I’ve never done a 24 hour mountain bike race, and I suppose technically I still haven’t. I mean, I didn’t quite ride my bike non-stop for 24 hours, but the little timing chip I carried in my back pocket when I was on the course, did travel round and round for 24 hours, and that’s good enough for me.
I was part of a four man and one woman team for this adventure. It was something I’d never done before, not even close. My standard run out on the mountain bike is either a couple of hours messing around on the trials, or if it is a race, then an hour and a bit hammering around to the point of exhaustion before packing up and heading home for a beer. I’ve never hammered around for an hour to the point of exhaustion then sat around trying to recover (or sleep) before doing it again. And again. And again.
The event took place at Albion Hills just north of Toronto, last weekend (June 22 – June 23) starting at noon on the Saturday and finishing at noon on the Sunday. The weather was scorching and according to anyone I talked to after the event, we must have been the only pocket in all of southern Ontario that avoided the deluge of rain that swept across the provence that weekend. It rained only briefly on the Saturday morning and that only served the course well, packing down the dusty trails ahead of 24-hours worth of punishment by the wheels of 2,100 bikes. Had the forecast held true and it rained for most of Saturday, the course would have been a mud-bath by the time it came to the night. In short, the lack of rain saved us a nightmare.
The event was run by Chico Racing who passed up the Ontario Cup series at the end of last year to concentrate on events such as this. To say it was well run and every last detail accounted for would be an understatement. It seemed like there was exactly the right room in the park for all the cars and tents that would be arriving. Over the course of the weekend the camp grounds were bulging at the seems, cars were squeezed at angle they might fit (mine required minor trimming of a tree in order to fit in away from the park road), as 2,100 cyclists showed up to spoil the tranquility of the regular hill billy campers.
The start area included a day long barbecue for those in need of a feed and a stage from which there was a live band for several hours on the Saturday evening. They’d a kids race on the Saturday evening and the transition area for those in the 24 hour race was neatly covered by a tent from which incoming riders would dismount, walk through while swiping their timing chip card, and pass it onto the next member of their team heading out for some action on the course. Even out on the course the organisation was fantastic. The course was well marked, some sections had alternative routes for those not wanting to risk bike and limb by riding over it, there was marshal stations, and a hydration point which was basically in place for riders to grab a cup of cold water and dump it over your head.
I was fifth up in our five meaning I didn’t get going until about 4 p.m. That gave me time to gobble down some Pasta before hand and watch everyone else coming through. The longer I waited the more excited I was to get out there and see what this 16 kilometre lap was all about. My first lap was a 1 hour, 3 minutes, 12 seconds run before passing on the tag to my team-mate who went out on his shift and what a fun lap it was. I’d hazard a guess that about 85 percent of it was single track and none of it included any seriously long climbing. All the climbing was short, some of it was sharp, and it came quite frequently. Not a lot of the course was flat, but that was ok, it made for a lot of fun.
Out there on the lap I would pass some riders with a red tag on the back of their saddle. It was after passing a third one that another guy in front of me shouted, “Keep it going solo” that I realised these were those we had heard about. The ones who actually do this thing on their own, without a team. They are the animals of the summer solstice. Twenty-four hours of riding. It’s true they have the option of stopping for food or even for a brief nap, but I’d later learn that the fastest man completed 16 laps in the 24 hours, putting in an average lap time just ten minutes slower than my average day lap and on pace with my average night lap. That is insane for that length of time and all the power to him. I didn’t feel jealous of them when I would pull into the transition station and had off my tag while they took a slight turn to the right and headed right on up the trail again.
I came in from that first lap with the heart-rate pushing 190 and after sitting down to compose myself, desperately willing my body temperature to drop a good ten degrees Celsius, I remembered that in about four hours I’d have to go out and do it again. This time in the dark. Forget the solo men and woman — they were a different breed — for the rest of us folk, that fact of going again was something I had to bare in mind and be ready for.
The thirty plus degrees it had been during the day was starting to fall as the sun went down and by 10 p.m. I was back up at the transition getting ready to go again. This time I had my new Canadian Tire light strapped to my forehead (everyone else looked much more professional with one attached to the top of their helmets), a light on my handlebar and a little red flashing light for the rear. I’ve never rode a mountain bike course in the dark before; I was looking forward to the challenge.
