The 2016 Scott 24 hour rolled around as the 18th consecutive, and slated as the final in a long standing sequence of an incredible race. Although I’d only partaken since 2007, the race (in its glory days) had drawn up to 3000 people into a tent city amongst the forests of Kowen, then later back at the dust bowl of Stromlo.
From my perspective, it’s a good time to take a step back, and look at just four of the riders who have inspired me.
The Disciplined Racer
A horrible thing about 24hrs is that they start at midday. While most races are a frantic explosion of preparation and narrowly avoiding imminent disaster for an 8am start, 24hrs start at the very civilised time of midday.
This also means there is far too long to get nervous, break the morning-poo-world-record, or also get excitable, listen to some pumping music, and go wild.
In past years I’d become almost notorious for irresponsibly fast starts. With a lovely climb ahead of you, a hefty dose of adrenaline, and a wild explosion of energy disturbingly contained through the whole morning, a fast start is always tantalisingly floating – because after all, fast is fun, and fun is fast.
If there is one thing I’ve learnt from the man who has dominated the sport, it’s that endurance racing is much more about discipline than heroics. The discipline to contain excitement on the first lap, to ride sustainably, to eat and drink, and to be quick and efficient through the transitions.
The first lap started with an admirable degree of restraint, and some pleasant chat on the climb, with Jason commenting flippantly on his low heart rate while mine orbited in the stratosphere. The descent soon provided the opportunity to push away and try to open the field up, with the eternal delights of Western Wedgetail, Skyline and Luge tempting fast, aggressive riding.
This plan worked well, but after a couple of dry days, areas of the track had packed hard with erratic, skatey, marble rock over the surface. Grip was completely lacking, and in the wake of riding in wet conditions, I was completely out of touch with cornering on the loose surface. A massive wash-out soon followed, with some bark of the knee, and a stinging cramp ripping through my left quad.
With my wings somewhat clipped soaring too close to the sun, I attempted to settle back and sit into a rhythm. Jason caught up and I sat on for a little while, content to be patient, as we rolled onto the second lap.
It soon transpired that the crash had also ruined my shifting, with chaotic ghost-shifting on the climbing range. I gave myself another reminder not to panic, and plan carefully, 2 laps of single-speed inspired climbing followed before a speedy bike swap. We rolled onwards with rapid rolling double feeds from Phil and Seb.
After three hours of patiently sitting on Jason, I was beginning to sense his impatience to test me. The afternoon was warm but with pleasantly cloud cover and a sprightly easterly breeze, and the trails, while wet in places, were holding up beautifully, with smooth lines settling into the marbles. On the first climb, the pace soon ramped to 30km/h. The tests had started. Over the next three hours, surge after surge followed on the climb, and I tried to use the long, flowing Stromlo descent to recover. My legs were riddled with little cramps from the crash and a right hip flare-up from Beechworth resurfacing. It looked ominous.
It’s in times like this that you can look for the wisdom you might have learnt from your opponent. The ability to keep perspective, to be patient, to know the limits, and to remind yourself that is an extremely long way to go – and plan ahead.
Eventually, around 6pm, the elastic snapped. I didn’t bother panicking or going into the red to close the gap, instead taking the opportunity to settle into a steadier rhythm and wait for the night.
The Singing Singlespeeder
Almost relieved to be able to back off the pace, we’d soon donned lights and were heading off into the night with heavy, crampy, tired legs. While the course immediately began to slick up with the descending dew, I relished the colder temperatures and the opportunity to bring the legs back around into better condition.
If there’s one racer I’ve learnt from immensely over the years, it’d be the bearded giant – a man with a massive beard and an even bigger heart, Brett Bellchambers. Brett’s the sort of guy who will just roll around all day, having a ball, and finding a happy place on the bike, irrespective of what the race does.
Coming through the sunset, I took the time to enjoy a spectacular cloudburst over the western horizon of the Brindabellas – that place of so many grand adventures. Certainly a happy place, and a skyline that fills me with an immense feeling of identity and home.
Content to be racing for second, I focused on finding a happy place on the the trails. Finding a rhythm on the climb, knocking off lap by lap, and enjoying the fantastic flow on the way back down. Belting out songs at anyone and everyone I could find.
At about 8pm, a particularly bad version of “Eye of the Tiger” over the bridge into the Luge was met with a response of “oh, there he is!” – and I was stunned to see the yellow stripes of a Pivot jersey only 20 seconds ahead on the Luge. On the subsequent scoot around Slant Six to Wombat Junction, the immortal ballad of Teenage Dirtbag soon hit the airways.
There is nothing quite so motivating as remembering your awkward 12 year old experiences of loneliness at the year 7 disco, and I was soon bombing down the remaining descents with a wonderfully atonal falsetto screech.
