We drove down through France via overnight stop over in Macon which was a chance to relax after the carnage of trying to get everything prepared and packed in time before departure after a pretty stressful couple of weeks. Arriving in Finale late afternoon the day before didn't leave a lot of time for a practice lap but fortunately seasoned Finale24 rider Andy Howett was on hand to not only try and make sense of the carnage that was finding our pit area but also to give me a guided tour of the, at that point, unmarked track.
What became quickly apparent on the practice loop were two things. One, it was the highest singletrack percentage I've ridden in a 24 and two, I would be riding it A LOT of times given the very short 30 minute loop. We even managed to sneak a preview of the extra team loop that was added for the team event the next day. This would have added more fun to the solo course and helped spread out the riders. The course took in some awesome fast and flowing trails with nothing majorly technical but just wall to wall fun. I tried to notice something new on the amazing cliff top views every lap to keep my brain awake which wasn't difficult with the stunning scenery. It was the climbs where the real technical challenge lay, needing to balance forward momentum and outright strength with keeping traction on the loose gravel/rocky punishing hikes was a real test. 'The Toboggan' was a great spectator area down near the finish where crowds eager to see someone rail the big berms cheered at even the slightest hint of flare. I got a massive whoop for flicking the back end out all of about an inch of the ground on a berm that had a bit of a hip, either none of the other 24 riders could be bothered or else the level of technical skill is somewhat lower on the mainland if my one inch wonder was something to be cheered!
oing into the race I was aiming for a top 10 elite finish. Being under the banner of WEMBO I had expected the same entry criteria with 'Elite' and then 'Age Cat' and 'singlespeed' making up the pack. The rules seemed to be different here though with everyone just being in age cat or singlespeed with an overall. So top 10 elite became top 10 overall. Probably a better system on balance but equally it wasn't clear what position you were at any point. Timings were only updated (almost) every two hours. Live timing is a must for something labelled a European Championship I think. My team were basing how I had to finish on results from 10am which was tough given that a lot can change in two hours!
We only found out late afternoon the previous day that the race started in the seaside town of Noli which given the race HQ was at the top of the hill meant one thing, full gas to reach the singletrack before the procession started. We rode on mass down from HQ to Noli down the road to a square with a bizarre system of EVERY rider name being called out to be signed on which took ages. This did give me chance to catch up with fellow Brits and/or the English speakers to try and collectively figure out what on earth was going on! The final bit of the route from the HQ ran in to a road works area with an on the fly diversion being required, this set the tone for the very laid back approach of the event.
hen you're at the bottom of a hill and you need to get to the top, it's clear that there will be some climbing involved but the absolutely brutal straight up a gravelly path from the off meant instant red zone. Not what you want to be doing with 24 hours ahead. I found myself right at the front due to a very European manoeuvre with fellow Brit Richard Dunnett sneaking passed the inside of the lead out car. I felt strong on the climb and was looking forward to getting the singletrack section lines nailed early on to get in to a good pace. After 20minutes or so of climbing we were able to hit the singletrack and crack on. I battled for a couple of hours to get my heart rate down and to settle in to an easier rhythm which the steep climbs didn't really help as they required full commitment and effort just to clean. Some of the climbs did get a little easier as the race went on bizarrely as gravel gave way to more grippy dirt.
On the first lap confusion by me and pit crew over what was actually the race track vs the pit lane meant a missed bottle as I passed the other side of a hedge which separated the two. Not realising that I had to effectively pull off the track to go through to our pit, along a bumped grassy field then turn back on to the track again meant our pit wasn't exactly well placed for fast turnarounds, particularly when there wasn't a clear joining point and spectators were frequently blocking the pit lane. Not ideal but it was sorted out after that with a mix of trackside fast bottle handouts and diversions in to the pits for any longer stops.
