Last Thursday, remedy Ben mentioned that we had better start getting everything we would need for the weekend ready. The only thing I could think of that was happening on the weekend was the England-Ecuador match and Ben is hardly the kind of football fan to need four days preparation time so I asked him what he was on about.
Now normally I am up for any challenge but I had a couple of key concerns:
- I had never raced a mountain bike before.
- I did not in fact own a mountain bike.
Ben dismissed these as problems for another day, but told me to bring the expedition medical kit just in case.
We drove into the grounds of Eastnor Castle on Saturday morning to find something I could only describe as a kind of Glastonbury of outdoor sports types. A sea of tents stretched across the valley and thousands of bikes hurtled around as people travelled between the tents offering free sports massage and the mobile climbing walls.
With Rhys, an ironman triathlete from cornwall, and Tom we would do one lap relays of the course from 2pm on Saturday until 2pm on Sunday. Ben went off first having to run 800m to reach his bike and was back forty-five minutes later telling horror stories about the course. I would find out what it was like soon enough.
The course had obviously been designed by a sadist. Treacherous descents on loose gravel combined with long, punishing climbs where the heat and lack of breeze left you gasping for breath. Much of the lap was on incredibly narrow single tracks through woodland where tree roots, abrupt turns and sudden drops threatened to dislodge you. I came back from my first lap with a healthy respect for the professional and Olympic racers who would take this course so much faster than I could imagine.
On my second lap it all went a bit pear-shaped. Coming down through dense woodland there was a narrow s-bend with a big lip of built-up earth taking up most of the ground. Under pressure from a cyclist behind me, I misjudged the lip and my bike stopped dead. I, however, did not and flew through the air slamming headfirst into a tree with sickening force. I lay dizzy for a moment, my leg unable to clip out of my mountain bike pedals and answering the enquiries of people as they passed with a reflex ‘yeah, yeah, I’m fine’. Getting up I wiped the blood off my arm, thanked the makers of my bike helmet, and pushed on until the end of the lap.
With Tom making his way round the course, I was able to survey the damage. My helmet was riddled with fractures and breaks and would need to be replaced. Looking at the extent of the damage I was absolutely certain that if I hadn’t been wearing it I would have died on that corner. Rhys gave me a friendly punch on the arm that wasn’t bleeding and said ‘Look at the bright side, you’ve only got twenty hours of this to go and soon you’ll be doing the course in the dark.’ He grinned as I groaned.
I was still feeling a little bit shaken up/concussed on the next lap so I took the downhills more easily. However, this meant I had to make places on the climbs. Luckily this is where all the hours on the roadbike paid off and I felt really good about targeting a cyclist ahead, riding him down and then fixing on the next target as we pushed uphill. Night began to fall and the course became far more scary but also more exciting as the dim glare of my bike light gave me seconds of warning as to the track conditions and every moment became a test of memory and reaction time.
We pushed on through the night, snatching short minutes of sleep when we could. Ben came back from one lap, having ridden past an ambulance team working on a rider that had been put on a ventilator. Later on, I rode past another ambulance working on a guy who seemed to have broken his collarbone. I reflected that once again my luck seemed to have held far more than I deserved.
As morning rose, we were all beginning to feel the strain, Ben and I watched with interest as our calf muscles spasmed involuntarily beneath our skin. Luckily the morning heat was taking its toll on the other teams as well and many riders were getting off and walking up the hills allowing me to make up more places.
I was given the honour/punishment of riding the last lap of the race as the clock ticked closer to 24 hours. Whizzing down the final strait I was too tired to feel much in the way of elation. Instead as I crossed the line and shook the hand of the race organiser the main thing crossing my mind was whether it was possible to buy replacement buttocks as I seemed to have worn mine out. Ben greeted me with a grin and a dodgy burger and said ‘Well done mate, now you’ve got a whole month to recover before we do it all again.’