Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Socks But Were Afraid To Ask.


2019 European 24 Hour - Penafiel, Portugal


It is traditional for me to start any sort of race report by moaning about how badly prepared I was, just to make sure I get my excuses in first, so here goes: After coming back from the World Champs in Brazil I raced at SSUK at Comrie, which was a great race by the way, and came fifth, upgraded to joint fourth of course (that will make sense to any singlespeeders amongst you) and then followed this up with a chest infection. After blowing a miserable 450 on the peak flow test thingy which asthmatics use and coughing at her a lot the doctor prescribed me some Pillsandtablets which made it better, and also an inhaler. I never actually used the latter, but still got all the paperwork sorted for it just in case I needed it and then got tested for anything, it’s been a long time since I’ve been poorly and I didn’t realise the beauacracy involved.
  

Flying from Edinburgh to Porto is supposed to be quite straightforward, I’ve done it once before and it took a couple of hours on the direct RyanAir flight. However, this time they were helpfully on strike. I therefore had to get the penultimate train up to Waverly on the Wednesday night in order to get the last tram out to the airport. As the check-in was closed at that time of night I was unable to offload my bike and so had to sleep on the concrete floor in the main foyer, only occasionally woken by the refurbishment work going on at the desks themselves. Waking properly at 4am after over 3 hours of sleep, I was finally able to get rid of my huge box (which EasyJet charged me more to take to Portugal than BA and LATAM had charged me to take to the middle of Brazil) and headed upstairs. A quick stop at Gatwick and I was on my way to Porto.

I picked up my van at the airport, hit the motorway and had no trouble at all in finding Penafiel, but then a lot more trouble finding the venue, passing with 50 yards of it almost as soon as I reached the town but not recognising it and continuing to search the surrounding countryside for the next couple of hours. I stumbled across it eventually, and spent the rest of the evening reassembling my bike and saying hello to everyone who I hadn’t seen since either Brazil a month earlier or last year’s Worlds way back in October. We really should meet up more often.

Friday was lovely and sunny, much as one would expect in Portugal and so we set off for a practice lap. The course was excellent, although a little hard to find at this stage. It was good mix of rocky climbs, twisty descents, large slabs and boulders and sections which still appeared to be marked out from previous events which would lead us off into the middle of nowhere before they just disappeared.

Race briefing

I did my first practice lap on 32/20 but there was really only one section where I was spinning like crazy without making much progress so I decided to drop a gear for the race itself, down to 30/20. Because of flying to the race I had no spare bike, or even any spare wheels, and changing gear is a five or six minute process. Yes, I know you can get little buttons to put on the handlebars which speed this up but then you have to have carry a dozen different gears around attached to your back wheel and that’s really heavy. Anyway, the point is, whatever gear I started on I would probably have to commit to for the whole race, it could take even longer to change when my hands had gone numb and I was half asleep.

I headed out for another practice lap to check that the new gear was indeed an improvement and got completely lost up in the hills somewhere, following marker tape again but probably not ours… There were some interesting/sketchy/terrifying descents out there, depending on your point of view, all good fun but not enormously helpful when trying to learn the course, I have no idea where that was.

Most of Friday evening was again spent catching up with people, but mostly eating. 24s are really just a competition to see who can eat the most and it is important to get a good head start the night before. The rain was setting in as I retired for the night, sleeping in Pedro’s tent in the arena rather than my van as it looked a bit warmer and Pedro quite liked the idea of having someone keep an eye on his bikes (Pedro, I can sleep through fire alarms, a couple of bikes being lifted away is hardly going to rouse me!)

 Not quite sure what Pedro's doing

The rain had stopped by morning though and, in other good news, the organisers had put out over 130 extra barriers and a lot more course tape over night in response to the queries about where the course actually went. I am not aware of any navigation issues for anyone during the race itself, it was certainly fine for me.

A midday start gave plenty of time for two breakfasts and more faffing with the bike. I got changed in the back of my little hire van, locked it and slipped the key into my jersey pocket as I walked away (detail for later…)

There was no gridding and I started somewhere in the front third of the pack. We were lead out around the pits and then out onto the course, it was slightly downhill from there to the first singletrack section and singlespeeds don’t really like downhill starts, I got absolutely swamped heading down there, people passing me left, right and centre. Well, not centre, but you know what I mean. Actually, that’s an odd expression, no-one ever overtakes through the middle of someone, I wonder where it comes from.

Anyway, Hugo Neves and Roberto di Osti both came passed me on the first lap, two other likely contenders for the win, and disappeared off into the distance. They did appear to be working together, a bit of slipstreaming on the faster sections, I guess the downside of being a world champ is that it puts a big target on your back and other folks will gang up on you.

