Thursday, June 25, 2015

Bristol Bikefest 12-hour solo: Too much of a good thing

Star date: 13 June 2015
Event: Bristol Bikefest 12-hour solo 
Weapon of choice: Fully rigid 26" singlespeed
Greatest strength: Finishing
Greatest weakness: Entering
Result: Knackered

Warning: Contains nuts (and bad language)

As regular readers will know, I rather like mountain biking. Indeed I can't get enough of it. So a whole 12 hours of it at the Bristol Bikefest seemed like a really good idea. It's also a proper race (not some namby-pamby "challenge") and even has an official singlespeed category for the beardy-weirdies purists.

But while extreme endurance events, like bondage parlours, have long held a certain weird appeal, I’d always thought that people who enjoy such proclivities must have something very wrong with them. Without wanting to give too much away at this early stage, I was right. And I didn't get a happy ending.

Of course, I knew it would be tough - despite appearances I'm not entirely stupid - but I really didn't bargain with the complete loss of any semblance of enjoyment (and eventually any capacity whatsoever for emotion) as you embark on yet another stuporous lap, the will to live but a fleeting memory. It was a daft idea, I should've known better, and I will never* do anything like it again.

*Well, not this year, anyway.
Each year the Bikefest brings together around 1,000 riders to race solo or, more sensibly, in teams of two or four at Ashton Court, a large park with fine views over central Bristol and just a stone’s throw from the famous Clifton Suspension Bridge.

With maybe 400 riders on the 10 km course at any one time across four separate distances (12, six and three hours plus a 9½-hour ciderthon) all finishing at the same time, it's definitely not one of those events where you get away from it all. You're almost constantly overtaking and being overtaken, sometimes with less grace than others.

Predominantly purpose-built all-weather singletrack, the trail is blue-graded (easy but fun) with a few red-graded features (mainly small rock steps) which are all easily rollable (and mostly rollroundable). Although perched on the side of a bloody great hill, the course contrives to be almost completely flat, which is great if you don't like climbing but not so great if you want big descents or if climbing is your forte.

The lap format makes for a great atmosphere. Passing through the event village to cowbells and cheering every 30-40 minutes gives you a real lift, as well as regular opportunities to grab more food and drink, brave the portaloos, have a quick cuddle, or just jump in the car and drive home. On the other hand, all those laps do bring a certain sense of déjà vu.

The official event video can be found here. I make a few passing appearances but sadly not while styling it up. There are only so many backflips you can do to get attention.

Laps 1-3: It's not a sprint, you know

Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the early stages.
Photo by official event photographer Rob Barker. Thousands more like it here.

I'd been warned about the Le Mans-style start. I expected something grander, but basically we all ambled down a bit of a hill, dumped our bikes on the grass alongside the track and lined up haphazardly at the bottom, ready to sprint back up, jump on and go-go-go to beat the infamous congestion on the first singletrack section. Everyone had the same advice: leave your bike as far down the hill as possible, we're cyclists not runners. Fortunately my preferred approach to advice is to listen politely and then ignore it, so I opted for half-way down (or was that half-way up?).

It wasn't a sprint and it wasn't very far. A 100-metre trot followed by a mad melée as those who'd parked their steeds lower down attempted the impossible task of climbing and staying on amidst dozens of others doing the same plus dozens of runners all desperately trying to spot their bike in the grass rather than looking where they were going. I was near the front and I still had to run round a few fallers. So if you take anything away from this, even if you're on crutches leave your bike at the top!

While the run wasn't a sprint, the first couple of laps on the bike most definitely were. It was like an XC race as we all jockeyed for position, a triumph of testosterone over reason given that we literally had all day to sort out the pecking order. I successfully avoided full-on gridlock but was still caught in an über-frustrating procession through the early singletrack sections, interspersed with pointless short sharp bursts to gain or lose a place or two when the track opened out a bit. I felt like one of the grumpy trucks being shunted around in Thomas the Tank Engine, and it seemed to take ages for the field to thin out enough that you could actually see the trail in front of you rather than blindly trust the rider in front.

I caught one of my main rivals, hyperactive South Wales fireman and newly converted singlespeed nut Paul Slade, half-way through the first lap. "Hi Paul, crazy pace, isn't it?" I called out, while casually accelerating clear up the hill. High five, Chris. On the next lap I caught another singlespeed nut, veteran ultra-endurance junkie Mark Goldie. I knew he was the man to beat, and I had visions of us riding together until I oh-so-reluctantly had to pull away on the final straight to claim victory. In reality, as soon as we hit the next fast singletrack section he left me for dead. Damn, he had skills as well as staying power. So unless he had a major disaster, I was racing for second place.

Laps 4-7: Settling in for the duration

Still smiling.
Photo by kind permission of Graham Haller who has generously given away all his shots from the event. Another 2,000 or so here.

