It's all Adam's fault. In defiance of the knee problems, I'd started riding again and it had been fun. The pain wasn't any worse, and I could get out on bikes again. And then he went and mentioned Cheddar Bikefest. An 8hr race with a dodgy knee? Tempting... very tempting.
Deciding about Cheddar was postponed, but the riding was coming thick and fast. Commuting through the Chilterns, cheeky night-rides in Bracknell Forest, a long ride in the North Downs where I could watch James' tyres tickling autumn leaves off the ground, a post-work death march round the Chilterns for some unsuspecting victims. All good stuff and a new physiotherapist who might be able to help me out. It was kind of her fault too. Anyone's fault but mine. I asked her if it would be a bad idea to do an 8hr race and she said it wouldn't do any permanent damage.
So that was how I ended up sitting in stationary traffic on the M4, listening to England vs. Tonga and hoping to get to Winscombe before midnight. I felt like a fraud - I used to ride endurance races, but who was I kidding now? And did I have all my gear? And did I have enough food? And would the toothpaste-tube/gaffer tape repair to my tyre hold up? And would I have the strength to crawl over the line if it all went wrong?
Eventually, the traffic moved and after that, I finally arrived. Just enough time for lemon tea and an exchange of fears with Adam before bed.
Race day came with all the usual doubts. There's going to be a whole crowd of real bikers there, and then I'm going to be this fake with my stupid bike with one gear. Putting on my cycling clothes helped. At least my body had some residual memories of the good rides and the strong rides. Some confidence chipped away at the doubt.
We arrived at the event pretty late. With 1/2 an hour before the start we were still queuing to register. That's not what I need. What I really need is the time to take a dump. All the usual buzz is going around: "What's the course like?" "What tyres should I use?" "I hardly rode at all this year - I'll be slow." "No I'll be slower." I try to think positive. After all, soon I'll be riding my bike and I like riding my bike.
15 minutes to go: We're attaching race numbers, and preparing bags to take up to the solo riders area. You can hear the race briefing going on. I hope it's not important. Soon we're spinning up from the car to the start line, laden with fig rolls. Winding through the crowds of team riders, there are minutes to go before the start. It's going to be a Le Mans start, with us running around a BMX track to our bikes. This is going to be tight. Another solo rider's support person offers to carry our bags up for us, so all we have to do is find somewhere to drop our bikes. The PA announces "12, 11, 10, 9, ...". I pull my seatpost up to about the right height and we jump the fence. We nearly reach the back of the pack before the start and I have my gloves on by the first corner of the run.
Adam and I enter the lap together and it starts with a crowded climb which isn't too steep, but is sprinkled with roots. It seems like a good idea to get up some speed so that I can carry momentum over the slippery sections. "See you when you lap me," calls Adam. This seems awfully hard right now and I'm not looking forward to doing this climb repeatedly over the next few hours.
We turn right through a gate and along a trail where the best line involves putting your arm through a hedge. The hedge turns out to be quite solid. Two more gates, a nice, open 180 degree sweep around, and we have a little descending. I pick a fairly natural line and this feels like something to look forward to each time around. We pass some marshalls (kids in army uniform - a enthusiastic staple of mtb races!) and then switchback up the hill. This is a challenging climb it soon gets steep and rooty, but just on the right side of do-able. Then it gets steeper and rootier. Then it gets impossible. One of my fears came to pass: I was going to have to push on every lap. At least I was comforted by the fact that everyone else would have to push, too.
Eventually, the trudging was over and we were into another do-able climb. Balancing my way up the wet rocks, I eventually reached the top and took a right turn towards the main descent. In the whole 8 hours I never really got a good hold of the top section. Loads of roots, rocks, and off-camber. All of it slicked up by the rain. The only solution seemed to be momentum and quick reactions. That stuff passed and gave way to swoopiness which could be great on your own and "interesting" with slow riders around. Then into "witches wood" pointy wet rock deflecting you all over the place and, again, it's momentum that keeps you going roughly in the direction you intended. Nearly at the bottom now, and I can go left or right of the tree. It turns out that left is a disaster of a line. I scoot my way back onto the course and hope that the soreness in my nuts will go away soon. Body behind the saddle and chest on it in order to duck under a tree, and then a little swoop downwards. We duck into a gully and then back out again, and I notice the exit seems tricky: Steep up with rocks in it. Lumpy-bumpy singletrack that seems designed to test how badly your forks deflect takes us around towards the main site. Nearly home and a surface of wet wood chippings steal some energy. Finally, we ride through the middle of the BMX track and across the line.
Starting lap 2, I feel a bit more bullish. There's less traffic and the lap is less than 25 minutes. Everything is going well until that up/down gulley near the end. The tape around the course has fallen down and I miss the turn in. Waddling back, I rejoin the course having lost my flow and promptly fly over the bars trying to get up out of the gulley. It doesn't seem to have hurt but leaves a sour taste for the lap. And then as I pull into the arena I can see blood dribbling down my arm. Not too much, so I ignore it and resolve to take the gulley better next time.
And another lap starts. My thoughts are still too cogent and I haven't reached the endurance riding zone. So I start to think about giving up. And while I'm thinking, most of the lap disappears under my wheels. This time the descending is fun. I'm picking slightly better lines and enjoying the angry buzz of my freehub.
Past 2 laps, I stop counting them and just count down to the next food stop. It was maybe 4 laps before a fig roll. A little longer before I swap camelbak bladders for more water. On that occasion, a kind supporter of another solo rider refills my second one for me. She seems amused by how grateful I am, but it makes a big difference. Over the course of the race, I talk to all 4 other singlespeed riders. They all seem up for the idea of fixing the race, having some beers and then just riding the last lap together. But that would be giving up, and I have to beat Adam by a healthy margin.
So the race goes on and, as I get more tired, the thoughts of giving up have no more space in my reduced brain. I ride, I push, I eat, I drink. Until 18.00, that's what I do. At 17.00 I see Adam lying flat on his back in the solo tent. I stop to attach my lights and he says I have to get 2 more laps in. That's what I had in mind, so I'm going to time the next one. He's going to accidentally leave it too late and only do 1. Fair play to him, he's still going in the longest race he's ridden. I set off, knowing that I'm laps down on the RAF guys and laps up on the guy in 4th. It's only for pride (and fun) now. Lap 1 comes in at about 25 minutes by my watch, so I take it easy on the second. Walking big sections now and chatting to other riders.
I roll home with 10 minutes to spare, and it feels like a job well done. Hot chocolate, a toastie and some cotton clothes bring me back to the real world satisfied. Coming 3rd out of 5 is not the greatest achievement in the world, but it's better than a kick in the teeth and it was fun. And it was the first time I got to stand up like a podium finish. Maybe I will train through the winter...