The best race report I ever wrote….

… because I didn’t actually race 🙂

It’s stupidly long. Nick (see below reminded me it was published in Singletrackworld magazine. It’s a two hander between Nick and I. He was racing, I was mostly sulking.

Three Men and a Malady – D2D 2002

Some men are born to compete. Some achieve competitiveness. The rest of us have competition thrust upon us . Traditionally post ride, mid-quaff and laughably ignorant of the consequences. And that’s peculiar as mountain biking has little in its’ inherent social dynamic to suggest the elbows-out, humour bypass and, dare I say, shaven legged attributes affecting our Roadie brethren.

But something about the gathering of riding buddies all approaching, or looking back with affection on, their mid thirties generates a critical mass of an idea fuelled by the fear of passing time. Endurance racing was always going to get the nod over the two hour pigeon legged frenzy characterising XC racing when a single look in the mirror reflects the truth about tortoises and hares. And the word on the trail spoke of respect being given for competing apathetically, being crap but cheerful and understanding someone has to be last. In short, qualities we felt represented both our aspirations and ability.

Before the mood left us, we’d gone mad with form filling and in spite of the physical evidence determined a 24hr race would be a good way to fire up our racing career. Sadly those organising the Red Bull disagreed and we were out before we’d even started. A setback rather than a disaster; we were unwavering in our quest to fulfil what little potential we had. So finding a twelve hour race was a good thing, finding it was taking place during the hours of darkness was less delightful but already half of the team had lights with measurable commitment from the other half to blaze a trail to Mr. Lumicycle. Now for the first of many serious decisions: the team name.

I really liked “Crouching Badger/Hidden Beaver” but the team felt it was a little infantile for a quartet pushing 150 in combined age. Team “Global Custard” went the same way as did “Well played that badger” with the team becoming increasingly concerned with my fetish for small furry rodents. Nick restored team karma and gave us a sporting chance of getting the entry in before the race with Team “Lights are on but nobody is home”. Only afterwards did I realise the missed opportunity presented by Team GIMP (Gay[Nicks Lemon Spesh], InBred[Al’s OnOne], Misunderstood[Steve’ life statement] and Punctured[Daves’ MTB Jonah]). Sadly too late – so all that remained was general endurance training, specific night riding training and minor logistical issues such as remembering to buy a tent. We did our best which wasn’t very clever with Daves’ lights turning up the week before the race, Steve taking most of July off on holiday and Al buying a tent that could easily accommodate two well grown hamsters. Although not at the same time. It also had the porous properties of a Tetley T-Bag but then for £44.99 from Argos what the hell did they expect? It was hardly an Everest expedition.

Still we had bikes, we had lights, we had spares and most important of all we had Team Spirit. I’d packed that in a bottle marked “medical supplies”.

One week before
Clearly one bike wasn’t going to be enough for a serious three lap assault on this flat singletrack infested eight mile course. Having skipped the normal rite of passage from hardtail to full suspension, it was clear than a step back into the land of no pivots one week before our first race would improve our times and my riding. I honestly believed this having fallen under the spell of Witches Cummins and Watkins who not only truly understood the way of the righteous ones is paved with steel but also that all that suspension malarkey is no more than marketing hype for XC Jayboys. Enter an On-One Inbred purloined from the premises of Nice but Tim at Sideways Cycles morphed to a Deore Groupset and a pair of pre-loved Zocchi X-Flys. It weighed about the same as my Superlight, was a disk free environment and sported tyres as wide as the estate agents’ smile. And I’d never ridden it. So absolutely ideal then.

Four days before
Seventy miles on the Inbred taught me a lot. Some of it good with me waxing lyrical about the realness of steel and the sheer pleasure of arriving alive at the bottom of a descent that in my full suspension guise would have invoked nothing more than “any rocks in that? didn’t feel a thing”. Some of it not so good with my back feeling it had gone five rounds with Lennox and he had the baseball bat. Still it’d make a man of me by all accounts. The last ride was a 22 mile loop completed in 15 minutes shy of two hours and I felt strong and fit. But also cold which did not bode well since the sun was beating down and everyone else was sweltering.

