Exposure Lights/No-Fuss Events – Relentless 24 – British 24hr Mountainbike Championships 2016
What would happen if you were to attempt to compile a ‘Who’s Who’ of British 24hr mountainbike racers? Well, you would probably end up with a big list of names, none of whom anyone outside the endurance racing scene has ever heard of. This is a shame because there are some phenomenal athletes amongst them.
What would happen if you then took this hypothetical list of British riding talent up to the World Championships course at the Nevis Range near Fort William and told them that because the clocks were changing on the weekend in question they would have 25 hours to fight it out for the national title? This is not merely a hypothetical question, here’s what happened:
The start was at noon on the track below the gondolas, the riders disappearing up the first climb and into the fog. The format of the race was that whoever could complete the most laps within the allotted 25hrs would be the winner. One may assume that with 25 hours of racing ahead of them that most would be taking it easy early on and pacing themselves. Don’t assume anything.
After 7 miles and 1,100ft of climbing and an equal amount of descending through the tight, twisting tracks with their innumerable rocks and roots the leaders blasted back into the arena to finish the first lap. The top seven were separated by less than a minute, leader Phil Roberts (Welsh Enduro winner) heading Steve Day (singlespeed World Champion) by 24 seconds. No-one even paused; simply grab a bottle on the move and head straight into the second lap, 24 hours and 20 minutes to go…
I have just mentioned singlespeeds. For some people racing for 24 hours, or 25 in this case, isn’t quite hard enough and so they opt to do it on bikes with just the one gear. Some cite weight-saving, others reliability, everyone else suspects masochism. As well as fighting for the overall title the singlespeeders would be having their own race within a race.
Steve Day, pursued by Keith Forsyth and Jason Miles
By lap 3 the two leaders had opened up a gap of around a minute on the chasing pack headed by defending champion Peter Nadin but just 10 seconds covered the next five riders. Two hours in and the pace was intense, this was the kind of thing we would expect to see in a short Olympic-distance race, not here, not in a 24hr. The spectators and pit crews were all watching intently, surely they couldn’t keep this up, surely someone had to crack soon?
Nope, Day attacked and took the lead from Roberts on lap 6. The two of them had a bit of gap over the chasing pack but there was a battle royal raging behind them – Jason Miles (former World Championship silver medallist and one half of the duo who hold the 24hr tandem world record, 565 miles) was leading Matt Jones (newly crowned European Champion) and Irishman Michael McCutcheon (former European silver medallist) by less than forty seconds with Keith Forsyth (former age-group World Champion) hanging on to the back of their group as best he could.
You know what I had said about there being some really outstanding athletes whom no-one else has ever heard of? Hopefully just a couple of words after each name is giving you a little flavour of the level of competition at this event. However, this by no means implies that the race was exclusively for super-human elite competitors – the front end of the field may be but this is an event which absolutely anyone can turn up and have a go at, there aren’t many sports where one can do that at the National Championships. There were people there who had never even ridden a 24hr race before, just keen to see if they could, simply finishing it would be a huge achievement for them. There were pairs and teams doing the race as a relay, it really is something which anyone can, and should, try.
The pace at the front remained just as intense as the fog eventually lifted and darkness fell, Day had opened up quite a lead over his pursuers into who’s clutches Roberts had now fallen. The fact that a singlespeeder was leading the overall race was causing a quite a stir back in pit row, we all knew he was quick but this was something else.
It is however the night-time where most people say that the real racing takes place. It doesn’t matter how fit a rider is, racing through the fourteen hours of darkness is not a just a test of physical ability, the real test is in the mind. How hard can you continue to push when your body is telling you that it has already reached it’s limits? How fast dare you go when the effort and lack of sleep is affecting your belief in yourself, your control of the bike, and sometimes even your perception of reality itself? There are always riders hallucinating in the wee small hours, racing for 24hrs is so much harder than merely being awake for that length of time that the SleepMonsters are an ever-present danger, ready to entice the unwary into their world, and of course it was Halloween…
It was a much more mundane puncture which brought Day’s charge to an abrupt halt on lap 11. Jones seized the lead, Day fought back and led the next two laps, pushing, pushing, pushing and then pushing just that little bit too hard. Although he survived his crash unhurt the same could not be said for his bike, a bent chainring rendered it almost unrideable. Down but not out, he ran the rest of the lap, dropping down to fifth place, then with his bike fixed it was back on the attack. It was the running which unfortunately proved his undoing, aggravating an old knee injury. He survived two more laps before this forced him out of the race, leaving Jones and McCutcheon comfortably ahead of the Forsyth/Nadin/Roberts battle
The next man behind them was twice national singlespeed champion and former World number two Saul Muldoon. Having taken the lead in the singlespeed category with Day’s demise he was distinctly heard coming down the descent back into the pits singing to himself, quite loudly, ‘I’m still standing’. Behind him was Manx champion Steve Kelly then second placed singlespeeder and Strathpuffer winner Dave Glover who was having his own fight with the leading lady, former Scottish cross-country champion Lee Craigie. Glover had survived an earlier scare when his handlebar snapped in one of the rocky sections, pitching him off the bike and into the dirt, luckily unscathed and able to nurse his damaged bike back to the pits.
