Relentless - Living Up to It's Name


I had a score to settle with the course at Aonach Mor near Fort William. Last year Relentless had hosted the 24hr World Championships where I had done spectacularly badly. I had been suffering from tonsillitis and had limped round in 77th place, pushing the bike more than I was riding it. I had only managed to get as high as 77th by virtue of the rather high rate of DNFs. It was certainly the hardest course of the ten 24hr races I had done, and by some considerable margin, and even those without throat infections had said as much. This year Relentless was hosting the British 24hr Championships and I had decided, for reasons now lost in the mists of time, that it would be a good idea to do it on a singlespeed. How hard could it be?

 
I have ridden a singlespeed quite a bit, the lack of gears isn't really a problem back home in south Lincolnshire, somewhere so flat that the locals have been known to get altitude sickness if they ever venture into their lofts. In contrast there would be well over 1,000ft of climbing on each and every lap at Relentless. I had however only raced an SS on three previous occasions, the most recent and longest of those races being the Keilder 101 where I had finished second behind Saul Muldoon. I had changed my gear specially for that race, from my usual 32-14 (yes, Lincolnshire really is that flat!) to a more suitable 32-17 but was worried that even this may be too big a gear for the 24hrs, which would be over four times as long…

The advice I received on the subject ranged from 'fit a much bigger sprocket, you'll get much less fatigued if you just spin a low gear' to 'fit a little sprocket, you'll be pushing up the climbs anyway so you might as well go quickly on the bits where you can actually pedal'. Hmm.

I kept the familiar 32-17 on my main bike but removed the gears from my hardtail to use as a spare bike and fitted that with a 32-19, just in case. That already had bouncy forks but in a small concession to sanity I also fitted some to the main bike. I had also heard of singlespeeders suffering with their backs due to the endless gear grinding so I had one bike with riser bars and one with flat bars and bar-ends so there was plenty of opportunity for me to change position when things got too painful. As well as never having ridden a singlespeed for that length of time I had also never ridden a hardtail for longer than 12hrs. What could possibly go wrong?

 
The first thing which went wrong was the van refusing to start again after we had filled up at the petrol station in Edinburgh at about 1130 on Friday morning. There wasn't nearly enough electricity in it to turn the starter motor and there was a big red warning light on the dashboard, although the light had actually been there ever since we set off that morning, a picture of a battery illuminated against the black of the instrument panel. After spending a lot of time uttering some very rude words and checking that it wasn't something quick to fix, like a snapped alternator belt, we found that it started fine with a jump start, having been towed off the forecourt by a very helpful chap in another white van. In the extremely unlikely event that you are reading this, thanks again.

We decided to press on to Fort William, this was the National Championships after all, we weren't going to let something like a poorly van put us off. We had broken down next door to a shop which sold car batteries, and even better, sold them fully-charged. I left the engine running and went in to buy a spare. Being very careful not to stall it we left the car-park and headed for the motorway.

We had passed Perth before the next warning light came on, the one for the ABS. Convincing myself it was only the sensor lacking power I ignored it. The next one came on just after Dalwhinnie, the airbag one this time, and I ignored that too. How much power does illuminating all the warning lights use?

We were wondering whether we would be able to get there before dark, there was no way we would be able to use the lights, that would kill it pretty quickly. We were being hampered in our efforts to do this by the very large lorry with the very large digger on the back which was doing 35mph all the way along the A82. I'm just guessing at the speed there, the speedo and rev counter had long since died. The engine was starting to splutter but kept recovering, although we now had yet another warning light on the dash, a big red exclamation mark. How close would we have to get before we could reasonably call someone there and ask for a tow? Would the lorry ever pull over and let the queue of traffic passed? It was dusk  and we were running out of time.

