Top step of the podium for the Bike Motion team

Bontrager Twentyfour12 – 10 Year Anniversary Race Report

I’ll apologise in advance if this race report is overly gushing but I love this event! Twentyfour12 was the first event of this kind in which I participated, it was also my first 12 hour solo, first 24 hour solo, first 24 hour solo victory and the first bike race my children took part in; you see why it has special significance for me. I also love what this event stands for and has become over its 10 year history.

Twentyfour12 is brilliant because it is a great bike race and so much more than a bike race

Twentyfour12 is brilliant because it is a great bike race and so much more than a bike race

I still remember Twentyfour12 year zero in 2006. A beautiful sunny Saturday in July, dusty steep woodland trails and some rolling tracks over what seemed like a slagheap. At 5pm a huge storm rolled in and transformed the course into a treacherous mudbath and the remaining hours became a battle survival. It was the first event of this type I’d done and we gathered a group of friends with mixed experience. After the rain arrived, one of our quartet traded bikes for beer, another crashed and injured his knee, leaving only two of us to ride out the remaining laps. It was the longest I’d ever ridden and opened my eyes to this world of endurance MTB racing.

Fast forward ten years and here we were down at Newnham Park, Plymouth. Not the original Twentyfour12 venue, two others preceding it before the former World Cup venue in Devon took over in 2008, quickly establishing itself as the event’s spiritual home. It’s easy to see the appeal. A great course with technical challenge and the majority of climbing on well drained trails to keep it ridable even in torrential downpours. A beautiful location with plenty of space for the arena and trackside camping. On the first weekend of the school holidays it offers a great escape for families. But most importantly the friendly atmosphere and not forgetting all the unique features over the years; the on course DJs, opera singers, ice cream van and so many more.

A huge field in the kid's 12 & 24 minute races

A huge field in the kid’s 12 & 24 minute races

For me the Saturday morning kid’s races epitomise the magic of Twentyfour12. This year 120 pre-entries saw the field split into a 24 minute race for the over 12s and two separate 12 minute races for the under 8s and 9-12 year olds. The genius of the kid’s race is the perfect balance between the challenge of negotiating the ups and downs of the horse jump area and the exhilaration of circling the arena in front of hundreds of cheering spectators. My youngest son summed up the thrill; “…after one lap I had a tummy ache (ED: probably stitch) but after crossing the finish line to hear all those cheers, the pain went away and I was able to carry on….” Start line bubbles, finish line medals and stacks of smiles meant yet again this was a resounding success.

Next up was our race and as the field lined up ahead of the 12 Noon start time, the pressure was on to live up the morning’s endeavours and our own high expectations. I’ve raced most formats over the years and have enjoyed seeing the event from different perspectives; whether that is finishing the daytime 12 at midnight and enjoying beers and bbq before bed, or hanging out during Saturday prior to starting the torchbearer at midnight. Surprisingly one of my favourite years was 2012 when the river nearly flooded the campsite and none of my teammates showed up; I did a few laps alone before sacking it off to hang out with friends in the Bontrager Yurt– I saw an altogether more relaxed side of the event.

Keeping the pace high throughout the wet & dry laps

Keeping the pace high throughout the wet & dry laps

It’s been a few years since I’ve done the team race here and never the men’s 24 team so this year we had our race faces on and were hoping to bag the main prize, overall victory for new sponsor and local team Bike Motion. It wouldn’t be too serious though as I’d recruited long-time friends Dave Collins and Chris Rathbone to join the Bike Motion All-stars Max Sutie and Alex Dawson, guaranteeing plenty of laughs along the way. There was also some trepidation as the weather forecast predicted a monsoon to hit us in the early hours of Sunday morning so it looked like another race of two halves fittingly similar to that inaugural event 10 years previous.

Max led us out on the first lap which was played out in sunshine on a rapidly drying track. He was well to the fore after the start loop and held strong completing the lap with the front runners of the 12 hour race in sight. Next up was Dave and he put in a super quick 38 minute lap to start building a lead over the other teams who early in the race were being headed by the Army team. Chris took the baton (well beer bottle top on a cord) next and piloted his retro stead around another rapid lap. Not one to stick with convention, preferring to rock a more individual style; Chris was wrapped in timelessly classic Velobici clothing aboard a vintage GT Zaskar that belonged to 2002 World Champion Roland Green. A tribute to next year’s 25th anniversary of the Zaskar maybe or the only bike he could put his hands on in time? Either way the 26” wheels, 150mm stem and V-brakes weren’t slowing him down (in the case of the V-brakes quite literally!)

