Il Anno Duemila E Quindici Ventiquattro Ore Campionato Di Europa - Finale Ligure.

2015 European 24-Hour Championships - Finale Ligure





We were nearly there, approaching the final corner. Having been hurtling along as fast as we possibly could go for miles and miles we had almost made it, just this final right turn. I tucked in behind the guy in front, taking advantage of his slipstream. I positioned myself for the corner, getting ready to come off the power and apply the brakes. A quick glance over my shoulder, there was someone else approaching, fast, up the inside of me, determined to get round before me. The person in front was holding his line, three into one wouldn’t fit surely? I held my breath and went for it.

The car which was overtaking us by using the hard shoulder slipped through on the inside. We missed the lorry in front by inches and followed it down the slip road. We had done it, we had survived the Turin ring road. The race itself would be far less daunting.



We arrived at the track a couple of days early, in plenty of time for practice. The WEMBO European 24hr Championship took place from noon on Friday until the same time on Saturday, with the 24hrs of Finale team event starting at 2pm on Saturday and finishing on the Sunday afternoon. With only a few days to go the place was a hive of activity, there was a constant stream of car, lorries and little motorised rickshaws coming up the hill, as fast as they could go and with a complete disregard for anything which might be coming the other way, bringing the multitude of things required to stage the event.

There are many stereotypes of Italy, some positive, some less so, everything from their driving style to their food, their enthusiasm and their organisational ability. These are pretty much all true. Their ice-cream in particular has a very well deserved reputation and any spare moments we had during the preparations for the race was spent touring the nearby gelaterias.




By Thursday morning the main arena was taking shape, the stage was up, the marquees were being built, the portaloos and showers had all arrived and even the catering stands were under construction.
The track on the other hand appeared to be far from finished. To be honest, it was far from started. There were no arrows, tape or any other indication at all as to where we would be going. I had raced here twice before, the 2012 World Championship and the 2014 European Champs and so I was appointed as ‘Course Expert’ and nominated to take Matt Jones, who had arrived that morning, out for a quick spin to show him what was what. This was done mainly by guessing and trying to remember last year’s course, which we hoped would be the same for this year, or my previous few days of practice would have been wasted.

Matt was entering into the spirit of organised chaos which accompanies the event, something at which I usually excel, and he left his pit crew emptying his entire car looking for the key which locked his race-bike to the rack on the roof while he set off on his spare bike, which he had somehow managed to free.

There are a number of reasons why I love Finale so much and keep returning to it year after year. I am likely to talk a great deal here about how disorganised and chaotic everything is, which indeed it is, but I don’t hold this against it at all. As soon as the starting gun goes everything just seems to click into place and I think the stereotypically Italian levels of organisation just add to the atmosphere, everything is run pretty much entirely on enthusiasm rather than any coherent plan. I may be being slightly unfair here, I suspect that at least part of the reason why I had no idea what was going on most of the time was my fairly limited ability to speak Italian. It is full of people from all over Europe, most of whom come back time and time again so they are clearly doing something right.

Something which they get absolutely spot-on is the track itself and Matt professed himself to be very impressed with it and, despite the fact that this was the first time he had ever seen it, he was going around it surprisingly quickly. It is probably about 70-80% singletrack, a mix of twisty tracks through the trees and open cliff-top paths, dusty corners and loose rocks, through vineyards and passed an old ruined castle, down some interesting descents and up a couple of climbs which, although easy enough in practice, would undoubtedly get tougher as the race went on. The middle section of the course was an undulating fireroad which provided more than adequate opportunity for eating, drinking and of course overtaking.

There were also the rather spectacular views from the top of the cliffs down to the beaches and across the Mediterranean to the south and of the mountains of Ligure to the north. From the very top of the course, at the summit of the long meandering climb and just before the famous Corkscrew descent, it was possible to see both at once if you could take your eyes off the rocky ground without ending up in a heap at the side of the track.



Gina found this little chap crawling around in the bags of spare
clothes in the pits and announced this fact by making the special
'I've just nearly trodden on a scorpion' squealy-noise. He is shown
here in an empty beer glass, which we used to carry him to the hedge.

We decided that we would assemble our pits the day before the race in order to keep to a minimum the amount of work to do before the start on Friday. This was not as simple as it sounds. Everyone had been allocated a 3x3 meter pitch within easy reach of the track, the solos getting the trackside spots and the teams further back. There was a map showing which spot each person had been allocated, all very logical and sensible. However, there appeared to be only one of these maps, on a scruffy piece of paper, carried around by a lovely young lady who was very helpful, but almost impossible to find. I eventually caught up with her and found that our pit spot was in Ranch C, number 47. Ranch C was very easy to locate, there was a big, unmissable sign saying ‘Ranch C.’ Pit 47 was much less easy to spot as the only one which appeared to be numbered was 63. I had to find her again to have another look at the map.


The main Finale to Nolli road was kept clear throughout the event and
 at no stage during the weekend became a huge 3 mile long car-park.

Matt, one of the other three British riders, had booked a gazebo and a table and chairs and things to go in his pit next-door to mine. There was an easy-up being built in the pit to our left and another behind, but neither of these looked like they would be his. I eventually managed to track down the helpful young lady again, who told us that the best place to enquire about the gazebo would be in the restaurant, the main building on the site and the place from which everything seemed to be run. We eventually managed to find someone in the there who said that the people manning the registration desk would be able to provide us with the required tent. They were closed for lunch when we went to ask them, at about half past ten, and remained closed for lunch until well after three.


