It’s Nearly The Shortest Day. So Let’s Talk About The Longest.

The Isle of Man. Chances are that if you like engines in your bikes you know the place pretty well. It’s all sort of blurry with scary bits now and again where you have to brake quite hard.
What you may not be aware of is that the island’s residents are also quite keen on bikes without engines. Until recently they had kept this fact to themselves, just inviting the rest of us over once a year for the End to End, several hundred riders in a mad charge from the Point of Ayre at the top right of the island to Port Erin at the bottom left.

In recent years though they have begun to expand their repertoire of slightly crazy events. You have by now probably all heard of the Manx 100, this began as very small event in 2012 when a bunch of locals decided to basically do the End to End by taking the scenic route, 104 miles with 16,000ft of climbing, a lot for such a small island. This has since grown to quite a big event, a lap of the island’s best bits starting and finishing at the TT Grandstand in Douglas, and will be the UK National Marathon Championships in 2017.

One other event which has been quietly going on under the radar for a number of years is the Longest Day - Longest Ride. The clue might be in the name with this one. It’s a 24hr race on the weekend closest to the summer solstice, the 1st and 2nd of July in 2017. Yes, I know it's not quite the longest day but it's close enough that they didn't feel the need to change the name. The race takes place at Conrhenny Plantation near the famous Creg Ny Baa and has grown from a mere 16 nutters in the inaugural event in 2010 to 272 last year so they must be doing something right.

Nutters? Well, 24hrs on a 5km lap. That’s a lot of laps. 77 for Steve Kelly, the winner last year, to be precise. There is a certain degree of mental toughness required on that one I think. I suppose the short lap is relative though, the Isle of Man is quite small, albeit surprisingly hilly. On a 5km lap of Conrhenny you will see almost exactly 100 times the proportion of the island as you would of the British mainland by doing a lap of the Relentless course. And nearly 2,000 times as much as the proportion of Australia as you would see by doing a lap of Stromlo.

Steve Kelly, en route to winning the 2016 race.
It seems that a ’standard’ 24hr is no longer enough for some people and a number of daft ones have taken off in recent years, think of the Strathpuffer for example, and the LDLR is certainly daft. Won’t a 5km laps get a bit dull after the 77th time around? Well, no. Aside from the fact that the lap itself is pretty decent, a mix of fast fireroads for overtaking, or being overtaken, and some lovely twisty stuff with a fair amount of boardwalk sections the short lap means that you will always have company, you won’t be out in the middle of nowhere on your own for hours at a time, there will always be someone to race, someone to cheer you on, someone to pass you a bottle, someone to encourage you, just how a race should be

Anyway, Longest Day - Longest Ride. Entries are open here for 2017. Get yours in now. Teams, pairs, solos, everyone is welcome.

Turns out I Am Just As Daft As Everyone Else.

Like ninety nine percent of people I like to think of myself as of above average intelligence. Obviously forty nine percent of those are wrong but that can’t possibly include me. For instance, I am far brighter than the people who have taken part in the Asch Conformity Experiment.

So anyway, changing the subject entirely, I was doing the Two Breweries fell race a few weeks ago. This an 18 mile hill run from Traquair to Broughton, starting and finishing at breweries. The weather this year was terrible, strong winds and a lot of rain, but it was still oddly enjoyable, especially charging down Trahenna unable to run in a straight line due to the gale force winds sending me three feet to my left every time both feet came off the ground (Beware Trahenna...)

As the route approached Stobo Castle I found myself following a man in a white top, I have no idea who he was so I shall call him A. He was about 30 yards ahead. A similar distance behind me were two other runners, whom I shall call B and C. Please don’t laugh at my naming, I once spent seven months living with a cat called Cat and three horses called Horse, Horse and Horse. The owl is still called Owl.

Anyway, there I was running along a farm track following A when B (or maybe C, I forget which) shouted to ask me if I knew where I was going. I shouted back that I didn’t but that I was just following him, pointing at A. A obviously heard us as he stopped and looked back at us and made the shrugging gesture which indicates that someone is completely clueless as to where they are and that they had simply assumed that they were going the right way because everyone else was following them.

I stopped, just by a junction in the tracks. The one we were on was at my six o’clock position where B and C were and carried straight on at my twelve o’clock, where A was. There were two tracks off to my left, at my eight o’clock and, over a gate, to my nine o’clock.

