24hr European Champship 2011

I didn’t know that it was possible to unwittingly enter a European Championship but I managed it this year. Having competed in the inaugural UK National 24hr Championships in 2010 and thoroughly enjoyed it, surprising myself by finishing in 9th place at my first solo-24hr and as a consequence travelling to Australia for the World Championship later that year I wasted no time getting my entry in as soon as the event was confirmed for this year. It wasn’t until some time later that my team informed me that the event had been upgraded to the European Championship and that I would therefore be competing in this event as well as the UK Championship. 204 riders from around a dozen countries made their way to Newcastleton on the Scottish border for the race, including a couple of Aussies, honorary Europeans for the day.
My arrival caused much amusement in the team when I managed to crash my van into a ditch while driving around the car-park. With two wheels off the ground it was not going anywhere on it’s own and had to be rescued by being manhandled by half a dozen riders (longer version of that little incident here) Fortunately, I had got my crashing in early and this was my only accident of the weekend, which I survived unscathed. With the car safely out of the ditch I assembled the bikes, just fitting pedals and tyres and some new shiny bits the guys at Mt Zoom had sent us, including an impressively light integrated top-cap and stem bolt, I’m a weight-weenie at heart and love the little details.
The race was being staged around Rock UK’s venue at Withaugh Park and we had taken advantage of the facilities on offer and acquired a hut right by the start finish line. This allowed us all a good night’s sleep in proper beds before the race.
There was a little rain on the Friday night, nothing compared to what was to come the following night, and Saturday morning actually dawned reasonably warm and sunny. Following the rider briefing and a considerable amount of porridge we all made our way down to Newcastleton village where, as last year, the locals were out in force to support us.
Those of us seeded in the top-10 for our categories were called up to sign-on on the big board, my little moment of fame, and we then took our places at the front of the grid.

I quite like these pictures, all the cameras pointing at me make me look like some sort of minor celebrity.

I was between defending British Champ Matt Page and defending singlespeed champ and world record holder for the widest handlebars, Jon Hobson. At the stroke of noon we gave four cheers for the tub (it made sense at the time…) and then set off behind the piper down the High Street towards the course. The piper finished his tune, luckily not Scotland The Brave this time, I had that going round and round in my head for the full 24 hours last year, and we followed the Exposure van for the last couple of miles to the race track, wondering who would catch Joolze if she were to be bounced out of the back on one of the many speed-bumps.

There are really only two possible strategies for a 24hour race. Either pace oneself, take it steady and stay consistent, or make hay while the sun shines, put in the fast laps while one has the energy but pay the price later. I don’t go well in the rain. It was forecast to rain, but the sun was shining as the race got under way so I opted for the second strategy and tried to make some hay.
It would appear that I was not the only one to adopt this tactic. Last year the start had been fairly relaxed after the van had released us, no-one wanting to make the first move. This year everyone shot off as they would leave the proverbial shovel and we jostled for position up the first climb, down the hill to where the neutral support was located and then up the next climb and along the fireroad to the Hidden Valley. Things levelled out here, the three leaders establishing themselves and opening a slight advantage over the rest of us. The pack kept in touch with them around the rest of the lap, just over an hour in duration. I grabbed another bottle of Bikefood from the pits on the way by, too early to eat at this stage, and headed out for lap 2. I gained a bit of time on this lap, going 17seconds faster than Matt Page to keep the gap on the lead to under 3minutes, leaving me in 7th place. Another XC-style pit-stop followed at the end of that lap, and two more quick laps had me up in 5th at the end of lap 4.
It was at this point that it began to rain, and good though the RaceKing tyres were in the dry they had to be changed for something more suitable, a chance for me to stop and have some food while Shergie swapped my wheels over. I kept up a good pace for the next few laps, getting 8 laps in within the first 9 hours, slowing down a little due to having to pit to eat some proper food.
I broke one of the unwritten rules of racing, about not trying something new in a race, but landed on my feet this time. Full Beam had generously stepped in to provide us with lights for the event. I must confess that I had never even heard of them until a week before the race, but they turned out to be excellent, more power than anything else I’ve seen, so much that I was actually causing a bit of a nuisance in the switchbacks, the guys coming the other way had a few rude words to say about them!
I was informed around 10pm that Gareth was going very well in the 12 hour race (he eventually got himself a top-10, pretty good for his European debut) and that Rob was suffering a bit and had required a stop for a shower to get himself warmed up and functioning properly again. I had seen Jon out on the course, he had been going very well but was mending a puncture when I saw him, I shouted across to check he was suitably equipped with tubes and things and then left him to it.
More worrying was what I was told about Jason and Steve. At this stage of the race Jason was already in Carlisle Hospital as a result of passing out (he later sounded like he was trying it on with a warranty department, “Really, I was just riding along and it happened”) and Steve was being attended to by the on-site medical staff. He couldn’t remember who he was, where he was or what it day it was. He didn’t recognise his girlfriend but did recognise Jon when he stopped to pick him up and summon the medics. However, that was not the first time Steve had forgotten something this weekend, as anyone who had seen our non-team-issue gazebo in the pits may have realised.

