Soća Valley MTB Marathon

We had been in Slovenia for five days, all of them sunny and pleasantly warm at just over 30˚. These had mostly consisted of ridding around the Triglavski National Park in the north west of the country, admiring the views and eating ice-cream wherever we could find it.

Riding into Slovenia from Austria, via Italy, a couple of days
after a 24hr probably wasn't great race preparation but was still
rather pleasant.

There had also been, on the Saturday morning, a running race as part of the Soća Valley Outdoors Festival. We hadn’t planned to do it, we just arrived in Tolmin and saw a sign, so turned up and joined in and they seemed more than happy to have us along. Being unplanned we had no running shoes with us and those which we had borrowed at very short notice from the lovely helpful people of Adidas Austria weren’t quite the right size and had given me a blister, about which Gina was enormously sympathetic, despite how stoic I was about it.

Even worse than that, I had fallen down the stone steps cut into the gorge down to the river and had hit my knee on the rocks and, worse still, my other knee but I was very brave and still managed to hobble around the rest of the route.

I rode from the finish of that race in Tolmin to the venue for the Soća Valley MTB Marathon at Kobarid, ignoring the pain and making no fuss at all, barely even mentioning it in fact.

I had a terrible night’s sleep thanks to my toe, my knee and of course my other knee. When I awoke, far too early, the weather had turned and it was chucking it down, the only wet day of what would be ten days in the country, and I tend not to go well in the wet.

I think that’s all the pre-race excuses covered. Oh, go on then, just one more. It was exactly a week since the European 24hr Championship at Davos, not nearly enough time to recover.

Anyway, excuses over, unless I can think of another one. Actually, I had the wrong tyres on, we were touring after all and not expecting to race.



We left the arena at Kamp Koren on the banks of the Isonzo river and made our way up to the centre of Kobarid for the start, quite a few locals had come to see us off despite the weather.

Front row spot. I didn't stay there long once we started!
 
There were a couple of miles of tarmac behind the local fire-truck and then a lot of very fast and surprisingly entertaining fireroads. I knew that the total climbing would be around 4,800ft but what no-one had mentioned was that the vast bulk of this would be in one single, brutal, hill.

The scale on the left is meters by the way, not feet!
It also appears that the Slovenian word for 'Gravel' is 'Makadam'

In a bizarre sort of way I actually quite enjoyed the climbing. It began gently enough, a little gradient in the farm tracks, gradually getting steeper. There was even a tarmac section for a couple of miles about a third of the way up, the main road up and out of the valley had been closed off especially for us. There was a sharp right at the top of that into a singletrack climb which lead us straight up the face of the hill and then out of the woods onto another LandRover track.

This zigzagged it’s way up the side of the mountain for what seemed like hours, just on and on, up and up, back and forth into the rain and fog, the top of our hill hidden in the mist, but the summits of neighbouring ones across the valley occasionally peeking through the tops of their clouds.


Eventually it relented and we found ourselves on a plateau, 3,967ft in one continuous climb, there’s not many places in the UK where one could do that! We had also passed the 25km mark, halfway, the return trip was looking promising.

There was a feed stop just over the peak, I refilled my bottle, grabbed a banana and headed off into the woods.

This was a wake-up call. After nearly two hours of really tough climbing with my brain fine but my legs screaming for mercy the positions instantly flipped. We plunged down into the trees, really, really steep, a chute lined closely on both sides with trees, wet roots all over the place making the steering extremely difficult and braking all but impossible. My legs got a well-earned rest but my head seems to be the bit which takes the longest to recover from a 24hr and it was struggling to take everything quickly enough, my reaction times just weren’t up to the job. This is a shame because it was a fabulous piece of trail and it would have been a lot of fun to have been able to ride it at speed but I just daren’t.



Lower down the mud started to build up and I found myself, along with quite a few others, sliding down the hill, one foot clipped in and the other waving around for balance, bouncing off the sides of the hill. Each turn of the helter-skelter was an act of faith, get my breath back, point the bike in the right direction and then hold on and hope for the best, before seeing if I could get the speed down enough in time for the next corner.

Lower down the hill the mud gave way to rocks, great big wet, shiny, slippery rocks. I was all over the place again, still unable to think fast enough to keep the bike under control. I ended up in a heap in a bush at one point but managed to avoid landing on any of the rocks and so no damage was done. I was rescued by another helpful rider who freed my left foot from the pedal it was trapped in, my poor wounded knee not being strong enough to unclip while laying on my side tangled up in the bike and the undergrowth.

I promised myself that I would be more careful but soon found myself getting carried away again, going too quickly and falling once more as I slid over the stones. I remained mostly upright as I rode into the embankment at the side of the trail but this time hurt my finger and my other finger as I put my arm out to save myself. Despite these injuries the descent was a huge amount of fun. The rain had stopped by this point and a lot of locals had come out to cheer from their houses, gardens and fields as we sped passed.

The Isonzo river is also pretty

About five miles from the end I passed someone who’s name I have forgotten but whom I had been talking to near the top of the climb. Talking with the locals is easy, in common with most Brits I speak very little Slovenian but almost everyone we met spoke perfect English. Standard procedure seemed to be for me to ask if the person I needed to talk to could speak English, German or Italian, since I can just about muddle through in the latter two, the languages of their neighbours, and they would reply that they could speak all three fluently and which did I prefer?

