That Was Harder Than I Was Expecting...

2015 Manx 100

 

This was one of those races which you just know will be hard, but don’t necessarily realise quite how hard until you are at the top of a massive hill, trying desperately to get enough feeling back into your hands to be able to open a packet of food, anything to keep you going, when the gale-force winds part the sea of fog just long enough for you to glimpse another rider getting blown off his bike. This would become a battle for survival.

Saturday was a fantastic day, blue skies, warm temperatures and a gentle breeze as we made our way across to Douglas on board the catamaran. We met a few other racers on the ferry, but despite the lovely weather prevailing at the time we had all seen the forecast and there was a definite atmosphere of gallows humour. It was predicted to be light rain at the start, 6:30am, developing into heavy rain by about 10am and continuing for the rest of the race, with winds of over 45mph. This was of course the forecast for sea-level, whereas we would be crossing the largest and most exposed fells and moors the Isle of Man has to offer, and it is a surprisingly hilly island.

Here's a picture from last year, me chased by someone I don't know
and Jon Hobson. I've used one from last year as this year's won't come
out well with all the fog,and I guess the photographer's fingers would
have been too numb with cold to opperate the camera anyway.


We were met at the ferry port by Guy, a lovely friendly local who had volunteered to put us up for the weekend and who’s wife, Joan, provided an excellent curry while I made him paranoid about his front brake. Signing-on and last-minute detail checking was in the Control Tower at the Grandstand, the same place as last year, before most racers headed off early to their various resting places, keen for a good night’s sleep. I instead found myself accompanying Gina and another bunch of friendly locals on a walk around Rushen Abbey looking for bats. There are over 1,200 species of bat, 7 of which can be found on the Isle of Man. Only 3 are ‘vampires’, none of which are to found on the island. We saw quite a few and got to play with the bat detectors.

The alarm went off at 4:45am on Sunday and, upon opening the curtains, I was greeted by the most unexpected sight of blue skies and no rain. Actually, that’s not quite true, the alarm went off at 4:45 but it was 5:15 when I conceded defeat to the snooze button and emerged to open the curtains. A couple of Weetabix later and we were in Guy’s van heading back to the Grandstand.

Despite the large banner saying 'Finish' this is the start line.

It was still dry at 6:30am, with barely a cloud in view as we all gathered in the TT Pit Lane, ready for the off. The first couple of miles were the ‘wrong way’ along the TT course, lead out by a police motorbike to allow us to jump all the red lights but it was delayed by six minutes (an important detail, remember that) as we waited for the rozzers to get into place. We were all fidgeting, impatient to get off, sensing that we were definitely on borrowed time as far as the nice weather was concerned and anxious not to waste it. I used this time to take my waterproof off and put it back on thirty seven times as I tried to work out if I was just chilly because I was standing still or if it was actually cold and how many layers I would need. A waterproof but no arm-warmers was the compromise I eventually settled on.

The neutralised start followed the same route as last year, allowing most of the fast guys, and me, to get themselves to the front, poor Jon Hobson spinning like crazy on his singlespeed as he tried to keep up. He had started the 100 mile event last year but had to concede defeat and switch to the 100km, meaning that the 100 miles had still never been completed with only one gear and he was determined to be the first.

The motorbike eventually pulled over, we veered left into the first track and the race was on.

The winner of the 2013 event, Rich Rothwell, and the other likely contender Rob Friel, shot off into the distance with Julian Corlett, who was likely to be the fastest local, and me both trying to keep up as best we could. He managed considerably better than I did and I lost sight of the three of them as another little group formed behind them.

It quickly became apparent that I had made the wrong call on the waterproof and I paused to remove it for the 38th time as it was getting rather warm in there. It only took a few seconds but half a dozen riders came passed before I could set off in pursuit.
Early on, while it was still sunny
The first section of the course through Conrhenny to Laxey was easy enough, we were all making good progress, trying to keep the speed up while the sun was still shining. The first ‘proper’ climbs slowed us a little as we headed up Slieau Ruy and Slieau Lhean before dropping down into Glen Mona and the first checkpoint just south of Ramsey.

There were a number of checkpoints on the route. Marshals at each of these would tick us all off as we passed through, and they all had time-limits, if a rider hadn’t passed them by a certain time, they would be out of the event. This was to stop those who were slow but determined being out in the middle of nowhere until well after dark, trying to get to the end. Again, more on this later…

After Ramsey I caught Jon on his singlespeed, still going strongly, and someone else I didn’t recognise and we blasted through the meadows together towards the bottom of Sky Hill, it was like being in a hurdles race with all the gates we encountered. Hmm, MTB Hurdles, a sprint and bunny-hop competition, must remember that one.

