This last weekend saw a gathering of racers, somewhat early in the typical mtb season, for the 12 and 24 hour solo British and European Championships, smoothly organised by SIP Events.
For the second year in a row, the venue was Rock UK next door to Newcastleton's 7 Stanes Trail centre. This is a unique event - it is only open to solo racers.
Most of the racers seemed to arrive on Friday evening and immediately began prepping for the midday saturday start. The forecast was not great - thunder and lightning were a sure thing: electricity and tension were thick in the air.
The main story: would Matt Page repeat his stellar performance last year to win: after numerous other fine performances in the last 12 months, he was favourite. However, there was a deep field, with veterans of the sport and relative new comers getting ready to fire their guns. The 24 hour solo was the belle of the ball, but i had decided to enter the 12 hour solo. I like the length; not quite enough time to get to the brain-dead stage, but enough time to knock out some proper miles.
I've never been entirely sure if a separate singlespeed class is a good thing or not, it strikes me that the bike you choose to race on is your decision alone. If you see singlespeeds as a handicap, then dont use them. Of course, i dont make the rules and so my aim was a win in the singlespeed class but also to do well in the open field. This might smack of hubris, but i knew the beefcakes would be dooking it out for the 24 hour crown.
Following a piper down the main street of Newcastleton at midday was an exercise in slow-speed bunch riding and patience. Marty, Craig Forrester, Phil T.Horse and Oli of the Kinesis Morvelo Project and Chipps nattered away as we rolled up the hill to the Rock UK base. Then the hammer dropped and we took off for the trails proper.
It is tempting to go easy for the first couple of laps in an endurance race but i also believe you need to start at a reasonable enough clip that you dont let your body think that the days action is just going to be a gentle pootle. With plenty of overtaking space before the first, slimy climb through the trees, i moved up a little just to see what sort of pace was going to be the order of the day. A second climb was going to be a tester: it nudged the red line on the singlespeed with the 33:18 i was running. But straight after that we were into the swooping narrow gauge trail Newcastleton is famed for. All too soon, we popped out onto fire road, which led to another sweet, winding descent before we headed out again on fire road. With a second tasty tree-lined singletrack section then completed, a sharpish pinch led to the most corrugated grassy descent back to the pits and start/finish area i have ever ridden.
All in all, the lap was a good one. It was taking me just over the hour which i feel is pretty good to break up the clock-watching a bit. As the riders spread round the course over the first few laps, it was clear that there was going to be a ding dong for first place in the 24: Ant White, Matt Page, Josh Ibbett and a few others were tapping out a rapid pace. In addition, Rob Lee, Matt Carr and the inimitable Dan Treby were in close attendance on their singlespeeds.
Then the clouds gathered and shed their load on us. All of a sudden the fresh cut trail in the trees early on in the lap became a fight. The grass robbed forward momentum and the spray on the fire roads was a little miserable. The smiles came back for the swooping singletrack and as the rain ceased everyone was hopeful that things would dry out quickly.
I knew i was doing ok - sitting pretty comfortably in the top 20 initially and the legs felt good despite pretty meagre riding this year. I kept the iPod turned to 11 and watched my fluid and calorie intake.
As the day wore on, it was more of the same. Heavy showers, drying out, Various riders taking a stab at the front - testing each other out. At around 8 hours in i had a total crisis of motivation. I had spent 2 laps with the Morevelo boys as they chatted their way round the course. It was great to spend time riding with you guys. But then the energy banks emptied and i was close to pulling. At that point i got an image of my wee girl, Daisy, in my head: smiling, with her fingers in her mouth and her great, big blue eyes full of mischief. I knew that to pull would be a let down - a waste of the time i was taking to be away from home. So i buckled down and got on with the job.
Soon after this point, i had to work out my lap times and the available time left. The rules meant that any lap completed after the 12 hours would not count. I was going to come in before 11pm but with too little time to get a last lap in. It was going to be a gamble as in theory a rider could do more laps than me depending on their strategy. I gave it all i had on the last lap in the dark. I had to walk some of the trail as it had been chewed up by the countless tyres and feet that had passed. But at 10.54pm i came into the finish area knowing i had ridden a pretty decent race.
The intention was to go back and help Chris who was supporting Jac in her bid to win the solo 24 singlespeed female race. But with half a beer on board and precisely zero red meat and bread loading, i fell asleep.
An hour later i was awoken by pounding rain. Thunder and lightening were rebounding around the valleys and i really felt for the 24 hour guys. Again, i fell asleep.
In the early hours, at 5.30am, i woke, grabbed a coffee and went to see how things were with Chris and Jac. Over coffee we chatted and it seemed that around 2am the skies just opened. Most riders had taken a little time off to shelter and some hadnt re-emerged. Jac was just about to start lapping again and we wished her luck whilst at the same time counting our lucky stars. Needless to say, the big guns had barely slowed down overnight. An astonishing performance by one and all.
Soon after, the race closed. On wandering down to the arena, it was clear i had done enough to take the British and European, singlespeed, 12 hour solo win and was 14th in the open. I was under no illusions - the 24 was the real deal here - but i can tell you i was pretty stoked. Dan Treby took the singlespeed 24, Kate Potter of Cotic the female 24 and Matt Page didnt disappoint in his bid to repeat, despite some potent challenges.
We all packed up as the rain allowed and i think quite a few of us were wondering if we will ever try to to do this sort of thing again. I guess you all know the answer to that one...
Without the support of the team, Pro Velo Support, Uncle Geoff, MJS, the Mule bars, post ride Mellis cheese refuelling, the tech support of Bike Love, the excellent Endura kit, the much needed post race Bulmers - this wouldnt have happened. Thank you.
All the pictures on this blog were kindly provided by Joolze Dymond, who deserves a medal for sheltering from the weather and taking pictures for around 48 hours. Awesome as ever.