We went back to ask after we had completed the practice lap, and a lap of the team course as well just because it was so much fun, and were told by the people in the registration tent that the best place to ask about the gazebo would be in the restaurant. We went back there again and were told that we should ask in the registration tent. We pointed out that we had just come from there and so Riccardo was summoned on the radio.

Riccardo is brilliant. There is a huge team of people who put this event together but it seems like he organises most things singlehanded, running around looking like he has some of hyperactivity disorder for the week leading up to the race, the answer to almost every question anyone asked anyone would be ‘ask Riccardo.’ He’s a lovely chap, always cheerful and very friendly, even at 4am, and seems to be genuinely delighted that so many people from all over the place come to the race and enjoy it so much. He appears to know all of them personally and makes a point of having a chat with as many as he possibly can. The world needs more people like Riccardo.

Anyway, he did indeed know where the pit-tents were, and lead us to a pile of them from which we could help ourselves, none of the neat regimented rows of pre-built pits as provided by the likes of CORC or NoFuss. There is also no parking near the majority of the pits and, as we were unsure which track layout would be used, we had booked one which would afford us the possibility of two passes through the pits if the longer layout were to be used, rather than vehicle access. As it turned out the short course was the one for the solo’s race, the same as last year’s European Championship, with the longer one as used at the 2012 World Championship being used for the team race. Every solo racer would therefore only pass their pit once regardless of where they were pitched. This wasn’t a big problem, it just meant bringing the van up to the field to unload everything before taking it back to park on the road out of the way, something I managed to do without smashing the sump to bits on a log this time, a big improvement over last year’s effort. Some of the regulars had this off to a fine art, bringing huge sack-trucks to allow them to wheel their fridges and sofas from the vans up to the pits.

I was slightly less well prepared and spent the evening dismantling and reassembling my forks in an attempt to work out exactly what the fluid coming up through the seal on the top of the left leg was.
After dinner the night before the race. Well prepared...

The other Brits had all arrived by this stage. Richard Dunnett and Alex Nickol were camping in Ranch D along with their pit crew. Pitting for us we had Gina, my other half, Sarah, Matt’s wife, and her parents Mick and Nicky who had come along for a holiday, along with Antony, Celia, Ross and Rich who would be doing the team race which followed our event. Oddly enough it turns out that I was at school with Antony nearly twenty years ago. They had all got posh hotels down in Finale whereas Gina and I had the back of the van at the racetrack. I think the lie-in was worth the absence of an en-suite. I’m sure Gina thought this too…

My first breakfast on the morning of the race was the usual porridge and banana before we returned to the pits to finish the last minute preparations, putting numbers on the bikes, mixing my bottles of Torq, that sort of thing. We realised that Matt had forgotten to collect his table and bench but there were some useful bits of furniture laying in the hedge near our pits and so we retrieved these and made ourselves comfortable while I had a second breakfast of scrambled eggs.

Before


The pre-race briefing rather surprisingly began on time, at 11am in the main arena, and was conducted in Italian, German and English. Most people seemed to know what was going on but there were some important details which everyone would need to know, for example the fact that the start would be in Nolli, a lovely medieval town several miles away on the seafront to the east.

Erm, hang on a minute…

We were actually one step ahead of the game here and already knew this, our Catalan friends Carolina and Marcel had informed us of this the day before. To be fair an email had been sent out to all competitors which did mention this detail but that wasn’t until the Wednesday and we had already been away from home for five days by then and so this small but vital detail had completely passed us by until it was casually mentioned in conversation.

There were eight or nine official campsites dotted around the course, along with a vast number of ad-hoc unofficial ones wherever there was room to put a couple of tents, but seeing everyone together in the arena for the briefing really brings home just how big this event is. There were 230 of us racing plus of course the innumerable pit crews, marshals, photographers, medics and various other spectators, the place was heaving.

The course appeared to be still under construction somewhere behind us, we could hear the sound of hedges being cut back with chainsaws and a complete disregard for health and safety regulations as we left the arena and set off towards Nolli.

Nolli. The really pretty buildings are just behind us



One of the sponsors of the event was Fiat, who were keen to promote their new Doblo Sport, and so we followed one down the twisty mountain road to the town, apart from the slight detour where some roadworks necessitated carrying our bikes up some stairs, over a wall and across a drainage channel, a route which seemed to flummox the little Fiat somewhat.

A second mini-briefing was conducted in the main square of the town and the riders were then called up one by one to take their place on the start line. It wasn’t technically a line, or anything even remotely resembling one, just a mass of people forming behind the official Fiat which had somehow appeared in the square behind us, all of us looking increasingly nervous as the midday start time approached.

No matter how many 24hr races I do I still get nervous, this would be my 10th and all of the previous ones had just served to remind me exactly how much doing one hurts.

As I understood it, from a briefing conducted 50 yards away in a foreign language through a megaphone, the start would be lead out by the new Doblo which would then peel off after a certain distance, after which we would follow the motorbike up the hill to the racetrack.

I thought I had got a spot at the front, just behind the car but a large mass of riders then decided to extend the front row around to my right. It doesn’t matter, it’s a long race.





One minute to go. The tension in the air was palpable, riders fidgeting nervously as the countdown began. The car driver still seemed to be working out if his vehicle would actually fit down the extremely narrow, but extremely pretty, street and the photographer looked like he was wondering if he would get bounced out of the back if he sat in the rear with tailgate open.

Cinque!
Quattro!
Tre!
The countdown was almost being drowned out the sound of a couple of hundred shoes being clipped into pedals as the mass of riders began creeping forwards, everyone keen to get a good start but no-one wanting to look like they were jumping it too much.
Due!
Uno!
Vai, vai, vai!

