Summer Solstice means one thing to most people, the longest day, for me (and a few daft others) it means Mountain Mayhem. For those that don’t know, or didn’t read my blog last year, this is essentially a 24 hour mountain bike race at Gatcombe Park, Gloucestershire. You can either enter as a team, pair or solo. I was 10th solo last year, and this year I was determined to do better.
I arrived early afternoon on Friday, greeted by a marshall, and was ominously directed to the Solo camping area, this was already quite full. Whilst obviously a Solo rider is only one person, often they have a huge support crew, so good trackside camping was at a premium. I managed to get a good pitch, near the course, which was key, so I could nip in and out to get supplies and food during laps. This year was slightly different to last year, as this time I had a pit crew in the form of my brother Jack and two mates, Tom & Dave. In order to place highly in these event a pit crew is absolutely essential, it’s quite difficult to know what you want at 3am, let alone trying to work a stove and heat up pasta.
Another vital aspect of any mountain bike race is the weather, what can be a fun and enjoyable course in the dry can turn into an unrideable mess in the rain. The forecast had been changeable over the past week, with the latest saying rain on Saturday. However as race morning arrived the sky was clear, and the latest forecast seemed good. Usual pre race nerves, tyre woes, bike set up (what do you mean by brakes aren’t set up right Dave?) and wondering what to wear happened, and before I knew it 11am arrived and it was off to the rider briefing in the main arena, the usual race prep talk was given along with rules and it was back to the tent to but on the lycra i’ll be wearing for the next 24 hours, nice.
The race starts like many other endurance mountain bike races, with a run. The idea behind this is to string the field out a bit, and it usually works pretty well to be honest, it’s only about 1k afterall. I was stood on the start line, chatting to Ellis from Phoenix and a few other mates I knew were competing, I was seriously nervous, I knew how hard it was last year, and this year was going to be harder, i’d put the pressure on myself. The claxon went off, that was the start, after the short run I was back in the arena, collected the bike, and off I go…
I hadn’t bothered to ride the course before, afterall I had 24 hours to get used to it, plus from the reports i’d seen online it remained very much unchanged from last year, albeit i’d kind of blocked that out, but I knew there was nothing too technical, and realistically i’d be looking at lap times ranging from 40 to 55mins over the course of the race. It really is a course of 2 halves, the first half is actually good fun, some sweeping singletrack, fast flowing sections, especially through the trees. The 2nd half, well, that was tough. Almost everything after the “grassy section” which itself includes a tough climb, especially as the grass gets wet, was hard, and the climbs both steep and technical (ok, maybe not in isolation, but when you’re tired they are) Overall the course is 7 miles, and near as makes no difference 1000ft of climbing, punchy! Having a full support team this year also meant I could create a plan and try and stick to it, and with that in mind I was looking at doing 4 lap stints, so 28 miles and around 3ish hours of riding. 1 gel per lap, 2 600ml bottles with High 5 electrolyte tabs in per 4 laps, some midget gems in my pocket an a banana, lets see how this goes.
The first lap was fairly uneventful, I just planned on settling into a steady rhythm, not worry about any other riders on the course and well, just keep going I guess. Conditions out there were excellent, loads of grip, seemed quite fast, and as remembered, the first half was indeed good fun. I’d opted to run Continental Mountain Kings (2.2) after Dave’s advise, with the view that if the rain does arrive I can still use these if conditions get worse, thus meaning I wouldn’t have to stop for a tyre change, got to say, great advise there. The climbs were also as remembered, steep, tough and if you get the line wrong or hit a loose rock then can become quite tricky, nevertheless I rode them all, albeit slower than others, making sure my heartrate wasn’t too high. The last few miles were tough, with three short sharp climbs, one after the other, a steep technical descent, and then a long grassy drag back into the campsite and arena. Plenty of trackside support and camping, including my support crew, who were there with bottles, jaffa cakes, gels and soreen. A new plan had emerged, one that meant I didn’t need to stop at all, let alone every 4 laps. With that in mind a quick fling of the bottle and a fresh one full of water and I was off out on my second lap. The first one was around the 46 minute mark, so about where I needed to be. Laps 2,3 and 4 were excellent, really getting into it now, and setting some very consistent lap times around the 44 minute mark. Every lap the chaps were there, handing me bottles, cheering and stuffing soreen in my face, even a ham sandwich at one point, thanks Tom! My hydration was going well despite it being humid, and overall feeling good, long way to go yet, but feeling positive. Lap 5 and 6 seemed hard though, no idea why, looking back I think I had mentally prepared myself for a 5 min stop at lap 4, come off the course even, but that wasn’t happening, I couldn’t stop riding. Onto lap 7 and I started counting how many till i could have a meal, it had been agreed, whilst I cycled past that I would stop at 8pm, a few reasons, first of all you need lights of your bike past 8:30pm, secondly i’ll be very hungry, and finally i’ll have done 10 laps in 8 hours, which would put me on target for 30 laps. 7 and 8 were good laps, i’d had some more food during my ride through camp, including scotch pancakes (fave) and was looking forward to some pasta. Lap 9 it was getting quiet out there, i specifically remember the first half of the lap and there being nobody passing me, or me not passing anybody, but then after the “grassy section” riders seemed to start appeared, maybe i was more tired than I thought. Then on the final climb under the trees it went very dark and I could hear the rain, great, thankfully nothing more than a very heavy shower, which if anything made conditions slightly better in terms of grip under the trees. Woah, 9 laps done, that final climb was hurting, and out onto 10, a quick shout to the lads, pasta, coffee and warm sauce was the order. I spent all of lap 10 then thinking how much I could eat, I think this spurred me on and I posted a quick time around 45 mins. Into camp at 7:50pm, on time, and above target. I jumped off my bike, coat and clothes on and sat down as Dave gave my bike the once over, fixed that annoying rattle that developed on lap one, fixed my brakes that “somebody” had fitted, index my gears… nothing major then. Jack and Tom then handed my pasta, and more pasta, and a bit more. I was getting fed up with gels and sweet food now, so savory stuff was essential. I agreed the next stop would be 4am, another 8 hours away, and hopefully another 10 laps in the bag. 4am would mean i’d get the dawn lap (fave), take my lights off and get some breakfast, well that was the plan.
