I had signed up in the winter to take part in the Twentfour12 Torchbearer event once again – something to get me out on the bike and to keep me motivated. Last time around this gone as planned as I twisted my knee playing Lacrosse at Xmas and it took forever to heal. This time it failed as a family member unsuccessfully fought an illness over the Xmas period and I had a long time unable to get out on the bike. It didn’t help that I had also started a new job and had gone from commuting 150km a week on the bike to sitting for over 2 hours a day in the car. I was a big lad getting much bigger.
Getting fit started at the end of February, the first spin was a 3 hour suffer fest of a not particularly hilly 60km and I was fit for nothing at the end, I had to draft most of the distance hiding behind people who 6 months previously I had been on a par or faster than.
The longer working hours in the new job coupled with the massively increased commute time meant I didn’t have much available time to be with my family, never mind being able to get the same training distances in that I had last year. I knew I had to change my “training” from time & distance miles to something shorter and hopefully more effective. Spin classes, sessions on a turbo trainer in the shed and I joined a club xc race league which was an hour of dying after work on a short but interesting course with some decent features in to hone my fading skills. I even managed to cycle commute to work for 6 weeks prior to the event (125km). This coupled with a regular Sunday road club spin meant I felt pretty good – I could have done better but I knew I had enough not to embarrass myself.
Once again club mate Conor crashed at my house on the Wednesday night and we caught the early Thursday morning ferry from Rosslare to Pembroke – the venerable Mondeo Estate had died, too much rallycross (school runs) had killed the engine and suspension, the final death knell being the failing thrust release bearings – an awesome part name. It had been replaced with a much smaller, more economical but less powerful estate car. This meant we stripped right back on what we were bringing with us – no gazebo, no spare wheels, less camping items and less cycling gear – last year’s racing had shown me that the course could cope with a chunk of rain and so we brought a minimum of equipment and I planned for improving on last year’s race.
A relatively uneventful trip to Plymouth, had to slow down a couple of times as the rain was so heavy (it forced Conor to sleep a few times) and I got to watch a speeding police car lift off the ground on a bumpy section of the Severn Bridge, trying to beat last orders at the chippy I suspect. We got to the campsite about 6pm Thursday and once again the Loughtan Loaded crew from the Isle of Man (Longest Day, Longest Ride 24-hour event organisers) had set up camp in a great spot and had kept a small chunk of space aside for ourselves and 2 other solo riders coming over from Ireland.
I had been keen to not get drowned camping this year and had dug out my old (~25 years since it was last used) 3-man Force10 tent, it’s crap for hiking as it weighs the same as a baby elephant and doesn’t offer the same amount of headspace as a modern dome tent but as a base camp for 1 person it’s perfect. 5 minutes to put up and rock solid, it’s faded orange canvas bringing back a host of good memories, then a beer was opened and Conor and I caught up with the everyone from last year.
Laugh after laugh after laugh – although not seeing anyone in a year gave me a moments pause, it’s such a comfortable group of people that time and distance means nothing. The funniest part of many laughs being Sue as she went across the course to the tents opposite to have a look at a wolf thing chained up and came back scuttered after chatting to its owner in what felt like 5 minutes. The least funny part was drunkenly Will and I challenged Ger to a combined lap challenge and we bet real money (£50 – I was leathered).
Friday was chilled and slightly hungover – a slight delay waiting for the St Johns crew to show up then I was out and around the course to see where and what was on offer on a Demo Pivot 429. The course was longer than last years, at approx. 13.2km but less technical (fun), much friendlier to a big lad like myself, instead of a savage short killer climb and lots of continued effort there was just a main big drag. All in all, I managed a ~3 km longer course with the same time and effort as last year’s hungover practice lap of 55 minutes.
The Pivot demo bike was impressive – I wanted a go on the SL but there was only the trail option available – it was equipped with gert big tyres and a Fox36 which is several grades gnarlier than I usually ride and way overbiked for twentyfour12. It had a relaxed position but rode well and when stacked against my XC bike on the next lap was way faster than I thought it rode. Very deceptive and is high on the list to replace my current bike in its SL format. The track was riding pretty well, a long splashy muddy descent meant I had to find my clear lenses or be blind but most of the fun technical descents from last year were now steady climbs apart from Cottage return. Most of this year’s descents were flowing trails through woods that promised speed.
