My original plans for the year involved a trip to the Euro Champs in Slovakia but sensibly with a new family member joining us I decided to keep it a bit more local and do the UK Champs instead. This year the venue was on the Isle of Man as part of the longstanding Longest Day Longest Ride (LDLR) event. I’d heard about this 24 hour race before but had always been a bit sceptical to be honest when hearing about the short course.
I’ve been across to the Isle a couple of times for the Manx 100 and met some truly passionate people who love putting on events and welcoming riders from across the water. LDLR was no exception with enthusiastic invites to riders being handed out a year in advance once the venue was confirmed. I’m not sure I would have gone across if it wasn’t the UK Champs but the old saying about books and covers is appropriate here. I knew we’d get a warm welcome and hearing that other strong riders were going across meant there would be good competition. The event turned out to be a cracker.
We had decided that on the very kind offer of locals Stephen and Clare to host us that we’d take the whole family across including the hound and make a mini holiday out of it. We loaded up in the Exposure Lights van which they had helpfully loaned the use of on the basis of us muling across their prizes as sponsors and light hires for riders. Hilariously I think there was as much child paraphernalia as biking equipment. Stephen had offered the help of his pit crew to support me but I’d also manufactured a self feed stand thing to make things a bit easier when Sarah would be taking the boy to bed. In the week before I was a bit nervous about relying on others as Sarah knows me well now and keeps me going, In the end Stephen had pulled up early on in the race and amazingly stuck around to help me throughout. I can’t imagine many sports when this would happen.
The event venue was just outside Douglas up on the top of one of many big Manx hills in a small plantation. The event setup was good with a massive marquee perfect for sheltering from the changeable Manx weather! A few riders led by local and multi-time LDLR winner Stephen Kelly convened for a practice lap on the Friday. Immediately everyone was surprised how much was packed in to a short 3.5 mile loop. Personally I’m definitely one for a Fort William style big up big down technical course but actually I really enjoyed the different challenge that the lap and going round lots of times brought about. The course linked together lots of tight singletrack sections in the woods, some of which were newly built and a bit slidey at first but soon bedded in. As you got to know the course it was fun to try and squeeze out better lines through some sections and there was even a bit of tricky boardwalk thrown in to keep you on your toes. Surprisingly there was a decent amount of climbing on a short lap and towards the end of the race the one main long climb evidently took its toll on riders. The course was very all weather and despite some heavy downpours on the day before and in the morning the mostly man made trails held up well. I wouldn’t say it was an outright technical course but there was certainly enough to keep you interested and time could be had for some brave launches off wooden drops and strong singletrack skills in the woods.
A lot of people have asked me recently how I have found training and racing since Rory was born. In truth he’s only affected things as much as I have wanted/ allowed them to. He’s been a dream and really any reduction in training has been my choice rather than through total exhaustion of parenthood (obviously Sarah has a massive part in helping that balance as well). I think you would be a bit of a dick if you were too exhausted and grouchy from training too hard to properly engage with your newborn, that is something I have tried to be conscious of this year in particular as training hard can make you grumpy and generally useless. Clearly it would be a difficult ask to be on top form this year but I was pleasantly surprised how much I’d managed to do over the winter. So it was quite an irony that Rory after being such a hero ended up scuppering some speed at the last minute by handing me his cold two days before LDLR. I had tried to avoid it all week, Sarah kindly not taking umbridge when I slept in the spare room for a couple of nights but realistically as a human with an actual heart (yes I do have one) I couldn’t avoid our little boy for a whole week so sure enough I succumbed. I was a bit gutted initially but taking a step back I wouldn’t change anything about our first 6 months with the boy so shit happens and it’s only a bike race etc. I tried to ignore it on the Friday and put my best game face on for others not wanting to show that I would be there for the taking! Saturday morning came, oh dear, I wasn’t feeling good and strongly considered just staying in bed. Sod it I thought, I can’t die of a cold! My plan was then to just go for as long as I could whilst keeping a close eye on any deterioration and just stop if there was any more serious symptoms emerging, again it’s only a bike race.
Surprisingly from the off despite not feeling the best I actually went off quite well, keeping up a reasonable pace. A heavy rain shower before the start meant overshoes and gilets but soon enough the sun came out thank god. Snot lubricating the track and my jersey didn’t seem to slow me too much. I did start off steadier than I might normally which meant seeing Keith and Max disappear up the road and even start lapping me not that far in to the race. I was still going though and in a 24 hour race someone is always suffering more than you. A snapped chain early on dropped me down to 5th overall where I plugged away just keeping turning the wheels, eating and drinking lots and taking as much paracetamol as was safe to do! I really struggled to keep cheerful through the pits, this was just outright grim.