B and C ran up and joined me as I was getting my map out but B, or maybe C, already had his to hand. We were all stood there looking at it as A ran back down the hill and joined us.

I decided that the correct route was the track at our nine o’clock, over the gate and then along the left hand side of the woods we could see in the distance. B, or maybe C, decided that the correct route was the track at our eight o’clock, down towards the other woods. I insisted that I was right but C, or maybe B, and A both agreed with B (or was it C? B and C were both wearing black and looked pretty similar).

The three of them set off down their chosen route. I looked at my map again, sure that I was right, but not wanting to lose valuable time proving it with a compass bearing. I set off following A, B and C down what I had just convinced myself was the wrong route.

I have absolutely no idea why I did that. I again refer you to the Asch Conformity Experiment, google it if you haven’t heard of it, it’s quite interesting. .

After about five minutes we came to a small loch. B stopped and looked quizzically at his map. There shouldn’t be a loch. He pointed at some trees up the hill to our right. “We should be over there” and then to me “You were right mate.”

They set off towards the forest. He had sounded confident so I just followed…

24hr Races Are Getting Longer.

There has always been the distinction between a ‘Long 24’ where laps started within the time limit count and a ‘Short 24’ where laps completed within the time limit count. This is a small but very important difference. The 24hrs of Finale are a law unto themselves and seem to have invented the ‘Very Long 24’ format, where the race finishes after the winner crosses the line after 24 hours, which lead to me having to do a surprise extra lap after I thought that I had finished the 2014 European Championships.

My longest 24hr race to date has been the 2010 World Championships at 25h16m, this was a Long format race and I started my last lap at 23h49m. My shortest 24hr has been the 2013 European Championships at 23h15m, which was a Short format event, with only 45 minutes to go I could not complete another lap.

This year’s National Championships, Relentless at Fort William, will be held on the final weekend of October, the 29th and 30th. The final weekend of October is of course the day when the clocks go back an hour. Rather than make us race for 24 hours, as is traditional at a 24hr race, No Fuss have decided that we should instead stick with racing from midday on Saturday to midday on Sunday, which is 25 hours.

But of course 25 hours simply isn’t enough, this race will also be in the ‘Long’ format. This does mean that anyone who is a bit tired and slow when they start a new lap after 24 hours and 59 minutes could well find themselves doing a 27 hour race…  Who could possibly be daft enough to do such a thing?

I got my entry in yesterday. The entry list for the solo category reads like a who’s who of British endurance racing. It’s a big list, full of current and former British and European Champions and a fair few age-group World Champions and Elite World Championship medalists.

I have therefore entered the Singlespeed category. This should get me away from all of the fast guys and then I can just ride to…....bugger, there’s the World Champ. I wonder how may times he can lap me in 27 hours?

A 'Brave' Choice Of Wheels

I have lived in Scotland for a while now but am still surprised by just how big the place is, or more precisely, just how long it takes to get anywhere. From Edinburgh, about a quarter of the way up on the right, to Applecross, just over half way up on the left, is about 5½ hours.
This is a stunning drive though, the scenery is absolutely amazing. However, we missed most of it as it was getting dark from Perth onwards, it was around midnight when we arrived and parked the van on the beach (well above the high-water mark, we’ve had enough van incidents at races thank you very much!)
The Applecross Duathlon is a pain to get to but well worth the effort. As well as the stunning location on Applecross bay with views over the sea to Raasay and Skye to the west and Torridon to the north everyone is really friendly, it’s a lovely race to do. It is limited to 150 competitors though and is always full so get your entry in early next year.

View from the camper van in the morning. That's Skye across the water

After breakfasting on the seafront on the Saturday morning we headed over to the village hall to sign in and get our numbers. There we met a couple of people who had been having a van incident all of their own. They had flown up from Portsmouth to Inverness the night before where upon arrival they discovered that their hire-car had been ‘upgraded’ from a sensible hatchback to a silly Mercedes saloon. The trouble with this, as they discovered when they arrived at the bike shop who had stayed open extra late especially for them, is that the bikes they had hired would not fit in it since the rear seats would not fold. They headed over to Applecross regardless, hoping for the best.

As I said, everyone at the race is really friendly and two bikes were found for them in pretty short order, a flat-bar hybrid of some sort, and a Marin cruiser-type bike. The funny handlebars and step-through frame don’t exactly shout ‘Racer’ but it would do. Anyway, having a much more sensible van which would fit many bikes we volunteered to take them round to the transition at Arinacrinachd and this gave us yet more opportunity to admire some views, and also to get up close with some highland cattle and their huge horns.
Turns out they were equally unsuitable...

