It's Not A Bike Race Without A Van Incident

The title is a quote from Mr Richard Rothwell, who knows a thing or two about bike racing. He said it to me in a text message when I was 1,000 miles from home in a country where I barely speak the language watching oil pouring out of the bottom of my van.

It set me thinking. Am I especially unlucky with vehicles at races or just rather clumsy? Sometimes these things are clearly not my fault, such as when my friend John crashed into the back of me on the way home from a race in Falkirk but others, such as tearing the rear bumper off on a rock in a field in Wales, might be.

There is also the time the windscreen wiper flew off in the pouring rain on a Belgian motorway, the time I burnt James’s foot with a coolant leak on the way to Drumlanrig, steering failure on the way to a criterium in Leamington Spa, the demise of a head-gasket near St. Andrews, getting lost and ending up in the wrong country (Luxembourg) and the enormous clouds of black smoke which billowed from under the bonnet when I eventually got my car started after the Corrieyiarack duathlon. I have also been stopped by the police 8 times in the last 3 years, including by the French police twice in the space of 15 minutes. This is despite having committed no offence at all, one particular occasion was just because they wanted to search my van to look for rustled sheep, but of course failed to find any. 
Something missing?

Some of my other highlights include getting stuck in the gateway as soon as I arrived at Rhyadder at about 1am. I had made it less than 6ft into the venue before I was unable to go any further. I was mocked, and then rescued, by some very helpful people returning from the pub.
I also managed to get stuck in the campsite at Keilder, right down at the far end. That took a lot of getting out of, some other helpful racers eventually found a few old plastic fertiliser bags and, having failed to move it at all by pushing, we filled them with gravel from some nearby roadworks and piled it up underneath the wheels, which worked much better.

However, I then compounded the error the following year by getting stuck in exactly the same spot. Trying to keep one wheel on the hardpack hadn’t helped at all. Luckily the second time there was access through the mud for another van to tow me out.

Nearly rolling my van at Newcastleton the night before the European 24hr was by far my scariest van incident, and the one which is still talked about the most, at least by those who helped right it again. The full story of that is here if you want to read it.

It seems that I can’t even go for an afternoon at Glentress with my girlfriend without having to stop and tighten some loose wheel nuts on the return journey.

I’m going to go into more detail about three particular trips with van incidents as these happened abroad and are therefore more exciting, in my mind anyway.

In October 2010 I flew out to Australia for the 24hr World Championships. The first few days of that trip were pretty much one big long van incident.

I left the airport terminal, got attacked by a small green parrot and made my way to the taxi rank. I found a taxi which could carry my bike in it’s flight box and gave the driver the address of the campervan depot. He dropped me there, I gave him $50 and off he went. I went in, introduced myself and said I had come to collect my van.
“We’ve never heard of you.”
Bugger. I rang the agency I had booked it through.
“Oh no, you should be at this other depot on the other side of the city.”
I called another taxi, and he took me to the other depot. I gave him $100 (Sydney is a big place and it was a very long way) and asked him to wait, just in case.
I went in, introduced myself and said I had come to collect my van.
“We’ve never heard of you.”
“Which agency did you use?”
“Allday Travel”
”We stopped dealing with them ages ago, they’re a right pain in the arse.”

This was true. I should also just point out in case any of you have seen pictures of me with a camper from Juicy that that was on my second Oz trip in 2013 and that they were both much, much better and slightly cheaper.

Anyway, back on the phone.
“Sorry, you were right the first time, it was that depot, just a breakdown in communication.”

Back into the taxi, back across Sydney, give the driver another $100. Getting the $200 knocked off the hire fee proved not to be too easy either.

They had clearly panicked a bit when they had realised their mistake and dug an old truck out of the back of the yard. It was basic, but it would do. Well, I thought so at the time.

 Top quality motoring here

I drove it around Sydney that day so it was only the following morning when I attempted to get it above about 50km/h on the freeway that the problem with the engine cutting out became apparent.

I rang them again.
“Just pop it into a garage and get them to fix it, we’ll pick up the bill.”