36 hours before the race
“Is this a spot I see before me?” . Cue fever which had me sweating, shivering and barfing bizarrely all at the same time clued up those smarter than I that all was not well. Thirty Six hours before the start, I was dispatched mumbling and moaning to the quacks. It was not the leaches and embalming fluid I’d envisioned – rather a bloke with a kind expression explained that the rapidly expanding spot legion was in fact Chicken Pox and would I mind standing a little further away. The remainder of the conversation went something like this:

Me: “I’m going to be racing in 36 hours”
Doc: “No you’re not”
Me: “I’ll not touch anyone”
Doc: “If you go and race, you’ll pass out and probably die…”
Me: (Seeing a chink): “Ok, I’ll go and watch”
Doc: “.. and if you don’t you’ll create a Chicken Pox Pandemic”
Me: “So that’s a maybe then”
Doc: “It’s a no. Any more questions, that’ll be no as well”.

Deeply pissed off I phoned Nick to explain and whilst my recollection of the conversation was a matter-of-fact synopsis backed up by a stiff upper lip, Nick tells it more as a whinging-whining-self pitying outburst with quivering bottom lip noticeably in attendance. Whatever. Four had now become three and a sicknote so we hatched up a plan to add a ringer to the team who not only would put in consistently faster laps than I ever could but who also didn’t fart so badly in the tent. I’m sure Nick sounded quite cheerful about the whole thing.

I even called my mum and demanded why – like all the other kids – I had not had the mandatory month off school with Chicken Pox and further how she could have allowed me to reach adulthood without contracting a decent strain. The conversation was surreal enough to warrant recording here:

Al: “I’ve got chicken pox”
Mum: “No you haven’t, you’ve already had it”
Al: “Mum, listen to me here. I’ve just left the Docs, I’ve got it”
Mum: (belying the fact she was 200 miles away and hadn’t seen me for a month) “No you haven’t, you had it in 1974”.
Al: “Well I’ve got it again”
Mum: “Could have been your brother then”
Al: “He got it last year”
Mum: “Well it must be a mistake”
Al: “I look like an anatomical dot to dot puzzle. There are more spots than skin”
Mum: “It must be something else”
Al: “Like what? Oh for Christs sake. Here’s the doctors number, argue it with him”.

24 four hours before the race
Chicken Pox is like modern day leprosy. Unsightly and contagious. I didn’t want to go out regardless of the fact I’d be the centre of the South Oxfordshire Pox pandemic – sure I could be altruistic about it but basically I looked like zit boy, my skin painfully stretched by the ever increasing lesions blistering from every available pore. I’m surprised I didn’t get a bell with the prescription.

12 hours before the race
Alex
I grump about the house short on humour and short with the family. Go to bed and itch all night. On waking I feel better but a glance in the mirror shows this is a fallacy with every part of my torso and face overrun by red welts. If anybody wants me I’ll be slurping lager from under this carrier bag. I spend the rest of the day kicking tyres and cats and shouting at people adding yet more anecdotal evidence that when I’m not in control of things, I am a real pain in the arse to live with. Shame I can’t go to the pub but even that small pleasure is denied me.

Spots everywhere. It’s a glandular thing and guess where many of your “man” type glands hang out. Yep down there in the nether regions. I can honestly say that when the invading army of red soldiers crested the ball bag and camped out on the old fella, it was a bit of a relief really because I believed then it couldn’t get any worse. Any other time in my life, the smallest spot or blemish in that area would have caused blind panic.

I was locked in my own “itchy and scratchy” movie. There is a certain irony in that old saying about an itch you can’t scratch. Being scarred for life seemed like a tiny price to pay if I could rip these spots off with my fingernails, an emery board or best of all some kind of powered angle grinder. One of the basic tests for intelligence is the ability of a subject to ensue instant gratification for greater rewards in the future. If this test has been applied to me right then I would have had the mental age of a four year old as I searched for a plug socket.