As time went on and the initial adrenaline rush faded, I was acutely aware that a whopping 18 km/h average speed (don't laugh, roadies) was unsustainable. I needed to ease off. Only I felt so good on the climbs, such as they were, and was finally now able to let loose more on the descents, such as they were. Chasing faster riders on the twisty singletrack was a whole lotta fun, but less than ideal in terms of energy conservation, every slightly overcooked corner requiring those extra pedal strokes to get back up to speed. My rigid front end was also quite a handful (oo-er) on flat corners in the damp conditions, and I had to work much harder than riders with suspension forks on the bumpy bits.

What I failed to appreciate at the time was that I wasn't really racing against any of these faster riders. They weren't solo singlespeeders, they weren't even solo gearboys, they were team riders. With eight legs to share the burden, an endless supply of clean dry kit and clean freshly prepped bikes, and probably a Gaggia, a chef and a team masseuse in their fancy trackside marquees, they were only ever out for a couple of laps at a time, so they were always on fresh legs.

Pacing myself against these riders was therefore a big mistake. I should have ignored them and concentrated on my average speed or lap time or heart rate. With so many different categories, it wasn't so much a race as some weird never-ending time trial, only really competing against yourself and having no idea how you or other people are doing. But time trials are boring and races are fun, so I'm glad I made that mistake.

I did ease off a little after about three hours, but this was too little too late, the damage already done, and around four hours in I started feeling peckish, which I know from experience is a BAD SIGN. It didn't mean it was lunchtime (although it was), it meant I was running out of fuel. And just like when the petrol light comes on in your car, you never really know how much is left in the tank.
Hydration and fuelling

Not to put too fine a point on it, how the hell do other people manage it?

Despite drinking so much that I had to stop for a wee four times during the race, each one taking a good ten minutes, my pee still ended up the colour of best bitter and my mouth and throat dry as the Sahara. This made it impossible to swallow solid food on the go and left me at the mercy of sports nutrition products (liquid sugar) which always make my guts antsy.

During the race I consumed:
  • 4 bottles of Torq energy drink (posh squash)
  • 3 bottles of 50/50 orange juice and water (the natural alternative)
  • 1 bottle of water (keeping it simple)
  • 3 cans of Coke (great caffeine hit but triggered belching in sonic boom territory)
  • 1 ham and cheese sandwich (which I almost gagged on)
  • 6 ginger cream biscuits (only palatable once soggy after a lap or two in my back pocket)
  • 2 packets of crisps (source of electrolytes, OK?)
  • 2 tins of fruit salad (find of the century: so easy to swallow)
  • 2 pots of Ambrosia rice pudding (ditto, hot tip from another rider) 
  • 1 Torq rhubarb and custard gel (good pick-me-up, but too many can easily become a puke-me-up)
During the race I ignored:
  • Jam tarts and the rest of my sandwiches (too dry)
  • The rest of my gels (see above)
During the race I really craved:
  • A big bag of chips and a nice cup of tea 
I wish I'd taken:
  • Boiled new potatoes, sausage rolls and some Ready-brek (!)

Laps 8-11: Are we nearly there yet?

The afternoon look - still determined but not entirely happy.
Photo by Graham Haller after he stopped flashing people in the woods.

I therefore decided to take a proper break and have a little sit down while I wolfed down some solids. I also learned my race position for the first and last time. As I'd hoped and prayed, second singlespeed. I didn't expect to catch Mark Goldie, but reckoned that the others must be behind me for a reason, so if I could just keep going then I should make the podium. This was perhaps a little naive given that it was only four hours into the race - and the longest I've ever raced before is, er, four hours. There was still rather a long way to go.

And that preyed increasingly on my mind as I continued to tick off lap after lap. After those early 31-minute blasts, I now settled into a consistent 35-minute rhythm, which was a much more comfortable pace - little more than bimbling really - but my legs and my guts were still starting to complain and the whole exercise was beginning to lose its novelty. The fun was now sporadic at best; it was all becoming a bit of a chore. And somebody must have slipped my dropper post some Viagra, as it was now stuck in the up position, forcing me to be a little more cautious on the fast bits.

I felt like the kids on a long car journey: "Are we nearly there yet?" Obviously I responded with a "No, and the more you moan, the longer it will take!" but that didn't help much. It doesn't with the kids either.

Laps 12-15: Losing the plot

This was as gnarly as it got. That's not ironic trepidation; I can only guess I was passing wind and trying not to follow through.
Another photo by Sir Graham Haller.

When you get past six hours, the battle is not a physical one. It's a given that pretty much every part of you will be somewhere on the scale between rather achy and very hurty. The real battle now is mental, and it was one I was losing.

What I would have given for some proper climbs and some proper descents to keep me interested during those dark days. Ashton Court is entertaining ridden at speed, but at a more sedate pace you might as well be on the road.

That said, I didn't take any suspension to Bristol (lighter, tougher, immeasurably cooler), and even on a course this tame, after eight hours my hands and wrists were like limp lettuce. My human suspension was failing and I was rattling myself to pieces. I began to dread every little step, every root, every lump and bump. God knows what I would have been like on a proper MTB course.

