I am at home, safe with a cup of tea, surrounded by my kitties, and enjoying the sound of the rain hammering down outside.
It wasn’t always thus.
We entered a team of four girlies in the Twentyfour12, a 24 hour MTB race at Newnham Park. There were meant to be five, but we couldn’t get anyone to take the fifth slot. Crazy: I had to fight for my place on a team last year, and I genuinely don’t know what is the wrong with the girls who didn’t want to ride.
So me, Megster, Missy Giove and Rachel Atherton were a team of 4 with Missy clearly our strongest rider, Rachel the youngest and (stupidest) bravest, Megster the one with least idea of why she ought to be worried, and me with… all my little features…
We also had, as support crew, MrJB and MrGiove, and they were hoping to run a 24 hour barbecue.
Megster and I went down on Friday with our bikes to pitch the tents and get a practice lap with Missy. It was all rideable enough, there were a few technical drops and I was actually pleased to see the Cottage Return was in. The lap was 7.6 miles long with a big climb in the first mile, and 800-ish feet of climbing in total. Not too much to worry about, although if it turned wet….
Yeh. That. It rained all Friday night, the tents were leaping about, the awning on Missy’s camper van made a break for freedom, and I was pleased to have packed a dry jersey for every lap.
I demanded the first lap because I quite like the thrill of being in the start pack, and started further to the front of the pack than I usually like to. On the dot of midday we were off across the wet grassy field into the drizzle and onto the spreading-out loop. I managed to ride all the drop-offs and technical bits, breathing hard and riding well into the red. That was my fastest lap of the whole race, thereafter it only went South.
Got in, handed over to Megster, and so the routine began. My bike was covered in claggy shite and needed hosing off.
I was very wet and changed into jersey number two, then sat around drinking tea, eating cheese rolls provided by the domestic goddess that is MrGiove, and waiting. We quickly got the hang of wandering over to trackside after an hour, and when our rider came through we knew we had 15-20 minutes to get to transition. Our times were pretty consistent, even in their slippage, and we also agreed that the slippery, muddy course had a few challenges.
Y’know, the laps themselves are honestly a bit of a blur…. I had to run and push the slippery, water-filled bombholes on top of the hill on lap two and slipped and twisted my knee (yes, *that* newly remodelled, twatting knee) and subsequently struggled to stand up riding down the Cottage Return, never mind pedalling up the sharp little climb in the last mile… I was bit anxious and subdued on getting back, having had an early pasting from the course (only on lap 2 remember). As I limped back past the hosepipe one of the twelve-hour riders was saying he thought the course conditions were dangerous and he was packing it in. I thought he was a pussy. But still… others were also packing.
Janey had been my first choice for a fifth rider, but she was already promised to another :-O She was also packing in after a single lap, having been ill all week and – as it turned out – still not quite right. Not one of life’s bailer-outers, she was struggling to accept the idea that she was going home early. Truthfully, it wasn’t a track to be riding if you weren’t starting at 100%.
Missy had been out immediately before me, and my response to the conditions wasn’t a surprise to her. While Megster was out, and I was sitting in Missy’s camper van, being cold, my dry jersey leaching the wet from my shorts, she suggested we don’t worry about riding through the night. If we couldn’t ride it in daylight, we might be wise to limit our attempts in the dark.
We could, she said, go out again early doors: we already knew our rival ladies’ teams had decided it was too risky to ride through the night. We eventually thrashed out a plan which meant Missy would go out as it got dark, I would follow her at about midnight – as I was mentally prepared to do – and then go to bed. Megster would go to bed *now, set her alarm for 3am and we’d restart our routine. Young Rachel had been ridden into by an over-eager overtaker and was too sore to commit to the immediate plan.
When Missy handed over to me just before midnight, she murmured something about it being “interesting” out there. Hey ho. Lights on, and off I trundled across the slimy muddy grass… scrambled down the first drop on my feet and the rain hammered down, bouncing off my light beam and soaking me to the skin. How lucky that I was working hard enough to stay warm.
I rode the second technical drop-off; I wasn’t too worried if I lived or died by the time I got to it. The marshals on top of the hill, in the middle of Nofuckingwhere Woods, called me on the loudhailer as I approached, “Rider, are you alright?”
“Uh? What? Yes, yes I think so.” FFS enough with the tricky questions as I ride into the notoriously rooty Bluebells Wood. I was riding without much power and not particularly fluently, thus not enough pace to roll over the roots and my little 26″ wheel (ancient technology, yes, yes) kept dropping into holes and stopping. And then the mud spatter – how does that fire *directly into your eyes? Every time? And – sometimes – both eyes at the same time? Dear god that needed some careful rubbing and blinking. And was immediately followed by a faceful of muddy puddle which really added to the humour of the moment.