 Roberto

The first few laps were excellent, the course, now we could find it, was really good. There were a couple of rocky climbs, about on the limit of steepness and grip for a singlespeeder, good line choice was essential there, plenty of swoopy downhill sections too. The climb up to the highest point of the course was also tough, doable but tough, narrow and rutted but with just enough grip. After the final summit was a section of huge rocky slabs, they reminded me of the ones near Mt Wondabyne in Brisbane Water National Park, the sub-tropical vegetation also adding to the similarities. Great fun to ride, and then a steep downhill section, interspersed with vineyards, back to the arena.


The forecast for the race was not at all good. Fortunately the main arena for the race was under cover in a large exhibition centre in the town. We had questioned the need for this when we had first heard about it, surely it would be better to be out in the sunshine? Something like this would be extremely welcome in Fort William, but unnecessary in sunny Portugal surely. However, given the intensity of the rain, and also the wind, we were quite glad of it. Our pits remained largely where we had left them, rather than blowing away as soon as our backs were turned, and the food and clothing therein remained dry. Little luxuries, but there comes a point in most races where you firmly believe that a dry pair of socks is the most important thing in the world right now, forget world peace, the answer to life and even cake, dry socks top it all. It is therefore disappointing to find the bag of spare socks sitting in a very large puddle at 4am.  It was good to know this couldn’t happen here.

 Warm and cosy pits.

Despite the weather the temperature remained reasonably high and I didn’t actually feel that I had to change my socks at all. I would have liked to of course, but that would have cost time and they remained just about tolerable so I ignored them and carried on. A downside of flying to a race Is the limit on the number of dry shoes one can have available and there’s not really much point changing socks only to put wet shoes back on, and it feels really unpleasant.

Enough about socks.
 
Tiago, and someone I don't recognise

The rain came and went from late afternoon until the end of the race the following morning, but it was fairly constant, varying only in intensity rather than presence until it eased off quite a bit after sunrise on Sunday, but even then there was the odd shower popping up. At some stages of the race it was coming sideways, the wind strong enough to bring down trees on the exposed fireroad climb. 

Why do we refer to it as a head-wind? A head is very much a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree object, it sticks out at the top and is exposed to wind from all directions, facewind would be a much better term. There was a lot of facewind on the upper parts of the track, and plenty of facerain.

 Bieke

It was quite funny watching some of the southern Europeans, the Portuguese, Spanish and Italians, trying to ride in the wet, I guess they just aren’t used to it. Back home steering on wet tree roots isn’t my strongest area, I will usually lose quite a bit of time in those sections compared to everyone else but here I was passing almost everyone. There was one particular section, just after the big rock slabs and the traverse under the power lines, where the course turned a sharp right into a steep downhill along the edge of the woods, a tight lefthander at the bottom. I got pretty good at judging who was about to crash in front of me and which way they were going to fall and overtook a lot of folks here, only barrelling into a tree at full tilt myself on two occasions.


At some point in the wee small hours I got passed Hugo and moved up into second place behind Roberto. I saw Hugo just after sunrise, as I reached the bottom of last descent and turned along the side of the stream he was just heading up the first climb, the awkward corner with the step up over the large rock. Despite very little in the way of mutual language we paused very briefly to acknowledge each other, he managed to convey that his forearms were hurting quite a bit and it was fairly obvious that this was in large parts due to the fact that his forks were making a very unpleasant clunking sound when he bounced them up and down.

Hugo

He wasn’t the only one having trouble though, despite riding a simple and reliable singlespeed Tiago Corsaro had also managed to break his bike, the freewheel was somewhat intermittent and he was struggling to make much progress. Gary Cooper had avoided any potential suspension fork problems by going fully rigid. I can remember my first 24, and how daunting it was lining up at start knowing it was going to hurt but not sure just how much, no idea whether I could even do it. Gary had gone one better and had decided to do his first ever on a rigid singlespeed. Top marks for ambition but…

 Gary. Far too much energy

Apart from shedding a rear crud catcher fairly early on and having a wet bottom for the whole race I really only had one problem. I came into the pits just before 4am, forced some more food down my throat, I forget what, a quick swig of a drink, swapped bottles and headed out again. Out the doors, through the car park, over the main road, down the hill, left through the field, over the very narrow and surprisingly slippery bridge, up the little kick into the beginning of the singletrack and then slammed on the brakes as I felt an overwhelming urge to vomit. I have no idea what happened there, one minute I was fine and the next I wasn’t. A minute or so standing astride the bike trying not to get any sick into my shoes and I was on my way again, a horrible taste in my mouth.

