Top Tips For A Tip-Top 24

You have done your training. You are as fit as you are ever going to be. The pit crew are ready. The bikes are ready. So what else do you need to think about?

I will say at the outset that this is by no means intended as a guide to how to win a 24hr race, it is more a list of things to think about. Everyone is different and will have different requirements and priorities but make sure you have these areas covered in a way which suits you and you won’t go too far wrong. No matter how many 24hrs you do they are always daunting, but prepare thoroughly and they will (almost!) be enjoyable, get it wrong and 24hrs is a very, very long time to suffer through. Some of these tips will only save you a minute or so but add all of those up over the course of a race and it can, and indeed does, make a difference.

Pit Crew
Let’s start with the most important part of whole thing, your helpers. Yes, it is possible to do a race without any, but you will be very much in the hands of Freyr, God of Weather, Hodur, God of Night, and the God of Mechanical Gremlins, whose name I appear to have forgotten.
Choose wisely.
It is a good idea to have a helper who is not emotionally attached to you. When it is 3am, cold, wet and horrible and you look like death you need someone who can push you out again for another lap, not someone who is going to take pity on you and get you to have a sit down with a cup of tea and a warm blanket. It can also be rather unpleasant for your other half to have to see the state you can get into during a 24.
Also, think about how they react under pressure. There is a big difference between setting a bike up in the comfort of the garage and trying to get one working again in the dark and the pouring rain with numb fingers in less time than it takes the rider to eat a pasty. Can your chosen person cope with this?

Ann & Simon, Mt Stromlo, 2010 World Championships

Plan the race together
Make sure your pit crew know your race plan, write it down and go through it together. For example, think about at what point in the race you will need your lights fitting. They will need to know how long the battery will last and when to change it. More on lights later, but spend some time with the guys in the pits before the race familiarising them with the details of your lights, all the little bits like how the clamps work.
Also make sure your pit crew know the details of your bike(s). For example, write down what tyre pressures you like for this course, which chain lube to use in the dry, which to use if it’s wet and how to change your brake pads. Practice these things together before the race if you can.
They will need to know how long it will take you to get round a lap, obviously. If they know when you are due back into the pits they can have whatever you need ready for you at the right time. Getting the timings on the hot food and drink right and having it ready just as you arrive is a bit of a black art and takes some getting used to, if you can work with the same pit crew at some 12hr races before the big day this will be great practice.

 Former World Champ Chris Eatough refueling on the move.
This makes his pit 'stops' about 2½ seconds faster than even 
Sebastian Vettel's crew can manage.

Get organised
A blackboard or at least a pen and paper is very helpful. They can write down the time you left the pit, your expected lap time and the time you are expected back. This is especially important if there are several riders sharing a pit and they need to know who is due in when, it’s all too easy to lose track.
Give them chance to think
Try to give them plenty of warning for things that you want. This isn’t always possible, there will be unexpected problems, but “it’s getting cold out there, I will need a hot drink next time round” is much better than “I’m now freezing, get the kettle on”. Forewarning will give them chance to prepare and the pit stops will cost you far less time.
Try to do two (or more) things at once. For example, if it takes your pit crew one minute to fit your lights then that is the lap to have the stop for the pasta. It is a waste of time to only have a banana that time and then wait for the lights and then have to stop again for the pasta on the next lap.
If you have not worked with your pit crew before spend a while with them practicing taking bottles on the move. In the first few laps you will probably just take a bottle, and maybe a gel or two, as you would in an XC race and only move onto solid food later in the race.
See things from the other side
If you get the chance you should try pitting for someone else, either at a 12 or 24hr race. This is an excellent way to see things from your pit crew’s point of view and get a feeling for what does and doesn’t work. You never know, you may come up with an idea you had never thought of before.

