Thanks for visiting The Mountain Bikes Apart Podcast – Episode 3!
Episode 3 already and this is the last of the ‘old post’ episodes for a little while. As I mentioned in Epsiode 1, I wanted to test things out and get a little content on the line by going through some past posts initially. With any luck it would introduce some new readers to a bit of my archive content too. This time around it was my first 24 hour mountain bike race, Relentless 24. As you’ll find out, it didn’t go quite as planned…
As always, let me know what you think – drop a comment at the bottom, email me or tweet me on @colinmcgray. Now listen here, or read on below!
Have you Ever Almost Drowned During a Bike Race?
My eyes spring open as the alarm blasts into life. I look over at the offending item and the clock confirms that I’ve been asleep around 4 hours. Of course, when I say asleep, I’m referring to the practice of lying on my back in a sleeping bag, squeezing my eyes shut and trying not to hear the whistling wind and driving rain making a valiant attempt at knocking down the walls of my tent. It’s time to get back on the bike. Not for the first time in the past 24 hours I mutter to myself, “What in the hell am I doing – Relentless 24 is gonna kill me…”
I’m sure it wasn’t my idea… I’d always thought about getting involved in a 24 hour race, but something always got in the way. I think the idea of doing it as a pair appealed as a really good challenge – 12 hours of biking in 24 hours would be a pretty good achievement I thought – but I’d never quite got into the training I’d need for that. Then there was the quad option, but 6 hours of cycling just didn’t seem like that much of a big deal. I’ve often done that over a weekend on a standard trip away. But, as is often the case, a decision was made in the pub one evening. We were doing a 24 hour race in 2011, but we had had a pretty lax few months so we were looking at a team of 4 – Bruce, DIllon, Rob and I. “Easy peasy,” we slurred. “Preparation for a couple of pairs on the next one.” A quick check of t’interweb and we found No Fuss’ Relentless 24 was in a month. The choice was made – we were on the way to Fort William.
We had thought that a 24 hour race in October might be slighter kinder to us than the infamous January Strathpuffer, but as drove through the Glencoe pass, wipers struggling to cope with the deluge, it seemed our guess had been optimistic. We pressed on though, finally pulling into the Nevis Range car park around 9pm. Two quick tent erections later and the rain had calmed enough at least to allow some outdoors pre-hydration. Luckily Bruce had brought a box of Punk IPA, race fuel of kings, and we spent a relaxing couple of hours chatting Relentless 24 tactics.
Our initial plan was to keep it simple, taking turns, one lap each, right up to around 10pm. Then we’d split into pairs, the first pair doing around 5 hours between them, while the others slept, before a switch-around at 3am. This would mean the first pair getting up around 8am and going back to all of us taking turns, one lap each for 4 hours until midday. Theoretically we’d all get about 5 hours sleep – “Should be a doddle,” the team crowed as we stumbled to bed Friday night, about 5 beers in.
Saturday morning proved to be murky, but relatively dry. The trail was soaked, but at least nothing much was falling. I was generously nominated as the Relentless 24 starter by the rest of the team – seemed I’d have to do a bit of running thanks to the Le Mans start, thanks guys… We were lined up, counted down and it was on – our first 24 hour race. A full day of cycling ahead of me I lurched into motion, knees creaking in protest at the unfamiliar movement. To my horror I was jostled from all sides as the guys around me accelerated to a full sprint, covering the 50m to the bikes in a matter of seconds – this might be a bit more serious than I thought…
The first daylight section of the race went by in a blur of spinning pedals, mud, forest road, mud, rain, mud, roots and a little more mud. I was pretty lucky getting the first run as the downhill sections were actually pretty fun initially. No Fuss had linked together a number of sections of the Nevis Range World Championships course, consisting of some nice tight turns, rocky sections and bermy northshore. There was plenty of speed for those that wanted it and many did. Inevitably, though, a few hours in and a ton of rain later, the singletrack resembled more bog than trail. Puddles the size of Loch Ness formed, surrounded by seas of sticking, sucking mud, and at points it was wiser to just let the bike go than attempt to slow down thanks to traction more often found on a brand new frying pan.
A report on Relentless 24 2011 cannot go by without special mention to The Rain, something that almost seems synonymous to No Fuss events. The Rain had made itself known since early on Friday, but it decided to tease us a little by reducing to a mere spit or two by race start. Around half way into the first lap, though, it began to sidle in proper. From then on I forgot any other state than damp, and on each lap quickly delved in the realm of simply sodden. First lap I went out with two layers on top, shorts and lycra below, thinking that it was warm enough that I might as well just get soaked and save the waterproof for later. Well, soaked I got, and soaked I stayed. With each lap came a change of clothes, and soon enough there were no more changes. There were more than a few girlish shrieks heard emanating from our tent as a sodden pair of cycling shorts were pulled on over warm, dry legs.