I was expecting the Aussie version of the AA but maybe that’s how they do things there and I didn’t want to be a whinging pom. I took it to the nearest garage thinking that they must have customers booked in and surely they won’t have time to do this there and then? I went surfing for the day and returned in the late afternoon to find that they had indeed had other customers booked in and hadn’t had time to do my van there and then.

Back on the phone, demanding the AA. They eventually relented and a mechanic was dispatched.
I described the problem to him, it felt like a fuel–starvation issue. He agreed and so began the hunt for the fuel filter. The engine was underneath and so it took some finding, although we did come across various other things first, including a massive hole in the floor, hidden underneath the mat.

Apparently this hole in the floor is fine. The vehicle was registered in Queensland and their Pink Slip is nowhere near as strict as the New South Wales Blue Slip, which in turn lags some way behind an MOT.

He cleaned the fuel filter and then the carburettors and was clearly the first person to do this fairly basic servicing in a very, very long time.
“Go for a drive, I’ll follow you for a bit and we’ll see how it goes.”
It was definitely better. It would now only cut out when I tried to go up a hill.
Back on the phone, trying to be firm but without loosing my rag.
“It still doesn’t work. I need a different van.”
“We haven’t got any others.”
“I don’t care. Hire one from another company for me.”
“We can’t do that.”
”Of course you can, it’s not difficult.”
“We can’t get one at such short notice.”
”There are dozens of hire places in Sydney, one of them will have a van. I will be at your depot at 9am tomorrow morning and you will have a new van ready for me.”
“Talk to the breakdown man.”
”This van’s dangerous mate, he needs a new one.”
There was a disgruntled noise of resignation from the other end.

I thanked the breakdown man and set off. It was early evening. My plan was to go and park in the gateway of the depot overnight and make sure that they could not conduct any other business the following day until I had my new van,

Coming off a roundabout the road turned slightly uphill. The van stopped dead and simply refused to start again.

Back on the phone.
The van was to be collected by the breakdown company at 8am the following morning and there was a new one waiting for me at the depot. In the meantime I would have to just stay there.

I tried pushing it away from the roundabout but as soon as I took the handbrake off it would roll backwards, towards the roundabout and into oncoming traffic, I wasn’t strong enough to shove it up the hill.

I saw a lady emerge from the house at the end of the drive I was blocking and she came over to say hello. I asked if she was going to need access to the drive before 8am, and she said that yes she was, she had to go out for dinner with her mother in about an hour. That could be a problem…

However, we discovered that if I went around the rear of the vehicle and leaned against it with my back it wouldn’t roll backwards when she removed the handbrake and we could slowly move it up the hill, away from both her driveway and the roundabout.

She asked what had happened, so I told her everything I have just told you. She then asked what I was going to do for the night.
“I guess I’ll just sleep in the van here and wait to get towed tomorrow”
”You can’t do that! Come with me.”
She lead me to the bottom of the drive and to a small annex next to the house. She opened the door to reveal a bed and a sofa inside and another door at the far end.
“The bathroom’s through there, here’s the key, but I have to go now, bye” and she was gone.

I spent a very comfortable night in the little room and awoke at 7am the following morning. There were already signs of life in the main house so I knocked on the door to say thank-you, but I wasn’t allowed to leave until I had been given a rather large breakfast. With the exception of the man at the van hire place everyone I met in Australia was lovely and helpful, all very friendly, much like the lovely lady with the spare bed, who's name I have forgotten. I think the van man may have been an ex-pat Brit… 

Anyway, a truck arrived to collect my van, I suspect to take it to the scrap yard rather than back to the depot and a taxi came to collect me and my bike. It took me to a depot run by another company where a very helpful man gave me a new van, which worked, and so I set off towards the race.

Luckily this didn’t become a van-incident. I was the first to board the ferry when heading over to France for the Meagavalanche and so was given the front middle position on the ferry. What I didn’t realise until I saw it from the lounge window was that they approach the dock in Dunkirk with the bow door already open. I have never had a vehicle with a fully-functioning handbrake so I watched with trepidation as I tried to remember if I had left it parked in gear…

In May 2012 I was to race at the 24hr World Championships at Finale Ligure in Italy. Being Italy, I could take my own van, so it should be much less problematic than the Aussie trip.