There was a very big splutter in Spean Bridge, the van almost stopped, that really didn't sound good, so we dived into a layby and got the new battery out. We would have been there already if it wasn't for that lorry. The brackets holding it in are a bit of a faff and so it was pretty dark when we finished. It started on the button, which was a relief. We limped along for the last few miles using only the sidelights, not daring to put the headlights on despite the conditions. I was also trying not to brake unless I really, really had too, the brake lights were another electrical thing over which I had very little control, short of removing the bulbs, and I didn’t think would be a great plan.

We made it eventually, arriving well after dark, and set up our pits across the course from Nigel and Guy, our hosts from the Manx 100. It was too late to go for a practice lap so we had some dinner and generally faffed about before heading to bed for an early night, listening to the wind howling and the rain battering on the roof of the van.

Before

It was still raining when we got up on Saturday morning but the forecast was for it to stop at about midday, just as the race would be starting. It actually eased off a little before then but didn’t stop completely. I had two breakfasts, one of porridge and a fried egg sandwich and then another of scrambled egg about half an hour before the race began.

I did a quick lap of the car park to make sure that the bike was working properly, or at least better than the van, and then headed over to the start line. There was no gridding, or if there was I had missed it, but as I only had one gear I was quite happy starting further back, I wasn’t expecting to be troubling the front-runners.
 
We were lead away from the start by a motorbike or a quad-bike or something, I could hear it but was too far back to be able to see it. The first lap was a little different to all the others in that it missed out the first singletrack climb, instead taking us straight up the fireroad climb to the tunnel at the top.

The start line, just before noon.

I was feeling good in my one gear and was passing more people than I was being passed by. Whether I would be able to keep that pace up for the remaining 23¾hrs was another question entirely.

I overtook Richard Rothwell about half a mile in, which was most unexpected. I knew that he had been injured a few weeks before and had been playing down his chances but even so… It turns out that he had unintentionally joined us singlespeeders, almost as soon as the race began his rear shifter had decided that it wanted to play no further part in the event and had called it a day. He was using some very rude words in an effort to coax it back into life but none of them helped much. I resisted the temptation to be all smug and extol the virtues of intentionally starting the race with only one gear and left him to it, he had a spare bike in the pits so would only have to do the first lap stuck in one gear, although he could at least change it by fiddling with the limit screws on his rear mech.

The next person who I found myself riding next to was Saul Muldoon, who came up very fast behind me and then slowed for a quick chat. Oddly enough he wanted to apologise for beating me at Keilder, which was lovely but unnecessary, it was a race after all. I think he just felt a bit guilty because I thought I’d won until I found out that he had already finished. He had taken second place in the singlespeeds on this course at the World Championships last year., and had spent a lot of that race causing concern in the Belchambers camp, so he was definitely the favourite for this race. Nice guy and bloody quick (actually that applies to both Brett and Saul). He didn’t stay long before he disappeared off into the distance at a speed I just couldn’t match.

This must be the first lap, I'm still (just!) ahead of Saul. That didn't last.

The track deviated from the Worlds course at the top, after the tunnel we immediately turned right and down the first singletrack descent, missing out the final bit of the climb and the huge berms, which was a shame, I quite like that bit. The majority of the course was familiar to me and so I wasn’t having too many problems as a result of missing the Friday practice, I could remember where the tricky bits were and most of the lines.

The lap was a little shorter that it had been for the Worlds but seemed to be more fun, maybe just because I was feeling much better and able to enjoy it more. The rain had also stopped by the time we finished the first lap which helped a lot. I grabbed another bottle of Torq and headed out again.

By lap two I was already starting to struggle with the gear. I had the other wheel with a sprocket two teeth larger but hadn’t been planning to use this until the wee small hours. I was reluctant to swap so soon, worried that if I went for it two laps in I would have nothing left to fall back on when things began to get really hard in a few hours time.

By lap three I knew that I had to give in and make the swap, climbing in the bigger gear was really taking it out of me. While singlespeeds are of course bikes with only one gear the rules of the race do permit gear changes, as long as only one is on the bike at any given moment. Changing gear is quite a manual process and took me nearly a minute, somewhat longer than pressing a button on the bars. Neither of my bikes were designed as singlespeeds with things like sliding dropouts or EBBs, they both have vertical dropouts and had been converted by fitting a tensioner in place of the rear mech. This gives me the advantage of being to fit different ratios without having to adjust anything, so it could have been worse.