The official Fiat set off down the little street, at a remarkably sedate pace for an Italian driver, riders jostling for position behind it, trying as best they could to avoid all the tables and chairs of the cafes and gelaterias which had been pulled over to the side, along with all of their customers who had come to cheer us off.

 We're off! The arch of the town wall is just about visible
in front of the little Fiat at the head of the procession.



It was only a short street, 70 or 80 yards, then under the impressive arch of the original town walls, picking up a bit more speed as the road widened, then…what?

Good question, then what?

The car carried straight on, the motorbike gunned it’s engine and shot off to our left as fast as it possibly could. Some riders went with the Fiat, some with the motorbike. There was a lot of excited shouting and some very tight cornering by those behind the car as they performed a very abrupt turn and set off after the motorbike. I was far enough back, 20 places or so from the front, to be able to see what was going on ahead and so I turned left over the bridge and accelerated after them.

This wasn’t quite the neutralised start I had been expecting, we were flat out from this corner all the way along the side of the river until we turned left again and began to climb.

This was quite some hill. It was just about wide enough for two bikes in most places, the hillside rising up above us through the trees to our left and dropping away quite severely to our right, sometimes with little fences, mostly without. I had long since lost sight of the motorbike but occasionally heard it’s exhaust reverberating around the forest as it struggled up the hill. If a 250cc MX bike was struggling like that no wonder I was finding it hard going! On the bright side everyone else seemed to be struggling too and I was actually managing to make up a few places when the track widened enough to let me pass.

There were the occasional patches of loose stones, scree which had fallen down the hillside, tree-roots and some extremely tight switch-backs. If anyone lost grip and spun-out out they would come to a very abrupt stop, bringing the line of riders behind them to a halt too. It was steep enough that getting started again was really difficult and I found myself running a couple of short sections. We even managed to catch up with the motorbike again as he struggled on one particularly tight uphill hairpin before he managed to find some grip and shot off into the distance again.

It was over 900ft up from the start to where we joined the main racetrack, it was a huge relief to finally emerge from the dense forest onto the fireroad and turn right, the motorbike rider, some marshals and a little group of spectators cheering us on. This relief was pretty short lived as I realised where we were, this was the start of the fireroad section which, although undulating, was mostly a climb, right up until the point where we turned right and onto the main singletrack climb.

The way to get up that was to charge at it like a cow in a crockery emporium in order to clear the slab of rock and then the section of pointy rocks which made up the first eight or ten feet and then settle into a rhythm and pick your way through the bigger rocks as you zigzagged your way up the hill to the summit. However, with everyone still so close together charging at the lower section was tricky at best and there was a bit of shoulder-banging as we made our way up the rest of it.



With my lungs and legs screaming at me I finally made it to the top and could begin to regroup. The Corkscrew descent which follows is the one which features in all of the videos of the race, a series of berms and switchback which plummets down from the highest point of the course through the trees to the vineyard at the bottom. There are a couple of rocky sections near the top which can be difficult in the middle of the night when you have lost all feeling in your arms but most of the time it is a hoot to ride. The lower section opens up a lot and has some very big berms where the spectators gather on the banking to drink beer and cheer very loudly any time anyone makes any attempt to go up the sides of these or even just lift a wheel off the ground over one of the roots. It is floodlit overnight and this constant cheering and shouting in about seventeen different languages is a huge boost during the wee small hours.



It was only at the bottom of the corkscrew that the course deviated slightly from last year, a new path had been cut through the hedges with the chainsaws, recently enough that a multitude of little twigs covered in thorns were still strewn all over the track. This brought us out in the lower campsite from where a short tarmac section took us to the vineyard and through the greenhouse (it was properly hot in there!), the other side of which was the timing equipment.

We were using the new-fangled technology of chip-timing to ensure split-second accuracy and up-to the minute information on positions and lap times. More on that later…



Elena Novikova  chased by Carolina Casacuberta


Through the main arena, up the ramp onto the stage, then we looped around behind it and along the north side of the campsite. This was a slight problem as it didn’t actually go passed our pits. As the crow flies it took us to within about six yards of our camp, but it was the other side of a very tall, very dense hedge. I could manage perfectly well without a pit-stop on this first lap, having taken a extra bottle of Torq down to Nolli to drink before the start I still had most of one left on my bike and three gels in my pocket but it would become an issue at some point. I just kept my speed up and ploughed on through. Matt had done the same a few seconds before and our respective pit crews had realised what was going on.

I kept my speed up on the second lap and made up a couple of places, I was feeling good and the warm conditions suited me perfectly. As I was coming round to the pits for the second time there was someone showing me where to go. At the boundary of Ranches B and C was a small path through the hedge after which a tight left took me right passed our pit, before the route rejoined the main track on the other side of Ranch D, next to where Richard and Alex were based.  On this second lap I just took a bottle of Torq on the move and carried on, just missing getting caught up in the guy-ropes of the tent belonging to the rest of Team GB. I was moving too quickly to be able to hear very well but I’m sure I heard Gina shouting something about a table.

The third lap was remarkably consistent with the first two, I was still feeling good and moving quickly. Because of the long climb up to the first lap it was only half way round the third circuit that I began lapping people, starting with a huge line of them on the uphill singletrack section along the cliff top, just about wide enough for two bikes, if the overtakee was fairly compliant, although there was a very substantial drop to the right down through the rocks towards the sea if anyone got it wrong.





I paused briefly in the pit at the end of that lap to stuff some food into my pockets and deposit some empty gel wrappers. Gina said that the people camped across the track from us had been over to try to get ‘their’ table back.

On my next pass through the pits she said that they had been over again, and once more on the following lap, before I came through the next time and saw that there was no longer the large table in our pits and that the floor was strewn with piles of food and cooking equipment.

