Diary of a 24 Hour Race

Read Dave Bayley’s fascinating account of his first 24-hour ride in July 2012.

Dave, despite his still tender years (!), is one of Ireland’s most experienced long-distance riders.   He has successfully completed numerous 200 km, 300 km, 400 km and 600 km rides around Ireland as well as the 1,200 km Paris-Brest-Paris ride and the longer London-Edinburgh-London. But 2012 was his first attempt to ride non-stop through a full day and night.  He tells of his highs and lows in the making of his Personal Best 24-hour.

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The trip began for me when I sneaked out of work on Thursday evening for the four hour drive back to Dublin. Unusually for me, I’d had the foresight to sort and pack all my gear the previous weekend, in anticipation of my late arrival home on Thursday night. That meant all I had to do on Friday morning was give the bike a bit of a spit and polish before joining up with John, Paul and Clare at John’s house at midday on Friday.

I was feeling a little bit groggy on Friday morning from my Thursday travels and considered catching up with some sleep on the ferry journey. All thoughts of sleeping fell by the wayside after I met up with the others though, as anyone who has travelled with those three will know that jokes and witty repartee flow almost non-stop, which makes sleeping all but impossible but does make for a good trip.

After a smooth ferry crossing, we negotiated the journey to our base for the weekend, the Holt Lodge hotel, without any difficulty (unlike last year, when apparently it took three laps of Wrexham and a trip to the outskirts of Chester before the correct road was found). We checked in, unloaded the car and then headed back to Tesco in Wrexham to stock up with provisions for the weekend. As the pile of food in the trolley grew higher, it began to dawn on me just what I was going to be putting myself through the following day and how many calories I’d be consuming to keep the engine fueled. Any non-cyclists looking at the contents of our trolley would probably have assumed we had enough food to feed ourselves for a week, not just a weekend.

Then it was back to the hotel for dinner, where we shared thoughts, advice and tactics for the following day over aperitifs and dinner before retiring for an early night.

The following morning after breakfast, all I had to do was rest and relax, while Clare and John brought the car stuffed with food, spare clothes and equipment to Prees roundabout, from where Clare would be providing support to John and me. Paul was not riding this year, but was acting as a marshall, so he departed soon after John and Clare to undertake his duties.

For those of you who don’t know much about the layout of the 24 hour course, the HQ for the weekend is the Farndon Sports and Social Club, and the start is a couple of hundred metres from the HQ. From the start, you ride approximately 13 miles out to Prees roundabout, which is the intersecting point between the long and short (Quina Brook) circuits, so it’s an ideal place to base a support team as the riders will pass here on every lap. The long course takes the riders on a 40 mile loop to Telford (and back), mostly on A roads, while the shorter Quina Brook circuit is approximately 13 miles long on more rural roads. When riders reach Prees for the first time, they are directed on to the long circuit for a couple of laps before being directed onto the shorter circuit in the early evening. When night starts to fall, the riders are directed back onto the long circuit, which they ride for the night. On the Sunday morning, it’s back to Quina Brook for a few more laps before heading back towards the HQ and the finishing circuit, which is a tough course of approximately 12 miles, with one short steep hill and a long drag. The riders continue on this course until time has run out. The finishing circuit contains a number of time-keepers at regular intervals and you must finish your ride at one of the time keeper’s stations. If you pass one and you only have a minute or two left of your 24 hours, you can stop at that station, but if your time runs out between time-keeper’s stations, you must continue on to the next one.

But anyway, enough about the general stuff and back to me me me – the taxi that John and Clare had booked to bring them back to the hotel after dropping the car had difficulty finding them, which resulted in them getting back to the hotel later than hoped. We still had plenty of time for final preparations before taking the short ride to the race HQ and signing on. After that, it was just a matter of killing time (around an hour and a half) until the start, which we did by drinking tea, eating cake and chatting to a few of the other riders who were hanging around the HQ. John was due to start at 14.29, with me due off seven minutes later, so at around 14.15 we rolled out to the start.

For a prestigious event, the start is pretty low-key, with most riders rolling up a couple of minutes before their start time, having a quick chat with the officials and other riders before heading off into the afternoon sun. Some opted for a lung-bursting sprint from the start, but most opted to just roll away and settle into a steady rhythm.

