Question: What’s the longest bike ride you’ve ever been on? I’m talking hours spent in the saddle over the course of a day.
Whilst some of the cycle tours I’ve been on have lasted a few weeks or months I realised the longest time I’d actually spent riding was probably 10-11 hours (with appropriate tea and wee breaks of course). That was until last weekend.
The sign up.
It was another one of those optimistic/slightly drunk sporting entries, you know the ‘I’ve-had-a-glass-of wine-or-two’ kind, when you get that inflated sense of confidence whereby you can take on, and win, some of the great sporting feats on the planet.
Of course I can run a marathon, complete an Ironman, grab an Olympic gold, land on the moon…… So, what did I sign up for this time….. Mountain Mayhem – a 24 hour mountain bike race….easy!
Sanity must have kicked in slightly at the last minute because, instead of entering the solo category, I somehow found the sense/bare-faced cheek to talk a friend into entering with me in the mixed pairs section. That was the only drop of reason though.
Happily, this was months before the event and in the intervening time I managed to mostly forget entirely that I’d entered but, as the weeks crept by there was no avoiding it. This was going to happen. Cue lots of panic training rides.
Fast forward a few weeks to Friday 16th June I’m sat in the middle of a Royal field no-less in the wilds of the Wiltshire countryside. It feels bizarrely like a music festival. Hundreds, if not thousands of people had descended on Gatcombe Park, home to Princess Anne and were now partying in her back garden which was awash with tents, BBQ smoke and loud music. The only slight incongruity is the startling number of very expensive looking bikes as far as the eye can see, tethered to cars, racks and in some case actually in the tents themselves.
“Welcome to the 20th and final Mountain Mayhem” the overhead speakers announce. “The world’s first and longest running 24 hours mountain bike race”.
It seems fitting somehow, if not a little disconcerting, that my first race experience will also be their last.
At the campsite I’ve got enough equipment to break a large elephant, my bike already disappeared under a ton of tinned rice pudding, chocolate, bananas and camping gear. I’ve also managed to bring every piece of cycle clothing I own from summer shorts to rain and winter wear, sun cream and snow gloves. I had less stuff going away for a 4 month bike tour than the next 24 hours, where on earth did it all come from?
Friday evening and there’s the opportunity for a practice lap of the course before racing starts at midday on Saturday. I’m torn between being able to practice the route and terrain and not wanting to add an inch of extra mileage to my legs before the main event. Maybe I’ll just look at the first bit…… 2 hours later and we’re back at the campsite sweating, exhausted and for me at least, very perturbed. Of course we ended up riding the whole route, 7.5 miles of some punishing uphill climbs and some tricky, technical descents. It’s about now I’m seriously starting to have doubts, both about my sanity and the ability to complete one lap of the course let alone 24 hours’ worth. Oh crap. Time for a medicinal gin and tonic before bed!
The next morning – race morning – and the nerves have intensified to a seething mass of eels in my abdomen. My carefully calculated, highly technical race fuelling strategy, of ‘eat anything and everything available’, is being hampered somewhat by my stomach’s refusal to accept any incoming traffic. I struggle to eat a bite of banana which feels like a lead weight going down.
Shortly after, there’s also the opportunity to bless the relative cleanliness and proximity of the porta-loos as my body spitefully expels anything taken on board in the past millennia. 5 loo stops later as we head for the pre-race briefing I swear I’m starting the day on minus calories.
The race rules are simple, one of your team must be out on the course at all times, when you’ve finished your lap pass through the timing gate and hand over the baton (an armband) to your team mate who is waiting in the transition area. Then grab your bike and go go go, ad infinitum for 24 hours.
As midday fast approaches the riders, including my teammate (TM), line up under a blazing sun for the Le Mans style start…. This basically means running a lap of the arena before grabbing your bike and heading out at high speed onto the course.
As the starting claxon sounds hundreds of men and women wearing helmets, hydration packs and cycling cleats surge forward into the sun baked arena. As the first wave passes it becomes clear however that not everyone on the course is quite so super-keen. Once the eager beavers have sprinted off the majority of the field, mindful of the long ride ahead, stroll jauntily along the course to the cheers and whoops of spectators.