This is the other really, really important aspect which you just have to get right, there is no muddling through if you get this wrong. Rather helpfully there is an article all about eating and drinking here

The Pits
Home for a day
Moving on a little from the pit crew we come to the pits. It may sound obvious but this is where your pit crew will spend most of their time so make sure it’s a nice place to be. They will at the very least need a big tent, the biggest you have. There should be enough space inside to fix a bike when it’s raining, a chair or two and lights. For my pit light I have a vehicle inspection lamp and an old car battery, this keeps a 40W bulb going all night. If you are lucky enough to have two or more helpers have somewhere they can take it in turns to sleep, either in the van or a tent away from the noise of the race.
Make sure the big tent is well anchored, the wind can change significantly over the course of a race. I always use a ratchet strap to tie mine down using the spare wheel off the van as a weight. A gas patio heater would be a very welcome addition to any pit.
Dawn. Things are hotting up in pit row.
Location, location, location
My preference is for a pit near the start/finish line, and in particular the guys doing the timing and the leaderboard. Yes, it will be a little more rowdy there but who’s planning on sleeping anyway? It is much easier for your pit crew to keep an eye on the opposition from this position. There will usually be a couple of tight-ish corners in the arena to slow the riders as they come past the timing guys. It is a good idea to get a pitch on the slowest corner if you can, if you have to stop it will cost far less time getting back up to speed again than stopping on a flat-out section.
Check out the location of other things before the race. Your helpers will need to find the water supply, maybe the electricity supply or light charging area, the neutral kitchen if there is one, anything which will be useful and could be tricky to find in the dark.

The layout of the pits at the 2013 World Championships

If you don’t know them go and say Hello, make friends with them. It’s good for the pit crew to have more people to talk to and chances are they will have a spare (insert item which you have forgotten to bring despite spending hours servicing it before the race) which they can lend to you. 24hr races tend to be much friendlier than shorter races, it’s more a case of everyone together against the course and the weather than just trying to beat each other. Be prepared to muck in to help out your new friends too.
Get organised
I like to have a place for tools, a place for clothes, a place for food, a place for lights, etc, etc. In every other aspect of life I am completely disorganised but you don’t want to be wasting time rummaging for things in the middle of a race. If you are sharing the pits have a ‘your side’ and ‘my side’, you don’t want to discover that your mate has eaten the rice pudding you were relying on while you are trying to squeeze into a waterproof which is three sizes too small.

2011 European Championship. I have no idea what's so great about Rob's shoes either

Take every piece of bike kit you own. If this doesn’t look enough get some more. Also take every pair of gloves you own, bike ones or otherwise. This amount of clothes will be overkill for a lot of races, in most of them I have managed with just a set of light clothes for the daytime and a set of warmer clothes for the night, but if it rains for the whole 24hrs you will want to be changing fairly regularly. Prepare for this regardless of the forecast, especially if racing in this country! At the Strathpuffer you will probably end up wearing everything all at once.
Get organised
A system that works for me is to sort everything into groups and put it into plastic bags, for example gloves, shorts, jerseys, socks, etc. This keeps the rain out, but also makes it much easier to find stuff. If you need warmer gloves it is much quicker to find the Gloves Bag and then the warm ones than it is to rummage through one massive kit bag looking for them. I put the things I am likely to need first at the top and the really old tatty horrible stuff at the bottom just in case all the good stuff is so cold and wet as to be unwearable. Another system I have seen which works is to pack clothes in groups, a base layer, a top, a pair of shorts, socks and gloves in each bag, just grab a bag and it’s all there ready for you. Make sure your pit crew know where your clothes are, show them where everything is and the order in which you are likely to need them.
Things to avoid
I avoid using bib shorts. In a race this long you will probably need a toilet stop at some point, they will cost time here, and if it’s wet you want to be able to just change the item of clothing which is causing trouble without having to do everything else too.

How bright?
An arms race appears to have developed in the lighting world over the last few years, bigger and brighter seem to be the way forward. Realistically anything from 1,000 lumens upwards should be fine, but 1,500-2,000 seems to be the norm nowadays. There is the phenomenon whereby you find yourself riding in your own shadow if the person behind you has a much brighter light, which is a little disconcerting, so as long as you have more than him you should be fine. He will obviously need more than the person behind him. I think I may have just figured out how the arms race started...
Your speed will be limited as much by how well you can see as how fit you are. The light I use is about 2,500 lumens and I can go pretty much flat out all night, I just lose a little bit of peripheral vision. To put this into context the headlights on my van are about 1,800 lumens on full.
Battery life
Make sure you have enough battery life for the race. Don’t rely on whatever the manufacturer claims, test yours in rides before the race and check carefully. Remember batteries will not last as long when it’s cold, like at night for instance. I always make sure I have enough battery life to run them at full power all night. Some people turn them down on the fireroads and up again in the singletrack but it’s just something else to think about and my brain can’t cope with too much. Usually the point at which you realise you’ve forgotten to turn them up again is just the point at which you don’t want to be taking your hands off the bars to do it!
As mentioned above, make sure your pit crew know the life of your lights and when you need to change batteries. They are far more likely to remember this at 3am than you are as they will have it written down on their handy blackboard race-planner (make sure they do!)
Mark your batteries/lights. It is easy to tell which bottle is nearly empty, much less easy to tell which battery is nearly dead. My batteries are all different colours and I always use them in the same order.

