I Need The Other Rear Wheel And A Piece Of Cutlery

2013 24 Hour World Championship

I would like to dedicate this race to Kane Vandenberg, a sailor with the Royal Australian Navy and, although not a competitor in this particular race, still a fellow mountain biker.

He crashed while riding on the course at Mt Stromlo on Friday afternoon, sustaining serious chest injuries. Despite the best efforts of both his team-mates and the medics at the scene they were sadly unable to save him. This serves as a stark reminder to us all that there is something far more important than a World Championship at stake every time we ride our bikes. Stay safe guys.

Me taking the lead.  Briefly.

Saturday dawned bright and sunny, as it usually does in Australia. The wind had died down too, which was good as it meant that the tent we had in the pits would therefore stay more or less where we left it when our backs were turned. I had slept well the night before, and had woken about 8am, an hour before my alarm would have gone off and four hours before the race started at noon. This meant that I had plenty of time for two breakfasts and generally faffing around with the bikes. I always get nervous before a 24hr, it doesn’t seem to get any better the more I do, it just reminds me how much it hurts!

The Elite riders were called up first to take our places on the start line. The start this year was to be on our bikes, rather than the usual Le Mans style running start. This met with approval from a lot of the riders, but running starts usually favour me so I was a little disappointed. As I was seeded number 23 I was on the second row of the grid. There was the usual pre-race briefing, with the addition of a little more info about how to avoid snakes and what to do if you did actually get bitten by one. We were then told that the rider who had been taken away in the ambulance the day before had died of his injuries later that night and so we all held a minute’s silence before the start.

The start itself was pretty quick. I know I shouldn’t go out too fast in these long races but the chance to, very briefly, lead a World Championship again was too good to miss. I was at the front as we rounded the first corner and headed down the back of the pits. Matt Page, the other British rider, came passed me along there and so it was a British One-Two for a couple of hundred yards. Cory Wallace, the Canadian rider, passed us just before we left the tarmac and headed out onto the course proper but then Aussie Ed McDonald came passed us all going very, very quickly and just disappeared off into the distance up the first climb.

Mt Stromlo observatory just visible in the background
The first couple of laps were pretty uneventful, people just pacing themselves and, with the exception of Ed, taking it nice and steady. He was busy opening up a significant lead at the front, putting in one fast lap after another and scaring a few of the big names. This was relatively short lived and by 8½hrs he had (almost) called it a day, much to everyone else’s relief. He did emerge again near the end of the race to put in a couple more quick laps but he was well out of contention by then.

My early laps were conducted without much in the way of pit stops, I just sailed through and took a new bottle of Bikefood and a couple of gels. I moved onto solid food by about lap 5 (that makes me sound like a small child doesn’t it?) mainly pineapples and other fruit. I had a race remarkably devoid of mars bars, my mars bar count is usually well into double figures in a 24. The course became more and more fun as the race went on. I had ridden a number of practice laps in the preceding days but there is no substitute for racing it to really get your head around it.

The first half of the track was familiar to me from the 2010 World Championship but the second half was not something I had ridden before. There was a new section of trail called The Willo Link (named in honour of James Williamson, the 2008 World Champion who died during the Cape Epic race in South Africa in 2010) and this took us north to a couple of other new sections, which were a lot of fun. The Mt Stromlo area had been devastated by the bush fires of 2003 but this means that the mountain now provides pretty much a blank slate for the course designers to construct whatever they want to and the tracks around there are constantly evolving.

One thing which did become a problem, or two things to be more precise, were my feet. I have never really had any trouble with them during a race before. Occasionally one will start to hurt a little after about 20 hours but this time they were both really painful by about 5 hours. Swapping shoes seemed to alleviate it a little, I assume that it just moved the pressure point slightly, but the pain soon returned. I had three pairs of shoes with me and could swap between them whenever I felt it necessary, it became a balancing act between the minute or so I would lose changing shoes and how much time I thought having painful feet was costing me out on the track.

Darkness fell about 7:30pm. Darkness falls very suddenly in Australia, one moment it’s bright daylight and the next it isn’t. Fortunately, I have a sufficiently bright light that I didn’t really notice the darkness, other than a sudden absence of some peripheral vision. 2,500 lumens was plenty, and also drew some comments from a few of the marshals. As a comparison the headlights on my van produce roughly 1,500 lumens... I had erred on the side of caution with the batteries too and had brought three along, easily enough to be able to run the light at full power all night, it’s just one thing less to have to think about.

Pit row in the middle of the night
Something which I did notice however was a significant drop in the temperature. During the day it had been in the mid to high twenties but it dropped almost to freezing during the night. It wasn’t quite cold enough for there to be a frost but it was necessary to go for long sleeves and long finger gloves, as well as the relief of having an excuse to change to some warmer boots, anything to ease my feet. The warm rice pudding made a welcome appearance as the night went on, and Carole managed to improve on this further with the invention of chocolate rice pudding at about 4am. Rice pudding was one of the few things I could still taste by that stage of the race, I had drunk a pint of hot water and believed it to be tea. Subsequent hot drinks apparently were actually tea, or at least a cup of warm, damp sugar. If the spoon falls over in it, there isn’t enough sugar.