Apparently things had been getting a little heated. They were adamant that it was ‘their’ table and, despite the fact they were doing the team event the following day and so would not be needing it until after our race had finished, were determined to have it. A little argy-bargy and some shouting ensued before it was eventually relinquished in order to keep the peace. It was all much more convivial out on the track though, everyone was quite jolly and encouraging each other up the hills.



It was about 6pm when I was overtaken by the defending champion, Austrian Rudolf Springer. I had been expecting him to pass me about then, but I had anticipated that I would be lapped rather than merely overtaken. He had a load of dust down his left side and a fair amount of undergrowth wrapped around his rear hub, he had obviously made an error somewhere and ended up in the dirt. I managed to stay with him for quite a while, much longer than I thought I would be able to, he was clearly not having a good race. He eventually retired after 17 laps with stomach problems.

Daniel Schmidheiny

The race itself was wide open. The defending champion had been out of contention almost from the outset but two other riders were battling hard at the front, Morgan Pilley and Daniel Schmidheiny, who has joint British and Swiss nationality, the later with a point to prove after his DNF at the World Championships last year. Despite being a resident of Italy the fact that he is an Australian meant that no matter how well he did in the race Morgan could not win the European title, but this wasn’t about to stop the two of them giving it everything they had in attempt to win the race. There was another group of pretty quick riders not too far behind, including World number 7 Enaras Sulskus of Lithuania, the over-30 age-group World Champion, Belgian Alexis Matthys, and Britain’s Richard Dunnett who had taken bronze at last year’s World Championship, all battling for the final place on the podium, maybe more if one of the leaders let their guard down even for a moment.
Morgan at the top of the climb, someone going a bit
less rapidly behind him

From my practice laps earlier in the week I knew that lights would be required from about 9pm onwards, certainly in the darkness of the trees, a little later out in the open. However, the rules stated that lights had to be carried on all laps started after 7:30, which was probably sensible, a mechanical problem or a crash could easily see a lap started after that time finishing in the dark.

Not needing the full power of my Exposure MaxxD I just grabbed my Joystick in order to stay within the rules and set off again. It doesn’t weigh much at all and would be plenty bright enough should I need it. I put the MaxxD on two laps later, or more accurately Gina clipped it into place and gave my chain a quick lube while I swallowed some more rice-pudding.



The all singing, all dancing chip-timing system was not proving to be the success everyone had hoped. The chips themselves seemed to be working fine, there was a reassuring beep every time I crossed the line at the end of a lap, and also when I passed one of the other sensors dotted around the track to ensure that no sneaky short-cuts were being taken. The problem was in the production of the actual results. In previous years there had been an enormous screen just after the line which would flash up my lap-time and total time every time I passed it and also show me the details of the previous half-dozen riders who had come through. There had also been a smaller screen for the pit-crews to come and look at which would scroll through the full standings to allow them to see exactly what was going on.

Both of these things were absent this year and no-one had any idea who was where. Every few hours some printouts would be produced and put up on a notice board near the restaurant but that was as much as we had. There was also supposed to be a website where those of us who had a laptop in the pits could have live timing information right in front of us, and people at home could follow our progress, but this never worked.

A quick stop for a Torq bar

This particular pit-stop was just after one of these sporadic updates had been posted and I was informed that I was running in 19th overall, and 10th in my age group. I was fairly happy with this, I had finished 19th last year but had made up places in the closing stages so I was confident that I could better it this year.

I set off again, still surprising myself by just how quickly I was going at this stage of the race, my 15 laps so far had all been between 29 and 36 minutes, as timed by Gina and noted on the big piece of cardboard, and I was feeling good.
 


My gears had been skipping for a couple of laps, I had tried to fix them by twiddling the barrel-adjuster on the shifter which was about all I could do on the move but without much in the way of success. The problem didn’t seem to be costing me much speed so I just ignored it.

However…

At about 9pm I reached the bottom of the long, winding climb and attacked the rocks at the bottom as usual: carry plenty of speed off the fire-road, a little flick right and then left, change down a couple of gears, brake, turn right, up the slab on the left-hand side, drop another couple of gears, that didn’t feel quite right, move the front wheel over to the right, aiming for the gap between the two largest pointy-rocks, lift the front and give it plenty of power.

There was a horrible noise from the back of the bike as the rear wheel locked up and I came to a very abrupt stop. I leapt off, dragging my bike over to the side of the track, out of the way of the stream of riders. Crouching down next to it I could see the rear mech had gone through the back wheel, I reached up and flicked the shifter a couple of times. Nothing. I pulled at the mech, trying in vain to free it. I could see by this stage that the cage was quite badly distorted, both plates had split and were at quite an angle. This was going nowhere.

Matt was one of the multitude of riders who came passed me while I was sitting there swearing at it. The correct etiquette in these type of races is to check that the rider isn’t hurt, which he did, and if not just leave them to it, which he did. There was nothing he could have done and it was better that he carried the message back to the pits to let them know what had happened.

I continued my struggle with it. The only thing I could do to free the mech from the wheel was to remove the chain, but the split link had stopped just inside the front mech and of the course the chain wouldn’t move to make it more accessible. I eventually managed to get the chain apart and stuffed it into my pocket. I pulled the mech out of the wheel and gave it a quick spin. Remarkably every single spoke had survived intact.

I was about three quarters of the way around what is a fairly short lap. I could make a singlespeed out of the remains but that would probably take longer than just running back to the pits where the spare bike would be waiting for me.

