I’m sat here writing this on a porch of a barn in mid-Wales staring at some singletrack and stoking the fire of the hot tub I plan to get into in the next hour or so. I feel privileged, lucky and have a sense that I’ve earned this after some challenging times.
After a sub-optimal European Champs, I needed a bit of a focus, so I set myself the task of riding 300+ miles to the start of a 24-hour race to see how my legs were and shake down some bikepacking gear for my big project next year.
There have been a number of my heroes and peers that have done this before and I’ve always wondered how hard it would be. The first endurance race I ever did, I saw a guy there who commuted to it on his touring bike, pitched his tent, took his panniers off and raced for the full 24hrs. Not only riding it but placing well. I remember thinking that if these were the people I was pitching myself against then I had NO hope.
I foolishly thought I might get a little respite on my night shifts at work before setting off, but I was sorely mistaken. 4.5 hrs sleep in 3 days saw me setting off at 07:00 from work in Braintree and heading for Pivot 24/12 in Plymouth.
In my untired and optimistic head I had set myself a goal of 150 miles the first day, 100 the second and 60 the third so I could recover for the race (this sounds ridiculous now).
I set off from Braintree full of optimism and lacking in the sleep department, down the Flitch Way before joining the Stort Valley way and heading round the dreaded Smokering to Rickmansworth. From there joining the Thames path to Reading. It was baking hot already!! But at least it was dry after my previous run-ins with the Smokering.
I was making good time for the first day finding some singletrack west of Reading that was fast dusty and fun (mental note made to plan a return exploration journey). I was really looking forward to trying out some kit that Trekitt had supplied me for my adventures. If you don’t know of them then look them up. Top shop and great people to deal with.
I will be honest I was in a pretty poor state which was probably due to the sleep thing and I started to make some bad decisions, so with discretion being the greater part of valour at about 110 miles I pulled into a pub for a meal and a shop to pick up some bits and bobs for the morning, before heading towards a spot to spend the night.
Burger and pint of Coca Cola in my belly, I lucked into my best spot yet. After a day in the scorching sunshine it took me about 5 minutes to set up camp before diving into the river for a dip to cool off. It was just splendid.
I got out, dripped dry and the next thing I remember was waking up at 08:00 in the morning. I must have slept a solid 10 hours. MEGA!! and I felt a lot better. When I say I felt better that was after having a 10 min reboot thinking what am I doing here, where am I? That sort of thing. Coffee fixed it though as it normally does.
The route took me into Streetly where I joined the Ridgeway to make my way over towards Devizes. It’s pretty fast and good going when its dry so I tried to crack on a bit and pick up the miles. I was on a high at the start of the day and moving well. The Stone Roses were booming from my headphones when I saw two lads walking with their bikes. With the customary “Morning, are you OK?” came back the reply “No not really.” I asked them where they were going and they replied “Amsterdam! First lads’ holiday!” Oh dear oh dear. This was not going well for them so I stopped to fix their mechanical, bearing in mind they already were looking a bit dazed and smelling a little fragrant if you know what I mean. But they were cool lads and I’m sure they will have some big stories to tell in a week or two (if they make it there that is).
The temperature was picking up and by the time I reached Avebury it must have been a million degrees. So I stopped in the shade of a pub in the centre of the stone circle for a bit of food and drink before getting straight back to it.
Although the day had started well, the route planner I was using seemed to be having some sort of brain infarct (that’s a necrotic cell death of brain matter for the non-medical) and was sending me on some ever-stranger footpaths and detours which meant me lifting the fully laden 48lb rig over stile after stile. My sense of humour was cracking. I was trying to do 80% off-road but I was never going to make it there for the race at this rate. So at Devizes I replotted and started to take to the road a bit more. I picked up cycle routes along the canals and byways which coupled with a tailwind had me rocking along.
I say rocking along, but there was a large element of fear incorporated in it. I have just fitted tri-bars as I’m told they are the way to go for the Tour Divide next year and are supremely comfy for your back. However never having used them before and choosing to try down narrow tow paths was a bit of an eye opener. The only way I can describe it to the uninitiated is similar to running downhill really fast. You realise that your body is going faster than your legs can go and despite running as fast as you can there is a sense of impending doom and injury. Much like that.