Behind Glover it was just as close in the singlespeeds as in the overall race, Gavin Baxter, Andrew Howett (last year’s silver medal winner) and Jon Hobson (European 12 and 24hr champion) were line astern, a mere 40 seconds covering the three of them. 12 hours in and still flat out.
There was no moon and the stars were hidden behind the clouds. Out on the open moors it was pitch black, just the marshal’s camp fires piercing the darkness and the rider’s headlights visible as they zigzagged their way up and down the mountainsides. In the forests it was even darker, the lights of the bikes casting all sorts of strange patterns in the trees. Some were shadows, some were the SleepMonsters, tall dark figures extending their tentacles out to entrap the passing riders, drawing them away from the race track and into their world, just close your eyes, you know you want to, just for minute… Most were photographers though.
The pit crews really earn their keep during the night, the majority of riders will have two bikes, one being ridden, one being serviced. They also need a constant supply of food, drinks and, more often than not encouragement at 3am when they are already 15 hours worth of tired and it occurs to them that are still 10 hours to go. And it’s getting pretty cold. And it’s starting to rain…
It was also busy over at Exposure Lights. The event sponsors had brought along a wide selection of their lights to help out anyone who felt that their own might not quite be up to the job and were also providing charging facilities to anyone who needed them. Light technology has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years - fancy lithium-polymer batteries and super-bright LEDs giving in excess of 4,000 lumens coupled with the light’s ability to adjust the brightness itself according to the speed and terrain to maximise burn times means that we are now seeing a full 24 hours of flat-out racing. Back in the good old days it would have been more like 6hrs of racing, 12hrs of trying to survive as best one could and then another 6hrs of racing once the riders could see again but, as was being demonstrated here, there is now no respite, no chance to recover, no chance to back off and catch your breath, nowhere to hide, just pushing, pushing, pushing all night long. Great. As if it wasn’t tough enough already. Thanks Exposure….
The sun eventually began to reappear over the mountains and those who had survived the night’s battles pressed on. Forsyth had succumbed, Miles, Kelly, Day and many, many others. Out in front though Jones and MCutcheon continued in their own little world, the gap between them was just 12 minutes but they had been pushing each other so hard that they were now a full lap ahead of Nadin. Muldoon and Roberts.
Matching each other second for second over the next 6 laps Jones’ lead was still 12 minutes heading into the second to last lap. 12 minutes is not a comfortable gap in a race like this, especially if, for example, the leader were to suffer a mechanical problem on the penultimate lap. With Jones in the undergrowth to the side of the first big descent McCutcheon was already at the top of the hill from where he would head down to where Jones was frantically trying to coax some life back into his bike. He eventually achieved some sort of success and set off again, McCutcheon could sense blood and was hot his tail, he had taken 6 minutes out Jones’ lead but it was not enough for the Irishman.
Through the pits for the final time, Jones grabbed his spare bike and gave it everything he had. The rules stated that no new laps could be started after 24hrs and that all laps had to be completed within 25. Jones crossed the line again at 24hrs10min25sec to take the win and add the National title to his European Championship. McCutcheon followed 15 minutes later to take the silver medal, defending champion Nadin taking the bronze this time.
Saul Muldoon. The Thousand Yard Stare of Victory.
Photo by Stephen Smith
Saul Muldoon took the win in the singlespeeds with an extremely impressive fourth overall, followed by Dave Glover and Andy Howett with Jon Hobson not quite making the cut off to do the extra lap and continue his pursuit of the final podium spot.
Relentless takes a step back next year, the race will return to it’s usual low-key self as the National Championships heads off to Newnham on the edge of Dartmoor for 2017.
In 2018 Relentless is back with a bang though, it will again host the WEMBO World Championships. You thought this year was exciting? (Well, we did) Add another couple of hundred riders from several dozen countries and see what happens.
1. Matt Jones M-Steel/Exposure Lights
2. Michael McCutcheon The Bike Rack
3. Peter Nadin Swinnerton Cycles
1. (10th overall) Lee Cragie The Adventure Syndicate
2. (17th overall) Sally Buckworth Pink Heifers
3. (26th overall) Beate Kubitz Singletrack
1. (4th overall) Saul Muldoon Stadium Runners
2. (8th overall) Dave Glover Mukyriderz
3. (11th overall) Andrew Howett Torq/Exposure/Mt Zoom
Matt Jones and Lee Cragie
There were little victories all the way down the field, people beating their mates, beating the team camped next door, beating their target, but just finishing a 24hr is enough of a victory for most, we should give a huge cheer to everyone who made it to the end. We should also give an even bigger cheer to all the marshals who camped out on the mountainsides all day and all night, often huddled around their braziers trying desperately to get some feeling back into their fingers, keeping us all safe and picking up those who had overdone it and hurt themselves, thanks guys and girls.
Pictures - Sportograph and Stephen Smith