I opted for the latter, but began to wonder if I was starting a little too slowly when my one minute man caught me within 5km and my three minute man caught me with just over 11km on the clock.

I resisted the urge to up my pace, as a quick glance at my speedo showed me that I was going along at a good clip and Paul’s words telling me to ride my own race and not to worry about others were still ringing in my ears. It felt like we had a pretty stiff headwind on the way out to Prees, but over the course of the day, it felt like I was riding into the wind no matter what direction I was travelling in!

I made it to Prees roundabout without incident and started onto the long circuit to Telford. On my first lap of the long course, I found myself making mental notes of landmarks at various points on the course and the sort of terrain around those landmarks, so as I could prepare myself for what was to come on subsequent laps. The long course can be described as rolling, with a few nice flat sections, occasional drags, but no big hills.

As I closed in on the turnaround, it was nice to see the riders who had started just before me on their way back, as I knew then that the turnaround wasn’t much further away.

53 miles after starting, I returned to Prees’ roundabout and my first rendezvous with Clare. We’d forgotten to pack any musettes (though I’m not sure how well I would have handled the ‘grab on the go’ method of refuelling if we’d had them) so instead I’d throw my old bottles onto the grass verge as I approached Clare, then have a quick stop to stick fresh bottles into my cages, empty litter out of my pockets, stuff some fresh food back into them and get away again. All in all, I’d say I was stopped for around 20 seconds at most before getting going again. I’ve read other people’s write-ups on their 24 hour experiences and most seem to have existed mainly on a diet of energy bars and gels with very little in the way of ‘real’ food. Personally, my stomach doesn’t tolerate large amounts of energy-based products without complaining, so I tend to survive on a diet of ‘real’ food supplemented with the occasional energy based product. On this occasion, Clare’s sandwiches containing tuna or ham and cheese kept me going for the duration, along with some dried fruit, a few slices of cake and the occasional Clif bar. My stomach was one of the few parts of my body that felt as good at the end of the ride as it did at the start!

On my third lap of the long circuit, I was turned back towards Prees at the halfway point on the outward leg. This meant I was due to start on the shorter, Quina Brook circuit. While the road surfaces on Quina Brook aren’t as smooth as the long circuit, it has a much more rural feel to it, with a loss less traffic and as such was quite enjoyable to ride around. As dusk began to fall, the tendon at the side of my right knee began to feel sore. When I reached Prees roundabout again, I stopped briefly to rub a bit of Deep Heat into my knee, swallow a couple of Neurofen, put on knee warmers, lights and reflective gear before heading back out again. The Deep Heat/knee warmers/drugs combination seemed to do the trick, as my knee began to feel okay again.

After one final circuit of Quina Brook in the dying light, we were directed back onto the long course for the long night ahead. As the night wore on, the roads seemed to empty of riders, as more and more apparently stopped to rest for a couple of hours. It was a lovely mild night so I was happy enough to continue riding, but I did allow myself a brief sit-down stop around 23.30, where Clare provided me with coffee, cake, rice and fruit before encouraging me to get back out on the road before I became too comfortable. That pit-stop worked wonders for me, as I suddenly felt like I was flying – my whole body felt good, the pedals were turning effortlessly and I realised that I hadn’t felt this good at all in the previous 10 hours of riding. On reflection, I think a large part of my well-being that night came from not being able to see my Speedo in the darkness; I was just riding the bike, not looking at my speed and telling myself that I should be going faster and pushing myself to work harder. Sometimes, ignorance really is bliss!

I was feeling so good that I was able to pass the coffee and cake stall set up by the organisers at the midway point of the course, at the junction of the A53 and the A442, without the slightest pang of temptation to stop. A large number of support crews had set up camp at this point too, and the atmosphere and levels of encouragement were very similar to those at PBP. The night seemed to pass quickly and without incident, and the sun began to peep over the horizon just after I turned for home on my third lap (I think it was my third lap anyway). It was just then that I hit my lowest point of the whole ride. I know a lot of people who say that they always feel terrible just as dawn breaks, but I didn’t notice any ‘dawning’ ill effects last year at PBP, so whether it was just the effects of the caffeine wearing off, something psychological or a combination of both I don’t know. Suffice to say, where earlier the pedals were turning effortlessly, it now felt like I was riding through glue, grinding out the revolutions but getting nowhere. I felt like this for the 8 or 9 miles back to the roundabout at the A442/A53 junction. The slight downhill there improved things and I finally managed to get back into some sort of rhythm.

