National 24(ish) Hour Championship


Exposure Lights/No-Fuss Events – Relentless 24 – British 24hr Mountainbike Championships 2016

What would happen if you were to attempt to compile a ‘Who’s Who’ of British 24hr mountainbike racers? Well, you would probably end up with a big list of names, none of whom anyone outside the endurance racing scene has ever heard of. This is a shame because there are some phenomenal athletes amongst them.

What would happen if you then took this hypothetical list of British riding talent up to the World Championships course at the Nevis Range near Fort William and told them that because the clocks were changing on the weekend in question they would have 25 hours to fight it out for the national title? This is not merely a hypothetical question, here’s what happened:


The start was at noon on the track below the gondolas, the riders disappearing up the first climb and into the fog. The format of the race was that whoever could complete the most laps within the allotted 25hrs would be the winner. One may assume that with 25 hours of racing ahead of them that most would be taking it easy early on and pacing themselves. Don’t assume anything.

After 7 miles and 1,100ft of climbing and an equal amount of descending through the tight, twisting tracks with their innumerable rocks and roots the leaders blasted back into the arena to finish the first lap. The top seven were separated by less than a minute, leader Phil Roberts (Welsh Enduro winner) heading Steve Day (singlespeed World Champion) by 24 seconds. No-one even paused; simply grab a bottle on the move and head straight into the second lap, 24 hours and 20 minutes to go…

I have just mentioned singlespeeds. For some people racing for 24 hours, or 25 in this case, isn’t quite hard enough and so they opt to do it on bikes with just the one gear. Some cite weight-saving, others reliability, everyone else suspects masochism. As well as fighting for the overall title the singlespeeders would be having their own race within a race.

Steve Day, pursued by Keith Forsyth and Jason Miles

By lap 3 the two leaders had opened up a gap of around a minute on the chasing pack headed by defending champion Peter Nadin but just 10 seconds covered the next five riders. Two hours in and the pace was intense, this was the kind of thing we would expect to see in a short Olympic-distance race, not here, not in a 24hr. The spectators and pit crews were all watching intently, surely they couldn’t keep this up, surely someone had to crack soon?

Nope, Day attacked and took the lead from Roberts on lap 6. The two of them had a bit of gap over the chasing pack but there was a battle royal raging behind them – Jason Miles (former World Championship silver medallist and one half of the duo who hold the 24hr tandem world record, 565 miles) was leading Matt Jones (newly crowned European Champion) and Irishman Michael McCutcheon (former European silver medallist) by less than forty seconds with Keith Forsyth (former age-group World Champion) hanging on to the back of their group as best he could.

Matt Jones

You know what I had said about there being some really outstanding athletes whom no-one else has ever heard of? Hopefully just a couple of words after each name is giving you a little flavour of the level of competition at this event. However, this by no means implies that the race was exclusively for super-human elite competitors – the front end of the field may be but this is an event which absolutely anyone can turn up and have a go at, there aren’t many sports where one can do that at the National Championships. There were people there who had never even ridden a 24hr race before, just keen to see if they could, simply finishing it would be a huge achievement for them. There were pairs and teams doing the race as a relay, it really is something which anyone can, and should, try.

The pace at the front remained just as intense as the fog eventually lifted and darkness fell, Day had opened up quite a lead over his pursuers into who’s clutches Roberts had now fallen. The fact that a singlespeeder was leading the overall race was causing a quite a stir back in pit row, we all knew he was quick but this was something else.


It is however the night-time where most people say that the real racing takes place. It doesn’t matter how fit a rider is, racing through the fourteen hours of darkness is not a just a test of physical ability, the real test is in the mind. How hard can you continue to push when your body is telling you that it has already reached it’s limits? How fast dare you go when the effort and lack of sleep is affecting your belief in yourself, your control of the bike, and sometimes even your perception of reality itself? There are always riders hallucinating in the wee small hours, racing for 24hrs is so much harder than merely being awake for that length of time that the SleepMonsters are an ever-present danger, ready to entice the unwary into their world, and of course it was Halloween…

It was a much more mundane puncture which brought Day’s charge to an abrupt halt on lap 11. Jones seized the lead, Day fought back and led the next two laps, pushing, pushing, pushing and then pushing just that little bit too hard. Although he survived his crash unhurt the same could not be said for his bike, a bent chainring rendered it almost unrideable. Down but not out, he ran the rest of the lap, dropping down to fifth place, then with his bike fixed it was back on the attack. It was the running which unfortunately proved his undoing, aggravating an old knee injury. He survived two more laps before this forced him out of the race, leaving Jones and McCutcheon comfortably ahead of the Forsyth/Nadin/Roberts battle


The next man behind them was twice national singlespeed champion and former World number two Saul Muldoon. Having taken the lead in the singlespeed category with Day’s demise he was distinctly heard coming down the descent back into the pits singing to himself, quite loudly, ‘I’m still standing’.  Behind him was Manx champion Steve Kelly then second placed singlespeeder and Strathpuffer winner Dave Glover who was having his own fight with the leading lady, former Scottish cross-country champion Lee Craigie. Glover had survived an earlier scare when his handlebar snapped in one of the rocky sections, pitching him off the bike and into the dirt, luckily unscathed and able to nurse his damaged bike back to the pits.

