When Crasher Met Dorris

How often does one get the chance to interview a newly crowned British World Champion? Well, if DH racing is your thing about every 3½ minutes but in the world of endurance racing they are a much rarer breed. 

I spoke to Steve Day about the 24hr World Championships at Rotorua in New Zealand. He is not only crazy enough to race for 24hrs but also daft enough to do it on a bike with only one gear. He took a very narrow victory over Australian Ed McDonald with Gareth Weinberg, the local favourite, close behind. Even more impressively the top three singlespeeders were sixth, seventh and eighth overall!  So, who is Steve and how did his race go?

I have written down everything as he said it, so therefore any spilling mistakes are entirely his and nothing whatsoever to do with me…

You are probably best-known for your successes at Mountain-Mayhem here in the UK, winning the Nick Wallis trophy five times.

I’ve done every Mountain Mayhem apart from one when I was really ill, but it’s only in the last two or three years where it’s all clicked into place.

Were they all solo?
From 2005 onwards it’s always been solo. You know what it’s like with a team of people, everyone wants to go their own way and I wanted to go as fast as possible for the whole 24 hours so I decided to give it a crack. It’s all down to a friend of ours who used to be an army PT instructor, he’s done it a couple of times and said ‘you need to have a go at this’. His ex-wife Bev still crews for me.

So you did that last, infamous, one at Eastnor then? How did that go?
A lot of people described it as horrendous but I absolutely loved it. The standpipe was halfway between where we were camped and the finish line, so I could go there, change bikes and carry on and it would be clean for next time I came round. That was the first year the singlespeed trophy appeared, the Nick Wallis award, and I won that, which made it even more special. That was really the turning point in my racing. I started taking it a bit more seriously at that point and I’ve won that trophy for the last five years..

New Zealand 2016 wasn’t your first attempt at a World Championship. How did you get on at the 2015 Worlds in Weaverville, California? 

A friend of mine, Julian Rider, was racing in the Worlds at Fort William in 2014 and won his category. I hadn’t clocked on to the worlds at that point but at the Torq-12 a few weeks before, he was saying “you really need to go” but it was just too close, I had too much going on beforehand. But that was the start of California, he planted the seed…

I went to SSUK about four weeks before the trip to California and had a little bit of an accident and ended up quite seriously spraining the rotator cuff in my left shoulder. I went through a load of physio and I was dosed up to the eyeballs with painkillers and anti-inflammatories at the start of the Weaverville race. At 12hrs in, I was leading in the singlespeed category but at that point my shoulder went from being manageable to being not very good at all. At 16hrs I decided to call it a day when I couldn’t actually use the back brake on the 8 mile descent. So, I came back from California with a lot of unfinished business.

I was fortunate enough that work helped me out to get there, and I felt that actually I owed them quite a lot as well and hence within a few weeks my wife said “if you need to go to New Zealand, go, get that done” so I was straight back into training once the shoulder was in a position to do so. I went out to [New Zealand] to do what I had set out to do in California. Yeah, it felt really, really good to come back from New Zealand and have that title,

How do you prepare for a 24hr singlespeed race?
Jimmy Docherty at Mule Bar put me in touch with [my coach] Jon Fern at EC3 and from then I’ve had a training plan. It was initially just getting my base level up and then pushing me harder and harder. I think it was a bit of a change for him as well because there’s no way I’m riding a geared bike. He worked really hard to get his head around trying to train someone on a bike that’s only got one gear.

It was a lot of time out on the trails, between 150 and 200 miles a week on the mountain bike, I don’t know how many hours that is, mainly off road with bits of road to link the trails together. Weekend rides normally vary between 4-6hrs Saturday and Sunday, an hour on a Monday, 2-4hrs on a Wednesday and it depends what’s going on Thursday, Friday, sometimes an hour, sometimes 2hrs, it’s quite a few hours, a lot of which are early in the morning so I still get time with my family.
Also a few floor exercises, a bit of yoga. I used to go to the pool and the gym a lot but all the gym stuff has been knocked on the head because I just don’t have time to do it now, it’s all bike or basic floor exercises.

Are you missing the gym?
No, because I was only doing that to keep generally fit, now the training is a lot more focussed on cycling endurance whereas the gym stuff was a bit of this, a bit of that, a bit of spin classes, a bit of swimming whereas with the cycling my general level of fitness has increased because I’m pushing myself harder because I’ve got a goal. Obviously California was a big goal, and then New Zealand, and now I’ve got Mayhem and Relentless to think about. I think having that goal is really important, keeping that focus has been key to it, knowing that’s what I’m doing, this is why I’m doing all these hours on a bike. It’s certainly changed me, it’s been tough at times for my wife Ingrid and son Erik, but they understand why I’m doing it.