Anyway, we had been discussing the comparative riding to be had in Slovenia and Scotland and the relative merits of each country’s access laws before he left me behind and disappeared up into the clouds. When I saw him again he was pushing his bike with a flat front tyre. He and I were probably the only two 26 inch riders in the field and so I was able to give him one of my tubes, and I also took a bit of a risk and gave him my pump (not expecting to race I wasn’t carrying my usual gas but had the Lyzene frame-mounted track-pump with me)

I took the last few miles a bit more carefully, just being a little cautious in case I pinch flatted as I too would now be reliant on the generosity of a passer-by. It was not needed and the remaining fireroads were dispatched without incident, bringing us back to Kamp Koren, where shortly afterwards I was handed a pump and a beer by a very grateful Slovenian bloke.

As I expected I hadn’t done very well, My toe, my knee, my other knee and general fatigue had left me down in 46th place at 3h53m but I had enjoyed it enormously, which is the main thing. It was a proper, tough course. A good hard climb, technical descents, some fast sections, and generally very well run.
Proper race course. Start in the town at the bottom right of the
picture, up to the summit at the top left, over the top and back
down the other side.

I was chatting to one of the marshals afterwards, who of course spoke perfect English, and she expressed surprise that I would come all the way from Scotland for the race. I explained that we had actually come for the European Championship in Switzerland and had just been touring around Slovenia when we stumbled across the race by accident. She asked how the two events compared and seemed equally surprised when I said that this was by the far the better. A lovely area which they really made the most of. I know a few people who have been to Slovenia and they have all come back saying how lovely it is, how friendly everyone and how I really should go. They are right, and if you are reading this, you should go too.

Just because you are racing doesn't mean you can't
 

Twenty-Three And A Bit Hours In A Field


I really hate to write a negative-sounding race report but sometimes circumstances just dictate that it has to be done.
 
I will however start with the positives – the views from the course were fantastic. That over, on with the rest of it…
 
Some elements, such as the heavy rain which began about noon, just as we were getting ready to head into Davos for the start, were outside of the organiser’s control, but most of the rest they could, and probably should, have done differently.
 
We arrived in Davos town centre at about 1pm having found our way to the start by stopping and asking in a local bike shop (Ivan's, lovely people who helped us enormously all week) rather than by following any signs since there didn't appear to be any. The race briefing was conducted in the concrete entrance lobby of some sort of sports centre. My German is good enough to get the gist of it but being a European Championship I was expecting a couple more languages, at least English and French, possibly Italian, maybe a couple of others.
 
Despite the drab surroundings we were all keen to remain in there for as long as possible as the rain outside was bouncing off the paving. We were however ushered out to the start line about 20 minutes before the off, where we chatted amongst ourselves as we got wetter and wetter and colder and colder.
The first start
 
The race was lead out behind a truck, starting at 1345 rather than the advertised 1400. This lead us on a neutralised lap of the town where, probably due to the weather, only half a dozen people had come to cheer us on.
 
From there we were lead up the main road for a couple of miles back to the venue at Frauenkirch, traffic coming down the road clearly not warned that they were about to encounter a couple of hundred riders heading towards them, jostling for position amongst themselves and not expecting anything to be coming the other way.
 
I managed to stay at the front for most of this neutralised section, which proved to be a good move. I did drop back to the second row briefly and the spray from just the riders in front of me was horrendous, I don’t know what it was like for those further back, they must have been even wetter and colder than I was.
 
We were lead up the main climb where the truck peeled off and the race proper began. Defending champion Daniel Schmidheiney, the other Brit Matt Jones and a few others shot off up the reminder of the hill leaving me and another half dozen as a chasing pack, the other riders strung out down the hill behind us.  
 Matt on some fireroad, a little bit techier than most of the rest
of the course as there is a puddle to avoid here.
 
Up the fireroad climb as fast as I could, over the crest and down the other side, a really fast fireroad descent. With the recent addition of a front crud-catcher and a neoguard I was actually able to see the corners through all the spray, a big improvement over Friday afternoon, and I felt brave enough to keep my speed up.
 
A sharp right-hander at the end took us into one of the two brief singletrack sections. It was marked with three caution arrows, but Gina had ridden it perfectly well on Friday – not only has she never raced but the number of times she has ridden a mountain bike can be counted, if not on the fingers of one hand, then certainly without needing to remove one’s socks. This 'suitable for beginners' section was the most interesting part of the course, but probably didn’t warrant three arrows.
 
Left at the bottom and down the hill towards the bridge, a marshal still faffing with the course tape. Unsure which way to go I shouted “Rechts? Right? Diestre?” Nothing. I guessed and carried the speed into the more obvious line across the bridge, those behind following me over. Heading up the climb on the other side Matt appeared from my right, another rider on his tail, shouting something about getting lost. Not a good start for him!
 
He got away from me again up the grassy climb and through the quarry. If the rain continued as it was now this grassy climb would quickly become a quagmire, reminiscent of a wet Eastnor and Mountain Mayhem at it’s worst.
 
Through the campsite, up another tarmac climb and then through the river crossing. I was following the two guys in front of me as fast as I could. There were two camper vans parked across the track, which we squeezed passed as best we could. Over to my left I could see the end of the other singletrack section as we rode passed it. It seemed a little odd that we had not ridden it but maybe the first lap was different, it sometimes is, just to spread us out a little at the start. I pointed at it as we sped passed, slightly quizzical. My companions looked puzzled but shrugged and carried on in pursuit of the riders still just visible ahead of us as they headed into the trees.
 
Matt cornering hard in a field
 
Along the riverside, another interminable grassy section before finally riding through the stable yard and back into the pits. I just needed another bottle of Torq, just a quick grab, there should be no need to stop, but Gina and Luke, Daniel’s mechanic, flagged me down and pulled me over. The race had been aborted, so many riders had got lost that they had no choice but to abandon it and start again.
 