Nick
I stop over to Al’s place on my way on Saturday morning, partly to see how he’s bearing up, and partly to grab the tent he bought specifically for the event, and nab some beer, having forgotten to buy any in the rush to get myself organised. Alex is visibly pissed off, if his bottom lip stuck out any further it could be used as a diving board! After coffee and commiseration, I depart, feeling more sorry for his wife and 2 kids.

2.00 PM
Roads full of holiday traffic conspires to delay my arrival, although I’m certainly not the first, the camping site is noticeably empty. I go and sign on and explain about Al. I had spoken to Frank Ho, another sometime riding partner about maybe being his replacement. Frank has entered as a solo, however a moment of realisation dawns on me and I enter his name. Team ‘Lights on no-one home’ needs all the help it can get, I can only hope he understands.

Back at the pitch, I erect the tent, and set out the deck chairs, chatting to my new neighbours, a couple entered as a pair, they have a long and tiring night ahead of them. As I’m opening my well-deserved beer, my phone rings “Where are you?” It’s Dave, another of the team members, he sounds awfully close. I look up to see Steve and Dave crossing the field in Steve’s Passat. Team LONOH has landed.

Some words about my fellow riders: Firstly Dave, the rider that everyone wants in their team. Fast and unflappable, never complaining about his lot, even when ‘volunteered’ for the first lap. Steve is also a fast rider, lightweight and neat, with a cat’s aversion to mud and puddles. He often comes back from a ride with a cleaner bike than other riders start off. Frank the erstwhile member is an ex US Marine blessed with speed and fierce stamina; he will hopefully be the cornerstone of our assault on the leader board. However as I’m in the team that particular target has floundered already. Questionable riding technique and a complete lack of any fitness make me a liability. I’m only tolerated because I bring ready made pasta, made by my long-suffering partner, Laura.

4.00 PM
We faff about for as long as we can plausibly put it off, until we decide that as we’ve come here to race, it would be prudent to tackle the course. Camelbacks filled, tires kicked, we head off to have a look. The 11-mile lap is essentially two loops of 6.5 and 4.5 miles. The first starts with fire roads to get warmed up, before getting into some blinding singletrack for a good length of the loop. The route then goes past the campsite to begin the second loop with more fire road this time but the singletrack that is here is even more twisty than the first section. There are no real climbs at all, just a couple of slopes to blast up. It’s very pedally (big ring all the way) with no real rest the entire length. It’s very well sign posted, but we still managed to get lost, as we backtrack, we find a sign that’s been knocked over, feeling a bit better about our navigation skills we re-erect the fallen sign and carry on.

Back at the campsite, we establish a 50-minute lap as a benchmark, and find Frank. Who seems strangely quiet on discovering he is now the latest member of the team. A Chinese parliament establishes the running order, and we agree on the victim of the opening lap. Dave has foolishly declared that ‘he doesn’t mind’ and is duly elected to carry the honours in the Le Mans start, still a good 2 hours away. Still time for some food, some beers and some arsing about, and a rider briefing. We stroll over clutching our beers, and get a good look at our fellow competitors for the first time, very few of whom are carrying beers I notice. Ken, the organiser gives a short welcoming speech, and the actual brief is given by Chipps Chippendale, the Singletrack editor. That sorted we stroll back to see if we can eat some more pasta. Frank comes in from his recce lap in 47 minutes to declare that this is ‘Full suss country’ which is slightly disappointing, as between us there is my Spesh, and 2 Konas, all hard tails. Only Frank will be riding full suss, his Trek Fuel.

RACE TIME

Al
8 p.m. – Time to crack open a beer and fire up a DVD in which people are righteously having their heads ripped off. Try very hard not to scratch by wondering what was happening to Nick and the boys.