While this was probably a terrible race tactic – in the sense that the singing was that awful to be around – somehow, it helped control the adrenaline of the catch. Slipping away over the course of the next lap and into the night, it was time to channel the happy place Brett had so regularly found.
And so, the night flitted away, with songs, cool air, climb by climb, then enjoying the descent back down. Channelling my inner singlespeeder – dancing on the hills, and finding skids and fun on the descent.
People talk a lot about training tactics for events. For me, it was very simple – over the course of a wet and cold winter, I’d fallen back in love with threading a cone of light through a forest of darkness, the rush of the unfamiliar corner, and the cool night air on my skin. The night ride had, one more, become a happy place. I plodded on, oblivious to gaps, focusing on the unrelenting tempo.
There is no question that riding a bike between the hours of midnight and dawn is a silly exercise, and one that runs counter to most people’s natural biological clock. For this period, it’s time to channel the Lunatic.
The Lunatic isn’t really the Lunatic. He’s the guy with the brilliant sense of perspective on what his adventures are, and what they mean. The guy who’s so well adjusted that, however hard it gets, it’s still better than being at work.
For me, this inspiration was close at hand – with the superb Phil in the pits. As a man who’s ridden solo across Canada and Australia, my dominant impression of Phil is his insurmountable ability to flourish in the face of adversity. The tougher it gets, the more he loves it – whether it’s a brutal hike-a-bike, ridiculous weather, or just a freakish storm. To keep himself occupied, Phil was doing 10 burpees for every lap I did – surmounting to a monumental 370.
The Lunatic is well positioned to ride through the witching hours. I marvelled at the city streetlights shimmering on the horizon. Every lap, I used the cool air on the descent to keep myself uncomfortable, and force myself to warm up on the climb once more.
People tend to reflect on 24 hours for the glamorous moments – the sunrises, the highs, the joy of the finish. The reality has more to do with suffering, soreness, and an interminable slog. Added to this was significant chain suck on both bikes in the sloppy conditions, and the stress of a snapped chain was never far from my mind, and I threaded careful lines on the descents to keep the tyres safe.
While the reality may be slightly grim, it’s also slightly mad. And in that madness, lies the hope. It’s madness. Go with it. It’s the best part of living.
With my first caffeine shot piling into the blood, I plunged deeper into the heart of darkness, looking to the east each lap for signs that might betray the coming dawn. Not knowing gaps, through the night I felt the pressure of the inevitability of the final six hours of truth bearing down on me. I’ve raced Jason enough to know how strong his second morning is. When the sun comes up, it’ll be on like donkey-kong.
The come down from the joy of dawn was a rapid and rude one. While the brilliance of dawn starts with a soft and cleansing beauty, it soon gives way to the garish truths of illuminated day. There are some truths that shouldn’t be illuminated.
Usually, this is related to the return of fresher riders to the track from the 6+6 or sleeping teams, and they blow past you like you’re standing still.
I’ve found in the past that the past 6 hours require the biggest and deepest pushes of them all, and in this case, with the unexpected weight of the lead on my shoulders, and the pressure of Jason bearing down on me, I had to find some deep motivation.
In times like this, it’s time to find the inner mongrel. The guy who, although the nicest man on earth on the exterior, can turn himself inside-out in pursuit of a goal, and push through unreasonable levels of pain.
There is no-one who, in my mind, fits this bill better than Jason McAvoy. An inspiration to get into long races, Jason could pull himself inside out to bring the dream across the line for his family with a fierce competitiveness that summoned strength unforeseen.
With the rising sun, I was riding on the strength of the night, but with a sense of pure paranoia. Knowing Jason’s unrelentingly strong finishes, I had no idea of what gap I had or the lap pacing I would need to maintain to stave him off.
Settling in to 40 minute laps, I had to fight the urge to count the laps down and dig deep to stay focused with a body waning in the heat of the day and the rising sun. McAvoy style, I channelled the motivation of the people who’d supported me over the years: people like Phil in the pits, a long suffering family putting up with cycling over real-life development, and an endless line who’d supported me in 24s over the years: it was too late and too close to let them down.
I was relieved around 10am to hear that the gap was steady and my lap times were sufficient, and I could back off the pace slightly to bring the race home safely and sustainably. With a few dying minutes to go, there was even time to sneak in another lap – an idea that seemed well planned for about five minutes until my legs caught up!
There are a few people I need to thank for helping me achieve a life-long dream:
- Phil Byron, super-burpee-man, pit boss, who did an unbelievable job managing 24hrs of chaotic rolling feeds
- Seb Dunne, Brenton Rogers, Brendan Morant, and everyone else who jumped in to the pits
- Onya Bike for keeping the old Black Beauty running smoothly, and supplying the yellow Bumblebee at late notice – I couldn’t have asked for better bikes than the Anthems
- Canberra Off Road Cyclists for keeping the 24 hour dream alive a little longer; it’s been an amazing ride with an amazing community.
Riding bikes is fun!