Somehow, though, I think this one will stay with me for a while, but for all the other reasons. Despite last week's hiccup, being a somewhat seasoned 24 rider (4 under the belt and no DNFs), i thought I'd be able to bluff my way through. I'd largely regained a full range of movement in my right leg, coincident with colourful hues of yellow replacing the deep purple that was draining south. The impact point remained an egg-shaped protrusion, but wasn't painful. The back was starting to come good, enabling even vaguely normal bending and getting in/out of the car. Riding to work had proved easier day by day. With Friday off everything was going to be apples come race day.
It didn't take long to realise how delusional I'd been. I guess I really wanted to do this bloody race after all. Early in the first lap I started getting twinges of acute back pain accompanying the odd pedal stroke. By the top of the mountain it was every stroke. I rolled into the pits and requested a double-does of painkillers for the next stop. Hopefully things would settle and I'd find my workman's groove. The second lap was worse. Half way up the climb on my 3rd lap, the motion of picking the front wheel over the entrance to a little rock step was enough to re-tear whatever ribbons of erector spinae had been giving me grief and I knew instantly that my race over. At this point just finishing the lap proved an extremely painful affair. I never thought I'd be so grateful for the downhill components simply due to not having to pedal, even if shifting weight was now an issue. The mental anguish of having to stop didn't hit until I rolled into pits after only 3 hrs and announced I was done, although I think my crew had figured this out after my less than glowing demeanour and request for drugs on the first stop.
It is a team effort despite the "solo" moniker, and it felt terrible not to fulfill my side of the bargain and put on a good show. In every other respect we really were the best prepared we'd ever been for such a campaign. Part of the shame was dragging Anita, Ben and Sara all the way to Canberra for the fiasco. At least the outcome was definitive early on so that Sara and Ben could make the return trip to Sydney in good time, but not before sharing some gourmet nibbles and beer for a few hours as we talked life matters as riders filed by; a chilled out state those on track are not normally privy to. I should say their bedside manner was also pretty A grade in consoling the obvious disappointment. Thanks guys.
Anita and I weren't going to attempt leaving just yet, given my state and that the pit area wouldn't be open to 4-wheeled traffic till the following afternoon. But we enjoyed going for a bit of a bird on the adjacent runners track (excellent white-fronted chats and goldfinches) before settling into more spectating as shadows lengthened. Riders faces were now writ with creases indicating that the novelty of fast early laps had long worn off and the enormity of a long night was looming. We opted for a comfy hotel bed away from the buzz of the race, but kept an eye on proceedings online.
The race itself was fantastic to follow on numerous levels - the result of 270 odd starters from 16 countries, the second biggest 24solo in history. For a change the course itself was the kindest singletrack offering that Stromlo could offer. This was a prescription for speed, but as a result many riders simply blew themselves to smithereens. In the elite men the first 8 hrs were dominated by Ed McDonald, who after weeks in the sick bed got back to racing the only way he knows how, building a lead of some 8 minutes at one point before this gradually faded to an ever diminishing chasing pack of elite riders. Shortly after being caught he pulled up stumps knowing that despite pushing English so close at Nationals this just wasn't going to be his day.
The chasing pack contained most of the other favourites; English, Wallace (Canada, and again my pick for the upset), Page (UK), Hall, Lloyd , Chancellor, Herfoss and Poidevin (Canada). Although this group was gradually splintering, the gaps were still small. Come midnight, though, things had changed considerably. English was comfortably holding a 20 minute margin, with Wallace starting to firm as the main challenger, although Lloyd and Hall were in hot pursuit and Chancellor was still looking good in fifth. Page and Herfoss, however, had joined McDonald in their respective pits of despair and were no longer circulating. Come the morning, Chancellor had also hit the showers and Wallace had slipped to 4th, derailed by an off which dislocated his shoulder. Popping it back in took a bit a doing. With survival now the primary focus he couldn't prevent Lloyd and Hall blasting by and mopping up the minor placings. In the women's race, at one point the 5 top contenders were all rolling around within a few minutes of each other, but it was Jess Douglas who ultimately prevailed to defend her title with early leader Kwan fading to third and Hurst (NZ) securing second.
In male masters , the 40-45 category (the midlife crisis category) was again boasting the largest field in the race, with 40 starters. Morris and McAvoy were the top billings and didn't disappoint, only minutes apart for the first half. My main sparring partner Phil Welch did a great job of holding them at 10 minutes for the first third of the race, and looked to have 3rd in the bag at half way. Hence I was shocked to wake on Sunday morning and see that Phil was no longer circulating, and hoped that he was OK. Chatting with him later he said he was another guilty of roasting himself. Once he lost his 3rd spot he crumbled mentally as much as physically. He figured it was better to stop and start recovering for the Croc Trophy (starting the following weekend), than to coffin himself unnecessarily.
To give an indication of the quality of the 40-44 field, McAvoy, who hung on for the win despite relentless pressure from Morris, finished 5th outright on 24 laps. Such a mindblowingly good result must have surpassed even his wildest expectations. Morris came home in 8th outright (also on 24 laps), with Archer filling the last podium step on 23 laps and 12th outright. Vogele and Gillard rounded out the top 5 with 22 laps, and places 18 and 22 respectively. So, the overall top 10; English (27 laps), Lloyd then Hall (26 laps), Wallace, McAvoy, Bellchambers (single-speed!), Rae and Morris all on 24 laps, then Poidevin and Pattie on 23 laps. English, btw was clearly once again on another level, cool as ever picking up his 4th consecutive world title in his 25th 24solo outing.
Whilst I was somewhat relieved not to be putting myself through daggers on the Saturday afternoon, and enjoyed the spectacle with beer in hand, watching the battle-weary riders ticking off their final laps on the Sunday morning was an entirely different affair. I realised I wanted to share in their triumph, camaraderie, relief and satisfaction. I watched with considerable regret, knowing that with 17000 km for the calendar year i was in some of the best form of my life but unable to wield it, especially on a course that suited my capabilities so well -big tempo climb, no super fast descents, and few bits of thuggery, not to mention divine conditions. And it was the Worlds! The stars had aligned but somehow I'd slept through the alarm. It was a bit crushing.
I was not the only one to suffer disappointment. Ben, for instance, found himself in an even leakier boat yet still kindly offered to handle me. Moore, another 7 hr combatant also succumbed early to mutinous back issues. Phil, along with many of the elite guns, some who'd travelled round the world to be there, had to hoist a flag at some point. 24hr racing is like that. If you have a weakness or miscalculation it will inevitably become exposed. Most sobering of all, and putting things in perspective, a rider participating in a competition between the armed forces died on the mountain on the Friday we arrived, giving us all pause to consider that there are more important a things to life than bicycles.
Although I obviously wanted to finish this race on a high, I'm reasonably certain that the romance of the 24solo is now too thin for me to want to attempt another. As Mr Fellows (third in 2010 worlds behind English and Wallace and since 'retired') mentioned to me last week at the Scott, "those things just hurt too much". That said, I haven't regretted the journey just getting to the startline. In particular, the 7 hr format is one I've really enjoyed, and I should thank Phil for encouraging me to give them a crack in the first place. Once I get my ailments sorted I'll hopefully find myself doing a few more of these yet.