I started this journey because I had lost my motivation to ride and I wasn’t getting out and enjoying cycling. My weight was rising and my fitness was plummeting. I needed to create a goal to kick me back onto the bike. And so, at the start of the year, my preparation began in earnest for the World Solo 24 hour championships in Canberra on October 9-10. For the past ten months I have ridden countless kilometres both off-road and on. I haven’t been training as such, just riding more frequently, harder, and for longer than I ever have before. Since May I have raced in 4, 6, 12 and 24 hour events, ridden epic days around Wellington hills, and long overnight tours on the back roads of New Zealand. Throughout the journey, it has been essential not to compromise the reasons why I ride. A huge part of that is my love of the craft of riding: the interaction between the rider, equipment, terrain and environment. On a good day a ride becomes an almost spiritual experience. I ride fixed wheel on the road and rigid singlespeed off-road, simply because it suits my physical and mental characteristics and tickles my soul. It followed that all of my riding this year was on these bikes, and I would race at the World Solo 24 Champs on my rigid singlespeed. I could probably do better on a fully geared full suspension bike, but that would miss the point entirely.
I arrived in Canberra happy with my preparations, incredibly excited at the scale of the event, and unbelievably nervous. I had no real idea of the severity of the course or the competition. In the days before the race I rode the course a few times. It was clear that the course was going to be brutal. There was no respite from climbing or descending. Much of the descending was a technical challenge to ride quickly. The first climb up to the observatory on top of Mt Stromlo was long and gradual, but rocky and with many steeper switchbacks and rocky sections to negotiate. It was a real energy sapper. The second climb to the top was more direct, a fireroad with four long steep sections punctuated by short fast descents. These two climbs made up around nine kilometres of each lap and 450 vertical metres of ascent. The descents were simply amazing. The first was a combination of extremely fast and rocky singletrack mixed with a few steep, even rockier and highly technical sections. It was a challenge to ride on the practice laps, let alone at race pace at night. The second descent was long and eye-wateringly quick, with plenty of rocks and braking holes to catch the unwary. Reactions and concentration needed to be on top form to descend quickly, as the surface was hardpack covered with sandy dust and punctuated by embedded rocks. Keep on the ideal line and speed was immense, stray and the rocks and loose surface took no prisoners. Approximately eight kilometres of the course was descending, leaving a paltry kilometre and a half of flat recovery through the finish and pit lanes. I set some race goals based on limited information I had. My pre-riding suggested that I could manage a 70 minute lap at a fast race pace. This would blow out somewhat as fatigue set in, so 16 laps would be a good target and 18 an achievable stretch. I had less idea about the competition, but I assumed it would be a big step up from the Kiwi races I had competed in. I hoped I would be able to get into the top ten in the singlespeed category, and maybe top five would be possible. But I was really only guessing.
Race day dawned sunny and warm. The first half of my race went well. For the first 14 hours (eight of them at night) I was feeling good. There were laps where I felt better and laps where I felt worse. There were the aches and pains that go with the rigid singlespeed territory – generally these are knees, back, shoulders, feet and hands – but I was managing these effectively. I was riding at my fast race pace and I was keeping my pit stops efficient. Riding rigid singlespeed quickly is a wonderful, and quite one-dimensional, experience. The single gear forces climbing to be at a decent pace to keep the gear turning over. The rigid forks cause either very slow descents, or very fast descents where rider weight is moved rearwards and allows the front wheel to skim the surface of rocks and holes and artificially smooth the trail. Fast rigid riding looks and feels very sketchy with limited braking and cornering traction, and with lots of rider weight shifts balancing front wheel traction and skimming. It is hard on the body, but wicked fun and a totally immersive and pure experience. In fact, I can’t recall having so much fun as I did on the final descent of each lap. I was riding at around 85% of my full speed and lost count of the ‘moments’ I had – those times when either quick reactions or blind luck saves a catastrophic accident at high speed. To be honest I was riding too close to the limit for too long, and I would probably suffer for it at some point. I just hoped that point was after the race had finished. I was holding down fifth place after 14 hours, and I was within sight of fourth. The top three had blown out to a big lead, setting an unbelievable pace that they would maintain right to the end.
