(My take on the 24solo worlds. Beware, this one prattles on a bit)
My mood during the days immediately prior to the race was not as rosy as an earlier (Tuesday) post might have portrayed. Although optimistic at the time, the morning after posting I felt that disquiet at the back of the throat indicative of something fluey, in spite of the fact that I was enjoying my taper and had just had essentially 3 straight days off the bike. By the Wednesday evening I felt pretty ill. Thursday was a shocker so I stayed in bed all day – something I never do. After a second crap night Mr Grumbles and Anita packed the car to the gunnels and set sail for Canberra, first registering at the event hotel – where I got further intimidated by the jumbling of foreign accents, smiling faces, ripped legs, and banter about 50 min lap splits. After all the time, miles and preparation I'd put in, spluttering on the start line was not the way I had envisaged kicking off.
After registration we trundled out to Stromlo to bag the campsite I had in mind, not too far from the solo pit area to make life a little easier for my merry band of helpers also doing the teams race (Team Megasaurarse), so at least that went to plan, brown snake and all. The others soon arrived – the Salmon brothers, Ham and GK, and later that evening Jimmy, Sean and Co. Had to then exit Stromlo for the 2 pm race briefing at Canberra Stadium (the Mal Meninga stand, for all you Rugby League fans….more about him later). Returned to Stromlo to ride a shortened lap in the late afternoon including the technical rough parts that been contributing to my insomnia. Not crashing = confidence gained. Happy to note that a particular hole in the Pork Barrel descent off the back of the mountain had been plugged with a boulder. A huge bowl of pasta for dinner was followed by some sedatives to knock me out, and I finally got a solid night's sleep under the belt.
Race day. Although we camped at the venue this time I was still a bundle of spluttering nerves getting the pit area organised (thanks for all the lugging guys), myself ready, and down to the start line for the presentation of the elite riders and start. The gun cracked at 11:45 and I was under way in a field of ~100. Craig, with whom I was sharing the pit area, was entered in one of the age group categories (40-44 in his case = another field of ~70 riders), which collectively kicked off 15 min later with all the other age group categories (another ~300 riders in toto).
With the course being more difficult this year (~18 km and ~500m climbing per lap), I deliberately tried not to get carried away with the quick end of the field but just rolled with the traffic for the first lap, negotiated the gnarl, and came into the pits for the first time with an hour split – quite a bit faster than I was expecting. The pit looked cramped but Anita and Matt (Craig's handler) had things sorted, and I simply swapped out bottles, took on an energy bar, and was off. Craig would pit a little later, and the process would repeat, and so on and so forth upon the hour. In spite of having the occasional monumental hack and spit, I didn't feel too bad. My lap plan was to take it easy up the front of the mountain, be really focused for the Pork Barrel thuggery off the back, but put the hard yards in up the steep back side of the course, before hanging on for dear life down the fast Skyline Traverse and super twisty and bermed Luge descents back to the pit area.
My bike handling was already far superior to that of the practice runs of a week prior, thanks in large part to actually reading a book about the subject penned by Brian Lopes and Lee McCormack (world class downhillers), which I finished reading on the drive to the race! [Seriously, if you want to improve your skills, read this book!] Hence, I was handling the rough better than ever and yielded splits for the first 6 laps only ~10 min off the pace of the race leaders. With the darkening sky came the donning of lights and longer pits to shovel down noodles, pizza etc, all consumed whilst my chain would be oiled and all too soon I would be thrust back out on course with a big shove to get the wheels rolling again. Speaking of wheels, I swapped out a softening rear wheel on about the 3rd pit (turned out to be a puncture), and that was the only mechanical I suffered for the entire race, although as time progressed the chain required more frequent attention, in part as it was stretching, combined with the course getting more and more rutted, and dustier and strangely wetter during the evening – wet patches were appearing everywhere although no rain fell and the temp probably didn't drop below approx 5 C, so conditions were ideal.
By nightfall fatigue was starting to set in big time. Actually, after about the 3rd lap the climbs were becoming much harder and my splits were starting to reflect this – coupled with longer and longer stops in the pits, more so after dark. Every time the big drop down the front of the mountain would start I'd be looking forward to getting to the pits and hob-knobbing with whomever happened to be present. Anita (and Matt) always, and an assortment of the rest of the troupes, who would pop by during down time in the teams event. It was great to see their faces and receive their encouragement.
Doing one of these races really is a war of attrition. With the passing of laps different parts of your body get hammered more and more. By late evening I was sore all over – as though Mal Meninga had been using me as a tackling bag all day long. On the climbs, especially up the back of the mountain, I would get to the top to find my hands cramped onto the bars. On the rutted descents I would lose feeling in my toes, and have the bejesus shaken out of my arms and shoulders. My fingers, and thumb especially, were getting so compressed by the snug-fitting gloves on the descents that I eventually decapitated the thumb ends for relief. My back was starting to atrophy into the Gollum position, a dagger was positioned between my left neck and shoulder blade, and my unmentionables were starting to give me grief, such that whenever the chain needed a lube, so did my nether regions. But the warmth of the pit was all too brief and before you know it another lonely lap was under way.