One’s mindset in the middle of a race is a funny thing. Having just been quite violently sick, albeit very briefly, rather than worrying about what this indicated about my health my main concern was that I had wasted everything I had just eaten, they were important calories that I would need to get around this lap. I had some more food in my pocket, a couple of gels and an emergency mars bar. Should I eat them? They would certainly be useful, but would they make me sick again and waste even more time and calories? I didn’t eat them and pressed on, a bit of a drink to take the taste away. Just over an hour later I was back at the pits, not feeling at all well. I dumped the bike by the start/finish line and sprinted for the toilets. Another advantage of the exhibition centre, these were warm, dry, still clean even at this stage of the race and well lit. I won’t go into too much detail as to what happened in there (either end) but it cost a good few minutes. I retrieved my bike and re-joined the track where I had left it, back round to my pit to see if there was anything there I thought I could stomach.

Bizarrely enough Peter informed me that I was now leading. I knew I was ahead of Hugo but I had somehow got ahead of Roberto too. It was not a big lead so despite how I was feeling I had to press on. I was a little slow for the next couple of laps but my stomach held up, I was probably eating considerably less than I should have been though.

 Donna, en route to winning the lady's singlespeeds

Unusually for a WEMBO event this was a ‘short’ 24, whereby laps completed within 24 hours count, rather than the more usual ‘long’ 24, which is where laps started within 24 hours count. By this stage of the race I was doing about 1h30m for a lap. I came through the pits at about 10am and Peter gave me an update.

A slight deviation for a moment, my pit crew for the weekend were Peter Nadin and his wife Tania. How cool is that, having a former national and age-group world champion pitting for me. They were both very good, thanks again if you’re reading this.


 Peter and Tania doing better on the eating front than I was

Anyway, Peter told me that I was still leading, fairly comfortably now, I would have to do this last lap but really just had to complete it and then job done. Roberto would need both his current and next lap to be really, really quick just to get close.

There were a few others in our pit too, Gary Cooper was there looking pretty broken, his first ever 24hr, on a rigid singlespeed, was clearly taking its toll. Andrew Westmoorland was also there, having apparently thrown the towel in some time previously. I probably looked as broken as Gary as he was volunteered to get the towel out again and come round the final lap with me. A singlespeed and a geared fatbike were surprisingly evenly matched, he was a little quicker on the traverses and downhills, I had a slight edge on the climbs but there wasn’t much in it. 

At the summit of the final climb was a strange rock formation, obviously man-made, some sort of standing-stone arrangement, and it was on the climb up to this that Roberto di Osti came flying passed us going like a bat out of hell. I said to Andrew “that’s the chap we’re racing, he’s just unlapped himself”. I did try to stay with him, just because I thought it would be fun, but he was really on it and dropped me as we crested the hill and he then disappeared down the chute between the trees at the top of the last descent.


That final descent was fun, racing Andrew, playing about on the rocks as we made our way down. Most of the standing water had cleared by this stage too so we could see the rocks and roots, not that Andrew seemed that bothered with his massive tyres.

 Andrew

Back up the last little climb into the arena and towards the finish line. I even had enough energy left to do the waving-both-arms-in-the-air-as-I-crossed-the-line thing, I have no idea where the photographs of that ended up, they’re out there somewhere, hopefully it looked good. The ninety degree left hander a few feet after the finish is surprisingly tricky when you have both hands off the bars and have to grab a handful of front brake pretty sharpish.

The commentator was talking rapidly over the PA, but in Portuguese so I have no idea what he was saying, I caught my name and Roberto’s in amongst the unfamiliar words but that was about it. Roberto himself was standing next to the course just after the line talking to his pit crew, he came over to say hello. My Italian isn’t great but considerably better than my non-existant Portuguese. He was saying something about second place and how close it was. I congratulated him on his race, we had a few photos together and then Andrew carried me back to our pit, Peter pushing my bike and congratulating me.

I removed my shoes, always a lovely feeling at the end of a long race and lay down in our pit, curled up into a ball with a bottle of something, people coming over to say hello and well done but I was far too broken to be sociable, sorry everyone.

Gary spotted that my socks were on the wrong feet (no, I never knew there were left and right specific socks either, they felt fine that way round) I was vaguely aware of a small group of people laughing at me as a I drifted off. 


A half hour nap and I was woken again and pushed in the direction of the showers, which were very much needed. It was such a relief to get my cold wet riding kit and back into some warm clothes, especially some clean socks and dry shoes. I returned to the arena just as the podiums were starting, beginning with the team relays and then the age groups before the Elites and singlespeeds. There had been a bit of confusion over whether this was a short or long 24 and it turns out some folks had done an extra lap somehow, I have no idea what happened there, I wasn’t really awake enough to be able to concentrate but it all seemed to have sorted itself out. 

