It's Not A Bike Race Without A Van Incident

The title is a quote from Mr Richard Rothwell, who knows a thing or two about bike racing. He said it to me in a text message when I was 1,000 miles from home in a country where I barely speak the language watching oil pouring out of the bottom of my van.

It set me thinking. Am I especially unlucky with vehicles at races or just rather clumsy? Sometimes these things are clearly not my fault, such as when my friend John crashed into the back of me on the way home from a race in Falkirk but others, such as tearing the rear bumper off on a rock in a field in Wales, might be.

There is also the time the windscreen wiper flew off in the pouring rain on a Belgian motorway, the time I burnt James’s foot with a coolant leak on the way to Drumlanrig, steering failure on the way to a criterium in Leamington Spa, the demise of a head-gasket near St. Andrews, getting lost and ending up in the wrong country (Luxembourg) and the enormous clouds of black smoke which billowed from under the bonnet when I eventually got my car started after the Corrieyiarack duathlon I have also been stopped by the police 8 times in the last 3 years, including by the French police twice in the space of 15 minutes. This is despite having committed no offence at all, one particular occasion was just because they wanted to search my van to look for rustled sheep, but of course failed to find any. 
Something missing?

Some of my other highlights include getting stuck in the gateway immediately that I arrived at Rhyadder at about 1am. I had made it less than 6ft into the venue before I was unable to go any further. I was mocked, and then rescued, by some very helpful people returning from the pub.
I also managed to get stuck in the campsite at Keilder, right down at the far end. That took a lot of getting out of, some other helpful racers found a few old plastic fertiliser bags and, having failed to move it at all by pushing, we filled them with gravel from some nearby roadworks and pilled it up underneath the wheels, which worked much better.

However, I then compounded the error the following year by getting stuck in exactly the same spot. Trying to keep one wheel on the hardpack hadn’t helped at all. Luckily the second time there was access through the mud for another van to tow me out.

Nearly rolling my van at Newcastleton the night before the European 24hr was by far my scariest van incident, and the one which is still talked about the most, at least by those who helped right it again. The full story of that is here if you want to read it.

It seems that I can’t even go for an afternoon at Glentress with my girlfriend without having to stop and tighten some loose wheel nuts on the return journey.

I’m going to go into more detail about three particular van incidents as these happened abroad and are therefore more exciting, in my mind anyway.

In October 2010 I flew out to Australia for the 24hr World Championships. The first few days of that trip were pretty much one big long van incident.

I left the airport terminal, got attacked by a small green parrot and made my way to the taxi rank. I found a taxi which could carry my bike in it’s flight box and gave the driver the address of the campervan depot. He dropped me there, I gave him $50 and off he went. I went in, introduced myself and said I had come to collect my van.
“We’ve never heard of you.”
Bugger. I rang the agency I had booked it through.
“Oh no, you should be at this other depot on the other side of the city.”
I called another taxi, and he took me to the other depot. I gave him $100 (Sydney is a big place and it was a very long way) and asked him to wait, just in case.
I went in, introduced myself and said I had come to collect my van.
“We’ve never heard of you.”
“Which agency did you use?”
“Allday Travel”
”We stopped dealing with them ages ago, they’re a right pain in the arse.”

This was true. I should also just point out in case any of you have seen pictures of me with a camper from Juicy that that was on my second Oz trip in 2013 and that they were both much, much better and slightly cheaper.

Anyway, back on the phone.
“Sorry, you were right the first time, it was that depot, just a breakdown in communication.”

Back into the taxi, back across Sydney, give the driver another $100. Getting the $200 knocked off the hire fee proved not to be too easy either.

They had clearly panicked a bit when they had realised their mistake and dug an old truck out of the back of the yard. It was basic, but it would do. Well, I thought so at the time.

 Top quality motoring here

I drove it around Sydney that day so it was only the following morning when I attempted to get it above about 50km/h on the freeway that the problem with the engine cutting out became apparent.

I rang them again.
“Just pop it into a garage and get them to fix it, we’ll pick up the bill.”

I was expecting the Aussie version of the AA but maybe that’s how they do things there and I didn’t want to be a whinging pom. I took it to the nearest garage thinking that they must have customers booked in and surely they won’t have time to do this there and then? I went surfing for the day and returned in the late afternoon to find that they had indeed had other customers booked in and hadn’t had time to do my van there and then.

Back on the phone, demanding the AA. They eventually relented and a mechanic was dispatched.
I described the problem to him, it felt like a fuel –starvation issue. He agreed and so began the hunt for the fuel filter. The engine was underneath and so it took some finding, although we did come across various other things first, including a massive hole in the floor.

Apparently this hole in the floor is fine. The vehicle was registered in Queensland and their Pink Slip is nowhere near as strict as the New South Wales Blue Slip, which in turn lags someway behind an MOT.

He cleaned the fuel filter and then the carburettors and was clearly the first person to do this fairly basic servicing in a very, very long time.
“Go for a drive, I’ll follow you for a bit and we’ll see how it goes.”
It was definitely better. It would now only cut out when I tried to go up a hill.
Back on the phone, trying to be firm but without loosing my rag.
“It still doesn’t work. I need a different van.”
“We haven’t got any others.”
“I don’t care. Hire one from another company for me.”
“We can’t do that.”
”Of course you can, it’s not difficult.”
“We can’t get one at such short notice.”
”There are dozens of hire places in Sydney, one of them will have a van. I will be at your depot at 9am tomorrow morning and you will have a new van ready for me.”
“Talk to the breakdown man.”
”The van’s dangerous mate, he needs a new one.”
There was a disgruntled noise of resignation from the other end.

I thanked the breakdown man and set off. It was early evening. My plan was to go and park in the gateway of the depot overnight and make sure that they could not conduct any other business the following day until I had my new van,

Coming off a roundabout the road turned slightly uphill. The van stopped dead and simply refused to start again.

