Deciding to enter a 24-hour mountain bike race will only ever happen a couple of days beforehand for me. If I had the time to plan and consider the logistics and discomfort of it all I would instinctively put that time to better use and talk myself out of it. At this time of year, though, resolve is weakened. By the end of October, Scotland has started its phased retirement of daylight hours and at exactly the same time begins to display some startlingly beautiful autumnal colours. This small, enticing window, usually accompanied by settled weather, makes me ache to get out on my bike in a pre-winter panic. No one can tell me that by taking part in Relentless Exposure 24 in Fort William (which this year also happened to be the UK 24-hour MTB championships) I would not be making the most of the daylight hours and autumn colours.
But yes, there was also peer pressure involved. Ian Fitzpatrick, my old friend from the Highland Trail 550, was coming up from Sheffield to race in the solo category and asked if I’d support him in his team pit. Racing the event myself seemed like the easiest way to say no. Then David Jones, possibly the only person I know more last-minute than I am, began a gentle text campaign the Monday before the event, suggesting we both ride solo too. These texts became more like a subliminal marketing strategy as the week went on, until before I knew it I was prepping my bike and shopping for jelly babies.
Ferga and Rachel were cajoled into supporting the three of us in a shared team pit and between them would keep six legs and three bikes operating for 24 hours. Entered, organized, supported, committed. The hard part was done, right?
Wrong actually. Quite, quite wrong.
No Fuss Events set off 260 riders at 12 midday on the 29th October to ride laps of a 10.5km loop in the shadow of Ben Nevis. It was a typical Scottish day with a persistent, friendly smir of rain falling from an entirely grey sky. The colourful woodland, home to the well built network of mountain bike trails, compensated for the dull sky with an eye-watering display of yellows, oranges and browns, and even obliged by dusting the trail with bright orange larch needles.
It was sociable to begin with. I don’t usually race these events solo and enjoyed the luxury of riding the first few laps at a steadier pace than I might have in a team of two or four. With lung capacity to spare I caught up with friends and made friends of strangers. I will be forever grateful to the women riding for the RAF who, in reply to my assertion that the hill we were climbing was horrible, conceded that it was “houfing" - a braw Scottish word meaning vomit-inducing. I would never have thought to use it in this context but as of now will apply it to everything I dislike.
My bike was also chattering away to me. There’s a way to adapt a bottom bracket removal tool that allows you to pull off the type of cranks I run on my race bike using a coin for extra purchase. Unfortunately, I had managed to fold and push the coin irretrievably inside my bottom bracket and was now being rewarded by the constant tinkling sound of my mechanical incompetence.
Although my bike continued its high-pitched monologue, human chat dwindled with the daylight and night imposed an austere code of silence on the forest. Ashen-faced riders now willed their legs around while self-destructively calculating the hours they still had to ride before daybreak.
I thought it prudent to at least try and get all the disasters out of the way before I became too addled to cope, and so I snapped my bottle cage, lost a water bottle, pulled my hamstring, tore off my mudguard and developed a stomach upset all on the same lap. Our efficient pit crew, who had by now been joined by Mini (Tom) Pips, sorted it all out and provided me with a plastic bucket and a roll of toilet paper, of which I would make constant use throughout the 24 hours.
At 3am, with 15 hours of riding in my tired body and eight still to go, I staggered off my bike and lay on the ground in the team tent, instructing Rachel to wake me up in 20 minutes' time. If I’d climbed into my comfortable van then it would have been all over, but 20 minutes spent unconscious on a cold, damp, hard surface is surprisingly restorative when you need it that much. Punctuate this rest with a mini pork pie, some coke and the reapplication of Happy Bottom Bum Butter (using a different hand, please, we have standards) and you might be starting your day afresh.
Not so for David. At around the same time he crawled into his vehicle and did not reemerge. David Jones will push through most levels of discomfort and come out the other side but this time his wrists had actually stopped working. Troubling for a dentist. Or perhaps more so for his Monday morning patients.
Fitz was still out there somewhere and although we never saw each other either on the trail or in the transition, it was heartening to know that his suffering continued with mine.
I never really found my groove on this ride. Having to stop every lap to commune with the toilet bucket broke any rhythm I might have established. There were glimmers of flow and I felt bouts of energy but my stomach upset was wearing me down emotionally and physically. Then, half way through the race and halfway round a lap, my lights broke. Complete darkness. Not funny. I nursed my way round the remaining lap and into the welcome glow of the transition area. Mark and Tom from Exposure Lights greeted me with warmth and enthusiasm and before I knew it had a rather lovely Toro light strapped to my bars with more than enough lumens to see me though the remaining hours of darkness. This support and good will rebooted my flagging motivation. The race was back on.
Out on course and the marshals were keeping us going. At key points in the lap, these kind people were keeping fires going while huddled in bivvy bags or, in one case, adorned in fairy lights and dancing to the radio, their enthusiasm never faltering. Riding back into the transition at the end of each lap we were assaulted by the smell of wood smoke, the sound of generators and music and the bittersweet sight of warm glowing light, which spilled out from every pit area.
At the timing stage, the No Fuss organisers were often personally standing by the timing post to help tired, fumbling fingers find the unit carried on a lanyard round riders' necks.
People ask “Why pay money to ride your bike round in circles for 24 hours surrounded by other people?” It’s a good question but I hope I’ve just answered it.
Dawn took forever to break. Between 4am and 7am, each time I rode to the highest point of the lap, I would scan the sky in search of nuanced changes in it but the street lights of Fort William continued to twinkle tantalizingly in the valley far below and the night sky remained resolutely black for far longer than my soul would have wished. When the grey dawn did finally arrive, it was washed out and spent and accompanied by rain, which turned the course into a muddy mess. With four hours remaining, I was losing my grip both metaphorically and physically. My skin hurt from having been shaken so much and my hands were cramped into tight fists. I stopped to slur this information to my support crew, to which David was now lending his weight, and while I paused to eat a bowl of soup and balance on my bucket again (glamorous) they arranged my lovely steel hardtail with Jones bars into a 24-hour race machine. Climbing onto the Shand having been sat on a harsh flat-bar carbon hardtail for 18 hours felt like sinking into a mattress. The comfortable hand position and oversized tyres, together with the forgiving nature of steel gave me a new lease of life and I did another four steady laps in relative comfort.
It was over. I’d ridden 23 laps in 24 hours. Approximately 245km and 8350m of climbing, 15 toilet stops, two packets of jelly babies, one pair of shorts, 20 litres of Ribena, four pork pies, the equivalent weight of a small child in banana flapjack, half a tub of Happy Bottom Bum Butter, one new favourite word (houfin’), countless new friends and title of UK 24-hour Mountain Bike Champion 2016.
Thanks to No Fuss and Exposure for another fantastic event and thank you to everyone, especially Ferga and Rachel, who offered their support to allow us to ride our bikes in circles for a day and a night.