Apart from the pit lane incident there weren't too many dramas for me the whole race. Even the usual arse soreness didn't appear due to the Chapeau overnight soak of my Tenn Outdoor bib shorts. I managed pretty consistent lap times which were more influenced by the locals holding me up by refusing to move over even when there was space to do so than major highs and lows in overall energy levels. Strangely, despite being downright rude by not moving over on the descents, there seemed to be the complete opposite on the climbs with people diving out of the way and even giving you a push up! Maybe it was something related to pride on the descents and the respect for good climbers on the ascents from the roadies out there but it was a bit of a taint on the event for me and at times left a sour taste of lost 'free' time. When held up I just tried to relax and stretch my hands out on the bike which were fairing very well despite the braking bumps thanks to the recent upgrade from racer's edge to the more ergonomic FIT XC ESI Grips.
The solo event was joined by a pairs event which added more people to the already congested track and was a bit of a negative in my view as being under the WEMBO banner I think there should be some more priority given to solo riders or at least a clear briefing for riders to get the hell out of the way when someone wants to come past! I saw lots of people clattering in to each other as a result but fortunately I only had a few brushed shoulders whilst the second place rider had a cheese grater arms from crashes involving unmoving safety car riders. This didn't detract too much from the main feature that makes this event great; the course. Each lap you found a new challenge or line to tackle making the hours fly by. I was loving my new bike and was surprised that I kept being able to tackle the climbs each lap with the 1x11 drive chain which I was using for the first time.
Darkness hit and Exposure Reflex and Diablo lights didn't even need to be on full beam as the narrow singletrack held the light really well on the descents. This also helped my fastest pits ever in a 24hour race. With darkness came the increased volume on the main rock stage with the Horror theme leading to some interesting numbers being pumped out. At least the volume was an incentive to get past the stage as quick as possible before being deafened! This did make for a good party atmosphere though for the masses in camp. The super friendly organisers definitely did a good job on the party front and 'it's crazy' is a spot on description for the event.
I gradually moved my way up the order as riders faded away or pulled out entirely although I don't like to know where I am in these things so I instructed my pit crew to just give me a 6am heads up so I could focus on giving 100% measured effort. I kept surprising myself by managing to make it up the brutally steep climbs pretty much every time throughout. Both bikes held up superbly thanks to the guys at Roll for the Soul giving them the full pre-race service back in the UK, only a quick splodge of TF2 Dry Lube was required to keep things smooth for much of the race on both bikes. Only a minor tubeless spaff explosion occurred near the end of a lap slowing me down a bit, with the number of rocky sections it's no surprise that tyres took a beating and I only lost a couple of minutes.
Live timing would have been a real help for the pit crew and timing updates were pretty sporadic so they couldn't tell me much even if they wanted to. It was a apparent in the last few hours that I was 7th with 8th not too far behind which gave me a remit to ride to the death, something I was determined to do after potentially missing a couple of places at the end of the world champs last year by finishing early. I'd normally be battling cramp on the last few laps of a race but keeping the nutrition super simple with Torq gels, energy drink and powder with only two bouts of muller rice in the night kept both the stomach and legs on song. The cramp never came and I was able to give it full gas on the last lap which although made me a bit of a wreck at the end meant I had done as much as I could in the race which was the most important thing for me. I also ended up with a cheeky podium spot for 3rd in my age category to overall winner Morgan Pilley and overall 4th placed rider Kai Saller. Half Brit half Swiss Daniel Schmidheiny took the European crown as Morgan hails from Australia. A result is only as good as the people you beat so it's a bit hard to measure mine as I didn't know any of the other riders apart from a couple of familiar names from the WEMBO World Champs in Fort William last year. I did as much as I could which gives me the most satisfaction.
Unfortunately Richard Dunnett pulled out after blowing up with the fierce pace at the sharp end proving too much in the morning and Alex Nichol also pulled out after suffering on for quite some time. Andy Howett had another consistent ride doing well considering I passed him twice with major mechanicals on course. Something always goes wrong for that lad!
I managed to catch up with fellow Bristol based Nova Lock Club team riders (in LVIS colours on this occasion) the following day after they had been on hand on a couple of occasions to help Sarah out (thanks guys!) and it was great to be around the event atmosphere whilst relaxing. Both my bikes were called in to service by them as well so they covered an unbelievable number of miles that weekend in total. We all made it to an awesome pizzeria in Finale for some reloading but sleep was the outright winner that day.
Doing these things simply isn't possible without the support of family and sponsors. To them I owe a million thanks.