The front runners though are now mounted and sprinting away; amongst the field are more than a few professional teams and it’s a real buzz to be able to compete alongside them.
Meanwhile, Bob the full sus mountain bike is waiting patiently in the racking area called transition as I hop around nervously, along with our FTS – fantastic team support (my mate’s brother who stupidly agreed to help out) for the first change over.
Having ridden the route yesterday we had a rough idea of lap times but nothing definite. My stomach still in knots I try forcing electrolyte drink into it between porta-loo pit stops. The sun by now is merciless, on what subsequently turned out to be one of the hottest days of the year. With temperatures nudging 30 degrees centigrade, keeping cool even in the arena was going to be a challenge.
An hour after the start I spot a familiar cyclist tearing down the course – looks like it’s my turn. In to transition I grab the arm band from TM and with a brief ‘good luck’ wrestled Bob from the racking and head out on the course. My (vague) plan is to ride safely and steadily, the mantra of ‘it’s a marathon not a sprint’ playing on a loop in my head, whilst offering up the universal prayer ‘please don’t let me fall off and break anything again’ (sorry mum)!
The course was as tricky as I remembered but it did help having ridden it once. The mostly shaded forest tracks were also a welcome relief from the blazing sun. Each climb however was just as unforgiving and the downhills as hair raising. Panting up the last monster hill before the home stretch however I realised the technical stuff was now behind me, for this lap at least. Even better was the growing camaraderie with the other competitors, people were so friendly, cheering each other on, joking up hills, giving words of encouragement.
Topping the final hill the track then wound through the massive campsite and the supporters really came in to their own, people cheered and whooped, as you rode through the mass of tents. Even more welcome were the kids (and adults) with water pistols, drenching you as you went by which was heavenly in the blistering heat. Small jump ramps had also been dotted around and I was feeling cocky enough to tackle a few, flying along the last grassy stretch before the wooded path to the arena. Re-entering the ring pedalling like a fury under the timing gate I arrived in a sweaty, overheated heap to hand over the arm band to TM. 2 laps down, 2 hours in, 22 more to go!
And so began a pattern. Finish lap, ride the half a mile to the tent, peel off clothes soaked in sweat and hang to dry. Change (mostly back into half dried sweaty stuff), apply buckets of sun cream, grimly try to force down food, brilliantly prepared by FTS, drink, ride half a mile back to arena. Go back on out on the course. The only things that slowed were the handovers where we quickly ditched the flying changes for a 10 minute chat/rest at the end of each lap. Much more sociable.
Evening definitely brought relief from the relentless heat of the sun but it threw up another issue, riding at night. It’s something I’d done quite a bit of last year, pre-accident, but nothing since then and on such a technical course I wasn’t looking forward to it. TM had graciously offered to try and tackle the majority of the night time laps being the more experienced rider but I still had some to do.
At 11pm I headed out for my first double lap in the pitch black. The course at least had become more familiar by then and I was feeling more confident with its twists and turns, however it’s funny how a landscape can change with darkness. There seemed to be far less riders for a start, sometimes I was completely on my own and I tried not to think too much about the strange, dark shapes flitting between the trees. Bats, it must be?!
Settling in I came to the final and trickiest major descent, the surface was so loose on this one that any real braking meant that the bike skidded out of control so the best approach was a full throttle plunge into the trees and a roller coaster of a ride down. This bit always made me nervous, I debated walking it in the dark but pride said otherwise so, with a deep breath, I sucked down my fear and plunged downwards.
Not an ideal time then for my light to run out of battery. With no chance of stopping I was in complete darkness as I careened through the forest, all I could do was hope the trees were where I remembered them to be.
Somehow I made the bottom in one piece and shakily pulling over to switch to my back-up light. Passing through the campsite I stopped off to grab a quick drink from FTS who was still awake before heading on. There was nothing so soul destroying however as passing through the timing gate and not being able to stop. Exhausted, I could only look wistfully at transition before heading out for another lap.
How the solo riders did it I don’t know, although they could stop and sleep, it takes real mental reserves to keep pedalling alone. By now I realised the teams of 4 or 5 had the right idea, enough riding but with a longer break. In 2-person teams, the riding was relentless, the breaks short lived.