Back on the phone.
The van was to be collected by the breakdown company at 8am the following morning and there was a new one waiting for me at the depot. In the meantime I would have to just stay there.

I tried pushing it away from the roundabout but as soon as I took the handbrake off it would roll backwards, towards the roundabout and into oncoming traffic, I wasn’t strong enough to shove it up the hill.

I saw a lady emerge from the house at the end of the drive I was blocking and she came over to say hello. I asked if she was going to need access to the drive before 8am, and she said that yes she was, she had to go out for dinner with her mother in about an hour. That could be a problem…

However, we discovered that if I went around the rear of the vehicle and leaned against it with my back it wouldn’t roll backwards when she removed the handbrake and we could slowly move it up the hill, away from both her driveway and the roundabout.

She asked what had happened, so I told her everything I have just told you. She then asked what I was going to do for the night.
“I guess I’ll just sleep in the van here and wait to get towed tomorrow”
”You can’t do that! Come with me.”
She lead me to the bottom of the drive and to a small annex next to the house. She opened the door to reveal a bed and a sofa inside and another door at the far end.
“The bathroom’s through there, here’s the key, but I have to go now, bye” and she was gone.

I spent a very comfortable night in the little room and awoke at 7am the following morning. There were already signs of life in the main house so I knocked on the door to say thank-you, but I wasn’t allowed to leave until I had been given a rather large breakfast. With the exception of the man at the van hire place everyone I met in Australia was lovely and helpful, all very friendly, much like the lovely lady with the spare bed, who's name I have forgotten. I think the van man may have been an ex-pat Brit… 

Anyway, a truck arrived to collect my van, I suspect to take it to the scrap yard rather than back to the depot and a taxi came to collect me and my bike. It took me to a depot run by another company where a very helpful man gave me a new van, which worked, and so I set off towards the race.

Luckily this didn’t become a van-incident. I was the first to board the ferry when heading over to France for the Meagavalanche and so was given the front middle position on the ferry. What I didn’t realise until I saw it from the lounge window was that they approach the dock in Dunkirk with the bow door already open. I have never had a vehicle with a fully-functioning handbrake so I watched with trepidation as I tried to remember if I had left it parked in gear…

In May 2012 I was to race at the 24hr World Championships at Finale Ligure in Italy. Being Italy, I could take my own van, so it should be much less problematic than the Aussie trip.

I gave it a quick once over on the Thursday before my departure. There was very little coolant in the radiator, it must have a leak somewhere, not good timing. The local garage said I would need a new radiator, which they could get in about a week. Bugger. My ferry was on the Sunday.

They strongly advised me not to attempt any long journeys.

I upgraded my breakdown cover to the best (a lot of) money could buy, stocked up on Rad-Weld and a twenty litre jerry can full of water and set off.

It was actually fine, in the whole two week trip it used only three bottles of radiator sealant and only two litres of water, although I was driving along with one eye on the temperature gauge.

More of a problem was the ant’s nest which appeared in the vehicle in the second week of the trip. One night just after the race I was lying in the bed in the back when I thought I saw movement in the moonlight, I assumed it was a small spider so I tuned on the light so that I could see it and evict it. It was instead several dozen ants making their way along the side of the bed. There were several hundred more underneath it and loads in the boot and especially the dirty washing bag. I removed as many as I could but it was weeks later, long after I had got home, before I stopped finding them every time I got into the car.
Despite there being about three and half million of them the ants don't show up very well in this photo

Anyway, after the race I set off to La Colmaine in the French Alps to do the Transvesubienne. It was the Monaco Grand Prix that weekend so I decided not to take the most direct route along the coastal motorway but instead to drive through the mountains. This took a lot longer than expected and so it was dark as I got to the top of the Col de Turini and set off down one of the most famous stages of the Monte Carlo rally. This was made very, very scary by, in reverse order, the fact that there are no barriers on most of the corners near the tops, the fact that there had just been a hail-storm and the whole road was covered in ice, and the fact that the ABS ring on my front right brake had chosen that moment to explode. The brakes would sometimes work, but the front right would occasionally disengage itself for no readily apparent reason whenever it felt like it. I think the inconsistency and unpredictability was far worse than having no brake at all.

There was nowhere to stop on the narrow mountain road to wait for either daylight or the ice to melt and so I pressed on, hoping for the best, until eventually arriving at the bottom shaken but unscathed.

The second trip to Italy for the 2014 European 24hr Championship began much more successfully, other than forgetting the booking reference for the ferry, most of the tent pegs, the water carrier and any form of gels without caffeine in them (that’s a whole other story, and is still talked about nearly as much as the jar of pesto from about 2007)

Having done the race and watched the team race the following day it was decided that it would be a good idea to head down to the beach. Fellow British racer, and now both 12 and 24hr European singlespeed champion, Jon Hobson and our pit helper Carole Armstrong piled into my van.

Jon had already had a van incident of his own by this stage, smashing the wing mirror of his hire car somewhere between the airport and the race track while trying to avoid an errant moped. Actually, just getting hold of the hire car probably counts as a van incident, that didn’t go at all smoothly.

On returning to the campsite I decided to park near our pits to make packing up easier. I drove into the lower field, swung around, reversed and then pulled forward to straighten up.

There was a loud thud and a lurch as the van came to a very sudden stop.

An Italian chap at the far side of the field was waving his arms and shouting “Albero, Albero” very loudly but we had spotted him too late.

Looking under the van I could see that while it was not an entire alberro it was quite a significant portion of one that I had hit. I could also see rather a lot of oil pouring out of the front of the sump. Carole said later that despite all the various disasters of our trip this was the only time I had looked worried, which made her feel very worried.

We quickly discovered that both the oil and the engine block were far too hot to allow us to do anything useful.

My new friend Stefano, who had helped me fix my broken chain early in the race, appeared out of nowhere.  He then gave us an old water bottle off which we cut the top and used it to collect the oil which was still coming out pretty quickly.

