blasts down the final bluebell carpeted descent.

It was a fantastic feeling to cross the finish line to take the win. National and European 24 Hour Solo MTB Champion! I keep saying to myself just remind myself that it’s true.

Top of the box

Huge thanks to the following people:-

Exposure Lights for lending me awesome lights for the race.

Reg for prepping the bikes.

Tim for inspiring me to get into Endurance racing in the first place.

Paul and Sara from SIP Events for putting on a top notch event and supporting us Solo MTB racers. Hope to see this event back on the calendar one day and good luck with your other projects.

Matt Carr for 24 hours of entertainment on the mic.

James Dymond and the AQR support team who helped us out enormously even though I was racing against their rider Martin Smith.

All the other supporter crews, marshals and fellow racers who kept it fun throughout, despite the best efforts of the weather.

And very special thanks to my fabulous crew, my Brother Chris and my ever tolerant wife Jo. They did the real hard work and I couldn’t have kept going without them!

The winning team

Night of the Knobbly Tread

It’s mid-October and we’ve passed the ‘meat and veg’ of the Mountain Bike race season and by now are well into the ‘cheese and biscuits’. And I love a bit of cheese. I’d heard great things about the West Drayton MTB Clubs ‘Night of the Knobbly Tread’ night time cross country race, with a unique format, friendly Halloween themed atmosphere and a cracker of a course nestled on the edge of the M25. So despite the threat of another wet muddy race I headed over there hoping for a top wedge of Camembert.

With Slough and the M25 just a stone’s throw away, I was not expecting big mountains, nor was I expecting the smooth flowing singletrack that so many southern XC races are famous for, but  I was wrong. This was no ‘fake’ Kraft cheese slice, this was Babybel, a real little treat with loads of fun twisting trails packed into the compact Black Park. Add plenty of fast open fire track providing ample passing opportunities and a tricky little bombhole near the finish, this was going to be a blast of race. Better yet, the firm surface and well draining ground meant that despite the recent deluges, the course had not turned into a fondue.

At 7.50pm we were launched at full speed up the long (and very straight) start straight and after a couple of slight turns we were soon clipping tree stumps on the first of the singletrack sections. I made a reasonable start just inside the top ten and after safely negotiating some slippery corners and putting in some bursts of speed on the open straights I dropped into a fast moving group of four vying for third place. The pace didn’t seem too hot and I felt like I could go quicker but I was soon brought back to reality once I hit the front, as it was far easier to follow than lead. We finished the lap together about 20 seconds behind the leading pair.

Dazzling at Night of the Knobbly Tread

The next couple of laps followed a similar pattern and the group largely stuck together and we all had plenty of comedy moments hitting unseen slippery roots. The leading pair had stretched their lead further ahead and none of our group seemed able to break it up and forge on alone. Half way around the third lap the predicted rain started to fall, nothing heavy and certainly nothing that would dramatically affect the course. I started to lose some time on the singletrack sections, mainly operator error as my glasses steamed up and struggled to stay on track. I fell back to Dave Wadsworth and we collaborated to try to keep the pace high, he provided a tow rope to drag me through the singletrack, while I put in big turns on the fireroads to maximise speed. We weren’t exactly as silky smooth as the Team GB Team Pursuit squad, but it was effective.

Towards the end of the fifth and last lap, we started to play chess. Dave knew he needed a cushion before the final 400 metres of fireroad, while I knew I had to keep within striking distance on the last narrow section. I failed. A slip on that section put me about 10 seconds behind and despite a desperate flat out chase down the final straight, Dave did just enough to reach the final chicanes in front and even wrapped himself in course marking tape in an effort to throw me off the scent. We finished together, him in 6th and me in 7th overall. With 3 vets in front I was 4th senior.

Not a brilliant result, but fantastic racing at a thoroughly innovative event. Top marks to the West Drayton Mountain Bike Club for organising and Exposure Lights for sponsoring and providing the podium finishers some quality prizes. I’ll be back next year with more effort on the fancy dress front to celebrate Halloween (or should that be Halloumi – sorry, couldn’t resist one more bad cheese pun !)

Torq In Your Sleep 12 Hour

There is a lot to like about the Torq In Your Sleep 12 Hour event, held at Minley Manor, home of the Royal Engineers for the last five years and organised by the experienced Gorrick crew. Ranking high amongst those highlights are the superb course, friendly atmosphere and the fact that the venue is only a few miles from my home. The course was doubly praised this year for its ability to handle torrential downpours as during the preceding week and at numerous times on the day before, monsoon like conditions battered the venue. But true to form, the local sandy soil sucked up the moisture and left us a largely dry race track which got dryer, smoother and more fun the longer the event went on.

Despite swearing I’d never tackle the Pair’s category again after a brutally hard Torq 2 years ago in which myself and Dave Collins of Hope Factory Racing battled with the 4 man teams for the overall lead, I relented and managed to convince fellow Exposure Lights supported rider Josh Ibbett to join me. After the dismal summer he wasn’t too keen on another mud bath, so it was a relief to see both the Sunshine and the arrival of my teammate on Sunday morning.

