Whenever someone asks me whether I’d like to do a cycling race I always have difficulty forward projecting to anything other than an image of me standing on a podium clutching flowers with two women either side and an adoring crowd below. I’m convinced just about ever other cyclist is the same. No matter how much previous evidence exists to the contrary, a new event presents a thin probability that the rest of the field will part and let them through to achieve the destiny they truly deserve. If this wasn’t the case, cycling races would only ever consist of the ten people who have a realistic chance of taking the win. All of the others would have “reality” take a quiet word in their ear, gently informing them that they’d be better off making an appointment with an Italian doctor instead.
So when Malcolm tentatively enquired as to whether I’d like to do an 8 hour mountain bike race in a team of two my forward projecting selective memory kicked in. I conveniently forgot my complete lack of mountain bike talent, parked the memories of my last pairs race that had seen me sulk in a bush at the end, forget the recent British monsoon and imagined a gloriously sunny finish line with a tape breaking across my manly chest as buxom women swooned. The race was months in the future. Plenty of time to train to Wiggin’s levels of fitness whilst watching a few Steve Peat videos and injecting talent directly through the eyeballs. There would be no problem with the knackered set of mountain bikes, as I’d have time to fix their various maladies and tune them back to shop floor condition.
That’s how October the 13th ended up circled on my calendar with “Bristol Oktoberfest” written neatly below. And that was the sum total of my preparation.
In my defence I could list a whole series of mitigating circumstances. Ranging from seriously long hours worked on various business projects to the completion of my next book which has become asymptotic, never quite reaching the axis of “finished”. But there’s no point, at nearly 46 years of age it has become the defining trait of “me”. As they lower me gently into the earth the vicar will mumble a few sentences concerning a man who would be here in the coffin if he’d remembered to die but is currently still watching Bargain Hunt in the old people’s home
Therefore, and true to form, a week before the event the only thing that was looking on track was my fitness. A few months of Strava madness had widened the legs a little and increased the depth of the lungs. Unfortunately the mountain bikes had ticked the census box marked “f**ked”, the off road miles could be counted in UKIP voters and I’d spent more time studying Thiession polygons than Steve Peat. Malcolm gently reminded me a week before the event that we needed to sort out a few logistics and I did that wavy hands man thing of pretending I had far more important matters on my mind. He then patiently organised everything on his own leaving me with a simple list:-
- fix bikes
- pack food and clothes
- be ready 6am Saturday morning
- remain healthy
I procrastinated the lot apart from the last item. This one was completely ignored as I continued to visit public places and be served food by people who coughed green shit onto their fingers first. Two days before the event the headache, sore throat and feeling of ill ease began. I rode my bike for a bit in the rain to get rid of it, which served to turn a slightly annoying sniff into a full on raging man flu. The day before the event I struggled to get out of bed, only roused by a 9am conference call appointment. I went shopping in living dead mode, shuffling around Co-op three times before I managed to place anything at all into the basket. Returning home I noted that my race food consisted of a dirty great ginger cake, some spicy jerk chicken pasties and a king size packet of dark chocolate digestives. Come the zombie apocalypse I know what to leave in the neighbour’s garden as distraction bait.
I gave the bikes the bare minimum of attention. The full suspension Zesty was out of the question as too many things on it needed a fettle including a bodged front brake calliper that had not been looked at in a year. The hardtail need a wash (ignored), new brake pads (rear replaced only as they were down to the metal) and some lubing (I pointed a can of WD40 at it and sprayed for a minute). It was a struggle to hoik my gear over the road to Malcolm’s that evening. Returning home and feeling desperately sorry for myself I coerced Helen into cancelling the healthy dinner of fish she was planning and replacing it with a hot curry instead. The thinking here was that it would “flush the cold out of the system”. The reality was a complete inability to sleep that evening as a mound of Prawn Patia sat in my digestive system waging war against stomach acids and clearly winning. I think I dropped off at about 2am.
Now, we’re nearly 900 words into this sorry tale and it is all sounding a little bit familiar. Dave practises piss poor preparation before something cycling related and subsequently pays the price. Given that I’ve just mentioned curry, I invite you, the reader, to read no further and go and watch Downton Abbey instead. As you can guess what is coming.