I actually managed to re-pass a couple of riders as I ran up the big climb, although more came passed me than I overtook. I leapt back onto the bike at the top and scooted it along the relatively flat section, pushing with one foot on the ground, before jumping off again at the top and running with it up to the top of the Corkscrew.

 Being overtaken as I ran up the climb




Freewheeling down the descent was interesting. It is steep enough that a lot of pedalling isn’t normally required, although I did then find myself playing a game of ‘Don’t Brake Unless I’m About To Die’ in an attempt to keep my speed up since I knew I wouldn’t be able to accelerate to get over the humps at the bottom. The feeling of having no resistance under my feet is always a little disconcerting but I made it down OK, scooted through the thorn-covered field at the bottom and down the drop into the lower campsite before leaping off again and running up through the vineyard to the pits.

Matt had indeed passed the message on and my spare bike was ready and waiting. Ross leapt to his feet to volunteer as mechanic, as I tried to explain things to him as best I could in my breathless state. ‘There’s a spare mech in the blue box. There’s some cables in the red box and a hanger in one of them, I can’t remember which.’

For some reason we had only been provided with one number-board, rather than the usual two or even three, and so Gina was busy moving this across to the spare bike while I was trying to swallow a whole tin of rice pudding in one go.

Exposure have a very clever mounting system which means that it takes less than a second to fit a light to a bike, and not much more to remove it. Unfortunately I only have one of the brackets (note to self: ask for another one) and it took a minute or so to move that over to the hardtail. The handy Mt Zoom strap thingy made moving the spare tube and tyre levers across a doddle.

I jumped onto it, about to head out, when I heard Ross’s voice behind me shouting something about a chain. Oh yes, that was still in my pocket! Good thing he was more awake than me.

Ant and Ross assessing the damage.

On a single lap the hardtail was pretty quick around the track, but I’m not sure that I could have stood it for the whole 24hrs. It also didn’t help that by the time I got to the fire-road I had got a stitch, although whether this was due to the running or a surfeit of rice-pud I’m not entirely sure.

Anyway, I arrived back in the pits, my full-suss waiting by the side of the track, ready to go. Gina resumed her lights and number duties while I had a ginger Torq bar and then some extra chrystalised ginger to try to settle my stomach before shouting a thank-you to Ross and heading out again.

With time to make up I was really pushing it for a couple of laps and when I completed a lap not long after midnight I was told that that one of the updates had recently been posted on the notice board and I had been in 25th place last time through.



This is how spectators should be, nothing like 
a Mexican wave to get you around a corner

Gina had been over to the restaurant a few times as it was running an all-night buffet, looking for little treats for me. She was feeding them to me at sporadic intervals, deserts which provide that all important psychological boost. The panecotta was lovely, and the tiramisu was also pretty good, although she had been struggling with ordering tiramisu in Italian. I know, I thought that was the Italian word for it too. Her difficulties may have had more to do with the old man at the counter being a bit mutton, and the food ordering system being as random as everything else. I had hours of fun trying to get a couple of pains au chocolat for breakfast after the race. Although the chocolate flan I ended up with was excellent it wasn’t quite what I had in mind.  There was also plenty of free pasta for every competitor, but finding it was a bit like finding the tent, going from one catering establishment to another and back again several times before eventually tracking it down in the marquee at the back near the bar.

Anyway, back to the race.



Having got myself back up into a sensible position, on a now flawless bike thanks to Ross, fate decided that this just wasn’t on and so all of the air came out of my front tyre, helped by one of the little thorns the chainsaws had left across the trail. It only looked to be flat at the bottom but I still decided that it would be best to fix it.

Matt was one of the multitude of riders who came passed me while I was sitting there swearing at it. The correct etiquette in these type of races is to check that the rider isn’t hurt, which he did, and if not just leave them to it, which he did. (spotted the copy and paste there! Did he pass you every time you broke somethig? – Ed).

Normally mending a flat would take about three minutes but with my fingers refusing to bend into anything other than the shape of a handlebar it took rather longer than that this time. The handy Mt Zoom strap thingy can be undone easily with numb digits but the gas cylinder was a bit less compliant and it took nearly nine minutes for me to be under way again.


I was getting slower as the night was wearing on, the lack of any long rides in the last few months was starting to tell. My right calf was really starting to hurt from about 3am. It would sort of move, the up and down motion hurt but it would do it if I really made it, although I could feel that there was a noticeable lack of power in it. I kept going but in my tired state all I could think about was the ending of the film 24 Solo (which is brilliant, if you haven’t seen it you should, it tells the story of the very exciting 2006 World Championship) in which Craig Gordon has a problem with his calf, which then becomes rhabdomyolysis as the lactic acid gets into his blood-stream and leads to him spending two days on dialysis during an extended stay in hospital. Logic was telling me that this wasn’t going to happen to me but the pain in my leg was telling me otherwise. Unlike Craig I wasn’t fighting for a world title but I still gritted my teeth and kept going.

Gina did her best to help with a couple of leg massages and some Tiger-Balm, which worked surprisingly well and kept me moving. I may have a said a few silly things at this point of the race, I think I even suggested that I might not do another 24. They never seem like a good idea while they are in progress but for whatever reason I always find myself coming back for more.

I knew dawn was approaching and it is always a massive boost to see the sun come up again. It’s just psychological but it really does make everything feel better. My brain also starts to think weird things like “nearly there.” Erm, no, there’s still seven hours to go…



'Breakfast' time. 
Bananas and custard, sometimes I just need something warm

One person whom the sunrise didn’t benefit was Richard. As I came through the pits at about 6:30am I saw him laying there, very still, just outside his tent, his pit crew standing over him making concerned noises. He had been going very well until this point but the effort had clearly taken it’s toll, he didn’t look at all well.

