bikebritain News June 27, 2011

RIDE24 Race Report

Swazy cruised into the pit lane and pulled up alongside me. We switched the timing chip from his ankle to mine in the quite-efficient Team bikebritain style and I was off. To my surprise, I clipped my borrowed shoes into my borrowed pedals within a few yards, rather than the several laps I was anticipating, and moved out on to the track, settling into a rhythm as I moved into Madgwick Corner, grappling with a strong wind all the while. Despite the elements, I was feeling fairly cordial as I moved along the back straight towards Fordwater, which was naturally the cue for the heavens to open. Within yards, the rain had taken on a more ‘hail’-like quality and by the end of my first lap, I was soaked through and freezing cold. Only 22 hours to go. My RIDE24 had begun.

There was only one point at which I really felt as if I wasn’t going to be able to do it. Fortunately, that was about 45 minutes into my train journey from London to Chichester on the Saturday morning, when I had just explained for the tenth time how to open, close and lock the public convenience to one of my fellow Southern Railway customers. It was enough to make anyone want to turn around and go home. My only other moment of trepidation occurred when we were receiving our pre-race briefing and having explained to us the process for swapping the timing chip from rider to rider in the pit lane. The explanation was slightly less than clear, neatly summed up by the demonstration where a chap they appeared to have dragged in from the street left his braking far too late and effectively threw his bicycle across the pit lane. This, coupled with the fact that I had been introduced to the clip-in pedals I would be using for the event for the first time about twenty minutes previous, sent me into a minor flap, now convinced that my modus operandi of tarnishing the event would occur not on the track but by committing a breach of pit lane etiquette. Or falling off, having forgotten or failed to release my feet from the pedals in sufficient time.

But there would be no tarnishing. Or, at least, none that I am aware of. In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I can attribute this to several factors, which I will classify as ‘on-the-track’ factors and ‘off-the-track’ factors.

One important ’on-the-track’ factor was the rapidly evolving, flexible and dynamic Team bikebritain race strategy. It was tested fairly early on in the event, as our planned 90 minute stints on rotation did not survive the first session. Jonny, our main man and bikebritain overlord setting off from our hilarious randomly selected grid position of one, went off like a train and was doing a grand job into a brutal wind. By contrast, the rest of us were sharing a joke or two, pausing periodically only to hang over the pit wall and hoot some encouragement. This jovial mood was shattered when, after about a half an hour, Jonny announced he would be coming in after 45 minutes. 

Earlier, it had been decided that I would go out third of our four man team. I say decided, but I wasn’t particularly flexible on the matter. I wasn’t going to go first, I didn’t want to be involved in the first pit lane transfer for reasons mentioned above, and I was reluctant to go last in case we were doing too well and I then ruined it in a more obvious fashion that I thought I would going third. The obvious first reaction here, even though I wasn’t immediately affected, was terror; if our top table cyclist was truncating his session, what hope did our bottom table cyclist have? Instead, though, I was infused with a Zen-like calm I still can’t explain properly. I think it had something to do with the fact that this made it evident that what we had on our hands was an attritional battle against the track and the elements and that the best way to endure it was to get through the worst of it as a team and see where we were. Or not to try and go as fast as Jonny. As it turned out, we soon settled into a regular pattern of 9 or 10 lap sessions, lasting roughly 75 minutes, but the uncertainty of those early hours on the track actually helped to put me at ease.

However, the main ‘on-the-track’ factor was the track itself. The early part of the circuit was the toughest, into the wind and with an occasional incline. Once you had half a dozen laps under your belt, it was during these early sections that you really started to feel your legs, and ask some serious questions of yourself. Questions like: “would it really look so bad if I came in now?” and “I wonder if the catering still have the turkey and roast potatoes on offer?” Just as I would think about how convincing a limp I would be able to manage to authenticate my early return to the garage, I would reach Lavant Corner and turn into the back straight, sensibly named the Lavant Straight. Let me tell you something: I love the Lavant Straight and it is easily my favourite straight in the world. Fast and smooth, it transports you from fatigue and despair to elation and recklessness in the space of about half a mile. Every time I reached the end of the Lavant Straight, I was utterly convinced I had another lap in me, fortunately never to the extent that I effected a second complete and total abandonment of our race plan by simply refusing to come in. I was astonished at anyone who used this beautiful piece of tarmac to do anything other than get their head down and cycle; for me, this was not the place to take a drink, ease off, or have a stretch. This was a relative nirvana and I was determined to wring every last advantage out of it.

I could talk about the Lavant Straight all day, but I will instead press on with my ‘off-the-track’ factors. I can’t pretend to you that I was expecting a great deal from the catering. It was free, or immersed within the administration charge for competitors, and free catering for hundreds of people in a tent in the middle of a field does not scream “fine dining” at me. I was wrong. Ok, well perhaps it wasn’t fine dining, but it was varied and extremely tasty and performed two key functions. Not only did it mean that refuelling was a pleasure rather than a chore, but knowing that the chance to have a sit down and a plate of genuinely tasty grub was your reward at the end of your time on the track was a huge motivator. Just imagine how happy I was piling down the Lavant Straight knowing that mealtime was imminent.