Which kind do you like?
Lights broadly divide into two categories, self contained and separate battery and head units. The self contained ones, like the popular Exposure Six Pack, are quicker to fit and have no trailing cables which can snag on passing undergrowth. The separate battery and head unit systems, like the Full Beam Night-Nemesis I use, have the advantage of giving a better centre of gravity by moving the weight from the bars to the middle of the frame, but more importantly the ability to simply change batteries rather than the whole light. I ride with a spare battery in my pocket, if it expires it is a 30 second process to swap it, whereas with the self-contained units you need to be carrying an entire spare light which, aside from the additional weight, at several hundred pounds each it is not always a viable option.
Think about whether you want a bar and/or helmet mounted light. Helmet mounted lights have the obvious advantage of pointing exactly where you are looking, the main place this is an advantage is on the drop-offs where bar lights just point straight ahead rather than down at the landing. However, even a small weight on your head can become uncomfortable for your neck after a whole night. For this reason a lot of people use a big bar light and a small helmet light, my bar light is bright enough that I don’t really find the helmet light necessary.If you are using a helmet light have this on a spare helmet, it is much quicker to change helmets at dusk than it is to fit a light to one.

Contradicting what I've just said, this photo was taken before I
bought the big light and I did need both a bar and helmet light then
Spare light
It is always worth having a spare light just in case, even a small LED  torch in your pocket can get you back again should something happen to the main light. No matter how good it is you can still crash and break it. Even if it’s just a minor problem with the light you still have to be able to see in order to fix it.
Light hire?
Good lights will cost several hundred pounds, which is a lot. My spare batteries were more than my entire first car! If you are only going to use them a couple of times a year it may be worth hiring a set. Most of the big manufactures have some demo ones available for £50 or so. If they are sponsors of the event they are usually promoted quite heavily. Hiring lights means that you always have the latest technology available to you and you get to try as many different kinds as you wish. Most companies will send them to you a couple of weeks before the event to give you chance to get used to them but other than that training with them gets rather expensive by this method.

You will definitely need at least one of these.
I am fortunate enough to have the choice of both hardtail and full suss bikes. My favoured bike for most 24hr races will be the full suss, it is slightly more forgiving on the body but also gives that little margin for error when your brain is starting to go a bit funny in the middle of the night and you aren’t getting all the lines quite right.
Nice and comfy
Weight is, as ever, an important consideration when building a bike for a 24hr, the effects of any excess weight will be multiplied many times over compared to an XC race. Reliability is also a big factor, especially if you are attempting the race with only one bike, but even alternating laps on different bikes takes it’s toll after a while. However, the biggest concern should be the comfort of the rider. You can suffer through an uncomfortable position for a 2hr XC race without it costing you much time but over 24hrs the effects on the body will be much greater and any issues with set-up will lead to greater fatigue and maybe even injury.
I always make a few concessions to comfort on my bikes, for example I run the suspension very slightly softer than I would for a XC race and use slightly larger volume tyres. Foam grips are a mixed blessing, in a dry race they are the best thing ever, protecting the hands from any vibration-related issues and taking a lot of the stress from the wrists and forearms. I won’t use them in a wet race though as they do absorb water and release it slowly back into one’s gloves, causing all kinds of problems with cold.

