Let’s start this in the middle of the night, which is where the race seemed to start for me, in many ways.
The temperature’s about 4 degrees above freezing (which is just plain stupid for the middle of June), the darkness is being kept at bay by the lights surrounding the finish straight – a long, wide, barrier enclosed path through the middle of a row of tented-shops and catering outlets, all manned by ‘early morning zombies’ and opposite the solo tent (a grandiose marquee, complete with swinging chandeliers no less) a hooded figure perches on the edge of a table laden with a disparate collection of foodstuffs, all cut into tiny portions, staring vacantly into the distance with hollow, bloodshot eyes. Clutching a waterbottle he nervously glances at his watch.
A flicker of movement through the pale glow of the timing tent results in a flurry of activity at the table. Food is edged around and uncovered, a last shake of the waterbottle to mix the contents properly and the figure rises as a rider glides round the corner and pulls up sharply.
“Good lap mate, how you feelin’?”
A dust covered, empty bottle is pulled from the bottle cage of the bike and replaced with the fresh one, empty gel wrappers are peeled out of jersey pockets and in their place new ones inserted.
“I hurt.” Comes the slightly slurred reply. The rider’s head bowed, his face contorted into a grimace as he tries to stretch his back.
“Everywhere” he adds, with what might be a wry grin, but could just be another grimace.
“Aah come on, I’m sure your earlobes are just fine”, the hooded figure remarks in jest.
“No. they hurt more than anything else.”
The grime coated rider might be being sarcastic, it’s hard to tell, not even the rider himself is entirely sure. He shifts about from foot to foot, still stood astride his bike, trying to find a comfortable position as he is offered an array of bitesize foods from the table, which he tentatively picks at.
The hooded figure shuffles around on the wet grass of the race course to the side of the bike. His reddened eyes dart across the frame and trace a loop around the dust-crusted drivechain, barely visible in the gloom
“Everything running alright?”
“Yeah, something’s creaking a bit, but it’s all fine”
Despite being shrouded in the hood and surrounded by smoke-like breath, lingering in the cold air, the figure’s face is plainly disappointed. Across the track, in the solo tent, rows of shiny, neatly arranged tools sit unused, unloved.
“I’d best get off, the gap’s not very big between me and Jase” mutters the rider as he awkwardly stamps his foot into his pedal, takes a deep breath and stretches his neck.
“Aye. You sure the bike’s OK?”
“Yep. It’ll do. It’s me that’s broken. I should try and stop bouncing off all the trees, I imagine”. More neck stretching.
“Right then. Go on, fuck off!” The hooded figure points off down the track into the darkness.
“Lets have another fast lap” he adds, as the rider rolls off and shifts up into the big ring.
“Yeah. Easy. No problem!”
To be honest, I knew it wouldn’t be a problem as I started to grind my way round the track once again. I’d found a set of gears that got me round the course in a decent time after my fourth lap and had just stuck with them.
I knew that I’d suffer at night, I was expecting the slurred speech, the inability to eat or drink, but had it in mind to just keep everything the same and measure out as much power as I could without blowing up.
I also knew I couldn’t slow – Jason was only five or so minutes down on me – but felt pretty confident that I could churn out the same pace until morning and get a bit of a morale boost from the daylight.
Hours earlier I’d started off quite well, tempered my over-enthusiasm a bit and not blasted off round the course at the speed of light straight from the gun, but had stayed in touch with the leaders. I’d seen Ant White ahead of me on the course a couple of times as the dust was first thrown in to the air by hundreds of riders sketching their way through the woods and felt quite chuffed; I’d expected him to go off quite quickly and knew that if I cold keep the gap between us small, I’d stand a chance of a good finish…which I was going to do this time. Finish. For sure. No dropping out like at the national championships a couple of weeks previous.
Not that there was just Ant to worry about, this was Mountain Mayhem and as per usual, there were a lot of Big Names out on the course, so after a couple of laps to get through the worst of the early congestion as hundreds of over eager teams clogged the narrow parts of the course I decided to up my pace a little and start to work my way towards the head of the solo field. Typically, this hadn’t worked out as I’d hoped, on a steep and extremely dusty descent I got stuck behind someone intent on skidding their way all the way down, kicking up so much earth that everything disappeared in front of me – even the bars vanished in a thick orange cloud of dirt and within seconds I had hit a rut, lost the front wheel and ground myself to a halt using my knee (only just scab free after a similar crash at the last 24hr race I’d done) as a brake. Much swearing filled what little air remained in the dust-cloud as I patted myself off and set about trying to find a bike in the mid-Herefordshire sandstorm.