He was still in exactly the same position when I came through again about 45 minutes later. He made it no further, it was race over for him.

Me trying to keep up with Richard earlier on, 
he was pretty quick while he was still moving

 
He was followed just before 8am by Alex. I have no idea what happened to her, she was at least still capable of standing when I last saw her, although she had gone a funny colour and seemed to being having difficulty talking. She had however done enough by this stage to hold onto a top-10 place.

I had got myself back up to 19th place again and 10th in my age-group. Matt had taken over duties as top-Brit from Richard, if you don’t count Daniel, who was still giving it everything he had trying to keep up with Morgan at the front. Matt was definitely in contention for a top-10 finish and maybe even a podium in his age-group.



Matt Jones. This is his spare bike but he didn't do the 
whole race on it, he had managed to get his race bike 
off the roofrack eventually!  


By this stage my calf had improved to the point where it was no longer my most painful body part, this honour now went to the tendons in my left forearm. As well as making it quite tricky to even hold onto the bars it was also making it next to impossible to use the rear brake, every time I squeezed the lever the pain would shoot up from my hand to my elbow, which also seemed to have stopped bending and was now fixed in position. This is all fairly normal for a 24hr race and nothing to worry about at all, I’m sure everyone else had similar problems at some stage, the human body just isn’t designed to maintain that sort of effort for that length of time and bits of it tend to stop working if you try to make it do it.

Last year I had got a second wind somewhere near the end of the event but there was no such luck this time, every lap was harder than the last but the end was now in sight.


Looking as tired as I felt


I crossed the line just after 11:30am and set off again for what I thought would be my final lap.

There was a bit of confusion about the finish. I knew it would be a ‘Long 24’, where all laps started within 24hrs count, rather than the ‘Short 24’ where only laps completed within 24hrs count, a small but important difference. However, last year it was a third format which I had not seen before and which I will call a ‘Very Long 24’, the riders would finish only after the winner had finished after 24hrs, which resulted in me starting an unexpected extra final lap at about 24 hours and 10 minutes... I had tried to find out if it would be the same again this year but no-one really seemed to know.



Morgan Pilley had finally managed to get a gap over Daniel Schmidheiny, not enough that he could afford to take it easy, but enough to avoid the sprint-finish which is so hard at the end of these events. Morgan won the race but because of his Australian passport it was Daniel who was the European Champion, something for everyone, it was a fitting end to a great contest between two top racers. I had been lapped by them both a few times, as had everyone else, even third placed Enaras Sulskus, but both had been great, an encouraging word for everyone they passed and never once forgetting a word of acknowledgement when someone moved over to make it easy for them to pass.

Enaras was second in the European Championship, just ahead of German Kai Saaler,

Daniel (left) and Morgan, looking far too fresh after the finish

Matt had moved up a few places in the closing stages and took a fantastic 7th overall, which was of course 6th in the Euros, and also got him the final podium spot in the 20-29 age-group.

Fortunately for me Morgan had crossed the line not long after noon and so my last lap was in fact my last lap, I crossed the line for the thirty-fifth and final time at 24hr 24m, receiving the customary congratulatory handshake from Riccardo and Lorenzo, both still full of boundless enthusiasm despite having been working really, really hard for many, many weeks and as far as I could tell being awake for about the last four straight days.



Approaching the finish

I was 24th overall and 8th in the 30-39 age-group. I had lost a few places in the closing stages and was five places further back than I had been last year, but I was still happy with how I had ridden. I had known that I would struggle, moving house and changing jobs have taken up far too much time this year and I knew I hadn’t spent nearly enough time training. I had just come along for the fun of it, because Finale is always such a great race, and I had indeed thoroughly enjoyed it, which I count as a success regardless of the result.



After. And no, I wouldn't be able to stand without Gina there!

Mick and Gina carried me back to the pits and put me into a chair, from which I upgraded myself to the inflatable mattress in the middle of the pit, where I went to sleep and got in everyone’s way for a few hours, sadly missing Matt’s moment of glory collecting his medal.

As I was drifting off I was vaguely aware of the conversation around me. The others were preparing for the start of the team race in about an hour and were debating whether it was going to start in the main arena at the venue or down at the sea front in Finale. It seems that no-one really knew what was going on….


Epilogue.

The race at Finale is indeed as chaotic as everyone says it is, always has been and probably always will be. However, this should really not been seen as a bad thing, it is very much a part of the experience. It really is the best venue I have ever competed at in my seventeen years of racing. It is a huge amount of fun and I would very much encourage everyone to go at least once. The 2017 WEMBO World Championship will take place there, that’s a good an excuse as any to head over.

There are the races themselves, three days of non-stop racing, not only the two 24s but also the running race and the triathlon, along with the three days of drinking and slightly iffy Dutch heavy metal bands for the spectators, but if you can do as we did and make a fortnight of it, there is so much else there. The beaches and mountains of Ligure, the ice-creams (which are worth the journey on their own), the medieval towns with their multitude of little cafes and piazzas, the near-death experiences while scrumping for lemons, the scorpions in the campsite and a lot of very, very lovely people.



