To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour
When sitting down to write a blog of a 24 hour race, the first question is rather a large one:
Where should I begin?
Should I begin with numbers? The numbers can quantify the gravity of these races and display an irrefutable, tangible picture of just how much is involved.
Should I talk purely of tactics and racing? Of the surges, attacks, strategies and implosions? Of an intriguing show that plays out slowly against the backdrop of the mountain, gently illuminated LEDs floating around its contours?
Should I talk of the spiritual aspects? Of madness, hopes and dreams laid on the line through a tyre track in the dust? Of self-transcendence, redemption, or perhaps even a little self-discovery? Of the intoxicating drive to push limits and shatter boundaries?
Or should I reject it as nothing more than riding around in circles, and write of the banal. Of the suffering, the implosions, the caffeine highs, and the sinking lows of sugar bonks.
Perhaps the best approach lies somewhere in between. A fusion the spiritual with the tangible, of the banality of suffering with the circus-show of endurance racing.
A World in a Grain of Sand
Bike racing is its own funny little world, nestled in weekend epics and races, the occasional night-ride, and the imagination of plenty of people who end up bored and inside too much of the time. There is a World in a Grain of Sand. Tyre pressures? Tread pattern for the depth? Will it hold up, or blow out over 24 hours of racing? What is the course like?
In this particular case, the Solo 24 Hour Nationals was an interesting grain of sand. A race perhaps more open due to some unfortunate injuries to the multi-time incumbent Jason English involving errant cars and kangaroos. A course which soon became known for its brutality, with rocky sections to test fatigued riders, sapping pinches, and a rough, 600m, 13% climb to build the lap to a rewarding finish down Skyline and the Luge. A course which would make or break riders, and indeed champions. A course where I confidently and completely erroneously predicted huge time gaps, and lap times that blew out progressively through the race. A grain of sand that produced a thrilling race. With a fantastic support crew of Adam, Phil and Erin behind me, I was excited for a flat-out race.
“Yep, there’s something wrong with your derailleur”
The little world of bike racing began with a relaxed, comical start. Scott Chancellor and I had vaguely discussed the idea of fool-hardy suicidal joint attacks to start the race. When Scott didn’t know where the course went, I led the field out and up the first few climbs at a lazy pace. Already, vastly differing approaches were on display. While I had opted for the superlight Superfly SL hardtail to save my legs on the climbs – knowing I’d get beaten up on the descents – Scott had gone in the opposite direction, riding his 5″ Trance 29er, affectionately known as the “School Bus”. He shot into Slant Six with a mischievous grin and soon vanished. On the climbs, I could catch again, but soon decided the pace was too high and too risky, and focussed instead on starting a solid hydration and nutrition strategy, and riding to a very well defined exertion limit.
A slightly scattered leading pack of five was soon established, with Scott of the front, Callum McNamara and I having a little too much fun for this serious racing business in no man’s land behind, with Ash Hayat and Jason English lurking ominously another minute back. Despite feeling a little unmotivated and distracted, my body began to settle into the rhythm of endurance racing, and loosen up a little.
About 4 hours in, I decided to leverage the advantage of the lightweight hardtail to pull clear of Callum on the climb, and soon jumped across to Scott, who was settling back into an easier, more conservative rhythm. I then spent a few hours off the front on my own, tapping away a rhythm, all the while with a foreboding sensation that Jason English would soon warm up, and come flying across the gap.
As day transitioned to night and the sun cast reds and golds across the mountain, the temperature dropped and the riding became a little easier. Here, something bizarre happened, when my stomach started cramping on all the descents. Any and all food and drink consumed would only agitate the raging inferno further. Drastic action was soon required, and we scaled back to straight water, and a minimum of food as the lights came on to guide us through the treacherous rocks in the darkness.
Lights on and having fun
With the World in a Grain of Sand thus slipping through my fingers, it wasn’t long before I spotted a quiet and fast-moving set of lights slipping through the darkness towards me at a startling pace. While I secretly hoped it was a local XC gun out for a play, an awkward silence was soon broken by a very familiar voice:
“What’s going on?”
With this succinct reminder that my pace appeared to be going to the proverbial, I had no answer as Jason vanished at a startling pace into the darkness. I decided the only solution would be to throw a big bunch of time away, and make a highly unscheduled trip to the toilet to exorcise the proverbial. With things now settling down, the other reality of winding back my carb consumption soon hit me, and bonking ensued.
I struggled with the World in the Grain of Sand slipping away from my grasp. Lacking intrinsic motivation, I plodded on through the darkness with some rather dark thoughts about endurance racing for company. Slowly, the Formula One pit crew of Adam, Phil and Erin loaded me up with pizza, and the carbohydrate reserves began to be replenished. Midnight ticked by, and soon enough, the magic arrived.