This had fired me up even more, too much in fact, and as the heat of the late afternoon sun burned down, while scorching round the course I let the bike slide further than I should into some rocks lining a somehow-still-damp descent (while doing my best impression of someone ‘pinning it’), only to be met with a loud ‘THWACKBANG’ and a loss of grip from the rear wheel. More swearing ensued as I realised I’d not just punctured, but had torn a massive hole in the rear tyre, writing it off completely. After a few seconds sat under the trees at the side of the course, watching everyone I’d overtaken cruise back past me I remembered that I still had a couple of empty energy gel wrappers in my jersey and, in a scene not unlike the Daft Ride Bodge done last summer, I managed to fit a new tube and prevent it from bursting out through the hole in the tyre by reinforcing the carcass with the wrappers. I was back riding, but had to nurse the bike with it’s weakened rear end back to the pits, losing yet more time.
This had dropped me back down the rankings, but over the next few hours I’d built my way back up past riders, and had gained places as the course and misfortune took it’s toll on more until, in the middle of the night at somewhere around 2am, I set off from the pits, in 2nd place, with Jase just a few minutes behind me, Ant White many, many minutes in front of me (‘but’, I kept telling myself, ‘you don’t know how he’s feeling, try and apply any pressure you can to keep yourself in contention’) and Wayne swearing goodnaturedly at me.
Hitting the start of the “Kenda Climb” and dropping down to the middle ring to begin working my way round the hanging heads of worn out team riders I still felt like I had some power in me. It was deeply uncomfortable to deliver it through the bike into the ground, but it was there. I rode through the switchbacks, cheered on by marshalls and spectators that for some reason hadn’t gone to bed coming to the conclusion that this race wasn’t going to get away from me. It was time to stop worrying about where I might have been if I hadn’t lost time with the knackered tyre, start again from here and ride like I was fresh.
As dawn began to relight the course, bringing many teams back out from their mid-race sneaky slumbers, I began to reduce the amount of time I was wasting at the side of the course each lap, refuelling and getting reassurance from the hooded figure that I was doing OK. I knew I was. I knew I was tattered, bloody, dusty, dead eyed and grossly contorted whenever not sat on the bike, but I knew I was going to keep going. My laps times began to drop again, bolstering my confidence more and as the heat returned to the air I spotted Ant White ahead of me, riding methodically and smoothly up one of the long, grassy climbs on the second half of the course. Methodically, smoothly…and slower than me.
I didn’t think I’d be able to beat him – he had gained a whole lap on me, riding brilliantly from the gun and right through the night, but I felt equal to him now, so I was going to race him now.
I caught him and, like lorries overtaking each other on the motorway, after an age got a bit of a gap on him. A few people back in the arena who weren’t aware that he’d effectively lapped me and that I was unlapping myself started getting worked up, telling me I was leading. I pretended I was.
Stopping only to replenish spent gel wrappers with new ones and check everything was OK with Jase behind me, I rode on through the morning, pretending I was trading places with Ant, rather than unlapping myself only to get relapped as he soldiered on at a truly stunning pace until, during a pit stop, Wayne told me that Jase had “done a me” and ripped a tyre on one of the trickier-on-the-Sunday-than-on-the-Saturday-somehow descents and had lost a big chunk of time.
Thankfully, we had both ridden far enough away from 4th place for the delay not to drop him down a place and with only a couple of hours left it was time to stop playing, slow and guide the bikes up onto the podium. Time to chat to other riders as I passed, or they passed me. Start thanking the marshals and plan what sort of junk food I was going to treat myself to on the way home.
Riding into the arena for the final time I could hear the commentator giving the crowded barriers all the information about how the solo race had finished. “We’ve had Anthony White in, in first place, and Jason Miles, confirmed in 3rd has finished but we haven’t seen David Powell in 2nd yet…wait hold on, yes we have here he is now!” The spectators were ordered to welcome me home and the noise of cheers and claps soothed the aches and pains as I glided over the finish line right up to the point where Wayne, now hoodless in the afternoon sun, gave me a hug; I nearly fell over as everything suddenly started to hurt again.
Jason, beer already in hand and half empty, slapped me on the, somewhat tender, back, grinning widely. At this point We Are Awesome. We might look rough as fuck right now, but we are awesome. A Pot Noodle that I’ve been carting around with me from race to race for a while but have never got round to eating was thrust at me, which seemed to get everyone watching laughing and with that the race was truly over.
Face wipes and energy drink got me up onto the podium for the photos and the handing out of some filthy lucre, their effect lasted just long enough for me to get back to the tent before I grab some sleep and generously leave the repacking of the car to Wayne, who seemed less than delighted with what is a truly crap job after being up for well over a day.
He’d been as much a hero as me or Jason, having worked tirelessly to have everything I could need ready for every lap, timed me, timed everyone else, made comparisons and given advice based on what he worked out, fixed the bikes when they needed it, cooked, cleaned, not got angry when I kept nicking his brews during the night, or narky when I got grumpy. He didn’t look much better than I did as a result, but he was still going and on the way home still managed to do a bit of ipod/car stereo DJing to keep us going. Ace. Everyone’s a winner, even if we didn’t actually win