I gave it a quick once over on the Thursday before my departure. There was very little coolant in the radiator, it must have a leak somewhere, not good timing. The local garage said I would need a new radiator, which they could get in about a week. Bugger. My ferry was on the Sunday.

They strongly advised me not to attempt any long journeys.

I upgraded my breakdown cover to the best (a lot of) money could buy, stocked up on Rad-Weld and a twenty litre jerry can full of water and set off.

It was actually fine, in the whole two week trip it used only three bottles of radiator sealant and only two litres of water, although I was driving along with one eye on the temperature gauge.

More of a problem was the ant’s nest which appeared in the vehicle in the second week of the trip. One night just after the race I was lying in the bed in the back when I thought I saw movement in the moonlight, I assumed it was a small spider so I tuned on the light so that I could see it and evict it. It was instead several dozen ants making their way along the side of the bed. There were several hundred more underneath it and loads in the boot and especially the dirty washing bag. I removed as many as I could but it was weeks later, long after I had got home, before I stopped finding them every time I got into the car.
Despite there being about three and half million of them the ants don't show up very well in this photo

Anyway, after the race I set off to La Colmaine in the French Alps to do the Transvesubienne. It was the Monaco Grand Prix that weekend so I decided not to take the most direct route along the coastal motorway but instead to drive through the mountains. This took a lot longer than expected and so it was dark as I got to the top of the Col de Turini and set off down one of the most famous stages of the Monte Carlo rally. This was made very, very scary by, in reverse order, the fact that there are no barriers on most of the corners near the tops, the fact that there had just been a hail-storm and the whole road was covered in ice, and the fact that the ABS ring on my front right brake had chosen that moment to explode. The brakes would sometimes work, but the front right would occasionally disengage itself for no readily apparent reason whenever it felt like it. I think the inconsistency and unpredictability was far worse than having no brake at all.

There was nowhere to stop on the narrow mountain road to wait for either daylight or the ice to melt and so I pressed on, hoping for the best, until eventually arriving at the bottom shaken but unscathed.

The second trip to Italy for the 2014 European 24hr Championship began much more successfully, other than forgetting the booking reference for the ferry, most of the tent pegs, the water carrier and any form of gels without caffeine in them (that’s a whole other story, and is still talked about nearly as much as the jar of pesto from about 2007)

Having done the race and watched the team race the following day it was decided that it would be a good idea to head down to the beach. Fellow British racer, and now both 12 and 24hr European singlespeed champion, Jon Hobson and our pit helper Carole Armstrong piled into my van.

Jon had already had a van incident of his own by this stage, smashing the wing mirror of his hire car somewhere between the airport and the race track while trying to avoid an errant moped. Actually, just getting hold of the hire car probably counts as a van incident, that didn’t go at all smoothly.

On returning to the campsite I decided to park near our pits to make packing up easier. I drove into the lower field, swung around, reversed and then pulled forward to straighten up.

There was a loud thud and a lurch as the van came to a very sudden stop.

An Italian chap at the far side of the field was waving his arms and shouting “Albero, Albero” very loudly but we had spotted him too late.

Looking under the van I could see that while it was not an entire alberro it was quite a significant portion of one that I had hit. I could also see rather a lot of oil pouring out of the front of the sump. Carole said later that despite all the various disasters of our trip this was the only time I had looked worried, which made her feel very worried.

We quickly discovered that both the oil and the engine block were far too hot to allow us to do anything useful.

My new friend Stefano, who had helped me fix my broken chain early in the race, appeared out of nowhere.  He then gave us an old water bottle off which we cut the top and used it to collect the oil which was still coming out pretty quickly.

Even better, Stefano then produced some cheese and some beer, which makes everything better. I had set myself the target of trying as many different kinds of Italian cheeses as I could during the trip but kept getting distracted by ice-cream.

