As I sat at 1,600 metres in the Rocky Mountains, alone, cold and exhausted after 18 hours of gruelling mountain biking, trying to find the wherewithal to do 6 more hours, I wondered what the hell was I doing?

This was during the third of four 24-hour mountain bike races I’d do in a 12-month period. Before October 2021, I’d only dreamt of doing such an ultra-endurance event. With all the planning, logistics and pain, it seemed unachievable. To be honest, I thought you’d have to be out of your mind. 12 months later, after completing four, my opinion hasn’t changed, but what a journey of  self-discovery, adventure and friendships it has been!

If you are unfamiliar with 24-hour mountain biking, it’s what it says on the tin, except event organisers pride themselves in making events as hard as possible, as if 24 hours of mountain biking isn’t hard enough. Whether run in Winter or on the toughest courses or both, they are harder than just mountain biking for 24-hours.

My 24 mountain biking year went like this:

Learnings from twelve months of 24-hour madness

People said, (and now I know), that no 24 hour is the same, so I’ve tried to detail each below. The scale of planning, logistics, time, and cost of any 24-hour mountain bike event are high. The difficulty here is, scrimp on any of these and it will inevitably come back to bite you during the event.

A 24 hour can take a high toll on your bike too. Luckily, I’m supported by my local bike shop, BW Cycling who’ve made my so close to each 24s, possible. There’s a toll on your body and mind too, so be prepared to spend a lot of time prepping before and recovering after.

If you’re aiming to be competitive, then you’ll need someone in the pit supporting you. I’m so lucky to be part of Team JMC, and to have had my big bro, Eugene supporting twice to keep me going and competitive. During the Canadian Rockies 24 my wife Jane and daughter’s Amy and Esme supported me. They did a sterling job but, unsupported throughout the night was tough and mistakes were made as I tired.

Believe me or not, it’s not as hard as you think to do a 24 hour once you put your mind to it. It just involves getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, if that makes sense, and keeping the nutrition going in to keep the wheels turning. It’s very hard to race a 24 though, as you never get comfortable. You’re continually pushing, rather than staying comfortably uncomfortable. I still haven’t managed a near perfect race, but I have raced better each time.

Tips from the year

Purpose – have a clear, unshakable purpose for why you are doing it is vital. Without one, it’s easier to throw in the towel.

Pacing– training at your desired pace really helps. Not going out too fast, and sticking to your pace, even when you feel good also helps.

Nutrition – needs to be practiced in training. I try to avoid gels until the end. Mixing food types, tastes, and textures helps as what you fancy will change during the event. If you don’t ‘feel’ like eating – it usually means you need to. When you eat is more important than what – get the required calories, electrolytes, and water, on schedule, in any form you can.

Nights are harder – be prepared for a drop in blood sugar, core body temp, dehydration, and sleep fatigue, which all effect mood and performance. Expect between 2am and 4am to be hardest, as its when your body (circadian rhythm) sees the end of the day. Remember, there’s always the rejuvenating blue rays of the sunrise to look forward to.

Prepare for every eventuality – having a plan and required kit for whatever the course or the weather throws at you, whether that’s 37 degrees or torrential rain, really helps.

It’s all in the head – breaking long events down into familiar, bite-size units to make it less overwhelming, is essential. Always believe there’s more in the tank, because there always is.

You can check out more tips in my Guide to Everesting, which is somewhat similar, here.

Race 1 – Kielder Chiller 24

My first solo 24-hour mountain bike event was a tough one at The Kielder Chiller. This event would usually be in February, (as if 24 hours of mountain biking isn’t hard enough), but was moved due to Covid. Due to the warmer than usual temperatures for the Chiller, Barry Kemp of Cold Brew Events (evilly 👿 brilliant organiser) decided to stick in a tonne more climbing and gnarley descending. This made for a truly tough course, especially when the rain, fog and mud appeared overnight. I proper loved it! I might just have a taste for this I thought!