I got about 1 kilometre into the lap when the first problem occurred and it wasn’t a crash or some wrong turn that sent me deep into the woods never to be seen again, or at least until morning, but rather the handlebar light flew off into the woods. I heard a crashing sound and wondered what had just flew off my bike as I navigated the switchbacks of the first downhill section as the lights of other bikes beamed all around me, bouncing off trees like some light saber battle in Starwars. It actually looked pretty cool. What wasn’t cool was me looking down to see the piece of equipment I’d lost was the front light. I stopped, dropped the bike and ambled off into the woods to see if I could find it.
Until that point, of which I’d had just a kilometre of riding — and only half a kilometre in the woods — to get used to riding in the dark with the lights, I had liked what I’d seen. I could see pretty well and was looking forward to the lap. But now how well could I see with one light down? I rooted around in the undergrowth for a moment before spotting the light (it had gone out). I walked back to the bike and fitted it back on it’s holder, but something felt wrong. One quick look at it was clear the light would be as useful to me on the forest floor as on my bike now … the battery pack had come out. Back into the forest I went.
Several bikes blitzed past with shouts of ‘Are you ok”, to which I could only reply, “Yep, just looking for my light”. I really should have said I was looking for my bike to see their reaction but I feared the kindness of these competitors might have been exploited as they stopped to help. One guy did stop. He offered his light finding services and joined me in the trees despite my pleas for him to keep going. I think he was just glad of an excuse to stop for a bit. I didn’t quite catch whether he was one of the red-tags signalling a solo rider, though I think not if only because obeying an excuse to stop when doing this thing solo might render you unable to start again. A moment later I informed him I’d just have to plod on without the handlebar light and hope for the best with the cheapo one on my head for the time I was spending looking for the lost batteries would be better spent risking my neck riding with one light.
“On you go”, he said and off I went and I’m not sure whether he followed me or decided to hang around looking for those batteries. When I came back through that section four hours later, he wasn’t there, but I never seen that battery pack again either.
It was challenging enough with that light down. Had I had a proper helmet light worth a few hundred more than the one I was wearing, I mightn’t have had any issues and might even have lapped as quick as I did during the day, what with the cooling evening, but I didn’t and I just had to take risks. Common sense would suggest taking it easy but I pushed when I could — which wasn’t a lot on some downhill sections, especially the fast open ones where you were forced to choose more than one line and with the inability to see more than ten yards in front of me while going at a rate of about ten yards per second, I had no choice but to go slower than I might have liked.
Still when you see that I finished that lap just 11 minutes, 22 seconds slower than I done my first lap in the daylight, you get an idea as to how much quicker I went than I probably should. It was quick enough that I still passed plenty on the downhill sections, but not quick enough in that for the first time that I can remember in my life mountain biking, I was looking forward to the uphill sections were I wouldn’t be going as quick and didn’t have to focus so hard. By the end of the lap I had a headache.
I retreated to the tent in the hopes of grabbing a couple of hours kip, but it was still quite warm out and an invasion of mosquitoes began to sieze upon my tired body. I didn’t sleep at all, I tossed, turned, ate a little, and scratched. The eating is a big part of the 24-hour race challenge. Sure it’s easy enough to plow the food into you during the day when you have four hours between rides (it might be a nightmare for anyone doing it solo, but that’s neither here nor there because I don’t think I’m ever like to have to find out), but at night when you need to lie down and grab some sleep how do you go about re-fueling the body? You can’t go eating a burger in the wee small hours of the morning, and a plate of pasta at 2 a.m. was out of the question.
Yogurts, energy bars, chocolate bars and electrolyte drinks was the meal of choice in the nighttime hours, that is when I could be bothered to fish around in my bag for something as opposed to lying there allowing the bugs to feast on me. I wondered if those mosquitoes were doing some kind of twenty-four hour race? I wondered because they weren’t going away, they continued to hover, to buzz around in the dark, and I wondered if I was their energy bar … was I fueling them to go and do another lap … a lap of the tent. Then tag in a partner and head back to the Irish body lying a tents width from the earth and get back to fueling up on his oxygenated blood.
Sorry Mosquito, but you’ve been disqualified for blood doping.
It’s funny the things you’ll think of at 3 a.m. as the alarm you never needed after all goes off warning you that it’s time to get up, kit up and head back to the transition area. It was a good thing I wasn’t in a bed because I didn’t have to try too hard to get myself up and going again. It was certainly a first … rising up in the dark to put on a cycling jersey and head out for a ride on the mountain bike.
In the four hours I had off I had plenty of time to sort out my handlebar light … that is go searching for the battery pack or borrow the lights from a team-mate. But I never did and so after finishing my last lap swearing against going back in to the woods again without the proper lighting, there I was, heading once more into the breach.
