Newnham Park holds a few mixed memories for me having had heat exhaustion at Bontrager 24 a couple of years ago (utterly horrible) and then a lack lustre performance in the 12 hour the year after. The UK 24 hour solo championships midsummer was definitely not going to provide any risk of overheating with biblical conditions forecast and certainly being delivered!
Only 8 weeks after the World 24 Champs in Finale where my head game let me down I wasn’t quite sure what my feelings would be towards another long one so close. It was a real toss up between going doing the Manx 100 and the UK Champs but I should respect the title I won the previous year at Relentless and give it a shot. Most of the quick racers who went across to Italy turned up again at Pivot with a properly stacked field with a mix of very experienced and successful racers with some rocket-legged younger ones coming through.
The rain began the day before on the practice laps and felt like it didn’t really stop for the next 36 hours until the sun came up on Sunday morning with all but a few hours left of racing. This made it one of the most brutal 24s in memory for most people.
Catching up with old friends and making new ones is always a massive highlight of these weekends and it always surprises me how many people know each other on the start line. A hoard of nearly 1,000 people had entered across the categories with a full solo field. I knew the conditions were going to the primary variable all weekend on who conquered and who succumbed. Over winter I try and do the odd big challenge ride and this winter the last ‘character building’ one certainly came in handy which was a boggy trudge across Dartmoor, Exmoor and the Quantocks over a couple of days. This stood me in good stead for the war of attrition to come at Pivot 24.
It wasn’t raining at the start at least, so we all shot off in the usual ‘I’m not going to start fast but we all will anyway’ scenario. Rich Penning and Steve Day found themselves up ahead after a couple of hours really cracking on pace wise. Very quickly like an apparent magnet I found myself once again riding with Michael McCutcheon like we have been for the past couple of races together. We were pushing a decent pace for a few laps but there came a point where I felt it was a little too high so eased back a bit. By this time it was chucking down and the trails were getting super sloppy. The rain was actually a good thing for the trails in a strange way that it stopped them getting really sticky. I had fitted 3 mudguards to my bike to keep as much of the crap off me as possible but even then stuff was spraying all over the shop and bike changes were beneficial at least every other lap.
As usual things settle down and word came that Rich had dropped back possibly having gone off a bit hard. Almost immediately the course started to feel quite vacant as riders succumbed to the conditions with either bike, body or head mechanicals, any one of these three was highly likely. My head was in a great place, I was enjoying the adversity of the conditions. A vital tyre change (Thanks Shergie!) saw me change to full mud tyres on one of the bikes which although a bit slower on big chunks of the course was a welcomed extra bit of traction in the woods where it was really starting to churn up as darkness fell.
I had a lot more stops than usual just to keep warm and comfortable and was amazed by kindness of other spectators who were helping out in our pit where Sarah and her dad Mick were doing a grand but horrendous job of washing bikes, dealing with mucky kit and keeping track of everything else going on. Big shout to Stephen Kelly (a very quick 24 hour man himself) who had come across from the Isle of Man with his partner Clare just to spectate. We’d gone out for a nice practice lap together the day before and even though I didn’t really know him that well he ended up coming across and helping in our pit overnight. How many sports would you see that happen in?! Cheers mate.
I was gradually moving up the order and having seen Max Suttie go past me I knew he was going well and had paced his ride nicely to gradually move up the order as well. He was now running first with me second overnight, not much between our lap times but he was gradually building up a decent gap. I had overtaken Mike overnight somewhere perhaps through the pits without noticing and word was he was struggling a bit more than me and Max in the conditions as we were putting decent chunks of time in. I was just focused on ticking over, not crashing and making sure I was there at the end. If you made it to the end of this one you were going to do well I told myself. The course was very lonely at night and it felt like at times I did whole laps only seeing a couple of people. I made the effort to say hello to every rider I passed, I think this helps keep me jolly and I had definitely banished the Finale demons that caused a meltdown.
I was laughing at the conditions at times as I looked up the trail to see a tidal wave of sludge coming down towards me or blasting down a 25mph flat out decent with one eye open peering through the glasses sat on the end of my nose which were constantly fogging in the wet and mud. The marshals on course were handing out sweets at the ‘motivation station’ whilst also banging out some decent tunes so I sang along and took some sweets to keep the spirits up.
