Another superb write up by Saul Muldoon
Stadium Riders Advent(ure) Calendar
A curious coincidence sealed my decision to ride the Relentless 24 Hour race at Fort William this year. The lack of a singlespeed bike over much of the summer and consequently less miles in my legs than normal, had left me in two minds as to whether battering myself over 24 hours was such a good idea. I was also aware that good friend and riding companion Andrew Beever was looking for pit crew to support his ride. So in late September I text him to say that I’d not ride but would be more than happy to look after him at Relentless. Literally 5 minutes later I had a text from former Relentless Winner Sally Buckworth to say that due to injury she wouldn’t be riding this year, but would be happy to support both Andrew and myself if we wished. Cue a quick volte face, a swift online entry and another text to Andrew this time explaining the change of plan and the fact that both of us would now be lining up at the Nevis Range ski resort come the end of October.
And so there we were on the final Saturday of October, in traditionally damp, grey, drizzly Scottish conditions. Andrew and myself, along with 70 odd other solo competitors, and also team riders from the pairs, quads and 8’s, all lined up at the Nevis Range ski centre ready for the off. Unlike in 2016 when the solo category start list read like a “Who’s Who” of British endurance mountain biking, this year the start line felt a little more relaxed with some of the big hitters absent, or choosing to ride in the pair or quad categories. That’s not to say the solo category would entirely be lacking in competition however, and as I briefly chatted to Steve Day, two time world 24 hour singlespeed champion whilst awaiting the off, I reminded myself that there’s no such thing as an easy 24 hour race.
24 hour races are seldom easy for event organisers either, and a glitch with the timing system had Fraser from No Fuss Events postponing the start for a hour whilst the computer geeks did their remedial stuff. After 60 minutes of pedalling around try to stay warm and sitting in the Stadium Riders EZ-Up eating crisps (salt loading for the rigorous ahead-honest!), once again we were good to go. This time the timing computers played nicely and at bang on 1pm the field rolled across the start line and began to wind its way up the switch-backed forest road climb and up into the hills of the Nevis Range.
It usually takes a few laps for things to settle down in a 24, for the field to find its natural order, with the quicker pairs and quad riders heading things up, whilst us soloists settle in trying to find our own rhythm for the long haul. On this occasion I felt remarkably comfortable from the off, and quickly settled into a good steady race pace, resisting the temptation to be pulled along by faster riders, preferring simply to ride my own race at my own pace.
The course was as usual superb, providing more than enough technical interest to keep me amused as I ticked the laps off throughout the afternoon. Particularly wet weather over the preceding days (not unusual of course for Fort William in the autumn), had necessitated some minor amendments to the route. A steepish climb along some wet singletrack, familiar from previous editions of Relentless had been removed and replaced by a longer but more gradual fireroad climb, winding its way up to the tunnel at the highest point of the lap. This more gradual ascent suited us singlespeeders particularly well, allowing an uninterrupted grind, as opposed to having to get off and push when fatigue would be kicking in later in the race.
Another thing that was suiting me well was my new Travers Angus 2 singlespeed frame, which I had taken delivery of and built up only a few weeks earlier. A combination of its superbly predictable yet responsive handling and my familiarity with the course, was enabling me to churn out very consistent lap times through Saturday afternoon and well into the evening. In fact aside from having to adjust the chain tension once (not unusual when singlespeeding a 24 Hour), Angus performed faultlessly throughout the entire race.
Late afternoon saw lights being mounted on helmets and bars in preparation for the dark hours ahead. In many respects the night laps are my most favourite times of a 24 Hour. This is especially in the early hours of the morning when the field has thinned down and you are able to spend longer periods riding alone focusing entirely on your own effort. One of the many advantages of having Sal as pit crew was the fact that she had brought along her extensive collection of Exposure lights too, meaning Andrew and I were in no danger of being left in the dark should our batteries expire before sunrise.
Night is also the time when music plays and important role in my race strategy, listening (and occasionally singing along) to my special “24 Hour Power” mix of tunes, all selected to motivate and maintain my focus when times are tough. Rather frustratingly in the massive planning and packing operation that precedes any 24 Hour race I had forgotten to include my usual headphones. A cheap replacement pair purchased at a motorway services on the way up, did an adequate job but annoyingly kept falling out of my ears on some of the rougher descents.