This was just after 1430, a new 23hr race would start from the main arena at 1500. There was just enough time to wash the worst of the mud and grass out of the bike, put a dry top on, have a Torq bar and then stand around in the rain losing whatever body heat we had managed to build up since the first start.
 
This sort of thing just shouldn’t happen, especially at a European Championship. The course not being properly marked out as the race got underway is a pretty basic error. It should really have been properly marked at least a couple of days before, from talking to other riders I got the impression that no-one had been able to practice it properly, we should have known it like the backs of our gloves by this stage. Most people had ridden most of it but not necessarily in the right order or in the right direction. It’s like that moment before the test match when the umpire is wandering around, trying to find someone who has remembered to bring a bat this time…
 
Whilst I am having a moan, there we were in the middle of the Swiss Alps, snow-capped peaks and forests all around us, a stone’s throw from some of the best riding to be found anywhere on earth. SO WHY WEREN’T WE USING IT?! It was such a wasted opportunity, coming all this way to such a lovely area to ride round and round a field or two.
 
 The much vaunted quarry section...
 
  
Particular highlights of the track included riding through the discharge puddle from the showers, twice each lap, the enormous puddle of horse piss in the stable yard as we came back into the pits, the quarry section which turned out to be the access road for the trucks and of course the meat factory. The pits were located right next to this and the stench of death pervaded the whole campsite during the race. When the wind got up in a little on Sunday morning it also engulfed most of the second half of the course, really not good news 20hrs into a race when one’s stomach is all over the place.
 
The meat factory next to the transition area for the team riders
in the pits, that really did stink!
 
 Anyway, Race Two:
 
The rain was starting to ease off as we regrouped on the improvised start line, hoping no-one had had a mechanical on the first lap and was still out there somewhere in the woods. No-one had checked us in or out again.
The second start. This is me chasing defending champ 
Daniel Schmidheiney, Matt Jones just visible behind me,
probably the last time I was ahead of him.  
 
Daniel shot off at the restart, opening up a big lead on the first climb, half a dozen riders chasing him with me in the pack behind them. It turned out that I had indeed been one of those who had gone the wrong way, turning right instead of left after the stream crossing. I got it right this time, word had obviously reached the marshals and the markings all appeared to have been fixed, the course was much easier to follow.
 
I found the previously omitted singletrack section and also found that the two camper vans were not in fact parked on the course after all now I was going the right way. Even better, they belonged to our friends from Ivan's who had set up a neutral put to help anyone who might need it, as I said, lovely people.
 
 
 There's some singletrack! And some more tarmac...
 
The rain stayed away for the first two laps before it returned again for another hour or so. The grass sections were, as predicted, getting quite chewed up but they had at least brought out some wooden snow-ladders to keep it rideable for most of us.
 
Daniel completely lost the will to live at about 6pm and called it a day. After some food and a hot shower he took over as mechanic and Luke headed home. It was at about this time that my forks also gave up (note to self: I really need to get some new ones, they keep going wrong mid race, I wonder if anyone still makes 26” QR forks? Maybe I should have a word with the Retro-Bike guys…) It didn’t really matter though, rigid forks were fine for this course and I just kept riding them despite having access to a spare bike. My 4”-travel full-suss really did leave me feeling very overbiked, I had the rear locked out for most of the race.
 
Me in a field next to a river
 
It was time to fit the lights as darkness started to fall at about 9pm. Matt was in second at this point and chasing hard, I was in twelfth and feeling reasonably comfortable. I was using two lights, an  Exposure MaxxDs on the bars and a Joystick on my helmet as a backup.
 
Normally I would need two MaxxDs, or one and something similar like a SixPack or Toro, to get me through the night part of a race. I run them on medium on the fireoads and then at full power in the singletrack and two will easily last a race like this. The Joystick is to help see around the corners in the twisty bits and usually has a SupportCell attached for a bit of extra battery life.
 
The Joystick didn’t get used at all this time and the main light spent so much time on low and medium, with just a couple of minutes on high each lap, that it was still going strong as daylight returned, the course was too simple to require using it’s full potential.
 
By about 2am Matt had taken the lead and I had moved up to seventh, he had one pursuer pretty close behind but I had about four.
 
Matt in a different field
 
It didn’t get too cold overnight and mercifully the forecast thunderstorms stayed away so the course didn’t get too much worse despite the riders passing over and over it. It wasn’t just the 24hr Soloists here, there were also 24hr Teams and a 6hr race. I have no idea what the 6hr racers did, whether they restarted the 6hrs again or if they did a 5hr race. Either way the track got pretty quiet at night without them.
 
At the end of the lap, just after riding through the shower puddle and before crossing the start/finish line, we passed through the big marquee. The 6hr riders had all gathered in there to drink beer and eat pasta after their race and, with the course almost devoid of spectators, it would have been great to have them all cheering us on as we sped passed inches away from them. However, someone had seen fit to erect a large curtain to separate spectators and riders, quite bizarre.
 
The arena. As you can see, not a big turnout this year...
The meat factory is just out of shot to the left
 
As the race drew on I began to struggle, the lack of training was beginning to show, a 24hr race really isn’t something one can just muddle through. I had dropped from seventh to eighth by dawn and lost another two places before the end. Some spectators had emerged as the end of the race approached, a couple in particular helped me up two of the climbs, one riding alongside me for a while as I tried to explain to her in my best German what had happened at the first start. The marshall at the top of the main climb was great. encouraging me on, coaxing me up the hill, although she seemed quite concerned for my welfare by that stage.
 
It was something of a relief when I came around again at about 1330 to find that the leaderboard (or Gina’s telephone, there was no sign of any information about positions or lap times available for the pit crews or spectators anywhere else) was saying that it was now impossible for me to catch anyone ahead and that it was also impossible for me to be caught by those behind in the time we had remaining, and so for me it was race over, 10th place.
 
