You've Got To Be In It To Win It. (And Ride A Very Long Way On A Very Silly Bike)

24 Hour World Championships 2019

Where do I start with this one? Probably with the usual apologies for not having written anything for ages because of, well, life getting in the way – no time to write and I’ve been doing very few races to write about anyway. 

However, I have just been to Brazil for the 24hr World Championship, won the singlespeed category (sorry, spoiler in the second paragraph) and now have a 10½ hour flight ahead of me to fill so here we go:

Wow. What an experience. I have been lucky enough to have raced all over the world in the last decade but I’ve never been to one quite like this.

I'm not entirely sure that is me in the photo but at least they've spelt my name right, no-one else does.

I honestly never saw that waterfall once during the race, despite passing it on every lap. I was fully aware it was there, I had seen it in practice of course, and it looks equally spectacular from the top, and I could feel the spray every time I went passed, but that bridge is very narrow and very fast as it slopes down slightly, eyes firmly ahead! The other bridge suffered a bit on the first lap, I don't know what the maximum load should have been but clearly all of us lot still bunched up was a bit much for it, it was at a funny angle when I crossed it, some of those further back had to wait briefly for it to be righted. It was a largish river and I have no idea what lives in those waters...

The race was a right pain to get to, an hour and a half from Edinburgh to Heathrow, eleven hours to Sao Paulo, another hour and a half to Campo Grande in the state of Mato Grosso du Sol and then six hours on a bus to Costa Rica. No, not that Costa Rica, Costa Rica the town. Even most Brazilians haven’t heard of it, the customs guys at Sao Paulo airport seemed particularly perplexed when I tried to explain where I was going and which plane I needed to get on. It was however, well worth the effort. This is of course all relative, the Paraguayans and Mexicans probably said Fort William was a bit of a nuisance. 

Thursday practice, old friends and new.
World champions, European champions, those who ride for fun, pit crews, and anyone else who wanted to come along, we all ride together, enjoy the scenery and the company (and just occasionally come over all competitive and start egging each other on)

Costa Rica is a small agricultural town miles away from anywhere. I think this race may have been the biggest thing ever to have happened there, it certainly felt like we part of something huge. The entire town was involved and massively enthusiastic about it. Every rider, but especially the foreigners and particularly those who did something to stand out, like having a silly bike with only one gear, were major celebrities.

We literally could not walk down the road or into a cafe without being surrounded by people wanting to take photos with us, to give us coffee, weird cold tea which you drink through a metal straw or little cheesy biscuits. I have never done so many interviews and I hadn’t even won anything then!

I did briefly wonder if I was being kidnapped as I was bundled into the back of a passing car by some people with very little English but they were just being really nice and giving me a lift from my digs to the arena. Slightly scarier was the fact that the driver had one hand on a bottle of Heineken and the other on his mobile telephone for most of the journey, at least until he finished his beer, probably quite legal in Brazil...

I said to myself when I set off that I would just say yes any time anyone suggested that I do anything or go anywhere or whatever, and I stuck to that as best I could. This should probably be something I should adopt in day to day life, I met some lovely folk this way. I barely speak a word of Portuguese, left, right, thank-you, stop, cheese, (useful) happy birthday, anteater, hydro-electric power-station (less useful) and hardly anyone there spoke any English but I managed absolutely fine. I was adopted by some fellow competitors, Milos and Athos, a couple of Brazilians, and Jorge and Francesco, two Uruguayans, I think they are the first Uruguayans I have ever met, and they all looked after me very well, despite the obvious communication difficulties.

 Planting a tree with the mayor.
This is an 'iron-tree'. No, I'd never heard of one either. It is unusual in that the wood is very dense and sinks in water. It is also bullet-proof (caveat; Mario has a very small gun, I suspect it would be a different story if one was confronted with a 50 cal sniper rifle) On the subject of guns, I know Brazil has a bit of an iffy reputation in parts for things like guns and drugs but the folks of Costa Rica don't seem to lock any doors, leave windows on houses and cars open 24 hours a day and there is no graffiti or vandalism anywhere. As a stranger in town, sometimes alone, and not speaking a word of the local language I felt completely safe at all times, no problems whatsoever.

I also joined in with the locals whenever the chance arose, I have had a tour of the town in the back of a pick-up, was up until far too late on the Thursday night drinking tea and being taught some (possibly quite rude) Portuguese songs in someone’s outdoor kitchen, planted a tree with the mayor of the town, raced the local school children around the pump track, been on Brazilian telly at least twice, was shown how to make a cheesy-pastry thing and drank beer with a three-times jujitsu world champion from the home-made bar in the back of his van, all mostly without any mutual language at all. I won’t tell you about the confusion with the showers, but ele and ela are two words I can now add to the list of Portuguese words I know.

