Having started 5 of these things I’ve been keen to view one from the less painful side of the fence. As a rider the pit area is always highly anticipated; a reservoir of friendly clean people (indeed civilization). The PA system crackling with banter or tunes, (usually) a nice piece of tarmac to provide relief for contact points, and snacks, pizza, drinks, chips, you name it, all delivered with a smile. It’s all too brief, however, as before you know it the sore points are absorbing more punishment, and the mind refocuses to navigate the 1000 idiosyncrasies of the next loop, whilst trying not to be overwhelmed by the increasingly vocal part of your brain – the part that registers the cold truth of self-inflicted madness.
One catches only glimpses of epic battles. Not just the one going on in your head. Occasionally riders come by with purpose, or engage in a welcome bit of conversation. Sometimes a tidbit of the racing drama is absorbed during your brief visitation through pit town.
It would be great to tap into the running commentary that buzzes in the event center, if for no other reason than to keep the mind occupied. Even greater to do it with a beer in hand. Yet like the conundrum of Schroedinger’s Cat, one can’t live both states simultaneously. So, in order to witness what it’s truly like to be in the pits, one has to properly occupy one.
Enter Ian and Wendy, both with a handful of 24solos under the belt, and both appreciative of my offer to pass the bottles, tweak the gears and lube the chain. The stage: 2014 24solo Nationals. The venue: Mt Annan. The date: latest November - very eve of summer. The forecast: damn hot. Track summary: dusty and loose with little shade, zero flow and loads of pinch climbs.
And they got to forecast right. By the time I arrived it was mid 30s with little breeze. Just sitting under the gazebo had one wilting. The race kicked off. Not a huge amount to do during the first few laps, just move my toolkit and other stuff from the blazing sun into the back of the pit tent, and familiarizing myself with the bewildering array of stuff that gets brought to this type of event. Double this when two pit areas effectively combined. Wendy and Ian were both pretty organized, but had very different styles. Wendy (my main responsibility) had pretty much everything labeled and clearly set out in tupperware of various sizes, along with detailed instructions. Ian’s kit was simpler given that he is not an eater, taking on only bottles (and a few gels) for the entirety of the event. Between them there were multiple sets of three brands of lights and batteries to juggle (none of them the AYUPs I’m familiar with), additional batteries for Garmins, additional Garmins, and two bikes a piece to service.
Ian’s early splits for the 10 km course were exactly as forecast (close to 40 min). Wendy was splitting only 1-2 min slower. Ian was taking a bottle a lap, whilst Wendy was with camelback (as is her style) so didn't pit properly for the first few hours. There were reportedly very few places to feed on track, so the camelback was probably a good option. Wendy had 5 of these pre-filled and ready to go. Organised! As lap splits inevitably blew out, so did the phasing of the two riders. When completely out of phase every 25 min one of them would pit – not a lot of downtime.
Helping with Ian were his wife and kids, and his brother’s family, so it was a constant coming and going, with a mobile cheer squad forecasting the arrival of our chargers, but giving everyone encouragement as they came through. First names clearly visible on number plates made communication easy. This is the communal side of the sport that I really enjoy. From the riders perspective, being on track with the team riders was also a positive. Solo-only events can be a bit lonesome.
Reports were coming through that it was excruciatingly hot out on track. I filled the garden-spray pressure pack with ice and took to giving riders (especially the solos) a soaking through the helmet vents and down the back as they rounded the corner. Ice was one commodity that collectively we had plenty of – about 8 bags in total, and by race end we’d been through most of it. Being right on a corner I could see 50 m down the track as the riders entered the pit lane. I’d raise the wand and they’d simply nod if they wanted a dousing as they passed. This became mandatory for many of them and again as the sun swung back into heat-wave mode the following morning. Many encouraged me to run with them for a while. At one point McAvoy came through, shadowed by English. McAvoy enjoyed the mobile dousing until English complained I was hosing the wrong Jason. A few suggested the relief was better than sex. It was nice to feel part of the action.