Heaven in a Flower
There are many forms of intrinsic motivation that riders bring to their racing. Pushing limits, breaking boundaries, discovering unknown internal strength. To stray dangerously close to the bizarre world of fixies, sometimes riding a bike can offer startling moments of clarity and resolution. When the world settles down into a beautiful, logical order. When riding love becomes motivation in its own right, and the rider can see Heaven in a Flower by the track, accomplishment in clearing a rock garden, beauty in the glittering night sky, and redemption in recovering from a deep, miserable hole.
While the relationship of my first caffeine hit in two weeks to this sensation stretches the statistician’s catch-cry of “correlation is not causation!” into the realms of pedantry most occupied by, well, statisticians, my little riding microcosm became a beautiful place. The course had a purpose and form, and pushing out for another lap was an enjoyable experience in a dark, timeless world pierced by a cocoon of light. My reveries were frequently broken by innumberable crashes on Blue Tongue and Little Seymour, but not enough to break the love.
Slowly, the timeless night flitted by, and slowly, the gap to Jason began to shrink. Redemption thus achieved, the race then built strength upon strength in a ‘spiritual’ dimension as the focus, drive and racing love came flowing back. Descending from Willo Link one lap, I saw a very fast set of lights climbing the return firetrail. Although to each, the identities were invisible in the blinding glare, the moment of recognition was unmissable to both: game on – again.
Riding without any form of time-keeping, I began to look expectantly to the Eastern sky for the first hints of morning glow, but secretly reveled in the cold, dark night air. I found a bizarre alternative form of measuring the gap – a strange calling card of the leader – looking at the freshness of the splattered urine trails from a rider most adept at the much-hushed topic of rolling pees.
Infinity in the Palm of your Hand
The game thus became a question of numbers. Retrospectively, some stats from the race show its enormous gravity – some 409km covered, with 9,600vm of ascent. Probably somewhere in the order of 50,000 – 60,000kJ consumed. Or, I could roll back to the training for this race. Over the three months leading in, some 110 hours, 350 hours, 9000km, and 110,000 vertical metres of ascent.
But the game was one of infinite possibilities. To attack immediately and risk an implosion? To ride to tempo and with conservatism? How many minutes were needed over the five hours of racing remaining, and from where could they be pried?
With the transition back to daylight, the temptation to lift the pace again was too great to resist. After a random hot lap, at 8am, the gap had shrunk to just 90s. Here, the guessing games began. Rather than continuing on the adrenaline, I chose to knock the pace back to what I felt was a sustainable tempo. The gap opened a little. Infinity joined the blood blisters in the palm of my hand.
Not so smiley at 11am. Photo by Steve Watson
Precious seconds rolled by. Of the 86,400 seconds in the race, now every one seemed precious, and I mourned for those lost in the toilet earlier in the race. The lights stayed on from the night laps. The rolling transitions became spriting transitions for the Formula 1 crew, stretching their V12s. Aero tucks were adopted coming out of pit row in the tarmac. There is no madness more fulfilling than winding up the pace again after 20 hours on the bike. None other that can produce a wry smile between the grimaces, chasing the void between riders, counting the seconds, trying to close a fluid, elastic gap, and grasp at the air to cling closer. An infinite goal, almost in the palm of my hand.
Eternity in an Hour
However, much like the Scott 24hr in 2011, the downside of the early morning acceleration was the doubt about the remaining resources. At 10am, the lights went out, with the combination of a rear end most sore from the previous evening’s debacle and a locked lower back robbing any pedaling power. Slowly, infinity slipped away, and the race became a question of survival.
With 10 minutes to go, I made the decision to limp out on a final 33rd lap, and push a broken and abused body a little further. The resulting hour felt like an eternity, as I grovelled over the climbs, rockgardens and descents of the trail. Metres dragged out into endless expanses, and time became a relative function of misery.
Eventually, the finish rolled around to end an epic an exhausting day exploring the depths of eternal hours!
There are a few people I really, really need to thank for this ride happen for me:
- The amazing pit crew of Adam, Phil and Erin. I used the term F1 crew in all seriousness. Every transition was seamless and perfect, and between 2am and 11.50am, I didn’t spend a second stationary in transition. It was an amazing team performance to dig the rider out of a massive hole, and have him push for the lead again!
- Target Trek MTB Team. It is fantastic to see so much support across all disciplines of the sport, and to see Target stepping in to the MTB market.
- Onya Bike Belconnen and CORC for their continued support of this event;
- The whole community of MTBers. You’ll never meet a better or more inspiring group of people to share these experiences with.
- Jason English for pushing the standard for these races perpetually higher, and schooling me in some late race pace!