Matt in a field next to a shed. With the grass worn down to
mud it almost looks like a bit of singletrack. Almost.
 
We all gathered in the arena to wait for Matt to finish his lap and take a convincing win and the title of European Champion, he had ridden an excellent race.
 
A nice touch was the playing of the national anthem for him on the podium, just after he had received his prize of beef, he looked quite emotional.
 
Results: 
1.      Matt Jones                         UK
2.      Dominik Hug                      Switzerland                       
3.      Marcel Knaus                     Lichtenstein       
4.      Christian Eggenberger     Switzerland
5.      Andreas Schmelzer           France                 
6.      Herbert Luther                  Germany             
7.      Daniel Schefer                   Switzerland                       
8.      Danial Rombach               Austria                
9.      Nicolas Pellegrinelli          Italy
10.   Andrew Howett                UK

The women's race was won by Sonja Gisler, by a convincing margin ahead of fellow Swiss rider Colette Tőlle.
 
I would like to say a very big thank-you, especially to Gina, but also to Daniel, Sarah and Luke in the pits, the lovely guys at Ivan's and, as always, Torq, Exposure, and Mt Zoom
 

Three Days, Nine Countries, One Long Drive


In the last few days I have become very well travelled, nine countries in three days. We left Scotland and drove most of the length of England, spending a little time with my parents in Lincolnshire, the first time I have seen them for a few months. From there we headed down to Dover and left England in the pouring rain on Monday morning.

It took us much longer than intended to get across northern France as we got stuck in the suburbs of Lille and had to do a dozen laps of the city before finally achieving some sort of escape velocity and emerging into southern Belgium.

We quickly passed through the country and into Luxembourg, which despite it’s diminutive size took much longer to traverse, there appeared to be a traffic jam the length of an entire nation. From there we crossed into Germany, where we stopped overnight, somewhere in the Black Forrest, not too far from Stuttgart.

It had been raining hard for the whole journey but the following day dawned bright and sunny. We hit the autobahns again, our elderly Transit coping admirably on the derestricted roads, at one point it hit nearly 80mph!

We spent much of the afternoon unsure as to exactly which county we were in. Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein and Switzerland all meet at more or less the same place. We stopped for lunch somewhere in one of those countries, a lovely lakeside restaurant, but I still have no idea which one it was in.  

We were definitely in Switzerland when we stopped for the night, somewhere on the road between Klosters and Davos. We were woken early the next morning by the police who seemed curious about the rusty white van with foreign plates, by far the oldest and scuffiest vehicle in the whole country and therefore clearly up to no good.

Davos itself was also bright and sunny, it was about 30 degrees when we arrived, which was lovely. We had a bit of a walk around the town looking for some breakfast and found the big conference centre where the World Economic Forum is held every year, complete with the sandpit and playground in the grounds, presumably put there back in the days when George Bush was attending such events.

From there we headed over to the race venue at Frauenkirch. Some things were already starting to take shape, the main marquee was up, the bridge for the flyover was under construction and the pits were marked out. However, we were told that most of the track could not be ridden, for reasons which were unclear. We set off on the bikes to ride whatever bits of the track we could find and, here in the heart of the Swiss Alps, surrounded by snow-capped peaks and high Alpine meadows, were distinctly underwhelmed by it. It was, for want of a better word, much too ‘fieldy.’ What parts of the course we did find were mainly grass fields, a bit of fire-road and a surprisingly large section of tarmac, hardly the exciting Alpine trails we had been looking forward to. At least it was sunny though and the detour we took up to Jakobshorn was lovely.

Thursday was warm and bright, although the track was still not marked out so we decided just to go for a ride around the area, following one of the signposted routes up in the hills. We headed from Frauenkirch up to Glaris and Spina, past the lift station at the top and then followed a lovely piece of singletrack from Abirűgg down to Sertig-Dőrfli, that was a lot of fun.
 
Some of the locals on the trail

There were two other Brits entered into the race, Matt Jones and Jason Miles, and we received word from Jason that evening that Mrs Miles was quite ill and he therefore would not be coming. Judging by the parts of the course we had seen so far he wouldn’t be missing much.

Friday morning was also nice and sunny, although the forecast for the afternoon and the race on Saturday and Sunday was grim. The course was now apparently all marked out, apart from the final quarry section. That could be good, maybe we had underestimated it, riding old quarry workings is always fun.

We set off to have a look and were soon completely baffled. There was plenty of marker tape around but no arrows so we had no idea which section went in which direction and there were so many cross-overs and two-way sections that we couldn’t even tell which followed which. There was even more grass field than we had first thought and we only managed to find two bits of singletrack, the longest of which was only about 400 yards long.

Why wasn't this is part of the course? Less than a mile away
and it was brilliant!

Matt arrived just before 5pm, accompanied by his wife Sarah, defending champion Daniel Schmidheiney, mechanic Luke and the rain.

Daniel had raced at Davos before and offered to take us out for a lap. Despite having been there for three days I still had no idea where the course went and so decided to go with him and Matt out into the pouring rain. It turned out that the majority of the descending was on fireroads. Normally these would be used for the climbs, with the more entertaining singletrack sections as the descents, but a lack of the latter obviously necessitated that the downhills would also be fireroad. The speed of these combined with the hard surface and the heavy, thundery rain which rapidly tuned them into rivers meant that it was nigh on impossible for me to see where I was going through the spray from the rear wheels in front and from my own front wheel. Even local knowledge proved to be of little help as Daniel lead us astray before we retraced our steps and tried to figure out where we were supposed to go. 