I recognised quite a lot of the course, having raced here twice before, although not the tight left-hander in Ballure where the sign had blown around and I lost a bit of time faffing with the map. Jon and his legs of steel left me behind on the climb up out of Ohio and passed Slieu Managh, but I could see him again as I approached Checkpoint 2 at the Mountain Box.

Checkpoint 2 was very significant for me, mainly because this was one of the three ‘bag-drops’ and I knew that I had a load of food and a new bottle of Torq waiting for me there, along with a set of dry gloves and various other items of clothing. It was the food which I was desperate for, after all of the detailed planning and preparation before the event the one thing I had forgotten to put in my pack for the race itself was anything to eat… I had raided Gina’s supply of things before the start but at about one third distance I was already suffering. I swallowed a couple of Torq bars and a Mars bar and stuffed everything else into my pocket.
Looking  very pro, although that isn't actually my support car.
It was racing us up the hill to hand a bottle to the bloke next
to me, having missed a feed at the bottom.

It was 9:48am and much against everyone’s expectation it still wasn’t raining. There was a dampness in the air though, it wouldn’t be long and this high up it was also rather chilly. I put my waterproof on for the 39th time that morning and set off across the moors after Jon, who had very generously waited for me. His singlespeed was less than ideal on this section, but as he was pushing at about the same speed I could ride it didn’t seem to bother him at all.

The descent down to the mines at Laggan Agneash was huge fun, one of my favourite parts of the whole circuit. It was pretty steep, down through the ferns, just about rideable with my rear wheel waving about in the air as I tried to keep my speed down enough to allow myself to steer, Jon a few feet ahead shouting warnings about hidden dykes and little skinny, single plank, bridges. If I had had a dropper post I would have pressed the button, but with an ISP there was nothing else to do but hold on and hope for the best. Jon stopped for a pee break at the bottom and I took the opportunity to cram another couple of Torq bars down my neck while I waited for him.
Jon at this spot last year.
 
I recognised more of the course, the climb as we left Laxey for the second time was just as hard as I remembered it being. We were heading for the very appropriately named Windy Corner, another famous TT landmark, although we were of course approaching it across the moors, battling into the headwind at 3 or 4mph rather than blasting up to it at 180mph along a nice smooth road.

The rain was starting to come in by this stage, gently at first but then harder and harder, but the biggest change was in the wind, it was getting much, much stronger. After Checkpoint 3 Jon started to pull away from me. Despite the fact that he had only one gear he was flying up the climbs and I just couldn’t maintain his pace.

We fought our way up the back of Injebreck, battling into the gale. The rain was making it incredibly difficult to see where I was going, it was being driven so hard into my face that looking forwards was actually quite painful. However, the fog soon made this irrelevant, when I did manage to look up I couldn’t see anything anyway. The Manx 100 isn’t one of these well manicured race-tracks with lots of tape and things marking all the corners, it is big hills, mostly in the middle of nowhere, with the odd red and black arrow showing the way. It was an enormous relief when one of those would appear out of the fog, reassuring me that I was still going in the right direction. I have a GPS but it is purely for recording speed, distance, time and such like, it is not one of the fancy ones which show you which way to go and so I was navigating the good old fashioned way, with a map and compass. There were enough signs that It wasn‘t necessary to look at the map very often, which was good as keeping hold of it in the wind was extremely tricky and the rain was making it more and difficult to read every time I got it out, the ink on my print-out running despite the fancy sandwich-bag it was enclosed in.
 
Another one from last year, when the photographer could see
us through the fog.

We battled on into the wind, down to Sartfell and then into the relative shelter of Druidale, the sides of valley keeping the worst of the wind at bay. It was a short-lived relief though as soon the route began to climb again, another of those never-ending slogs up and up and up into the clouds.

Eventually Checkpoint 4 loomed out of the clag, a man in an enormous waterproof, his hood drawn tight in around his face, his hands blue with cold, while his colleague huddled in the 4x4 trying to keep warm. He asked me if wanted any water. Obviously the fact that I was soaked to the skin and looking like a drowned rat had convinced him that the thing which would make it all better was even more water…However, the second bag drop was still a very, very long way away and so I took the opportunity to refill a bottle.

