A couple of years ago, during a particularly dismal 2-day road race, Id spoken to Marina Bloom about riding the 24. A 24 had to be more fun than being torn to shreds between the National squad and the grey winds of Bedfordshire, which on a scale of 0-10 of fun, comes at
Marina rounded up all the women who might be interested. Unquestionably, she had to have Lynne Taylor, current end-end and 1000 mile record holder (both as solo rider and on the tandem with Andy Wilkinson). She also brought in Claire Ashton and Ann Wooldridge, who had both ridden in 2002. Rather than invent a new team, we all joined Lynnes club, Walsall Roads. I dug out the midlands accent of my childhood, and Marina moved to Daventry.
So, in order to re-engineer myself from a road racer into a long-distance rider, mostly what I did before that weekend in July was long rides at the weekends, as well as my usual shorter rides on weekday lunchtimes. We spent a week in Provence and two weeks in Umbria and Marche, and I rode my bike all the hours I that could manage without falling apart. The only race I really did before the 24 was the BDCA 100. Incredibly, I did a personal best, and with Lynne and Marina posting faster times, we creamed nearly twenty minutes from the old team record.
To ride a 24 requires more planning and organisation than you might first imagine. If youve never ridden one before, there are considerations that would never cross your mind: for example, how you and your helpers will recognise each other during the night. And its not only that you intrinsically need more stuff than for a short race, its also that you have to prepare for every problem that could happen. If something goes wrong in a 10, it doesnt really matter because you can ride another the next week, but you get at most one crack at a 24 in a year, and you might count on riding only one in a lifetime. Indeed, in the span of 24 hours, the chances are that something will come unstuck.
I had the immense fortune to know Mike Hallgarth and Phillippa Crocker from the local time trial scene. Mike had ridden two 24s some years ago; 2002 had been Phillippas turn. Id contacted them for advice, but Mike was keen to help in the event itself. Mike lent me his copy of Brian Griffiths 24 handbook, which Id not come across before. It would have been useful to have this a year earlier. I had found some useful information via web searches: various accounts of 24-hour races over the world, and the compendious ultracycling website.
Food is crucial. If you want to ride at a good pace, you have to constantly refuel, for you cannot afford to let your glycogen levels drop. Even to eat the amount you need is in itself a challenge. People do have problems with feeling sick. Even if you think you know how much to eat on an 8-hour ride, and think you know what you can eat, you can never be sure how it will work out in a 24.
Pacing, too, is crucial. Not having done a 24 before, I didnt know what pace I could manage throughout the event. I knew what heart-rate I could maintain throughout a 12-hour, and knew what pace Id ridden my training rides, but training and racing are different. Both Lynne and Marina said they rode on feel rather than heartrate, but both had ridden several 24s before and had the experience. I wanted to keep a steady pace, and not start too fast and disintegrate later in the cold dark void of the early morning.
Extravagantly, I had a new bike built with the 24 in mind. It is the same geometry as my 10 year old training bike, but in a lighter tubing. Ive done so many miles on the training bike that it is part of me and I am part of it. All my custom bikes are made by the wonderful people of Argos, in Bristol.
The Mersey 24 starts saturday lunchtime. The start and finish circuit is on lanes and A-road, and seemed pleasant and flat in the freshness of the first few hours. Marina tore past at a tremendous speed. I was doing 18-19 mph, and a HR of 150bpm, which I thought was far too hard to maintain. The race moved to Whitchurch and Prees, a drizzle turned to rain and my speed started a slow death. During the night, unpredicted seismic activity caused a new mountain range to appear in the north Shropshire plain. Despite the rain I was in reasonable spirits, for there is something magical about riding in the night, the unseen landscape a mystery, and perhaps there is something slightly naughty in being out riding when you should be tucked up in bed, something conspiratorial about this scattered group of riders.
Things that were going to go wrong, did. There was a mixup over which bag my warm clothing was in. My tribar armrest, fine in hundreds of miles of training rides, decided that now was the time to work loose. I lost interest in food, and when I saw Colin and Mike I wouldnt tell them what I wanted to eat next, because I didnt actually want anything, and indeed I began to dread seeing them because they would only shove food at me. I was also supposed to signal to them when I saw them, but at no point did I ever remember to do this.
The sun came up and the morning was really quite lovely. It looked like turning into a nice day. But my speed was still dropping, and though inured to the idea of hour-after-hour continuous riding, I was miserable. I had hoped to do 420 miles but it looked unlikely that I would beat 400, and although supporters said I was going well, I knew they were lying to me. I rode every hour as it came. People had told me to break the ride into manageable three-hour chunks, but I could only cope with envisaging one more hour. I struggled to keep a heart rate of about 120bpm, but by now I didnt care about heart rates or performance, I just wanted to keep going.
The finishing circuit was the evil twin of the start circuit. I had remembered a flat and fast ride and was hoping to pick up speed, but this would be impossible on this assault-course of slow drags and twisty lanes. But I really, really wanted to beat 400 miles. I put all I had left into the last hour. With the vestiges of my brain functionality I worked out that I would be finishing at the top of the hill, and so it was. I didnt think this was very fair.
I was relieved to find I had, in the end, beaten 400 miles. With Lynnes 411 and Marinas 413 wed gone over 100 miles beyond the old mark. What we hadnt expected was to be the fastest team overall in the race, three miles further than Preston Wheelers, making us the first womens team to win overall in a National Championship.
Distances were well down compared with what people usually do. Wed had rain, and roadworks at Hodnet had forced the course to use the hilly Prees-Shrewsbury road. I had never suffered so much in my life, and swore never to ride another 24. Marina says we can all go further next year.
So what do I know now, and what will I do differently next time? Looking at the time checks, it was interesting to see that I had managed a more even pace than most other riders. This includes the more experienced Lynne and Marina, but each of them had had to spend time off the bike: Lynne with sickness and Marina with aches.
Although Id not had their problems, I could improve my feeding and my position on the bike. I need to find foods I can eat more easily. I found Power Bars rather too chewy, ciabatta sandwiches too dry, ordinary cereal bars too sweet. Bananas and peaches are good, but dont supply much carbohydrate for their bulk. They have a relativly high water content, which is what makes them easier to eat. Marina swears by bread pudding: I tried this in the 12 we rode later and found it good.
As for position and riding technique, I should find a more comfortable tribar arrangement, as I didnt make much use of the tribars this time, and I should train myself not to ride out of the saddle, a habit born in the vicious Cotswold hills.
And this year I shall do fewer very long rides, and more racing. I dont know if this will make me faster, but it will be interesting to see what difference it does make.