A bit of number crunching back at base and 12 or 13 laps looked pretty doable which was in and around my bucket list 100 miles mtb spin. Excellent. The only downsides were the rain and further rain forecast but that wasn’t concerning me. I really am a clown at times.
Saturday the rain continued – so much so I went off-site to Chaplins, an Aladdin’s cave of stuff for sale and picked up some Dunlop wellies. A well worthwhile £11 spent. I still wasn’t concerned about the course after all last year it had lashed it down in the morning for 3-4 hours and the course was ok. Last year however had been bone dry for the previous week, this time the rain was incessant.
The main event started and I helped with the Pit bitching – cleaning bikes, getting bottles ready and the like. I had the same plan as last year where I was going to bed in the early evening and then up about 10 to get ready for my midnight start. Kept giving Will encouragement to keep the laps going to beat Ger until Wills bike blew up in a fireball melting the rear mech after a crash. Bets over man…. Shite.
Bike set-up was pretty much the same as last year – a carbon euro marathon machine from the 00’s (nearly a decade old now), with some modernisation; dropper post, tubeless tyres, fully adjustable full suspension and oval 1×10 gearing. Last year I had struggled with numb hands as the lock ring of the grips cut into my hands after 10 hours or so, so I had changed to Ergon grips with built in bar ends, a little chunky but much more comfy and no lock ring. Tyre choice was a “trail” orientated front for good grip and a racing semi-slick on the back because I was looking for laps. I did ponder about changing for the weather but the wet mud on the Friday practice lap allowed both tyres to cut through and give me grip so I left them as is. Because the course wasn’t going to change after 12 hours of racing. Fool.
Fuelling was to be a minimum of 750mL of high five and electrolytes every lap no matter what (I’d suffered with dehydration last year as I’m such a hot and heavy sod, so much so I had scared myself when I went for a pee), occasional Torq rhubarb and custard gels (taste so, so nice) some flapjack and occasional mouthful of Bombay mix to temper the volume of sweet things I was inhaling. I’d borrowed my wife’s camogie team bottles so I didn’t need to prepare them every 3 laps or so.
I got changed – a lot of riders had been struggling on the fast course with mud being flung into their eyes (Fellow racer Mick looked like something from a vampire movie with glowing red eyes) and had been changing kit every couple of laps. I had 3 changes only (smaller car, planning based on last years race) but had fortunately been able to buy one of the last set of mudguards on-site and attach them to my bike (they were later used as a template for a pop bottle rear guard for Gers bike which lasted the whole event). So long as I wasn’t grinding anything delicate down there with grit and grime I was planning a single change around about sunrise as trying to get cleanly out of wet and muddy gear is tricky at the best of times. A good dollop of chamois crème (I’ve moved from Assos minty arse lard to MucOff Luxury Chamois crème – it’s much better) and I was ready to roll.
Ger appeared just as I was about to set off, called me an idiot and laughed. Will was asking me to sit down and get drunk as the rain was just easing off. Forecast was ~11 hours of limited rain and I wanted to get on the course as I had come too far to give up straight away. Some last-minute course tips from Will, mainly about a pothole of doom on the river run section that I needed to be wary of.
A similar sensible prep talk from Martin as last year; tired riders, changing course and use the first lap as a sighting lap. I knew I would be slower (I’d downgraded my estimate from 12-13 laps to about 8) but thought I’d push at an unsustainable ~80% on the first lap to see how much slower I was going to be.
Straight away I was struggling for drive traction – the semi slick was not able to grip the course through the campsite in the thick mud. No panic – pick a higher gear and take it steady. Grind up the long drag and onto the proper trails, both tyres hooking up well but requiring a lot more effort with the mud. Most of the descents were slower too, it’s night time which even with my Exposure Reflex meant reduced speeds plus a little sketchy drifting through the schlomp. If I went too fast the mud went everywhere and I couldn’t see through the amber lensed glasses I had on. Cottage return was a hoot – it’s the main descent, with decent grip (on the racing line), flowing lines and probably the most tech bit on this course iteration. Then a quick dash along a fireroad to the River Run trail, first turn contained a “novelty” sheep dip that had appeared over the 12 hours of racing in the rain and as I barrelled along I pondered about this pothole that Will had…..