Do they think you are bonkers or are they quite supportive?
There’s no way we would have gone to California and no way Ingrid would have let me go to New Zealand if she wasn’t supporting me. She’s always been there, even when I was racing as part of a team. New Zealand was the first time I’ve been to a 24hr race and she wasn’t there. You can imagine how stressful that was, a 24hr race isn’t just me, it’s the people around me, my wife and my son, my friend Bev and to not have them there was a massive shock. I know my wife found it really stressful being at home the other side of the world, 12hrs apart and just being able to watch the timing on a screen and not being able to feed me and talk to me and understand what I’m going through. I know she found that extremely tough.

So who did you have to help out in New Zealand? I know it’s called ‘Solo 24hr racing’ but there’s usually a big team behind the ‘soloist’.
Sam Allison at Singular who set me up with frames put me in touch with the New Zealand importer, a guy called Allan Eng, and he sorted out a spare bike for me. He put a spare set of [suspension] forks on it instead of rigid which is great, I’m so glad he did that because after 6hrs there’s no way I could have carried on on the rigid bike, and he also organised for a mechanic, Murray, to be there. Murray turned up with his wife and son a great big motorhome so it was perfect, other than my wife not being there. A friend of mine, Saps, from the club that I ride with was out there at the time and when he found I was coming he said “I’ll come along”. He came with his girlfriend and it was really nice having that bunch of people there, the only reason they were there was because of what I was doing and they wanted to see me do really well.

Had any of them done a 24hr before? It can be just as tough for the pit crews.
No! They stayed up the whole up 24hrs, it was amazing. I’m so grateful for their help, unbelievable, really, really good. And I think that’s part of what made the whole thing work, was having that support. I’d never met Allan until I arrived in Auckland. He’s a really friendly guy and couldn’t do enough to help out. To be honest, everyone else in the pits was the same, one of those big 24hr things, everyone there doesn’t want to see anyone struggle, and people put themselves out for you, it was a really good experience. Nduro events even re-arranged the presentation so I could collect my medal and jersey before leaving to get the plane home.

Did you have a plan for the race, and if so did it go according to plan?
After having ridden on the Friday I had the inkling then that I wasn’t going to be able to ride the rigid bike for the whole time so the plan was to do 8hrs on the rigid, 8hrs on the suspension bike overnight and then get back on the rigid bike in the daytime.

It was really unfortunate that Brett [Belchambers, multiple world champion] pulled out because of his crash the week before, he hit a wallaby at 50mph, so he was in quite a bad way. [He suffered damaged vertebrae, broken ribs and, worst of all, the loss of most of his beard. However, another fast Aussie, Ed McDonald, stepped up to the singlespeed category, determined to keep the Brits at bay] I knew my pace was similar to his in California so he was going to be my target man, he was the one to maintain the gap to so any plan that I had went out the window when that happened.

I saw Ed McDonald shoot off at the start and I knew Gareth Weinberg, the New Zealander, was behind me so those were my two markers after the first lap. That was the plan, just be consistent, try not to blow, because I’d heard rumours that the local boys were going to send out a hare for me to chase, there’s no way I’m falling into that trap. That’s 24s at the end of the day, you’ve got to ride at your own pace otherwise you never know if you’re going to get to the end.

On my penultimate lap I knew that I had just over a quarter of an hour on Ed and I thought if I can push that penultimate lap and make sure that he knows that I’m not giving up, I’ve got a little bit of a chance to relax. That penultimate lap took a lot out of me and I went into the last lap thinking “20 minutes on Ed”, and I needed that 20 minutes, I really suffered on that last lap, to the point where one of the marshals on top of one of the climbs said “do you need a medic?” I was like, no way, I’ve got to finish, there’s no way I’m giving up now!

I got across the finish line at the end of the race and I basically collapsed from exhaustion. It was 28 degrees out there and really, really high humidity. Over here the last two training rides I did were at minus four and zero. It was a bit of a shock to the system.
It was a close race and I think that’s what really made it better, that Ed was that close, there was 15-16 minutes in it at the end, it was good to be pushed all the way.

How confident were you of winning before the race began?
I was hoping. I knew after California I was fast enough to do so.  I remember at the 10-11hr mark in the pit area in California I was riding out as I saw Brett and Jason Miles riding in, I had a 15 minute gap and I’d managed to maintain that for a good few hours but it was literally within a lap I went from being OK to being not very good. Leading up to New Zealand I was confident but you never know what happens, you never know where other people are in terms of their fitness, what the course is going to be like. I went out there with fingers crossed but I’ve never been so nervous before a race. The Friday night out there I must have only slept 2 or 3 hours.

Why were you more nervous about this one than Weaverville?
[Nervous laugh] Pressure.  To get out to New Zealand I did a crowd-funder to raise the money so a lot of people had put money in to help me get there. They paid for my flights, my accommodation and my hire car basically, I stumped up the money for the entry and any food and anything else I needed while I was there.