Nick
Dave is preparing his bike for racing, he has taken off the mudguards, and he is obviously nervous despite his smiles. We try to make conversation as he pushes his bike to the hand over area. We bid him luck, and with 10 minutes to go he wanders down to the tree line some 150 yards away for the running start. All the other riders are gathered at the start/finish line as the gun goes off and finally the race is under way. The teams with a good chance of a position at the end are taking this seriously, and there is an elbow out sprint to the bikes.

Dave is somewhere in the middle, as he gets away pedalling hard. Some of the Soloists and singlespeeders take it noticeably easier, strolling up as if out to take the evening air. One even bows to an appreciative audience before cycling away at a leisurely pace.

8.55 PM
Frank is keyed up and ready to go all out.

The leading teams are putting in startling lap times, as the first pair comes in side by side in a staggering 38 minutes. Dave is still 20 minutes away at this point battling hard in the midfield. Finally I spy him coming into the arena and Frank gets ready, turning on his lights and taking a sip from his camelback. Dave’s upon us, we shout and he brakes hard looking for the source of his name, we pounce on him and he gladly hands over the green glow stick that will be our relay baton for the next 12 hours.

He’s done the lap in 55 minutes, an excellent time as we all watch Frank standing, dance on the pedals rushing out to the evening gloom.

Dave is out of breath, and high on endomorphines, “we won’t be last” he predicts accurately, “but you can’t overtake on the singletrack and I was held up.” We amble back to the tent pushing Dave for info about the conditions; he’s done well in what is effectively the only real race of the night. The riders will soon be so spread out that only the occasional lights will be seen by the others to remind us that we are not alone in the forest.

9.45 PM
“Is my rear light on?” I ask, Steve’s reply suggests that I must have asked the question one too many times, as he and I wait for Frank. Soon I see him appear out of the dark, 2 last bends and he’s here. Steve shouts and Frank brakes neatly next to us. He passes over the baton, and I push it up the leg of my shorts, where it glows dully. Flood on, and clipped in changing up to the big ring for the grass run to the first corner. A 90 degree bend right and I’m out onto the course. Already the noise of the campsite is fading and the only light is the bright glow from my own lights, the moon not yet having risen over the trees.

I consciously slow for the corners not wanting to ‘come a cropper’, and soon enter the singletrack through the trees. It’s smooth and sandy already packed down by the previous lappers. It feels even faster in the dark, trees rush out of the dark, and I brake too hard spoiling my rhythm. The Panaracers that I have, although providing excellent grip, are slow to accelerate, and I slip down to the middle ring finding a more comfortable cadence. Still not having seen any of my fellow competitors, I burst out of the singletrack onto the next fireroad section. I reach down to turn off one of my lights, only to plunge myself into complete darkness. “SHIT” the lead has come out of the other light. I try to find the lead, look where I’m going and keep up the pace, doing all dismally. Cursing, I come to a stop. I finally locate the battery lead, and bully it back in, straining in the big ring I grind back up to pace, 2 riders overtake me. More singletrack and I resolve to leave the lights alone. Past the campsite for the first time, another swooping section is straight away upon me. This goes on for what feels like ages, and has some steep drops and slopes that will catch some out (twice in the same place for Steve). The pedalling is tough over the rough ground and the next section of fire road is a welcome relief.

The next, more open section of singletrack ends with the only real puddle to contend with. Although it’s a bugger to clean, needing a ‘huck’ over an off camber rooty section, and a quick turn back on ones self. I manage it this time, and the end of this loop is marked by a second “flypast” of the campsite. Out onto the longest section of fire road, a top/top grind slightly uphill turning right onto one of the few sections of singletrack. More fire road follows, past two house sized piles of wood chips, the next turn into a tree lined path causes my specs to mist up, I can still pick out the next marker however. One last section of rough climbing scrub and a fire road blast to the finish. Scanning for Steve, I see him standing clear of other riders. He’s positioned himself for an easy hand over. Frank steadies my bike, as I pass Steve the baton, and he duly charges off.