Even better, Stefano then produced some cheese and some beer, which makes everything better. I had set myself the target of trying as many different kinds of Italian cheeses as I could during the trip but kept getting distracted by ice-cream.

With the engine still too hot to touch we left the van where it was and went to the pub, we couldn’t really do anything else.

The following morning we returned to the van. There was no longer any oil pouring out of the bottom of the engine and one thing at least had gone right, the oil in the bottle was less than a quarter of an inch from the top, it was the perfect size. I removed this and placed it very carefully by the side of the vehicle.

We decided not to try reversing the van off the log in case it did any more damage and instead jacked it up and removed the offending item that way.

The damage didn’t look too bad, I was sure we could fix it. I made a ramp, using the log itself as the major part, kicking over the bottle of oil in the process.

The sump was removed without too much difficulty, most of the remaining oil being caught in the washing up bowl. We had a look and realised how lucky we were. Had the damage gone two inches further back it would have hit the oil pump and three inches to the right the cooler. I had somehow missed all of the steering mechanism too. 

Mending the sump

The sump was cleaned and then we got the lid of one of the tool boxes to use as a flat surface and spent quite some time with the two hammers getting the sump as close to a sump shape as we could.
We were eventually satisfied and returned to the van to reattach it, Jon holding the Exposure MaxxD (yes, I have even managed to get a sponsor mention into this) and calling out bolt-tightening sequences and torques as I lay on my back underneath it. Due to a previous gear-selector problem, which I won’t go into here, I happened to have most of a tube of gasket sealer in the toolbox and used the lot on the still slightly distorted sump.

As good as new. Sort of.
These torque settings were in the Haynes manual. Carole was of the opinion that carrying it around in the van demonstrated a certain lack of confidence but I think that having it there was a rare display of me being organised.

We removed as much of the grass and dead leaves and things which had blown into the bowl of oil as possible and put as much of it back into the top of the engine as we could, then checked the dipstick. It was nowhere near even the ‘minimum’ mark.

 Putting it back again.

We piled into Jon’s only slightly damaged hire car and went back into town. We discovered there that it was a bank holiday and that there was nowhere in the whole of Finale open and selling oil, so we had an ice-cream and went to the beach.

The following morning Jon had to drive back to the airport and with 297km of his 600km allowance already used he was understandably reluctant to drive us into town again, he already a broken mirror to explain without going over his mileage (kilometerage? Is that a word?) limit. Carole and I therefore set off in the van, one eye on the oil temperature gauge and the other on the bright red oil pressure warning light. 

We stopped at the first petrol station we saw and put about 2½ litres of oil into it, then bought another 3 litres just in case. 

We decided to amend the route home slightly to pass through Albenga, which has a Ford dealership, and attempt to buy a new sump, the repaired one should at least get us that far.

For some reason the ‘Teach Yourself Italian’ CD I had been listening to for the last few weeks had not contained such useful phrases as “Ho un Ford Transit, anno duemilaquattro. Vorrei una coppa dell’olio per favore” but I was able to make myself understood well enough by the man in garage. He explained that he could get one for us in less than a week. However, Carole had to be at a wedding in Suffolk in two days…

We set off across the Alps, hoping for the best. Much to everyone’s amazement and immense relief between Albenga and my house near Lincoln the van lost less than half a pint of oil. Sometimes I surprise even myself. Actually, it was probably thanks to Jon’s mechanical skills…

I still fitted a new sump when I got home though.

The next trip to Italy is in May, I’m sure it will be fine…

I would like to point out that it’s not just me that this sort of thing happens to of course. I recall my XCRacer/Scimitar teammate Ant White sliding his van sideways into a ditch, leaving it beached on the fuel tank. Even the pro’s aren’t immune, I had to use my jump leads to get the British Cycling truck started after it died at Margam. Actually, that reminds me, I once had a flat battery after the National XC Championships at Hopton.

And just because you have finished the race and begun the journey home doesn’t mean you have escaped, Scott Swalling didn’t even make it passed North Ballachulish on the way out of Fort William after the 24hr World Champs last year. The recovery people had already been summoned by the time we found his broken down truck at the side of the road. He seemed remarkably sanguine about it. Maybe a van incident is just one of those things after all….

My First Product Review - Exposure TraceR

I’ve been writing here for over three years now and in all that time I have never done a product review, so I thought that it was about time I had a go at one:

I have decided to start small, very small, in fact just 39 grams. I was given my Exposure TraceR rear light last October for the 24hr World Championships at Fort William. The choice of lights which would have enough battery power to last all night at that event was quite small, but fortunately a couple of them were made by USE and the TraceR appeared to be ideal for the job, as indeed it proved itself to be.

Nearly five months later what are my thoughts on it? Well, having used it for commuting all winter it is still working. While this may not sound that impressive it is the first time that I have ever had a rear light which has lasted a whole winter, and I’ve tried loads from umpteen different manufacturers over the years. I’m not sure exactly what I do to them, but the problem usually appears to be water ingress around the seals and the TraceR seems to have been impervious to such things.

It is easy to use, the bracket is very simple and will fit almost anywhere and the button can be operated even when wearing big thick gloves.

 In-situ on my commuter bike. Not also the extra, accidental, 
product-placement for the handy Mt Zoom strap thingy

The battery life is excellent, more than enough for a 24hr in the Highlands in the autumn or a whole week of commuting, and it still carries on for ages even after the low-battery warning is given, a green, orange or red flash when the light is switched off. 

 Photograph taken leaning against the side of my van,
Camera in 'auto' mode, whatever that does, but with the flash off.

Of course, none of this would matter if the light itself wasn’t, erm, light. Not in the 39 grams sense of light but in the 75 lumens sense of light. Luckily it is 75 lumens so sticks out like a sore thumb from miles away. It has two modes, ‘constant’ or ‘constant with a slow flash being even brighter’ so it has the best of both worlds there. They claim up to 24hrs for it in the flashing mode, but mine seems to last loads more than that. I should really time it to do this properly but there is only so long I can sit and watch a light for and of course as soon as I leave it to do something else will be the moment when it finally goes out.

