After drinking a couple of my more potent than intended home-brewed American IPAs one evening, I found myself signed up for yet another bike race, the 'Kielder chiller'. This one looked to be tougher than most. For starters it was 24 hours long, consisting of a roughly 10km loop with the winner completing the most laps. It was also in February, the depths of winter, at a time when the long northern darkness lasts for 14 hours and the weather is potentially at it's worst. Held on the high and remote hills of Northumberland in the very north of England, with the start/finish at Kielder castle, it promised to be one of the harder challenges of the year.
Thanks Bob Smith flickr.com for photos (2&5).
I'd never done a 24 hour race before, so had little idea of what to expect. The nearest thing to this I'd done previously was the 'Glentress 7', which as it's name suggests is 7 hours long. It was a similar idea though, with riders completing a circuit as many times as they can. It was also held in summer during daylight hours. The year I did it, it was dry. No mud, no slippery roots to deal with, just fast flowing tracks and a couple of short technical sections which tested my moderate bike handling skills about as far as they could go.
I spent a few evenings before the Kielder event checking my bike, putting on a new set of brake pads, and making sure everything was working smoothly.
Many people do these events with a support team. Some friends (or team sponsor) would provide assistance at a team base, fixing bikes and generally keeping them clean and working. Cooking and supplying hot food and drinks to the rider is another important job done by support. The idea is to minimise the time the rider has to stop, provide some moral support, and keep them going for as long as possible.
I had no support team. None of my friends were crazy enough to want to hang around all night in the cold. I was thinking the key to lasting 24 hours without any support team was going to be organisation. I grabbed some old plastic bin boxes out of the attic and started filling them with stuff, trying to keep some semblance of order. One bin for food and drinks, one bin for cycling clothes, shoes and helmet. A small plastic box for my own two sets of lights and a borrowed set from a friend. Another bin was filled with my bike tool box, bike spares, a sleeping bag and an air mattress. I also dug out an old tent which had long been replaced with a better one. I was going to use it as a shelter and place to sleep if I needed a break.
At the last minute I decided to take my older bike as a backup, I'd noticed the rules specifically said that multiple bikes were allowed. I thought there was a good chance I'd not be physically capable of still being riding at the end of the 24 hours, but I'd have been annoyed if I broke a bike beyond quick repair and couldn't even give the event a good shot. I hoped not to have to use it though. It was heavier and had smaller wheels than my main bike which would reduce grip and make rolling over obstacles on a long ride like this feel that bit harder.
As I packed my bikes and boxes into my car after finishing work the Friday before the event, it started gently snowing. Once on the road southwards, the snow got progressively heavier as I headed inland and up into the hills. Eventually, as I left the main road and started along the small, empty back-roads towards Kielder it got so bad that I could hardly see. I crawled along the road wondering if the event the following day would be cancelled. On taking the final turning through the forest, the road ahead was thick with pristine snow. There were no other car tracks. I slowly headed onwards, stopping only to take a quick look at a map in order to find the way to the scout centre where I'd booked a bed for the night.
I parked up, found my room, was glad to find I was only sharing with one other person rather than a big dorm, and climbed into my bed. It was comically small. At 6ft2 I had to curl my legs up to keep within the confines of this scout sized bed and duvet. Still, it beat sleeping in the car. At least it was warm in here and I got a pretty good night's sleep despite some snoring from my room-mate.
I was up fairly early. A friend, Crispin (also doing a solo ride), was apparently going to be sleeping in the scout centre's car park. He'd said he wanted to get up to the course early to get a good spot for his base. When I returned to my car, he was already gone.
I headed up to the course and was directed to follow a quad bike. Up we climbed on snowy forest tracks, getting further and further from the start/finish area. I realised the driver of the quad was Barry, the event organiser, when he came over for a quick chat, “Sorry I've stuck you all the way out here! As you can see parking's not the best”. I'd been placed in possibly the most exposed and definitely the furthest away car parking spot on the course. So much for getting a good spot, I should have stayed in bed!
After setting the tent up in the shelter of some small trees, and decanting my boxes into it. I cooked up some soup. I was getting excited as the start time got closer. I passed the time checking my bike and getting changed.
I rode down the main track road to the event base, registered, and then stopped off in the Castle cafe for a pot of tea and a chat with Crispin. Then…..it was time to go.
Standing in the freezing cold next to a physically shivering competitior, a quick briefing was shouted out and then a slow, walking start took us up onto a wide section of track road where the cycling began. The first lap took us gently up track roads and a few short sections of single-track, a chance for everyone to spread out before the racing proper began. Then it was really go time. The main competitors at the front quickly disappeared.
Almost before I'd got properly going I was soaked through. At the lower levels of the hills the cold heavy rain had already penetrated my cycling jacket and I could feel my merino wool cycling jumper getting annoyingly damp in the arms. Higher up the course the rain turned to sleet and was accompanied by a cutting wind. It could only be described as a soul destroying nightmare.