One of the aspects of 24 Hour races I always enjoy is the opportunity to chat with fellow racers and friends in the course of the event. Catching, or being caught by someone I know and spending a few minutes riding along together comparing experiences is one of those small but important factors that maintains my motivation in a race of this type. At various times during the race it was great to spend a few moments with Richard Rothwell, Keith Forsyth, Nigel Morris, Richie Scott, Simon Haslam, and various others, all of whom were happy to exchange words of mutual support and encouragement. Thanks to each and every one of you, it is exactly this kind of camaraderie that makes 24 Hour racing so enjoyable for me.
Another very important aspect of the race, and one which I simply could not do without is pit crew, and to this end Sal did a stunning job. As a veteran on numerous 24 Hour races herself, Sal was very attuned to the needs of both Andrew and myself throughout the race, staying awake throughout the night in order to attend to them. I like to think I’m quite an easily pleased 24 Hour racer, as long as there is a fresh water bottle, a couple of energy gels and an occasional Muller Rice available when I need them I’m quite happy. Andrew on the other hand is a little more “high maintenance”, requiring tea, coffee, particular foods (including at one point a hot jacket potato), all of which Sally conjured up in characteristic unflustered style.
As many of you will know the role of pit crew is multifaceted and not simply limited to catering. Aside from keeping our pit absolutely spotless and ordered (I hate a chaotic pit!), Sal was also acting as chief motivator, strategist, coach, lap counter, timer, photographer, social media updater, and a host of other important roles. She even approached the race organisers to very effectively resolve some minor confusion regarding race categories, around about sunrise when most other people were struggling to think straight due to sleep deprivation. Both Andrew and myself were immensely grateful for Sal’s efforts, and the invaluable contribution she made to our respective race results.
As dawn broke I was still feeling good and continuing to steadily add to my lap total. As is usual in a 24 Hour I had no idea where I was in the race standings, preferring instead simply to ride my own race to the best of my abilities minimising any additional external pressures. The course had held up well during the night with few muddy sections, aside from the brief incursion onto the World Cup downhill course which in my experience always seems to be wet. I was aware Andrew was also riding well, and although I knew he was a lap or two behind me I was hoping he had done enough to secure a podium position which would mean so much to him.
The final few hours are always tough, and for me generally pass in a mix or good a bad laps. One lap I’ll be struggling up a climb, barely able to turn the pedals, and then the next time I’m powering up the self-same climb feeling like a riding god, such are the physiological and psychological curiosities of spending 24 hours on a bike. In my first 24 hour a few years ago a former National Champion gave me some advice saying that however bad you feel, if you keep pedaling, keep eating, keep drinking and keep positive, then you will feel better. I have always remembered this little bit of wisdom and it has seen me through tough times in numerous subsequent endurance races.
The last lap invariably comes as a relief, as by that point despite the luxury of suspension forks my hands struggle to maintain a grip on the bars due to the accumulated fatigue of 24 hours worth of battering. The final lap is also an opportunity to thank the marshals, many of whom have completed their own feat of endurance being out on the course for 24 hours ready to help any rider in need.
On crossing the line for the final time it was great to see Sal and Andrew (who decided not to opt for another lap) there to offer congratulations, hugs and confirm that I’ve finished first in the Singlespeed category fourth solo rider overall. It was equally great to learn that Andrew had done enough to take third spot on the podium, behind the 24 Hour singlespeed specialist David Ernest Glover.
However Andrew and myself were not the only winners from Yorkshire at Relentless 2017. Our friends Mitchell Jones and Nigel Smith raced hard to take victory in the Open pairs category whilst Donna Waring had won the Women’s Vet Category, so all in all it was a satisfying weekend all round for us Yorkshire folk.
Well done to everyone who competed, 24 Hour races are never easy, but the sense of satisfaction and enjoyment from spending a weekend suffering with like minded mtb’ers makes the pain well worth it. Thanks also to Fraser and Spook of No Fuss events for delivering yet another superb Relentless. Will I be back next year when Relentless doubles as the WEMBO World 24 Hour Champs?........We’ll see!
Podium pic by Sally Buckworth.
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