I spent a while there debating which bike I would use, I was lucky enough to have the choice of two, a standard drop-bar road bike and a proper time-trial bike with tri-bars, disc wheels and everything. The transition area was quite sheltered and this lulled me into a false sense of security and so I opted for the TT bike, which is very, very fast in the right conditions. Not so quick in the wrong ones it turns out.
The start, just outside Applecross village, is at a very civilised 1:30pm, with a 12:30 option for those who view it as more of a challenge than a race.

The nine mile run is mostly on marked trails, a mixture of rock, gravel and grass with a couple of little stream crossings and a few other interesting features, no navigation skill is required to be able to follow it. It is a proper fast run for the guys and girls at the front, there is nothing too technical there so it is pretty rapid, climbing as quickly as you can, descending as quickly as you dare. Apart from my fellow racers and the odd marshal dotted around the hillsides to make sure we didn’t go wandering off into the middle of nowhere I didn’t see a soul, very large birds of prey outnumbered tourists by lots to none.

The sea comes into view as you crest the final hill and head down towards Loch Torridon giving the false impression that you have nearly made it, before the route turns to the left and follows the coast for another couple of miles, Loch Torridon to your right and the hills rising up to your left. The leaders were out of sight by this stage but I was trying as best I could to keep the chasing pack in view, somewhere at the back of the top-20. The sting in the tail of the run is the final mile or so of tarmac, completely unexpected if you haven’t done the race before and a place where the fast guys can stretch their legs and just stroll passed us climbers on the final approach to the transition.

I spotted my bike easily enough, grabbed a Torq gel from the bag I had left with it and got that down my throat while I sat in a cow pat and changed my shoes. The process took about half a minute, thanks to the elasticated laces on my running shoes and the Velcro on my riding shoes, prior to this I had just assumed that the triathletes who used such things were merely the kind of people who couldn’t tie their own laces but I now see why they do it.

The TT bike with it’s fancy wheels was indeed as quick as I had hoped, for about the first two miles. Then we turned the corner at the top of the peninsula and the wind hit and it became less quick. Much less quick. A howling side wind is not at all fun on a disc wheel and a four-spoke and that’s without counting the fact that your arms are about 3 inches apart and you are really just steering with your elbows. This state of affairs didn’t last long before I admitted defeat and began riding sitting much more upright, holding the bars at their (not very!) wide point out by the brake levers. This did unfortunately mean that the shifters were nearly a foot away from where my hands were and there were times when the wind was just so strong that I daren’t take one off to move it to be able to change gear.

At one point I managed to hit 38mph but then at several others also managed to go below 6mph, my average for the 15 miles was 15.5mph, I have averaged a lot more than that in 24hr races, and that includes eating and toilet stops!

The bike section follows the coast road around the peninsula and has a reasonable amount of climbing, I could certainly feel it in my legs after the run! There was a great sense of camaraderie as we all battled into the wind together, the 'no drafting' rule mostly being observed but everyone saying hello as they passed, or were passed by, someone else.

There were a few spectators cheering us on along this more accessible part of the race cheering, a mix of tourists and locals by the look of it, plus the cows and sheep which against all expectations kept well off the racing line.
I had a good race with Peter Gardner from HBT, I had been chasing him in the run but had caught and passed him once we were on our bikes. We swapped places a few times before he  came passed me for good as I was struggling down a hill, trying to keep the bike pointing more or less straight ahead, and I heard him shouting something about a ‘brave choice of wheels’. It’s a bloody daft choice of wheels!  There was one other numpty on tri-spokes but no-one else seemed, erm… is brave the right word? enough to try it.
It’s my own fault though and despite the poor wheel choice I really enjoyed the event. The route really is spectacular, a lovely mixture of hills and coastline. It is long enough to challenge the newbies but short enough that the fast guys can push hard all the way.

Claire Gordon, HBT

The top three had opened up quite a lead over everyone else, Graham Scobie taking the win from Stephen Burns and Drew Sharkey. I was ninth, with which I was pleasantly surprised, one second ahead of David Hurst who I had seen closing inexorably for the last two or three miles. Clair Gordon won the women’s race in fifteenth overall with Megan Mowbray and Natalie Stevenson behind her.
I’ll be back again next year, same time, same place, different bike!

