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The Finale – Wembo 24 Hour Solo World Championships – Canberra

Temperature generally seems to be commensurate with darkness. The blacker the blackness, the colder it is. I would have hoped that after 15 laps and 250 odd kilometers I’d have been at least a little bit warmer than I was – or at least a little more resilient. But no. The cold chewed into me, gnawing into my arms and worming its way into my psyche. It bent my mind from the task at hand and seduced me into thoughts of duck-down doonas and shots of schnapps in Swiss jacuzzis. My lap times were beginning to slow – partly due to the darkness, partly due to fatigue but mostly due to the fervent desire to doing anything else than dragging my skinny carcass through a strangely forested walk-in beer fridge.
When I began wondering about the potential warmth gained from leaking a little urine into my pants I knew it getting desperate. I had tried to keep my pit-time spend as low as possible, hoping to get through the night without another stop for clothes, but on that next pit Kyllie wrapped me up in all the nuclear winter spec racing spandex I’d brought with me – and despite burning another five minutes, I felt like everything was all right.

The first half of the course was almost all climbing and should a rider chance a buckled wheel or broken wrist it rewarded them with a spectacular view of race HQ and the Stromlo hinterland. As the wee-small hours ticked away each time I rolled over the summit I glanced over at the horizon, hoping that the sun was soon to make an appearance – to not only light my way, but to also lighten my mood.

If you’re happy and you know it…
And two laps later, when it did, I let a little holy moment wash over me.
The sunrise heralded the start of the last part of the race. The ‘race’ part. The first part was an exercise in restraint, the second an excursion into survival, the last part, with 280 odd kilometers in my very tired legs was all about winning, something. Anything.

Kyllie, Linda and Bede had not only been feeding me food and maintenance, but information as well – and it was about now that I began to actually hear it. With each pit I was told to look out for a target, and if I got them, look out for the next.

Now that I was feeling a solar powered my lap times were tumbling. I was told to chase ‘Project 63’ on one frenetic pit stop and bolted out onto the hunt with the desperate hunger of a bad salesman. I caught him in that lap (to be honest, continental drift would have lapped him, he looked like a tombstone) and on my next pit was told that I was only seconds up or down from either 3rd or 4th place. I wasn’t at my cognitive best at that stage. Kyllie could have been reading me the ingredients list from a box of edible condoms and it would have all meant the same thing. Just go really fast.

But now all this racing business was starting to hurt. My feet were burning and bruised having repeatedly stamped on unforgiving carbon innersoles, my legs were boiling in lactic acid and my hands had shut down feeling to both my pinkies in protest. But positions in the overall standings were now being contested. I had no clear space between me and the people in front or behind. With the exception of World Champ Jason English, it felt like everyone was within striking distance of each other.

Getting all ‘friendly’ – AKA: Trying to break a bloke
I still had 4 hot laps to get through and now had some company. At the time I didn’t think much of it, but I called out to pass a cat on one of the climbs and turned around to see another dude right on my wheel. His plate was numbered close to mine, he looked about as old as me and he looked like a tough bugger who’d just spent a night in the trenches. We hit the next lap suckered together – and driven by sleep deprived paranoia, I decided to see who this bloke was. I waited until I was right in the middle of the first technical steep climb – and attacked. My feet complained bitterly as I stood up and mashed the pedals, hoping to snap the ten or twenty meters of elastic that welded us together. Sure, it stretched, but it didn’t snap. I tried again closer to the top and then again as we crested the climb. Over the sound of my exertion I could hear him heaving for air, but he wouldn’t fold. ‘So – old mate – looks like you can climb a bit’.

As the descent came up I steeled myself for a Sam Hill style ripping run. Its one thing to be able to dig into a climb, but another to hold onto a racing line when the trail is nothing but motion blur and swirling gravity. Again, I tested my new friend, to see what he had. I gapped him almost immediately – but not enough. The elastic stretched, deep into the range where it would snap for lesser men, but even after bombing drop after drop, as the trail flattened out he would roll back up to me. I attacked on the next series of climbs and he stuck with me, I bombed the descents into the race village, and there he was, holding it together 100 meters or so off my wheel.

A little further back, but still there…still unbroken.
With only a few laps to go I pulled into the pits and ditched the last of my pre-dawn kit – which combined with all the exertion had me sweating like live exports in Saudi. Kyllie stuffed food into my mouth and information into my head. Old mate was actually a guy called Jamie Vogele who had stormed his way into third during the night, only to have me sniffing around as the race began to count down. As I stripped down to race weight, I saw him tear past and disappear into another lap. He had vanished like an election promise.
Had I’d comprehended half of what Kyllie was saying I’d have been heartbroken. Thanks to my brothers-in-law Stuart and Robert, who into the small hours had been remotely following the race, Kyllie knew exactly who Jamie was and what his sudden acceleration meant for my little piece of podium. For my part I thought that I was in first, fifth, an alien, dreaming, all of the above – and apart from going as fast as I could, had nothing else to think of, nevermind some bloke I couldn’t crack on the previous lap.