The rain intensified as the night drew on, with a truly torrential downpour around 1am that seemed to go on forever, there was serious discussion in some of the pits of the possibility of dismantling one of the chalets to use the timber to construct an ark. My front brake pads were through to the backing by the time I next pitted, pulling the lever caused a horrible sound of metal-on-metal and a grating noise of wet sand but very little reduction in my speed. I changed into some clean, dry clothes while Shergie put a new set of pads in for me and then set off into the rain again. It was no longer raining around the entire course, at the top of the main climb the hill was covered in quite a thick layer of fog and I found myself using my new lights to help a fellow rider through the murk, as he was somewhat less well endowed in the illumination department.
I have become accustomed to imagining things during races this long, but on this occasion things seemed to be conspiring against me, making me doubt my sanity. The track was crawling with frogs, possibly toads, I didn’t stop to have a look, there was a gorrila playing the drums at the start of the start of the second singletrack climb, the sound of symbols clearly audible around large parts of the 11 miles lap, Joolze was handing out pigs to anyone who looked like they were flagging a bit and it was snowing on the climb up from the really muddy fireroad. Oddly enough, it was only the snow which was in my imagination, although I still maintain that I was right about that and everyone else was wrong.
I pitted again at the end of that lap for some much needed pasta and some rice pudding. I was enjoying sitting down and eating, I really didn’t want to leave the comfort of my chair, but I was again forced out into the rain. While riding through the pit lane my helmet seemed to attract quite a lot of comments, being designed mainly for road use it shows up very well in the dark. For those of you who asked, it’s a Hardnutz. I wasn’t being rude not stopping to tell you what it is, I did have a race to ride! I can confirm that it’s comfy and surprisingly light but fortunately I remain ignorant of how it performs it’s intended function, and hope to keep it that way!
Heading down into the Hidden Valley again I realised that I had set a new record for the shortest-lived bike component, my front brake pads had again completely disintegrated, making the cornering interesting. By the time I reached the fireroad at the bottom my rear brake was also completely gone. The main climb back up into the fog was fine, but the following descent was tricky, to say the least. I found myself picking the slowest lines, trying to use the ground to moderate my speed and keep the bike under control. The Pronghorn has a reputation for being an a very fast, but unforgiving out-and-out race bike but I found it would let me make the occasional error on this descent and get away with it.
The next fireroad section was the usual hard slog, but with no brakes at all the next singletrack section was more entertaining than it should have been. The climb up on to the moor was no trouble, but hurtling down the final hill on wet grass with no ability to control my speed was quite scary.
Rather than spend time changing pads again the guys in the pits had got my hardtail ready for me with a set of suitable tyres and I was sent out on this to give them time to get the full-suss back into working order. It also had a slightly wider range of gears, rather than the close-ratio cassette I’m used to, which did help on the climbs. In fact, that bike was working so well that I stuck with it to the end of the race, despite the wide selection of bikes now ready for me in the pits.
I usually start to feel funny around 4 or 5am and then get my second wind around dawn. However, this time I was feeling odd again in broad daylight around 8:30, not seeing objects this time, just shapes and colours dancing around in front of my eyes. I could feel myself starting to nod-off as I was riding along. I have fallen asleep on the bike once before, and that really shook me up. Fortunately Bikefood now make some caffeine tablets and there was a ready supply of these in the pits, so I resorted to artificial stimulants to keep myself running for the next lap.
There were more riders out on the track by this stage, a number of them who had succumbed to the conditions and called it a day earlier in the race had now reappeared for a bit of fun once the sun was starting to emerge through the clouds, well rested, warm, dry and absolutely flying, although miles behind and well out of contention.
Coming into the pits to start the final lap it was great to see everyone else there to cheer me off, Jason had been released by the hospital and Steve was actually communicating using real words again. One more bottle of Bikefood, a dry pair of gloves and tin of peaches (don’t know why, but I always get a craving for them) later I was off again, just concentrating on making it to the end.
Coming down the final descent into the arena I saw James Rix gaining on me quite rapidly, and although he was 2 laps behind me I came over all competitive and somehow found the umph to win possibly the slowest-ever sprint finish.
I crossed the line to take 13th place, only 4min 48secs behind Scott Swalling in 12th but 8min 11secs ahead of Cotic/AQR’s Anthony Jordan to make it 2-1 to me in our own personal battle.
As exciting as it was to take 13th place at European Championship relief was the biggest feeling upon finishing. I was stripped, thrown into the shower, cleaned, dressed and then sent out to say something nice to the man from Full Beam, on camera. My brain was so addled I can’t remember what I said to him, I hope it made some sort of sense and could be edited down to something along the lines of “Thanks very much.” I was then put into a tent and went to sleep, just as the sun was getting going and warming us all up.

Solo-24 hour racing really is a team sport, especially when the race is as horrendous as this one. To some extent we riders have the easy job, we just have to ride. The pit crew have to do all the thinking, planning, organising, preparation, etc, etc. I would like to say a big thank-you to all the guys and girls in the pits, but especially to Laura for looking after me so well and to Shergie for doing the same for my bike. Although I felt I could have strangled them when they were forcing me out into the rain yet again, I know they meant well.
There are a number of other guys without whom etc… Full Beam obviously, Bikefood, Continental, Duffbag (even in these conditions the kit-bags seemed strangely impervious to the rain. We have no idea how they work, I suspect magic.) Mt Zoom and Hardnutz.
For info on the 12hr race have a look at here.
Long post for a long race....

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