Peter saw me heading over and took me off to one side, away from the crowds. “I don’t know how to tell you this, it’s not good news” I asked what had happened. He showed me an updated copy of the results on his screen. I was second. Bugger. How had that happened? I had spent the last hour thinking I had won, everyone I had spoken to seemed to think I had won too, I guess a mix of language barriers and a delay in getting the results from the finish line to the pits hadn’t helped. Bugger again. I looked at the lap times. Mine seemed to tally pretty much with what I thought I’d done, Roberto had had a very slow one around dawn but then two mighty laps after he had sorted himself out and he certainly had been flying when I saw him, it looks like it might be correct. Bugger.


It’s not the first time I’ve thought I’d won a race only to discover that I was in fact second, but it is a lot more annoying when it happens at a European championship. However, to look on the bright side it is a sign of how much my riding has come on over the last couple of years that I was now feeling disappointed with second in the Euros, even so soon after another 24 and a chest infection. Having got my disappointed face done away from everyone else I was able to properly congratulate Roberto on his win (by six and half minutes! Bugger) on the podium, hopefully without looking too grumpy about it, maybe if my Italian was better I would have clocked that he had been saying well done to me for second earlier rather than, as I had thought, saying something about his own second place.
To be fair to him though his last two laps had been absolutely mighty and when he did come passed me I was unable to respond. No doubt there are areas in which I could have done better, six and a half minutes isn’t a lot of time to make up (less time vomiting for a start…) but he can probably say the same so I suspect that it wouldn’t have made a difference to the result. Looking back through the Elite and Singlespeed results from previous World, European and UK National championships I think this may have been the closest ever battle for the win. It was great to be part of it, just a shame it didn’t go the other way.



Epilogue

This bit is specially for Matt. He does like a good van-incident story.  Because of flying to this one I didn’t have my own with me, I hadn’t even driven to the airport, that was a mix of train and tram. Instead I had a one-year old Fiat Doblo which I hired from the airport in Porto. Despite only being a year old and having thirty five thousand kilometres on the clock I was expecting a van-incident almost from the outset, it really wasn’t pulling well, especially uphill, some kind of fuel issue from the feel of it, a dodgy filter, pump or injectors possibly. The venue wasn’t too far from the airport though and it got there in one piece.

Immediately prior to the race I had got changed in it, and locked it as I walk away (fancy remote-control central locking, all the mod-cons) and put the key in the back pocket of my race top. After the race, I spent some time laying in a heap in the pits, then had a shower and a bite to eat, did the whole podium thing and then stood around talking to folks for ages. I then thought that I should begin to pack up. No sign of the key. Everywhere was searched, all my kit, the big box, everyone else’s kit, everyone else’s flight cases, the bin bags, the van was checked several times, all doors locked, no sign of it inside from peering through the windows. No-one had handed a key in. Bugger. Various theories were postulated and then ruled out, until the only one left which seemed plausible was that I had set out on the first lap with it still in my pocket, and it wasn’t there now. The chances of finding it on a lap that long, with that much mud and water and so many people riding it over and over again were, at best, slim. Now what? 

It came with breakdown cover, the details of which were in the glovebox. Would the hire company have a spare key? Apparently (text message conversation with Dave, who knows these things) lease companies tend to hang on to the spares so if they had leased it then maybe not, the spare could be anywhere. Was my Portuguese up to giving them a call? Probably not. I know the words for anteater and hydro-electric power station but not the words for key or lost. I needed to find someone to translate for me. Trouble is the hire place was shut this late on a Sunday, that would have to wait for tomorrow, would anyone still be around then? Diego was trying to think of somewhere for me to sleep, the van was not only my transport, it was my accommodation, and the venue had to be vacated that night. With my wallet in the van I would struggle to find a hotel. Also, if there was a spare key at the airport riding there would be interesting, the map was also in the van, it wasn’t too far but doing it the day after a 24 with both myself and the bike somewhat worse for wear would be fun.

After a good few hours of trying to work out what to do and searching everywhere twenty eight times, and with the venue now almost deserted I decided that the best thing to do would be to walk the course at daybreak and see if I got lucky, maybe the very small black thing would stand out if  it hadn’t been buried or washed away. I thought I might as well do something so began to hang my horrible wet riding kit out to dry, the bag of really, really smelly things I had taken off in the showers. The manky top, the shorts which were even worse, the sock which now appeared to have solidified, the other sock with the hard thing in it.

The hard thing in it.

Key found.

I returned triumphantly into the building waving it around. I saw Diego over by his car and headed over, brandishing it aloft.

I spent the next half an hour helping him look for his…


Back in my luxury accommodation at last!


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