Was that friends or complete strangers?
A bit of both. I’d set up the crowd-funding thing and put it on Facebook and within a week or so I was halfway there through friend’s donations which took me completely by surprise. There was a lot of £10, £20, £50 donations in there and then another friend of mine who works at Leicester Audi went to see his boss, they gave me another £250. I think one of the surprises was Team JMC, Jason Miles’ guys, they gave me £150 as well, that was completely unexpected. But I was surprised at how quickly the money built up, and I as soon as I saw that I put my entry in, that’s when I knew I was going. There are a lot of people to thank for that, a big long list of people.

I’ve got a decal on my top-tube and everyone who gave me money to get out there has their name on it, it’s still on there, I’m really, really proud of that.

Did the race itself go smoothly, did you have mechanicals or other problems?
From a race point of view it was the best race I’ve ever had. In terms of the bikes that I had nothing went wrong, the Exposure lights that I ran were absolutely amazing. I didn’t have any offs apart from on the last lap, just from exhaustion, and my nutrition was perfect. I’ve never had it before where I’ve felt OK, relatively speaking, at the end of the race to the point where I’ve had to go and eat a meal, normally I can’t eat anything and struggle to drink anything, but everything clicked into place with this one. I know what I’m looking for for the next 24hr race, whereas before it’s always been a bit hit and miss, nothing ever goes that smoothly!

Which course did you prefer, California or New Zealand?
New Zealand was a lot more singlespeed friendly, just because you didn’t have that massive climb. The climb in California averaged something like one in ten and it was one in four in a few places, it just seemed to go on and on. After an 8 mile descent you are properly cold at the bottom and then you are straight back into the climb, there wasn’t any warm-up, it was really tough on a singlespeed. New Zealand was just amazing to ride in amongst all the trees and ferns and there’s a lot of roots which is why it was tough on a rigid bike. They had 200mm of rain in the run up to the race, on the Friday morning the pits area was ankle deep in water, the guys were all digging trenches, but out on the course you couldn’t have asked for more perfect conditions. The rain had kept all the dust down too but it wasn’t sticky or muddy, it was very grippy.

Was a lot of it man-made then, with decent drainage designed into it?
I think it just drains quick. There’s a lot of porous rock out there with it being so volcanic and the trees sucked up a lot of the moisture. It’s like a massive trail centre, but it wasn’t like a UK trail centre, there was a lot of natural stuff there and they made the best use of the terrain. They didn’t have a man-made surface, it was whatever the surface was that was on the side of the mountain. It was a hard pack dirt in places, but quite loose in others, lots of roots, difficult to describe. It was an interesting place to ride.

What did you eat during the race, is it merely a question of quantity?
Just bars, gels, electrolyte drink, a little bit of energy drink and muesli and that’s it. The muesli is the only thing I have which is not sort of condensed energy drink and bars. Over the years I’ve found stuff that really works for me, the Torq bars and the gels, it’s all just clicked really, really nicely this year. I took it all out with me, so my bike bag had my bike in it and all my nutrition, so I knew exactly what I’d have rather than get out there and then have to try to find something.

Did you have any visits from the sleepmonsters in the wee small hours?
I think when I first started doing 24hr races I used to suffer more, I don’t know what’s changed, whether you just get used to riding for that length of time or I am just more mentally prepared now. There wasn’t really anything weird going on there either, other than the disco at the top of one of the climbs, which was weird with the bout of silent heckling, smoke machine, disco lights, ‘interesting’ signage and mooning.

Are you sure you weren’t imagining stuff?
It’s not really something I suffer with. You didn’t notice them in the day but at night but as soon as you put your lights on there were silver ferns everywhere, which looked quite spooky. But there weren’t any night gremlins or anything.

How long does it take you to recover from a 24hr?
Normally I’ve ridden to work the next day but that’s only across town. In terms of feeling OK that normally takes a couple of weeks. To be able to push it, probably four to six weeks.  I’m hoping to go to race at Relentless up at Fort William… I’ve not put my entry in yet but that’s the plan – I heard lots of good things about the event and the course.

24hr racers usually get all kinds unpleasant afflictions, everything from the squits to constipation and nappy rash. Are there any you would like to share with us?
Riding a rigid bike, more so at Mayhem than New Zealand where I was on a bike with suspension forks for 18 hours, numb hands is the worst one and tingly feet.  The tingly feet go a few hours after the race but the numb hands can hang around for a while. Even wearing two pairs of gloves doesn’t always cure it. I’ve got a pair of old Scott knitted fingerless mitts that are really, really padded on the palm. I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have those.

