Well, since High Fell Events announced the running of the Kielder Chiller 24hr mountain bike race in February, I have already been hit by the myriad of questions that inevitably pop up for those new to the crazy idea of riding a bike for 24hrs!
Where to start… I could write reams on this! So, I thought the easiest approach was to offer some advice, relative to team size. Some of the ideas apply to all team sizes of course. I’ve competed in all the formats for over eight years now. Here are some key tips that have helped me complete several 24hr solo and team races (and ‘mostly’ avert disaster!).
Let’s start at the business end; the team of one. You. The single assassin. The 24hr solo rider. Life will never feel the same again! (It will feel MUCH easier).
How do you train for this?! Be honest with yourself; do you want to ride continuously or take long breaks? If it’s the former, then let’s be honest, you need to do quite a lot of training! However, whilst there needs to be a degree of quantity, quality always wins out. Yes, you will need to do some long rides but if you can ride continuously for 6 to 8 hours at a steady pace without collapsing, then you are ready for a 24hr solo. Try to integrate strength training into your riding, whether that is on or off the bike. On the bike, steep mountain bike terrain will help, as will over geared seated efforts on or off road. Off the bike, core strength exercises such as push ups / pull ups, the ‘plank’, or squats can also be very beneficial and don’t require a gym membership! Nor do they take up much time. I tend to go for longer sustained ‘on bike’ efforts in training because they more closely match the effort levels and effort durations often found in endurance events (I am sure Barry will have a ‘little’ climb or two ready for us!).
Ride as consistently and frequently as you can between now and February; your endurance builds over time and is not the result of any one ‘big’ ride. Better to spread it out, for example, 10 hours riding over five days rather than two long ones at the weekend, which will leave you tired for a few days. Take an easier week every three weeks to recover and adapt to the training load.
Perhaps more importantly, be mentally trained! It will be rewarding but very hard; accept that, and embrace it. Get out there in bad conditions and learn to love it! Get comfortable with the wet and the cold. Test your kit. Try new things now, not on the day of the race! Devise or sign up to a training plan and carry it out. Confidence in your preparation will get you a long way!
OK, let’s be straight; it is VERY hard (but not impossible) to do this on your own! You WILL need some help! Whether that’s a full on ‘support crew’ or shared support from next door’s pit, a helper is going to make your life a lot easier. Having somebody carry out simple jobs like handing out food and drink, fetching spare clothes, or washing down your bike will help your ride go much more smoothly. Supporters can also double up as mechanics, masters of strategy, and motivational speakers! Find a willing volunteer and be VERY nice to them over Christmas Also, before and during the event, be INCREDIBLY nice to them; being a supporter at a 24hr race is tough; do what you can to make sure they have what they need and plan accordingly. They need to be warm, well feed and happy. They are there to help you and have given up a night of sleep to stand in a frozen dark forest FOR YOU! So you can see where this is going; rider and support are actually a team. There’s erm.. no ‘i’ in solo.
What about bikes? If you have one bike, then use that one! However, two bikes are preferable, especially if you want to keep moving as much as possible. Beg and borrow a spare bike of a friend if you can; remember the second bike only needs to get you around one lap whilst your main bike is being fettled. If you have a mechanical or your bike needs a good scrub down, ‘simply’ hand it to your happy smiling helper to sort. At three am. In the pitch black. And possibly whilst it’s sleeting…. NOW do you see why you need to treat them nicely?
Fortunately, Kielder is mostly hard surfaces, so tyres wise, go for something that rolls well on the rear and perhaps has a bit more bite on the front. Full suss or hardtail? Personally I prefer full suss for most riding and racing; over the long haul you will be sitting down A LOT so anything to add comfort is good in my books.
Having a food and drink strategy is critical. If you stop eating and drinking you will grind to a halt. Save time and stay warm by keeping moving! Grab your food and try to eat as much as you can whilst riding. Practice doing this before the event. Pick your points on the course to feed and stick to it as a mental reminder to keep the calories flowing. You will save LOADS of time by doing this.