Eventually as the sun started to come up the rain eased it felt like I’d broken the back of the storm and the race was about to begin. I’m still here, legs feel decent, let’s have this. The sun rose and likewise my heart rate as I decided to try and catch Max in front of me. There was about 6 hours left and normally this is quite a way out to be starting to empty the tank but in past races I’ve found that I can bury myself right at the end of a race and pull out a few fast ones at the death. Let’s see what happens if I go early I thought. Stephen magically appeared at a couple of points out on course during this time as he’d realised what I was trying to do. I can’t tell you how much motivation it gives you having someone screaming at the side of the track giving you time updates. This was bloody brilliant racing. I had lapped Mike so I was relatively safe there. I put in three big laps giving it everything that I dared for that late in the race. Cramping now or smashing yourself in to a tree would be disastrous, it ain’t over til it’s over… I was taking chunks of time out of Max and got the gap down from 28 to about 17 minutes apparently. The effort of doing that was massive though and I was eating a bar, gel and 750ml bottle per lap to keep me going. Then in fairly undramatic fashion I just sort of ran out of steam. I wasn’t necessarily going to blow but I could feel I just couldn’t maintain that pace until the end.
From my experience in 24’s you’ve got to sort of feel the distance and measure the effort, it’s an art not a science and I just felt like I didn’t have enough energy left. My head came to terms with that as well. Max had responded brilliantly to my fast laps and had used his speed from short XC racing background pace to repost with a set of laps that was even quicker than mine! Not only did that show he had the legs but also the mental strength not to fold like other people might have done under that pressure, fair play. So with about 3 laps to go I sat up smelt the air and took in the atmosphere knowing that if Max made a mistake I’d be there but I didn’t have enough outright speed to catch him and my back was killing me by this point after constantly hacking over more and more exposure flat singletrack roots in the woods. I bumped into a few old friends for a chat on course, took a bit more time in the pits to get kit all sorted and focused on riding safe. I had stopped by Max’s pit to speak to his crew including Craig who has given me wise words of support when I first started 24 hour racing. I didn’t want to win this thing by Max binning it by pushing too hard on the descents which had now turned in to a claggy muddy horror show so I more or less conceded victory at that point just wanting us both to finish safely in one piece as we were well ahead of the rest of the field.
I slowed to allow Max to catch me up (or he probably would have done anyway) and we rode together sharing the mad experience we had just been through. We made a couple of strategically timed stop offs first at Max’s pit where his crew were already celebrating (we only had a mile or so left on our final lap). I was humbled by the way his pit crew and family paid equal attention to congratulating me on the ride as well as Max, they even washed off our bikes before we set off again for the last bit of the lap! We then made a briefer stop off at my pit to let the clock tick over past 12. This for some might sound like a bit of a weird cop-out ending to a race but I think it just reflects the nature of that race and how tough it was that everyone was just happy to see we had made it through in one piece. Many people hadn’t including vastly more experienced riders and the total dropout must have been nearly 50%. We rolled over the finish line together which was a great moment to be part of and I didn’t feel even a tiny bit of disappointment about ‘losing’ the national championship jersey. I was mega chuffed for Max that for someone relatively new to the sport had shown such a measured, mature, and quite frankly bloody fast approach to the race. It was equally nice to not be burying myself at the end of a 24 so I felt relatively fresh over the line believe it or not.
Thanks doesn’t really cut it for all the support I’ve received to do these things from friends (including new ones), family and sponsors but I’m very grateful indeed! Well done to everyone who stuck it out to the end (there weren’t many!). Equally marshaling in those conditions was brutal, heroes the lot of you.
Wow a 1st and 2nd place at the UK 24 National Championships and a European title in between in the course of a year. That still feels totally ridiculous to me. I’ll take some time to reflect, continue to enjoy my riding, drink some beer, get fat etc. I might do a little challenge ride or something to tick me over but for now I’m looking on towards new life challenges involving a totally cliché full scale house renovation in time for a new sleep depriving challenge in mine and Sarah’s lives at Xmas. I do like a challenge though.