Well, last weekend was Maxx Exposure and once again the sun shone on me (at least until it went down). I'd imagine that 75 miles of chalk and dark would be quite intimidating in the wet, but when I arrived at Beachy Head it was all dust and ice-cream vans.
I was pretty motivated for this one. No racing in a while had given over to a month or so of proper training rides where I cranked out single rides over 70 miles every weekend. If I was going to get back in a competition, I wanted to go well. The only hitch in my preparation had been a slip-up at work that meant I'd had to race up to Harrow (the far end, 18 miles) at high speed to pick something up from a school and zip over to another school (6 miles away) before everyone went home, and then a 15 miles return trip. It had felt good to zip around London on fresh legs, but I knew that it wasn't the right preparation for the weekend.
Nonetheless, the good weather meant that my plan of riding the race, sleeping for a few hours and then riding back again seemed like it could fly. My kit list looked like this:
2x 1.5 L bottles Maxim
12 scoops dry Maxim
Fresh riding top
2x Ay Up
2x 6h batteries
3x 3h batteries
I was being pretty safe about taking loads of kit. I was hoping to finish the race in 7 to 7.5 hours but carrying 9 hours of food and light, plus a spare light and extra battery. I wasn't expecting to change from a short-sleeve top on the bike, but took a jacket anyway. Fortunately, my camping/return gear was shipped to the end for me. Even so, I wasn't ultra-light but I wasn't going to be rescued by anyone.
The safety briefing was more amusing than these things usually manage. Apparently, a rider had run into the back of a sleeping cow last year and complained when he got covered in cow poo. Mind the cows, then.
Soon enough, we were off though, and I was spinning like a fool. I know these races are long, but getting caught behind people in the first hour is really frustrating so I tried to push on without being an arsey racer. It was great to see the green landscape stretching and rolling ahead, with cliffs standing tall to the sea. I flowed and cranked and hoped that the lactic pain from yesterday's London riding would dissipate.
Things thinned out pretty quickly and I soon found myself behind a sponsored but not very elite rider. In typical style, he shut a gate in my face when I was only 2 bike lengths away. Charming. There are some fast chalk descents in this first section and I cruised up behind him with my hands loose and my brain mellow. I could carry way more speed than him, but decided not to overtake and risk a pinch-flat on the rougher line. Backing off, I followed him down to another gate. At least he held this one, but as I slowed I could feel my back tyre bouncing too much... I had pinched anyway.
I stuck in a new tube as quickly as I could with many riders going by. So much for not getting held up in the early stages. Making double-sure I hadn't been lazy about reinflating, I was off again. Up to checkpoint 1 was a steady stream of overtaking and jolly riders. Everyone was enjoying our high-speed ribbon of South Downs. I knew the approach to CP1 from riding that area with Emily a few weeks ago, so I could remember our sunny cow-herding antics as I hurtled through the dark descent and kept a sharp look-out for them cows.
The checkpoint was fairy-lit, but only the briefest of stops for me. I hoped to refill on water once later, but otherwise stay self-sufficient. The climb out of there is tough. It is steep enough to be a bit too hard to fully attack, but not steep enough for a slow grind. So a slow grind attack got me there, and straight down the other side only pausing to offer help to a rider with an uncooperative light-mount.
I was feeling pretty strong, only about 2 hours in and just closing down each red-lit bike in front of me. Passing people in the open terrain, the red rear would turn to white front light and seem to follow me forever. Eventually, I'd look back though and see the source was dropping back but the modern beams cast huge distances. I hadn't run both of my Ay Ups together in a while and it was turning out to be fantastic. The bar mount gave me shadows to pick out rocks and holes, the helmet mount let me look round corners. I could look where I wanted to go and let peripheral vision take care of the immediate trail - just like in the day.
Most of the rest of the race was a blur. The white trail glowed like an imagined thing, and I just kept going, deliberately pressuring myself towards speed. I came across one racer who seemed to be a local and pretty friendly but singlespeed necessity dropped him on a climb. I came across another who was taking things pretty seriously but got away when I had puncture number 2. With the second puncture, I gave up any calculations of where I would finish. I just wanted to push hard and see what happened.
So it was a great surprise to see Mr Serious with about 5 miles to go. I could see he was suffering and tried to chat, but it wasn't going anywhere. And then he tried to race me up every rise. Still keeping it chatty, I turned the screw. My pace turned up and up, I used my attempts to cheer him as a way of showing that I wasn't out of breath. It wasn't nice, but he'd been rude and was acting for all the world like he was going to try to out-sprint me to the line. Then, with 3 miles to go, he stopped. It took me a distance to notice and, looking back, he seemed ok. I debated going back to help, but decided that he would have said something if he was in real trouble.
So I rode on, and into QE park. As I was riding, I could remember how this stage felt last time. I had been suffering badly then, but now I was cruising. Good. I crossed the line and that was it. About 7.5 hours for 75 miles, and a pretty enjoyable ride.
It was time to refuel, pitch my tent and get some sleep before heading back. Sandwich, Torq recovery, dry clothes, bed. Nice.
Through the night, I could hear other riders coming in. The last guy took about 12 hours, ouch. By morning, I lay in my tent wondering if there was a way out of riding back. Unable to think of one, I went about the necessities. Breakfast, loo, pack up tent. I had my camping kit in a big Camelbak and last night's kit in a normal Camelbak. With no space to spare, I rode out of the campsite with my little bag strapped to the outside of my big one. As I left, an organiser asked where I was riding back to. I told him Eastborne, and he thought I was joking.
It was tough to get going, and I felt further disheartened as someone out for a normal ride cruised past my rolling trudge. The day was still beginning though, and I hoped that the stiffness would evapourate with the mist.
On the way back, I was using the public taps described on the SDD site and it wasn't too long before I reached the first. I dropped my pack on the ground and made no hurry to refill my bottles. This was going to be a long day and I hate carrying loads on my back. It is really good that a national trail like this has the taps. They open up all kinds of independent travel along it. For walkers, bikers, or horse-riders carrying food is OK but carrying enough water would be an absolute killer.
The stop had helped and I could appreciate unwinding the route in reverse, this time with views. Postcard sights of rolling hills and trees connected me to the sea in the distance. The trail was busy with other users and it was nice to see them out. I had very small reserves, though, and any kind of real hill was pushing me off the bike and into a depressing push-fest. As soon as I got to the top, my good mood would be back and the miles would fly by. So, I tried to settle into doing this all day and knowing that arriving would take care of itself.
Unfortunately, it was hot... baking hot. And I wasn't drinking enough. The day wore on and I wore out until 25 miles from the end I just lay down near a tap and considered bail-out options. I knew I didn't have the legs to ride up the remaining hills so it was going to be a long pushing session with aching shoulders and no real rewards. So, I did bail. I caught a train from Lewes to Eastborne and finished off pushing up the tarmac to Beachy Head.
Looking back on the weekend it was fun, but disappointing. Matt Page had beaten me by an hour in the race, and I'd bailed on the ride home. It's hard to know how to react to the race... averaging 10mph despite 2 punctures is pretty good by the standard of what I was aiming for, but a world away from the top riders. So what's the point of training hard and spending so much time if I'm still in the second division? I've either got to be faster or riding for another reason. Iditarod this year and Great Divide next year are for their own reasons - they're days in the mountains, they have their own beauty and rewards, the race is just a pretext. But UK races are usually another matter. As a piece of riding, they mostly suck. The competition is what makes them and the closer you get to the front, the harder it is to take the next step.
So maybe I should ride for fun and ride for epic and skip the race part. Or maybe it's just winter coming on :)