Most pictures shamelessly 'borrowed' from race-organiser Jerry

I would like to say a big thank-you to Torq and Mt Zoom for their help in the race and to Exposure Lights for theirs at the following campfire and whiskey session.

Sometimes Racing In The Rain Is Fun

You can tell who isn’t local. Waiting near the start line in Keilder Castle for the second running of the Keilder 101 there were a number of people wearing midge nets. Honestly, if you think that’s a lot of midges you ain’t seen nothin’ yet, as our American friends would say. Do they have midges in America? I know the Norwegians have them but they would of course say Du har ikke sett noe ennå!

The best way to avoid a midge is to ride away from it, they really struggle with a moving target. Luckily we had 101km of racing ahead of us, perfect for evading them.

Last year I had taken second place in the Singlespeeds, a race within a race, which was a little disappointing as I thought I had won and was quite excited about that until someone pointed out that Saul Muldoon had already finished. This did however earn me a place on the front row of the start line for this year’s race. The start itself was neutralised behind a truck for a couple of miles and, since no overtaking was allowed there, I was able to keep up with the fast boys for a while - last year’s overall winner Tom Wragg, European 24hr Champion Matt Jones and Ritchie Rothwell who had just ridden from Newcastle to Skye. Skye, nå det er mye mygg!

The calm before the storm

Once the race proper began the quick riders on their geared bikes shot passed me and disappeared off into the distance, much the same as last year really. My little legs were spinning like crazy but I was topping out at about 18mph and just couldn’t match them.

I settled in with the chasing pack, enjoying the riding as the rain eased up. Despite the overnight rain the trails were in pretty good shape, I had been dreading a repeat of the infamous 100 miles race of 2011, the only DNF I have ever had, but the route this time appeared to have been much more carefully chosen. Despite all the water around it wasn’t the bike killer it had been previously.

About 7 miles into the race Matt Livesey came passed me, which was annoying as he was also on a singlespeed and this meant that he had now taken the lead from me. He was followed a very short time later by Dave Glover, not only a singlespeeder but also on a MonsterCross bike, two niches in one for him.

Dave proved fairly simple to get back passed. About ten minutes later at the bottom of a lovely swoopy, rocky descent I saw a group of four or five riders just setting off again. It turns out that they had stopped to pick someone up - Dave’s rigid forks and tiny tyres had left him at the mercy of Lady Luck and he had performed a frontal dismount and then applied his helmet-brake. He looked a little dazed but was otherwise unhurt so we left him to it.

Perfect for a singlespeed...

The other riders seem to be quite a friendly bunch at Keilder, I don’t know why they should be more chatty here than elsewhere but they are and it’s quite nice. I was struggling a wee bit in the first half of the race and it was nice to have people to talk to. I had been riding with the two leading ladies for quite a while, Marie Meldrum (who eventually finished third, but still won her age-group, after puncturing) and Helen Jackson (who took the win just ahead of Sally Hall), but lost them when I got too hot and stopped to faff with my jacket. Actually, I had to stop and faff with it twice, once to take it off and once to run back and fetch it when it bounced out of my pocket. I could explain why it did that but it’s not terribly interesting, it’s all to do with how I locked the van earlier in the morning and a spoke key.

I was then joined by Ritchie Scott, who was also quite chatty. He told me a little about his trip to the 24hr World Champs in Weaverville and seemed impressed that I was a riding a singlespeed. Actually, a lot of people seemed impressed with the singlespeed. I don’t know why, I guess it’s just a question of perceptions. Us singlespeeders really aren’t the superhumans we seem to be viewed as (apart from Brett Belchambers and Steve Day obviously but they are in a different league to me) it really isn’t as bad as you think. There you go, “not as bad as you think”, that’s a ringing endorsement. I would encourage everyone to try one, they really are a lot of fun.  I had a lot of people asking me after the race how my knees were, they were fine, no problems there at all, although my case of ‘Singlespeed-hand’ seemed to have spread up both lower arms to my elbows…

Slippery when wet

Anyway, Ritchie and I crossed the border together having survived the incredibly slippery boardwalk section intact and headed off towards Newcastleton. I was familiar with a lot of this part of the route from when it used to host the UK and European 24hr championships. They guys from Rock UK had set up the second feed stop there which also included the bag drop, to which I had sent a supply of Torq bars and gels and a dry base layer and pair of gloves. The latter weren’t actually required, the former were crammed into my pocket while the marshal refilled my bottle and I swallowed a banana.