It wasn’t until later in the night that I had to slow down significantly for a few laps as my chest became tight and I struggled breathing. A few easier laps seemed to sort it out alongside a couple of hits of rice pudding served up by Stephen’s mum who like a proper legend had also hung around in the pits supporting riders. I heard she even emerged with a stack of pizzas for all the pit crews at one point! After the event there were so many good stories about the cracking atmosphere and hospitality of the locals, cheers all.
Overnight I made it clear to Stephen that I wanted to keep going unless it was obvious that I was going to make myself even more ill. Despite bursting with enthusiasm for me to do well Stephen understood and keep me fed,watered and more importantly motivated brilliantly.
Daylight came crazingly early but with it the prospect that I was still going. I did the major error of guessing what time it was being sure it was at worst 8am, 6.02am is a time check I won’t forget in a while! I had avoided the usual midnight caffeine commencement routine in case it had adverse affects but at this point. Stephen perfectly judged my energy levels to unleash his motivational speech and caffeine gels. I had passed Peter Nadin sometime in the night basically through just ticking over as he suffered in the pits for a while. I was also not a million miles away from Nigel Smith who was going really well in third with Keth trying to hold off Max at the front end. Stephen found the words that really motivated me to sod off personal health and just go for it recognising that a late charge could make Nigel come unstuck. His words were more of instructions, this is what’s going to happen, you are not stopping, you are feeling better now, you can catch him. Boyed by this I went on a death charge to reach the limit of my self destructionism. Amazingly my body responded. I think maybe we humans have the ability to compartmentalise certain ailments at certains times to focus on the bigger issue. Right now the bigger issue is me going full gas 18 hours in to a 24 hour race to catch Nigel. I was suddenly buzzing and charging. No snot was left to dribble out so the airwaves were clear to suck some air hard. The support out on course throughout was a highlight and for a relatively small event really made it special, chapeau all you woodland ravers and hecklers!
Coming through the pits on fast non stoppers I was catching time on Nigel over a number of laps. Gradually though he somehow responded brilliantly and put in enough solid laps to hold me off until and eventually I had to ease back so I didn’t blow up entirely as I had a genuine chance now of getting to the end. I even treated myself to a change of clothes a rarity at these things nowadays. After a quite a few laps just ticking over in 4th relatively content I then came across Keith who had pulled over just before the pits. He said something along the lines of ‘third place is yours Matt, I’m done’ which I couldn’t quite believe coming from someone who had lapped me about 3 times and there was still a few hours to go. Jesus christ I thought why can’t people stop having issues so I can just sit up and haul my ass round enough times to secure a place and an early bath for the last few hours! I needed to ride in to the last hour in order to overtake Keith which was something by that point that didn’t really appeal to me a great deal! Keith had absolutely smashed the ride until that point but Max kept it steady throughout to eventually overtake him. It was interesting to compare and contrast Keith’s mentality over a (rather hot) Thai curry with fellow riders that evening. Keith has won loads of races with his do or die attitude. I’ve won a few with a different approach. No one method can probably be said to be best but all riders seem to have to go through a journey to figure it out for themselves on these long ones.
Fortunately all the other places were basically settled by that point so I ended up doing a couple of slow social laps with Nigel as we chewed the fat about the race. On the last lap my body just started to shut down. In the same way my body had prioritised my aerobic system it was now saying hey man that’s quite enough I want to shut down now. This resulted in a weird heaving chest and ultimately a chunder mid way up the final climb which Nigel had the pleasure of being a front seat spectator for. My handlebars were also covered in lovely green slime. Rolling in to the pits was a massive relief. I’m not sure I felt the same sense of achievement as normally finishing one of these things as I would normally. Maybe I’ll look back and do a self back pad but for now I’m not really that stoked about the whole thing! At that point I felt properly rough and the subsequent rain showers that started left me shivering and curled up in front of a heater in our gazebo whilst the amazing pit crews cleared up (thanks!). I crawled out to stand in the rain for the podium and congratulate the other riders with Max taking the win and Nigel in second. On reflection finishing third in this one is right up there with my best results and none of this would have happened without the great pit support to keep me going and general atmosphere created by Gary, Clare, Will and the other organising crew.
As you might have guessed I was a bit ill… the doctors next day on the island revealed a chest infection so recovery has been slow since. We had a great couple of days on the island afterwards though and would really recommend the trip across to do this or any one of many great Manx mountain bike events.
Massive thanks as ever to all my sponsors and supporters. Especially to Exposure Lights/ USE for use of their super wagon and to Ross at Taylored Cycles for all the prep work on the race machines beforehand. Stephen and Clare were fantastic hosts and we hope we can repay their hospitality sometime soon. Mostly though thanks to Sarah and Rory for being the best family and supporting me to continue to do what I love. I am a lucky boy indeed.