Results:

Men
1.         Morgan Pilley             Australia                     Race winner
2.         Daniel Schmidheiny   Switzerland/UK          European Champion
3.         Enaras Sulskus           Lithuania
4.         Kai Saaler                   Germany
5.         Marco Oliveira           Italy
6.         Alexis Matthys           Belgium
7.         Matthew Jones            UK
8.         Uros Breski                 Italy
9.         Christian Ragnoli       Italy
10.       Tiziano Carraro          Italy

17.       Valter Vallarino         Italy                             Singlespeed Champion

24.       Andrew Howett          UK


Women
1.         Elena Novikova          Ukraine                       European Champion
2.         Gaia Ravaioli              Italy
3.         Guiliana Massarotto   Italy
4.         Eva Funfgeld              Germany
5.         Ausilia Vistarini         Italy                             Singlespeed Champion
6.         Elisabetta Bertok        Italy
7.         Elena Perin                 Italy
8.         Carolina Casacuberta Catalonia                   Singlespeed
9.         Alex Nickol                UK
10.       Annalisa D’Eliso        Italy


Special thanks to:
The usual suspects, XCRacer/Scimitar, Mt Zoom, Exposure and Torq who have all been brilliant, as well as to Riccardo and all of his team for putting on such a fantastic event.
However, I would like to save the biggest thank-yous for the guys and girls in the pits; Antony, Ross, Celia and Rich (who even at the time of writing still don’t know where they finished in the team race), Mick, Nicky, Sarah and especially Gina without whom none of this would have been possible.

The pictures are by Gina, Mick and myself, but mostly from Sportograf.


What's Up Doc?

Singlespeed European Championship 2010

Just catching up on some old race reports I never published at the time...

The 2010 Singlespeed European Championships were held in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire. This isn’t too far from where I live and, never having raced at a European Championship before, it would be awfully rude of me not to have a go. The entry criteria fo this event were nice and simple, first come first served until it’s full.

For those of you unfamiliar with the SSEC, or indeed it’s bigger cousin the SSWC, an explanation: Yes, there is a bike race going on, and a fairly big one at that with a couple of hundred competitors from all over the continent, but this is very much a secondary activity to the beer festival which takes place before, during and after the race.


I had a singlespeed but it was really just a hack-bike for pootling to and from work on, so a much better one was hastily cobbled together out of my hardtail with the added addition of some plastic water pipe to space out the freewheel around the lone sprocket.

We all gathered in the field next to the pub which had been brave enough to host us and had our evening meal and a lot of beer there. Probably a little more beer than I really should have done, but I was just trying to enter into the spirit of the event, and I was still some way behind most of the others. 


Numbers were slightly down as Eyjafjallaj√∂kull had erupted in Iceland and brought most of the flights around Europe to a stop. A number of competitors were already in the UK by the time that happened so they were fine, although getting home again may have been tricky… Those already booked on ferries would also have been OK but anyone forced to change plans at the last minute would have been in trouble. Quite a few didn’t make it all although I did meet a bunch of Italians who had driven for about 20hrs from southern Italy after their flight was cancelled and got the ferry from Blibao to Plymouth, realising there was no point even attempting to get to Calais.
On the Saturday morning, for those who had only drunk too much beer the night before rather than far, far too much, there was a guided ride around the forest, which was a lot of fun, although as I found out later showed us none of the course at all.

We were back at the pub in time for dinner and even more beer. I’m a complete lightweight as far as drinking goes and was already starting to struggle.

There was roller-racing in the pub itself, which I think the crowd enjoyed much more than the competitors. Sprinting as hard as you possibly can, even for 30 seconds, really hurts if you do it properly.  There was also an enormous cheeseboard, everyone attending had been told to bring some cheese so there was a vast selection from right across Europe.


It was of course another late night.

There was beer for breakfast and then we were all taken to where the race would begin, somewhere deep in the forest.

It was a running start, half a mile or so, down to where we had left the bikes. This favoured me as I can run reasonably well and so I was 4th when I found mine and set off on the course proper. This wasn’t necessarily as easy as it sounds as while we had been making our way up to the start line the organisers had been busy moving everyone’s bikes around and no-one had a clue where theirs was.

The course itself was a lot of fun, all rideable even on a singlespeed, although there were a couple of tough hills, but the swoopy singletrack was a hoot to ride. There were also a number of clumps of yellow plastic bush-like things dotted around, all helpfully labled as 'Updoc.' I had no what that was either, it wasn't until after the race when there were a couple of hundred riders gathered around the bar all saying 'What's up doc?' to each other that it clicked...

This was the first time I had raced a singlespeed and I got on fine with it, on a course like that I don’t think there would have been that much of a difference to a geared bike, I found racing a bike without any suspension at the back much odder than riding one without being able to change gear.

There was also something which I had not seen at a race before, a bar on the racetrack. This was located next to the finish line but was serving right from the outset rather than after the race had finished. It was mainly populated by spectators to begin with but every time I came around to start another lap there were more and more competitors there, drinking yet more beer.

I’m not sure how many of us actually made it around the stipulated four laps, and how many succumbed to the temptations of the drinking and merriment as they passed the makeshift pub. I did make to the end before I stopped to join in, taking just over 3 hours. I knew I was 12th, from keeping track of who I had passed and who had passed me. I had only been doing this to monitor my progress as I would in any other race but it turns out this was the only way I would get a true result, the organisers only counted the first 3 in and then called everyone else ‘Joint 4th’. Matt Page and Mel Alexander were our new champions

So what did I think? I was joint 4th in first ever European Championship. I’m happy with that. Time for a celebratory beer I think. 




Stories From Last Summer - 2014 Manx 100


With the imminent approach of this year’s Manx 100 I thought it was about time that I gave you a brief run-down on last year’s event, I know Nigel will be keen to get as many people over for the next installment as he can. He seems to be pretty successful so far, in 2014 there were about three times as many entries as there were for the inaugural event of 2013.