I got up to the transition early … I forced myself to always do this. I’d have felt awful had I shown up late for an exhausted team-mate coming into the finish, looking to had over and get to bed himself. I can think of no worse feeling in all of cycling than landing into the transition area at 3 a.m. and none of your team are there. I seen this happen to a few boys, their teammates back at the campsite in their tents sleeping, and them, walking the area, howling for his one-time friend like a lost child yelling for his mommy in a shopping centre. You can either go down and scream at them or head out on another dreaded lap. One guy chose the former, the other the later. Thankfully I was on a team where this was never an issue.
I wasn’t long into this lap when I began to worry about the predicament I was in. You see, I’d kind of breezed over the fact the light I had bought was a cheap one … change from a fifty … from Canadian Tire. I’d acknowledged this fact only in that I realised how stupid mine looked strapped to my head as though I were heading into a mine shaft by comparison to others who had theirs on their helmet. Now though I was being more practical in thinking beyond style … the package said the brightest setting would work for seven hours, but were they telling the truth? Was that seven hours until total blackout? … Seven hours if you’re lucky? Seven hours in dog years?
Was my mind playing tricks on me or was the arch of the beam growing narrower? Last lap it was to the edges of my peripheral vision, but now it was in at least a couple of feet. The bright spotlight was but the width of a basketball on the jungle floor a few metres in front of me, but the general light it was giving off was being overtaken by the blackness from beyond that was creeping ever slowly in towards the spotlight. Was this light about to go out? How would that render me?
Useless, scared, lost and in a serious state of panic were the words that sprung to mind. I had to push harder on the climbs to compensate for having to go a little easier on the descents and I had to get back to the start as soon as I could before this light burnt out. Then I’d have to walk back with nothing to navigate with but the dull flashing red light on the back of my saddle.
Every now and then someone would catch me or I would catch someone else and for a brief moment I could feed off their superior lighting. The forest lit up and I seen what a solid investment would have done for me. Then it went dark again and I cursed trying to use their lights because all it did was compromise my own night vision. There was never anyone slow enough who passed me that I might be able to latch on to, and nobody fast enough whom I caught that I could stay with. I got a few seconds of floodlight glory, and then it was back to negotiating the forest with what amounted to the same light off a birthday candle. Or so it felt.
About halfway around the lap the light suddenly began to come back on … that is, the great big light in the sky. Dawn was breaking and while it was still tough to see when I would duck into a single track section through the trees, the open sections grew brighter and brighter with each trip out of the trees and I soon found myself able to attack the downhill sections quicker now that I could make out every potential hazard.
The lap took 1 hour, 15 minutes, 52 seconds, a mere 1 minute, 18 seconds slower than the previous night lap. That wasn’t so bad after all, but then the last half lap was in growing day light. When I exchanged the timing chip I wished my team-mate luck and told him to enjoy the daylight.
I went to bed.
I think I got about an hour and woke to the news that I’d be going again in just over an hours time. Quick snack — yogurts, Mars bar, two Cliff bars, and a shot of hammer gel — and time to get the kit on again. I’d brought three cycling tops and two pairs of shorts with me. Given I’d been through three laps now, I had also gone through all my clothing. So now it was to find the least wet cycling jersey and to grit my teeth as it and a cool damp helmet went on my head for another go at this madness.
The forth and final lap, the sun up and the earth heating at the rate of what felt like one degree per minute. By the time I got my lap underway I was well and truly scorched again. But I didn’t care … I didn’t have a light on my head, I could see where I was going, I could see obstacles I couldn’t a few hours before, and I could enjoy this final blast of the course. I went all out, on a relatively empty stomach in a game of brinkmanship with effort and the bonk. I’d either blow up or storm home and despite the lack of sleep and food I wanted to try break the hour barrier.
I didn’t. I came in 4 minutes, 43 seconds beyond that, but with a decent time despite the restrictions. I felt good, I felt tired and that’s how you should feel after a twenty four hour race, even if you are one of five.
All in we finished 15th in our category of 51 having completed 19 laps which was mighty impressive. We earned that good result and everyone done their bit … nobody backed out and we all took a good pull. When we all got packed up and headed for home I made the short forty-five minute blast back to the city life, tossed the bike in my storage locker content to leave the cleaning until another day and then fulfilled an urge I had gotten during one of my night shift laps: To have some pizza. The smell had wafted across my nose somewhere out on the course despite the fact there was no pizza for miles around and when it arrived on the door and I sat down to eat it while cracking a can of cold beer. I never felt like I’d earned it more.