Is there anything about it I don’t like? There is one thing I would change. The battery is not removable, so you can’t carry a spare. This hasn’t caused a problem for me yet but could be a nuisance on multi-day trips without access to charging facilities but to be honest it’s light enough that you could just carry a whole spare light. Other than that it’s spot on.

Good bits
Battery life
Simple mount

Bad bits 
The retail price (£49.95) is a bit steep compared to most other rear lights, but you do get what you pay for.

Guest Writer - Richard Horton. WCA 12hr Time Trial

Last year a team of four riders from Sleaford Wheelers set of to Wales to compete in the Welsh Cycling Association’s 12 hour time trial. We had the county 12hr team trophy to defend, I had the individual title and Richard the vet’s.

Owing to a slight shortage of photographs from this event I’ve reused some of the ones taken at the National 24hr but I’m sure no-one will notice, a picture of Richard or I on a time trial bike looks pretty similar wherever it was taken.

Richard has taken over writing duties for this one, so here is his take on the race:

WCA 12hour – 31st August 2014

A team of 4 Sleaford Wheelers entered the Welsh Cycling Association’s 12 hour Time Trial on the last day of August. Henry Thompson (off at 06:16), Kath Smith (06:22), Andy "Crasher" Howett (06:26) and the last Lincs solo rider for 2014, Richard Horton, off at 06:42. All the riders had personal targets; Henry and Kath to basically just finish as Henry had never ridden further than a club run, roughly 75 miles and Kath had recently returned from an epic 4,500 mile trip around the coast of Britain. Both riders had been drafted in at the last minute to make up a team for a shot at the LRRA 12 hour team trophy. Richard and Crasher had their own personal battle for 2 prizes, the Club 12 hour Championship, and Lincolnshire Championship, the latter a target of 236.9 miles and the former was a rematch of the 2013 title on the same course, Crasher on that occasion taking the win by a margin of less than 2½ miles.

At 06:16 battle commenced and by 06:42 all the club riders were on the road. The morning had started with light winds from the South West and hazy sunshine, ideal weather for the first leg from Abergavenny to Hereford and back, a distance of around 50 miles. The outward leg involves quite a reasonable climb and kept the average speed down. At the turn Richard had closed the gap down to around 10 minutes to Crasher who was just 2 minutes behind Kath and Henry, so Richard was averaging just a little over 21mph and was leading slightly but this is a marathon not a sprint and nearly 11 hours of this battle remained. At 40 miles checking in with one of our support vehicles the gap at the front between Henry, Kath and Andy was less than 2 minutes with Richard still around 10 minutes further back. 

At Abergavenny the riders were turned onto the first circuit of 24.839 miles. A welcome tail wind pushed speeds up to 27+ mph in places, probably faster for the really quick guys in the event, and a chance of a real push for Richard to close down the gap. Armed with 2 bottles of liquid feed and a medley of snacks it was clear that there would be no let up from Richard’s attack on the lead group of Sleaford Wheelers. 

A right turn at the Steel Horse Inn into a southerly and generally downhill stretch of about 6.5 miles took the riders into Usk, a brief hold up for traffic lights on the Chainbridge some 4 miles earlier was going to be an issue for all the riders on every lap (there was a knack to getting through this without losing any time - Ed) A left turn eastwards followed by another left and the riders were heading for Raglan. The team had expected to see the support vehicle by now but this had suffered a geographically challenged moment and was missing. Thankfully Kath had support all of her own and all the team knew they could at get something if they got desperate. A welcome sight on a bit of a climb after the left turn last year was a chap handing out rice pudding in ice cream cones topped with jam, and everyone was delighted to see that he was back. Rice pud seems to be the favoured fuel of endurance riders, being easy to digest and being a reasonably good source of carbohydrates and protein. 

Onward to Raglan and one of the rider’s least favourite parts of the course, a short sharp climb followed by a sharp left turn at the junction to continue climbing. Because of the junction speeds here are not much above 5mph. Leaving Raglan you join the A40 dual carriageway, a 7.5 mile generally downhill run back to the roundabout at the Abergavenny end and the end of lap 1. Downhill it may be but by now the course had turned into the wind and although it was possible to keep 20mph up for some stretches the last, and steepest, part seemed to take superhuman strength to get much above 15mph. The four riders struggled as the wind funnelled between the banking and the trees.

On this stretch Richard, and presumably some time earlier Kath and Andy, had overhauled Henry. 70-ish miles had been completed by this stage and Henry was entering uncharted waters. At this point having missed the support vehicle Richard had no idea how far behind Kath and Andy he was, had they battled harder on the A40 and opened the gap out? 

At last the welcoming sight of the Abergavenny roundabout and the start of the second lap was reached and the chance to bring back some of the lost average speed and hopefully the sight of Liz in the support vehicle. This appeared at about 85 miles after another welcome dollop of rice pud and jam. 

Replenished and finding he was just 6 minutes behind Crasher, and a further 4 behind Kath Richard reported that he had passed a tired but still moving Henry and then set off after Crasher. A spirited 3rd lap and the gap was down to under 4 minutes with Kath holding steady at 10 minutes. In effect, because of the different start times, this meant that Richard was 12 minutes in front of Crasher and 10 up on Kath. With Kath at this point circulating at the same speed as Richard was the danger coming from another angle? Kath had a personal best of over 236 miles to Richard's 227.

By now all riders had completed well over 110 miles and were getting to the half-way point, the only worries reported were that Henry hadn't been seen for a while and the rice pudding man had run out of jam. On lap 4 Richard continued the pursuit and at the support vehicle cruised up behind a stationary Crasher, who was busy eating yet more rice pudding. Kath was also beginning to slow, the gap between her and Richard was down to about 6 minutes. 