The quarry section was something of a disappointment, rather than drops and chutes down though the old workings it turned out to be a gravel access road for the trucks. Even when we returned to the arena there was still some confusion as to exactly where we were supposed to be going, but surely it would all be fixed for the race tomorrow…

Friday evening was spent in the pit tent fitting crud-catchers to the bikes and wishing that I had brought a proper set of mud tyres. I was not looking forward to this.

When Crasher Met Dorris


How often does one get the chance to interview a newly crowned British World Champion? Well, if DH racing is your thing about every 3½ minutes but in the world of endurance racing they are a much rarer breed. 

I spoke to Steve Day about the 24hr World Championships at Rotorua in New Zealand. He is not only crazy enough to race for 24hrs but also daft enough to do it on a bike with only one gear. He took a very narrow victory over Australian Ed McDonald with Gareth Weinberg, the local favourite, close behind. Even more impressively the top three singlespeeders were sixth, seventh and eighth overall!  So, who is Steve and how did his race go?

I have written down everything as he said it, so therefore any spilling mistakes are entirely his and nothing whatsoever to do with me…



You are probably best-known for your successes at Mountain-Mayhem here in the UK, winning the Nick Wallis trophy five times.


I’ve done every Mountain Mayhem apart from one when I was really ill, but it’s only in the last two or three years where it’s all clicked into place.

Were they all solo?
From 2005 onwards it’s always been solo. You know what it’s like with a team of people, everyone wants to go their own way and I wanted to go as fast as possible for the whole 24 hours so I decided to give it a crack. It’s all down to a friend of ours who used to be an army PT instructor, he’s done it a couple of times and said ‘you need to have a go at this’. His ex-wife Bev still crews for me.

So you did that last, infamous, one at Eastnor then? How did that go?
A lot of people described it as horrendous but I absolutely loved it. The standpipe was halfway between where we were camped and the finish line, so I could go there, change bikes and carry on and it would be clean for next time I came round. That was the first year the singlespeed trophy appeared, the Nick Wallis award, and I won that, which made it even more special. That was really the turning point in my racing. I started taking it a bit more seriously at that point and I’ve won that trophy for the last five years..

New Zealand 2016 wasn’t your first attempt at a World Championship. How did you get on at the 2015 Worlds in Weaverville, California? 

A friend of mine, Julian Rider, was racing in the Worlds at Fort William in 2014 and won his category. I hadn’t clocked on to the worlds at that point but at the Torq-12 a few weeks before, he was saying “you really need to go” but it was just too close, I had too much going on beforehand. But that was the start of California, he planted the seed…

I went to SSUK about four weeks before the trip to California and had a little bit of an accident and ended up quite seriously spraining the rotator cuff in my left shoulder. I went through a load of physio and I was dosed up to the eyeballs with painkillers and anti-inflammatories at the start of the Weaverville race. At 12hrs in, I was leading in the singlespeed category but at that point my shoulder went from being manageable to being not very good at all. At 16hrs I decided to call it a day when I couldn’t actually use the back brake on the 8 mile descent. So, I came back from California with a lot of unfinished business.

I was fortunate enough that work helped me out to get there, and I felt that actually I owed them quite a lot as well and hence within a few weeks my wife said “if you need to go to New Zealand, go, get that done” so I was straight back into training once the shoulder was in a position to do so. I went out to [New Zealand] to do what I had set out to do in California. Yeah, it felt really, really good to come back from New Zealand and have that title,



How do you prepare for a 24hr singlespeed race?
Jimmy Docherty at Mule Bar put me in touch with [my coach] Jon Fern at EC3 and from then I’ve had a training plan. It was initially just getting my base level up and then pushing me harder and harder. I think it was a bit of a change for him as well because there’s no way I’m riding a geared bike. He worked really hard to get his head around trying to train someone on a bike that’s only got one gear.

It was a lot of time out on the trails, between 150 and 200 miles a week on the mountain bike, I don’t know how many hours that is, mainly off road with bits of road to link the trails together. Weekend rides normally vary between 4-6hrs Saturday and Sunday, an hour on a Monday, 2-4hrs on a Wednesday and it depends what’s going on Thursday, Friday, sometimes an hour, sometimes 2hrs, it’s quite a few hours, a lot of which are early in the morning so I still get time with my family.
Also a few floor exercises, a bit of yoga. I used to go to the pool and the gym a lot but all the gym stuff has been knocked on the head because I just don’t have time to do it now, it’s all bike or basic floor exercises.

Are you missing the gym?
No, because I was only doing that to keep generally fit, now the training is a lot more focussed on cycling endurance whereas the gym stuff was a bit of this, a bit of that, a bit of spin classes, a bit of swimming whereas with the cycling my general level of fitness has increased because I’m pushing myself harder because I’ve got a goal. Obviously California was a big goal, and then New Zealand, and now I’ve got Mayhem and Relentless to think about. I think having that goal is really important, keeping that focus has been key to it, knowing that’s what I’m doing, this is why I’m doing all these hours on a bike. It’s certainly changed me, it’s been tough at times for my wife Ingrid and son Erik, but they understand why I’m doing it.

Do they think you are bonkers or are they quite supportive?
There’s no way we would have gone to California and no way Ingrid would have let me go to New Zealand if she wasn’t supporting me. She’s always been there, even when I was racing as part of a team. New Zealand was the first time I’ve been to a 24hr race and she wasn’t there. You can imagine how stressful that was, a 24hr race isn’t just me, it’s the people around me, my wife and my son, my friend Bev and to not have them there was a massive shock. I know my wife found it really stressful being at home the other side of the world, 12hrs apart and just being able to watch the timing on a screen and not being able to feed me and talk to me and understand what I’m going through. I know she found that extremely tough.