Oh SHIT! Wheel in, bike stopped dead and I flew 5 yards down the track, luckily into the undergrowth and not into the river. Took me a while to get myself back together to get back on the bike, nothing hurt and the bike looked ok but everything was darker than it should be. Pottered to the end of the trail and then realised that my main light was a lump of brown, cleaned the lens and I could see everything again. More snaking through the claggy campsite burning energy and then through the river crossing (which cleaned the drivechain up a bit), a bit of fluting around in the woods and then a short kicker climb up into some woods before a greased grassy descent, back past our pitstop to the start/finish.
An hour and 10 minutes. A tiring hour and 10 minutes too. No way I could keep up that effort for the 12 hours, so back to my more conservative 65% power to get 8 laps and keep grinding. Pit crew were stars – last year with the good weather I’d being pretty self-sufficient until 10am or so, just a bit of chat and it’s nice to be asked if you are ok. This year the pit crew swung into action and had the bike cleaned and oiled in the time it took me to swap bottles and check myself over after the crash.
The grassy snake through the campsite was hideous – claggy mud that sapped my energy, tyre choice wasn’t great as I needed more speed to throw the mud off but couldn’t hit that critical momentum for long enough through the trail obstacles. As I was starting at the half way point of the 24 hour races every “clean” line was gone as racers had hunted for grip and I had no choice but to eat into my reserves ploughing the same clag as everyone else, the long do-able drag became harder and harder and the course was less and less fun. Cottage return was still good but it was easier for me to run the first half of the River Run section than cycle it.
By lap 4 I had had enough – 75 minutes of drag for less than 5 minutes of fun wasn’t enough. We’d lost the bet against Ger, my bike was getting destroyed, the campfire was warm and I had loads of ale waiting. The course was quiet too, so large sections had nothing to keep you going to catch up/avoid other racers. I planned to not stop in the pits, continue through to the start/finish line and see where I was on the official timing board. 15-20 people started Torchbearer and I expected to be 12th or so – anything above 6th and I’ll keep going. Zipped past the pits to odd looks from the crew and went to check my placing…. 4th.
6th and I would possibly/probably have talked myself out of continuing but not forth – a single mechanical and I’d be 3rd. I had to keep going.
It all gets a bit vague from here, I remember enjoying the sunrise on the long drag and liking being able to pick better lines through the swamps as daylight returned. I remember 2 people crashing in front of me as I came up behind them on the cottage return descent (I hooned down because I was going to really enjoy that one bit of fun no matter the risk) and they incredibly politely moved from the line into the swampier muck and promptly lost it when I was happy to wait, knowing how bad off piste was. I did apologise.
I looked forward to the river crossing as it would clean the drivetrain, but I hated the campsite snakes, the bike stopped drifting under control and just slid into whatever was at the bottom of whatever incline there was. At the bottom of the Cliff climb I had to stop and clear out the drive chain. Conor and crew would check on placing and I was maintaining 4th, that was the only thing that was keeping me going. I have never got so little enjoyment out of a spin in my life. Each time I’d set off from the pits with a cleaned bike within a mile you couldn’t tell.
I stayed in the 1 set of clothes – the chamois crème working a treat and I always run hot so being wet wasn’t anything I was bothered about (I was so hot my saddle was steaming at the pits – there is a joke in there somewhere). The front braking bite point changed massively, the rear went completely and needed pumping to get any braking. The brand-new narrow-wide chainring kept dropping the chain and the mudguards were shaping the accumulated mud into what looked like fat bike tyres.
At 1220ish I crossed the finish line to loads of applause, having been congratulated all around the last lap of the course. I had managed 9 laps which is about 120km (~75miles), more than my target for last year and more than the revised target I had set 12 hours earlier but quite a chunk under what I would have been able if the course was dry (winner managed 11, there was too much of a gap for me to have ever caught 3rd place but I scared him in conversation and he went out to do an extra lap just in case, probably cursing me on every revolution of his pedals) , 5th finished only a little behind me. There is a photo of me on the finish line and I look like I’d stab anything in my way, Fortunately for Matt the compare (sp) I was so happy at finishing I gave him a warm handshake and necked the free beer. I managed 4th, mainly because half the field in Torchbearer sensibly went to bed after 2 laps – but I beat them because I didn’t and I’ll take that. In the equivalent day race, I would have been 14th of 84 (winner did 14 laps), so I’m happy with the result if not the distance achieved or the race itself.