I look down at my computer, it reads 53 minutes. Although the official timer puts me a second under 52 minutes. I’m happy not to have had a major off, or mechanical. Back at the tent I’m gabbling, and laughing, Dave tells me to shut up. I tally my lap. 4 overtook me, and I think I passed 3 others (I did pass another, but he’d stopped to fix something, so I’ll be generous, and not count him)

Al
1 a.m.
Despite marinating in Belgium’s finest, sleep is clearly to be denied me. I stalk around the house looking for things to be irritated with. Instant guilt follows as my wife stumbles sleepily down the stairs but for once I’m not the problem. A guy, who if we are charitable we would call socially confused, is bouncing off lampposts, throwing up in the street and having a little lie down between to get his strength back. I wander out hoping to add disease to his list of ailments only to find him totally lucid but under control of none of his limbs whatsoever. He’s going home he tells me although the physical evidence is not compelling. I offer help, phones or another drink all of which he swats away with a deceptively sober “thanks but I’m fine”. Again I have my doubts but leave him to cannon into street furniture for another hour or so before he finally locates his house and engages in that long game of the very pissed; “stab the keyhole”. It was amusing whilst it lasted and took my mind away from the thousand fire ants burrowing into my skin. Knowing it was pointless I retraced my steps to bed although not before the irony of being awake and sober at 1 a.m. which is exactly what I’d expect of the rest of the team.

Nick

2 a.m.
Dave Frank and Steve put in steady laps of 55, 51 and 52 minutes respectively. And unexpectedly we’re lying 12th overall, on the same lap as the leaders but about 15 minutes behind.

However my inexperience with lights was about to put paid to a top half finish. Surprisingly, the one thing I did do right saves the lap from complete disaster. I hadn’t been able to see the computer on my handlebars so I had bodged a mini mag torch onto my helmet. Hey presto I can see where I’m looking, not where the handlebars are pointing. The lap starts well enough the helmet light is surprisingly effective despite being only about 3 watts and I can see the apex of turns and glancing down, I can check my progress on the computer. I’ve nailed the first section and I’m convinced I’m doing a faster time this lap. I notice that the other riders that I can see all seem to have Cateye Stadiums though, and I’m certain the light from the helmet torch is becoming more distinct. A hand in front of the lights confirms my worst fear, a weak dribble of orange light – no juice in the battery, gutted I have no choice but to continue in the dark, coming onto the second half fire road. Nature conspires with the lights to bugger my lap as the mist comes down so thickly that I cannot see further than the cone of the mini mag. In the final insult, the heat I’m pushing out meets the cold air, and my specs fog up. I cannot cycle fast enough for cold air to clear them naturally, and I’m forced to wipe them with the back of my glove. Rider after rider fly past me, and I try to keep up, using the light spilt from their bulbs, tired legs and a bad attitude slow me to a crawl however and 56 minutes later, I hand over to Steve, who’s champing at the bit. His eyes saying, “Where have you been?”

Later when Dave, also a lumicycle virgin does the same thing, Steve goes through some of the basics. “Just use the spot”, he says, “it’s only 12v, and will last longer”
“Hang on”, I say, “I thought the flood was the lower voltage light” No wonder the battery only lasted about an hour and a half. Oh well, I’ll know next time.

Al
I don’t like spirits much unless drunkenness bypasses the hangover warning or it’s cognac and someone else is paying. However, in these circumstances, I would have imbibed meths from the bottle to build up a buffer between the urge to scratch and the need not to do so.

It would be great if you could “tune” the human body to filter out unwanted outputs from the nervous system. Like Junk E-Mail filters for your internal email – “junk all the scratching requests for two days”. Sadly on a model of my age, such things are not available so I uncorked my medicine and diverted my attention to the digital t.v. graveyard schedule. Whiskey, Coke and programming that left me wondering what the hell the BBC were doing with my license fee occupied the next three hours. The itching clambered unsuccessfully for attention battering as it was against a wall of alcohol. I’d suffer in the morning but right now that seemed like a long way away.