By the time I finished the second lap I was at my lowest point mentally and physically, lack of food, sleep, fear and constant adrenalin gnawed away at confidence. Worse still we were only just half way through. It was a huge relief then to hand the baton over with the knowledge that TM would be taking a double lap and I could finally get a little bit of rest.
Hot food and a short sleep worked wonders and 3.30am I’m back in transition for my next lap. I’m also smiling to myself, listening as riders fly in calling for their team mates, only to be met with a deafening silence. Some people it seems have missed their alarm call and are snoozing in tents whilst their tired team mates make irate calls to them regarding whereabouts.
Out again and what a lap this next one is, I feel restored, there’s even a glimmer of dawn on the horizon, the air is cool, the course is far less dusty and riding well, I’m feeling confident again, we can do this.
TM is also feeling rested and takes another double lap. Time for more sleep and food.
6.45 am and the day is glorious, warm (it’s been a warm night) but fresh. A golden post-dawn light bathes the rolling hills and lily ponds. The woods are cool and fragrant and between the trees are glimpses of the royal estate, including Gatcombe house itself. I wonder if I could pop up there for breakfast. Stern noticeboards and an even sterner security details suggest not.
We’re over ¾ of the way through now. We’re going to do it.
The remaining laps roll by, one on, one off. I’d hoped to be the one riding the final lap but timings meant this honour would fall to TM and well deserved after taking those night time double stints.
10.55am and I’m heading out on Bob for the final time. Tired but energised. I’d gradually been walking more and more of the big hills as the event wore on, often at a quicker pace than those riding and a good efficiency saving. I try riding a few more this time, after all it’s our final lap. Some great banter and encouragement from all the competitors now who are even noticing my change of skirts. We’re de-mob happy, the end is in sight. I tick off the uphills and their subsequent tricky downs, counting them down by the names over which I’ve had 24 hours to christen them:
Fun big bomb hole down; bast**d grassy climb.
Fun Loamy berm bit; long bast**d stony uphill.
Slippery rooty down; beautiful lake single track, evil climb from hell
No light, supersonic, final downhill.
And that’s it, the last technical descent done all that remains is the long hot slog up to the campsite. Even then I don’t mind, I’m savouring every bit of this final lap and, as I crest the last hill to the shouts and cheers of the spectators, in my head I’m leading the home straight at the world cup. Flying down the grassy track, over the jump ramps, skirt fluttering in the breeze, through the woods and into the arena. My family are there now too as are TM and FTS, my legs are full of adrenalin and pumping like mad. We fly around the last corner and through the timing arch, hand over the baton and…. That’s it.
I’m done and I’ve done it. The adrenalin ebbs, I can’t believe I made it through a whole day and night. A quick wash and change and I’m back to cheer TM over the line at exactly 12.00, 24 hours after we started, riding through intense heat, darkness, spectacular sunsets and sunrises. Through an entire wardrobe of cycle clothing and way too many cans of rice pudding to even contemplate.
The final results, whilst not important to us per se, put us squarely in 4th place in the mixed pairs category. Team ‘Bike and the Mechanics’ clocking up a respectable 22 laps (10 by me, 12 by TM) not bad considering some of the calibre of riders out there.
For me that’s approximately 75 miles of off-road riding plus another 5miles or so commuting to the tent. Trust me it counts.
Celebration is a quiet affair. Half a pint of beer each and we’re rapidly sliding towards comatose but with a huge sense of satisfaction and achievement. Going into this I had no idea if I could make the distance, although determined to do it, short of being carried off the course, it was an unknown quantity in terms of physical and mental endurance. Underlying it is that fact that I still consider myself lucky to be here too. With most of last year written off through injury, even during the hardest hours I wouldn’t have swapped the experience, or the chance to tackle it, for anything.
There was a certain sadness in the air too at the last running of this iconic event (in this format at least) but it was truly a joy to be a part of, brilliantly organised and well honed. As ever though it was the people that made the whole event truly great, from those little jokes and conversations with other riders, the kind words from the spectators, messages from friends and loved ones and most especially the support from FTS (aka Tim) and TM (aka Andy). Great job guys, I would say see you same time next year but…..
*Lezyne photo credit to Rob Crayton, courtesy of Mounatn Mayhem.