A slight deviation for a moment, I think I have some new favourite words in English, certainly right up there with ‘would you like some cake?’ Actually, talking of which the airport hotel in Campo Grande has all-you-can-eat complimentary chocolate cake in reception, although this is not replenished as often as I would have liked, all-I-can-eat is quite a lot, even 36 hours after finishing one of these races. Anyway, my new favourite words are ‘with the in-flight entertainment system’. Context is all important here, when you are thirty thousand feet over the Atlantic and they are immediately preceded by ‘we regret to inform you that we are experiencing some technical difficulties' they are most welcome.

I do like a proper running start. That chap with the yellow top and blue helmet just behind Gaia is properly fast though, I was a comfortable second for most of the run, a couple of guys passing me just as we got to the bikes, but he was miles ahead! It's the closest I got to the overall lead all weekend mind. Also, being the only Brit in that picture it is obvious how pale my legs are...

Back to the race. The track was nearly 30km long, big by 24hr standards, this would be a long lap, maybe an hour and a half. It was easily a three-bottle lap in those conditions, 34 degrees was pleasant but 54% humidity was making hard to drink enough. It wasn’t particularly difficult technically, there were two descents which required a couple of attempts in practice but which I successfully completed on every lap of the race. I did spend a while with Elena during Friday practice showing her how to ride the second of those but she soon had it dialed, just a confidence thing really, she's quite capable but I think just likes to see someone else go first. Unfortunately at that spot about four hours into the race someone in front of her fluffed their line, she attempted to take evasive action as they fell but she came off worse and broke her shoulder, game over.

I saw another injury first thing on Sunday morning on a very fast rocky decent, just before the ranch where the party had been going into the wee small hours. They were providing much welcome water for us as we passed during the heat of the day but this became tequila as the sun fell and their music volume rose. This, the water, not the tequila, was almost as welcome as the ice provided by the chap in the green house after the first big climb. I’m digressing again. She appeared to have broken her collar-bone, luckily not far from where an ambulance was stationed, I managed to attract their attention and stayed with her as the paramedics made their way up the hill to us. It cost me a few minutes but in a race this long it makes next to no difference.

They only other injury I am aware of was Taylor Lideen, one of the big three names expected to challenge for the overall title, he was holding a strong second place about nine hours in. He trapped a nerve or a tendon or something in his leg. He somehow did a lap using just the good leg but this took its toll and he was forced to withdraw. He seemed remarkably sanguine about it when I saw him at dinner on the Sunday night. This weekend was the first time I've spoken to him, after that brief awkward bit where you both try to work out who speaks which languages and whether you can have any sort of conversation about anything. This is a mercifully short process for two native English-speakers, it's much funnier watching a Uruguayan and an Italian go through it. Anyway, nice chap and Mary is lovely too, shame his race ended like this.

A more normal example of the language problem was on the Friday evening as I was sitting at a table outside a pizza restaurant. A couple of the Shimano mechanics, who were providing neutral support during the event, came in and one of them came over to say hello, we managed that bit OK, then as my bike was leaning against a tree next to me, conversation turned, or at least tried to, to gear ratios. I tried English, he tried Portuguese. I tried German, he tried Spanish. I tried Italian, he tried French. How much French can I remember? Twenty-five years ago at school, how hard can it be? It was my fourth choice, his third, this was not going to be a very detailed chat, but with a lot of pointing and other hand gestures we managed fine.

 Me chasing Taylor Lideen through the arena on the first lap

There were two short, sharp climbs which were impossible on a singlespeed, and apart from a few of the top riders on the second one, were nearly impossible on a geared bike too. The big climbs though were fine for me. There was a long climb up from the hydro-electric plant, and a funny smell there for whatever reason, and another out of the quarry. I was geared 32/20 on a 29er and this was perfect for these. The other significant one after the river crossing was doable early on but the top section became more of a struggle as the race wore on and I did have to push the last little bit a couple of times in the night. It was however enlivened by a very large herd of peccary running around (I had to google it too) They seemed much friendlier than the goats, and a lot more friendly than the ubiquitous stray dogs!

A few people have mentioned the beard, and the heat. 
It wasn't that warm, low-thirties during the day, down to about twelve overnight as July is the middle of winter there but of course insulation works both ways and it was fine. More importantly, it acted as a huge dust-filter for the air I was breathing in, it's not normally that red, but the dust was everywhere.

A fair chunk of the course wound its way around the town. The big road from the quarry back to the arena and then out to the suburbs was the only place I really felt that a singlespeed was a liability. I would get passed by a chain-gang, through and off at 30-35km/h, I would leap on the back, my little legs spinning like Scooby-Doo’s in that moment just after he has spotted a ghost but before he actually starts to move, and hold them as long as I could, which wasn’t very. Riding through the town involved dodging traffic (very compliant, much better than British traffic) but also high-fiving pretty much every child in the neighbourhood, which did slow one's progress slightly.

