The run’s going well, fewer people are overtaking me than are being overtaken and, when I’m on foot, that’s a rare thing. The flailing limbs of hundreds of mountain bikers charging down a fireroad towards the massive metal cage that makes up the main arena seems to be thinning out as I realise I’m right up at the front of the pack, in amongst the keener teams and specialist runners. This is awesome.
There is a reason I’m at full pelt in the Le Mans style start of SITS, rather than just keeping mid pack and aiming to miss the worst of the ubiquitous first-lap bottlenecks on the singletrack sections of the race course: the bike leant against the barriers waiting for me. A bike completed only a few hours ago in a semi frantic state, with decals so freshly applied the backing paper is still scrumpled up in my pocket and a wonderful glint coming from the newly unwrapped frame in the afternoon sun that I spot from well before I enter the arena central.
I grab at the bars and wrestle it free of the fence it’s been leant up against as Wayne crams my jersey pockets full of energy gels and a spare tube, uttering “…kin ell mate!” as I charge off under the start/finish barrier. A full on cyclocross mount and three big powerful stomps on the pedals and I’m rounding the first corner of the course, with the commentator calling me out as the first soloist on the course. Deep breaths, stick it in the big ring and it’s time to do what I intended. Fly. Ring the bike’s neck and see what it can put up with, for as long as I can. Brant’s been harping on about just how different the geometry of the new Ragley being flung around underneath me is compared to my old bikes and I’m going to put that to the test in a full on baptism of fire!
First test; hauling uphill in the big ring. This seems to work. Well. I’m connected to the ground but not bogged down in it and I’m passing team riders as the course takes us away from the campsite. “You alright Dave? That’s way too fast a pace for a soloist!” is called out from behind me as I pass another group, head down, eyes fixed on the narrow track in the grass that offers less rolling resistance. Don’t blame me blame the bike! I think to myself as I grind through a steeper corner with no discernable flex in the chainstays taking anything away from what my legs are directing towards the wheels. Bang Bang Bang through my thighs and I’m at the top with shocked lungs singing in protest as I sit down and spin towards the first wooded section.
Second test; fast, swoopy woodland stuff. This is going to be good, 29ers rule on this sort of terrain – sorry but they do, the ability to just rail it right into the swooping corners and let the extra grip of the tyres fire you back out the other side is one of their biggest selling points, get yourself leant over and shift your weight further over than you think should be possible and grin as you come out of the corner still on the bike and travelling a hell of a lot faster than you expected. It is good. Momentary concern about the shorter-than-I’m-used-to stem and possible wash out of the front wheel in the root infested loam is banished from my head as I hold a tighter line than I expected. Under the canopy of trees I’m up to the back of another gaggle of riders and as we approach the next corner I dip my shoulder and let the tyres drift me round the outside as they fight for grip on the inside of the corner – a full on 2 wheeled drift, perfectly controlled after riding the bike for a sum total of about 5 minutes. Christ this could be a very good bike actually!
More fireroads and field edges seem to equal more big ring spinning and a chance to pour as much energy drink as I can down my neck as the heat of the sun burns down on my neck. I try not to think about how dehydrating racing flat out can be as the course fires me off into the trees and I to snap the frame left and right through the narrow, sapling lined singletrack climbs halfway round the lap.
Third test; tight, twisty stuff. “Big wheels can’t get round tight corners and accelerate. They’ll never be as good at the tech stuff”. Well no-one seems to have told the Ragley this. My weight distribution is roughly the same as it was on the old ScandAL, but where I’d be ‘rolling’ that bike around to get it through tight hairpins I feel like I’m darting the Ragley through them in a wonderfully natural feeling way. I’m holding speed up the ascents despite the mud and climbing up to more riders whose bikes seem to be consciously trying to fire them off into the undergrowth. It’s great fun and I’m kind of glad I didn’t bother putting a heart rate monitor on for the race as I know it would be screaming at me to slow down. The slowly drying mud between the trees is horribly tacky, like plasticine, making every pedal turn harder as the tyres sink into it and by the time I start to descend I can barely hear the rasping breaths of other riders around me over the blood pounding through my head. Maybe I’ll slow down in a few laps or something, but this is too much fun.
Dropping down through more of the tight, twisty stuff is almost a revelation; a couple of pedal strokes, rise up out of the saddle, let the back end flick over the greasy roots with a wonderfully muted kick and somehow I continually find myself in the perfect position to fire the bike around the next kink in the trail so fast I either need to seriously to concentrate and be thinking three corners ahead or chill out and touch the brakes to just keep the speed constant. Suffice to say I launch out of the trees in front of yet more riders, grinning like a loon. 29ers are moving on. Fast.
pic coutesy of quertyphoto
The field edges that draw me towards the final wooded section allow me to finish the first one litre bottle of energy drink and down a gel pack and somewhere deep inside I know my body won’t take this sort of riding for 24 hours in this heat. Fuck it, maybe I’m wrong, maybe it will. I throw the bike down the newly surfaced last ‘proper’ descent with gritted teeth and tyres scrabbling for grip over the loose stones between the trees. “He’s ragging his Ragley! Yeah!” cry out some spectators as I thunder across the already appearing braking ruts with a smoothness that belies the effort I’m putting in. They’re right. I am.
