I leave the security of our pits. The fluorescent glow of the Garage Bikes orange gazebo is unmissable, but I won’t see it again for another hour and a bit. I push a too hard gear – a symptom of the final downhill at the end of my previous lap. I quickly flick through gears, feeling my freshly lubed chain skip up the sprockets. Spin. A shiver passes over me – again a hangover of a long descent and a few minutes of rest. The course meanders, maximising pit space, I sweep through, acknowledging the friendly shouts and support. I want to stop and chat. I don’t want to stop and chat. I can’t stop and chat. The mellow start ends abruptly. Greasy, awkward rocks create a tricky and technical climb. It is only 20 metres or so long, but it is a rude awakening. Attack, spin, adjust weight, push bike forwards, shift my weight back to maintain traction at the rear. Later on in the race, my efforts are rarely enough. I’m two moves behind. My success rate drops from 75% to 50% to not attempting it. Walking is just more efficient. Efficiency is good. 20 metres done, but a mental leap taken. I’m now out on course.
Snaking singletrack climbing kicks up rudely after a claustrophobic tunnel. Again, I can trace my physical deterioration as the race draws on. Seated climbing becomes an out of the saddle effort becomes a 10 metre walk. Back on to wider track, steep and loose. I can describe the minutiae. The sand, the right line, where the rocks are, the colour of the ground, the sound Rideable, even when exhausted, but requiring concentration, requiring effort. I don’t have much more effort left to give – except I do. Each time round, I do.
Respite – horizontal, gentle descent. Enough time to regain composure. Earworms twist and play in my head. Never the same song, never a full song… just half-remembered choruses and lyrics. 5 seconds of guitar riff. Every lap I forget. Forget what is coming next. A reflective yellow sign reminds me, I hate that sign. Enough time to shift half a cassette block before a tight hairpin left and then a few more gears as I start the steeply ramped singletrack climb. The surface is white-grey, much like how I imagine my face is as the moment. Useless legs turn, but I’m barely moving forwards. The gradient mellows, but only for long enough to allow me to look up at the steeper finishing ramp. Topping out reminds me of being a child doing my “lifesavers badge” at the local swimming pool. Heaving my weak limbs out of the side, dragged back in by the impossible weight of sodden pyjamas. I can’t do it. But I do. Until I don’t, and again, I’m back to walking. Slow progress is still progress.
Racing tuck, elbows in, nose near stem, flat back the world rushes by as I accelerate down the fireroad. In the dark, my speed is amplified, Star Trek warp-speed special effects are applied. I don’t care about the time that tuck saves me, I care that it will save me one or two pedal strokes up the remainder of the climb. Free speed is the best kind. I start pedalling and enjoy the first few effortless turns; momentum,oh how I love thee. A few seconds later, plod mode is engaged. For the first time this lap, I am above the trees and I’m treated to a view over to Fort William in the distance. I can see riders grinding up the climb ahead of me, I can also make out the descent, and hear the squeal of brakes and the unmistakable scraping of rear wheels locking. At night, Fort William glows orange. It acts as a reminder of how close normality is, yet how far away I am from being tucked up asleep. I pass through the tunnel that marks the cross-over with the descent and say hello to the marshals. Their friendliness is welcome. My response borders on a grunt on some laps. It’s a well meaning grunt, it’s all I can manage.
Fireroad kicks up again. Early on I have gears spare to drop down and spin. Later, I am already in those spinning gears. I’m not spinning. I smoother line sits on the right hand side. I stick to it like glue, except when I wander. I then curse myself for wasting more precious energy. It is at this point on my 18th lap that I look behind and see the rider in 5th place closing in on me. The are barely 20 metres between us. I’ve been in 4th ever since the first few laps.
It sounds perverse, but I didn’t enter this race to race. I knew that I wasn’t very fit, I knew that I didn’t have the miles in my legs, knew that if I tried to push too hard, I simply wouldn’t be able to finish. Therefore my entire game plan was to just ride. Be conservative, have fun and enjoy myself where I could, then suffer. Block out the pain, ignore the natural desire to stop, just keep riding. Apply a bit o mental fortitude. This plan was working beautifully. The first few hours went by in a blur of sheer, unadulterated fun. The climbs were merely challenging with fresh legs, the descents were equally challenging, but incredibly grin-inducing. I spent some time riding with Greg – generally climbing a little quicker than him early in the lap (probably down to my slightly stiffer gearing), then descending away – the FF29 inspiring confidence over the rough, high-speed trail centre plummets. He would then reel me back in while I recovered on the flatter section of the course. I wasn’t racing him, and I don’t think he was really racing me. We were just riding. A few laps in, I knew the pace was a little high for me, so I waved Greg on, and settled into a plod.
At some stage, Jenn told me that Greg was 3rd, and I was 4th, with a good cushion over 5th. I still didn’t want to race Greg. I still had so much to do to just finish and I was giving as much as could to just keep going. As I finished lap 17, every part of me just wanted to do one last lap. One to say thank you to the marshals, one to wave goodbye to each climb, each slippery rock, one thank you to each berm, jump and drop. 5th place had been riding well though, and I’d been resting longer between laps. He was catching me. Slowly, but very surely he was catching me. He arrived in his pits as I left for lap 18. I was almost certainly going to have to do two more. I didn’t want to race. Even with two hours to go, I didn’t know whether I’d be able to get around two more times. It felt so long, so far, so much. I was going to have to race.
When I saw the rider (Alex Watts of Flitch Bikes), my heart sank. He caught me so easily, I was so tired, I was beat. I would have taken 5th at the start, I’d have been overjoyed, but now it felt like a failure. I stood on the pedals and starred in front of me. I willed myself not to look back until I reached the top, and treated myself to a glimpse back, expecting him to be on my wheel. He’d dropped back. Actually Further Away. My arm-hairs bristled. Something clicked – a button that is deep down, hidden. It is big, red, and has one of those clear perspex boxes covering it. It probably has a sign above it saying, “DO NOT PRESS”. I pressed it. I smiled. I dropped like a stone.