As ever, support around the course was amazing – a real festival atmosphere even with the poor weather. The motivation station was excellent, as was the heavier music section just down the way.
We had a chilled evening after the race, Clare and Gary & kids scooted off quick to get to relatives as they continued their holiday grand tour, Mick and his dad went early enough as their ferry was from Holyhead and that’s a long way from Plymouth, they wanted to get a few hours up the road before stopping. Fair play to Huw, he didn’t stop through the night (Mick got 3rd – awesome result) supporting Mick (and the other riders too) and was a perfect gent throughout. Ger and his manager stayed in a proper hotel that night.
Ger got 8th, (2nd in Vets) he is a machine. He won the lap count bet (quite graciously too) and asked for an event top for himself and his daughter/manager rather than the £50. Nothing to do with a bump on his head from when my “elbow” sent him flying so I could take the fast line on a descent. oh no.
As I mentioned Mick got third overall and a red eyed zombie stare of death – also had the cunning trick of an incredibly bright helmet which meant in the muddy conditions you could tell who it was from miles away. Clever. Congratulations on your stunning result.
My tent had survived the monsoon quite well, I had a small leak which I suspect was from putting it up in such tall grass so I had about 5ml of water pooled on the groundsheet. Not bad for a 30 year old tent.
The bike not so much. All the brake pads are down to the metal, the bottom bracket is making a scraping noise, the headset is stiff and crying brown, front mudguard nearly worn through and derailleur jockey wheels look like ninja throwing stars. I didn’t adjust the travel on the forks so I’m hoping an oil change will be enough to get them up and running again or it’s a trip to the UK. My lovely new white grips (and older white saddle) are a shite white brown colour too. It’s in the hands of Expert Cycles being prepared for the Cooley Thriller – normally they have a ridiculously quick turnaround but I suspect they are finding mud in places where mud shouldn’t be and are laughing too much (And it’s a bank holiday weekend too tbf). Literally just been phoned by them – A lot of things have been replaced and I can pick it up this afternoon – excellent.
Conor and I headed off early Monday morning after saying our goodbyes to Will, Sue, Harry, Brian and Phyllis. We had a slight fright with a truck pulling out in front of us but all in all an uneventful trip after that. We were put right at the front of the ferry and pottered around on the trip back across the Irish Sea. I got home around half eight that night, helped Conor pack his car and then crawled into bed.
In 20/20 hindsight I had stupidly planned for improving on last year’s race despite my worse fitness and had ignored the weather. Last year I went in with low expectations and smashed them on the first lap which gave me a mental lift for the whole 12 hours. This year I had started with reasonable expectations, boosted them right up after the practice lap and then they slowly drained away on that first lap until I was knocked sideways when I went OTB, it really took the spark out of me.
I probably should have changed the rear semi-slick to a meatier one I had brought as a JIC so I could maintain my speed better, but I think anything I had tried would have struggled with the claggy conditions. My power to weight ratio is too shit to get away with ploughing through stuff like that. Maybe my IGH hardtail with narrow ice spike tyres would have been fine, I just don’t have the space to bring 2 bikes. It’s hard to compare the slight changes I made to the bike set up and my re-fuelling strategy as the race & weather conditions were very different to last year. However, I have none of the physical complaints I had last year for 80% of the distance covered, so something appeared to be working. I’m just incredibly tired and downbeat, oh and with a ton of gunk in my eyes. I managed to beat my “if everything goes tits up” target and get forth in the process so should be much happier.
I’m already planning for Round13 and an additional 24 hour solo this year so it’s not knocked all the stupid out of me.
A big thanks to the Pit Bitches – there is no way I would have been able to look after myself and bike in those conditions – Sue, Clare, Brian, Gary, Will, Conor, Huw, Phyllis – all were trojans looking after Ger, Mick and myself (once Conor and Will ended their races). Thanks to Steve and Clare for their support too, I still think Steve should have tag teamed the night laps with me.
Dedicated to Joan Sarah Withers 15th March 1917 to 31st July 2017.