I cross the finish line for the first time and glance up at the commentary box as the spectators are told I am the leading soloist, riding a prototype Ti 29er, fully rigid save the inherent flex in the frame material. Oohs and Aahs and claps send me back out of the arena.
Another lap passes in much the same way, only even faster as I start to ‘learn’ the bike a bit more and as I roll under the start/finish arch for a second time with the commentary booming out over the campsite “He’s still leading, I hope he’s not set off too quickly, this could be a brilliant race over the next 22 hours”. A wry grin spreads across my face as I roll out onto the course. So far the pace has been set by the mixture of new-bike speed (you know how it feels, how much faster you can suddenly go, how much easier everything seems on the first ride of a new bike) combined with the adrenaline of a big race and an almost bizarre lack of concern about my wellbeing. All bristling and arrogance. I know I’ve not trained as much as I would really need to be sure of keeping this pace up, so maybe I’ll blow up. Whatever, I’m racing until that happens, you want me? Come and get me.
By the 4th lap I’ve dropped down to second place after having a couple of minor offs as I push the bike just a little too far in search of it’s limits. I’ve also drunk four litres of sickly energy drink and failed to eat anything other than energy gels as the sun continues to leach the moisture out of my body up the hills and the thick stodge that makes up the surface of most of the course tears at my legs as I climb. I ignore the ‘vague’ feeling that’s beginning inside as I spin up yet another field edge track and hear “That’s Brant’s new bike isn’t it” from just behind me. I glance round as I confirm that it is and spot another rider on a carbon 29er rolling up beside me. He’s a soloist too, I can tell from his number board and as he passes me, while we exchange pleasantries, my mind goes into overdrive: I want to leap on his rear wheel and chase him into the singletrack but the more experienced and ingrained 24 hour racer part of my head takes control and tells me to sit at the pace I already had and not get caught up in every little tustle that happens on the course. He opens up a lead of about three or four minutes over the next lap as I wrestle with sitting at an easier pace.
This doesn’t feel right. As I round out another lap and get more encouragement from Wayne, calling out how the race is unfolding around me from trackside and replenishing more spent drinks bottles, the fire that drove me round the first few laps starts to return. Being overtaken while riding starts to feel like a bit of a body blow and I consciously pick my pace up again. Within a lap I spot the rider again ahead of me on the course and keep the pressure on to get back onto his wheel. He’s a glimpsed shadow at first, flitting about behind the trees on the singletrack ahead of me as I put more and more faith in the Ragley to haul me back towards him. At points we seem almost synchronised, flowing through the twists as I begin to draw level. More pleasantries are exchanged as I pass – his name’s Rob, he knows my name, we’re both on nice looking bikes. He’s grinning. So am I. My pace feels good – mildly uncomfortable and demanding a lot of my legs and reactions on the narrower sections of the course. I begin to open up a gap as we roll over the next few little climbs that dot the course.
Fourth test; enjoying riding it even when in no fit state. Another big positive tick for the Ragley here. It’s about 9 hours into the race now and the efforts of racing hard in the heat is beginning to take it’s toll. I know I should drop my speed back and try to avert disaster, but I’m not giving up second place like that. Not today. There’s a sense that the top three or four riders are riding each other into the ground to see who’ll crack first. I push on as waves of nausea wash over me.
I manage to down half an energy gel without gagging on it halfway round my 12th lap, but the second half comes back up within an instant of drinking it. Bugger it. The sneaking suspicion that I’d go down in flames – Death or Glory and all that – grows stronger and as I wind my way through the trees halfway round the lap I start to imagine Death himself stood outside the solo tent waving a bottle of recovery drink at me while cracking me over the head with his scythe. Well that’s just fine, if my body’s going to implode I’m not slowing down. I’m going to crash into him, at full pelt, flat out, riding so fast I’m on fire, sliding backwards with gritted teeth.
I headed back out onto the course for a last couple of laps the next morning, after spending the remainder of the night underneath my sleeping bag, still in full riding kit, clutching a cheeseburger I couldn’t eat, to chat to people still riding and to show the bike off a bit. It had made a hell of an impression on me and I was keen to wave it at anyone who seemed interested. That took a slightly more leisurely couple of hours to do, after which I drop off the course for the last time and take up residence with Wayne near the catering tent to see how the race was progressing. A couple more of the ‘big names’ and some of the early pace setters had dropped out but ‘our Jase’, riding the other Ragley was still hammering round the course and had pulled himself right back up from just outside the top ten to 3rd place! Awesome stuff that required much cheering on from trackside and a fair bit of shouting “MTFU”, just to keep his feet on the ground a bit as he stomped out his final laps
A group of us watched him roll over the line for the final time to take his podium finish, as ever more excited texts from Brant started to flood in and as we cheered all the finishers across the line Rob, who I’d been sparring with earlier in the race wandered over and thanked me for making the first half of the event so flat out. It turned out he’d enjoyed or to-ing and fro-ing as much as I had and the pace we’d been setting had a similar effect on him, though he’d been able to regain use of his stomach after a couple of hours and was able to get back out on the course and continue (albeit at a slightly slower speed!) and ride on to the win. We agreed that there’d be future races – both 24 hour and shorter, even more intense ones – to continue the battle and that flat out racing was, most definitely, the way forward.