Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Mud, sweat and goo at the Scott Australian 24hr champs

Sunrise and set are always great times to ride the Scott 24 was no exception
Photo Sportograf
It has been a goal for some time to race a solo 24 hour in the traditional multilap format, so when the stars aligned and I had the opportunity to partake in Australia’s premiere event, I leapt at the chance.

In a way, these events are a more respectable form of mountainbiking, distinctly lacking in the hobo-esque characteristics of bikepacking. With a support crew to feed you every lap there is no need to hoard food on your bike and body, you only have the chance to accumulate a single day of stench as opposed to multiple days, and the shorter format means you don’t need to bivvy in roadside ditches.

But on the flipside, the repetitive nature of a lap course can be mental torture, as rather than the profoundly motivating prospect of an end of day destination, you must force your body to endure lap after lap of the same features, and this would prove to be one of the hardest parts of the race for me.

The support I had to get to this race was amazing, with personal supporter Ground Effect and co-organiser Sarah from Canberra Off Road Riders Club (CORC) sorting out an entry and even a personal marque on the prestigious pit row. When I plonked down my Tardis bike bag right next to international legends of the sport Matt Page, Cory Wallace and the indomitable Jason English I was aware the field was high calibre, and was stoked to be racing amongst it. My employer Beca also provided generous support to fund flights from Brisbane to Canberra, which was a god send given the short notice before I committed to the race.

Travelling with Heidi as number one fan and chief supporter, we arrived in Canberra to take the first taxi off the rank. On only his second day, the driver was pretty green and hadn’t heard of the Mt Stromlo venue, and had no clue how to drive us there. As if to up the stakes in ridiculousness, he couldn’t operate any of the three GPS devices in his car, and proceeded to speed whilst swerving between lanes and talking to his friend on the phone to get some directions. I guess I take it for granted that a taxi driver will know where to go, or at least have the nous to work it out, but when the vacant circling got ridiculous we forced him to stop and I grabbed the GPS off his dash to find our destination.

Taxi driver leads us on a magical mystery tour!
Safe to say that when we arrived we were happy to say goodbye and parting with a heavily discounted fare we left the taxi driver to his own devices (probably autocide).
Initial impressions of the venue were shock and awe. With a live band and a playing field full of tents with sponsor’s flags, the CORC team weren’t doing things by halves. After a greasy all day brinner (at 9PM) which contained my yearly allowance of vitamin B (bacon) I was ready for bed. Heidi and I pitched the tent for the first time since our holiday in the USA and I had a peaceful sleep, me twitching occasionally in anticipation of the ride ahead.

Ample serving of vitamin B

Sideways Ollie eats a banger
In between assembling my El Commandante, talking shcmack with new friends, briefing Heidi on my detailed feeding schedule spreadsheet and being interviewed by the Canberra Times  the morning flew past, and by the time 12PM rolled around I was well and truly ready to mount my steed and ride into the sunset.

Misty morning at Mt Stromlo
Un-pro Ollie does all his own fettling
It seemed my hopes of slipping under the radar were idealistic, with a commentator interviewing me prior to the star filling the crowd in on some of the more interesting parts of the Tour Divide. It is crazy what a small world modern electronic media has reduced the world to, and I often felt that awkward feeling where someone knows you but you’ve never met them. I was pretty stoked at the buzz it created though, and hopefully my presence and some of the yarns I spun will encourage some others to embrace their inner hobo and give bikepacking a nudge.

From the start, the pace was surprisingly sedate and for the first couple of laps yo-yoing my singlespeed on and off of the lead bunch were a blast, whooping and hollering as we took in some of the great singletrack which permeated the Canberra course.

Pretty sure I was making this much air. At least in my mind.
Photo Sportograf
To minimise the boredom I’d feared and maximise the space between riders, organiser Russ had strung two laps together, and he spoke about how they’d kept the average rider spacing at 45m, as they’d found any less really detracted from rider experience. A true testament to how well CORC run an even, with a great focus on giving the riders the best experience.

One of the best moves I’d made was to not have any time display on my person, and without the constant reminder of apparent dilation of time as the hours rolled on, my mind was clear and I found I really enjoyed the simple challenge of heading out and knocking off another lap, just focusing on one at a time.

Early on everything was going well with my riding, I was sticking to my feeding plan and steadily munching away at bagels, B&E pie (for more vitamin B) and bananas. But as the laps wore on my stomach protested to the point where anything more than a goo would raise a wave of discontented stomach acid.

Heidi tried her best to make the food she offered appealing
I’d feared the sleepmonsters which I’d experienced in Tour Divide, and they brought their leaden eye-weights about 9 hours in. Wanting to hit back with conviction I stopped and downed caffine pills and Coke and while this had the desired effect of keeping me awake for the next 14 hours, for the next few my heart rate was racing and mind circling in a way that is quite rare to my coffee deprived body. Fortunately it calmed down and when normality resumed I felt relieved to have escaped both the monsters and a heart attack.

Early in the evening the rain began to pour, and unfamiliar to the moody weather of Canberra I donned my Helter Skelters and jacket thinking I’d be able to ride through the sludge with impunity. Sure enough the very next lap the sun returned and all I succeeded in doing was getting sweaty and losing a bit of time donning my rain garb and then removing it.

The rain returned with a vengeance in the wee small hours, turning the second lap into a quagmire that became a true test of mental and physical perseverance. In some places bogs were wheel deep and only careful and lucky line choice could save you from a mud sandwhich. With motivation waning and questions about the point of it all rising in my mind like lumps in the sticky mud, I took the decision to take a power nap, curling up in the fetal position on my bike bag and catching a blissful 40 winks.

I’d asked Heidi to allow me 10 minutes, but she felt so bad at my shivering and muttering state that she let the clock run to fifteen, and even then on waking me I asked her if she it was sure I’d used all the precious time.

The tent village by night as viewed form the top of the hill
Photo Sportograf
The turnaround in attitude on the back of the nap was profound, and with only that tiny amount of sleep I’d reframed the race in my mind and started to feel stronger all the way till the first tendrils of light grew form the horizon. Once the sun had risen I knew I’d make the full 24 hours, and even managed to push hard in my final few laps to make the best of the cutoff.

I can attribute least some of the good sensations I had in those early hours to the exceptional performance of the belt drive setup in the muddy conditions. Running singlespeed with the Gates Centretrack setup proved to be a source for much internal smugness, only heightened by the crunching, chain-sucking gnash of derailleur gears as the wimpy cables and chains of other riders succumbed to the bog which consumes conventional bicycle transmissions. The design of the mud ports effectively cleared all the mud from the belt and the system ran silent and smooth for the duration of the ride. I’m stoked to be able to use the system especially when it performs so well in difficult conditions.

So by the end of it all I was pretty tired, and although a bit wobbly on my feet Heidi remarked at my surprising coherence. Catching a plane for work the next day was always going to be tough, and still know I’m feeling the effects of sleep deprivation. I feel guilty for demanding so much of my body for it to stay awake and it can certainly rise to the challenge, but for some reason it still wants to keep riding, 2 days later which is less than ideal at 2AM with work the next day.

So after dabbling in the 24 hour race format I can say that they are a pretty enjoyable experience, especially at a well run event and great course as at the Scott 24. An awesome support crew who will even have the sympathy to let you sleep for 5 more minutes was just the icing on the cake. I’m definitely keen to race a few more and with the scene as popular as it is here in Australia I’m sure the opportunities will present themselves. Who knows, I might even throw on a Rohloff and race for the world title at the same course next year!

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