So 7 odd hours completed and now Richard was 16 minutes ahead of his main rival. Crasher set off with Richard giving him about 2 minutes lead whilst he refuelled. It would only be a matter of time before he was re caught and a small battle raged on the still tough A40 stretch back to Abergavenny with Richard holding the lead at the turn and what we expected to be the start of the finishing circuit. Having been passed by Richard Crasher announced that he was throwing in the towel in their personal battle and was just riding for the team title.

Judging by last year’s experience in similar conditions the dash back up the A40 for the first time would see speeds of around 30mph uphill (!) the riders would still be passed by the really quick guys though. Surprisingly as the lead rider hadn't completed 6 laps all 4 of our riders were sent off for another lap. This was not good news, Richard and Kath both reported they really couldn't face another stretch of the A40 east to west, into the unrelenting  wind, and although there was a visible gap between Crasher and Richard in front it wasn't a great amount and with over 3 hours still to go, it was by no means won. The A40 proved to be a turning point with Crasher re catching Richard just before the turn and announcing that he had got a second wind and was getting the towel out again.

This turn took the riders onto the finishing circuit, a 15.484 mile lap with 10 “timekeepers” spaced at around 1.5 mile intervals, the idea being that as you passed each checkpoint you were recorded until you complete your allocated time of 12 hours and stopped at the next timekeeper.

Now having a tail wind but being uphill the A40 was suddenly a different animal. Crasher had a lead on the road of roughly 30 seconds and Richard kept him in sight throughout the lap, caught him again while refuelling at the support vehicle, just setting off again just as Richard arrived. Nursing a sore hamstring and not being able to sit on the bike with any comfort Richard opted for a second pair of shorts, a tactic that had helped in the latter stages of recent 24 hour event in June. This cost around six minutes and more worryingly for Richard, let Crasher get out of sight.
With 1 hour and 50 minutes left, Richard had a lead of 10 minutes over Crasher, so was six minutes behind on the road. (We found it all really confusing too! - Ed) One more lap passed and somehow the gap remained at 6 minutes, both Richard and Crasher covering the near 16 miles in around 50 minutes. 

So with 1 hour left for Richard and just 44 minutes for Crasher, the mind maths calculated that Richard would finish on the A40 after the next lap. Outside of this battle, Henry completed his first ever 12 hour race and as Crasher and Richard continued their battle he headed back to the HQ having covered a very creditable 192.05 miles. 

6 minutes later Kath wrapped up her ride at 213.90 miles. Crasher had just passed the support and with only 5 minutes remaining elected not to refuel. Richard passed the same spot 13 minutes later, his rival had by now finished, but where and how far had he covered? Timekeeper 5 was just beyond this point and Crasher had not turned back here, timekeeper 6 was at the turn for the A40 and a complicated roundabout could have kept him hidden from Richard’s view if he was circling around to return to the HQ as Richard passed this point with a little over 2 minutes left. 11 hours and 58 minutes gone meant riding to the next timekeeper, which in this case was number 8, we had previously spotted that no-one had taken the 7th check-point.

Heading back up the A40, the timekeepers became visible and so did the figure of a Sleaford Wheeler anxiously looking at his watch, how long had he been here, how close was this going to be? Richard had to reach this spot less than 16 minutes after Crasher to take the title. He made it in a little under 12 hours and 4 minutes and, more importantly it turned out, just 14 minutes and 35 seconds after Crasher to give Richard the victory by just 85 seconds. An absolutely epic fight back from Crasher who was obviously tired from the previous weekend’s Gorrick 12:12 “TORQ in your sleep”, a 12hr MTB race, but Richard was just too strong.
Liz arrived with the support car shortly after but both riders elected to ride back to the HQ to await the provisional results. Amusingly this involved climbing up the embankment, a skill Crasher was far more adept at, to shorten the ride back by about 10 miles, neither rider really wishing to face any further cycling than was absolutely necessary.

The final distances were Henry 192.05miles, Kath 213.90, Andy 219.99 and Richard 220.77, a reversal of last year and even closer, it’s left it nicely poised for a best of 3 in 2015. In such strong winds none of the riders were ever likely to be able to challenge for the overall Lincolnshire title but Kath has won the women’s and Henry the junior’s.

How It All Went Wrong

I know I’ve been a little quiet on here recently, but that is because things have been far from quiet for me. Since my last post I have been moving house up to the Borders area. This a big improvement over the flatlands of south Lincolnshire, topographically if not metrologically. There’s also been jobs and a million and one other little things to sort out but I’m just about settled in now and can have a bit of a catch up on here. The most obvious omission from the last few months is of course my write up from the 24hr World Championship. 
I’m sure you all know how it is when a race doesn’t go well, you first just try to forget about it, and then look for the reasons why. There also comes a point when you actually have to sit down and write about it and I can now put this off no longer.

It is of course much worse when the race which didn’t go well is the biggest race of the year, probably the biggest race I will ever do, a World Championship on home turf.

The 2014 24hr World Champs were held at Fort William on the course at Aonach Mor. I headed up nice and early, on the Wednesday morning, for practice. It was actually quite a nice day, unusual for the highlands at that time of year.

I headed out for a practice lap or two, expecting it to be rather boggy and horrible, as despite the fact that it wasn’t actually raining at that exact moment we had had quite a lot of rain at home in the preceding days. I was however, pleasantly surprised, there was even dust to be seen in a few places.
The course itself was tough, especially a couple of the shorter but steeper climbs, which I knew would be especially difficult in the latter stages of the race. For some reason finding grip seems to get harder and harder as a race progresses. I think it’s because after twenty hours of racing all my finesse is gone and attacking climbs like that with enough speed just to get up them merely results in wheelspin and wasted energy.

