To think that I've lined up on the front row of the grid for a World Championships in a mountain bike event blows my mind. Ok so it's a bit of a niche sport with a self selected 'elite' category. Nonetheless I'm still humbled to have been even in sight of some of the greatest athletes endurance mountain biking has ever produced going up the first climb at a world event. This felt like a real privilege.
Since bank of dad confirmed that I would be able to make the trip across the pond to California with my wife Sarah I've been training harder than ever to try and step up to the 'elite' category that I was a bit shy to enter at last year's world 24 hour championships on home turf in Fort William. This year has given me an insight in to what it takes to go from a half decent endurance rider to the upper steps. Fellow racing buddies reciting tales of regular small hour wake up rides, monster back to back weekends, usually with family duties thrown in has opened my eyes to the incredible dedication it takes to even get to the start line for one of these things let alone be in it to win it. Rumour has it reigning champ Jason English put in a 250 mile road ride the weekend before the race, I can't get my head round that, it's just bonkers.
I've tried to join the early morning brigade this year and took on a coach to help guide me through the maze of ever confusing interval durations, core workouts and race preparations. All this with my main goal of the year being the World's in Weaverville, California. I wouldn't say everything has gone perfectly but I've definitely made a step forward in the level of training fatigue I can deal with going from a standard 12 hour week last year to more like at least 15 in 2015.
So this all brought me to the start line in the small town of Weaverville, lined up next to TV celebrities and ex Olympians, with a big crowd lead out fronted by horses, a mustang and man in a bear suit (assuming it wasn't a real bear that shook my hand), not bad for a niche sport eh.
It had been a pretty stressful week in the run up to the race since arriving at Heathrow including (please note this is not an exhaustive list) nearly not being able to get on the plane with visa issues, lost luggage, battling a cold, stolen luggage and an American sized helping of other f*ck up's thrown in. To be able to just focus on the job in hand once on the start line was somewhat of a relief!
So as the lead out menagerie eased away from the waiting riders (who were waiting for the horn that someone forgot to unleash) the stresses fell away and I concentrated on getting in to the zombie zone as quickly as possible. That is that trudging rhythm where you become totally focused on getting every inch of efficiency out of yourself and tell your head to tell your legs to shut the hell up if they even dared to pass comment on your progress throughout the 24 hours to come.
We headed up the first and pretty much only substantive climb on the 12 mile course in the dust bowl of Northern California. Burnt trees around us signifying a severe unlikelihood of any other conditions emerging other than sun, and some more sun. 147 riders had signed up for a 24 hour bake off. The climb was the talk of the race, before during and after. On paper, a fire road climb of around 3 miles doesn't sound much of a challenge other than it's length, however read between the gradient lines on the profile of the course circulated in the run up to the event and this revealed some pretty severe kicks dotted all the way up. Get sucked in to the illusion of a fast climb at the start with a gentle gradient allowing a decent pace to be maintained and you are in for some serious match burn out early doors. Blow your load on the easy part and you'll have nothing left for the loose, steep and bumped fire road kicks that had you delicately balancing weight to keep it out back when you inevitably needed to stand up to increase the beans to keep momentum forwards and upwards.
Small relief came in the form of some pretty funny signs and other stuff strewn up the hillside. So 'slide ahead' meant round the corner you would find not a rock slip but a yellow kids slide... you get the idea. If you breathed in hard enough whilst pedalling up the lower part of the climb you could probably get high off the weed fumes coming from a local grower (its legal to grow in Trinity County)!
Once topped out, somewhere around 30 minutes later on average there was a chance for a quick refuel at the food station before a flatish meander along another fireroad where time could be easily lost if you didn't keep chugging on at a reasonable pace. The temptation to just spin easy was immense after the torture of the previous hill effort. We eventually dropped down in to some very long narrow singletrack sections which posed no real technical challenge once you had figured out where the flat corners were which would lead careless riders off down the hillside. Some breaking bump roughness in the second half added to the challenge a little but none of the usual "not being able to hang on any more" fatigue was to be had on this course. The swoopy smooth singletrack occasionally was broken up by the odd short kick incline but nothing that a few hard stomps on the pedals couldn't sort out. Water bars across the track on a fast open section provided some light entertainment.
The end of the course provided somewhat more of a grind with some newly cut sections presenting a big of harder work to keep the wheels turning smoothly but the run in to the finish area and a lap around the running track with the excellent support of the locals was a highlight. Not a course for me really, not enough variety in the climb and not enough technical challenge on the descents when compared with the courses of Fort William and Finale Ligure. Still it would favour those strong climbers just as those people might not fancy the rocky and rough descents of the previous World Championship courses. Swings and roundabouts.