When I got back to Clare, I was able to ditch the lights and reflective gear and take on fresh supplies of food and water, but it was with a heavy heart that I headed back out – I really wasn’t looking forward to the return leg from Telford, so you can imagine my delight when the marshalls turned me back for Prees at the halfway point of the outward leg. It took a lot of willpower on my part to stay riding instead of stopping to kiss them, such was my feeling of elation (the marshalls who turned me around were female in case anyone is getting worried)!

This stroke of good fortune gave me a great psychological boost and my speed and spirits soared on my way back to Prees. I happily sailed straight onto the Quina Brook circuit and completed my first lap in good time. I had noticed a headwind on the back part of the course, and as the morning wore on, the wind got steadily stronger, which slowed my progress. As the clock ticked on towards 10am and the lap count for the circuit rose, I pulled in beside Clare to refuel and happened to mention the strong wind on the back part of the course. A passing marshall said that if I waited 10 more minutes, instead of having to do another lap of Quina Brook, I’d be sent to the finishing circuit. I needed no further persuasion, so I sat down and had a cup of tea and some cake.

When I climbed back aboard and set off again, I had pockets stuffed full with (hopefully) enough food to do me for the remaining 4 hours, as Clare was uncertain of making it to the finishing circuit, due to the fact that she doesn’t drive. As promised by the marshall I was directed back down towards Farndon and the finishing circuit. It felt to be slightly downhill most of the way back, geographically if not exactly physically, although my right knee was feeling a bit tender again, as were the soles of my feet. I had been warned before the ride that the finishing circuit was quite tough, but as I turned onto it, my first impressions were quite good. The circuit generally consisted of narrow country lanes with high hedges and a relatively rough surface – very similar to the roads I ride on at home. All was going well and good momentum was being maintained until I hit a slight drag and rose out of the saddle to keep my speed up. What had been minor ‘hot spot’ irritation in my feet turned into serious pain as I pounded on the pedals, so much so, that I had to climb off the bike and walk around for 30 seconds or so until the worst of the pain had passed. When I started off again, I tried to adapt my pedal stroke to keep the pain to a minimum. Shortly afterwards, I took a left turn and hit the long drag that I had been warned about. To add insult to injury, it seemed as if I had turned into a headwind, which resulted in my progress slowing to a crawl. A number of support crews had based themselves outside a pub halfway up the drag and they gave me a rowdy reception as I struggled past them. Their encouragement did little to speed/hasten my progress and the drag seemed to roll on for an age. Eventually I crested it and shortly afterwards I passed the Farndon Sports Centre. As this was the race HQ, a number of people had gathered there and a large crowd cheered me through. My pace picked up again, but having realised on the ride from Quina Brook to the finishing circuit that 600km was looking like a realistic target, a quick calculation (well ‘quick’ relative to having been on the bike for 22ish hours) told me that my slow progress on the second half of the finishing circuit had made 600km seem a more difficult target. I got over the short, steep hill without too much difficulty and was soon back onto the familiar lanes.

My progress on the second lap of the finishing circuit was very similar to the first. I made good progress on the flat part of the course, but my feet again began to burn on the same drag as the previous lap and again I had to stop and unclip for 30 seconds for some pain relief before continuing on again. My thoughts then turned to the long drag near Farndon, but before I knew it, I was back at the sports centre. I was slightly confused when I saw the centre, as I still had a sense of fear of the dreaded long drag and hadn’t realised that I had already climbed it. To compound my sense of joy, I spotted Clare standing at the roadside with fresh bottles and some dried fruit. I stuffed some fruit into my mouth and took off for what I assumed would be my last lap. Another laboured calculation resigned me to the fact that 600km was probably beyond my reach, given my average speed over the previous two laps of the finishing circuit. As my original goal prior to starting the ride had merely been to survive the experience (and cover at least 500km), I wasn’t overly disappointed at not making the 600km mark. I resolved to just see out my remaining time and see how far it got me.