2002 World Champion Roland Green would be pleased to know his old bike was still getting plenty of use

2002 World Champion Roland Green would be pleased to know his old bike was still getting plenty of use

I followed on from Alex to take on lap 5 and was greeted by another classic Twentyfour12 course reminiscent of the year I won the Solo 24. After a brief foray around the horse jumps, the track crossed the river and begun the climbing in earnest, firstly up a slate fireroad which filtered into a sweeping but slippery singletrack descent and secondly up the steep tarmac of the Clif Climb. I attacked this with full gas as this is where the majority of elevation is earned and I knew a smoother approach would be needed on the slippery downhills. Next into Bluebell Woods which is a Twentyfour12 stalwart, although this year camouflaged a large garrison of sniper roots ready to take riders down. More descending down to the Cauldron and ‘Megadeth Corner’ made sure you were paying attention before a traversing doubletrack elevated you to the top of the bombholes and the legendary Cottage Return descent. The final sections looped around the campsite and shooting ground before divebombing back to the arena. Belting course!

The team had now completed one lap each and we had a decent lead of around twenty minutes over the second place team from the RAF who had overtaken fast starting forces rivals from the Army. Long time Twentyfour12 supporters West Drayton MBC were lurking ominously in 4th. This team racing malarkey was quite a pleasant surprise for me being used to soloing at 24 hour races. It was super relaxed with lots of time hanging around in the pits enjoying the sunshine and company while waiting for my laps. I minor mechanical as I was warming up for lap 2 meant we had to reshuffle the pack and it was nearly dark when I finally got out for my second lap.

Very relaxing compared to soloing, lots of time to hang out in the pits

Very relaxing compared to soloing, lots of time to hang out in the pits

The darkness and falling temperature also meant the course turned slippery again and I took things pretty cautiously. I still managed to wipe on a few times on damp roots and it took me most of the lap to realise that my amateurish night riding skills were probably a result of the lack of laps I had completed, normally by this stage of the event I’d have completed quadruple the number of practice laps. Despite the crashes and a broken shoe the lap was completed at a good pace and by this stage we were over a lap ahead of our chasers. It was great to have some time in hand for the inevitable challenges that the forecast monsoon would bring.

Cyclo-cross & MTB star Chris was in his element

Cyclo-cross & MTB star Chris was in his element

We’d all been following the ever-changing weather forecast throughout the day so it was no surprise when the rain finally hit. There was no massive storm but the relentless downpour soon turned the course into a river and nobody was relishing the prospect of heading out into the torrential early morning conditions. Dave was the first to experience it but less than 40 minutes later he came flying back into the arena sideways with a huge smile on his face. Testament to how well the venue handles rain; the course was wet and certainly slippery but if anything it was now even more fun. My laps were an absolute blast. Other than the tarmac climb the course was almost entirely a few inches under water but it was still rideable forwards, sideways and backwards in some instances.

It was wet but still a lot of fun

It was wet but still a lot of fun

As the finish approached we started doing the calculations on how many more laps would be needed, we still had more than a lap lead over the chasers so just needed to match them and ride out the clock. I set off just after 11am with a couple of options; ride slowly to finish after 12 Noon or do a double lap to secure the win. I was back well before the cut-off but with the course rapidly deteriorating I opted to wait it out and see if our rivals would get back in time to go out for another lap. The RAF team did cross the line before midday but realising that at best they could match our lap tally but couldn’t improve on second place they called it a day. Hurrah, we’d won! I celebrated by getting Dave to jetwash the thick layer of mud off both body and bike.

The body (jet)wash didn't hurt as much as I expected

The body (jet)wash didn’t hurt as much as I expected

What a fantastic weekend. Thanks to Max, Alex, Chris and Dave for being great teammates and great company on a weekend of two halves. Big thanks also to Bike Motion for all the support! Until next year at my favourite 24 hour race…

Top step of the podium for the Bike Motion team

Top step of the podium for the Bike Motion team

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A very hard earned podium

2015 Strathpuffer 24 Hour – 24 hours in an ice box

The snow glows white on the mountain tonight. Not a tyretrack to be seen. A kingdom of isolation, and it looks like I’m in the lead. The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside. Can I keep it going. Heaven knows I’ve tried. Don’t let them catch up, don’t let them see. Be the good rider you always have to be. Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know. Well now they know. Let it go, let it go. Can’t hold it back anymore (otherwise you’ll crash on those ice covered rocks)…..