Waking up the following morning on the Somerset border about 20 miles shy of Honiton, I was tired. Previously I have used a bivy bag and a half-matt to bike pack with, but this trip is the first outing for the new tent, the Terra Nova Ultra Laser and Exped Full length matt.
In short what a difference. I can sit up in the tent and stretch my hamstrings and it has none of that coffin like feel. At only 560gm-ish its hardly a weight penalty. With the full-length matt, it’s the perfect combo for a good night’s sleep and yet again I was out for the count. With the tent being so light and see through I was up with the light which was no bad thing and something I’m looking forward to next year, as I will be in it for a couple of months.
I realise this isn’t even classed as an adventure by some reading this but to me it was. It was me under my own steam riding to a race to go and ride some more. Finding my own shelter and moving at my own pace. I was loving it. I felt like a cross between Ralph Fiennes and the guy off the Mr Muscle advert.
On with the story…
I stopped at a bin to dump some rubbish in Honiton High Street when out of a butcher’s shop came said butcher, putting his board and such like out for the day. Taking the piss, I asked if he did bacon sarnies.
He said, “I guess you would like a tea with that.” I figured he was taking the piss, but I thought I would play along.
“That would be champion, thanks.”
“Is Yorkshire OK,” he replied. Pretty sure he is taking the piss now.
“Three pounds fifty please.”
Not at all taking the piss… MEGA!
Armed with bacon, which is the best way to start a day, it was off for the hills of Dartmoor. A few detours and some hike a bike after the route plan went a bit wrong. Byway turned to sheeptrack. Sheeptrack turned to marsh. I had to have a little chat with myself. Let’s just say there were some strong words exchanged (this was a lot steeper than it looks and the marshy bit was just delightful)
Yet again I took to the road to get off the moors and soon found myself rolling into Newnham Park. A bit stinky and hungry but I got a fantastic welcome from Ian and Matt.
I only ever planned to make it round this race as I knew I wouldn’t be quick (I’m not very quick at the best of times, but quick for me).
My wife Sally was on her way down to race in a team but stuck in a bucket load of holiday traffic and making slow progress, so this gave me a little time. So it was straight over to the Torq tent to start the pasta refuel and pitch the tent for a little extra nap before Sal arrives (I was still feeling the effect of the night shifts).
I set off from the back to let the quick boys and girls go including Matt, Tom and Karen from Team JMC (that’s my excuse anyway). The course was riding really well to begin with, dry dusty and fast, with some old favourites like Cottage Return back in the lap. I decided to just ride on my heart-rate and not get drawn into anything as this level of fatigue racing was new territory for me. I felt good though. I don’t know how but I did. I was peddling nice and smooth and there still seemed to be a bit of power left. This was good news for the Tour Divide.
As the day clocked on I was working my way up the field. Partly spurred on by the great cheers from Ian Frew on the mic when I came through the village. Lights on and I was up to 5th and catching 4th.
Then the weather turned. It rained, and my god did it rain. The course got wetter and more slippery. This was OK but having packed rather light for the trip I was a bit shy on clothing. By 03:00 is it was taking its toll and after I started to shiver, then stopped shivering, I thought it best to come in for a quick warm up. Sal was great and made me a hot drink while I crouched in front of the van heater to try and warm up. I was going nowhere, I had to change out of these wet clothes.
No sooner had I got my head together to get out (I know it doesn’t look like it in the picture, but that was my game face at the time).
I was met with the news that due to the adverse weather the race had been stopped. The arena was carnage and rightly the race had been pulled as soon as rider safety was in question. Well done the Pivot crew, great decision and nice to see that the riders are at the centre of your decision-making process. Thank you. Disappointing but thank you.
I was hoping to make up a few places but came away with a 7th. For a normal mortal like me I’m happy with that after the adventure on the way down.
A MASSIVE well done to Tom Hodgkinson from Team JMC for winning it. Matt Jones for his podium and some of the fastest downhill riding I have ever seen. Karen Price for her podium in the Women’s 24 and to Sal for her first ever 24hr.
To answer my question as to how hard it is to ride to a 24, then race it. Hard. But not as hard as you would think.
Would I do it again. YES! It was good fun and I have some great memories from it. Now I can’t wait for the next challenge.