And on the subject of keeping moving… I have spoken to loads of people over the years who have asked for advice and said, ‘that doesn’t apply to me, I’m not trying to win’. Lo and behold, after the event, in the cold light of day, they have realised how much time they could have saved and how much further up the field they could have been with less dead time. 24HRS DOESN’T GO ANY FASTER WHEN YOU ARE STANDING STILL! Plus, in winter conditions it definitely doesn’t feel any more comfortable! KEEP MOVING AS MUCH AS YOU CAN! Number one tip!
Did I suggest solo was the toughest gig? Well, pairs 24s (especially in the winter) can be a whole load of ‘fun’ too! Especially if you do it ‘right’. By right I mean the fastest way; alternating laps, one lap each. This is the most efficient way to ride pairs 24hrs. Problem is, the wait before your next lap is long enough to completely cool down, (and in a frozen wood, that can take oh, 30 seconds) but will pass in the blink of a sleep deprived eye . A top tip that I learned from the very experienced Team JMC at the infamous Strathpuffer is stay tepid, don’t get too comfortable. If you do get all warm and snuggly, getting back into the cold will be even less ‘appealing’ and will hit you even harder!
If you do want to do multiple laps each, save it as a ‘treat’; keep it for the middle of the night to get a proper break. Sleep in blocks of 45 minutes. (Use an alarm clock; a one and half hour, 2hr 15min, or 3hrs sleep will work wonders – trust me. It’s a science thing).
If you can enlist a helper or two for pairs, you won’t regret it (Even if they do).
Teams of four
Heh, just kick back, relax and enjoy the spectacle of solo and pairs suffering! You only have to ride for 6 hours! What could possibly go wrong?
Well, lots actually… Be organised. Stick to a plan. Make sure every rider knows when they are due to go out (don’t EVERYONE fall asleep / get drunk!). Write down when the rider leaves on the lap and their ESTIMATED return time based on previous laps. This helps you maximise your rest time. Keep your pit organised; four riders and friends / helpers can produce a lot of clothes / food / bikes and bits. Make life slicker and easier by keeping the gaff tidy. Remember that everyone will be tired and it will get VERY cold so energy levels will dip and even seemingly simple tasks will feel a lot harder at 4am when it’s Baltic. “Can you find me those black gloves”*
(*In a black gazebo, amongst piles of black clothes, in a pitch black frozen forest….).
So there you have it; a brushstroke guide to 24hr racing. I could write books on the subject but as they say, there’s nowt like experience! Needless to say, for all the hardship and difficulty of a 24hr race, whatever size team you do it in, you WILL have loads of fun and an experience like no other! I know few 24hr competitors, at the sharp end or just there for a laugh who, come Wednesday, (or maybe Thursday the following week) don’t ‘pine’ () to be back in that beautiful deep dark woods, rather than be tucked behind their snuggly computer at work. 24hr racing gets you like that
Oh, and here’s a kit list:
Bikes and spares – as many as you have / can get your hands on! LOTS of brake pads If it is icy / snowy and you want to keep riding right through you need ice tyres. If you have the choice, run cheaper components, not your new XTR!
Lights – depending on weather conditions, you may need lights in the woods for up to 18 hours! Use your lights wisely; knock the power down on the climbs. Turn them off immediately between laps. A helmet light as well as bar light is the ideal. Oh, and make sure your pit crew has good lighting too!
Clothes – bring pretty much every item of cycling clothing you have! Once clothes get wet they aint drying out! Better to throw some old warm clothes over your mucky riding kit between laps than getting changed every lap (A MASSIVE task in the middle of the night!). Make sure your hands and feet are comfortable as a priority.
Food – enough to feed a small army. You need a lot of calories, simply to stay warm! Besides the usual energy products/ bananas / jelly babies etc. have ‘real’ food to hand. Hot food will work wonders and things like noodles / soup / porridge are all fairly easy to prepare in difficult conditions. You only need a gas burner and a pan.
Good luck and see you there. I’ll be flying solo