The clock slowed down, sped up, wound backwards as the third last lap flashed by. I was looking out for anybody with a five in their number – for in my madness this had some special significance – biblical significance for all I knew. I found myself lurking around Jason McAvoy (the eventual World Champ in my category) and embarrassed myself by attacking him too, not realizing he’d lapped me. To add to the kalidescope playing out in my psyche my body was really beginning to bitch at me now too. My knees felt like they were grinding cartilage like chewing tobacco, my shoulders and neck were seizing up – and my poor old feet would have felt better in the hungry end of a wood-chipper.

Still, I couldn’t drop the pace, it wasn’t going to make the pain go away in any case. I didn’t stop at the next pit, driven by a desperation that was half pure madness and half racing paranoia. There was only two hours to go and I had to go fast – not that I knew the hell why.

‘Aliens! Snakes! Snakeliens!’ Riding crazy.

My last lap started at 11:20am or so after another insane hour of trail and misguided thinking. In the pits Kyllie had yelled at me one of the only things that I actually took note of. “Jamie Vogele is in third – he is five minutes ahead”.
Five minutes is a massive gap. In the laps since I stopped to drop my winter kit Jamie had laid down two cracking times and had built a bulletproof advantage. It was a pretty harsh reality check. Coming fourth is the worst position in the world, even worse than second. And I had more chance of making a jumper out of my own hair than I had of making up five minutes in the last hour of riding.

Had I not been hurting so much, and been so well and truly done with being on my bike, I would have just rolled through the last lap, stopped and talked crap with the marshals, run my hands through the trail side foliage and generally been a tourist.
But I was hurting, and the only way to make it stop was to get through the remaining kilometers as fast as possible. And so in one last twisted little sojourn into my brain I decided that I’d try and hurt myself – a lot – as much as I could while being on a bike – just to see what that kind of hurt actually, really, felt like.

Not terribly pleasant, as it turned out.

I pounded through that lap like I was being chased by wolves. On the climbs I loaded up my gears and on the descents I went brake-less. In between laboured breaths I wondered if the pain in my feet was actually a sensation of cold or if the jarred numbness in my hands was like being tickled through thick skin. I was riding like a tool and thinking like a twat, and then suddenly, bang in the middle of the lap – something quite strange appeared.

Jamie Vogele.

There he was – grinding his way up a painful climb, with a head like an apple on a slinky, moving about as fast as decay. Here was the bloke who, for the last 6 hours had bravely defended his place on the podium…looking like he was clinically dead, with only twitching nerves turning his pedals over.
For one enormous, pregnant moment I didn’t know what to do.

Then it all came rushing back.
“Passing on your right”
I dropped down onto the trail in front of him, stood out of the saddle and sprinted. I turned around, expecting to see him right on my wheel. Instead, he stopped riding – crossed his arms in front of him as if to sleep on a desk – and gently laid his head on his handlebars. It was a deeply moving moment. It was like seeing an old Samurai laying down his sword.

Moving moment, yes, but also a moment in which I needed to move. I was terrified that Jamie might be foxing, or be magically revived and so I turned back to the trail, stood on the pedals and sprinted all the way to the line.

Pit lane had been turned into a media gallery. There were cameras and a crowd and a torrent of banter being bandied around by the race commentator.
Kyllie and Linda were waiting for me, as was pit legend Kenny Soiza who had supported not only me, but my co-competitor Kevin Skidmore through a torrid 24 by his standards. Kyllie wasn’t surprised to see me, but shocked to see that I’d finished in an age group 3rd position and 15th overall. She was as excited as I was emotional – and I struggled to keep up appearances as I was warmly congratulated by those people who were watching over me. I was helped off my bike an over to a nice chair in the shade of the Stromlo Pavillion.
With Kenny post race. Tired and emotional.
Just me, that is

From my plastic chair I watched the race wind down, still a little overwhelmed by the whole thing. Its easy to get wrapped up in the riding but if there is any form of solitude racing that is a team event its this. Kyllie and Linda had been absolutely epic, had stayed up all night and endured my bleating and barking during whatever frantic pit stop I was putting them through. Kenny had been a sage voice of pit wisdom and had more than once totally ignored whatever I thought I wanted and gave me just what I needed – and Bede our mechanic kept our bikes running smooth and hard all race.

Fellow racer Kevin Skidmore had been out with the fast starters up until midnight when some heart-rate strangeness put him trackside for a few hours. Moving from a warm doona to the blackened trail during the cold dead hours before dawn is a feat not to be underestimated…and while well down by his high standards still tapped out 18 laps of a brutal course. Thanks go to Robert Douglas and Stuart Peele for a pro-level information stream, Kev and Paul from Team C-Nut for keeping the stoke up and Lyn, Colin, Tim, Paul for swinging in to help.
And big props to Wembo for a cracking race. Phil, Robin, Mark and the kids at Cycles Galleria for their wisdom and for setting me up on the truly excellent Pivot Mach 429C. Thanks to Jess Douglas and Lance Cupido for their advice, to Jamie Vogele for making the last 4 hours such a bareknuckle pitfight – and to every other competitor who flew in to make such an epic event, so absolutely, properly epic.
Physically – I’m still not yet over this. Maybe that’s to be expected. Emotionally however, I don’t ever want to be, and there may still be events to come that get me excited enough to put a 24 hour solo bike race back onto my mountain biking bucket list.
Photos (refreshingly without me) are here:
Thanks Wembo – you rock
PS: Congratulations to Jason English and Jess Douglas. World Champions. Again. So proud.

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