Friday 3 February 2017

Posted by Velouria Posted on 13:14 | 3 comments

Oak Valley 24hr 2017

Back in 2007, on a dry and dusty Wiesenhof track, I won my first solo 24 hour race. I had no idea what I was doing. I was never really in contention, lapping consistently slower than the leader. But I was having fun, lap after lap after lap, ably supported by my wife and Jayne, a third year physio student. My Raleigh RM7.0, equipped with 26 inch wheels, V brakes and those flappy Shimano shifters, was anything but a comfortable ride, and yet it handled everything that Meurant could throw at it.

In my element
I wasn't in the race at all until 3 o'clock in the morning when Paul, the current leader (and mate), ran out of battery power. These were days when halogen lights and nickel cadmium batteries were the norm, and a smart lighting strategy was more important than a decent nutritional plan. I had recently bought, at great expense, one of those new fangled LED lights with a lithium ion battery. The jury was still out on whether these new gadgets would catch on as they were prone to overheating and blowing up. Mine was super fancy and had a thermal cut out that would kick in and turn the light off before it exploded. And I knew it worked because it would cut out without warning in the warm South African nights, regardless of whether you were just coasting along or bombing down some gnarly single track, plunging everything into absolute darkness. Wait a few minutes and the light would return to life, unlike those halogen/nickel cadmium monstrosities.

At sunrise I took the lead, and for the next 3 hours Paul and I duked it out, throwing everything we had at each other. I imagine we looked like two sloths fighting in slow motion, pushing our broken bodies to the limits to get the upper hand. And with 3 hours to go Paul cracked. He didn't bonk, or run out of legs, he just couldn't convince his bum to sit on his saddle for one more lap, his 26 inch hardtail feeling like a razorblade covered cactus. I did one more lap and then waited for the finish, sharing war stories with Paul. It might have looked like we were racing each other, but ultimately we were racing ourselves, comrades in arms against the demon that is solo 24 hour racing.

Fast forward 10 years and nothing has changed. Sure, the bikes have evolved and those LED lights did catch on, but solo 24 hour racing is still about racing your own demons. And this year was no different. In the weeks leading up to the event the pressure starts to mount as the self doubt begins to creep in. Have I done enough training? Did I do the right sort of training? What training has the competition been doing? Who is the competition this year? Race day can't come soon enough.

The venue at Oak Valley might be bigger, and Dirtopia might have a few more banners, but you can always bank on Meurant putting together a course with a little bit of everything. Some testing climbs, some twitchy single track and some flowing downhills. The heavy rains in the run up to the event might have forced some route changes, but it was still a perfect route for 24 hour racing.

Right from the start at 12pm I try to do my own thing but this year I had company, several riders watching my every move under the mistaken impression that I know what I am doing. I don't. My strategy is rather simple - get into a rhythm and routine and try to keep that going as smoothly as possible for as long as possible. A 24 hour race isn't won in the first 6 hours, but it certainly can be lost in the first 6 hours. With that in mind I was quite hesitant to engage in any racing, but I also don't like company.

My "long suffering wife"
And so I took a calculated risk. Put in some quicker laps, push quite hard on the climbs and see who responds, and for how long. One way or another the race was going to be settled before the sun went down, and I hoped that I'd be on the right side of that risk. Two or three riders followed me, including Lance - the nearly man of so many 24 hour races. From previous years I knew he was a maniac on the technical downhill stuff that I hated so much, but I also knew that he disliked the hills even more than I did. With that in mind I hatched a plan - push on the ups and recover on the downs, and see how long we could do that little dance.

The Dane Train
Like a seasoned roadie Lance remained glued to my wheel, only ditching me on the descents before resuming his position behind me, lap after lap after lap. Just as I was starting to doubt my strategy and my ability to keep up the efforts on the climbs I got a hint. It wasn't much. A bike length or two briefly opened up between us, and Lance closed it quicker than it had appeared. But it was enough. That was the sign I needed. We did a few more laps together with the gap opening up slightly larger each time before I lost him at the transition area for good. And while the race was far from over, I was able to once again ride my race at my pace.