I recognised a lot of the route from other races I have done there over the years, but there were some sections I hadn’t ridden before, including the decent down from the bridge to the start/finish which was a lot of fun. I was also relieved to note that neither Nessie nor the Blue Crane would be part of the course, they are challenging enough when it’s broad daylight and I am wide awake and I still bear the scars from several unsuccessful attempts over the last decade.

With the first practice lap complete a group of us spent some time on the first rock section, practicing it over and over again, trying to get the lines right and shouting encouragement at those who were struggling before the sun set and we retired for tea and cakes.

The thing I like most about these races, apart from the 24hrs of suffering and torture, the cold, the wet, the dark, the numb hands and feet, the endless energy drinks and bars, the wind and rain, the nausea, and of course the sheer exhaustion of it all is the people. They are, without exception, all lovely guys and girls and regardless of how well the race goes it is always great to see everyone again. It is such a shame that we all have to go to work and can’t just spend our time travelling the world racing with each other. We spent a lovely evening catching up with old friends before eventually calling it a night and heading back to the bunkhouse to bed.

Thursday morning was also bright and sunny. This was most unexpected, two consecutive dry days in autumn in the Highlands. After a leisurely breakfast we headed back to the track for another practice.
For some reason I was lacking any get up and go. I normally can’t wait to ride my bike, especially on bright, sunny dry days in the Highlands but on this occasion I really had to force myself out to ride. I did two laps and then had a bit of break while I helped some friends sort out some spare bikes and wheels. Ant from Mt Zoom brought me some new brake pads over which I swapped for a supply of Accelerade drink mix. I did one final half-lap before calling it a night and heading back to the bunkhouse.

Our neighbours had arrived, including Carole, my pit crew from the previous races in Australia and Italy, so we popped round for a cup of tea and a catch-up. We also took the opportunity to do some baking, getting plenty of food prepared for the race, including a fairly substantial flapjack and some rather nice homemade soup.

Friday was a much less pleasant day, it was raining hard when we woke up and didn’t really ease off until mid afternoon. My mojo had completely deserted me and I had just lost the will to go out and do anything, the idea of another couple of practice laps really didn’t appeal. We went into Fort William town centre to find a bike shop and stock up on clothing. I was applying the logic that the more money I spent on waterproofs the less likely it was to rain during the race itself and so I bought loads, tops, shorts and gloves. The rest of the day was spent sorting out all of the little tasks which need doing, sorting out all of the food, lights and clothing I would need and building my pit garage.

The rules for this race required the use of a rear light during the hours of darkness and the guys at Exposure had got a TraceR ready for me, which I had to go and collect. Not only is this one of the brightest rear lights out there but the battery life would be more than sufficient and, just as important although I hoped it wouldn’t be tested, the waterproofness should be easily up to the job too.

My fiancé Gina was there to help, full of enthusiasm but very little experience. This was her first 24hr, she had done very well at the Gorrick 12hr earlier in the year where she had helped me to a top-10 despite a broken bike but a 24 is a very different beast and much tougher on the pit crew. We had therefore tried to get a pit as close to other friendly faces as we could, everyone at these races is more than willing to help out if they see anyone else having problems. We were right at the end, just where everyone turned out of the pits and back onto the race track, we had Carole and the AQR team right behind us, Ant across the way with Stuart Goodwin, Iwona Szmyd and Gareth Hayes sharing his pit, and our Catalan friends Carolina and Marcel next door to them.

We had also left our cosy little bunkhouse and moved the van up to the pits, the awning meaning that could get between one and the other without getting too soaked. With little inclination to go for a lap we spent time chatting to more old friends and drinking substantial quantities of tea before getting an early night ready for the big day.

The big day itself actually dawned surprisingly sunny, the vast amount I had spent on wet-weather gear the day before had clearly helped. It had even dried up sufficiently for me to venture out on my dry weather tyres, not at all expected in Scotland, never mind Scotland in October.

The tension rose as midday approached, the 146 riders were called forward in the main arena, gathering together behind the pipe band. I don’t know where all the people had suddenly appeared from but the crowd in the arena seemed huge as we followed the band out towards the track, they peeled off and we were then lead out by the motorbike. He turned off at the bottom of the big hill and the race was on.

It never ceases to amaze me just how quick the early stages of a long race are, with 23hrs58mins still to go everyone was flat out up that hill, really going for it, desperate to be the first into the narrow singletrack at the top. I had started somewhere near the front but lost a few places as we climbed and found myself at the back of the leading bunch as we turned into the lovely swoopy section at the top.
There was one rider in the middle of this who was clearly very good at climbing, but much less good at the downhill bits, this allowed the frontrunners to get away into the distance with the rest of us line astern behind. The guy in front of me took ages to find a way passed, but I recognised her and shouted for space in Italian, which worked much better and I set off in pursuit of the leaders.

I was already some way behind the front runners at the end of the first lap, down in 28th place. I grabbed a new bottle of Accelerade and a couple of gels and headed out for lap two. The second lap was my fastest of the race, not quick by everyone else’s standards, but 46m46s was respectable enough, and although the next two were a little slower I managed to stay under the hour easily enough.

Me ahead of someone early on.
It didn't last.

Up at the front American Kelly Magelky had had an impressive start and was disappearing off into the distance, pursued by Scotland’s Rob Friel in his first ever 24hr. It is impressive enough doing a World Championship as your first attempt at anything but his do or die attempt at scaring the big boys was winning him a lot of plaudits. Englishman Richard Dunnett was in third with the defending champion, Aussie Jason English, playing the long game and taking it easy early on, content in the lower reaches of the top-10.

In the women’s race local lass Lee Craigie had shot off at the start, leading for three laps before her race came to a premature end. Former UK and European champion Ricci Cotter and kiwi Kim Hurst were battling it out behind her, but this quickly became a fight for the lead of the race, Ricci leading on lap 4 and Kim on lap 5.