At times it seemed interminable. Man, how much longer was I going to be able to endure it all? But I was not alone. I think most competitors go through rough patches, but eventually one usually comes good again. Whilst there was no magical awakening accompanying dawn last year, this year I did feel rejuvenated, but in large part due to a strange sound I heard as the light started to strengthen at the far end of the course. Someone was wailing on the bagpipes. It was the most magical moment to roll round the corner and come past the lone piper giving the sack some welly! I'm sure I wasn't the only one to get a big lift out of this deliverance back to the day. Another trackside attraction that I'd forgotten about was a roadstop sign positioned on course; "Broccoli and Custard". And there, perched proudly on a log in the blazing sun was a magnificent head of broccoli and a festering carton of custard – both unopened. Cracked me up every time.
My stablemate Craig caught and passed me in the pits late in the night, but it was short lived as I passed him on the next lap up the back of the mountain and didn't see him again till after the finish. In contrast to my leisurely pit stops (3-6 min each – I'm told I spent approx 1 ½ hours off the bike in toto), Craig was hardly off the bike at all, a strategy used by many top riders, who would spend less than 5 min idle (Hard core!).
Although with the coming of day I felt as though I picked up a bit this wasn't fabulously reflected by my splits (around the 1'20'' mark now) as I think physically I was starting to fall apart. With 18 laps under the belt I knew I was placed (unbelievably) somewhere in the top 20 in the elite field. During the race my pit crew couldn't quite believe the persistent drop in my position. Seeded 97th (hence my number plate), my ranking progressively fell through the 40s, 30s, 20s, and eventually into the high teens. Photos were periodically taken of the lap board as a record in case it all fell apart. Top 20 was far more than I could have dreamed of. It was clear I would get a 19th lap in and probably have time to start a 20th before 24 hours expired – which I must confess I was dreading. The 19th lap was a toughie, and I found myself in a bad line down the Pork Barrel (first time of the race) and almost parked myself in the tree at the bottom. This sector was very badly chopped by this stage (more like a course requiring a few more inches of suspension travel) and I wondered whether I would be so lucky the next time. The guys I rode the back of the mountain with had all had enough too, and all I wanted to do was get off the bike come the end of the lap. I was mentally defeated and had truly had enough. I got hammered by the big descent for the last time and nursed myself through the camping areas and stopped the clock with 6 minutes to go. Seeing my face Anita didn't have the heart to force the issue of another lap, so I stepped off for the final time and just lay down (with difficulty) on the comfy concrete steps – something I'd been dreaming of for a long time. In that 19 laps I covered some 340 km, climbed ~9500m of altitude, and drank my way through about 20 bottles of sticky fluid. This distance/time placed me 15th in the elite male category, and 44th overall if the numerous age group, elite female and singlespeed categories were also considered. Not bad for someone who anticipated finishing at the blunt end of the field.
Craig, on the other hand, had a reason to keep suffering. Completing his 19th lap (relatively 7 minutes faster than I finished my 19th) he also had the option of going again just prior to the bell. He was positioned 4th in the 40-44 age category, and had been closing consistently on 3rd place. If the trend continued he had a chance of passing his target and getting on the podium with a 20th lap. So with a red bull in hand he set out for his 20th lap, which he duly completed and not only picked up his target, but jumped from 4th to 2nd in his category. So a bloody good effort at the death!
Now that I've forgotten how much the whole thing hurt, I kind of wish I'd suffered one more time for the 20th. Another lap would have shunted me from 44th overall to the mid 30s, and jumped me from 15th in the Elites to 12th. But it's all so easy in hindsight, and an extra lap might not have helped me at all, depending on who did or didn't pucker up for more pain. It's all a game of chicken, you see!
I was a pretty broken wombat at the end – the most physically trashed I have ever been. Just showering, or doing anything requiring movement was an issue. My lower back, in particular was cactus. My arms and shoulders were bruised raw, my palms blistered, my groin painfully chaffed. My legs were still sore 3 days afterwards. The dagger is still in my neck. I still have scabs on my rear courtesy of the saddle edges, and I'm still coughing up lots of green stuff. I'm glad I stopped when I did, and I think I can be very satisfied with my performance (knowing that pride is a sin and all). I still can't believe the Elite results sheet. I'm in the company of some pretty accomplished mountain bikers, most with some form of sponsorship. I'm equally proud of the job done by my pit crew. The very least I could do was honour their professionalism, and the faith and enthusiasm they placed in me. I didn't realise till afterwards that Ham, for instance, who was there all through the night on chain duty, had himself crashed heavily on the Teams course and was nursing a pretty sore hip and shoulder. So Anita, Ham, Sally and Matt (the all-night crew), and Ben, Mike and GK, who were there periodically as well as out on course, and to the troops back of the tents who would cheer me on upon every return, take a bow you lot – I love you guys! Having done two solo 24s now, I'm feeling perennially spoilt (although I must admit it is nice to be waited on hand and foot). Perhaps the time has come take a different role, and have a go in the pits helping someone else don the boxers gown and realise a 24solo dream. Perhaps next time I can work the pit for one of you!