The course itself was also pretty tough. There was more brutal, and steeper, climbing than I had expected. But the single-track wasn't too technical, it was flowy, fast and fun. People had warned me of the uphill rock garden saying it was the trickiest part of the course, but I made it up and over the rocks on the first lap without putting a foot down. “That wasn't so bad” I thought to myself. Although I discovered it's not quite so easy after being covered in slippy muck from many bikes while tiredness is already taking hold. I didn't successfully make it over again for the whole remainder of the race.
Shortly after the rock garden the guy in front of me fell off his bike. As I suddenly swerved my bike to the side to avoid his muddy body, I felt a twinge in my lower back. The cold start and the sudden, reactive movement meant I'd done something presumably to a muscle in my back. It was already in pain as I continued to push hard on the pedals up through the forest.
A long exposed ride on forest track took us up to the furthest point of the course, where of course I passed my car. I quickly stopped to remove a layer of clothing and to grab my rear mudguard. I was going to need all the help I could get to stay as warm and mud free as I could. From here it was downhill for a way, then another couple of steep climbs before the longest section of sweeping single-track took us back to the race base. Well, that was 1 lap completed at least!
Soon after, on my third lap, it all went wrong. On one of the transitions between a downhill and a steep climb, where it was necessary to make a drastic gear change I heard a crunch, felt an abrupt halt of my pedals even through I was still pushing on them and a skid of my rear wheel brought me to a halt. “Ohh...come on!” I thought. “Not already”. I dismounted and took a look at the rear of my bike to find my rear dérailleur bent back and inwards into the spokes of the rear wheel. A big chunk of metal was missing from the dérailleur cage. I untangled it and pulled it back into some sort of correct looking position, but it was still twisted sideways. “Ohh, you alright?” someone asked as they slowly cycled past. “I don't know, think my bike is done!” I replied. I spun the pedals with a loud grating noise and somehow the chain, clicked into place and the wheel spun.
Jumping back onto my bike, I started pedalling. Somehow, it was possible to move. Every couple of spins though, and the pedals would jump forwards before the chain caught the rear cog again. Still, it was faster than walking. I couldn't change the rear gears, but the front dérailleur meant I could at least switch between high and low. I continued on, thinking about how glad I was I'd brought my old bike. This looked unfixable.
Unfortunately, my old bike was at my car, far away and at possibly the highest point on the course. I somehow carried on, and between pedalling most of the way in a ridiculous gear and getting off and pushing the steepest sections. I eventually made it to the top.
A quick swap of my race number, water bottle, and mudguard and I was ready to go on my old bike. I was going to miss the bigger 29inch wheels of my main bike which were perfect for this kind of terrain and racing, but at least I had some gears. I set off once more.
What??... I didn't have was a back brake! Somehow between using this bike the weekend before when it had been fine, and now, something had gone wrong. I wasn't sure if it was just the brake pads were worn, or if there was an issue with the hydraulic fluid in the system, but pulling the brake lever until it hit the handlebar had no discernible effect. The track road down at this end of the course was already, on my third lap, becoming a quagmire. Deep mud filled the ruts in the road. Deep puddles were forming where tyres has squashed the mud out of the ruts. It was getting slippy. The track road now continued like this all the way to the better drained sections of single-track. I stopped again on the next lap to swap in a new set of brake pads at the back. They didn't make much difference.
On my forth lap, I was rolling down a long hill when I noticed a wobble starting to form. My handlebars were quickly vibrating from side to side. I decided to ignore it for a bit. I probably just had a slightly out of line back wheel.
The next lap, the wobble got worse and after registering another completed lap at the start/finish I stopped to take look. My whole back wheel was loose. As in ALL the spokes were loose. I've never seen this happen before. Sure the odd one can come loose on a big bump, but not all of them! I needed to get back to the car again and tighten them. But would my wheel hold together for long enough. I had visions of it suddenly collapsing underneath me.
I took my time and wobbled back up the climbs and rock garden and through the forest, and along the never ending exposed climb until finally I reached my toolbox. With freezing fingers I dug around until I found a mole grip and my spoke key. One by one I dealt with each spoke. This wheel had flat 'blade' spokes, so to fix them I had to grab each spoke with the grips, then, with freezing fingers, use the fiddly little spoke key to grip the spoke nipple through layers of mud, and twist it until it was tight. I didn't bother worrying about keeping the wheel perfectly straight by adjusting the tension of appropriate spokes. It would have taken too long. Happy my wheel was no-longer in danger of imminent collapse, I grabbed a scone, refilled my water bottle and set off down the mud slide of a hill once more.
I'd expected the race to be physically and mentally difficult in terms of keeping going for 24 hours. But I hadn't expected to have so many problems and for the relentless weather to be quite so terrible.