Further back, I was struggling. The problem appeared to be mainly down to food, I just couldn’t seem to get enough of it down me. There was plenty there in the pits but my appetite had just deserted me, I was really having to force myself to get anything down, especially in the middle of the laps.
Darkness fell about 7pm, but attaching the USE/Exposure MaxxD and Joystick lights cost no time at all thanks to the clever mounting systems. With the disappearance of the daylight the temperature also began to fall, it was chilly enough for those of us out on the track racing, it must have been properly cold standing in the pits. A lot of the marshals had little braziers burning away, keeping themselves warm as best they could, they became a very welcome sight as the night progressed.

Midnight was announced by the firing of a big red distress flare from the start/finish line. Half way. The way I was feeling I wasn’t at all sure I could manage the other half, and just to help matters it was starting to rain.

That shower was actually the only rain we had during the race, probably only around 30 minutes in total, which for an October weekend in the Highlands is pretty good going. I was wondering why the race hadn’t been held in the summer, mid-June for example would have given us the best part of 23hrs of daylight and much better chances of sunshine. It turns out the answer to this was midges. They aren’t too bad, relatively speaking, while you are moving, but for those standing around, such as pit crews and marshals, it would have been absolutely hellish.

Anyway, back to the race. By midnight Magelky had dropped to sixth and Jason English was way out in the lead. Rob Friel was still impressing everyone and clinging onto second, he had been down as low as seventh on lap 6 but had kept fighting while those around him were starting to suffer. He was pursued by Dave Powell and my team-mate at XCRacer, Ant White. In the women’s race Kim Hurst was out front with Ricci Cotter and another kiwi, Erin Greene, trying as hard as they could to keep up.

My race was going from bad to worse. I was still really having to force myself to eat, and I really don’t think I was getting enough food. My legs were dead, the climbs were a complete nightmare and, a really bad sign, I was looking for any excuse I could find to extend my pit stops.

It is never a good thing when you get this stage, a pit stop should be as quick as possible, pause, eat whatever it is you’re given while the bottles are changed and the food in your pockets replenished, and then on your way again. I on the hand was sitting down (no, don’t do that!- Ed) fussing over lap times, positions, layers of clothes, anything I could think of really to avoid going out and riding again. It was hurting my race and I knew it but it was such an effort to head out again for yet another lap.

But head out again I must, and indeed did, many, many times. The course was brutal, by far the hardest I have ever ridden in a 24, and I could take a little comfort from the fact that other riders seemed to be suffering too. At one point I even managed to pass the legendary Brett Belchambers, well unlap myself, briefly. Even for someone of his stature the course was proving tough. Of course he wasn’t helping himself by doing it all in one gear, and I obviously had no such excuse.

I had first met him at the previous race at Stromlo, the 2013 World Championship, and he had obviously recognised me as he spoke to me before the race to apologise for the actions of his broccoli-wielding fellow Aussies. It’s a long story, ask me if you see me. He passed me again soon enough and disappeared off into the distance.

Brett on his dawn lap. Even moe impressive than his win in the 
singlespeed category and his sixth place overall was his ability
to ride all night in short sleeves. They obviously breed them tough
in Tasmania!

Actually, this made the defending champion only the third most famous person at this race. In addition to Mr Belchambers Guy Martin was competing. I was expecting him to do pretty well given his results at Relentless and the Strathpuffer over recent years, and he was indeed having a good race and would go on to finish 16th in the Elite men’s race, and 32nd overall. He did seem to spend a lot of time before and after the event being asked to pose for photographs with various people, competitors and spectators alike.

I’m digressing again, back to the race. I was having some terrible laps in the wee small hours, and getting slower and slower. My worst one was the one which began at about 4:30am. I had twiddled a very small gear up the main climb, and pushed in a fair few places too. I eventually reached the very top of the course, up by the big berms, and I felt rubbish, really queasy. I put the bike down and wandered off into the undergrowth at the side of the course, bent over and heaved up what little food was remaining in my stomach.

This left me feeling rather dizzy so I had a bit of a sit down on a rock near my bike, my back resting against a fencepost. I waited for everything to stop spinning, then dragged myself to feet and retrieved my bike. My GPS claimed that it had been stationary for over 20 minutes! How had that happened? I don’t think I had nodded off but with a delay of that length I can’t think of any other explanation. Stopping moving for that length of time had left me absolutely frozen too, which didn’t help matters at all, and so I had another stop at one of the burning braziers to attempt to get some feeling back into my hands. With the small fire on the bottom corner of my waterproof extinguished by a helpful marshal I set off again.

As I limped around back to the pits the sun was starting to reappear, just a feint greyness to the sky at first, it wouldn’t be until the end of the following lap that I could remove my lights. The sun coming up is always a huge psychological boost in these races and my lap times did indeed improve a bit, all the way from ‘terrible’ to ’poor’ in fact.

At the pointy end things were getting very exciting. Friel had finally blown up and was starting to struggle, but ages after everyone had expected him to, he was down at the bottom end of the top-10. Richard Dunnett, Mark Spratt and Richard Rothwell  were having a huge fight over the final podium place. After 23 laps Ant White had got the gap to Jason English down to a far from comfortable 14 minutes, and was gaining. With 3hrs still to go this was anyone’s race. The gap between leader Kim Hurst and pursuer Ricci Cotter was about the same in the women’s race, this was very much a two-horse race, Erin Greene was miles behind in third but with an equally big gap over fourth placed Danielle Musto.   

I was still plodding away, and there was a lot of plodding being done, I was finding that I just couldn’t ride up most of the climbs any more and so was just pushing up them in a desperate attempt to just keep myself moving in the right direction, and keep myself awake. The descents were not much better, my brain had about had it and concentrating well enough to be able to steer through the rocks was something of a challenge.

Me in Trying-to-keep-warm kit rather than team-kit.

I crossed the start/finish line at 23hr09min to begin my final lap. If I was still able to do the pace I had been doing early on I would have been able to get round in time for one more but this clearly wasn’t going happen. I made it round in one piece, relieved to cross the line at last but ever so disappointed with my result. I had had high hopes for the race on home soil but things just hadn’t gone well. I was 77th overall, and 23rd in the Elite men’s race at 24hr50min, a far cry from the dizzy heights of the 13th had achieved at Stromlo the previous year.