26" wheels, 3x9, tubes, 23"bars. Is this a retrobike now? It's so 2011

N+1 and all that
If you have two, or more, bikes take as many as you can. If you have only one bike at least try to borrow some spare wheels from someone. I have competed in races at both ends of the scale, some where one bike has been perfect for the entire race and others where I have been changing each lap. The mud was so horrendous in one race that the brake pads needed changing and the drivetrain tuning every hour (actually every 40 minutes but it was a one hour lap so I had to keep doing the last 20 minutes with no brakes) In races like that a good pit crew are worth their weight in gold, one bike being fixed while the other is being ridden.
Mending stuff
Having read everything above in great detail you will have made sure the pit crew are familiar with at least the basics of your bike, such as how to change the brake pads. If needs be they can always find someone in the pits to help out with any complicated jobs. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, most teams will have at least one mechanic with them and if everything is going well for their riders they will have very little to do and will welcome the opportunity to make themselves useful. Ply them with biscuits if required.
Everyone should build a bike from scratch at lest once. There are two reasons for this, the first being that it is a very satisfying thing to do. The more important reason is that having built the bike you will know how every single bit of it works so when something does go wrong you will stand much more chance of being able to diagnose and fix the problem.
Those who are less mechanically-minded should at least make sure they know the basics, such as how to fix a broken chain or how to build a singlespeed after an errant branch has pulled your rear mech to pieces.

If you do have several bikes try to make sure that as many parts as possible are interchangeable. I have four MTBs and have just about managed this. With the exception of one press-fit BB and the inevitable mech hanger problems everything will fit every other bike. This means having to carry many fewer spare parts and also means that the pit crew have a ready supply of pretty much every part they will need while attempting to cobble together one functioning bike out of the two you have just broken. If you do have any unique parts, mech hangers being a good example, keep a couple of spares in your tool box.

The Sleepmonsters
Say hello to them. Seriously.
Some of you may not have met the sleepmonsters yet. When you have been riding a bike for a very long time your brain will start to do weird things and start seeing things which are not there. I have seen all kinds of things, from tractors and tortoises to squirrels and snow. This will normally be in the last hour or so before dawn but I have seen them once in daylight. They can be dangerous, obviously the tiredness of which they are a symptom can present problems but much worse is taking evasive action to avoid obstacles which don’t really exist, such as phantom tractors pulling out of field gateways in front of me.
There is nothing you can do about them so if they visit you just embrace them and say hello, recognising them for what they are is half way to beating them.

The Start
And finally, let’s finish at the beginning. Despite the length of the race, it is just as important as it always is to get a good start. Yes, you have longer than usual to recover from a bad one, but why make life difficult for yourself?
While the arena is still nice and quiet, say just after breakfast, head over to the start line and have a good look at it. Practice the first few hundred yards. You will of course have already completed several laps of the track and will be familiar with every detail of it. The more organised ones amongst you will even have done a lap in the dark. However, it is fairly standard procedure for the start to be a little different from every other lap. They tend to be changed slightly to give everyone chance to spread out before the first techy section, so make sure you are familiar with it.

Normally the top seeds will be gridded, so check at sign-on whether you will be and if so when you have to be there. If you will not be gridded make sure that you get there in plenty of time so that you can get to the front of the ‘everyone else’ section.
No matter how many 24hrs you do they will always be daunting, doing more of them doesn’t make it any less so, it just reminds you how much it hurts. Everyone there will be equally nervous so don’t worry.
When the gun goes, give it everything, go for it as you would in an XC race, until the first singletrack section at least. It is vital to get to the front before the track narrows as the sheer number of people means you will lose a lot of time waiting if you are further back. This is especially important at the really big races, like Relentless. The World Championships for example will have a much smaller number of people and everyone will be pretty quick but bottle-necks can still be created.
Also, if you get with the fast guys at the front you will find yourself getting swept along with them. Personally, I find this a very good thing, I’m sure it’s merely psychological but I find it easier to go fast if I start fast rather than start slow and build up.

A mile and a half into the 2013 World Championships and it's still absolutely flat out.
You can just about see my orange helmet in the middle of the pack.

Check the forecast too, if the race will start dry but then get wet it may be worth going out really hard and killing yourself to get the fast laps in while you can and then just suffering round the last few hours when the course is much slower.

Hopefully most of the preparations outlined above will be unnecessary, the race will be dry and dusty, the bike will work faultlessly, the spare bike won’t even get touched and the pit crew will have little else to do besides passing you bottles and cramming pies down your neck. It occasionally happens like that...
You may have noticed that getting things organised is a bit of a recurring theme above, and this is coming from someone who could make a legitimate claim to be the world’s most disorganised person. However, it can save you a lot of time so it’s well worth the effort to get things sorted before the race.

If you have managed to read all of the above you clearly have enough stamina to survive a 24hr. Have fun.

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