In 23 hours, 45 minutes, over black and red trails, helped every pedal stroke by Team JMC’s Andrew and Sally Burgess we clocked up 268km. Pure thrilled to bank an off road Everesting of 8,964 metres of elevation gain in the Everesting Hall of Fame. To take 2nd overall and 1st in category in my first 24 hour was just the icing on the cake!

I can’t thank Team JMC enough for this baptism of fire. The pit, people, passion and pride in racing for this team is second to none! Thanks especially to Matthew Jones also for his expert advice in the run in to this and all my 24s.

Everesting Roam – The Dragons Back

After the Kielder Chiller and before the huge step up to the World Mountain Bike Champs (WEMBO) in Italy, to prepare, in March I did an Everesting Roam, which I called the Dragons Back. This 605km ride with 10,020 metres of climbing hit all the best-known Welsh hills in a single ride with no repeated hills. It took over 28 hours that I’ll never forget. Leg breakers hills included The Tumble, Gospel Pass, Machynlleth, Bwlch y Groes, Devil’s Staircase, Black Mountain, Bryn Dru and many more. It was one of those self-planned, self-supported rides, which only heightened my love for cycling and the challenges that can be dreamt up. The ride has since been verified by Hells 500 and is in the Everesting Hall of Fame.

Highs were riding Gospel Pass with Oliver, who I met on route and persuaded me to get a tattoo. The full moon and star filled sky up and over Bwlch y Groes, and getting robot legs for the last 15 hours, which just kept turning on their own. Lows were missing refuelling stops, bonking after Dolgellau, and rationing water and food through the night shift, and a headwind the whole way back down from Snowdon.

Adding this Everesting Roam to the four 24-hour races, I’ve only done 5 days of adventures in the last 12 months, but the stats are cool with a distance of 1,382 km and 33,300 meters climbing.

Race 2 – World 24 Hour Mountain Bike Champs (WEMBO), Finale Ligure, Italy

Next, it was the huge step up to the World Mountain Bike Champs (WEMBO) in Italy. I’d dot watched the World 24-hour Mountain Bike Championships for years. I never thought I’d be capable of doing it, especially having only completed one 24-hour previously.

24 Hours of Finale Ligure was the toughest event to get to the start line, especially with a niggling back injury. I wouldn’t have made it without the support of Jane Ward, BW Cycling, Mountain Fuel Sports Nutrition, Exposure Lights and Andrew Howett who took my spare bike and bits to Finale.

I went heart set on winning age group and a top 10 overall. Top 10 after 3 laps, a puncture dropping me back to 46th overall. Then a wall of heat and humidity hit with highs of 37 degrees. This heat would prove the ultimate performance limiter, combined with punctures. I’d always struggled in the heat, but had done acclimatisation training ahead of the event, which I think helped me cope better. It didn’t stop for the next 8 hours, I was just about surviving.

Once night fell, temperatures dropped to 20 degrees and with my brother, Eugene, in the pits had me in good shape to capitalise. By sunrise, I was in the top 20 overall. I’ve always revelled riding through a sunrise, but on this occasion, I was dreading the rise in temperatures, but seemed to handle in better on the second day.

With 3 hours to go the rear mech when up into the cassette, which luckily, I got back out, but meant getting on the spare bike while Pete and Euge fixed it. With the heat rising sharply up to 27, I pushed all the way to the line to move from 21st to 17th overall and 2nd in age cat in the final hours. I finished exhausted, dehydrated but elated.

On a savage course, in extreme heat, with crazy support (pumping Euro Pop, riders being cheered to go higher and higher on the berms, drunken Italians on the course), 24 hours of Finale Ligure was chaotic, adrenaline filled and easily the best event I’ve ever done. I’d return without hesitation, even just to meet up again with new friends made.

I’m hugely proud of my effort in the conditions, even if I didn’t get to show my best. I simply couldn’t have done it with my pit crew, Eugene. His calmness, responsiveness and care were amazing for his first time at a mountain bike race, never mind pit crew. A big shout out to Peter Nadin, who’s mechanical expertise and advice kept me in the game as I shredded tyres and the bike

Finally, well done to Chris Rudd from Team JMC who finished 3rd in his age category and 31st overall. Go team JMC! And to all the other UK riders leaving it all out there.