Beautiful snow covered landscape at Contin in the Highlands

Beautiful snow covered landscape at Contin in the Highlands

My journey to this year’s Strathpuffer began last October when fellow endurance racer Jason Hynd asked me; “Do you wanna make a snowman?” Actually, he asked me if I’d like to race pairs with him at the world’s only winter 24 hour mountain bike race (although as it turns out we were able to do both). I was reluctant at first, just a few weeks prior I’d put myself in hospital racing another Scottish 24 hour at WEMBO in Fort William potentially due to the cold damp conditions and wasn’t keen to repeat the experience. However, fellow WEMBO casualty Jason was keen to use the Strathpuffer as an extreme conditions ‘test’ race. If we could get through that, we could get through any race. Ongoing medical test through November and into December curtailed training but we took the chance and managed to bag one of the pairs entries which sold out in under six minutes!

The cold never bothered me anyway!

The reason for the popularity; this was the tenth anniversary edition. A good sign in my book; both a large and loyal following of participants. The gravity of the undertaking started to dawn over Christmas and I started looking at logistics and kit requirements. The event venue is west of Inverness and would require a drive of at least twelve hours to reach, that’s twenty four hours in the car as well as on the bike. Then there are the conditions to consider; cold, wet, potentially snow and ice. What clothing to take? That one is simple to answer. Just take everything you own. As the event drew closer, the challenges really came into focus with temperatures plummeting, snow on the ground and major route closures. This would be the real deal, a ‘proper puffer’ but did I have enough kit to race up to eighteen laps in sub-zero conditions without falling to hyperthermia.

The cold never bothered me anyway!

Moody trepidation in the sub-zero temperatures ahead of the race start

Moody trepidation in the sub-zero temperatures ahead of the race start

The morning of the race dawned cold and bright; a beautiful morning in the Scottish Highlands. We set up pits close to the main marquee to make it as easy as possible for our ace support man Shimano technician Rich Wilson and with a comparatively early 10am start there wasn’t time to worry. Soon it was time to kit up, attend the pre-race briefing and make our way down the entrance road for the Le Mans start. I adopted my Benny Hill running style and was one of the first to collect my bike and begin the long fireroad climb, a few riders appeared out of thin air but I was soon on my own at the front, surprised to already have a gap. The level of support was impressive with supporters and pit setups lining the fireroad climb and offering much vocal encouragement. I eased a little at the course high point and three riders slipped by including key rival in the pairs race; Rich Rothwell. The first section of singletrack offered a challenging mix of snow, ice and rock and my skills completely deserted me, even running an Ice Spiker tyre on the front it took a good few kilometres to master the conditions. Accurate line choice, careful weight distribution and commitment were key ingredients. Basically, you had to ‘Let it go’. A highlight of that first lap was dropping out into the open to be greeted with blue skies and stunning Scottish scenery as I picked my way through virgin snow on the final open descent. That final downhill would change personality later and prove to be a less enjoyable challenge.

Ice Spiker studded snow tyres were crucial in the icy conditions to avoid expensive dental bills

Ice Spiker studded snow tyres were crucial in the icy conditions to avoid expensive dental bills

Jason picked up the baton for Lap two and left me to nail the routine that would be crucial if we were to keep going and keep warm. We were very lucky to have ace mechanic and all round top bloke Rich Wilson looking after us and we couldn’t have asked for more support. He waited at transition every lap with extra clothing to blanket both waiting and arriving rider, then whisked bikes away for a wash and check over while I rushed to climb into dry kit and consume warm food and drink in the welcoming glow of our van. In less than 40 minutes it was time to repeat. The next lap was a blast. A good line had been etched into the snowy sections and familiarity with the course enabled me to go faster and close the gap to the leading pair, recording our fasted lap in the process. Jason did likewise and a puncture for our rivals gifted us the lead but so early in the race it would have been foolhardy to attack to capitalise, instead we kept the pace sensible and surprising built a bigger lead. This was getting interesting.

Well insulated against the cold conditions

Well insulated against the cold conditions

Darkness descended not long after 4pm and the realisation that I did not have enough clothing to cover the race chilled me to the bone even before the -3 degree temperatures had chance to do the same. The riding part was fine, but the breaks between laps were very tough. Maybe racing solo at the Puffer is an easier option after all? There were plenty I passed in the night who would disagree! Darkness also saw a gradual deterioration in the course as snow and ice thawed to mud making some sections very hard going. The short steep climbs seemed to demand more power to summit and that final downhill to the finish had turned into a horrendous motorway of deep chocolate mud filled ruts hiding rocks to throw you over the handlebars. I don’t recall a race where a section of course filled me with so much dread. But the race was still on. Rothwell and Simcock had regained the lead but we were still in touch and had got our wheels a full lap in front of 3rd pair The Half Wheeling Gang.