Twenty four hours is a long time to be racing and very rarely does a race unfold as expected, despite best laid plans. My race changed at 2 am, when I rolled into to the pits after my twelfth lap. I’d been taking short breaks at the end of the last few laps to create some down time for my head and body. The brutality of the course was physically draining and the demand for total concentration was mentally exhausting, particularly during the last eight hours of darkness which brings limited depth and clarity of vision. After this lap I got off my bike and things were far from being okay. I was nauseous and dizzy, I couldn’t focus my eyes, and I was unsure on my feet. All I could do was sit, head in hands, rocking gently like a madman. This was the scene for over an hour with my fantastic wife and support crew, Beth, forcing me to eat and drink and gently encouraging me to get back on my bike. I was tearful, unsure of my ability and, quite frankly, scared to ride another night lap. The ‘moments’ were increasing lap by lap and I was making countless silly mistakes due to mental and physical fatigue. Riding a much slower pace wasn’t an option. My bike and fifteen hours of consistency dictated my pace. I simply couldn’t adapt to slower riding. I almost pulled the plug on my race. However, my vision slowly returned, and the food I had crammed in was returning a little energy to my essential systems. The thought of the sun rising was my catalyst for action. I set out for another lap and hoped to be in daylight again by the time I returned to the pit. Amazingly, I was still in seventh place. It turns out I wasn’t alone in being affected by the severity of the course and the experience. Lap times for most competitors had slowed somewhat, and many had also taken an extended break.
My next two laps were wonderful. The sun appeared and I returned to almost full speed. However, as I was to experience, once the depths of exhaustion have been reached there is only so far you can crawl back out again without allowing for an extended recovery. My energy spike lasted for two laps. By the third I was back to the slow plodding feeling of emptiness. My right hip and right knee were causing tooth grinding levels of pain, the sort that expels all else from your head. The climbs hurt, but that was nothing to the pain on the descents. I had had a silly accident on the first lap. Nothing serious, but I bashed my knee and hip. Up to now they hadn’t made a fuss, but their time had well and truly arrived. At the bottom of the first descent I was off the bike trying to relieve my hip of its agony, and by the end of the second climb my knee refused to tolerate any loading. Just as I should be picking up the pace again, my body decided enough was enough.
It was near the top of the final descent of my fifteenth lap when I had my epiphany, right about when I hit a particularly fast-flowing and swoopy section of trail. Everything became clear. I realised why I had entered this event, and why I raced at all. I have been testing myself and probing to find my personal limits. Limits constrained by the riding I love and the tools that I use. Limits of my physical and mental ability and toughness. None of the events in New Zealand had fully tested me, so I kept entering more. Sure I didn’t win them all, but that isn’t the point. I finished them and thought I could do better. This is the realm of racers who strive to win and measure their ability against the competition. But that wasn’t it for me, I realised I didn’t care about the competition. It was all about me. This race, this course, had truly pushed me to my limits and beyond. I had found them in the pit tent at 3 am, and I had come out stronger. Here I was back on the bike, suffering immensely, but still smiling. I started this journey with the goal to rediscover my passion for riding, and somehow that had morphed into a few specific race goals. Now here I was, on one of the finest descents I have ridden, with a serene sense of satisfaction and finality. I had achieved not just the goal of my ten month journey, but so much more.
The fifteenth descent of this track was to be my last of the race. As if to confirm this, the track in front was clear and I had four kilometres of magical descending to enjoy unimpeded. There was to be no 85% this time, it was maximum speed to the bottom. There were whoops of joy, jumps, berms railed at crazy speeds, and just maybe the odd ‘moment’. I stopped to let a few riders past (maximum speed maybe, but I was still a tired man in pain on a fully rigid bike). And that was the end. My hip and knee were in agony at the bottom, masked somewhat by the adrenalin of the descent, but returning with fresh vigour on the run through the finish chute. My energy level was rock bottom. I rolled into my pit and was told by Beth “Two more laps and you are top ten for sure”. I got off my bike, sat down and announced “That’s it, I’m done”. I have never been more sure of anything. It must have come across as such, as my assertion wasn’t questioned by Beth (who would otherwise have tried anything to get me out for another lap). I sat, drank chocolate milk, ate pizza, and wallowed in a little self-satisfaction. There were a few more tears. I really had achieved what I came here to do. I just didn’t know what that was at the start.
On the flight back from Australia I thought that this might be the end of my endurance racing, and maybe the end of all competitive mountain biking for me. After all, what do I have left to prove to myself? But I have been there before and friends keep reminding me that I said “no more” after my first 24 hour race. These things are a little addictive. So I’ll leave the ‘what next?’ question open for a while yet. There is time to sit back and reflect on a very satisfying journey. First I need a couple of weeks rest, I need to replace my bent rigid forks – did I mention that it was brutal out there? – and I need to get out riding with a few good mates. Then I can approach the future. I can feel Beth’s eyes rolling already.
Mr Smith [@InspiringRiding]