Racing the night
24-hour mountain bike racing, it could be said, is the truest test of man (or woman) and machine. You push your body, mind and equipment to their limits and back. Your body shuts down and your mind plays tricks on you - they both desperately try to convince you to stop, but you don’t.
There are a number of different options for 24-hour MTB racing depending on the event, with specialist categories like fat bike and single speed, as well as multiple team options. The ultimate challenge is Solo, whilst Pairs is also a serious undertaking: the stop-start nature leads some to say this is tougher than racing alone. Teams of 4 are standard at every race, with some offering options for teams of up to 8 or 10 riders.
Just like any other event you will always get the die hard racers charging from start to finish, pacing themselves carefully so their energy does not run out, and only stopping for a few brief moments to take on vital fuel. Some will take much longer breaks and even stop off and crawl into their pit to get some sleep. But one thing is common across all riders - everyone is full of encouragement and support for one another.
A vital part of any 24-hour race is your support crew. These are the selfless individuals who give up their time in order to put themselves into a sleep-deprived state to keep you fed, hydrated and ensure your bike is still rolling. When it is 2am and your brain has stopped working, they will be the ones who assist with changing your lights. When your chain snaps and you want to cry because you’ve had no sleep, they will fix it. When you’re covered in mud but don’t have the energy to do anything about it, they’ll remember where your change of socks are. Most of all though, they are there to motivate you and give you the strength and power to keep those pedals turning until the final flag.
There are a number of off road 24-hour races in the UK but in my eyes the main four players are Mountain Mayhem, Bontrager 24/12, Relentless 24 and The Straffpuffer. Those first two take part in the summer months in the South of the country, so there are minimal hours of darkness. The latter two are both set during the cold winter months in the highlands of Scotland.
At the start of winter last year I jumped into my van and headed North on the epic journey from Devon to Fort William for the 2015 Relentless 24, which was also to be the National Championships. In 2014 it was the home of WEMBO (world solo 24-hour champs) so we knew the course and event was going to be truly world class, and we were not disappointed.
My previous 24-hour racing experience had been solo, but this time I was joining a mixed team of 4. I was really looking forward to being part of a team and being able to see a different side of the world of 24-hour racing.
Solo racing is pure and simple: as many laps as you can finish in 24 hours. Pairs and teams can be a lot more tactical: single laps, double laps, laps on, laps off etc. We had decided to do single laps until 10pm, at which point two riders would try to get some sleep while the other 2 took it in turns. Our method meant that someone was always awake and around the pits to offer support where needed. It worked brilliantly and I would definitely recommend it for future team races.
At dawn your body and mind is filled with a sudden shot of adrenalin as you grab the first glimpses of daylight, and you know in that instant that the end is in sight. The light fills your body with warmth and the will to carry on. As midday draws closer everyone is working out in their head how many more laps left and if they are going to be able to fit in a sneaky final lap before the clock chimes midday. At the 2015 Mayhem I got my calculations wrong and ended up having to do an extra unplanned lap. Trust me, after 23 hours in the saddle that is not what you want.
Our race was going to plan and we were all managing consistent, respectable lap times. We had firmly set ourselves in the lead of the mixed 4’s but we were now charging hard to try and get on the podium for the overall 4’s. This was just out of our reach and we had to settle with 4th but were so proud to be crowned National mixed 4’s 24-hour champions.
It may sound clichéd, but more than any other type of sporting event I have ever participated in, 24-hour races are not about the winning but all about the achievement of keeping your wheels turning for 24 hours. That, coupled with the camaraderie between everyone taking part, sets this kind or racing apart from the rest. The ecstatic feeling of crossing the line is something that will stay with you long past the deep aching in your legs.