Sunday, 3 November 2013

Part 3 - Wembo 24 Hour Solo World Championships - Canberra

There was no gun, no puff of smoke, no Daisy Duke waving away two tearaway drag-cars, just the sound of cleats snapping into pedals and the gentle cheer of the gathered crowd.

We were racing, though to the casual observer, it was very gentlemanly indeed. Low pressure tyres casually hummed as we did a presentation lap of the tarmac. Fitzroy Rev rider Mark Sandon rolled up next to me and simply placed his hand on my back in a no-words gesture of camaraderie. I did the same, nothing was said, but the understanding was there. We were both rolling into the biggest race of our lives.

Rocks! Who'd have thunk it?
I had some reservations about the opening hour. I'd heard that it'd sometimes start like a time trial, blasting into 24 hours of trail like a coked-up SWAT team, which is what it is usually like in any race 6 hours and under. Instead the peloton formed well behaved conga line of co-ordinated colour, with almost a completely synchronized cadence as we snaked up the first climb. The pace was not flat out, but not exactly slow. Usually riding at this kind of speed would indicate that you'd got to the starting chute late and were rolling around at the back with the wobblers, trying to avoid the carnage as heavy breathing beginners aimed themselves at trees, rocks and sudden drops. By contrast each rider possessed such a command of their respective bike that they seemed to float over the trail, effortlessly cutting efficient lines through the barking rocks and snarling foliage. It was like watching bullets in slow motion.
3 hours in. Still clean, still covertly having fun.
Strangely, nobody talked. In past incarnations as a team rider at 24 hour events I'd come steaming up on a couple of solo riders who'd been discussing Jungian psychoanalysis at 4 in the morning, and appeared to have been doing so for the past 3 hours. Not at this Wembo. With non-UCI approved rainbow stripes on the line it seemed that talking was reserved for the un-serious. And here, on some of the funnest trails in the southern hemisphere, un-seriousness was rarer than rocking horse shit.
There were no well formed micro pelotons of similarly skilled riders, no witty banter, no discussions of concussions or tales of gore about saddle sores. It was like each rider was watching everybody out of the corner of their eye, in the fear that a fellow competitor would pickpocket their last gel and use it to out-sprint them - 22 hours from now. I stole no gels, spoke no evil and wound through the open lap lurking in tenth in the 40-44 age group. Not that I knew...I was still mildly terrified of what I'd look like in 20 hours time.

The laps ticked away and strangely, I was feeling pretty damn good. My ever attentive support crew of Kyllie, Linda and Bede the mechanic would jump to attention as I rolled into the pits, plying me with lube, bananas to gobble during transition and gels that I would mainline on the short and rare quiet sections of the trail. I tried to keep my ticker beating south of 160 per minute on the climbs and bombed the descents like I didn't like myself - which on such kicking trail was hella-fun. Much more fun than 'actually' not liking myself. I save that for road riding. And I didn't know, or wasn't listening, but I was drifting north on the score sheet and as the sun started getting shy circa 7.00pm I had crept into a category 6th and mid 40's overall.

Dusk - Light bulb above the head - but no idea
Shadows stared to stretch out and tiger-stripe the trail, mutating pretty average lines into a freak-show. Every so often I would misread a line and end up with white knuckles, complaining tyres and a massive momentum leak.
This was happening more and more regularly and by the time it was properly black, I was beginning to appreciate how hard this period may actually be.

Ask anybody (with a suitably loaded question) and they will agree. Darkness is isolating. It washed in around the trees and chased all the contrast out of the trail. My lights did a reasonable job of re-presenting my path in shades of white, light grey and black but I was still losing perspective, braking way too late and shedding speed like it was a painful memory. In the deepening solitude my thoughts got louder, madly clear and resolutely weirder. In a moment where I almost out-weirded myself I imagined that I was a post-apocalyptic bike courier who had to deliver an important package across a radioactive wasteland whatever the cost - with the odd zombie encounter in there for entertainment.

Role playing games, no dice
The darkness took hold like pneumonia and I was starting to get sick of it. To make matters worse I was being very well looked after my pit crew, but seeing them heralded only the harsh reality that I needed to roll out onto the trail again. Out on course, there were sections of trail that, once painted black may as well have been blunt force trauma. In a shining example of why alcohol should never be prohibited, at the impact point of one of the hardest sections of trail a group of spectators had gathered, and fueled by rum and their own warm hearts chanted whatever funny support-crap they could coherently sing, bringing a much needed smile to the parched lips of many a rider. 
"If you're happy and you know it, um... pop a mono!" 
I performed the weakest mono ever popped.

Having tucked away three or four night laps it was in-arguably colder and at my 11:00pm pit I threw a rain shell on for warmth. Kyllie stuffed my pockets with something that I apparently needed, but as I rolled away with a mouth full of muffin I only recall silently complaining about the weight.
One lap and 10 minutes later I was singing her praises - if a little desperately. Some 5 or 6 kilometers from race central, on the downhill run in to a particularly tough section of trail I flicked the switch on my lights to bring them up from one third, to full power. Instead of plastering the landscape with 5000 lumens of light, they went out. Dead. Ex-parrot dead. I don't recall my pupils enlarging so fast as to cause pain before, but they did at that moment. Not that it made a lick of difference - for all I could see I could have been in a coal pit during an Icelandic winter solstice. I locked up front and rear brakes and after a few loud moments of heartrate elevation breathed a sigh of thanks that it was rubber on gravel that pulled me up rather than skull on rock.

I must have dropped five minutes - four and a half being stupefied with stunned disbelief - and 30 seconds in switching out the dead lights with the weight that Kyllie had lumbered me with - a set of helmet mounted Ay-Up race lights. I was saved - but I had to savour it, quite literally. There was no way to mount the battery for the spare light to my helmet and it's cord was too short to allow me to pocket it - so I put the battery in my mouth and gummed it through the lap, dribbling saliva down my chin like an old Labrador with a mangled chew toy.

Mmmm...lithium polymer

Final episode tomorrow...daylight, oh baby.

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