The stats:

  • Laps: 25
  • KMs: 300
  • Vertical: 7,800m
  • Calories: 11,500
  • Highest temp 37, average 26, low 20
  • Punctures: 2
  • Mechanicals: 1
  • 1st Irish 🇨🇮
  • 2nd form UK (behind an excellent performance from Rich Long)

Race 3 – Canadian Rockies 24

What a Canadian Rockies 24 it was! The incredible location, community, volunteers, and course made the comeback of the Canadian Rockies 24 truly awesome. Chapeau to the organisers for bringing this event back when many events have struggled post Covid-19 and with rising costs. 24-hour racers, get this one in the calendars for August 2023.

Every 24-hour mountain bike race is different. This time, I never got into my rhythm, perhaps due to jet lag, altitude, fitting an ultra-event into a family holiday or being unsupported throughout a tough night. That said, I’m super happy with how deep I went to take 4th overall and 2nd in the over 40 category.

The setting in the Canadian Rockies, in beautiful Canmore, is second to none. I love the place! The course at the Nordic Centre, a purpose build Olympic event village, had the most single track of any I’d done. It was rocks and roots throughout with lots of tough climbs. This made it an awesome course, which took its toll lap after lap, especially during the first 8 hours of torrential rain and cold. As soon as you exited one piece of single track, you were straight into another. This left only really the pit area to get food onboard.

Miraculously, once the rain stopped, the course shed the weather well. That said, it played havoc on my bike, with the lockout ceasing putting me on the spare, rented bike, which I then broke the dropper seat post on in a fall. The bike needed near life support following the event from BW Cycling following the race.

The Rockies 24 was always going to be hard psychologically. It was a B race to the Worlds, and British Champions, which was just 5 weeks after. My wife Jane suggested I do it because we were there, and I could. But I wasn’t 100% committed to it and with being unsupported, the cracks showed. Like when my lights ran out mid lap, or numerous laps forgetting to grab the rights nutrition from the pit. Then at 6am, after 18 hours, I ended up sat in my empty pit, with a blanket on my legs questioning how much more of this relentless course I could take? An intervention from another team was enough to snap me out of my pity pit, and get it done!

Without pit or equipment, I truly relied on Canadian generosity. Thanks to Richard Greaves, Remax for the gazebo, Sandra Demchuk for the chairs and cooler box, Brad and team at Trail Sports Canmore for the table, spare bike, mechanical help and everyone else who helped get me over the line.

Canadian Rockies stats:

  • Distance – 221km
  • Elevation – 6765 meters
  • Calories – 9838
  • TSS – 658

Race 4 – Kielder Chiller – British 24-Hour Mountain Bike Championships

My final event of the year brings me full circle back to the Kielder Chiller. This time, Kielder was also the 24-Hour British Mountain Bike Championships. I came away with 2nd overall again, and age group national champ jersey from a very unusual 24 hour.

I only managed this with the support of my pit crew, my brother Eugene, and Budge of Team JMC, with a little help from Sally and Jason Miles (legend).

Being my second visit to Kielder and the British Champs, I wanted every pedal stroke to count, to do more than last year’s 19 laps, and better than 2nd place overall. I also wanted to do my big brother and Team JMC captain, Budge, proud for all the time and effort.

The race started well for me in the top group. After a few laps I had gauged my competition and was managing to slowly draw away from those around me. Unfortunately, as I was doing this to secure second place, Kyle Beattie was doing similarly to me in first.

After 8 hours, the first big weather front hit, which hadn’t been forecasted. It viciously shook the trees around me, accompanied by thunder that clapped right above my head with flashes of lightening. The torrential rain and heavy wind ripped right through me, especially at the tops of the exposed climbs. Luckily, I made it back to the pits to peel of the soaked mud heavy gear and drag on dry kit onto a cold wet body, while the team turned their backs. My pit told me the news that the race organisers had made the brave decision to neutralise the event in two hours at 9pm, before the next storm front. People’s safety was the organisers no 1 priority, and I tip my helmet to them for their decision. My scheming pit crew neglected to tell me it would restart at 3am, once the storm front had passed, so I banged out some fast laps thinking I was done.