The other key factor was the pit garage. Reading up before the event, we were told that we would have an allocated area in the pit lane. Wrongly, for me this conjured up images fleeced from Grand Prix and Le Mans 24, so I was always going to be disappointed. With 50 teams, space was always going to be at a premium but if you then factor in the teams that turned up with gazebos, picnic tables and chairs, and sun loungers, it started to get very cramped. As the hours passed, the Team bikebritain base camp was reduced to a pile of discarded lycra and helmets and our bicycles were jostled in anywhere you could find a space. This meant a number of things: firstly, we were much more comfortable out on the pit wall, which meant each time you came through the home straight on a comedown after another exhilarating hit of Lavant Straight there was more often than not a chorus of encouragement; secondly, I found that with loitering around the garages not a viable option, I was much more decisive. When I finished a stint, I ditched my bicycle, changed into dry and warm clothes, got fed and had a rest (if needed) before returning to the pit wall. This meant that when fatigue really set in, I was laid down in ‘Hotel bikebritain’ (two tents) within twenty minutes of coming off the track. The two hours of sleep were all I got in the 24 hours, but even that was a better return than most if not all of the rest of the team managed.

My solitary nap came after my one true night-time stint on the track and was extremely welcome. I found cycling in the small hours with, save for three or four sets of mobile ‘floodlights’ around the track, only my bicycle lights for guidance to be an engrossing experience, but one requiring huge reserves of concentration. When I came off after that effort, it was nearly 3am and we were only just over halfway through the event. After my shut-eye, it was half past 5 and with the Sunday dawning considerably more clement than Saturday’s dismal effort, the world seemed like a much better place and certainly one where less than three more hours out on the track seemed eminently do-able.

Slightly more than seven hours later, I was coming through the chicane to start my last lap of RIDE24. I could feel that my lap times had dropped off a bit but I was absolutely determined to “leave it all on the track” as I heard somebody from another team say at some point. It wasn’t everybody’s last lap at that point, with over an hour still to go, but in my mind at least I absolutely stormed round, up and out of the saddle as I overtook literally three’s of other riders, some of whom might have been the race marshals, but let’s not worry about that. As I came through the chicane for the final time, I promise you that my prevailing thought was a mild sorrow that I wouldn’t get to go out again. This quickly dissipated once I handed over to Malc and realised my legs had taken on the properties of jelly, but it happened nonetheless.

Just over an hour later, it was over. Unfortunately, 28th place does not get you anything more than your basic commemorative medal resplendent with the booming but slightly confusing epithet “EXHAUSTION TO ELATION”, but given the quality of some of the teams that finished in places 1st to 27th, there is still plenty to be delighted about.

On a personal, I was thrilled with how it went. The fears and worries regarding catastrophic failure that I have liberally documented in these features over the past couple of months have been very real, as many formerly close friends and family will irritably testify. It is also true to say that prior to my preparation for this event my cycling experience was almost entirely limited to a gentle commute to work and sometimes even back again. As it turned out, I did roughly a quarter of our total output of 439 miles and 183 laps without ever feeling as if I was a burden or, more crucially, being told I was. Which, let’s face it, was the main objective. There’s always RIDE24, 2012 to adopt a more constructive outlook.

I have to thank people. The hub of Team bikebritain, first and foremost - Jonny, Swazy and Malc - for being absolutely tremendous from start to finish. I don’t just mean cycling like Trojans, but also for their vim and vigour, technical skills and many other things I have probably forgotten. Additionally thanks to Jonny in particular for making me do it, for getting irritated with me when I said I couldn’t do it, for making me spend £1000 on my bicycle and associated kit and for lending me pedals and shoes. He receives no thanks whatsoever, though, for his incredulous reaction when he examined the aforementioned shoes after I had spend over an hour on the sodden track in torrential rain and seemed disgusted that they were slightly damp. The very idea.

The support from the team and from assorted partners, children and friends was most welcome too. I hoped my failure to acknowledge it whilst cycling past was correctly attributed to a fear of falling off rather than any rudeness.

Thanks also to all of the other competitors; the fact that the event was conducted in such an agreeable spirit and without a single ‘incident’ is something to behold. The camaraderie and etiquette out on the course made things much easier for novices like myself. Congratulations to the victorious University of Birmingham team, who looked very impressive, if a little blurry, as they came past me many, many times. 

Finally, an open apology to Chris Boardman. When you said hello to me on my penultimate lap, I wasn’t ignoring you. I was just very, very out of breath.


Words - Lukey

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