At the pointy end of the race Mario Verissimo Oliveira, the home favourite who had won the test event in 2018, had taken an early lead, Taylor and defending champion, Canadian Cory Wallace some way behind. He had however overcooked it, and was passed by the two big guns before Taylor had his problem and he was able to regain second place ahead of Paraguay's Ernesto Rodrigues. Italy's Gaia Ravioli utterly dominated the women’s race from the outset and her result would have given her a very strong showing in the men’s race (fourth!). Unfortunately it appears that singlespeeding isn’t really much of a thing in Brazil and the field was a little weak to say the least but it did mean that muggins here was able to hold a comfortable lead over Jose Pereira throughout.

Cory Wallace on his way to another win, three in a row now 

I was very happy with my early laps, and was doing reasonably well in the general classification for a while but I had a major wobble about fourteen hours in. I blew up pretty badly and had a really terrible lap, which included sitting in a bush for a while wondering if I could carry on, and this was then followed by a thirty-five minute pit stop to sort myself out (Thirty-five minutes?!? What were you playing at?!? – Ed)  eating and eating until I felt vaguely human again and a change out of my horrible sweaty clothes into something warm and dry, the shoes and socks being by far the most welcome part.

Looking at the stars back home I can recognise and name maybe three constellations but there is a pleasing familiarity to the sky, in the southern hemisphere it is totally different, it is like looking up at the heavens on an alien world. Being over 400km from the nearest city only added to how spectacular it was, even living in one of the emptier bits of an overcrowded little island I don’t get to see anything quite like that.

No idea who that is chasing me.

Dawn was equally impressive, the whole eastern horizon glowing red as the sun crept up on us. With the sunrise usually comes my second wind but it took it’s time on this occasion, even at 9am I was still fighting to keep awake, wobbling dangerously on the long drag back towards the arena. It’s odd how I can be barely able to keep my eyes open and the bike upright on stretches like that but on the techier sections my brain seems to know that it is needed and it perks up enough to get me down in one piece.

My last two laps were at a reasonable pace once again, not as quick as I had been in the opening stages of the race but certainly a lot quicker than the two terrible laps I had suffered through in the early hours. Starting a lap not long before the cut-off also meant that I was one of the last people out on the course, the race was 25hr16m for me, not quite my longest ever but not far off. Even though the course wasn’t especially difficult technically I was still broken, these things are never easy, as Russ said he’s heard people before various races grumbling about an easy course, but very, very few saying that afterwards… 

It took the best part of an hour to make my way from the finish line, via the pits to the shower, about 400 yards. There were people everywhere, everyone wanting to talk, to have a photo, to look at my bike. Actually, wanting a look at my bike was a fairly common theme the whole time I was there, as I said above I don’t think singlespeeding is very common in Brazil, which did make me stand out rather. However, it also means that despite winning my first (and hopefully not last!) World Championship I do feel that I got a bit lucky in terms of the competition, I felt that I rode much better at Finale in 2017 when I ‘only’ managed third, the competition there was properly fierce, but a win’s a win and I’m still going to count it. Looking at the times of the elite and age-group riders I was 49th out of around 300 which I am quite pleased with, especially on a course which wasn’t particularly singlespeed-friendly. Anyway, a slight grumble about the lack of depth to the SS field aside, everything else was amazing, what an experience.

I really need to work on my 'posing for photos as I cross the line', I'm just not used to winning things.

I have lots of people to say thank-you to as always, they refer to it as a ‘24hr Solo’ but it really isn’t, it’s one person riding but there are a lot more involved. So a big thank-you to Hans for taking care of me during the race, keeping me fed, watered and up to date with what was happening, Claudia and Stuart for generally being very nice and looking after me (and Claudia’s age-group win gave Hans two world titles, not bad at all. She cut it a bit finer than me though, taking the lead a mile from the finish line just before the 24hrs ticked over...) Milos, Athos, Jorges, Francesco, Thais, Victor, Alan, Danielle, Filipe, Pedro and basically everyone else I met there, every single person was absolutely lovely.
Oh, and of course Mt Zoom for turning a fairly light bike into a very light world-championship winning bike, all parts faultless as always.

So would I go back? Oh yes. Despite how awkward it was to get to it was well worth it. There is the big BrasilRide stage race every year and it has been suggested to me by Carlos dal Pont that we should attempt to become the first people to complete it on singlespeeds. I am actually quite tempted by this. I can’t afford to do it next year as the World Champs are in Australia and that will take all of my racing budget (and some!) but the following year we are in Portugal, which is a lot cheaper, and so BrasilRide may happen for me in 2021, watch this space.

1 comment:

  1. Hell yes, Brasil Ride 2021 we are coming!!