Malcolm and I left home somewhere near 6am. I am a freelancer, so for me this might as well have been midnight. At 6.30am my systems realised that they were supposed to be in daytime mode. Eyelids slowly lifted, the brain initiated start-up scripts and the digestive system remembered the horrors of the night before. It didn’t take much persuading to get Malcolm to pull into the services at Gordano for a quick constitutional. However, a complete lack of newspaper meant that my stomach refused to play ball and decided it could wait until we were in the middle of a muddy field queuing for a green piss tardis. I’ll fast forward over the next bit suffice to say that the bloke who didn’t take my advice to “leave it a few minutes” has only himself to blame.
Significantly lighter, but still feeling sorry for my sniffling self, I surveyed the event location. The previous night’s monsoon had gently covered most surfaces with a thin veneer of mud. A few keen souls who’d nipped out for a reccie lap were now riding chocolate bikes. It was feeling a bit “parky” and a lady next to our car was getting dressed in a bucket. Malcolm and I trudged to the signing on tent with me silently willing that they’d mislaid our entry and would refuse to let us slither around their hallowed course. No such luck. We were handed the customary plastic bag full of adverts, two pint glasses a couple of T-shirts and told to report back at 8.30 for race briefing.
Race briefing was nice and terse. A man in a witches hat mumbled some stuff into a tannoy and then vaguely gestured to “over there” where we would line up for a Le Mans start. Malcolm turned to me about to ask which of us would be doing the run. I’d anticipated the question, carefully considered all options and diplomatically snapped “YOU” in tandem with his query. Malcolm looked the snivelling wreck stood in front of him up and down and realised this was sound reasoning. The only running I was capable of was nose based. So we gathered up his bike and trouped down to the start.
Now, Bristol Octoberfest is a lot more laid back than many other endurance races I have attended. The start line was sited sort of at the bottom of a hill. Riders then scattered their bikes beside a track leading to the start and all followed each other in a penguin like pack asking each other “is that the start down there?”. The rest of us scattered ourselves around the hill and confusingly all held up our arms in unison so that the runners could find their way back to their bikes. I must have missed the start horn/bell/shot/shout/whatever but after a few minutes of holding onto Malcolm’s bike a swarm of baggies began to make its way up the hill. We all tried to differentiate our arms by shouting an encouraging “over here”. This just confused the runners further so they simply waded though humans with their arms until hands closed upon a familiar handlebar. After ten minutes or so the last of them had disappeared up the hill and into the trees. I returned to the car and made ready for my first lap.
We’d reckoned on 30-40 minutes per circuit. I had twenty minutes to calm the nerves and remember how to ride a mountain bike. Riding as a pair was starting to eke away at the misgivings and my cold. I didn’t want to let Malcolm down, he was fit and really up for the event. The last thing he needed was a petulant excuse monger blaming a lack of Tixylix for his 2 hour long laps. I resolved to come off the blocks fighting. Malcolm handed me the hair band (don’t ask me, ask the organisers), I ran for the bike, kicked into the woods and slithered about on singletrack barely holding on for the first half a mile.
This was a real wake up call to my recent lack of off-road riding. I can best equate it to assembling Ikea furniture having been given three minutes to memorise the instructions that are subsequently destroyed. I had an inkling of what need to be done, a rough idea of the sequence of actions required but when put into practise the result was a jumbled mess of bits strewn all over the place. Too fast into the first berm, too much braking thus too slow into the next, bang/bang/bang over the braking bumps, clatter into and over the step and hold on for dear life down the rock garden. It was a relief to hit some mud and finally gain a semblance of control over the bike.
I managed to pass a few riders as we negotiated a grassy climb, gained some momentum up a rough track and then lost it all and skidded our way round a wet grassy field. Then more singletrack and more mountain biking 101. I was all over the place. Fitness was carrying me too quickly into features that I was incapable of taking at speed. Other riders were passing me with minimal effort as they transitioned smoothly from berm to bump. My staccato rhythm was actually slowing me down as I braked to hard then pedalled fiercely to compensate.