The shorter gear helped a lot, I was going much better after the change but just had that nagging concern that less than three hours in I already used my plan B. There was nothing I could do other than press on. There was no plan C.

I had set myself the rather ambitious target of getting on the podium in the singlespeed race. Although it was a small field what it lacked in quantity it more than made up for in quality, along with Saul I had the likes of Dave Glover, Ed Wolstenholme, Simon Halsam, Thomas Howarth, Neil Scott and Andrew Beever to contend with, it was not going to be easy. The singlespeeders tend to be a fairly self-selecting bunch, anyone who is contemplating 24hrs in one gear probably knows what they are doing, they can’t all have just been muddling though like I was. I got the first update on my position from Gina at the end of the fourth lap, I was 21st overall. I was really pleased with that, much better than I was expecting. I was however 5th in the singlespeeds, that was much less satisfactory but I think just emphasises the quality of the field and made me realise the scale of the challenge I faced, there were four singlespeeders quick enough to be in the top twenty. Saul was flying and was second overall at this point.

Saul Muldoon going very quickly.
I had no idea that the rules permitted singlespeeders to race without beards.
 
The next lap didn’t go at all well for me. I wasn’t doing anything unusual in terms of my eating strategy (lots and often) but my stomach was all over the place, gurgling away to itself and leaving me feeling rather queezy. The final descent was interesting, I was paying far more attention to clenching my buttocks to prevent any ‘accidents’ than I was to the lines I was riding and was in danger of having a more conventional accident. I dropped my bike at our pits and ran to the portaloos, it was a huge relief but I was cursing the time it was costing me, time I could not afford to waste.

The relief was short-lived and the feeling returned on the following lap, my tummy making all kinds of odd noises and threatening to expel it’s contents at the most inopportune moment, and so I was forced to return to the portaloos, loosing yet more time.

I’ve had a dodgy stomach a few times in races, but it usually feels like things are about to come out at the top, rather than at the bottom (yes, terrible pun intended) Eating some crystallised ginger would normally settle things but there were two problems with this, the first was that it was untried for this particular sort of problem, the second was that in all the confusion of just getting to the race we had forgotten to get some.

We did however have some ginger and pineapple Torq bars so I ate a couple of those, and also some ginger oatcakes, dipped in milk to make them less dry and quicker to eat, and they seemed to help. While I was swallowing them Gina was busy with my bike, clipping the Exposure MaxxD into place and giving my chain a quick lube before sending me on my way again.

 
The race was a couple of weeks later than usual in order to avoid clashing with the World Championships at Weaverville in California, which meant that it took place after the clocks had changed and so it got dark even earlier, about 5pm out in the open, before that in the trees.

Despite the darkness it stayed relatively mild and I was able to keep my speed up and my lap times down, until about 10pm when I had to have yet another trip to the toilet. The battery on the MaxxD was getting quite low by this stage and so while I was doing that Gina removed it and attached my spare light.

This spare light was not an Exposure but was a slightly more complicated affair with the head unit on the bars and the battery at the back of the top-tube near the seat-post, joined by a cable. I still had my Exposure Joystick on my helmet as a back up, I don’t like to go out with only one light, just in case something happens, as it did half way through that next lap.

 
The course was a wiggly figure of eight and passed the pits a couple of times, going passed the timing section twice but each person’s pit only once. The course skirted the edge of the arena when we first came into it after the logging road next to the river. I made a slight error and hit my front wheel on a rock, bringing me to a sudden halt, obviously tiredness starting to show. The impact caused my front light to go out, plunging me into darkness. That was strange, why would that happen? I turned it on again, it seemed fine so I carried on but it went out again as I went into the dip by the tractor. I reached up and clicked the Joystick on but couldn’t see anything wrong with the big light, it came back on when I pressed the switch. I left the Joystick illuminated and carried on, up the little rise, across the fireroad and up the rocky section, where it went out again.