Boredom gradually gave way to hatred, and I seriously considered giving up. What's the point in doing something if you're not enjoying it? Then again, did I really want to throw away all my hard work over the last 8-9 hours? I was too tired to continue the argument though, and for want of a better idea I just plodded on. As Magnus Magnusson always used to say: "I've started so I might as well sodding finish."

And then the unthinkable happened. Mark Goldie pulled alongside with a cheery "Hello, my singlespeed friend." Bastard. Utter bastard. He'd only gone and lapped me. Shame I was just too knackered to administer the five point palm exploding heart technique...

Laps 16-18: The end is nigh

By now I was in a right state. I was struggling to see and struggling to steer. I couldn't give two hoots about my position - no longer was I checking out every passing rider's rear end* to see if they were a rival singlespeeder. I was in a trance, a zombie - the pedals were turning but there was no-one home. I was also having a little sit-down in the pits at the end of every lap, filling my bottle and scoffing Ambrosia in painfully slow motion. Was this lethargy down to poor nutrition or was I just plain knackered?

The drizzle from the first eight hours of the race was also back, the army cadets on marshalling duties had finally stopped calling out "Well done, sir!" and all I could hear was the distant tolling of a funeral bell...

I did at least have the good sense to stop counting how many laps I'd done and start counting down how many I had left. This felt much more positive. I was also able to tick off a number of milestones: 160 km (100 miles), 10h18m (the longest I'd ever ridden before), 169 km (the furthest I'd ever ridden before)...

*For a derailleur!

This one says it all. It's getting dark, I'm plastered with mud, absolutely knackered and still fucking going.
Photo by Rob Barker.

Laps 19-20: The end is nigher than expected

Those precious minutes trying and failing to find a spoon for my Ambrosia and then having to scoop it out with my fingers like a punch-drunk chimpanzee at the end of laps 17 and 18 were not without their consequences. At the start of lap 19 I suddenly realised in a brief moment of mathematical lucidity that I wouldn't now quite have time to complete my target of 20 laps.

I briefly contemplated going all out for a fast final lap but decided I couldn't be arsed. To my credit, though, I did remain pig-headed enough to keep on riding the only stiff climb on the course, which had the "fun" riders walking three laps in.

Despite managing to ride straight off the trail a couple of times as the light faded, I eventually limped over the finish line, and 11½ hours of Mizzrle Drizzle in Brizzle was finally at an end.
Lessons learned
 (apart from 12 hours is a stupid idea)
  • Try to organise or share a pit crew - someone to hand you food and drink, give you encouragement, track your position and times, and above all keep you on your bike and moving
  • Don't neglect your home comforts - I could usefully have brought suspension forks, extra arse cream for saddle sores, and more than one spoon
  • Keep fuelling right to the end - I clearly didn't get enough fuel in during the final third
  • Train properly - breaking your collarbone two months beforehand is a bad idea, as two eight-hour training rides just ain't enough

The after-party

The 12-hour singlespeed podium: 1st Mark Goldie, 2nd Me, 3rd Paul Slade.
Photo courtesy of Paul's mate.

I was in a bad way at the finish - wobbly as hell on my feet and shaking uncontrollably. So much so that a kind lady even offered me her burger. It took me a full half-hour to get changed, shivering and quivering and trying not to keel over. I must've looked like I'd gone ten rounds with Mohammed Ali. I certainly felt like it. Utterly, dangerously exhausted.

But I made it to the presentation, dressed for winter, hoping for the best, and was delighted to find that I had indeed clung on to second place - but only just. Paul Slade had been steadily reeling me in over the last few laps and was only five minutes behind at the end. That might not sound like a narrow margin, but if I'd bought one more pot of Ambrosia...

Now if my dropper hadn't failed, and I hadn't had to stop to retighten my cleats four times or have all those wees, and if I'd had suspension forks and gears, and remembered an extra spoon, fuelled better, not lost a month of training to injury and not started tired from work, then... Mark Goldie would still have beaten me. Well done, mate. Total legend. You wouldn't have bloody lapped me though!

So, a rematch next year? Oh no, NEVER AGAIN!!!!!

Then again, never say never, eh?
Special thanks to Louis Preece, third in the three-hour race, for checking my race position; to his dad Brian Preece, winner of the "proper old gits" category in the 12-hour race, for being as welcoming and unintelligible as ever; to Paul Slade for the podium photo and not catching me; and to Graham Haller for the free photos.

Full results here


1 comment:

  1. Chris, fantastic write-up, very entertaining! Perhaps a bit modest though as you rode really well there in less than ideal conditions. 12 hours (or indeed 24) riding round in circles does require a certain weirdness of character, I agree :-) Hope it doesn't turn you off for good though..type 2 fun & all that :-) Cheers! Mark