Riding a 24hr solo mountain bike race had been an ambition of mine ever since I rode my first team one more than 5 years ago. So, this year I finally went and signed myself up for CLIC 24, a charity 24hr race in the Mendips. Training for it dominated my riding for months beforehand. Sometimes, it clearly was training - riding when the conditions were awful, grinding out the miles each time my body recovered enough to get back on the bike. And when work took me away from bikes, I hit the swimming pool with the same mentality length after tedious length without the rewards of riding.
So the cliche of such things became true - the training was the hardest part. Riding 10 miles home from work in the dark and rain to swap bikes and hit the "trails"; sloughing through mud so thick that bouncing my entire weight on the pedals wouldn't always turn them; swearing my way up climbs to discover (hoarse-throated) a mist hanging so thick that I couldn't see the ground beneath my light; having a 4 punctures in one ride and riding 3 miles home on the rims. Any time not on the bike meant dunking the worst of the mud off my riding clothes and washing them, replacing destroyed bearings, changing brake pads worn down to the metal, getting my shoes brushed down and into the airing cupboard and then trying to take care of all the normal life things.
But there was still joy to be had on a bike. Not every ride was a solo Chilterns beast designed to toughen me up. Bracknell with Adam and James held twisty singletrack, starry nights, pointless racing, and plenty of laughs. Wales weekenders with Kellie and Tas provided rocky singletrack, speed, beers, and cakes. All riding as it's supposed to be - fun!
So after the months of good and bad, it was a relief to see CLIC approaching. Soon I would be able to do other sports again and maybe, if I wanted to, no sports at all. Just imagine that! In the weeks beforehand, the sun finally came out and the local trails became almost laughably easy. After-work rides were stretching to 3-4 hours and still not having the gut-wrenching harshness of winter. Those slippery knots of roots were now just a high-speed jump and a dusty landing. All was looking good for the big day.
Armed with Emily to keep me fed and watered, and the longest break off the bike I'd had in months the first few laps of CLIC were a doddle. The course took in genuine bridleways with flowing singletrack, rocky sections, and one dirty-great climb. Like a sessioning freerider it was possible to refine my lines indefinitely. Each lap faster and smoother descending, then lock out the forks and crank from the saddle up a long fire-road, unlock before the steep sting in the climb and a loose rocky finish to the road. Also each lap, a bite of food and a kiss and cuddle from Emily. This thing seemed pretty good and even as night fell, I felt incredibly strong.
Then a surprise visit from Adam made for an awesome lap as he took Emily's tiny bike out in his sandals and rode round with me. We chatted and whisked along, me feeling like I was showing him my local trails, him feeling like a kid out riding with his dad due to the 15" vs 20" difference in bike size. We nailed the descents with confidence born of riding much scarier, steeper, and pointier stuff in the Dyfi Forest the week before. We passed other riders like statues until we reached the final climb. Part-way up the climb and mid-conversation, Adam pointed out that he was panting and I was just chatting away. Well, I was warmed up :) Then as he dropped back a bit there was a crunch of gears, an oof of breath, and a lack of light from where he had been. He bid me to carry on so I rode out the lap hoping that nothing too serious had gone wrong (his gears had slipped causing the battery cable to get pulled out).
But the laps after Adam were where things took their toll. Suddenly, I wasn't on autopilot anymore. It was that damn corner again and I know there's that stupid loose climb and the annoying mud to come after. I don't even like night riding - I keep missing the lines. How many more times round? I checked my watch more often. I began to notice that I'd got sun-burned during the day. Tea and encouragement from Emily helped, but it wasn't long before I decided to take a break. I hadn't planned to sleep but something needed to change or I couldn't carry on and if I was going to miss some riding, it made sense to miss it in the dark.
So, stinking, I lay in my sleeping bag for a bit and felt the aches. My mind was just static, though, and I don't think I reached anything like sleep. We'd set an alarm, but I don't remember now how long I'd given myself. I just lay there are pondered how pointless this whole thing was. I'd done a good few laps and could just have a good sleep now. I know this place though. That ugly voice inside and how it makes you feel afterwards if you come back to yourself and discover that you gave in without good reason. But I felt like bouncing off the bottom so I let my teeth chatter from the cold (and it was cold), I tried to get Emily to talk me into going back out there. In truth, I didn't need (or get) forced to leave. I just needed to dip before I could rise. And without fully accepting that I was doing it, I was soon putting on fresh clothes, sorting out my Camelbak, and preparing to go.
My teeth chattered all the way along the start line and all the way up the first climb. My mind half slumbered down the first descent, but eventually I was back in the groove. Going round in circles, knowing that the sun would rise. Still, I'd come around and Emily would be there. Endurance racing is a particularly selfish thing. It feels strange to be waited on but, in truth, it really is all about you for that 24 hours, that ironman, that channel crossing or whatever the challenge is. From a karma point of view, we help each other out and your supporter knows it's about keeping the pedals (or equivalent) turning. I like that simplicity of life for a while, I like to be able to accept the support for once, and I try to be sufficiently grateful (that includes to random people who help without even knowing you).
Sunrise is something I've always loved at Mountain Mayhem (team 24hr I've done loads of times). The warmth and light coming back into the world, the dew being baked off and the trails getting fast. It was oddly unemotional for me at CLIC. Perhaps because it merely signalled another 6 hours of riding to come. For now I just concentrated on my aim: to reach 20 laps.
One lap at a time, it came to pass. Nothing dramatic, just keeping on riding and eating and not stopping. With a few hours left to go, I was there and it was time for potatoes and a bit of a break. (Potatoes with olive oil and pepper are my treat for endurance riding. They fill, they taste good, and they're cheap) As often happens in these circumstances, I try to figure out how little riding I can get away with doing before the end. Fortunately, rear tyre damage comes to my rescues. The inner tube is not quite escaping through the cuts, but you can see it in places so I err on the side of caution and time-wasting.
Eventually, I squeeze in another couple of laps and they're actually pretty enjoyable. When you can see the finish and you know you can make it, everything seems loose and easy. There's no rush, just a final few chances to perfect those descents. And when it was over, it felt like an anti-climax. The training had worked - I'd done it and I hadn't suffered horribly. The training, the support, the $150 shorts, they all did their job. So bring on the next challenge, I guess.
The facts? About £500 of sponsorship raised, over 200 miles ridden, and 2nd place (but it's not a race, right?). And it's not too late if you want to add some post-event-sponsorship!