I’m not sure if i am a bit masochistic, or as it has been pointed by my gravity assisted cycling friends, that I am idiot for enjoying riding up hill as well as down. Whichever, it has long been on my ‘to do list’ to ride cross country endurance events. After holding off for a couple of years making the usual excuses of not having the time, not being fit enough and blah blah blah… I decided there was not time like the present. There will never be a good time so I may as well just throw my hat in the ring and to hell with the consequences!
The drive up to Burry in Wales was not the most auspicious start. Friday evening traffic made what was supposed to be an under 3 hour drive into 7 hours of Spotify sound tracked drudgery. By the time I arrived it had long been dark and finding a level piece of ground to park for camping in the pitch black proved to be a bit of a challenge. At least I was here.
The next morning as I poked my head out of the window I saw it was wet, very wet! Deciding a cuppa while all snug in my sleeping bag was the way to go. I could feel the nerves brewing with my tea, had I bitten off more than I could chew? Was I going to flop after a couple of laps? What would I do if I was so slow I came dead last? It was at this point it dawned on me that if the race started at 2 o’clock and lasted 6 hours the last hour would be raced in the dark.
“Shit! Did I even bring my lights!”
After scurrying around in the van I found both my helmet and bar light.
“What a fool! I just hope they have enough charge to last”.
As my pulse slowed, minor panic over, the rain stopped so I took the opportunity to nip out and sign in.
The next hours were spent busying myself tinkering with my bike and kit and taking many nervous trips to the toilet. Even at a short event I spend far too much time trying to decide how many layers ill need, how many spare tubes to take, having 6 hours worth of racing to contend with made this process even worse. It was during this inner debate that I had my second panic,
“I don’t have the mount for my helmet light! What an idiot!”
Some ingenious work with cable ties later and panic 2 had passed.
All the possible kit faffing done and it was time for the “sighting lap debate”. Tide to Tide is a 6 hour endurance event run over a 7km lap. It is open to teams of 3, 2 or solo riders. Each lap was said to include multiple riding surfaces including a section of beach. It was this beach section that I didn’t know what to expect. And so sat on the door sill of my van I watched keen riders disappearing into the woods I spent 20mins weighing up the pros and cons of not making my first racing lap a dash into the great unknown. After a heated discussion with myself in which both sides made very valid points and argued their cases very well I decided 6 hours would be more than enough time to get to know the course and adding any more laps to what was already going to be a challenge was pushing my luck a bit.
As crunch time approached the race PA system burst into life with uplifting music that did nothing to easy my nerves as I walked back from my 8th trip to the toilet. 10 mins to rider briefing and the final pre-race panic bomb dropped.
I had planned to return to the van to replenish food and water bottles changes between laps. This plan was thrown into disarray when the MC requested all solo riders move there kit to a roped off section next to the start finish line.
“Going back to the van between laps was obviously not the done thing”,
All of my careful planning, organizing and faffing laying everything out on the floor was for nothing. I scooped everything up and stuffed them into a dry bag deciding at that moment that I was also over dressed and would over heat after the first half lap, so taking the last chance for a complete kit change making all of my planning totally redundant.
Moving to the start line I crossed the tape around 10meters back from the start line thinking this would put me nicely situated in the middle of the pack for the race start. Oh how wrong I was! Like a group of people standing on the edge of a cliff everybody filed in behind and then pushed forward leaving me starting on the 2nd row. Initially this was quite nerve racking as I knew I was going to be far from the fastest rider on course. I then realize it gave me a fairly obstruction free line through the taped Cyclocross style switchbacks just after the start
“I just have to be quick for 200m, don’t crash on the first corner!”
Rider briefing done and the urge to run into the bushes for a last minute nervous pee fought down and finally here I was on the start line about to tackle my first endurance race....
“maybe I should have had that last pee!”
The countdown started and amazingly I remembered to start my Garmin. 3, 2, 1 then the horn and we were off!
“Just be fast for the first 200m!”
Up the field and round the switch backs without issue and I hadn’t been swamped by a tide of Lycra clad ‘superhumans’ yet. Into the woods, onto single track and up the first climb. Looking at the potential bottle neck I had left behind at the foot of the hill and now glad I started at the front of the pack I was spurred on to push a bit harder as we crested the first climb. We wound through some slippery muddy trail until we hit a slight offcamber that dropped into a steep roller.
“This is alright! I can handle this so far”
More muddy woodland trail and then we dropped down onto a gravel track and the swamping started. I was passed buy around 10 riders in the 100m ish section before the trail turned and narrowed into sand dunes. Feeling the pressure of the weight of riders behind me I now pushed really hard up the sandy climb, over the top then over did it a bit down a set of stairs loosing my water bottle.
