About a year ago Graham Gregory unwittingly planted a seed in my head about attempting to ride a 24 hour time trial. I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of pushing my body to the limits on a bike for long periods of time, but until now I’ve only dared to attempt the much shorter 12 hour time trial which is an altogether different beast . As I found to my peril the main difference is that you don’t have to convince your body that night time is for racing, rather than its natural state which is sleeping. I was 50 in March so thought that this was a good excuse to remove this particular activity from my bucket list.
I’ve obsessed about this race since last September as is my nature and my training and everyday life have generally been moulded around this one activity. Fortunately my very patient wife Caroline and my friends have put up with me droning on about minute details to do with training and preparation and I think I got to the start line in the best shape I could be. Only time would tell if that impression proved to be correct.
Alan Roberts is an old cycling friend of mine and fortunately he is also a master of producing racing schedules for ultra-long distance time trials. The master himself Wilko used Alan’s schedules to take the 12 hour, 24 hour and Lands end to John O’Groats records in spectacular fashion. He set me my very ambitious schedule of 470 miles and my more realistic schedule of 462 miles. My plan was to follow the ambitious schedule without going too hard and back off to the other schedule if the former started to slip. Plan C was to ignore the schedule completely once I got into the night and this proved to be the correct one in the end.
All started well as the hot and humid conditions of the previous days had been replaced by mild and cloudy conditions with little wind so perfect. I felt comfortable on my 90” fixed gear and I was picking off earlier riders steady all the way to my first mental milestone of 100 miles. As I passed several riders I received several comments along the lines of “your must be mad riding this on fixed”! How anybody riding a 24 hour can question my sanity I’ll never know. My schedule for 100 miles was 4:28:00 so I was pretty pleased with a very comfortable 4:27:11 for 3rd place at that point in time. The weather was still OK and apart from a heavy shower at about 60 miles which was quite refreshing, all was well.
At 155 miles I had my 1st scheduled stop at Prees Island to change into night clothing, eat some rice pudding and generally pass on information to the support team as the night shift was starting here. It was always a risky strategy having 2 support teams due to potential for disrupting the routine, but both day and night teams did a fantastic job and I will forever be in their debt for getting me through this. There was confusion when I re-started as the timekeeper wanted me to do one more lap of the 12.5 miles Quina Brook circuit due to my high placing at that point. The idea was for me to slot in at the end of the field of 59 riders as I’d already caught most of the 39 riders who started before me. The other quick riders were already on that circuit as either they hadn’t stopped or they had stopped elsewhere. Unfortunately nobody told the turn marshall who thought that the small circuit was closed so the crowd around the timekeeper told me to go left and the official marshall told me to go right. As a result I had to turn around to find out the correct way and all in all I lost about 2 minutes.
Half way round the small circuit I realized that I’d left my emergency phone in my smelly discarded jersey. I didn’t see my night team until just before Prees so I felt a bit isolated. Although I did have a spare tub and pump just in case. I shouted up to them but unbeknown to me they couldn’t find it in the van, so they rang Graham and Caroline who were by now 20 miles away on their way home. Graham did his rally driver impression and shot back to Prees only to receive another call just before getting there to say sorry but they had found it (oops!).
As Jimmy Williams said to me before the race, “make sure you make it through the night”! Wise words indeed from an AUDAX man. At night the race enters a different phase as you make your way around the very long and boring 40 miles from Prees Heath to Shawbirch near Telford and back again. When you’ve done that you then repeat it up to 4 more times depending on how well you’re going. It was as calm as a cemetery all night (appropriate really) and in fact ideal racing conditions as cool but not cold and absolutely no wind so fast. Unfortunately when you’ve been riding for over 200 miles already and it’s pitch black (no moon), plus you’re riding on your own slumped over tri-bars, these are also perfect conditions for nodding off.
The only distractions were riders crossing, lit up like Christmas trees and eerily gliding through the dark in complete silence and 3 pools of light at Shawbirch, Espley and Prees Heath. Lyn’s café at Prees Heath opens all night for this event and there is a temporary encampment at Espley Island and Prees Heath island where weary helpers sit in deckchairs next to the carriageway at 3am as if they were sunbathing on the beach in Spain. It really is one of the most bizarre sights I will take away with me from this amazing event. The people involved be they riders or officials or helpers and spectators make you feel part of something special. The lighting arrays on the bikes and the helpers were a sight to behold as people thought of imaginative ways to make them both visible but also distinctive as neither riders nor helpers could see who was who in the dark without such aids. Jim Hopper of Derby Mercury got my vote as most visible rider as the entire rear triangle of his trike was covered in flashing LED’s and I could see him from a couple of miles back on a straight section of road.
So you get the picture, I’m tired, it’s dark, there isn’t much to keep you awake. Jimmy Williams will also tell you that I really do need my beauty sleep and now I know what he means by that as I very soon started shutting down for the night. My subconscious brain said OK you had a great long race today but now it’s time to go to bed and my speed dramatically dropped. I then realized at some point that I had just had a very short dream and completely forgot for a second or so that I was on a bike. I was heading for the centre line of the road and quickly snapped out of it. Not for long though as the drowsy feeling continued and despite the fact that my legs felt great my body refused to come out of hibernation mode. The next time I saw the help team I stopped for a rest, to try and shut my eyes for a few minutes hoping it would make me more alert when I got back on the bike. I hate Red Bull as it’s lethal in my opinion but I had a couple of cans for such emergencies. I drank one and got back on the bike.