I set off at 8:08pm, feeling full of energy, full of food and looking forward to the night laps. The first two laps I was flying (for me), I posted a 42 on lap 11 which meant I missed the lads! Lap 12 was similar at around 43, and was met with Dave running down the course to find me “We wondered when you’d be in, mechanical?” “No, my 12th lap…” Another 2 bottles replaced, making sure I was drinking just as much water as I was this god awful gel/electrolyte tab mixture in the other (seemed a good idea at the time and does work) Lap 13, and the first lap where I really needed my lights, well Tom’s lights, seeing as mine broke. I knew the course well enough to not need the full 1000 lumens it offered, and wanted to make sure the battery lasted so went for the lowest setting, which worked well. The night laps are always going to be slower, namely because you can’t see everything on the trail as clear as in daylight, but also because your body is telling you to go to sleep. Laps 13, 14 and 15 were all around the 50 minute mark, so still on target. The lads were still out there every lap, handing me supplies and forcing food down me. Lap 16 now done and I crossed the finish/start to see the running total time now at 12 hours something, over halfway there, which was a good thought, but also if I carry on at this pace and speed i’ll end up doing 32 laps, that isn’t going to happen… I had a lot of riding to do. The following laps were quite tough, I just felt in a daze really, a trance like motion akin to when you wake up in the middle of the night, apart from this time I was in the middle of the woods, sat on my bike riding. Finish off lap 18 and I shouted Jack to grab me a coffee, a cold one, so I could drink it quickly, try and wake up a bit, that along with a few gels seemed to do the trick and lap 19 was on, I knew the night shift was nearly done, and I knew i’d be doing the dawn lap soon, it’s the oddest sensation, you’ve been riding for hours through these woods, total darkness, no noise at all, but than all of a sudden they come to life and the dawn chorus starts, it’s one of the best moments of the race for me. Right, onto lap 20, I knew my breakfast of porridge, bananas and anything else I fancied was close, it was starting to get light and the race was nearly over… Ow no, maybe not, but still, only 8 hours left… I rolled into camp around 4:45, my previous night laps had been tough, both mentally and physically and whilst I was ok, times were slowing, with my last one, lap 20 just over an hour I think, in needed this sit down and coffee.
Laps 21 to 27
The final push, you’re nearly there, come on solo. Just a few words that were shouted as I set off on my 21st lap at 5:08am, by now it wasn’t just the legs that hurt, the whole body hurt, arse, arms, wrist, hands, back. Whilst the course was good, it wasn’t half tough on your body, the steep climbs, the very rough grassy sections, and the braking bumps, all of which on a normal ride would be nothing, but here they were something to overcome, and something to not look forward to. Laps 21 and 22 were slowing, more riders were coming onto the course as they woke up (lightweights…) and this tends to mess with your head abit, I had other solo riders passing me, looking fresh and speed off into the distance, I tired to chase a few on lap 22, but i didn’t have it in me. The on the final climb in the woods my chain came off, no biggie, back on, and immediately off again, a quick look over and can see nothing wrong, but it wouldn’t stay on, so I ran. It was about 1.5 miles to camp, so not that far, but certainly 1.5 miles I would have rather not ran. Dave took the bike from me, and hurried over to his workstand to have a look. Thankfully I had bought Lucinda’s bike on her suggestion, so had a spare, swap seat posts and I was off on my 23th lap. Lucinda’s bike is a 26″ Giant XTC Team (NRS) full sus bike, full suspension meant comfort, and whilst on the first few miles of the course I couldn’t believe how comfy this was, held it’s speed well, and I was setting a great pace, partly I think because of the bike, but partly because I had lost 5 mins swapping so felt I needed to make that up somehow. Onto lap 24 and Dave had fixed my bike, no surprise there, best mechanic i’ve ever met bar none (if you’re ever in Shropshire check out The Trailhead, great shop: http://www.thetrailhead.co.uk/) can literally fix anything. Despite this my body was craving the full sus comfort, so I stayed on that for another lap, first half that was the right choice, second half of last 24 and no. I wasn’t used to the bike and I missed the rigid climbing of my 29er XTC, I slowly made it around the course posted a slow 55ish lap, not bad I guess. F1 Pitstop style bike swap and I was back on the XTC, and ontomy 25 lap, somewhat of a milestone considering that is what I did last year, it was 8:55am now so just over 3 hours to go, and during lap 25 I worked out that I had 3 more to do, or maybe 4 if I rode