So who did you have to help out in New Zealand? I know it’s called ‘Solo 24hr racing’ but there’s usually a big team behind the ‘soloist’.
Sam Allison at Singular who set me up with frames put me in touch with the New Zealand importer, a guy called Allan Eng, and he sorted out a spare bike for me. He put a spare set of [suspension] forks on it instead of rigid which is great, I’m so glad he did that because after 6hrs there’s no way I could have carried on on the rigid bike, and he also organised for a mechanic, Murray, to be there. Murray turned up with his wife and son a great big motorhome so it was perfect, other than my wife not being there. A friend of mine, Saps, from the club that I ride with was out there at the time and when he found I was coming he said “I’ll come along”. He came with his girlfriend and it was really nice having that bunch of people there, the only reason they were there was because of what I was doing and they wanted to see me do really well.


Had any of them done a 24hr before? It can be just as tough for the pit crews.
No! They stayed up the whole up 24hrs, it was amazing. I’m so grateful for their help, unbelievable, really, really good. And I think that’s part of what made the whole thing work, was having that support. I’d never met Allan until I arrived in Auckland. He’s a really friendly guy and couldn’t do enough to help out. To be honest, everyone else in the pits was the same, one of those big 24hr things, everyone there doesn’t want to see anyone struggle, and people put themselves out for you, it was a really good experience. Nduro events even re-arranged the presentation so I could collect my medal and jersey before leaving to get the plane home.

Did you have a plan for the race, and if so did it go according to plan?
After having ridden on the Friday I had the inkling then that I wasn’t going to be able to ride the rigid bike for the whole time so the plan was to do 8hrs on the rigid, 8hrs on the suspension bike overnight and then get back on the rigid bike in the daytime.

It was really unfortunate that Brett [Belchambers, multiple world champion] pulled out because of his crash the week before, he hit a wallaby at 50mph, so he was in quite a bad way. [He suffered damaged vertebrae, broken ribs and, worst of all, the loss of most of his beard. However, another fast Aussie, Ed McDonald, stepped up to the singlespeed category, determined to keep the Brits at bay] I knew my pace was similar to his in California so he was going to be my target man, he was the one to maintain the gap to so any plan that I had went out the window when that happened.

I saw Ed McDonald shoot off at the start and I knew Gareth Weinberg, the New Zealander, was behind me so those were my two markers after the first lap. That was the plan, just be consistent, try not to blow, because I’d heard rumours that the local boys were going to send out a hare for me to chase, there’s no way I’m falling into that trap. That’s 24s at the end of the day, you’ve got to ride at your own pace otherwise you never know if you’re going to get to the end.

On my penultimate lap I knew that I had just over a quarter of an hour on Ed and I thought if I can push that penultimate lap and make sure that he knows that I’m not giving up, I’ve got a little bit of a chance to relax. That penultimate lap took a lot out of me and I went into the last lap thinking “20 minutes on Ed”, and I needed that 20 minutes, I really suffered on that last lap, to the point where one of the marshals on top of one of the climbs said “do you need a medic?” I was like, no way, I’ve got to finish, there’s no way I’m giving up now!

I got across the finish line at the end of the race and I basically collapsed from exhaustion. It was 28 degrees out there and really, really high humidity. Over here the last two training rides I did were at minus four and zero. It was a bit of a shock to the system.
It was a close race and I think that’s what really made it better, that Ed was that close, there was 15-16 minutes in it at the end, it was good to be pushed all the way.


How confident were you of winning before the race began?
I was hoping. I knew after California I was fast enough to do so.  I remember at the 10-11hr mark in the pit area in California I was riding out as I saw Brett and Jason Miles riding in, I had a 15 minute gap and I’d managed to maintain that for a good few hours but it was literally within a lap I went from being OK to being not very good. Leading up to New Zealand I was confident but you never know what happens, you never know where other people are in terms of their fitness, what the course is going to be like. I went out there with fingers crossed but I’ve never been so nervous before a race. The Friday night out there I must have only slept 2 or 3 hours.

Why were you more nervous about this one than Weaverville?
[Nervous laugh] Pressure.  To get out to New Zealand I did a crowd-funder to raise the money so a lot of people had put money in to help me get there. They paid for my flights, my accommodation and my hire car basically, I stumped up the money for the entry and any food and anything else I needed while I was there.

Was that friends or complete strangers?
A bit of both. I’d set up the crowd-funding thing and put it on Facebook and within a week or so I was halfway there through friend’s donations which took me completely by surprise. There was a lot of £10, £20, £50 donations in there and then another friend of mine who works at Leicester Audi went to see his boss, they gave me another £250. I think one of the surprises was Team JMC, Jason Miles’ guys, they gave me £150 as well, that was completely unexpected. But I was surprised at how quickly the money built up, and I as soon as I saw that I put my entry in, that’s when I knew I was going. There are a lot of people to thank for that, a big long list of people.

I’ve got a decal on my top-tube and everyone who gave me money to get out there has their name on it, it’s still on there, I’m really, really proud of that.


Did the race itself go smoothly, did you have mechanicals or other problems?
From a race point of view it was the best race I’ve ever had. In terms of the bikes that I had nothing went wrong, the Exposure lights that I ran were absolutely amazing. I didn’t have any offs apart from on the last lap, just from exhaustion, and my nutrition was perfect. I’ve never had it before where I’ve felt OK, relatively speaking, at the end of the race to the point where I’ve had to go and eat a meal, normally I can’t eat anything and struggle to drink anything, but everything clicked into place with this one. I know what I’m looking for for the next 24hr race, whereas before it’s always been a bit hit and miss, nothing ever goes that smoothly!

