24 Hour Party People
I find myself ruminating, unable to sleep, overtired and stiff-legged after a weekend of 24 hour mountain bike racing. What is the point of racing? Let’s add to that a question my wife raised, “Why are there no 24-hour cyclocross races?” It has taken me several days to work it out, but I think I have the answer, and it all boils down to the style, the nature of the racing.
I had assumed it might have to do with the course. After all, who would want to race around the clock on your average school playing field ‘cross course? Imagine jumping hurdles not just eight times in an hour, but eight times every single hour for the duration. Agony! Dismounts would be a matter of luck after a quarter of the race. But surely pain and suffering are par for the course in any style of endurance race. Over the weekend I was in a rapture of back pain and cramped legs by four in the morning, sixteen hours into a team event. I actually had to push my bike up hills, trying to coax life back into my body and to convince myself that I wasn’t about to slump into the undergrowth and be eaten by worms. This would be no different on a 24-hour ‘cross course, or indeed a 24-hour road race around a smooth motor racing circuit. Suffering is suffering is suffering.
No, there is one big difference between your average ‘cross race and your average 24 hour race. In a ‘cross race, I will be racing against the same handful of riders. I will know their strengths. I will have seen where they are faster on the course than me, and conversely, where they struggle. Over a number of laps I will be able to plan where I can break away from them, where I can put my power down and pull away. Or maybe they will do this to me. It is racing in the purest form. I have never found another form of cycle-sport where you can do this. There are no teammates to hide you. The machinery, the bikes or tyre choice, rarely make a difference. It is all about how strong you are, how well you can play the game. How good a tactician you are, how good a racer.
24-hour mountain bike racing is different in that you are fighting against yourself. I rarely saw the same rider for more than a few minutes of a lap, and not once did I plan an overtaking move based on my knowledge of that rider. The beauty of this form of racing is in survival. I’m still moving, I’ve got past the cramps, the bonk, I’m enjoying the peace of a rainy Devon morning and soon to eat a bacon sandwich as the darkness fades. I could ride slightly faster but that might mean that I don’t finish the event in many hours’ time. So I’ll plod along. Not remotely like a ‘cross race, but never intended to be. Racing at a tortoise’s pace compared to the intense, frenetic elbow-to-elbow hare race that is ‘cross.
Could I cope with the intensity of ‘cross for 24 hours? No. Not until somebody organises an event, and then the answer may be different!
Photographs by Andy Rice and Craig Fawkes.