When 24 hours of riding just isn't long enough
Ultra events, when you're deep into them, are just miserable, and the people who succeed are those who can cope with that misery - Greg Whyte OBE (former Olympic Pentathlete & Sports Scientist)
The inaugural Red Bull Timelaps 25 hour race took place in the shadow of Windsor Castle, on the weekend of the UK being plunged into another long winter. Six hundred riders, comprising 150 teams, were readied to do battle in Windsor Great Park, as part of the World's longest one day bike race.
Originally posted online by Jamie Baskerville as a joke, the 25 hour race proved too enticing for Robb Cobb and myself and we soon entered a mixed team with Cassie Baldi making up the fourth member of our Bigfoot outfit. Scheduled to coincide with the clocks going back, the expectation was for cold, grim weather conditions but on the morning of the race the weather was mild, no rain was scheduled and the night temperature was predicted to be 10 degrees. Surely 25 hours in these conditions would be an absolute joy!
Our illustrious team leader took to the start line but, due to our late entry, Jamie found himself at the back of the grid with virtually the whole field ahead of him. Jamie took to the task of picking his way through the field like a seasoned veteran and by the second lap he was part of the lead group. Then disaster struck for one rider, who overcooked a descent, found he had nowhere to go and subsequently plunged into a group of slower riders, leaving one being rushed to hospital with multiple broken bones. The race was halted and after a long stoppage, Jay was, once again, placed at the back of the starting grid. Nevertheless, he was soon back in the lead group after scrambling a second time through the mass of riders ahead and posting a time of 9.30 on his 4th lap, an average speed of over 42 km/h.
Strategy was going to be a key component in this race and we had decided on completing four 6.6 km laps before pitting and sending out the next rider. Robb took the armband and put in his fastest lap of 10.42. By the time I took the team armband, the field had broken up and it was much harder to find an appropriate group to work with. I solo time-trialled for much of the undulating course, but still I appreciated the well-surfaced and traffic free roads. Cassie took her four lap shift, our position around 29th overall and 7th in the mixed. By the time Robb finished his second stint, the park had been plunged into darkness.
Team spirits in our transition area were still high. We were confident that we would gradually move up the field as other teams tired, making the most of the endurance qualities we all possess. Indeed, I have done nine solo 24 hour and several 24 hour team events in the past, albeit on a mountain bike. As for Jamie - well he's just strong and only fatigue from the high mileage he'd been doing in the last couple of weeks could possibly slow him down. We approached the 2am point and the start of the Tag Heuer Power Hour. We were gradually moving up in the overall classification and only four minutes separated 4th through 8th in the mixed.
We timed our changeover to Jamie (who would undertake the whole Power hour alone) to maximise his time on the special 4.4 km loop. Jamie stayed with a select front group and put in an incredible 8 laps, which would count double for the team. Unfortunately, most of our mixed rivals had managed to do the same and we were still 7th. The clocks had now gone back providing the race with that extra hour.
The most important aspect of racing 24 hours is pacing and nutrition. Pacing is handled mentally by breaking the race down into manageable time chunks and setting realistic short-term goals, such as completing each lap in a set time, while nutrition is keeping hydrated and topped up with carbohydrates and electrolytes. We would crave chocolate one minute then savoury biscuits the next. Stomachs started to react adversely - Cassie was feeling sick and Rob wanted to vomit - not surprisingly, when we found out he had drunk six cans of Red Bull and was hydrating with carbonated water! Both needed to take a brief break to lie down and sleep off their ailments. Both came back strongly. This was undoubtedly aided by the emergence of daylight. During my 6th stint, just after six o'clock, the sun appeared briefly, but was rudely pushed aside as heavy clouds brought the first precipitation of this event. Fortunately, this proved a brief interlude, the sun reappeared and the road began to dry out.
It was now quarter to ten, 22 hours 45 minutes into the event, and I went out for what I believed would be my last four laps. I managed to jump onto the back of a fast-moving group of riders and I felt like I was truly burying myself for the team. I was lapping considerably faster than previously, so much so that my fourth lap was only five seconds slower than my fastest lap from the day before. As I approached the finish line, both adductors began to cramp badly but I knew this was to be my final lap and consequently, I ignored the pain to finish strongly, and triumphantly passed the armband to Jamie. My joy at finishing so fast was immediately ripped from beneath me when Robb and Cassie announced that I would need to go out again in forty minutes time. In no uncertain terms, I told them they had to be kidding. But on reflection, I was holding down decent lap times and it was necessary to get three laps in before the cut off time of 25 hours. It was going to take another almighty effort.
Ten minutes later, I was back on the rollers, going through my customary warm-up, mentally preparing myself for another 'one-last effort'. I was telling myself that all the time spent in the cold, the rain, the wind and on the Wattbike or rollers is for these moments to prove that it is all worth it. Jamie came in and I was thrust back onto the circuit straight into the path of one of our mixed team rivals - this would be a battle to hold on to 6th place. My rival was a muscular female Time Trialist and there were three laps to race, if we were to both make the time cut. She would power away from me on the flats and I had to focus to stay on her wheel. The short climbs would give me an edge but she would work hard to close the gap at the top of each climb. The cramping had not re-emerged and we were mutually benefitting from each others slip-stream. The climb before the last lap began, provided another opportunity for me to break her resilience. I crested the hill and anticipated her re-joining me as the road flattened out again - she never did - I started the last lap alone - It was now a race against the clock. Could I make the cut off time so the current lap would count. I crossed the line with seconds to spare but I was broken. A look up to the scoreboard confirmed our 6th position and 21st overall, a result we were all more than satisfied with. We had dug deep within ourselves, all fighting our own personal battles and all emerging with satisfaction. The longest one day bike race in the world had been successfully vanquished.
Team Bigfoot: Overall: 21/134 ; Category: 6/42
Jamie Baskerville: Number of Laps: 24 (plus 8 Power Laps) ; Fastest Lap: 9.30 ; Average: 11.32
Phil Welch: Number of Laps: 31 ; Fastest Lap: 11.15 ; Average: 12.19
Robb Cobb: Number of Laps: 28 ; Fastest Lap: 10.42 ; Average: 12.31
Cassie Baldi: Number of Laps: 21 ; Fastest Lap: 11.52 ; Average: 12.40
I am a Level 3 Cycle Coach with British Cycling & the Association of British Cyclists.
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