Which course did you prefer, California or New Zealand?
New Zealand was a lot more singlespeed friendly, just because you didn’t have that massive climb. The climb in California averaged something like one in ten and it was one in four in a few places, it just seemed to go on and on. After an 8 mile descent you are properly cold at the bottom and then you are straight back into the climb, there wasn’t any warm-up, it was really tough on a singlespeed. New Zealand was just amazing to ride in amongst all the trees and ferns and there’s a lot of roots which is why it was tough on a rigid bike. They had 200mm of rain in the run up to the race, on the Friday morning the pits area was ankle deep in water, the guys were all digging trenches, but out on the course you couldn’t have asked for more perfect conditions. The rain had kept all the dust down too but it wasn’t sticky or muddy, it was very grippy.

Was a lot of it man-made then, with decent drainage designed into it?
I think it just drains quick. There’s a lot of porous rock out there with it being so volcanic and the trees sucked up a lot of the moisture. It’s like a massive trail centre, but it wasn’t like a UK trail centre, there was a lot of natural stuff there and they made the best use of the terrain. They didn’t have a man-made surface, it was whatever the surface was that was on the side of the mountain. It was a hard pack dirt in places, but quite loose in others, lots of roots, difficult to describe. It was an interesting place to ride.

What did you eat during the race, is it merely a question of quantity?
Just bars, gels, electrolyte drink, a little bit of energy drink and muesli and that’s it. The muesli is the only thing I have which is not sort of condensed energy drink and bars. Over the years I’ve found stuff that really works for me, the Torq bars and the gels, it’s all just clicked really, really nicely this year. I took it all out with me, so my bike bag had my bike in it and all my nutrition, so I knew exactly what I’d have rather than get out there and then have to try to find something.

Did you have any visits from the sleepmonsters in the wee small hours?
I think when I first started doing 24hr races I used to suffer more, I don’t know what’s changed, whether you just get used to riding for that length of time or I am just more mentally prepared now. There wasn’t really anything weird going on there either, other than the disco at the top of one of the climbs, which was weird with the bout of silent heckling, smoke machine, disco lights, ‘interesting’ signage and mooning.

Are you sure you weren’t imagining stuff?
It’s not really something I suffer with. You didn’t notice them in the day but at night but as soon as you put your lights on there were silver ferns everywhere, which looked quite spooky. But there weren’t any night gremlins or anything.

How long does it take you to recover from a 24hr?
Normally I’ve ridden to work the next day but that’s only across town. In terms of feeling OK that normally takes a couple of weeks. To be able to push it, probably four to six weeks.  I’m hoping to go to race at Relentless up at Fort William… I’ve not put my entry in yet but that’s the plan – I heard lots of good things about the event and the course.


24hr racers usually get all kinds unpleasant afflictions, everything from the squits to constipation and nappy rash. Are there any you would like to share with us?
Riding a rigid bike, more so at Mayhem than New Zealand where I was on a bike with suspension forks for 18 hours, numb hands is the worst one and tingly feet.  The tingly feet go a few hours after the race but the numb hands can hang around for a while. Even wearing two pairs of gloves doesn’t always cure it. I’ve got a pair of old Scott knitted fingerless mitts that are really, really padded on the palm. I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have those.

Maybe you would have to try suspension forks?
Tell you what, it was a bit of an eye-opener as to how good they are now compared to the last time I rode suspension forks so I will be getting a set. I just really like riding rigid bikes though, they make you think about what you’re doing. On one of the laps in Rotorua there was a local guy following me and he was saying ‘Mate, I’ve never seen anyone take that line’, it was because I was looking for smooth lines where ever I could see them. But yeah it was a revelation to see how good suspension forks are now.

Are you a convert?
I wouldn’t say I’m a convert, I’ve seen the benefit. I’ve got a Swift that a set of forks would go nicely on but my race bike and my 29+, I’ll still keep those rigid.

Is that for the sake of weight or reliability or do the ludite tendencies extend beyond gears?
My race bike is Swift geometry but it’s Columbus tubes and based around the Niner RDO fork and it’s just a really, really sweet ride. It’s light too, really light. There’s nothing to go wrong, on a fully rigid bike there’s nothing to think about other than your lines. I just like keeping it simple, less stuff to fix and maintain, I’ve got other things to think about, I can be training or working or being with my family rather than being in the garage tinkering.

Even though it’s a singlespeed race you are allowed to change gear, as long as there is only one on the bike at any given moment. Did you have a shorter gear for when fatigue started to set in?
Both bikes were on the same gearing. I took a load of cogs out to Rotorua with me and after the Friday I knew what I needed to be able to get through 24hrs and make sure I could ride all the climbs rather than have to get off and push. 33:21 [on a 29] If I’m going to get cramp it’s going to get triggered getting on and off normally, so the aim was to try to stay on the bike for as long as possible.


Do you prefer a bar light, helmet light or both?
One of each, and both on at the same time. An Exposure Six Pack on the bar, it’s just amazing. You can set it on a six hour mode which is enough for a race really. Particularly out in Rotorua, the helmet light (Equinox) was really good because there was some nice twisty stuff and you needed the light to see round the corners. So a bit of both, but you don’t need a lot of power on the head torch, although the Exposure ones are super-bright. Really nice lights. The higher power settings were really good out in California because the descent was 8 miles of disconnect your brain and hope your balls are big enough not to do something stupid, it was properly fast and you certainly needed the depth of light to keep the speed up.

Mr Wiggins won a big race a couple of years ago and became Sir Bradley. Were you disappointed not to get a mention in the Queen’s birthday honours list?
That’s not why I’m doing it, I’m doing it for me. It’s just one of things, mountain-biking had been part of my life for years, since I’ve been at uni, push bikes or motorbikes have always been there. It’s a bit of fun at the end of the day. I don’t like the publicity stuff.

