Relentless - That Really Cold One


2018 - 24hr World Championship, Fort William, Scotland

 
Many years ago I headed out to Australia to compete in my first ever World Championships, 2010 at Mt Stromlo. My pit crew for that race was a young lad called Ben Forsyth. He had a short but successful time as a cyclist himself in later years, winning the Strathpuffer and national track cycling championships before his ambition was curtailed by the diagnosis of a heart condition. Eight years after that first World Championship, almost to the day, I found myself on the start line of my sixth, but without Ben in his usual position cheering me on as I raced against his dad. He passed away in the summer, far too young. This race is for you Ben, shame I didn’t really do it justice.


I often wonder if anyone comes away from a 24hr race with any coherent idea of what actually happened. This may just be me of course but I usually struggle to put together any sort of story, even in my own head. What I am usually left with is a collection of little snippets, a series of small events and incidents from the weekend in my memory which I usually try to build into some sort of narrative to write here. Just to be different this time I'm not even going to attempt to write a proper story so instead here’s a list of things which happened, more or less in chronological order. No rhyme or reason to them, these are just the things which stuck in my mind.

I have two bikes. Both have been completely stripped and rebuilt. There are new chains, new tyres, new brake pads. Everything is spotless and working perfectly. On the workstand anyway…
I no longer have a pit crew. My friend Carole was intending to do it but her father decided to move house that weekend and so she was called away. I was therefore ‘Super Solo’ (Always solo, sometimes alone, as Peter might say…)

Dalkeith Tescos are running out of bananas. I ate eleven at last year’s World Championship at Finale before I ran out and seventeen at Longest Day Longest Ride (story of that coming up when I get around to it, it was really good) I have bought twenty-two for this race and as much other food as I can carry.


I picked up some hitchhikers at Laggan and took them to the Nevis Range. I was surprised how excited someone from Switzerland appeared to be about mountains and little castles, surely they have them at home? They wanted to see a Red Deer and were hugely impressed when I told them of the ones which had eaten out of our hands outside the Kingshouse. They did ask where I was going but I don’t think they quite understood the idea of riding around in big circles for 24hrs.

The first people I found when I arrived were Carolina and Marcel. I had been on the site for about twenty seconds and was already meeting old friends. This is why we come.

I parked up, had a look to see who else I could find and quite a long time later got the race bike out of the van to go for a lap. The simple and reliable singlespeed didn’t work. Everything seemed fine until I put any sort of power down when the gear would just slip like crazy, it wouldn’t even go around the car park, never mind up a hill. There followed two hours of faffing with a few people offering some helpful suggestions and a lot more people offering less helpful ones. Alex did suggest putting an old chain back on and I found that combining this with reversing the sprocket worked (I really had tried every possible combination of everything!) I did half a practice lap in the dark and then went to bed.

It was raining hard in the morning. I had a lie-in until it eased off.

Donna 

The bike shop was full of Portuguese and Aussies buying gloves. I had six pairs of winter gloves and wanted more. Most of them only had one or two. Twelve hours per pair, that could get chilly. Steve was also there looking for a chain tensioner.

I went to sign on and met Jed. He’s from my old road club but I had never met him before, he joined after I moved up north. He has never done a 24hr before. A World Champs for a first attempt? Why not?

I went for another lap. The bike worked but I felt badly overgeared (or more likely, understrong) 32/18 was way too big, 32/20 was also way too big. I took the 30 off the spare bike. 30/20 was still way too big. Back to the bike shop. I was clearly not the only one with this problem, they had just sold out of 23s and had nothing else. 30/20 it is then.

Ben Houldsworth arrived. I had offered him my pit crew so he was now also super-solo although he could at least share my pit tent.

Also super-solo was the chap camping across from us. He had a fourteen year old bike (nothing wrong with that) but it didn’t appear to have had any maintenance for at least twelve of them, apart from the brand new cassette, which may or may not work with the old chain, and some new brake pads which were not bedded in. He had a very tiny tent which would not peg into the car park and no idea about feeding himself for the race. Had had done the Red Bull 24 over a decade ago and had barely ridden since. I love it that people like this can turn up to a World Championship and have a go, this is what sets us apart from Formula 1. 