I dropped down the hillside to Ballaugh, a welcome respite from the worst of the wind as I lost altitude, and then I was on to the old railway line. This is a unique section of the Manx 100 in that, for a couple of miles, I was riding on the flat. It was like being in teleporter, one moment I was in Ballaugh, and then less than six minutes later I was two miles away in Kirk Michael looking up at The Baltic. (I'm mentioing a lot of place names here as I know you are all reading this while following my progress in great detail on the map. Probably)
Another one of me last year, it rained a bit
near the end but nothing like this year!

Ah yes, The Baltic. This is the hill people talk about most of all. ‘Baltic’ is a word used in certain parts of Scotland to mean “absolutely bloody freezing”, quite appropriate as it turns out. From the village it starts innocently enough, a gentle tarmac climb winding it’s way up. One of the locals who lives on the lower slopes of the hill always leaves a hosepipe out for us, in previous years this was a most welcome spot to refill our bottles but this year it was somewhat redundant. Having battled down into Ballaugh, pedalling as hard as I could downhill to make any sort of speed into the headwind I had been looking forward to flying up The Baltic with the benefit of a similarly impressive tail wind. However, the wind on the Isle is quite bizarre, during the course of the whole day, despite wiggling around all over the place on a route which was ultimately a loop I never once felt like I had a tail wind.

Anyway, I kept plugging away up The Baltic. The short tarmac section soon ended and I was onto the LandRover track above it. Although the wind was still as strong as ever the fog had lifted, which at least made navigation a lot easier, it was now actually possible to spot some of the signs before I passed them. I could see another racer in front of me, probably half a mile ahead, way up on the hillside. I could catch him.

I dug in, looking for the lines with best grip as I picked my way up through the slippery wet rocks. The wind was getting worse the higher I got, the shape of the hills funnelling it down towards me. It was tough, but I was gaining. I looked up again, he was off his bike and pushing, I could do this. The wind was still getting stronger and stronger, I was down in my granny-ring, 24t, trying to make progress as best I could. The track turned slightly to the right and what had been a head-wind became a cross-wind. It was blowing me to my left, hard, with sudden gusts of very hard. Keeping the bike in a straight line through the rocks and ruts was getting more and more difficult, every time I was blown off line getting going again was becoming harder and harder. I realised why the rider in front had been pushing, and I was forced to concede defeat and also begin walking.

I have tried to show you a picture from this year
but it really is just fog...
 
The fog had closed in again by this stage and I had long since lost sight of anyone else, it was just me, alone in the middle of nowhere, head down against the wind, trudging upwards though the murk. I was starting to freeze, the relentless rain had soaked me right through and now I was moving even more slowly I wasn’t generating enough of my own heat. I eventually reached the crest and was able to get back on the bike. I plugged on, upwards, through the fog, my frozen hands curled tightly around the bars, the wind seeming to come from all directions now.

After what felt like an eternity I reached what felt like a little plateau, I was knackered, I needed food. I stopped, and reached into my pocket. I had already eaten my supply of Torq bars and gels but I did still have a packet of Shot-Blocks left, that would do nicely. The only trouble was opening it with wet gloves which don’t grip and frozen fingers which don’t bend. I tugged helplessly at the wrapper for a bit, no good. I crouched down, trying to use the heather for what little shelter it would give me, turning my back to the wind. I removed a glove.

The fog parted for an instant and I realised where I was, the course doubled back on itself and I was passing the other side of Checkpoint 4. I could see the marshal, still out there huddled in his massive waterproof, trying to use his truck for shelter, two riders plunging down the hill towards him. The rearmost rider left the ground briefly over one of the tussocks and appeared to get blown quite a way to his left before he hit the ground again. His front wheel dug in, flipping him off the front of the bike, which cartwheeled a couple of times before coming to rest, I even heard his cry over the wind. The guy at the front stopped and turned, the marshal already up and moving towards the fallen rider, who sat up, looking surprised and shouting “I’m fine, I’m fine”. The lead rider set off again and I returned to trying to open my food as they all disappeared back into the fog.

Someone passed me as I crouched there, asking if I was OK. “Everything’s fine” I lied and then he too was gone. Eventually the wrapper relented and I crammed the lot into my mouth. I stuffed the wrapper back into my pocket and attempted to pull my glove back on. It was cold, properly cold, much, much colder than it had been when I removed it a minute before. Do gloves suffer from wind-chill? My fingers still wouldn’t bend and it took a while to force them back into it. Getting the glove back on made them no warmer at all.

I had stopped at the top of the hill as, despite the extra wind there, it is always much easier to get going again when setting off onto a downhill. Well, not quite always. If there is a huge head-wind it is as just as hard as going uphill. Down the hill back to Sartfell. Last year this was where the 100 mile and 100km events separated and there had been a big gaggle of people here. Today there was nothing, no-one, just wind, fog and an abandoned truck.