Behind Glover it was just as close in the singlespeeds as in the overall race, Gavin Baxter, Andrew Howett (last year’s silver medal winner) and Jon Hobson (European 12 and 24hr champion) were line astern, a mere 40 seconds covering the three of them. 12 hours in and still flat out.

Me!

There was no moon and the stars were hidden behind the clouds. Out on the open moors it was pitch black, just the marshal’s camp fires piercing the darkness and the rider’s headlights visible as they zigzagged their way up and down the mountainsides. In the forests it was even darker, the lights of the bikes casting all sorts of strange patterns in the trees. Some were shadows, some were the SleepMonsters, tall dark figures extending their tentacles out to entrap the passing riders, drawing them away from the race track and into their world, just close your eyes, you know you want to, just for minute… Most were photographers though.

The pit crews really earn their keep during the night, the majority of  riders will have two bikes, one being ridden, one being serviced. They also need a constant supply of food, drinks and, more often than not encouragement at 3am when they are already 15 hours worth of tired and it occurs to them that are still 10 hours to go. And it’s getting pretty cold. And it’s starting to rain…


It was also busy over at Exposure Lights. The event sponsors had brought along a wide selection of their lights to help out anyone who felt that their own might not quite be up to the job and were also providing charging facilities to anyone who needed them. Light technology has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years - fancy lithium-polymer batteries and super-bright LEDs giving in excess of 4,000 lumens coupled with the light’s ability to adjust the brightness itself according to the speed and terrain to maximise burn times means that we are now seeing a full 24 hours of flat-out racing. Back in the good old days it would have been more like 6hrs of racing, 12hrs of trying to survive as best one could and then another 6hrs of racing once the riders could see again but, as was being demonstrated here, there is now no respite, no chance to recover, no chance to back off and catch your breath, nowhere to hide, just pushing, pushing, pushing all night long. Great. As if it wasn’t tough enough already. Thanks Exposure….

The sun eventually began to reappear over the mountains and those who had survived the night’s battles pressed on. Forsyth had succumbed, Miles, Kelly, Day and many, many others. Out in front though Jones and MCutcheon continued in their own little world, the gap between them was just 12 minutes but they had been pushing each other so hard that they were now a full lap ahead of Nadin. Muldoon and Roberts. 

Michael McCutcheon

Matching each other second for second over the next 6 laps Jones’ lead was still 12 minutes heading into the second to last lap. 12 minutes is not a comfortable gap in a race like this, especially if, for example, the leader were to suffer a mechanical problem on the penultimate lap. With Jones in the undergrowth to the side of the first big descent McCutcheon was already at the top of the hill from where he would head down to where Jones was frantically trying to coax some life back into his bike. He eventually achieved some sort of success and set off again, McCutcheon could sense blood and was hot his tail, he had taken 6 minutes out Jones’ lead but it was not enough for the Irishman.

Through the pits for the final time, Jones grabbed his spare bike and gave it everything he had. The rules stated that no new laps could be started after 24hrs and that all laps had to be completed within 25. Jones crossed the line again at 24hrs10min25sec to take the win and add the National title to his European Championship. McCutcheon followed 15 minutes later to take the silver medal, defending champion Nadin taking the bronze this time.

Saul Muldoon. The Thousand Yard Stare of Victory.
Photo by Stephen Smith

Saul Muldoon took the win in the singlespeeds with an extremely impressive fourth overall, followed by Dave Glover and Andy Howett with Jon Hobson not quite making the cut off to do the extra lap and continue his pursuit of the final podium spot.

Relentless takes a step back next year, the race will return to it’s usual low-key self as the National Championships heads off to Newnham on the edge of Dartmoor for 2017.

In 2018 Relentless is back with a bang though, it will again host the WEMBO World Championships. You thought this year was exciting? (Well, we did) Add another couple of hundred riders from several dozen countries and see what happens.

Singlespeed Podium.


Results

1.      Matt Jones                              M-Steel/Exposure Lights

2.      Michael McCutcheon             The Bike Rack

3.      Peter Nadin                            Swinnerton Cycles

Ladies

1.      (10th overall) Lee Cragie           The Adventure Syndicate

2.      (17th overall) Sally Buckworth  Pink Heifers

3.      (26th overall) Beate Kubitz        Singletrack

Singlespeeds

1.      (4th overall) Saul Muldoon        Stadium Runners

2.      (8th overall) Dave Glover          Mukyriderz

3.      (11th overall) Andrew Howett   Torq/Exposure/Mt Zoom

Champions!
Matt Jones and Lee Cragie

There were little victories all the way down the field, people beating their mates, beating the team camped next door, beating their target, but just finishing a 24hr is enough of a victory for most, we should give a huge cheer to everyone who made it to the end. We should also give an even bigger cheer to all the marshals who camped out on the mountainsides all day and all night, often huddled around their braziers trying desperately to get some feeling back into their fingers, keeping us all safe and picking up those who had overdone it and hurt themselves, thanks guys and girls.
And one final mention – there was a pit crew who managed to not only win the National Championships but also another medal, Jones and Howett were supported by Sarah, Richard, Ingrid, Harriet and Jon (who not only coaches Jones but also Steve Day and so now has the full set – National, European and World titles in one year). We call it a 24hr Solo but it is a real team effort.


Pictures - Sportograph and Stephen Smith

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.