I put my numbers on my bikes and filled sixteen bottles. At a bottle an hour this should keep me going until 4am. 

The first people I found on the morning of the race were Jed and Carl, his dad, who had come up to pit for him. He adopted me and Ben too and apparently also found himself helping our badly-prepared new friend across the way at several points during the race.

Ben was also singlespeed. He was using his 23 but had a spare 21. I gratefully took it, it would make my life 5% easier. So an hour before the start when everyone else was warming up I was swapping sprockets around and seeing if it would mate properly with my chain.


It wasn’t raining as we gathered on the startline. I was a little late but also coming at it from the ‘wrong’ side, which meant that I found myself on the second row.

We set off behind the piper, very slowly, trying not to topple over, and then were lead out by the motorbikes and up the main hill.

It was a good five or ten minutes before Steve Day overtook me. I passed him again, just so that I could say I had overtaken the defending champion, and then let him go. Wim Verheyren also came passed me, said hello and then disappeared off into the distance.

Me chasing Gary

This is where my recollection of events starts to fade, I must have been concentrating so hard that I was barely committing any of it to memory. 

The big fire road climb unsurprisingly got harder every lap, but I did manage to ride it every time.  Through the tunnel the first time with a helmet light on I caught it on the roof but no damage done, and I ducked every time after that. In the wee small hours the brief few seconds of tunnel became a very welcome respite from the wind, rain and mind-numbing cold.

The race had started damp but warm, I even took my windproof off half way around the first lap. This didn’t last and the rain got heavier and heavier and the wind stronger and stronger as the race wore on. By 3am it was properly cold on the exposed sections at the top, but any attempt to wrap up for it would then lead to overheating problems lower down as we got back into the trees and the shelter they offered.


The top section itself was fun, a few big bermed corners, some little drops on the fast section and back over the top of the tunnel. I passed Steve again on the first lap as he was having problems on the funny corner with the three line choices (the little wooden bit in the middle was probably quickest) He passed me again soon after and stayed ahead after that.

From the tunnel down into the longest descent, a couple of tricky corners, watch the small but surprisingly slippery rock which was just on the perfect line on the outside of the first left hander, then stay wide on the corner by the tree, a fast bit at the bottom leading to the fireroad. Brake hard, and turn right into the trees. This corner became a bit of an ‘after you, no after you’ turn on several occasions. There was some terribly polite overtaking going on all through the night, especially by the Brits and the Canadians. I don’t know if this was just both living up to their stereotypes or if a common language just made it much easier to shout some encouragement and other niceties rather than just ‘Left Please’ which may well have been some people’s only words of English.
 Richie, and someone else I can't make out
Good teamwork from JMC

Having said that the politest overtake of the day was Kevin Skidmore, on the first climb out of the pits, the only climb for which I was perfectly geared. I heard someone coming up behind me and ran wide on a corner to let him through. An Aussie accent behind called ‘No, there are rules! Never overtake a singlespeeder on climb.’ We kept up a decent pace and had a wee chat as we climbed and then I let him passed on the fireroad at the top when his bigger gearing really kicked in.

Climbing on a singlespeed can be a bit odd. We can’t spin and have to just grind on the steep stuff, which makes line choice pretty important, we need the grip! Most people who were off and pushing were very helpful and would be walking off the obvious line and we could get passed easily enough, the others leapt out of the way if I made enough noise as I approached. On some short, sharp climbs we just have to go at it like a bovine in a ceramic emporium and hope for the best. Sometimes hanging back from the person in front to give ourselves room to do this, as I had to on the nasty little one from the back of the pits to the steep fireroad, does leave a tempting gap for the person behind to jump into, spoiling the run-up, I guess this is what Kevin was trying to avoid. 