I didn’t enjoy much of that long night but a few of things kept my spirits up and mind on the job. The huge diversity of riders out on track; many personifying the ethos of participation and enjoyment. I passed one stricken looking rider at the side of the track and called to check he was OK only to be reassured “Nah I’m fine mate, just taking a selfie”. A selfie, in the middle of the night when it’s -3! This enthusiasm extended to the support crews lining the opening fireroad climb who never failed to shout encouragement for all sixteen laps I completed. But most striking of all were the fantastic marshals at key points around the course, always upbeat, a cheer for every rider throughout the whole 24 hours. Chapeau and thanks to every single one of them!

Mechanical maestro Rich Wilson kept bikes and bodies functioning in the challenging conditions

Mechanical maestro Rich Wilson kept bikes and bodies functioning in the challenging conditions

The cold really got to me in the early hours and Jason and Rich hatched a plan to get me warm and hopefully fast once again. Finishing my lap at around 4am, Rich shepherded me back to the van for a long break and sleep while Jason set out with enough fuel to ride a long block of multiple laps. Initially I was too cold to sleep, but as the warmth returned to my core, I sunk into the van seat, stretched my legs out and fell into a blissful deep slumber. Meanwhile Jason put in a heroic effort to defend our podium spot, laying down four consistent laps and keeping the dream alive. We’d lost ground on the leaders and 3rd place had unlapped themselves, and sensing an opportunity had closed to within 30 minutes of us.

As light returned I awoke rejuvenated and despite some trepidation about returning to the cold, I kitted up with renewed enthusiasm ready to pick up the baton.  Jason was incredibly pleased to see me in transition, I thought he was going to kiss me! He had resigned himself to having to ride to the finish but had lost all remaining gels on the previous lap leaving him short of energy. Inspired by his efforts, I hit the first climb hard keen to see what I had left in the tank. A fair bit was the initial answer as the big ring was turned easily up the fireroad ascent. I was smiling again, the sun was shining over the Highland snow once more and I was carrying good speed around the course not far off my first lap pace. That lap was completed in 43 minutes and we had closed the gap on the leaders.

I rolled straight into the next lap trying to keep momentum and maybe even complete that before the 10am cut-off but it was not to be. I finished just a minute after the end of the event; just about keeping the leaders in sight and prising open the gap to third. The finale was a mix of relief, satisfaction and elation; relief to finish in good health, satisfaction in overcoming the challenges to finish on the podium and elation due to the bacon and egg roll that was waiting for me at the finish line.

The cold never bothered me anyway!

A very hard earned podium

A very hard earned podium

Special thanks to the following:-

Jason Hynd for convincing me to race this crazy event, being a fantastic race partner and carrying the load alone when I needed a sleep.

Rich Wilson for incredible levels of support; looking after bikes, bodies and quite literally everything else we needed. All we did was ride, Rich did absolutely everything else!

Bike Motion Racing for all the support for the 2015 race season.

John and Tom from Exposure lights for helping with top drawer lighting throughout the longest night I’ve ever known.

All the marshals and fellow racers who offered so much support and created such a warm atmosphere out on the course despite the sub-zero temperature.

 

2014 WEMBO 24 Hour Solo World Championship

“If I finished the race and was carried off the course and had to go to the hospital for a couple of days, I don’t think (my wife) would ever let me race my bike again.” Chris Eatough, 6 time 24 Hour Solo MTB World Champion, 2006.

For anyone who hasn’t seen 24 Solo; the story of Eatough’s quest for a seventh World Championship victory and his titanic battle with Australian challenger Craig Gordon, he is speaking after seeing his rival push himself beyond physical limits, starting the race at what seemed like a suicidal pace and ultimately damaging his body to such an extent that he spent several days in hospital on dialysis to recover. It’s a fantastic story for mountain bikers and non-cyclists alike, and poses some interesting questions about just how far as endurance athletes we are willing to push ourselves. Gordon took the victory on the day but Eatough felt he had won his own victory in recognising the importance of balancing racing with family life.

Fast forward eight years to Fort William, Scotland and the 2014 WEMBO 24 Hour Solo World Mountain Bike Championships and the parallels with the 2006 race were plain to see with the frontrunners forcing what many felt was a laughably high pace on the demanding course. Each 13.5km lap included 450m climbing with plenty of steep, leg punishing sections. The descents were pretty demanding as well with a liberal coating of rock. The twisting downhill were tremendous fun but required physical commitment and full attention throughout. Would any of the early pacesetters follow Gordon’s route to the hospital ?

Fireworks at the race start

Fireworks at the race start

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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

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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.

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