I removed the cable to have a look, the plug at the battery end came apart as I took it out, there was a funny noise and a bright blue spark. That at least answered the question about what was wrong, but then raised another as to what I could do about it. The Joystick is good, but I would probably struggle with it as my main, or even only, light. I don’t think it would last anyway, not turned up bright enough for the singletrack, there was still 9hrs of darkness left. My MaxxD had only been on to charge for less than an hour, that wouldn’t yet be ready to go again.

I set off up the climb wondering what I was going to do, missing the obvious before my addled brain finally remembered that Exposure were actually sponsoring this event and had a wee tent with charging sockets for everyone to use over by the start/finish line, maybe they could help. I came down the 4X track, the 800 lumen Joystick coping surprisingly well with that, not bad for something so tiny. As I came into the arena I dumped my bike and leapt over the barrier, running over to the Exposure stall.

John was there and saw me coming. He asked the obvious question, ‘Is everything OK?’ to which I gave the equally obvious answer of ‘No’. He already had one of the distinctive red and black boxes in his hand and was undoing it as I was starting to explain that my main light had gone out. He thrust a Toro at me, asking what modes I wanted programming into it. ‘Erm, very bright and medium?’ I needed it bright enough for the techy stuff and a lower setting to allow me to save the battery a little on the fireroads. It took him about three seconds to program it. ‘That’s it set for 4hrs and 12, the gauge on the back is hours and minutes left.’ I said a very brief thank-you and ran back to the bike, clipping the light into the bracket vacated by my MaxxD. That’s what I like about the  Exposure stuff, no faffing, it just works. The whole process had taken about a minute and a half.

 
The big climb on the second loop would normally be a descent but as the trails were closed for the event they could be mean to us and make us go up it. Last year I had really, really struggled there but this time I was flying up it, despite the fact that I only had the one gear, I overtook loads of people there during the race, I have no idea how. A quick splash through the mud at the top, a reminder of Friday night’s rain, and then down the swoopy descent back into the arena and passed my pit. Gina had some hot soup waiting for me, I got as much of it down me as I could while she removed the dead light from the bike and lubed the chain. I was still 5th but the race was less than halfway through (don’t worry, this write-up isn’t!) I can just about fit a whole Torq bar in my mouth so I crammed one in as I headed out of the pits and back onto the course, the phrase ‘Bitten off more than I can chew’ probably being applicable there.

I added a couple of layers of clothing as the night wore on but was still feeling good, apart from one more emergency trip to the portaloos at about 1am. There are some conversations which would only be appropriate in a race and I remember having a discussion with someone in front of me about the relative length of our toilet stops and the consistancy of the products thereof. I had a slightly more savoury chat with Simon Bullock when I passed him on the logging road at about 2am, a quick reminisce about the last time we had been at Fort William together, the West Highland Way Race last year and how lucky we were that the weather was so different this time.


The flip side of the clocks changing and giving us a very early nightfall is that dawn comes that bit earlier. Sunrise is a huge psychological boost, even though there is still over five hours still to go there is a sense of being nearly there. I had spoken to a few first time 24hr racers during the night and had told them all the same thing, something someone had told me before my first 24hr many years ago, just concentrate on getting through to day-break, everything else will take care of itself after that.

I kept my light on for a lap longer than necessary, I had the chance to remove it in the pits but it was still a bit dark in the denser bits of the forest. I had the MaxxD back, having been recharged by the Exposure guys. These lights do come with a USB-charger which can be used in my van but this does rather rely on the vehicle having some electricity in it and mine was sadly lacking in this respect. There still appeared to be enough juice left in the Toro but I had changed anyway, better safe than sorry. I had been yo-yoing between 21st and 18th overall during the night but by this stage of the race was up to 4th in the singlespeeds. So close to the podium, and yet so far. Contrary to my expectations I was still feeling fine though, and was still able to push hard, surely I should feel worse than this, regardless of the number of gears? I wasn’t complaining though, the sun was back and I was going to make the proverbial hay while I still could.