Backup and backup to the backup
The best part about 24 hour racing is that you get so many opportunities to ride the perfect lap. Your knowledge of the course grows as you tweak and adjust your lines, push the limits on braking points and measure your efforts more appropriately. A mental picture builds up in your mind of where you are on the route, what's coming up, and the best way to ride it. It's mountain biking by numbers, and it's highly effective when the brain starts to turn to porridge. However, it all comes crashing down when you round a corner and a completely new scene greets you. It could be a rock that is out of place, or a branch jutting out into the path. It could be a dropped water bottle or skid mark, but it's enough to snap you out of autopilot mode and force you to reassess the scene before you. And as you rebuild your mental picture you start to ask questions. What happened that caused a 15kg rock to roll into the path? Where did that branch come from? Do they know they've dropped a water bottle? Why did they brake so hard right here?

And before you know it you've gone full Inspector Clouseau, looking for clues. Was there a crash? Is there someone lying in the bushes? Was it sabotage? Is the skid mark related to the dropped bottle? Of course, there are no answers, but it keeps the mind busy, and while the mind is playing Inspector Clouseau it's not thinking about your sore bum, or the ache in your knee, and that is something that money can't buy!

Mutual respect
As the night goes on the course gets quieter as only the crazy remain out on route, the more sane people opting to catch a few hours of sleep. It's then that solo 24 hour racing becomes magical. Your whole worldview is a tiny puddle of light in front of you (that thankfully no longer cuts out when it overheats) and the only beings keeping you company are the Leopard Toads out on the route, and a handful of totally committed backup crew in the transition area. It was around this time that Lance and I found ourselves in sync once again, albeit I was a lap up. The aggressions of earlier were a thing of the past, and we enjoyed a couple of laps together, keeping the demons away through strength in numbers. In a great show of sportsmanship, Lance invited me for a coffee break, and so, for the duration of the coffee break a ceasefire in hostilities was declared as we chatted about the race, the course, and the competition. With the last sip of coffee, our race resumed and we parted ways. As it turned out we wouldn't see each other again on the course until it was all over.

A successful 24hr race requires 3 things. A good, simple strategy. An amazing backup team (and not only do I still have my wife doing backup, even my backup has backup). And no creature comforts. I'm there to ride my bike for as long and as far as possible. No sitting down. No catnaps. My bike must be the most appealing thing for those 24 hours. My reward for doing a lap is a quick snack, and the chance to do another lap. And while it's tough to leave the backup crew at 2 in the morning, they have the "you have to be cruel to be kind" thing waxed and will chase me on my way if I overstay my welcome.

Lost in thought
There are several significant moments when riding a 24hr race - the start which puts an end to all the waiting and nervous energy. The finish which puts an end to all the suffering and exertion. Sunset, which transforms the course into a dark and lonely world. But for me, the moment I enjoy the most is that lap that starts in the dark, and finishes in the light as the sun slowly makes a reappearance. That's the sign that everything is going to be ok. It's not over yet, but I've broken the camel's back. I'm in the finishing straight with just 6 hours remaining. Keep it steady, look after the body, choose clean lines, and enjoy the last few laps.

The traditional post race photo with Meurant
As the sun rises higher in the sky, the course fills with more and more riders, each with their own tales of hardship, suffering and endurance. Their bodies showing the signs of fatigue and torment, but their smiles revealing the fun that they're still having. With 12pm approaching, those with any mental capacity left are doing sums as to how many more laps they want to do. How many more they need to do. I'd set my mind on 30 laps being enough for victory, but at the behest of my backup crew I did one more, just to make sure, and just to make them happy. And while the number 31 really grates with me (it's prime, and consists of two primes, and is just an ugly number), it didn't grate me enough that I was going to do another lap!

The winning team!
And so, with 31 laps in the bag, a total of 378km and 7500m of climbing, I crossed the line for the last time, glad to finally get off the bike, and pleased to have conquered the 24 hour demons once again.

The 2017 podium

Thanks to Mark Sampson for the photos.