It was a long, hard ride over the moors, around the appropriately named Colden Hill, nearly as appropriately named as The Baltic. I even managed to catch glimpses of it as the fog was thinning slightly. As I headed down Braaid towards Checkpoint 5, the second bag-drop, something most unexpected happened.

It stopped raining.

I arrived at the Checkpoint 5 at 1532, nearly six hours since the last bag-drop, soaked to the skin and frozen, but in good spirits, it’s amazing what the slight of a small patch of blue sky can do. I found my bag and it’s precious contents of a dry base layer, a new waterproof and, most valuable of all, new gloves. It was a huge relief. I ate most of the rest of the contents, stuffing the remaining Torq bars and gels into my pockets. The marshals there were lovely, if slightly bemused by what we were all doing. One of them even gave me her cup of tea, just being able to hold something warm for a minute was a huge boost for my poor hands.
Winner, Rob Friel, before it started raining.
 
The significance of Checkpoint 5 was that it was where the 100 mile and 100km routes diverged and I had to make the choice. Opting for the 100km would mean a three mile pootle back into the centre of Douglas via a nice easy route, back to the Grandstand, tea, cakes and warm showers. Opting for the 100 mile route would mean another 40 miles of what I had just been through.

I turned right.

There was a short section of the TT course heading towards St John’s before climbing 500ft up in less than a mile to Dowse. To make it all the more fun the rain was back, although mercifully without the fog this time. I remembered the descent down into the village from last year, this was where I had performed a frontal dismount and landed heavily on my knee. I decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and that cowardice was the better part of discretion and so I valiantly dismounted and ran down it this time.

Riding into the village I was delighted to see Gina waiting for me on Tynwald Hill in the drizzle, the original site of what is now the world’s oldest parliament. She was carrying hot pasta, a flask of hot chocolate and some cake. I ate and drank all of this and then, feeling much warmer, set off again.

The rain returned with a vengeance as I emerged from the plantation at Slieau Whallian onto the open moors before heading back into the relative shelter of Arrasey. My front brake on the other hand seemed to have departed. I could feel, and indeed hear, the pads make contact with the disc as I pulled helplessly on the lever but this seemed to have very little effect on my speed. I had two spare sets of the Alligator pads in my pack, but really didn’t feel like stopping to change them. This was partly because this would again involve removing a glove, something I was keen to avoid at all costs after my experience at the top of The Baltic, but mainly because I knew I was cutting it very fine if I was going to make the checkpoints on time.

I had received an update from Gina when I had seen her. A lot of riders had pulled out where the route split, some just having completely lost the will to live, a greater number being pulled out as they simply wouldn’t make it round the route in time. I was now the last rider still out on the course. I had no idea how far behind I was but I knew that I had to press on to get through the cut-offs.
 
Another one from last year, in the sunshine.

Arrasey was interesting without a front brake, it is normally a lovely swoopy section of singletrack but can be terrifying without any way of modulating your speed. There was one more big climb and then another, even more terrifying, descent before Checkpoint 7, the third and final bag drop where two marshals were waiting for me in a van. It was time to collect yet another batch of Torq bars, and the very welcome pair of dry gloves.

It was 1850. The rules said that I had to have passed this checkpoint by 1845. However, the start had been delayed by six minutes and so the cut-off times had been put back by a similar amount. I had a little over twenty miles to go, and had just one minute in hand. This would be tight. There was no time to change brake pads and so I plunged down into Cringle Plantation hoping for the best, the two marshals shouting encouragement over the wind.

This is another one of those places which could be huge fun if I had any way of slowing down for the corners, rather than merely trusting to luck and occasionally panicking and sticking my foot out. It is also the venue for the Longest Day, Longest Ride event, a 24hr race in mid-June, on a 15 minute lap. The fast boys would get about 100 laps in during the race, which must be as much of a mental challenge as a physical one. In the odd moment of madness I keep threatening to have a go.

Anyway, as I headed down through South Barrule my braking ability returned, I have no idea why. When I finished the race I still had loads of pad left so it wasn’t anything to do with that. The Alligator pads are normally fantastic, I’ve been using them for years without any problems. I can only guess that I must have got some sort of contamination on either them or the disc, a bit of oil or something, and that it had finally worn off. I was so excited by being able to stop that I completely lost track of the route and emerged from the forest onto a road, no signs in sight and no idea where I was.