This combination of 5 – 10 minute breaks, resting of the eyes and caffeine kept me going for the next 4 – 5 hours and believe me that is a very long time to be in that state. At 12 hours I reached 238 miles so not bad but the worst of the night was still to come. My night supporters Ian and Robert have both ridden a 24 hour many years ago so their experience during the night enabled me to get through this nightmare part of the race. Robert kept saying, “keep going as it will get better when dawn breaks”. Eventually dawn broke and guess what, it didn’t get better. Then the mantra changed to, “keep it going as it’s only just dawn so it’s not proper daylight yet”. I’ve got to say that I wasn’t convinced but objective no 1 in this challenge was to get to the finish so I wasn’t about to quit. After all quitting would mean doing another one and there was no way that was going to happen. I was just starting to wake up approaching Prees Heath from Tern Hill for the very last time, when Tim Rutherford who had taken the trouble to ride all the way to the event just to cheer me on, turned around in the road and rode alongside me for a couple of minutes. Normally I’m quite good at keeping a conversation going but to be honest I’d never had a night like that one before so Tim soon dropped back to leave me in my own little tortured World.
What with all of the stops in the night I lost about 60 – 75 minutes I recon so a good 18 – 25 miles off my potential mileage, but without the stops I probably would have crashed out. However the voice of experience, Robert, was right and eventually my brain decided it was time to start racing again. After the night circuits you move back to the 12.5 mile Quina Brook circuit which is also used for the local West Cheshire 12 hour time trial that I’ve ridden several times. I may be a 24 hour virgin but 12 hours is familiar territory as I came 3rd on these roads 2 years ago with 262 miles. No 45 caught me at Quina Brook and until that point only the ridiculously fast starting no 60 had caught me. 2 miles later I got to the horrible hill at Prees and as usual I stomped on the pedals to heave my 90” gear up the hill. It’s impossible to do hills slowly on a big gear as the inertia kills you. I rapidly caught and dropped no 45 who was just about moving his twiddly little gear up the incline. I realised that I was in good shape and my brain clearly associates this circuit with finishing so my speed suddenly went up like somebody had flicked a switch. Tim and Syd Rimmer were at Prees Heath to cheer me through for the last time and then it was off to the real finishing circuit via the Whitchurch By-pass and the undulating A41 via Broxton Island.
I’d crossed Jill Wilkinson a couple of time during the many hours to that point and I felt some affinity as she too was attempting to complete a 24 hour for the first time with the added pressure of also attempting to break Christine Roberts’ long standing women’s record of 462 miles. Her husband Andy was supporting her so it was a real boost to hear shouts of “keep it going Dave your flying” from the man himself. If I was flying then he was in a rocket when he destroyed his own 14 year old record of 541 miles aged 47 just 3 years ago! For those who ride the club 10’s that equates to 26:35 pace for a 10 for 24 hours and he didn’t stop at all. Also Alan Roberts’ wife Christine, was also shouting words of encouragement so it was a great privilege to be spurred on by both of the current record holders.
I reached the circuit at Hanley with about 2 hrs 15 mins to go and I was by then a man on a mission. I knew I could never claw back 75 minutes of stoppages but I was going to get back as much as possible. My legs felt good and my stomach was just about surviving on plain water and bland solid food as everything else was just too rich. The night –time had kicked me up the backside but now it was my turn to get my own back and empty the tank. I battered it around the circuit like a man possessed and by this point there were many club mates and general cycling friends spread around the roads. I made out a few faces but I was in a World of suffering so can only remember seeing Ady and Chris Gilbertson from the club and Ewart Howkins and Alan Kemp bizarrely in a road race going in the opposite direction at Aldford. I felt like a real fraud passing the large crowd at the HQ at Farndon at 28 mph but I really did feel as high as I can ever remember. My night crew never left and leapfrogged me in their cars for mile after mile so this also spurred me on. I remember passing the HQ for the last time with less than 10 minutes to go and thinking I’m going to attack that pig of a climb at Barton on the Hill as I’ve nothing to lose so I did. It back fired though as I got to the following 2 timekeepers too quickly and had to carry on to the next timekeeper at Hanley as I still had just under 1 minute in hand.
So it was over and my feelings of euphoria soon evaporated as that slight niggle in my back turned into a searing pain from the extreme TT position for hour after hour. I couldn’t stand up and I was massively over-heating in the sun as I still had my night clothes on as I hadn’t stopped for best part of 9 hours. I enjoyed sharing the experience with all of my helpers but especially Graham, Ian, Robert and most of all Caroline as she has lived with this thing for several months now, but she has supported me every step of the way.
Final mileage which is provisional at this stage was 438.1 miles which is 19 miles short of the club record that I had my sights on but I take my hat off to Robert Stapleton who did that in the early 1970’s as it’s a tough record to break as he won the very same event with that distance. This was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done on a bike but also by far the most memorable experience in a race of any kind. Will I do another? Never say never but I would say highly unlikely as it has literally taken over my life for the best part of a year. However I would encourage others to give it a go as you won’t regret it. The Winner did 482 miles and I was just 4 minutes down on him at 100 miles but he clearly has insomnia! At the other end of the spectrum there were riders doing less than 300 miles but believe me that is a massive achievement and every person in that room after the event, no matter how destroyed they were physically felt an extremely deep feeling of satisfaction.
Dave Fearon – 21st July 2014