The course was tight making passing awkward. Despite my failings I found myself held up for long periods behind riders who’d brought their sandwiches, thermos and picnic blankets. For the first few laps my passing strategy can only be described as “British”. I simply sat behind the slower rider and patiently queued. Eventually the track would widen and I’d cautiously make my way past. It took me a while to cotton on to the better strategy. A little “When you’re ready” to let them know you’re behind. Await their signal and then pass quickly with a verbal tip of the hat. Other riders had been passing me in that manner so why did it take me so long to learn? Read everything else I’ve ever written about cycling and you’ll understand why.
So I survived the first lap. 32 minutes in total, 1/4 of a brake pad down, lots of foliage attached to my bars and a few new stains in the baggies that were probably down to nerves. Malcolm, banged out another solid 30 minute lap and we settled into our race rhythm. For me it went along the lines of:-
- hang on for dear life over the first section of singletrack, try not to stack it near the photographer, remember that the last set of rocks are like ice, go into the red on the long climb
- more hanging on for dear life remembering that the steep rocky twisty bit needs respect
- stack it on the steep rocky twisty bit, apologise profusely for bringing the rider behind down with me as well
- get passed countless times by singletrack whippets who are long gone before I can exact revenge on the climb
- scare myself shitless riding too fast through the woods, nearly kill a few marshals descending out of control on the rocky fast track
- pick the wrong rut through the mud track, desperately fight for traction on the steep woodland climb
- more singletrack, more discussions with self about “how to do it properly next lap”
- finally the last steep climb and the wonderful transition area where I can hand the pain over to Malcolm for a few precious minutes
On lap three I summited the final climb only to encounter a bunch of spectators furiously gesticulating at a jump. This had been placed mid-track clearly designed to humiliate the likes of me who’s stated preference is always to keep both wheels firmly planted within the mud. I never do jumps. When I do I invariably land front wheel first and then bounce for a few yards like an upside down unicyclist before the rear wheel decides to leapfrog and shove me into the dirt. So I have no idea why I pointed the bike at the ramp and revved up the pedals. Everyone else was ignoring it. I hit it fully expecting to nose plant and laugh it all off with the assembled crowd. Instead the bike soared through the air, landed perfectly into the puddle beyond and spirited me into the finish.
This will never happen again. One of those rare moments when an act of bravado comes off. The previous few hours trail based mincing fell away during the milliseconds that I remained airbourne. I should probably confess that the ramp was less than six inches high.
Onward. More laps then a quick check of the current placings. It wasn’t easy to see our position as a large number of riders fought to view an intermittently updating PC monitor. I was sure I’d spied us in third place which heightened resolve further. But I didn’t say anything to Malcolm for fear of him demanding we increase the pace and aim for the top.
It all started to get hard for me around about lap five. My inefficient style was taking its toll and more mistakes began to surface. I lost patience with riders that attempted the silent pass and thanked serendipity for stuffing the rear mech of one wheel touching idiot firmly into his spokes. I stared jealously at calves propelling singlespeeds past me at inhuman speeds. I cursed youth, I cursed corners, I cursed bumps, I cursed slippy bits and I even cursed climbs the one thing I was supposed to be handy at.
Six hours in and we were still not sure of our placing. The computer said ninth, but the lap count was one down on my tally. Malcolm queried this and was told we were right, but still we had no idea whether the podium position still remained in sight. But fair play to the two old buggers from Swindon. Malcolm kept up his consistently fast laps as my times waned a little. I was riding between 35-39 minutes per lap after lap 5 and we’d had a short spell of rain. This pushed the slip factor up, made passing harder and slowed most of us down.
I summited the climb on lap six to see my wife and kids shouting me on. This was worth a dozen shots of EPO as I handed over to Malcolm for his last lap. I ate a little pasta and did some maths.
The rules are clear. The last lap only counts if finished within the eight hour time limit. One second later and it was in vain. We had just under seventy minutes left. If Malcolm rode a 32 minute lap I’d need to come up with a 35 minute one to keep within the time. This was looking tricky as my last map had been nearer 39. I clock watched waiting for Malcolm realising that I had no idea if my wristwatch was right. I’d decided that 35 minutes was my cut off. Any later and there would be no point heading out.