A quick spin around the first half of the lap revealed a course already drying rapidly and in remarkably good shape. This would just get better and better as the sun shone and many thousands of wheels wore a smooth line into the wooded singletrack. I’d agreed to do lap one and lined up behind the quad bike which was ready to lead us around the camping field before launching us into the new section of singletrack on Olympic Ridge. The start itself was a bit of a disaster, the decorum that serves me so well in passing lapped riders worked against me in the start loop melee and I found myself muscled out and having to make a big effort to move up once the race proper started.

On the start loop

 

Thankfully, the open nature of the course provided ample passing space and I soon settled into a fast moving group vying for 6th position overall and followed wheels for half a lap to get my breath back. By the time we’d cleared ‘Banksy’ I was feeling good and raised the pace on the climb from ‘The Bridge to nowhere’. Only Scott Chappell came with me and together we tested the best of the two line options at ‘Duck or grouse’ (Duck was fastest by the way) and in ‘Minley Maze’ (the left line was a shade quicker) before flying down ‘Crusty Sponge Bob’ and back to the arena to hand over to Josh.

Josh was certainly not hanging around and I quickly remembered the challenge of racing as a pair – you have to ride as hard as the teams and you only get a little over 30 minutes to warm down, grab some food, warm up and be back at transition ready to go again. But it was great to get back out on track, this time hitting better lines and pushing it harder through the singletrack sections. Lap 2 was probably the smoothest of the event with little traffic and fresh legs, but the leading pair were already well ahead so I concentrated on riding smooth and building a solid gap over the intense battle for 3rd which was raging between the Army, RAF, Wafe and the Racing Snakes. Despite the ammunition on display, 2011 pair’s champions Lumicycle were to pass all of these teams and come closest to catching us.

The afternoon passed in a blur of trees, lactic acid, hurriedly consumed carb drink and brief social encounters back at camp. In total, we had five teams and two soloists so add to that numerous friends, family and supporters and we had a huge crowd hanging around camp enjoying the sunshine. I think this is one of the great draws of this event, the friendly atmosphere and fun yet accessible course make it great for the experienced and new riders alike.

Back to the racing and josh and I continued to knock out pretty consistent laps, although the relentless nature of the course, the short rises and limited chance for recovery were starting to take a toll on my legs and I wasn’t feeling as sprightly on the two main climbs to the high point of the course as I had been earlier in the afternoon. I was very impressed with Josh’s consistent lap times, fuelled by rations of jelly babies and rice cakes – the food of champions!

Josh raving under The Bridge To Nowhere

By 7pm it was already getting dark in the trees but this is where we came into our element with Exposure lights fitted to the bikes, the goal was to get in as many laps as possible before midnight. The Lumicycle pair had upped their pace and established themselves in 3rd position. We had a good buffer over them but needed to pay attention to make sure they didn’t sneak up on us and spring a surprise attack. But we were dealing with civilian adversaries and that final ground assault never came. Josh got back at 11:55pm to send me out for one last full gas lap which I completed in less than 40 minutes to secure 2nd position a lap ahead of our rivals.

The crew had a glass of sponsor Longdog Brewery’s Hampshire Ale ready on the finish line to toast another great Torq In Your Sleep. As I said, there is a lot to like about this event, that’s three years in a row I’ve been on the podium, better come back year next year for another go. If you like the idea of a top event on an ace all weather course, you should too……

On the podium

Thanks to the following people:-

Josh Ibbett for braving the weather and laying down some great laps to get us onto the podium.

Exposure Lights for lending me great lights the race.

Sean Wratten from Bertie Maffoons Bicycle Company for helping to keep my bike rolling.

Jon Lucas, Paul Howard and the rest of the Gorrick Crew for putting together an ace event. I’ll be back next year.

 

WEMBO 24 hour Solo World Champs Report

“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 & 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.

Le Mans start

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 Usian 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 marshalls. 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.

Beautiful views of the Med

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.

The lights of Finale Ligure far below the course

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 marshalls 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.

The demanding course required full concentration

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.

British 24 hour racers vs The World

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, Matt, 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.

3rd Place! One of two Brits on the podium!

Exciting finale in Finale as the top 2 brits battled to decide the podium positions.

Quote at the finish:

“That was the most horrific, worst and best race I’ve ever done… A lot can happen in 24 hours!”.

Finish coming… Craig is closing the gap….

The gap is coming down and Craig is giving it everything he has….. is there enough time to close it down and catch Jason Miles for the silver medal ?

Back in the race for the podium

We don’t know where it came from but Craig has found his legs and knocked out a 1hr 7 minute lap time, moving from 5th to 3rd and more than halving the gap to second.

Its is going to be so close but he still has a chance to catch Team JMC’s Jason Miles…….