Pulling off the trail I lost more places as I recovered it. The final drop out of the dunes was a couple of really well shaped bermed corners switching back that were great fun to try to rail into. And here we were on the beach! The line of riders ahead of me pulled down towards the water where the surface was firmer so that we could put the hammer down along the arrow straight sandy highway.
Getting off the beach was an all together different story. I arrived to a bunch of scattered body’s who had weighed and measured themselves against the loose deep sandy bank and been found wanting. Opting to dismount and take a pedestrian route to the top I felt my legs shaking already
“How was I going to manage this bit for 6hours?”
Mounting at the top the course dropped down into a set of fast twisty sandy turns. It occurred to me that the sand wasn’t nearly as bad to ride on as I had expected. The surface beneath was pretty hard packed and afforded lots of grip. At the bottom there was a tight left turning back into the woods and some really nice flowing rolling single track that encouraged you to let off the brakes and gave some nice points to pump the trail and gain some free speed. This section lead out onto an access track that again gave the ‘superhumans’ a chance to overtake. Just as I had settled into a good comfortable pace I saw it looming up at me…. A muddy wall it seemed with only a select number of paths up already strewn with broken looking riders taking the 2 foot approach. I resolved to attempt to ride up the beast thinking, if I couldn’t manage it on lap 1 with fresh legs what chance did I stand for the rest of the race. Lungs in my throat as I reached the top I felt a boost of confidence having tackled what had already been a number of riders downfall. The top stayed flat for a while allowing me to regain some composure before the final trail section that saw a number of surface changes from mud to sand and back before spitting riders out onto the tarmac for a final sprint push to the start finish line.
Earlier in the day I had been informed that the faster riders wound be putting in average lap times around the 20min mark. After finding out this information I had resolved to be happy with 30min average lap times. To my surprise as I came past the start finish line I had completed lap 1 in 21mins.
“Holy crap I’m flying!”
I surged on into lap 2 still feeling the pressure of the weight of faster riders behind me and paying no attention to the fact there was no chance I could maintain my current pace for the duration. Knowing now what to expect I pushed on and tried to improve my line choices through certain technical sections and balance my energy expenditure during climbs until the line came again.
By half way round lap 3 the combination of the onset of fatigue and frustration at the volume of faster riders still pressuring to pass me on the single track sections was beginning to wear me down.
By the time the start finish line rolled around I was prepared to dial it back and plod at my own pace to the end.
Lap 4 was the point the first of the Lycra clad ‘superhumans’ began to lap me deflating the optimism of the first stage of the race. My gear shifting became more sloppy and the granny ring had to be engaged for the muddy wall climb.
“So glad I went back to a 2 by chain ring setup for this event”
It was also this lap that I began to notice sections of the trail degrading due to the volume of traffic flowing over it, later in the race this would give an added challenge as each lap would ride differently and familiarity with the trails could not be relied on.
Lap 5 the hurt came on strong and I seriously began to debate if I had it in me to make the end. Things began to merge into each other. More and more I had to rely on lighter gearing and even began dismounting and pushing up the steepest of the hills. The whole middle section of the race became a blur of suffering as the rain came in. I began stopping at the end of each lap to recharge my water bottles even though I was hardly drinking anything. The beach sprint became a plod and every surge of power to navigate obstacles hurt.
With my head low to my bar I crossed the line again and again looked at my Garmin something I had stopped paying attention to many laps back. It was at this point I realized I had completed my last lap in somewhere around 30mins.
“That can’t be? I must be slower than that?”
I resolved to pay more attention next time I crossed the line to get a more accurate time. Around came the line just as the race ticked over the 4 hour mark and there it was, a 33min lap time.
“Shit! I’m actually on my estimated pace! Right that means with a short stop between laps I can get another 3 laps in and still have a few minutes in hand for any issues”.
The end was in sight and all of a sudden I was a new man. Well not quite new but at least mentally revived somewhat.
And so lights attached with dusk setting in I headed out into the unknown. Well not quite unknown. I headed out into the now familiar woods. The course was now almost completely cut to shreds and the mud made certain corners and technical sections an absolute lottery with my light tread summer tires. In my newly optimistic state this actually became funny to ride especially once it was totally dark.
During the last lap I resisted the urge to try to push on harder as I realized it would not achieve anything other than increasing my chances of having an accident and failing at the last. As I rounded the last corner onto the tarmac and headed for the line watching the rain fall through the beams of my bike lights I couldn’t believe it… I’d actually done it. I was going to finish my first solo endurance race.
Sitting here on reflection I found endurance racing to be exactly the challenge I had hoped it would be. It tested absolutely everything from my riding skill through my strength and fitness right to giving my mental strength and resolve a good workout. It really is for me the ultimate test for a cyclist and I can’t wait to take part in another event and maybe even push myself further to a 12hr event.
Watch this space!