Kevin. An Aussie not feeling the cold


I was riding along the fireroad at the top of the narrow climb with the kick up at the end, it was pitch dark, blowing a hooley, really, really cold. The heavy rain then did that thing where it just goes whoosh and becomes a very intense, albeit thankfully very brief, deluge before returning to being just bog standard heavy rain again. As it was doing it’s intense-deluge-which-you-can’t-really-see-through bit there was another Aussie voice shouting behind me “I live in a ****ing desert! What is this ****?!” Not impressed with the British weather.


The weather didn’t seem to bother Cory Wallace though, the leader was riding around all night in short sleeves. Most odd. Someone did say that he regularly works in -25C though so maybe this wasn’t too bad for him.

Tayler Lideen probably wasn’t used to it though, I don’t know much about Arizona but I’m guessing -25C is unusual there. This didn’t stop him taking up the chase when Josh Toscado started feeling the effects of hypothermia and dropped back from second.

This left a chasing bunch of seven-times world champion Jason English and, rather impressively, two singlespeeders, defending champ Steve Day and British champ Paul Renshaw. I was talking to Russ Baker before the race and he had tipped Tayler (and Kaitlyn Boyle) for the win, I had predicted a surprise victory for Rennie. Plenty of time left though, maybe we would both be right.

Rennie. Absolutely flying (but wimping out of the skinnies...)

Anyway, back to my race. From the very polite corner into the singletrack, over the hump, a nice little jump over a tree stump, I was quite chuffed to get this spot on every single time.

Some nice fast corners, and then one which chewed up more and more as the rain continued to fall, each lap more and more slippery rocks were exposed, again I got this spot on every time. I was generally very pleased with how rode I technically. This was followed by a couple of rocky sections, a tight turn over a rock bridge, again no major issues, if I’d had more speed on the fast sections and long climbs it could have been a good result!

I did have one crash, about 3am, through the tunnel at the top of the first climb. I tried to ride up the side a little to avoid some standing water, my front wheel slipped on the metal sides, I went down but continued forwards, my arm, shoulder and handlebar bouncing along the corrugations before I emerged at the end and fell properly. Some skin lost and pride hurt but no other damage.


Every now and again someone would come up behind me shouting encouragement. The trouble with this is that I had absolutely no idea who most of them were, at least whilst they were still behind and invisible to me. If you are reading this please don't let the fact that I can't recognise you from a voice shouted over the wind from 10 feet behind put you off, all encouragement is good! There were some equally baffled people in front of me whom I was attempting to greet

It was much easier to recognise the people cheering in the pits, mainly because I could at least see their faces, up until nightfall when it became more of a problem. Not so much because it got dark, the pit row was well lit, but because it got really cold and they all retreated into enormous coats with hoods pulled up over their faces or took to shouting from tent doorways as they hid from the cold and rain.
 Nope, still raining.

Cold and rain. Oh dear. It wasn’t too bad to start with, the very start of the race was just a bit of light drizzle but later on it was so bad that I just couldn’t eat enough to stay warm. At Finale last year I had been unable to drink enough fluid to cope with the heat, sweating out more than I could consume, but here I was burning so much energy just keeping my body temperature up and the bike moving that I was really struggling to get enough food down me.

I got through a lot of clothes, seven pairs of gloves. Nothing like a nice warm, dry pair of gloves at 4am. Also nothing like a cold wet pair that isn’t quite as bad as the others at 7am when it’s all you have left. Or a pair which are marginally too small and which you can’t actually get onto your hands because they are so cold the fingers have stopped bending. That’s another advantage of singlespeeds that no-one really mentions - not being stuck in the wrong gear because your thumb has stopped working. (Instead we are stuck in the wrong gear because we’ve chosen a silly bike)

I saw Jed in the pits a couple of times. He had the opposite approach to me. I was trying to just keep plodding, moving as much as I could, however slowly. He would go very, very quickly for a lap and then stop to regroup and refuel and then repeat. We passed each other several times, him passing me out on track and then me passing him in the pits as he was eating soup. Hare and tortoise.

 Jed

It seemed like a very, very long night. Maybe the dense cloud cover and the rain contributed to it, delaying the moment when we could finally cast off our lights. Sunrise didn’t make it any warmer though.