Maybe you would have to try suspension forks?
Tell you what, it was a bit of an eye-opener as to how good they are now compared to the last time I rode suspension forks so I will be getting a set. I just really like riding rigid bikes though, they make you think about what you’re doing. On one of the laps in Rotorua there was a local guy following me and he was saying ‘Mate, I’ve never seen anyone take that line’, it was because I was looking for smooth lines where ever I could see them. But yeah it was a revelation to see how good suspension forks are now.

Are you a convert?
I wouldn’t say I’m a convert, I’ve seen the benefit. I’ve got a Swift that a set of forks would go nicely on but my race bike and my 29+, I’ll still keep those rigid.

Is that for the sake of weight or reliability or do the ludite tendencies extend beyond gears?
My race bike is Swift geometry but it’s Columbus tubes and based around the Niner RDO fork and it’s just a really, really sweet ride. It’s light too, really light. There’s nothing to go wrong, on a fully rigid bike there’s nothing to think about other than your lines. I just like keeping it simple, less stuff to fix and maintain, I’ve got other things to think about, I can be training or working or being with my family rather than being in the garage tinkering.

Even though it’s a singlespeed race you are allowed to change gear, as long as there is only one on the bike at any given moment. Did you have a shorter gear for when fatigue started to set in?
Both bikes were on the same gearing. I took a load of cogs out to Rotorua with me and after the Friday I knew what I needed to be able to get through 24hrs and make sure I could ride all the climbs rather than have to get off and push. 33:21 [on a 29] If I’m going to get cramp it’s going to get triggered getting on and off normally, so the aim was to try to stay on the bike for as long as possible.

Do you prefer a bar light, helmet light or both?
One of each, and both on at the same time. An Exposure Six Pack on the bar, it’s just amazing. You can set it on a six hour mode which is enough for a race really. Particularly out in Rotorua, the helmet light (Equinox) was really good because there was some nice twisty stuff and you needed the light to see round the corners. So a bit of both, but you don’t need a lot of power on the head torch, although the Exposure ones are super-bright. Really nice lights. The higher power settings were really good out in California because the descent was 8 miles of disconnect your brain and hope your balls are big enough not to do something stupid, it was properly fast and you certainly needed the depth of light to keep the speed up.

Mr Wiggins won a big race a couple of years ago and became Sir Bradley. Were you disappointed not to get a mention in the Queen’s birthday honours list?
That’s not why I’m doing it, I’m doing it for me. It’s just one of things, mountain-biking had been part of my life for years, since I’ve been at uni, push bikes or motorbikes have always been there. It’s a bit of fun at the end of the day. I don’t like the publicity stuff.

{His wife’s voice drifts through from the next room}  You love it!

It’s flattering, the stuff on Facebook and whatever is really flattering. One of the best bits at Rotorua was about midnight, I didn’t know I’d taken the singlespeed lead at that point until I pulled into the pits and Allan looked at me and said “Mate, Facebook’s just gone mental.” It was close for a good few hours but that was such a mental lift to know that people in the UK were following me and when I got home it took me more than 3hrs just to go through my Facebook page, all the messages that people had been putting up, a really, really, good feeling.

Have you ever fallen asleep on the bike?

Tell us about it then, nothing to be embarrassed about, we’ve all done it. [Have we?! Are you sure about that? – Ed]
That was at Mountain Mayhem, one of my first solo 24hr races. It was on the fire-road in the first bunch of trees. I was coming down there maybe 1 or 2 in the morning and it’s one of those points were you could just relax. I relaxed and then woa! I woke up and I was just completely out of it, that was proper scary, knowing that I’d fallen asleep. It can only have been for maybe fractions of a second, it was quick, but you were properly motoring down that bit of trail. It wasn’t a nice experience.

Finally. you have mentioned that a lot of people helped, both to get you out there and during the race itself.
I’m just so grateful for what they’ve done to allow me to do that, I was just pleased that I could come back with that singlespeed title. Firstly, my wife Ingrid and my son Erik for putting up with me for the last 18 months. Jon Fern at E3C who’s been my coach for the last 18months, he’s been a massive part in making sure I’ve been fit enough to put myself in a position where I knew I was in contention, likewise, he is good at pulling me back in line when things get a bit wobbly mentally. Sam Allison at Singular for his help with frames and for sorting out the second-best pit crew I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, Jimmy at Mule Bar, he was fundamental to putting me in touch with Jon and encouraging me basically. I’ve known Jimmy since Mule Bar first started up and he’s played a big part in this as well. Wayne Elliot at EDS bikes, he’s helped me out with tyres and other bits and pieces this year. Fibrax, I’ve been training for two winters and destroyed so many sets of brake pads, they’ve been amazing, a really big help. The guys at Torq. The guys at Repack who’ve helped me out this year with clothing. Exposure Lights, the guys at Leicester Audi, the guys at JMC. And Hope – great British kit.

Thanks very much for your time Steve and well done!.

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