However, I was still going, and felt fine, if a little damp. Maybe the mechanical issues had stopped me from pushing on too much. I was ready to get some laps in.
Despite having to now stop two laps out of three to re-tighten several spokes with numb fingers on my seriously unbalanced rear wheel, I got a few more circuits done before nightfall. Another stop was then needed to quickly attach my handlebar and helmet lights. I took the opportunity for a complete change of clothes. I was soaked through. Putting on something dry and warm never felt so good. I switched out my jacket for a slightly thicker one and I was off again for another couple of circuits.
When it came time to eat. I stopped for 30 minutes to heat up some soup which proved difficult as it was frozen...inside a themos! The addition of a bit of hot water from another, better, thermos and some vigorous shaking freed up enough to pour out a portion into a pan and a soup/scone/apple meal was enjoyed while watching lights weaving their way across the hillside below.
I was amazed to find that when I once more headed down the hill, the sleet had stopped. Over the course of the next lap, the clouds thinned, the air grew colder (firming up the mud!) and even the moon made an appearance. This was my favourite bit of riding. For the next few hours it seemed easy compared to what had come before. I was really enjoying swooping along the single-track through the forest, well aware of the madness of being awake and cycling in a race at this time. A few times I chatted with other cyclists as we cycled onwards through the darkness.
Eventually at about thee am, I decided it was time for a proper break. I had planned to sleep in the tent, but it was damp, full of mud and spectacularly uninviting as it shook in the wind. I grabbed a change of clothes, my sleeping bag, mattress and some food and threw them into the back of the car. After climbing in, starting the engine and cracking the heating. I peeled my clothes off, changed once again, climbed into my sleeping bag, and ate! The warm damp air misted the windows as I set an alarm for two hours and lay down.
Booop….booop….it seemed like seconds later and my phone was calling out. I looked at it for a moment, looked out the window as my car shook in the wind to see a flurry of snow had once again started up, made an easy decision, set the alarm for another hour and once more fell unconscious.
Getting going once more was a real struggle. There's nothing quite like being half asleep, tired, cold, and trying to find the motivation to pull on some soaking shorts and shoes while it's still dark outside, your bike is falling to bits, and you're pretty sure everyone else is doing much better than you at this. But somehow, I did it. Mostly I just wanted to make it to the finish with the knowledge that I'd at least given it a decent shot. “I'm never doing this again” I thought to myself.
Some flask coffee which no-one would describe as hot and a cheese and marmalade bagel got me going. And before I knew it, I was off down the hill for more punishment.
Soon, I realised the black murk was dissipating, at first slivers of light appeared in the far distance, and soon afterwards the world brightened. Although the open track roads were now visible in front, lights were still needed in the depths of the forest. However, daylight provided a morale boost. I knew the worst was now over, I just had to put in a few more laps and I'd have made it.
The next lap, I met Crispin ominously cycling slowly in the wrong direction towards me. I stopped for a chat. The first thing I noticed about his bike was that his front suspension fork had been jammed full of sticks and a pine cones. “It collapsed!” He said. Nature was now propping the front end of his bike up. “And my pedal's broken. I can't clip in!”. He was using the lightweight 'eggbeater' type of pedals so riding them without being able to clip in wasn't really a fun option. He'd managed to finish his current lap before making to decision to stop.
I continued onwards. There was about an hour and half left. And I had already completed most of this lap. If I pushed on, I thought I should be able fit in one more before the 12 o'clock deadline.
The last lap was a bit of struggle, so far I'd felt fine, but suddenly the hills seemed steeper than ever, the wind colder and more penetrating. Maybe knowing I was near the end, my body was finally giving in. I struggled my way up the hills, pushed over the rock garden one last time, for the first time feeling slow and knackered. One last quick stop at my car was taken to grab some snacks. No time to eat them now though. I planned to stop and eat once over the finish line.
I ploughed through the muddy section once more, pointed my front wheel down the last section of single-track and rolled into the finish with 20 minutes remaining.
I'd done 14 laps (not including the first, slightly shorter, one). The timing readout sheet I was handed showed that I was taking about 1hr15min per lap (including stopping to fix my wheel each time). And amazingly I was 9th in the solo category. As Crispin later pointed out, in the made up category of 'solo rider without any support team', I was 1st! Or maybe 2nd. Anyway….on the imaginary podium.
All that was left to do was eat, and then….make my way all the way back up the hill to my car at the far reaches of the course…..where I warmed up with hot soup while comparing results and equipment failures with my parking neighbours.
It was a pretty great event, organisation was top notch and the camaraderie between competitors got us collectively through the long night hours. I will have to wait until the memories of freezing fingers and deep mud have receded before I decide whether to do another 24 hour race. I think I will….after all…..the weather can't possibly be that bad again!