I wondered how the boys were doing.

Nick
05.30 AM

Team lights on, have had mixed fortunes on the next set of laps. Frank and Steve again put in steady low 50’s, Steve, after me has the first completely light lap. Dave has a nightmare, not only does he lose his lights, but he also loses one of the little radios that we’re using to alert waiting riders of imminent arrival. He searches for over 10 minutes for it, but gives up and a lap of 1hr 10 that drops us down to 15th, although by now no-one really cares.

Through sheer good fortune, I get to ride the dawn lap, and it’s an amazing experience, cycling through the still and foggy forest in the gathering dawn. Early on I can switch off the lights for the fire road sections, later I turn them off all together, and my eyes adjust to the weak light. The start however was not so romantic, the whole race had taken it’s toll, despite only 3 laps totalling 33 miles, the lack of sleep and adrenaline has worn us all out. Pulling on a cold and clammy jersey and a cold wet helmet are not activities that any of us are used to at this time of day. On tired legs I can only manage a 53-minute lap. However I still overtake more than overtake me. One of the mega-fast Marin boys comes up behind me in the singletrack, where no easy passing places mean he’ll have to wait. After what seems like an age of inward cringing, an opportunity presents itself, and with a snick of changing gears, he’s past me in a flash. I expect some rebuke, instead I get “Cheers mate, have a good one”. I might not have done his lap time any good, but he’s not going to take it out on me.

A quick lap from Steve has meant that Dave gets to do the Extra lap. The clock won’t stop until we’ve past the finish line after 08.00 am. The brief from the rest of us is to lurk in the forest section until well past 8. When we realise that Dave has no watch, we make Frank kit up, just in case the competitive urge overtakes Dave. It doesn’t and Team LONOH finishes 13 laps at 08.01:25.

8am

Al
3 hours sleep curled up on the sofa had done little for my state of mind but I knew it was over for our team. I envied them the glow of satisfaction they were undoubtedly feeling. Not that they didn’t deserve it rather I wanted so much to be part of it.

I sent a SMS Text to the team congratulating them on their achievement. Well done I offered assuming they were still alive. Not only alive but finished 16th which was a hell of an achievement. With my help, we’d have finished about 10 places lower I guess but more beer would have been drunk.

Mobile phone technology provides instant updates and the breathlessness of their efforts came through loud and clear. There had clearly been ups and downs to their performance but the enduring message was one of “this is the first of many”. And I needed to hear that – if they had all hated it I would have felt responsible and selfishly I’d have missed my chance to join the next one.

Spent physically and emotionally – both the team and I – they retired to their cars and latterly their beds. I missed out the first step and collapsed back onto the sofa, eyes heavy with tiredness but mind wide awake imagining how it would be next year.

We’ll be there. And this time I’ll be part of it.

Nick

We finish 16th out of 27, and although no one is gloating, we’re all satisfied. The post race bullshitting starts early, and we reckon that without the lights and fog, we could have done better, maybe even retained our 12th position. Steve and I celebrate with the best tasting Bacon butties, and we eat in companionable, knackered silence. A short award ceremony is well attended and I for one cheer and clap my fellow competitors with gusto. They’ve all done exceedingly well. But reserve my biggest cheers for the soloists, the winner has done 15 laps, which is an amazing feat of guts and drive.

We pack slowly, all very tired. First frank is off, not having pitched a tent, he changes into civvies, puts the bike in the back of the station wagon, and he’s ready to go. Next, Steve and Dave, and at last, again I’m on my own in a half empty field, with a tent. The race is done, and I’m no mood for a beer, but there’s something nagging that my foggy mind can’t quite grasp. I decide I need coffee for the drive home, I wander over to catering tent to sit and sip, and then I remember. I raise my Styrofoam cup,

“Cheers Al”

Alex Leigh
Nick Cummins

August 2002. (2002! Twenty years ago!)

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