He was gone when I looked back up the slope. Just not in sight, anywhere. I couldn’t relax, Greg always caught me up along the bottom of the course. I had to keep pushing. The layers that added comfort during the night were now suffocatingly hot. I fought to undo every zip while riding hard. I looked back more than I should. The view was always the same. I rode smoothly over every technical section, I caught and passed riders, I grimaced on short climbs, I raced. Final climb, just as the trail behind disappeared from view, I looked back once more, and there he was. Not close, but not far. A few minutes? Keep riding. Keep racing. Again, hairs bristled, I drank long and hard and kept pedalling. Simple… My pit stops had been getting long and lazy. I had been stepping off the bike, wrapping myself up and drinking soup. Not this time. I stopped, stripped layers, swapped bottles and went. It was afterwards that Al said, “if you’d tried to unclip your other foot, I was there to hit it back in”. I didn’t need anyone to motivate me. I knew what I had to do. I left the pits emptier than I have been for a long time, but full of purpose.
Back to the lap…
Fireroad climb doubles back to sandy singletrack, stretching above. I can see snow patches on the Ben, the view on the sunset lap will last with me for a long time. The remainder of the climb looks harder than it is, but tests weary legs. Cresting, there is no time to take in the view, I click down a few gears, and accelerate into a sandy, rocky, switchbacked descent. While fresh it is a playful, fun drop. Speed can be held through bermed corners, small jumps allow me to clear rocky sections, I place the bike where I want. Later, it hurts, I don’t have the confidence to take some of the lines, it beats me up more. My forearms get pumped and I stiffen up. Much later again, I rediscover my flow, bliss. Fireroad leads to more descending, becoming more technical as it drops back into the trees. Rocks become greasier, technical sections are taken at slower speeds. Absolute concentration is required. Not easy, but while I mess up sometimes, I never crash. I contour along the valley – woodwork, more fireroad, even a section of tarmac. Generally I find it hard to push any pace along these sections. I just spin away, enjoying a mental rest as much as a physical one. The only bit of fresh cut trail lays through a small section of trees. It is muddy, rooty, slippery, and has a tricky off-camber, then fall-line descent. Every time I mince my way down, thankful not to take the same spectacular OTB that I see Greg doing early on in the race. Irish men are sweary when they crash. The course cruelly returns to the pit area not once, but twice before a lap is completed. First time, I cling to some slippery singletrack along the back of the pits next to the Team JMC and Greg’s gazebos. I always get a shout from one of their supporters. I always try to respond. Try. A short, steep climb, lacking in any redeeming features leads to a a short downhill into on the last few rollers of the World Cup downhill course. I can’t help but drop off the last of them, requiring a quick adjustment and a knee out to squeeze round a tight corner at the bottom. One last climb. But what a climb it is. Up a blue descent, up steep berms. Up through trees, up to the top. Except it isn’t the top. There is more firetrack beyond. My mind aches. Everything aches. I’ve ridden some of the final descent before. On an 8inch travel downhill bike. To be fair, the FF29 isn’t too far out of its depth. Tuck, lean, float, brake, BRAKE, turn, traverse. Final, final descent. And what a way to finish. Steep, bermed, fast, just plain fun. I’m talking to myself. Reminding myself to focus. “Concentrate Tom”, “brake Tom”, “that left hand berm is next, Tom. The run-in is loose, so brake… now”. Every time, literally every single time, I get spat out onto the final straight, looking forward to riding it again. Finish: Except this time. I’ve spent all of my last lap looking back. Trying to pedal, feeling my strength drift away. Pushing, trying to stay smooth. As I passed the arena halfway round, the welcome sight of Jenn and Sarah tell me that 5th place took a long time in the pits. I just need to keep on moving. It sounds so simple. It is that simple. It’s just riding my bike. I ride my bike. I still pedal hard down the final straight. Not because I have to, but because I want to. I want to race. I am racing. I pump through the final lumps in the course, and cruise through the railings. People are clapping, the sun is out, people are smiling. I cross the finish line and slump over my bars. I want to just find Jenn, hug her, find Al, Sarah, Amy, Ali. Hug them. I’m lost in a sea of people. I hand over my timing chip in a daze and get given my commemorative beer and hat. I think I smile. I want to sit down – I don’t have the energy to process what is going on around me. Finally, I fight through and find the people who mean the most to me. The team that “solo” racing doesn’t give credit to. We worked together, we had fun, we kept on going, we won.
Afterwards: I had already decided I wasn’t going to do any more races for a while, long before lining up at WEMBO. I didn’t have the fight anymore. I don’t have the time to train. There are so many more important things in my life at the moment. I restated this to myself many, many times during the race. But, on the last couple of laps I changed my mind. I’ve rediscovered something that I thought I’d lost for good. I want to do it all over again this weekend. I want to feel the pain, feel the hopelessness of a hard night lap, I want to race again.
Jenn, Al and Sarah, Garage Bikes, Ali, Amy, Cybi.
Kinesis UK for the incredible Maxlight FF29 frame. Comfortable, light and and efficient from the 1st to the last lap.
Rachel, Ant and the rest of the AQR crew
Pauline for the cheers, Greg for the chats (and congrats on 3rd buddy – well deserved)
559 Bikes for their constant cheering
Team JMC, particularly Phil Simcock – who should have been racing elite, but broke his collarbone a few weeks ago.
Budge, Rich Rothwell, so many others for their good words on course.
Alex Watts for pushing me, and reminding me how to race.