One notable absentee was defending champion Richard Rothwell, who, having survived the West Highland Way ‘Race’ intact then broke himself quite badly during a gentle pootle on the road bike. He was ‘quite cross’ (my words, not his! He used slightly different ones…) to miss not only this but also the European 24hr at Finale Ligure. This left the race wide open, although the smart money was on  Jason Miles




Signing on the night before was in the commentary box of the TT race. Even for those of us who are not huge motorbike fans it was pretty exciting to have backstage access to this prestigious venue. It was also pretty exciting to start the race in the pit lane right in front of the Grandstand before we were lead out onto the course and along the start/finish straight.

We followed the police motorbikes along the TT route for a couple of miles before we turned left and left that race-track and head out onto our own. 

In keeping with the previous event this first turn basically found a very big hill and pointed us straight at the top. This sort of thing carried on for more less the whole race, straight up, straight down, then straight back up again. The Isle of Man isn’t huge but it is mostly hilly and as you can see from the course profile there are not many flat bits in the event. In fact at 16,000ft there was over 1,000ft more climbing, and of course descending, than last year. 


I was riding with a good bunch early on, including newly-crowned European 24hr singlespeed champion Jon Hobson and my nemesis from last year Stephen Kelly, but two punctures meant that I lost touch with them after a couple of hours.

I wasn’t the only one struggling though, I was quite surprised about 6hrs in when Jason Miles came hurtling passed me to take 14th place. I had no idea he was even behind me at that point, I wonder when I had overtaken him?

I caught him and Jon again where the course split, the men being separated from the boys as the riders faced the choice of the full 100 miles (actually just over 104) or the shorter 100km routes. I set off down the route taken by the real men, or at least those who still had plenty of time until their ferry departed, while they finished eating and then took the shorter option. It was nice to be able to make the decision at this point, rather than having to commit when entering the race weeks before, full of bravado about the distance and climbing and uncertainty about the weather.


As far as I know Jon is the first, and so far only, person ever to attempt this race on a singlespeed, and he had intended to do the full 100 miles. The fact that he took the 100km option means that the title of first person ever to complete it on one is still up for grabs.

There are time limits on various sections to prevent riders still being out in the middle of nowhere long after darkness has fallen so anyone trying this will need to be pretty rapid, it’s hard enough on a geared bike.

My race took a turn for the worse shortly after the split. Coming down a particularly difficult narrow rocky descent into St. Johns I performed an unplanned frontal dismount and landed on my head and my knee, the latter hurting considerably more as this didn’t benefit from a helmet. The bike landing on me also hurt rather a lot.

It was when I picked it up and climbed back aboard that I realised that I had smashed the screen on my GPS. This didn’t cause any immediate problems, I had a map, although stopping to look at it would of course cost time, but most of the route was signposted.


Something more of a problem came later when I was trying to be clever and save time by not stopping to look at the map. I missed a turning off the Glen Mooar road at Arrassey and instead of turning down into the Lhargan plantation I found myself wandering around some old mine workings. It was quite interesting, looking at the old buildings and the winding gear and suchlike but it was costing me time. I could see other riders on the opposite side of the valley overtaking me at considerable speed as I elected to carry my bike down the sheer sides and up towards the correct path rather than retrace my steps.

I had recognised quite a bit of the course, from the brutal climb of The Baltic to the twisty singletrack of Archallagan and the fantastic descent down from Cronc ny Arrey Laa. However, a lot of the route was new and so my experience from the previous year proved to be of much less help than I was hoping, as my impromptu mine exploration demonstrates. 


In common with last time I had Jo helping me again, meeting me with the car every so often to resupply me with food and drink, although we had brought the small car over as it was cheaper on the ferry than the van so I had no spare bike available.

One thing which was very noticeably different to last year was the weather. We had been very lucky last time and done most of the race in the dry, but this time it started raining heavily shortly after the half way point and then just didn’t stop. The sheltered foresty bits weren’t too bad but the exposed moorlands and hilltops were a little bleak, to say the least.

The route had been very well planned and remained completely rideable, the rain didn’t cause any problems with sinking into bogs and quagmires at all, although it may have made things quite miserable for the helpers and supporters stood out in it waiting for their riders.


The race had two finish lines, which is a little unusual. The timings and results were taken at the end of the track at Kevraigue, where I just beat Guy Whaley in a 5 mile long sprint finish but we then had to ride from there, in a non-competitive fashion, through the centre of Douglas, rejoining the TT course at the famous Quarterhorse Bridge and then finishing at the Grandstand on the start/finish straight with a huge sense of achievement.

We had backstage access to the paddock area again for the post-race tea and cakes and a chance to catch up with everyone else and hear their stories of what had happened out there in the hills.
This year’s event is scheduled for 26 Juy There isn’t much else in the British Isles which is comparable, the West Highland Way ‘Race’ is probably the most similar event, but that isn’t really a race, and the Kielder 100 no longer happens of course. I much prefer the Manx event to Keilder, although the distance is about the same it has over 4,000ft more climbing and takes about 3-4hrs longer, but without feeling like it’s longer if that makes sense, it is so much fun that it takes your mind off the distance. It is physically harder than Keilder was but without the relentless grinding grit much easier on the bikes. It’s just a shame it’s such a pain to get to. This time I did it in a long weekend but if you can make a week of it like I did last time it’s definitely worth doing, it’s only a little island but there is plenty of riding there.
 
 Scott, Mark and BIlly with Nigel on the TT podium
Results:
1.  Scott Cornish
2.  Mark Carey
3.  Bily Stelling
4.  Christopher Purt
5.  Julian Corlett 
6.  Stephen Kelly
7.  Ed Wolstenholme
8.  Ian Wilmshurst
9.  Saul Muldoon
10. John Venables
.....
18. Andrew Howett