Once the first couple of fast laps were out of the way I tried to deal with the heat that a strawberry blonde lad from the north isn't accustomed to. Sarah had kept me on track those with iced drinks so on balance I didn't overheat too much. A bit of confusion in the pits left me without energy powder in my drinks for a couple of laps which got my head in a slightly wrong place being worried that I was losing time and energy as a result. I was able to munch a bit more at the on course food stations but I wasn't getting the salts needed for a couple of hours. Once sorted back on energy drinks I found myself lacking a bit of motivation and energy, sliding backwards down the field as whippets passed me on the climb. At this point all sorts of mad things were going through my mind. Why aren't I faster? Who are these people beating me? Why have I been lapped already? Have I done enough training? Doubts which I'm sure go through every athletes mind. It was at this point that Jason Miles came past after suffering some issues in his first lap with the advice 'get a protein shake in you lad'. This did indeed sort me out and Jason had even shouted at my pit to get this ready for me on return to the pit area. It's things like this that tell me I'm in the right sport. It competitive yes, but everyone wants everyone else to do as best they can. Nobody revels in someone else's problems, real camaraderie, top stuff.
I then fought hard to get my head back in the right place, another fellow 24 hour rider once said 'don't talk yourself out of it' so true and a real danger for endurance folk who for a whole day have a towel dangling in their face ready to be snatched. One sign on course put out by the locals said, 'pain is temporary, quitting is forever', say no more.
Once I started the caffeine gels and unleashed the fun of flying through the night with car headlights attached to my bars I started to enjoy myself. I was singing tunes in my head, imagining the food and beer awaiting the following week. Sarah showed me a couple of facebook messages from my buddies at one point, filled with top bantz of course but also mega motivating to think that you have that support behind you. The only night time mishap came when my cranks came loose on my bike and a bit of unsuccessful faffing in the woods trying to jam my multi-tool in to the plastic bearing preload did nothing but cost me a few minutes. Otherwise the bikes were perfect and only a bit of dry lube top up was required occasionally to keep them tip top.
As per my usual strategy I didn't want to know how I was doing until daylight. Although with not quite a live timing system my pit crew at that point had enough information to tell me I was 14th. I had guessed 15th which was a way off my top 10 target but I didn't really feel worried at that point as I knew I had something in the tank for the end. I seem to be able to dig pretty deep in the last few laps of a 24, maybe I would do better if I used this energy more throughout the race but it tends to pick you up a few places in the dying hours. Unfortunately despite raising my pace significantly, riders in front responded and kept ahead so even after riding for over 25 hours, climbing nearly 30,000 feet, burning 10,000 calories and covering 234 miles I finished 13th Elite rider.
On paper I'm happy that I gave what I had on the day. I'll undoubtedly study the lap times of other riders for some time to come, compare how I've done compared to last year and all that other boring stuff you do whilst shovelling pizza down in the cold months.
The race organisation was top notch from the WEMBO gang. Wifi on site was brilliant for the pit crew so they could entertain themselves on the long laps What made this event special was the people of Weaverville who are undoubtedly some of the most friendly, welcoming and enthusiastic I've ever come across. We had the honour of being able to stay with Amanda and David in their beautiful woodland home literally just across from the race track. Some things I'd like to see with the WEMBO crew going forward would be a shake up of the age cat/elite system. At the awards ceremony, nodding off riders had to sit through endless categories with at time world champions being seemingly proclaimed in categories of 1? I'm all for encouraging more entrants and having prizes outside of the elite podium but this just seems to undermine the striped jerseys of the world's best. How about just having an overall men's/women's podium, singlespeed then broader age categories that still get the kudos of winning a category but not called a world champion?
A few people have recently ask why I put myself through 24 hour races. I think one of the top reasons has got to be that point deep in to the race where you think, dear god I'm actually still going here, it's not THAT long to the finish, no cramp, still pushing on the downhills, Jesus Christ I can do this! Who would have ever thought it possible! This is bloody amazing!
Time for me to now sit down and think on next year, I've certainly got the motivation to keep progressing, despite my face outstripping my years in fatigue I'm still relatively fresh in terms of ultra endurance so I'll be looking once again to step it up next year and get closer to the sharp end of the world's best. For now though it's time to catch up on those house chores and finish that bloody fence!
Thanks to all those who make these things possible, especially to my parents who made christmas a very good one in 2014 to get me to California. I owe you all a beer and looking forward to sharing one with you for a change over winter :)