I did ride down a muddy slide that I’d walked on the previous lap, only because getting off was too much effort. Rode two of the bombholes but couldn’t power enough to get out of the third, so walked a little bit there. The Cottage Return was horribly slidy and fluid in all the wrong ways. Out onto the bottom track swearing furiously with fear, and a bit of access road before the River Path. Which had grown a bottomless hole since four hours earlier. Fell into it. Got going again, Strumpet was clattering a bit and the front was moving. My headtorch showed my front QR had quick-released when we fell into the water-filled hole. Okay, better do that up, I s’pose…
The little bridge across the river back into the campsite. I’m glad I rode it, and the following tree-roots, because MrJB was waiting on the Other Side, with Ma and Pa Atherton. I had been so long they had decided there was a problem… which there kind of was, but only the usual one!
The campsite field was getting unrideable. There was no traction and the back end was trying to overtake the front. I got through it, and back to base. I had a cup of tea, no food, climbed into my sleeping bag, applied ear plugs and that was all I knew for four hours.
Not so for wee Megster! She’d gone to bed in her tent before I set out on my dark lap. Ma and Pa Atherton fell over her guy ropes a dozen times each, there were raucous riders returning from laps all around her and she ended up going out for her lap early having utterly failed to sleep. We all laughed heartily when we heard about her adventure in the Deep, Dark Woods in the torrential rain. But not until several more hours had passed and it felt safe to do so.
I woke up suddenly in daylight, thinking “Fuck! Daylight! I’ve missed my turn!”
I hadn’t. It was all taking longer than I expected as the course and weather conditions dragged everybody down to my level. Although it was, shockingly, not raining now, Megster had had a wet, cold, eventful ride and was struggling to communicate. Okay, wasn’t even trying to communicate. Missy was out on the course and Rachel would be up next. I would even have time for a breakfast before I had to go. Great! I was told that the other ladies teams hadn’t been out in the dark and we were leading the category. Greater!
Rachel had quite a tough ride in the early morning light, and she was a long time. I eventually rode over to transition, where Jen, from the second placed ladies team, wanted a quiet word… She thought my lot were in an unassailable position and wanted to know if we were willing to call the result, thus none of us would have to go out again. Conditions were horrendous, the ambulance had been out in the night, the helicopter mobilised and it all sounded pretty nasty. At most, she reckoned her team would manage three laps in the remaining time. We would only manage two, but it wouldn’t be enough for them to take first place off us. The doubt was whether the third positioned team would accept the deal.
The third team had only done 4 laps on Saturday before they stopped for the night. Their team leader was quite matter of fact that they wanted to do one more lap each. Jen relayed this information to me, shook my hand and said, “Well, you’ve got it, but I have to go out again, not to take it from you, but I won’t settle for third behind them.” And if Jen was going out then our lead would be slimmed down A Lot. Megster said, if I had to do a lap then so would she: she had a bad lap to put to bed. I sighed and racked my bike in transition.
Rachel arrived after a very long ride, looking pooped and said something about “Be careful”.
I quickly found out what she meant. The campsite twisties were a flat, slidy walk, tyres jamming solid with grassy mud and never really clearing. I must have dragged the bike a third of a mile before a gravel stretch allowed some mud flicking. In fact, the fourth lap was unrideable for an additional reason – as well as impossibly slippery, other bits were drying and clagging right up.
The puddles on top of the hill were draining and if I had known what was under the water, I would not have ridden through when they were full! The River Path was much more “holding” than previously and I had a nice little walk along there with my bike.
I eventually worked my way around to the final field through the campsite, slid off once more on an innocuous little downslope, and back into transition where I handed over to Megster for the last time.
She was round and back in exactly the expected length of time, threw her bike down on the track after the finish line and that was that. None of the ladies teams were going to overtake us now.
My team worked hard: we only had four riders, where the other teams had five, and we rode dark laps when other teams made a different call for the track and weather conditions. Yet it feels odd: that we could walk, scramble and push all that for a win, looking like a bunch of amateurs, when there are riders on the other teams who normally have my arse?
Maybe our advantage was that we are used to falling off, to having to get off and scramble anything requiring skill to ride, and to being beaten up by the terrain…. and perhaps if you are any good as a rider, it’s all a bit of a shock when you come across something you can’t ride…