Matt Page had come over looking for a win, and it would have been nice to see a Brit break the recent Aussie dominance, but he did not have a good race. He had been going steadily in about fifth or sixth place early on, but was forced to retire from the race before midnight with a very wide selection of medical problems. I therefore found myself suddenly ‘Top Brit’, in the men’s race anyway, Kim Hurst was going very well in the women’s event. I will at this point give a mention to the Canadian rider Cory Wallace and his injury. He was lying in a strong second place when he had a pretty big crash and dislocated his shoulder. He lost about 15 minutes before he managed to get it back into it’s socket and carry on. He eventually finished fourth!

Lap 13 was a little unlucky for me, the first problem I had during the race. It was the middle of the night and I had just swapped to the second battery for the lights. However, it wasn’t attached quite right and was bouncing around a little, it’s placement meant that it was catching on my knees as it moved around in the corners. I had a brief attempt to secure it properly but couldn’t get my cold fingers to cope with the strap very well and decided to ignore it. However, on one of the fast sections out at the back of the mountain it moved sufficiently to pull the cable off the battery, and I was suddenly plunged into pitch darkness at 20mph. I grabbed a big handful of brake and managed not to hit anything before I came to a stop. I lost a couple of minutes sorting it out properly.

The following lap saw my only crash of the race, about 4km from the end of the course I just lost the front wheel in the dust and ended up in a heap, fortunately rolling out of the way of the two riders right behind me. The dust at Stromlo is like nowhere else I’ve ever been, it is everywhere, covering everything. You can judge roughly how far ahead the rider in front is by how difficult it is to breath through the cloud they have thrown up behind them. This can be a gap of several minutes but the cloud will still linger. Anyway, the dust accumulates at the side of the track in big piles, quite slippery in their own right but also hiding any number of sharp pointy rocks and other interesting things. I lost a little blood from my leg in the fall but not a great deal. I could feel some more running down underneath my sleeve but decided not to look as seeing things like that usually makes it hurt more for some reason. I took a minute to get my breath back and then set off, my light battery now bouncing around again.

The course was very rocky, although it didn’t have any very difficult sections, but it was rocky enough to give us a bit of a battering. By the early hours my forearms had become quite sore, not in the same league as my feet, but enough that braking was getting to be a little more interesting than it really needed to be. It eventually dawned on me that this may not be entirely unrelated to the strange clunking sound which was emanating from my forks on most of the descents. There was a little forward and backward movement starting to appear too, which can be a little disconcerting to say the least. I had the option of a spare bike, having managed to get two out to Oz this time, but the bike I was on was much more suitable for this particular track and so I held off changing for as long as I could. However, on the dawn lap the forks gave up completely and as I came into the pits at about 7am I made the switch. I wanted to swap the posh wheels over from the first bike, this only cost a minute or so and one bent spoon (don’t ask). I appeared to have acquired two new helpers too, they were sorting out my bike while Carole was busy getting as much food down my throat as she could. I can’t remember your names, but thanks very much guys.

During the night I had moved up from 20th to 16th, but there were a number of us quite close together. The fluctuating gaps between us and the lap times I would be required to do to beat them were testing Carole’s mental arithmetic skills, not easy to work out at the best of times but probably a lot harder when you are that tired. Some of the riders were having their brains tested too, it was hard enough 19hrs into the race to remember how many laps I had done, never mind the capital cities of certain western European countries (The fact that I was one of only two riders to get these right impressed the girls in our neighbouring pit enormously, and this impromptu quiz was the only thing I beat World Champion Jason English at all weekend) I can also vouch for the fact that uncooked broccoli is not a good accompaniment for rice pudding. I’m still not entirely sure where this came from, there’s a bit of a story involving some brassicas, some custard and, inevitably, some singlespeeders but I don’t know the full tale. It did however provide a bit of welcome light relief.

In the last few hours we were starting to worry about my position. More accurately, Carole was starting to worry about my position and I was still worrying about how much my feet hurt. I had picked the pace up again as the sun had reappeared and was going reasonably quickly as the end of the race approached. From 16th I had picked off 15th and 14th and on lap eighteen moved into 13th place. New Zealander Ian Wright was ahead of me and had responded with a couple of fast laps of his own, although this was probably as much an attempt to catch South African Dane Walsh as it was to keep me behind.

He failed at the first of these tasks but succeeded at the second and I remained in 13th place at the finish. It wasn’t quite the top-10 I had set myself the target of achieving but I was happy with the way the race had gone and the way I had ridden. I was also the first British rider in the men’s race. We had a little more success in the women’s race with Kim Hurst in 2nd and Francesca Sanders winning the singlespeed category and taking a very impressive 6th overall. I think this vies with Cory Wallace for the best ride of the weekend.

Of the other British riders, Kelvin Little, took 6th place in his age-group and 75th overall, and Matt Page and Chris Schofield both failed to finish. Portuguese rider Pedro Maia is someone else who will probably be familiar to the British audience, he finished 7th in his age group and 126th overall. He definitely takes the prize as the jolliest rider there, I saw him out on the course a couple of times during the night and even in the wee small hours he was remarkably cheerful.

We again have two Australian World Champions, Jason English and Jessica Douglass. It’s home turf for us next year as the race heads to Fort William, we can’t let them win another one.

I would like to say a very big thank-you to a whole load of people, including of course Mt Zoom and Bikefood, far too many people  to mention here, but you all know who you are. I will however single out for special mention Nigel Dawson and of course Carole Armstrong who travelled half way around the world to support me and keep me going. I know it’s the riders who get all the glory and the recognition but the pit crews work just as hard, we really couldn’t do it without you.

The photographs are all from Sportograf

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