The leaders were flying. Cory Wallace was still out front, chased by Russ’s hot tip, Tayler Lideen. Rather impressively the group behind still consisted of seven-times World Champion Jason English, defending singlespeed World Champion Steve Day and new boy and fellow singlespeeder Paul Renshaw.

Bizarrely enough the one to falter was Jason. To be fair he was recovering from surgery, but we just aren’t used to seeing him struggle (relatively, he still finished fifth!)


I was still plodding around, and by this stage there was a lot of actual plodding. Being overgeared had taken it’s toll and I was struggling on the climbs, mainly the shorter, steeper ones, and was having to resort to the old ‘twenty-four inch bottom gear’ to get to the top. Actually, a twenty-four inch gear would have been better!

Jed had called it a day just after 9am, his ride was good enough for 16th in the Elite race, 22nd overall with 19 laps, I went out for one more lap. By the time I got back it was nearly 11 and it was unlikely that I would make it around again before the cut-off and so I finished too. My 20 laps had given me 6th in the singlespeeds, 19th overall.

 By this stage my waterproofs were waterproof in name only

This wasn’t the result that I had been hoping for but it was probably the hardest race I have ever done (Yes, I know I keep saying that, but this one really was hard) The conditions made it especially tough, the cold, the rain and the wind, the course was brutal and the level of competition was fantastic. Physically it was hard, these things always are, but mentally it was really tough, trying to keep going in those conditions when I could feel my body shutting down as it teetered on the edge of hypothermia.

Finishing was a huge relief, at last I could try to get warm again, finally get out of my freezing wet kit. Due to the fact that my fingers would no longer bend becuase of the cold I had to be helped out of my trousers by a very obliging young lady who just happened to be passing and insisted on giving me a hand with them. Also due to the cold there was little requirement to protect my modesty during this process. Finally, dry clothes, hot food and sleep.



Results – Top 10 Elite and Top 10 Singlespeed

1.  Corry Wallace                      Canada
2.  Taylor Lideen                      USA
3.  Steve Day                            UK                         Singlespeed
4.  Paul Renshaw                      Isle of Man            Singlsepeed
5.  Jason English                      Australia
6.  Elijus Civilis                       Lithuania             
7.  Max Suttie                           UK
8.  Matthew Jones                    UK
9.  Jason Miles                         UK
10. Josh Toscado                      USA
11. Carwyn Davies                  UK
12. Neil Dingle                        UK                         Singlespeed
13. Mike McAuley                  USA

15. Wim Verhayen                  Belgium                  Singlespeed
17. Andrew Beaver                 UK                          Singlepeeed
19. Andrew Howett                UK                          Singlespeed
23. Nick Wilson                      Uk                           Singlsepeed
27. Steve Leighton                  UK                          Singlespeed
32. Ben Houldsworth              UK                          Singlespeed
33. Steve Chapman                 UK                          Singlespeed

 Steve, Paul and Neil.
Three in a row for Steve now, and a 100% podium record for Paul


      1.   Kaitlyn Boyle                    USA
2.   Kate Penglase                    Australia
3.   Gaia Ravaioli                     Italy
4.   Naomi Freireich                 UK
5.   Julie Kelly                          Canada
6.   Donna Waring                    UK                      Singlespeed
7.   Rebecca Stone                    Australia
8.   Carolina Casacuberta         Catalunya            Singlespeed
9.   Jana Kalbertodt                  Germany
10. Nele Donneweg                 Germany

Cory and Kaitlin

Epilogue – Just for Matt.

There was no van incident this time, the old Transit was faultless throughout, I got there with no problems whatsoever, and all the way back again without missing a beat. Perfect.
It was however the last race I would go to in that van, a massive MOT failure in the spring was one too much for it and it had to go. Seven years of memories, all over Europe on many occasions, and innumerable races in this country, two house moves, surfing trips, climbing trips, it will be missed.

The new one is much bigger, newer, faster and shinier. At the time of writing it has just failed it’s first MOT (rear brake calliper, rear brake pads both sides, brake pipe, handbrake cable, the usual)