Thetford Summer Enduro - racing solo for the first time.
Mountain Biking. For me it provides the most reward and epic riding of any cycling discipline, and usually when we go on mini adventures. One of those is the only race I've ever taken part in - the Thetford Dusk 'til Dawn, mainly for its unusual format, it's cycling through the night in a forest with a whole heap of like minded people. It's hard, especially when it rains, but amazing. I've entered twice now, both times in a team of three racing a 12 hour relay race format - that means 4 hours of riding per person plus rest. The premiere category is reserved for the solo riders who I am always in awe of.
Once upon a time, even I thought we were nuts entering the Dusk 'til Dawn, but after the last I found myself wondering what would I be like, riding solo for 12 hours through the night, how would I perform? This wasn't even a regrettable alcohol inspired plan made in the pub, I was that serious even though I had seen first hand the suffering on the faces of the finishers.
My crazy idea to ride the Dusk 'til Dawn solo was greeted by a friend - who normally eggs me on - with great caution. Weeks later the perfect test landed in front of me: the Thetford Summer Enduro. You ride in daylight and the summer weather should be ok. The only decision was 10hr, 8hr or 6hr? I nearly went for 10hr but backed off to 8, thinking the most serious riders would be riding 10 hour and 6 might be a bit too easy, similar in length to a day ride.
A few days before the race, I checked the entrants list for the 8hr solo category, to my surprise 20 of the 25 entrants were sponsored by bike shops or associated with a cycling club. A more serious race than I had expected.
A month before the race I had ridden the South Downs Way with friends, 100 miles over two days fuelled by ham, cheese and pickle sandwiches plus dried fruit a nutrition plan perfected over the years. I scoff at those supping gels and bars on recreation rides, who needs 'em, enjoy real food I say. I took the same nutrition plan to the start line, adding some fruit jellies for a quicker energy hit if required.
The course was 9 miles long through Brandon County Park. For mountain bike races you have to ride unsupported but in this format, you are allowed outside assistance at the start/finish area where you can also replenish supplies. All categories finished by 8pm, with the 8 hour starting at midday.
At the start line I queued at the back, being the only one with a plain top (no adverts). Other rarities were, a backback, 26 inch wheels, and full suspension. I obviously wasn't going to compete for the podium and was happy to not fight it out and remained chilled out rather than race stressed.
The first two laps went fine, a few slow moving queues at first but it soon spread out. I was not pushing hard, and consequently did almost no overtaking until the 6 hour folks were released onto the course two hours after us.
I found myself riding at the same pace as another rider for the first two laps, we spoke and he was riding 8hr solo too. We had a great natter during the race :-) He was riding a 29er and I realised that either he had more skill or his machine was carrying speed through bumpy corners far better than my 26" while I burned energy to get back up to his speed. I also noticed he was having a slightly easier time on the straights too, or was fitter. This chap revealed his lap times improved significantly after switching to a 29er. I've since test ridden one and they are impressive, its like cheating but everybody's doing it. On that test ride I got a whole load of personal bests on Strava without busting my lungs.
There are some quick riders on the course, many of them operating in a pair so they have a flying lap then a rest. As an inexperienced solo rider, I was overtaken a lot. Everybody but one overtook politely and safely with gratitude and thanks all round when I moved over - I love the friendly MTB scene. The usual drill was to move aside at an appropriate wider point or the rider behind might call out a side to overtake on. The only overtake I objected to was through some whoops (many fast undulating depressions) where I moved far right but still on the racing line leaving the overtaker room to sprint past on the left. At this point they called out 'on the right please' even though there was clearly room on the left. Being overly polite I went left for him and found myself in deep slippery pine needles and lost all momentum. [Grumble]. Isn't part of racing your ability to overtake wherever that might be? I decided I wouldn't be asserted off-line like that again but thankfully it never came to that.
My race aim was not ambitious, it was to average one lap per hour an make it to the end. For me this was a learning experience.
The first two laps went to plan, taking 45 minutes each. but my back started to ache only 2 hours in. The next two laps I had to stop, stretch twice and eat a little costing me around 10 minutes a lap. By the end of lap 4 my back was in agony even with full suspension so I stopped for 20 minutes rest for stretching and food. At this point I was cursing all of the effort I'd put in nursing some knee pain with strengthening and stretching exercises, but totally neglecting my core muscles - I was road bike fit, but not mountain bike fit.
Laps 5, 6, and 7 were all just over 1 hour of time once I'd left the pit area. Still stopping and stretching but also now finding myself running out of energy. I'd knew the signs of running on empty from all-day recreational rides, you just stop and eat something, sounds quite obvious but endurance racing provided some interesting obstacles.
I found normal food went down well throughout the most of the race, that was white rolls with ham and pickle, plus the odd pork pie. I was careful to drip feed but over ate once feeling sick for about 5 minutes because that full tummy is jiggled about on the bike, without any rest time for easy digestion. My slightly faster release energy food that normally works is dried fruit (with nuts for some favour) but my body did not find this appealing after 5 hours, preferring the instant sugar hit from jelly sweets which provided energy for about 15 minutes. I found all of my food just too chewy to eat whilst riding and breathing and I can now see the advantages of gels and liquid energy. I had found the limits of normal food. On a recreational ride there is always time to stop and eat whilst admiring the scenery but this is not a racing winning strategy.
My final lap started 6h45m after the start. My previous two laps were over an hour so I had enough time to complete it before the 8pm cut off, but started to worry that if I had a mechanical issue and was running low on energy there was a small chance I wouldn't make it. I decided to keep moving where possible and forget about stretching my back. I stopped once for jellies, and managed to consume a few on the move.
The final mile was up the 'Plumb Buster', normally a trivial incline but found myself dropping onto the granny ring of my triple and ever so slowly reeling in a rider ahead of me. If he was in my category I could gain a place. The competitive spirit kicked in, unfortunately he had the same idea after hearing me drop gears, and so his pace went up. I pushed on the pedals and my muscles groaned, 7 hours and you want more? My brain won the mental battle over my legs at the top of the climb and now we were into a 500m open track dash for the line with two right angle corners. I reeled him in and on the final straight he was just or is that still(!) three bike lengths away, we both dug deep, I stood up and sprinted - where did that come from? should have gone harder earlier - and I pipped him to the finish line by about a foot. What category are you in ? 10 hr. Me 8hr. My joy subsides.
My placing was last by about 10 minutes, but even so I was happy with my efforts, buzzing even. With plenty of room for improvement, I can work on that and have another crack.
I'm not really cut out for full-on racing but enjoy beating my own personal bests and targets and it motivates me to continue keeping fit. I'll be back for next year now I've laid down a marker, I might even give the Winter Series or Mud Sweat and Gears a crack. Dusk 'til Dawn 12hr solo? Hmmm, maybe not this year, just don't ask me after a couple of pints, I might just say yes.