With the engine still too hot to touch we left the van where it was and went to the pub, we couldn’t really do anything else.

The following morning we returned to the van. There was no longer any oil pouring out of the bottom of the engine and one thing at least had gone right, the oil in the bottle was less than a quarter of an inch from the top, it was the perfect size. I removed this and placed it very carefully by the side of the vehicle.

We decided not to try reversing the van off the log in case it did any more damage and instead jacked it up and removed the offending item that way.

The damage didn’t look too bad, I was sure we could fix it. I made a ramp, using the log itself as the major part, kicking over the bottle of oil in the process.

The sump was removed without too much difficulty, most of the remaining oil being caught in the washing up bowl. We had a look and realised how lucky we were. Had the damage gone two inches further back it would have hit the oil pump and three inches to the right the cooler. I had somehow missed all of the steering mechanism too. 

Mending the sump

The sump was cleaned and then we got the lid of one of the tool boxes to use as a flat surface and spent quite some time with the two hammers getting the sump as close to a sump shape as we could.
We were eventually satisfied and returned to the van to reattach it, Jon holding the Exposure MaxxD (yes, I have even managed to get a sponsor mention into this) and calling out bolt-tightening sequences and torques as I lay on my back underneath it. Due to a previous gear-selector problem, which I won’t go into here, I happened to have most of a tube of gasket sealer in the toolbox and used the lot on the still slightly distorted sump.

As good as new. Sort of.
These torque settings were in the Haynes manual. Carole was of the opinion that carrying it around in the van demonstrated a certain lack of confidence but I think that having it there was a rare display of me being organised.

We removed as much of the grass and dead leaves and things which had blown into the bowl of oil as possible and put as much of it back into the top of the engine as we could, then checked the dipstick. It was nowhere near even the ‘minimum’ mark.

 Putting it back again.

We piled into Jon’s only slightly damaged hire car and went back into town. We discovered there that it was a bank holiday and that there was nowhere in the whole of Finale open and selling oil, so we had an ice-cream and went to the beach.

The following morning Jon had to drive back to the airport and with 297km of his 600km allowance already used he was understandably reluctant to drive us into town again, he already a broken mirror to explain without going over his mileage (kilometerage? Is that a word?) limit. Carole and I therefore set off in the van, one eye on the oil temperature gauge and the other on the bright red oil pressure warning light. 

We stopped at the first petrol station we saw and put about 2½ litres of oil into it, then bought another 3 litres just in case. 

We decided to amend the route home slightly to pass through Albenga, which has a Ford dealership, and attempt to buy a new sump, the repaired one should at least get us that far.

For some reason the ‘Teach Yourself Italian’ CD I had been listening to for the last few weeks had not contained such useful phrases as “Ho un Ford Transit, anno duemilaquattro. Vorrei una coppa dell’olio per favore” but I was able to make myself understood well enough by the man in garage. He explained that he could get one for us in less than a week. However, Carole had to be at a wedding in Suffolk in two days…

We set off across the Alps, hoping for the best. Much to everyone’s amazement and immense relief between Albenga and my house near Lincoln the van lost less than half a pint of oil. Sometimes I surprise even myself. Actually, it was probably thanks to Jon’s mechanical skills…

I still fitted a new sump when I got home though.

The next trip to Italy is in May, I’m sure it will be fine…

I would like to point out that it’s not just me that this sort of thing happens to of course. I recall my XCRacer/Scimitar teammate Ant White sliding his van sideways into a ditch, leaving it beached on the fuel tank. Even the pro’s aren’t immune, I had to use my jump leads to get the British Cycling truck started after it died at Margam. Actually, that reminds me, I once had a flat battery after the National XC Championships at Hopton.

And just because you have finished the race and begun the journey home doesn’t mean you have escaped, Scott Swalling didn’t even make it passed North Ballachulish on the way out of Fort William after the 24hr World Champs last year. The recovery people had already been summoned by the time we found his broken down truck at the side of the road. He seemed remarkably sanguine about it. Maybe a van incident is just one of those things after all….

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