{His wife’s voice drifts through from the next room}  You love it!

It’s flattering, the stuff on Facebook and whatever is really flattering. One of the best bits at Rotorua was about midnight, I didn’t know I’d taken the singlespeed lead at that point until I pulled into the pits and Allan looked at me and said “Mate, Facebook’s just gone mental.” It was close for a good few hours but that was such a mental lift to know that people in the UK were following me and when I got home it took me more than 3hrs just to go through my Facebook page, all the messages that people had been putting up, a really, really, good feeling.


Have you ever fallen asleep on the bike?
Yes…

Tell us about it then, nothing to be embarrassed about, we’ve all done it. [Have we?! Are you sure about that? – Ed]
That was at Mountain Mayhem, one of my first solo 24hr races. It was on the fire-road in the first bunch of trees. I was coming down there maybe 1 or 2 in the morning and it’s one of those points were you could just relax. I relaxed and then woa! I woke up and I was just completely out of it, that was proper scary, knowing that I’d fallen asleep. It can only have been for maybe fractions of a second, it was quick, but you were properly motoring down that bit of trail. It wasn’t a nice experience.

Finally. you have mentioned that a lot of people helped, both to get you out there and during the race itself.
I’m just so grateful for what they’ve done to allow me to do that, I was just pleased that I could come back with that singlespeed title. Firstly, my wife Ingrid and my son Erik for putting up with me for the last 18 months. Jon Fern at E3C who’s been my coach for the last 18months, he’s been a massive part in making sure I’ve been fit enough to put myself in a position where I knew I was in contention, likewise, he is good at pulling me back in line when things get a bit wobbly mentally. Sam Allison at Singular for his help with frames and for sorting out the second-best pit crew I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, Jimmy at Mule Bar, he was fundamental to putting me in touch with Jon and encouraging me basically. I’ve known Jimmy since Mule Bar first started up and he’s played a big part in this as well. Wayne Elliot at EDS bikes, he’s helped me out with tyres and other bits and pieces this year. Fibrax, I’ve been training for two winters and destroyed so many sets of brake pads, they’ve been amazing, a really big help. The guys at Torq. The guys at Repack who’ve helped me out this year with clothing. Exposure Lights, the guys at Leicester Audi, the guys at JMC. And Hope – great British kit.

Thanks very much for your time Steve and well done!.
Thank-you

I Like Shiny Things

It’s a bit tricky trying to think of anything even remotely interesting to say about a pump. It’s probably the least glamorous piece of kit I have, the one I will be cursing having to use at all. It will inevitably only ever be required when it’s -3° and the howling wind is driving the rain hard into my face and increasingly numb hands.
 
It’s at times like that, when everyone else is standing waiting for me, huddled down inside their jackets as best they can for what little protection they offer from the elements, moaning loudly and vociferously at me for making them even colder, that I need something which I know will just work.

 
The fact that it will work perfectly after spending two years strapped to the side of the winter bike through all the rain, mud, grit, road salt, jet washes and splatted cow pats I just take for granted. It must be at least six months since it was last removed from the bike, never mind used, but work perfectly it does. This has lasted longer than any other pump I have ever had and, apart from the scratches and a slight dent from a rock strike inflicted upon it, is as good as it was when it was new.

I had always struggled finding a suitable pump for my road bike. The little tiny jersey-pocket size ones just don’t cut it when you need to get over 100psi, whatever the manufacturers claim, the only option is a folding track-pump. However, I have found that most of these also struggle with that sort pressure and quickly succumb to the elements once you attach them to the side of a bike and submit them to a 50+ mile commute five days a week through a Scottish winter.

The Lezyne Micro Floor Drive is simply in a different class. The build quality is top-notch, I don’t know what is different about the seals on it but they seem impenetrable. The pressures it can achieve are far greater than anything else of a similar size, I now stop pumping because I have reached the pressure I want rather than because the pump simply can’t give any more. Lezyne claim up to 160psi for it and I actually believe them, it feels like there's still loads to give when I stop at 120, it's not at all laboured or stiff at that point. Even the part which attaches to the valve is better than any other I've tried, a proper screw-thread rather than a clip which pops off seventeen times during the pumping process. It’s also a lot lighter than it looks, just over 5 ounces (yes, really) which is pretty impressive for any pump of this kind, never mind one made of lovely shiny aluminium rather than cheap plastic. It can do Presta and Schrader, the hose is nice and long and, when attached to the bottle cage bosses, it leaves loads of room for the bottle and cage and a reasonable amount of space for your foot to come passed on the upstroke.

Luckily I have only used it myself twice in the last year or so but I would never leave home without it. I have however lost count of how many times I have lent it to others to help them out when their own pumps have proved to be much less effective. It is an item which can help you make friends, there is nothing like the look of relief on someone’s face when you find them in the middle of nowhere, the swearing only partially drowned out by the hissing sound which has caused it, and ask if they would like to borrow a track pump. They will recognise you and stop for a chat when they next see you six months later, which is nice.


The only time I won’t take it is when I’m racing, any pump Is going to be (relatively) slow and cumbersome if it’s needed in those circumstances and so I take a gas canister instead. I generally don’t like using disposable items of any kind and so take the pump for everything else.
 
Overall
I like – everything. The pressures it can achieve, ease of use, reliability, weight, shininess
I don’t like – erm… I probably should write something here just to try to look balanced but I’m struggling. Maybe the folding foot-plate thingy could be a bit bigger, but that would add weight so maybe not a great idea.

The retail price is about £35. If it were twice that I would still buy one.