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.

Continue reading…

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.

Continue reading…

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.