We’d have 4 hours to get warm, dry off kit, eat and try to sleep, which under Euge’s instruction we did brilliantly.

At 3am, it was back on the start line for a mass start, which surprisingly my legs reacted well to. Eugene and I had a plan to do 7 laps in the last 8 hours. This wouldn’t be easy, but I was up for it. After 4 laps, during a quick refuel and wheel change to deal with the increasing mud, Budge instructed me that I had to do 3 laps in 3:25 minutes, so needed 3 x 1 hour 5-minute laps to be sure. As I spun round the corner into the pits in 1:05 mins for the first lap, I could hear Budge shout for joy, which really lifted me to do the same for the next 2 laps. No idea where this power came from. I finished exhausted but elated. I’d left it out there, which still fills me with pride. As hard as I pedalled, I just couldn’t catch the super talented Kyle Beattie, who had also beaten me last year. What a legend to finish behind. I’m super, duper, stoked for him and his team.

Sofia Christiansen, Ladies 24 Hour Champ

I’d done 17 laps in 18 hours this time, compared to 19 in 24 hours last year. I’d covered 219km and climbed 7,383 metres -not too shabby. Even better when your big bro is there to support you. Thanks Euge!

Kielder stats:

  • 4,251 + 129km – 10 laps
  • 3,132m + 89.95km
  • 7,383 meters
  • 219km

I’m done. Really, I’m spent.

That was the fourth and final 24-hour race in 12 months. I’d entered a wonderful world full of adventurous, bright eyed people experiencing life on the limit and to the full. I love it and the friends I’ve made outside my comfort zone, which is the best place to be, where every feeling and emotion is heightened to the last. People like Andy Howett, Rich Long, Peter & Tania Nadin, Ade, Maurizio, Max Suttie and many, many more.

There’s no doubting the effort, and yes, the much talked about pain of doing an ultra-endurance event. However, the pain is temporary, what remains are the friendships and memories made when you put yourself out there, make yourself vulnerable and are prepared to fail. This year, I’ve found that it’s less about the achievement itself and more about what I learned and who I’ve become along the way that is life changing. This epic journey has also reinforced my three core beliefs:

  • You are better than you think you are
  • You can do more than you think you can
  • We are better when we work together

Thanks

With four podium finishes in my four 24-hour races over the past 12 months, a huge shout out goes to my sponsors. Firstly, to Oli Beckingsale my coach. Top work as ever! To Andy and the team at BW Cycling, who kept my bikes rolling in tip-top shape all year. To Rupert at Mountain Fuel whose nutrition I totally rely on as it never lets me down. This year has proven Mountain Fuel work in all conditions. Lighting the way, there’s Mark at Exposure Lights, again never lets me down. Finally, there’s Ryan at Ryan Builds Wheels, who’s been there over the past years for me.

Last but never least, to Jane Ward, Amy and Esme for all the support on and off the bike for this crazy old git.

What’s in store for 2023

I’m not sure what the coming year will hold. At 51, I’m still racing for overall, rather than age category, and have no desire to stop. I love it! Yes, I’ve lost a little of the top end speed, but gained in other areas. There will be a 24 hour or two in 2023. Mostly, it will be the same as 2022, where I’ll try new things, learning more about myself, and truly enjoying my cycling and the people I meet.

Finally, on a sad note, mountain bike events are falling away since Covid-19, especially ultra-endurance, like 24-hour in the UK. Costs for event organisers are rising with the cost of living. Cyclists just don’t have the spare cash to do as many events as they used to. I can easily see a near future, especially with the rise of other types of bike races, like gravel, where mountain biking never recovers, and events like Kielder become unviable for the already over stretched and over spent event organisers, like Barry Kemp and his amazing Cold Brew Events team. This makes me so sad, so if you want to get into longer mountain bike events but are unsure how to then please hit me up. I’d be glad to help anyone experience to joy and elation from completing something so epic.