As we left the feed stop I could see that the trailfairies at Newcastleton have been busy, this part of the trail was all new and there were many others branching off from the lines were taking, I will have to come back and explore properly on day. We rejoined the 24hr route, up the old logging road, over the river, up the hill and along the fireroad to the lovely singletrack section by the Trail-Head, winding our way down through the trees to the Hidden Valley. Three hours into the race I was finally up to speed and starting to pass people, it always takes me a while to get warmed up, and this was one of those races where I just felt better and better as I went along, I felt quicker after 3hrs than I did at the start!

Having left Ritchey behind at the feed stop I was without anyone to chat to for quite a while, just a brief exchange as I passed people, but I got company again as we crossed the border and headed back into England. It’s always fun racing across a border, I don’t know why but it just feels special. A bit like riding through the night until dawn but a little easier to do… I had a brief chat with Jim, the guy I had been racing last year. He had wimped out of riding a singlespeed this year and was on a half-fat geared hardtail. Actually, that only had gears at the back, there was a single ring at the front; half-fat, half geared, best to work up to these things gradually.

The only part which wasn't rideable on a singlespeed
Looks a like most of the geared riders struggled too...

The long, slightly downhill fireroad section was the only place where I felt that a singlespeed was a bit of a liability, I was spinning like crazy but not really making much progress and was losing a lot of the places I had just won back. I wasn’t losing as many as I expected to though, the current fashion for single rings seemed to be limiting a few of the geared riders’ top speeds as well. 34/10 may well be quicker than the 32/17 I was using but it’s no match for a good old fashioned 3x9 with 44/11. Still, that’s progress for you.

We eventually cleared the fireroads and returned to the lovely undulating singletrack where the singlespeed felt surprisingly at home. I was really enjoying myself, the course was really enjoyable to ride and in the latter stages of the race I was overtaking people again, which is always fun.

I was having so much fun in fact that I didn’t even realise that the race was nearly finished. I was chasing two riders down through a lovely set of switchbacks, then out of the trees onto a fireroad, sprinting like crazy as I tried to keep up. There was a marshal with a timing device ahead of us, we all barrelled up to him, dibbed as quickly as we could and shot off again as the other marshal leapt in front of us, this is the finish, race over.

This year I knew that I was second in the singlespeeds, this wasn’t a surprise like it was last year when I thought I had won until I was told otherwise. I had however gone seven minutes faster than last time despite the weather. That’s odd in itself, I am normally terrible in the rain, I generally don’t enjoy it and struggle to steer on wet roots and end up crashing into trees as a result but this race had been really good. The course was great, and the fact that it was one very big lap meant that it didn’t have the volume of traffic passing over it to chew it all up so it remained pretty weather-proof throughout

I headed back up to the Castle to check in, where I swapped my timing chip for food and drink, which was very welcome. I also, finally, got to stand on the podium here. In 2012 I had finished third in the British Endurance Series, of which the Keilder 100 race was the last, but was in the shower when they did podiums and last year it was only the winner of the singlespeeds who go to stand on it. It is surprisingly satisfying for such a small block of wood.
Matt Liversy, singlespeed winner on the top step, Rob Haworth,
Fatbike winner on the second and me on the third
Tom Wragg had retained his title, ahead of Adam Nolan and Ed Shoot with Matt Jones in fourth. Mat Liveseyhad won the singlespeeds, in 12th overall with me second and 23rd overall. Robert Haworth took the win in the fatbike class, and won… a fatbike. Very nice of Genesis to be giving them away, it looks a lot of fun (it was actually a spot-prize but just by sheer coincidence ended up going to someone who already had one!)

And finally, being a bike race, I couldn’t leave without having a minor van incident. It pales into insignificance compared to the fuel pump which died in northern France on the way back from the European 24hr earlier this year. I had managed to get stuck in the campsite at both the 2011 and 2012 races, in exactly the same spot, so this year I parked elsewhere. This didn’t help and I got the van stuck yet again. I had to be rescued by a very helpful chap called Dave who had a lot of hair and a Volvo which wasn’t stuck.

I would like to say a huge thank-you to Torq, Mt Zoom and Exposure Lights. Yes, I know it wasn't dark during the race but when you arrive at the venue well after dark and have to do all your faffing in the pitch black a Verso head torch is rather useful.