I got out what was left of my map and tried to figure it out, aware that the light was beginning to fade, and with this much cloud cover dusk would be earlier than expected. I wasn’t the only one thinking this, my telephone rang, it was Gina and Guy. He had been ill the previous week and hadn’t been going as quickly as he would normally, and so he was one of those who been sent down the 100km route and had therefore finished early and was now warm, dry and well fed.

“We’re in the van. Where are you? We’ll come and fetch you.”

“I’m at South Barrule, just heading into Stoney Mountain” I sounded like I knew what I was doing, but I had figured out where I was literally five seconds earlier. “And thanks, but I’m going to the finish.”

Gina had tried to convince him that I was very unlikely to quit, but having been there Guy knew just how cold, wet and miserable it was out on the hills and thought I might be tempted. Actually, I was very tempted, but I had come this far, I was going to do this. If I could make the checkpoints in time of course.

Another one of me from last year. Those red and black signs
were a little less obvious in the fog this time!

Through the forest, much more fun now I could make it round all the corners and then to Archallagan and the last checkpoint. There was no-one there. I got the map out again, trying to piece together the sodden rags. This was definitely the right place. I phoned in just to check. Yes, I was right, but the last marshal had called it a day and left. I was technically passed the cut-off time but with no-one there to tell me to pull out I was free to continue.

The final section of the race was at a much lower altitude and this resulted in a noticeable improvement in the weather. Hardly blue skies and sunshine but at least it was rain I could see through and wind I could stand up in.

I got lost one final time as I came out of Chibbanagh Plantation and headed down the hill into Braaid. This isn’t the same Braaid as the one near where the routes split, it is only a little island with not that many places on it which need naming but they do like to repeat the names they do use. This is far from the only example and causes much confusion among those of us from across the water.
And another one from last year. The photographers had all
long since died of hypothermia by this point this year.

I struggled back up the hill in the fading light to where I had just come from and then set off in the right direction, nearly there.

There was a few miles of tarmac and then onto another track. My telephone rang again, it was Nigel, the race organiser. “You daft bugger, where are you?”

I had no idea, so described what I could see, really just a very narrow lane lined with ferns taller than me and a little stone bridge. This really was the final section. The official finish was at Kewaigue on the outskirts of Douglas to prevent us all racing through the city centre and causing chaos. Less than half a mile to go.

Waiting for me at the end was Nigel’s wife Lisa with the car. I was 13 minutes passed the official finish time, even counting the extra six minutes I was allowed, but I had made it around the full 100 (actually 103) miles and 17,000ft of climbing in one piece. Of the 60-odd riders, some odder than others, who had set off from the Grandstand over 15 hours earlier only 11 had achieved this. I was 11th and last but had a big sense of achievement.

I was bundled into the back of the vehicle shivering uncontrollably as soon as I stopped moving, and driven back through Douglas and up to the Grandstand, where Gina, Nigel and Jon were waiting. Jon had only finished about twenty minutes in front of me but in doing so had achieved his target of becoming the first, and so far only, person ever to complete the event on a singlespeed. There was also tea and a lot of cake.

That was a properly hard event, it is probably the toughest one-day event in the British Isles at present and quite a lot harder than most 24hr events. I’ll be back again next year. San Kapil, keen to improve on his 11th place In the 100km, had entered next year’s 100 mile event by the time we got on the ferry to head home!

Rob, Ritchey and Julian on the podium with Nigel the organiser.
 

Entries are open for next year at www.manx100.com

 

Results:

100 miles.
1       Robert Freil
2       Richard Rothwell
3       Julian Corlett
4       Mark McPhillips
5       Adam Fowkes
6       Michael Schreuder
7       Paul Whittaker
8       Gavin Linfield
9       Iain Brough
10    Jon Hobson
11    Andrew Howett

100km

1 Les Corran
2 Darren Murphy
3 Matt Price
4 David Lawrence
5 Martin Field
6 Kevan Geling
7 Derek McNutt
8 Lloyd Goodson
9 Mark Corkish
10 Nigel Lambley

I would like to say a big thank-you to a lot of people, XCRacer/Scimitar, Mt Zoom and Torq obviously. The lights provided by my other sponsor, USE/Exposure, weren’t used this time, although I did find myself on the final trail wishing that I’d put the lightweight Joystick in my last bagdrop.

Big thank-yous also to Nigel and the gang who organised the event and to the poor marshals out there freezing to death waiting for me, to Guy and Joan of course, Mr Overshoot and the chaps at the flour mill and especially to Gina.

Pictures are all (I think) from Vincent Campbell.

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 metre 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.