 
The track was coming alive again, I’m not sure how many people had stopped and grabbed an hour or two of sleep but there certainly seemed to be more circulating now than there had been in the middle of the night.  Listening to the radio later on Sunday night I found out that this had been the warmest November day on record, I could see the clear blue skies and the sunshine, perfect conditions for racing.

At 9am I was up to 3rd but it was close. Saul was miles ahead in first but the next three or four of us weren’t far apart. The trouble was that the positions and time gaps I was getting were as they were at the end of the previous lap, over an hour ago, and so were at best a rough guide and could be completely wrong by the time I got them.

Next time round I was 2nd and things were a bit more spread out, I was still way behind Saul but at least had a comfy-ish gap over 3rd. Second at the National Championship would be great, better than I had dared hope for. The next lap was one of those ones where because I am doing quite well I start to get paranoid, thinking can I keep this up, every little noise is the bike about to grind to a halt, every slip of the tyre a puncture. It’s probably just because I’m not used to it but being at the front is quite stressful.

This wasn’t helped when someone on a singlespeed came passed me on the trail by the river going, very, very quickly and just disappeared off into the distance. I knew the numbers of the guys I had to beat but he came passed so fast that I couldn’t even see it. I tried in vain to catch back up but he was gone, barely seeming to slow as he dived off the road and into the trees ahead. Who was he? What was going on? I was thinking of my last race at Keilder where I thought I had won, only to find out that I hadn’t. That was annoying but not a big deal, this was the nationals, I didn’t want a podium snatched from under my nose here of all places.

I came round again just after 11am, time for one more lap. I was too far behind Saul, I knew I couldn’t win. I wasn’t sure how safe my second place was though, or even if I still had it, Gina had no idea who the unknown singlespeeder was either. I had however noticed that both he and his bike were much too clean, he could have been a team rider out on a spare bike I suppose. I hope that’s what he was!

I spent the final lap wondering just how safe my podium place was. Had we missed the mysterious singlespeeder in the standings? If we had missed him who else had we missed? Had he simply overtaken me? Was anyone else about to do that? Had someone already passed me and I just hadn’t seen them?

I kept my speed up as best I could, even on that last lap I felt fine and was climbing well, overtaking people where I really shouldn’t have been able to do so. That was really bizarre. I’m certainly no fitter than I have been in recent years, quite the opposite in fact, having moved house recently I have been spending far too much time on various aspects of building work and not nearly enough time riding bikes. The only explanation I can think of is that riding a singlespeed forces me to pace myself better, there are no mad charges up the fireroad climbs, no hunting down the rider in front just to see if I can, only a steady, consistent effort and I think it works. I was expecting a course like Relentless to be hell on an ss but it wasn’t, it was brilliant, huge fun.

After

Even better, I managed to hold on to my 2nd place, the best result I have ever had at a National Championship, and had even moved up to 14th overall be the end. I am really, really pleased with that and, more importantly, had thoroughly enjoyed it. Saul Muldoon had taken the win, by quite a long way, and an even more impressive 4th overall, with Thomas Howarth 3rd in the singlespeeds and 28th overall.

Lisa Scott won the women's singlespeed race, Peter Nadin was first overall and Rachel Sokal was the winner of the women's event. Rachel was so quick that she was 11th overall, no shame for me in being beaten by a girl, she was absolutely flying.

Saul and I on the podium. I have no idea where Thomas was.

I would like to say a big thank-you to a few people – Spook, Fraser and all of their team, XCRacer/Scimitar, Mt Zoom and Torq obviously, John from Exposure for being very helpful and in the right place at the right time, the man who jump started us in Edinburgh, but most of all to Gina for everything she did all weekend. They call it solo 24hr racing but it really isn’t solo, it’s one person riding but it’s still a real team effort.

The pictures are from Sportograph and Gina.

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