Malcolm rode in with 35 minutes 4 seconds to spare.
Remember that bit at the start concerning visualisation? All I saw was me riding heroically to the end, taking the jump and sailing over the line with minutes to spare. I headed out onto the course which was now largely devoid of riders. Most were finishing their last laps or clinking beer. It was just Dave, the course and the clock.
The first section of singletrack went to plan. I’d learnt the odd lesson and negotiated it at reasonable speed. The rocks proved no issue and I even put on a “racing look” for the photographer. No doubt my collar will be up or a phlegm moustache will be present in the final result. Next came the climb. Bad news, utterly shagged legs. I was passed easily by another rider and resolved that this ride was not straying onto Strava. The following section of singletrack was clear but my head wasn’t. I kept making mistakes, kept braking and slipped off the trail at one point disappearing into a bush leaving only a “f**king hell” behind. More climbing more agony. Things went a little better in the woods and as I headed up the next climb I heard “Come on lads, eleven minutes, that’s do-able”.
Eleven minutes. I rode each and everyone of them chanting “do-able” to myself. A nasty part of my head began to assemble the sections ahead and approximate my times across each in an evil attempt to show that the sum would be nearer to twelve. I switched it off.
“do-able, do-able, do-able”.
A few of us had melded into a group occasionally swapping the lead. I heard a wheel behind at one point and a request to pass. “I’m racing mate”, I told him, “Come by, but I’m not slowing”. Thankfully he got the point and smoothly took me on a corner. I jealously watched him leave my frame of vision, eleven minutes was definitely do-able for him.
Eternity. Then the final climb. It really hurt, really really hurt. I had no idea whether I was going to make it and the crowd were baying me on. The jump beckoned but was forsaken as I crossed the line and looked at my watch. It said eight hours dead.
Had I made it?
I had no idea. Another lad had come up the climb beside me. At one point we were sure that our final laps had counted. Only the results would tell. So we stood for a while, Malcolm, me and my family. The crowd gathered and we clapped others up onto the stage still unsure as to whether we had done enough. To make matters worse the announcer’s tannoy appeared to have an volume setting of minus eleven. He stood there in his witches hat as Malcolm and I attempted to lip read our names.
After an age the phrase “Mens 8 hour pairs, old gits category” bounced off a few heads and made it into my ear. “Third place…..Swindon Road Club”
We’d done it. I’d missed the cut off on the last lap by about twenty seconds,but it would not have made any difference to our placing. My previous visualisation was about to come true as Malcolm and I walked towards the podium. A nice lady hung a pretzel on a ribbon around my neck and gave me a voucher for beer. We ascended the podium (pallets + scaffold) and took the applause of the assembled crowd. Well when I say crowd, I probably mean the other riders waiting to pick up their prizes, plus my wife and kids. But that’s not how I’ll remember it.
Next time I’m asked whether I want to do a cycling race I’ll put on those rosy mental spectacles and reflect back to the last time I gloriously ascended the podium having ridden like a god. I’ll remember the relaxed vibe of the Oktoberfest, the vast majority of dedicated yet polite racers and the excellent singletrack course. Then I’ll turn to Malcolm and say “You must be f**king joking mate, I’m never doing anything like that again”.
Dave, 15th October 2012
Postscript: The day after I rode this event my wife, Helen, completed her first long distance running race. She took on the Swindon Half Marathon, one of the hardest courses around as it is dead hilly. Helen had trained for months and we nearly missed her at the finish as she completed the race three minutes ahead of her target time. I am dead proud of her for training so hard and taking on a tough race for a relatively novice runner. I am equally proud of us as parents, our kids saw Dad destroy himself on Saturday in the mud and then Mum destroy herself on Sunday in the sun. I can only hope that we are entrenching sport in our kid’s lives by example, which has to be a good thing. I had a brief vision as to how sport could potentially redefine society and bring out the good in all of us. The vision strengthened as I remembered the public unity that resulted from the Olympics and Tour de France. I saw a nation united under the banner of exercise and was all but ready to go out and evangelise but sadly fell asleep in front of the football on the tv.