It was difficult to say exactly why I had done badly at the time, my bike had been faultless, the lights were perfect, I hadn’t broken anything. I clearly hadn’t eaten enough but nothing I had with me food-wise was new, it was all tried and tested, I just hadn’t been able to force myself to eat any of it.
However, it wasn’t long before the reason for my failure became apparent. I felt rubbish on the Monday, the day after the race, but I had just done a 24 and so was expecting to feel terrible. However, I was worse on the Tuesday and by Wednesday was properly ill. Tonsillitis. I was in bed for a week.
Suddenly it all seemed to make sense. Gina’s house-mate had had it. My lethargy in the days before the race was probably a good sign that I was coming down with something and should probably take it easy for a bit, but of course I had a big race to do, and that race must have completely trashed my immune system, there was no way I was going to fight it off after that.

Still, could have been worse. My ride of the weekend has to go to Craig Bowles, even better than Rob Friel I think (he eventually finished 10th by the way). Craig was racing in the 35-39 age group (I’m not sure why, as a former European Champion and World Number 3 he is more than capable of holding his own in the Elites) Anyway, after a steady start he had kept up some very decent lap times and had spent much of the early hours in 3rd or 4th places overall, before running into trouble on lap 21, when he started to lose positions rapidly. His chest was hurting and he was having difficulty breathing. He knew he couldn’t hold on to the overall podium position but he was leading his category and was determined to hold on to that.

Despite the pain he was in his final lap times were still pretty respectable. He eventually crossed the line to take 16th overall and the win in his class. However, he never did get to stand on the podium, Mrs B was drafted in to replace him as he was spending the first of several days in hospital, with suspected pneumothorax. No, I had never heard of it either, it’s when some air gets outside of the lung and enters the rest of the chest cavity. All vaguely familiar to anyone who has seen the 24 Solo film… Anyone who hasn’t should, it’s great.

Jon Hobson

Things were even more tense at the very front, Ant White was hunting down the defending champion Jason English in the closing stages. The gap was down to a little over 10 minutes at one point, but then disaster struck. Ant’s chain snapped, just at the crossover on the figure-of-eight racetrack. This would normally only be a 2-3 minute fix but the accumulation of 23hrs of cold, fatigue and the associated numbness left his hands barely able to hold a chain-tool, never mind work it properly. It took him an agonising 15 minutes, almost within sight of his pit, before he was able to get it back together and get underway again. His chance of glory had gone, but he had had a comfortable lead over Mark Spratt and was able to hold on to second. Spratt on the other hand didn’t have much of a lead over his pursuer and, having dropped from his early front-running position down to 9th at one point, Richard Dunnett was able to pounce on the final lap and get himself back into the final podium position.

Jason English’s employers had been far from supportive of his endeavours. Despite having won the previous four World Championships he was only given two days holiday to compete in the event. He lives somewhere near Newcastle in New South Wales, where he works as a teacher. He finished work at 3pm on the Thursday (all teachers finish work at 3pm every day don’t they?) and then drove down to the airport in Sydney. With the time zones working in his favour on the way here he landed in Glasgow late on the Friday and drove up to Fort William. He raced Saturday and Sunday, won, collected his medal at the venue and was already on the plane back to Australia as the rest of us were settling down at the post-race meal in Benavie, apart from poor old Craig. With the time zones working against him on the way back it was a late arrival back in Sydney and then back at work first thing Tuesday morning. He was quoted as saying that the nature of a 24hr race means that the jet lag may have actually given him an advantage!

Although the leading positions had not changed in the women’s race, with Kim Hurst crossing the line ahead of Ricci Cotter and Erin Greene it was a fantastic mix of nationalities, 10 different countries were represented in the top 15. Actually, the men’s race was just as diverse with 11 different nationalities in the top 15.

When WEMBO had first taken over running the World Championship in 2012 questions had been asked about their ability to attract not only a sufficient number, but also a sufficient range of competitors to make it credible. The fact that the 146 riders represented 23 different countries seems to have laid this to rest.

Elite Results

1.  Jason English                             Australia
2.  Anthony White                          England
3.  Richard Dunnett                         England
4.  Mark Spratt                                Wales
5.  Richard Rothwell                       England
6.  Jason Miles                                England
7.  Einaras Sulskus                         Lithuania
8.  Elias Van Hoeydonck                Belgium
9.  Michael McCutcheon                Ireland
10. Robert Friel                              Scotland

1.  Kim Hurst                                  New Zealand
2.  Ricci Cotter                               Wales
3.  Erin Greene                               New Zealand
4.  Danielle Musto                          USA
5.  Iwona Szmyd                            Poland
6.  Giuliana Massarotto                 Italy
7.  Lisa Kamphausen                     Scotland/Germany
8.  Alex Nichol                              England
9.  Elena Novikova                        Ukraine
10. Louise Humphreys                  Scotland

This race was also the 2014 National Championships, the titles going to the highest placed Brits, Ant White and Ricci Cotter. There was no prize for most cheerful rider but if there was this would almost certainly have gone to Pedro Maia. He would normally be a shoe-in for this award anyway, even in the pouring rain in the middle of the night while freezing cold and absolutely knackered, but winning his age-group had made him even more jolly than normal.

I would like to say a very big thank-you to the usual suspects, XCRacer/Scimitar, USE/Exposure, Accelerade and Mt Zoom as well as Spook, Fraz, Fiona and co from No Fuss who organised the event on behalf of WEMBO. However, the biggest thank-you must go to Gina for all her hard work before and during the race to get me prepared and keep me going when it got really tough, and then for looking after me the following week as I lay curled up on the sofa eating ice cream and feeling sorry for myself.

The pictures are all from Sportograf.