At the pointy end, English and McDonald held back early whilst Lloyd, fresh-off racing in the heat of the Croc, set the early pace. By mid afternoon Ed succumbed to heat stroke, left his stomach all over the track (as did many others) and was soon retired to the pit area. The heat eventually got to Lloydy as well, who, whilst not retiring altogether, eventually also took a spell in the shade. English, being the enigma that he is, forged on, ploughing an essentially unbeatable lead through the night, eventually calling it quits with 2 hours to go.
Lights went on and eventually the temperature dropped to a very comfy mid teens during the night. This was really appreciated by the riders. Ian, who’d been looking a little stressed early on, now looked more relaxed and started to pull in his main rival for the 45-50 age category (Darren, from Brisbane), who happened to be in the adjacent pit.
Come midnight the pendulum suddenly swung Ian’s way, as Darren succumbed to the beating, in part the result of his forks progressively seizing, before swapping to his 26er dually spare. Ian took the lead and was now visibly starting to enjoy putting a minute or two into Darren on every lap, who was now in danger of losing 2nd place to Turner, another of my 7 hr combatants. Wendy, on the other hand was sitting comfortably in 4th outright, although the rider in 5th was not budging, approx. 20 min adrift.
I eventually got about 90 min of uncomfortable kip with a generator in my ear, before returning to the pit as the sun tipped the horizon. Ian arrived and for the first time asked if he could step off the bike for a spell. Given he almost had a lap (~40 min) on Ash and Darren we agreed. He sat for the best part of 10 min. I knew how he felt. We pushed him off and resolved not to let complacency rob him of this one. We did the sums. Even if he bled 5 min a lap he would most likely hold on – provided there was no more sitting down. Time for tough love.
What we didn’t know was that Ian was starting to really struggle in the piloting department. Dust marks on the jersey and a bit of claret indicated he’d already had a few offs. His next lap was a long one. A good 10 min slower than expected. He rolled in lopsided, as though nursing a collarbone. We lay him down. He complained he was having blackouts on the descents and that continuing was impossible. After an hour on his back he felt no improvement and asked to be taken to hospital.
Blood tests revealed he had severe hyponatremia (low sodium) and signs of brain oedema (swelling), and would be kept on a drip overnight for observation. In hindsight a very good call, but a difficult one emotionally as Ian has gone close to wins before and been denied late in the piece. With Ian’s withdrawal, Ash and Darren slugged it out through the heat of another day, with Ash holding on for a well deserved category win. Despite retiring early, Ian had done enough to secure third place and a step on the 45-50 age-group podium. Huge respect, under very trying conditions.
Whilst all this was happening, Wendy was being Wendy, relentlessly grinding away, determined to tough it out and hang onto 4th place outright. Always chatty in the pits, she knew exactly what she wanted, including periodically soaking shod feet in the ice-slurried esky. She was especially driven as the chasing rider had been boasting on social media about 1000 km weeks during the leadup. Despite weathering a nasty crash during the night, she keep the pressure on as the day heated up, and held position. Fantastic ride! Wendy reckons it's the toughest 24solo she’s raced.
Up the track the top two female riders also had a close fought battle, but perhaps the most drama involved the impregnable Belchambers wilting in the heat to be bested by not one, but two other singlespeeders. Jeebus, fresh off crushing the field at Worlds in Scotland, was clearly not enjoying the heat and as the light grew, eventually swapped from his rigid A-bike, to the B-bike with its front shocks. As someone pointed out, he finally chose the right bike, but 18 hours too late.
Mr Speering, usually the bridesmaid, had the ride of his life, reveling in the heat. Perhaps the most enthusiastic of all for the jet of ice, coming into the pits for the penultimate lap he finally caught sight of Brett stopped just ahead. Panic ensued. MC Crafty frothed into a lather only he is capable of. They crossed the timing mats together before Dave put the hammer down with Brett unable to respond. In doing so Dave claimed 3rd outright, behind English and Moffitt. Surely on both counts more than he could have believed possible.
The experience gave me a whole new appreciation for the complexities and stresses of holding down the pit. Certainly a tougher gig than I was expecting, especially given the heat. Did the riders inspire me? Yes. Did I want to change places? No. Would I occupy the pits again? Yes. Would I consider racing another 24solo? Surprisingly, I’d have to say yes, although not on such a course and at such a time. Rotorua lookout. Maybe.