This moment represents the sometimes farcical side of 24-hour mountain bike racing. The emotional rollercoaster of a 24-Hour Solo took me from pre-race terror, to the exhilaration of descending at high speed in the first few hours or darkness, to the inevitable feelings of self-doubt as the race wore on. I have commented to people that I think it takes more courage to start a 24-Hour Solo than to finish one. There is nothing like the mild panic of lining up at the start of a race knowing you will not get of the bike for a full day, particularly when that day would involve more than 400kms of mostly singletrack and around 10,000 metres of vertical.
The sport was once underground but is now, in Australia and North American at least, truly mainstream. In a 24-hour race riders complete a set loop of a course (this loop was 18.5kms with close to 500 metres of climbing per lap) and pass through a transition zone where their pit crew is able to feed / repair / motivate the rider. A rider can stay in transition as long as they like, and the winner is the rider that completes the most laps in 24 hours. If you come in just before the 24 hours elapses – usually raced from midday to midday – you can complete another lap. No outside assistance is allowed.
The 411 riders that took the start line for the first World Championships represented 15 countries, and were a mix of elite, age groupers and single speeders (correct!). The vast majority had qualified at designated events around the world, and the raging favourite was reigning champ Jason English who had won his last 10 24 solos. The women’s race was more open.
Because everyone shares the same track, there are races within races. I was competing in the Elite Category but suspected I might have been kidding myself given I had my 40th birthday a few months before the event. The pointy end of the race tends to play out in a similar fashion: a frantic sprint for the first hour or two to sort out track position and then a mix of strategies come into play among the contenders. Usually riders target a particular 6-hour block to lift their tempo – the midnight to 6am shift is often critical – but mostly the name of the game is consistency. The top elites all have well-oiled pit crews, and few riders in the top 10 will spend more than 10 minutes in transition total. That includes getting bidons, good, putting on lights, changing batteries and changing bikes. In this race I did less than 5 minutes in transition.
The first hour of the race was scary. The lead pack covered 18.5kms in 49 minutes and my average heart for the first hour was 10 beats off my max heart rate. Canadian Cory Wallace attacked 300 metres into the race – a suicide breakaway of epic proportions. The tempo eased off slightly over the next few hours when I was forced to let the lead riders go but it wasn’t until the onset of cramp at hour 3 that I backed off to my race tempo. At the four hour mark I binned it on a fast flowing section. From nowhere my front wheel washed out and I hit the deck hard, opening up a big cut in my right arm. For the next 10 minutes I rode along trying to diagnose the injury, fearing that when the adrenalin wore off I had done serious damage. Thankfully I hadn’t, and by the time I rolled into transition I was able to reassure the crew that it was a superficial graze.
Around 6pm – six hours into the race – I was joined by Australian 24-Hour legend Andrew Bell. We had battled at the qualifying event but we both realized that it was in both our interests to ride together and keep each other honest. At various points over the next 9 hours one or the other would be stronger, and the weaker rider would have to dig deep and respond. Transitions were critical as neither of us could afford to lose the other. A pivotal moment occurred around 2am when I hit a tree branch with my helmet and my light went out. It was potentially disastrous, as I still had to descend the high-speed, twisty Luge and Berm tracks. The handlebar lights are usually sufficient for most conditions but on these types of tracks you need to be able to see the exits to the corners, and the helmet light is critical. To his great credit, sensing my vulnerability, Bell agreed to pilot me back to the pits. He told me yell out if I lost the wheel and he would wait up – a class act. We had agreed to try and ride together til dawn but Bell started to struggle badly around 4am and he drifted off the back – the last I would see of him.
Photo courtesy of TommyP
At this point another race started. English rider Matt Page had put in a huge burst in the early hours of the morning and had moved past myself and Bell into fifth. When he flew past we responded initially but realized the pace wasn’t sustainable, and let him go. Page would pay for his effort and cracked, having to get some treatment in transition. He lost most of the time he had gained and was almost a lap down on me with 5 hours to go. I could see him up the road and knew I had to snuff out any thought of a challenge. I came up behind him and attacked. He responded, got close to my back wheel, and I went again. I took 6 minutes out of him that lap and built myself a buffer that I could ride for the remaining four hours.
While all this was going on other stories were unfolding. Jason English lapped the entire field. The suicide breakaway from Cory Wallace lasted 7 hours, but was snuffed out seemingly for good when he double flatted and lost 20 minutes trackside, slipping back to fourth. Wallace would ride himself back into the race and pulled out an incredible last lap to overtake second place in the closing stages. In the women’s race – later described as the greatest female 24 hour race in history – my Giant teammate and coach Jess Douglas reigned after fighting off intestinal issues and a flurry of attacks from the internationals and local Katrin Van Der Spiegel to win a right battle.
I saw one woman in the over 50 category carrying her bike with a large cut on the back of her leg. Apparently the bike was terminal and she had to run her bike for 11kms back to transition to change bike but went on to claim an age group win. A good friend of mine, and former BMX World Champion Jesse Carlson blacked out in transition and couldn’t remount for a final lap. On that last lap some were still racing, others were groveling and many were simply trying to survive. Another Giant rider, Harry Miriklis, had looked vulnerable at 10pm the night before when I saw him standing on the side of the track at the highest and coldest point of the circuit. He had regained his composure and joined me at the start of the last lap. I offered to pace him on to help him secure a top 30 place, and we talked the whole way around about life and kids and stuff we didn’t know about each other. We encouraged riders that we picked up to sit on the train. At one point we had nearly a dozen riders all encouraging each other and willing themselves on to the finish.
Harry told me to finish alone – 5th in elite. It was beyond my wildest expectations and as I crossed the line I spared a thought for James Williamson, a former teammate and 24 Hour Solo World Champion who had died earlier in the year aged 25. I thought about my sister and wife and family who had pitted for me and cheered me on in the wee hours. But mostly when I crossed the line I felt what everyone else did who crossed the line – relief.
And what of the bagpiper? Apparently the player was the father of one of the competitors, and decided it would help break the monotony and give riders at lift. At one point a Scottish rider, we assume, dismounted his bike and demanded the bagpipes be handed over. The player obliged and the dusty, exhausted rider took the pipes and played a capable tune. Only in a 24-hour race…
Photo courtesy of TommyP
Photo courtesy of TommyP