Whether this resignation or the realisation that this was going to be my last lap relaxed me or Clare’s dried fruit simply gave me more energy, everything seemed to click once again and it felt like I flew around my last lap (apart from again having to clip out my feet on the same drag as the two previous laps!). So much so, that I realised breaking the 600km mark was back on the cards and as I arrived back at the sports centre with time to spare and 598km on my computer I continued on to the next time station, which was situated at the top of the short, steep hill. Along the way, I passed John walking back towards the sports centre carrying his bike, having suffered a major blowout half an hour before he was due to finish. It was a shame for John’s ride to end that way, as any time I encountered him on the road, he seemed to be flying. I reached the next time station with three minutes to spare, but as my computer showed 602.4km, I decided to stop there, as the thoughts of riding over this hill again on my way back from the next time station was not very appealing. After a good chat with the marshalls at the station and watching Steve Abraham sprinting to the top of the hill before collapsing on the edge of the road (I think making it to the grass verge was too much of an effort for him), I struggled to get my leg back over the bike for the ride back to HQ. Every drop of adrenalin and energy seemed to have left my body and the couple of miles back to the sports centre required a huge amount of effort to complete. Parts of my body that hadn’t complained at all during the 24 hours now became quite vocal and those parts that had been complaining during the ride screamed their displeasure at being forced to carry on riding.

I’d like to say that the enjoyable post-race atmosphere at the sports centre re-invigorated me, but having re-united with John, Clare and Paul, all I could do was gingerly climb off the bike, sit down on the grass, take off my shoes and soak up the lovely July sunshine. We sat for a while and welcomed the race winner, Rapha CC’s Ultan Coyle, who hails from Dundalk, and despite having ridden 489 miles, still seemed to have plenty of energy left. After chatting to Ultan, we peeled ourselves off the ground and went into the sports centre for the awards ceremony, where I was able to indulge in the local brew, Wrexham Lager, which seems to have miraculous healing powers, as after only one drink, I was feeling no pain at all! When the provisional results were posted, I was mildly disappointed to see my official distance clocked at 372.016 miles, which is just short of 600km (375 miles), but on reflection, the lower total just means it’ll be an easier target to aim for next year, but I’ll have to re-calibrate my Speedo before the ride…

We had to rise early on the Monday to get the ferry home so, coupled with the fact we’d all been up for well over 24 hours with no hint of a snooze, celebrations were kept to a minimum – dinner, another couple of Wrexham’s finest lager (I wanted to check if the magical healing properties experienced at the sports centre were a one-off), a brief post-race analysis and some mutual congratulating with other riders staying in the same hotel. It was easy to spot those who had participated in the event, as we all seemed to have the same stiff, John Wayne-esque gait.

I won’t bore you (any more!) with the details of our trip home. Suffice to say, it was a fantastic weekend, with emotional highs and lows (in my case, more highs than lows) and a really well-organised race. Overall, it’s a great experience and one I hope to repeat many times in the future.

I can’t finish without singing the praises of Clare. Those of you that know her will know what I mean when I say she is the perfect support crew for an event like this: calmly efficient, full of compassion and encouragement and acutely aware of the ticking clock – she had a way of getting me to pedal away from the food stop again before I’d even had a chance to glance longingly at the deck chair by the car. I don’t know how many times I decided that I’d have a sit down stop the next time I made it to Prees roundabout, only to find myself back out on the road before I knew where I was! (I should also mention that she makes fantastic sandwiches too!). Her support must have been worth at least 40-50km to me.

Paul too was a great source of good humoured advice and encouragement. He was marshalling at Prees roundabout for the entire 24 hours and was very vocal in his support and encouragement for every rider who passed through. I think the job he did that weekend was more physically taxing than riding!

As for John, as well as riding the event, he did all the driving too. He was a constant source of good humour, with jokes, puns and one-liners flowing continuously. He was on course for an absolutely fantastic ride until he suffered the catastrophic blow-out near the end. Thanks folks. I hope we can all do it again soon.

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