quick… As long as you come in before 12pm you had to go out on another lap, it would be close. No worries though, lap 25 was slow, around the hour mark, and there was no way i’d better that. I don’t think i’ve ever really experienced pain, both mentally and physically like laps 26 and 27, they were tough, no other words, I couldn’t relax on the downhill sections as my hands hurt to much and I couldn’t really get much speed up on the flattered sections, and I certainly couldn’t ride the steepeer climbs, I was simply going through the motion, tell myself it was nearly over, only 14 miles or so… I headed out onto what was my final lap, lap 27 at 11:15, I was done, but then so was everybody else, and the sense of camaraderie started to build around the course as pockets of “lurkers” appeared, a few people chatted, and most shouted “come on solo” this was simply met with vacant stares, and a grunt if they were lucky, I wasn’t ignoring you, I was grateful, thank you. I relief to reach the top of that final climb was immense, just to get through the arena and it was over, behind me I could see two solo riders upping the pace, what if these were in 8th and 9th and it was going to be a sprint for the line,I couldn’t let that happen, so from somewhere I mustered a sprint from some 0.5 miles from the finish, well i say sprint, more just slightly quicker. I crossed the line 2nd here, only to find out these guys had done 13 laps, not to worry. I just stood on the course, not sure what to do now, do i cry, do i sit down, can i eat? One of the Pivot Boompods guys came over congratulated me on an epic ride “every time I saw you, you were just riding, not stopping at all” Yeah, that kind of summed it up I guess. I was a broken man, and as i stumbled off the course, met by Dave, Tom and Jack we celebrated, I was handed a beer by Bruce and then ushered to a seat at Vee Tyres tent. I was done.
Through the Campsite
Sprint Finish. Destroyed.
24 hours 8 minutes
I didn’t have a number of laps targeted, I guess “more than 25” but to get 7th I was chuffed to bits with. What a race though, it’s brilliant. It’s odd, you spend the last few hours wanted to be done, you finish, and then I just wanted to get back out there…
Thought it might also be useful to share so tips, not just for anybody ready, but also for me when it come to next year, so…
Whilst yes, the winner did win on a rigid hardtail (32 laps…) most people would seriously benefit from a full suspension bike, I didn’t think I would, but on a course like this the extra comfort and speed could be the difference between an extra lap or not. Plus your body will thank you.
I was running a 34T single ring up front with a 36T biggest at the back, whilst this is fine for normal rides, and looks good I could have done with an easier gear, 32 up front would have been ideal if using a single ring, again, certainly be doing that next year. It will of course seem easy to start with, but towards the end I thought me knees might go.
A support crew really is essential to place well. I didn’t have one last year, hence me coming in every 4 laps to refill bottles, having somebody handing you food and fluid is amazing, and takes anther think you have to think about away, which means you just focus on riding. My support crew were amazing, I owe you a beer (or a Jagerbomb Jack)
Eat real food around normal meal times. This might not always be possible, but I found that I was hungry around my normal dinner and breakfast time, so program that into a rest, even if it’s just 5 minutes, having some real, warm food, not something that has come out of a gel packet is a nice feeling, also something to aim for and look forward to.
Cold Coffee, this worked very well, perfect shot of caffeine, tastes nice, isn’t a gel and quick to get into your system, i’ll be doing this again for sure.
Make sure your clothing is easy to put on/take off. I spent what seemed like forever trying to get my jacket off. Use knee/leg/arm warmers and a gilet if you get cold, again, very easy to remove and put on it needed without getting changed. May sounds obvious but it’s an important point I think.
Don’t stop. You can always do it. At the start I said I wasn’t going to sleep, mentally that is tough, but once you know that is the plan, you’ll stick to it. There were a few moments on the course where I wasn’t sure if i’d make it, but after a good talking to knew I could finish, it didn’t matter how long a lap would take, i’d just keep going. After all a 24 hour race is as much mental as it is physical.
A few words of thanks, first of all Jack, Tom and Dave, couldn’t have done this without you guys. Dave (again) for the photos, All the marshalls and organisers, an event like this doesn’t just happen, and cheers to Go Outdoors for stepping up as headline sponsors.
Thanks for getting this far, hope you found the post interesting. I’m still hurting today you’ll be pleased to know, but already looking forward to next year, wonder what the weather will do…