We had been keeping to around 55 minutes a lap until night fell, when we dropped to between 1 hour and 1 hour 15 minutes. Rob had had the first dark lap, dusk falling around half way into his second, and Dillon handed over to me around 8pm for my third lap and my first in the dark. This meant that by around 11pm we had all done a lap in the dark and 3 in total each. By now we were supposed to have swapped to double-teaming it – lap on, lap off in pairs – but it was becoming increasingly apparent that we’d been a bit naive in thinking that 6 hours of cycling at Relentless 24 was equal to 6 hours of cycling at Glentress on a Saturday afternoon…
We were covering probably about twice the distance per hour as you would on a normal bike trip, just through race pressure and simply not stopping to gorge on cakes and biscuits every 20 minutes, as you normally would at the trail centre. It was taking it’s toll… And that’s not to mention The Rain. And, of course, it’s evil and able friend, The Wind. By 11pm we’d covered about 24 miles each in conditions that I wouldn’t recommend you ever try if you’d like to keep your skin attached to your body. The bikes were falling apart – 2 snapped chains, a seized brake caliper, 8 to-the-metal brake pads, a knackered skewer, a ton of chain suck and, literally, around 9 gears between us – and our bodies were quickly following suit. No-one fancied hour-on, hour-off cycling through the night.
We made the executive (and not at all wussy) decision to have one more lap each starting with me at about 8.30pm, then take it up again at 6am. Rob, Bruce and Dillon followed me, cycling heroically into the night through pitch black torrential rain and increasingly unridable trails from 10pm till around 1.30am, whereupon Bruce made a heroic effort and snuck another one in, so he, our last rider of the day, got in a bit before 3am and hit the sack. Which brings me back to 6am.
3 hours later, the aforementioned alarm went off, initiating the biggest gathering of will power I’m ever likely to experience. Listening to the rain pelting our tent I teetered, almost succumbing to sense and rolling over in my sleeping bag. But no, the guys had cycled late into the night – it was my job to start us off again. I shivered back into my waterproofs, damp material clinging to my goosebump covered back, and ventured out into the rain. I thought I’d experienced the worst feeling of the night already, heading out into that maelstrom, but I was wrong. The worst feeling of that night was experienced about 20 minutes later, more than half way up the initial climb when a marshal shouted at me, “Where the hell’s your helmet? You’ll have to go back mate!”
In my shell-shocked delirium of climbing out of bed, pulling on freezing cold clothes and venturing into the night, I’d completely forgotten by trusty lid. Dazed and confused, fighting the urge to pick up my bike and throw it over the side of the hill, I turned around and free-wheeled back down. An eternity later, twice as wet and three times as annoyed I got back to where I’d started and continued the slog uphill.
The one plus-side of that lap was that the sun rose towards the end, lifting my spirits with it. The final 20 minutes went by fine, and I think I actually smiled as I whizzed down the narrow singletrack descent that preceded the start of the final landrover track. It was the next day – we were most of the way there…
I cruised up to the tents and apologetically prodded Rob awake. I’ve heard some bad language from the boy in the past, but that moment was something special, and mostly revolved around the lack of any possibility of any cycling going on today, including jesus’ inexplicable participation in said lack of chances. But, get up they did and we managed to knock out another set of laps each, finishing with Bruce a little shy of the midday mark. If I’m honest, we probably could have squeezed in another lap at that point, but the desire to pull on wet lycra had dwindled to miniscule levels by that point and we decided we were happy with our effort at 16 laps.
I’m writing this at 9pm on Sunday, 9 hours after the race finished, and I’m still slightly struggling to describe the experience. It’s definitely taking on a bit of a rose tint already. I’m mainly remembering the amazing parts. The buzz of descending that first singletrack, dozens of riders in front and behind. The delicious peace and solitude of the dark trail during a lull in the weather on my third lap. The brilliant and slightly delirious banter of my teammates in the middle of the night as we contemplated our situation and whose ‘wonderful’ idea it had been in the first place. The quote from solo section winner Huw Thomas: “Winner senior men’s solo Relentless 24 2011 – 336km rode, 8,880m climbed and hit 24 times in the face by the same branch.”
I remember some horrendous parts too though. That weather. The story of Dillon’s seized brake caliper and ensuing skewer nut search. Rob’s Lap of Many Falls. And THAT weather.
Was Relentless 24 2011 worth it though? Absolutely. I’ll remember that 6am lap for the rest of my life, mainly due to the fact that as I cycled it I could picture the faces of anyone I described the situation to – mostly a look of, “Are you mental…?” I think that’s why we do these stupid events – because ‘normal’ people wouldn’t. And it’s probably why, despite the way my legs are now aching, I’ll no doubt end up in exactly the same situation again. And then I’ll be thinking, “I’m bloody sure it wasn’t my idea THIS time!”
Cheers to No Fuss for another amazingly organised event – we’ll see you next year!