I’d kept fairly quiet about this, but some people knew I’d been silly enough to enter the Sleepless in the Saddle 24-hour race as a solo rider. I’ve done a few 24-hours as part of a team, but never solo before.
I had two goals for my first attempt at solo 24-hour cross-country racing:
- Survive until the end without injury, and
- Aim to do ten laps (I usually do five as part of a team of four riders, so twice that should be possible I reckoned).
I got back from Unicon (where it was hot and sunny almost the whole time) on Tuesday to find that the weather here had been very wet, with no improvement expected, and heavy rain forecast for the weekend of the race. Bummer. Knowing what the gound in Catton Park gets like when it’s wet, I checked the web on Friday before setting off, half expecting the race to have been cancelled. No, looked like it was still on, so I set off up to Bristol. My parents had offered to drive me from there up to the race and back, so we transferred all my kit into their van and off we went (they were planning on dropping me off and heading off somewhere else for the weekend, but they ended up getting really into the racing and being a very useful support crew, so thanks to them for that!)
We arrived at Catton Park in fairly bright weather. The campsite wasn’t too muddy and I managed to put my tent up in the dry. Things were looking quite promising. I had a stroll round the trade tents and signed in - it was about then that it finally sunk in when I actually had my entry pack in my hand, marked “category: solo men”. Eek, no going back now. Ate plenty of spaghetti (thanks Mum!) and went to sleep.
In the night it rained. Quite a lot. My tent hadn’t been tested like this for some time and leaked a bit, but not too badly. I got a reasonable amount of sleep. In the morning the rain had stopped - perhaps the band of rain had passed over us already. OK, not much to do in the morning without team mates to argue with over who does the first lap (and the dreaded run), so I just checked my kit over, drank plenty of water and ate more food. By the time of the riders’ briefing it had started to rain again…
Then we were off… I jogged round the “run”, grabbed my unicycle and set off on my first lap. The course was quite similar to last couple of years and most of it was pretty muddy, but no worse than it got two years ago - and the rain was going to stop and let the course dry up, wasn’t it?! Anyway, I’d been clever and put a 2" tyre on my 26" wheel in a frame meant for a fat 3" tyre, so I wasn’t going to get any mud clogging problems, was I? I felt quite smug as I saw bikers struggling with binding wheels and chains - even in the bits I couldn’t ride at least my wheel still went round so I could push rather than carry. It was quite slow going (the leading bikes were lapping in 45+ minutes rather than the normal 30ish) and four hours into the race I’d only done two laps, but was enjoying the mud riding practice. The skinny tyre was helping a bit, but it was still very hard going.
Because of the gloomy weather I decided to stop and fit my lights before going out again. Back at camp as I sat there fiddling with lights and eating some food it started absolutely hammering down with rain. By the time I went back out the track conditions had deteriorated into an utter quagmire - even some of the nice open grassy bits had become so soft and slippery it was almost impossible to stay on (although it was fun trying!) There were broken gear mechs, chains, tyres, whole wheels (!) and everything else you could imagine strewn around the course and I was very glad to have a nice indestructable unicycle. Five hours later I’d done another two laps. People were giving up and going home. These were by far the worst conditions I’ve ever tried to ride in, but I was determined to survive until the end. I only had six hours of runtime on my main light, so my plan of doing three night laps (which normally would have been well possible in that time) was scuppered by the grim goo. Time to get a bit of sleep before it got light again. One of the trade tents was giving away T-shirts to anybody who had suffered a broken mech… I heard they had seen over 200!
Sunday morning was gloomy but not raining, and at least I’d be able to see the gloop I was trying to ride through. I felt more positive than when I went to bed in the early hours. I’d probably managed to get about three or four hours’ sleep and was feeling surprisingly refreshed, and being light always helps to boost morale. Looking around, the campsite had thinned out a bit overnight - it seemed that quite a few people had had enough. Oh well, only a few hours to go - might as well go out and try to enjoy it (I don’t get much mud riding at home because most of the Dartmoor trails are very gravelly, so it’s quite a novelty for me to ride in slime), and by this point I was so muddy I didn’t really care anymore.
My first lap of the morning was probably the most annoying conditions of the race - the mud had started to dry up a bit, but reached a sort of toffee consistency. I discovered that ankle-deep toffee will clog up even with my massive mud clearance, and I actually resorted to carrying the unicycle for a mile or two. Then we had another heavy shower. The rain actually made things a bit better because it diluted the really sticky mud enough for it to get spread to the side by the constant passing of riders/walkers and a rideable line began to appear round a good portion of the course. It was still very challenging riding, but mostly possible (with lots of crashes, wipeouts and remounts, which are all part of the fun) apart from some particularly bad bits in the woods. My lap times were still over two hours though, even in the light.
I managed another three laps, crossing the finish line after 24 hours and 40 minutes. General tiredness really hit me on the last lap and I ended up walking some of the climbs I’d ridden on every other lap. I was even having to concentrate pretty hard to react to overtaking bikers’ calls of “on your left/right”. After the half-way point the adrenaline (and caffeine boost from the Red Bull tent!) kicked in and perked up a bit for the finish. Shaking Pat Adams’ hand on the line was a really good feeling - I’d survived! The weather had even brightened up enough to dry the tent off before we had to pack it away.
So, overall an interesting experience. I succeeded in my first goal of surviving to the end without injuring myself, but only managed seven of my target of ten laps. But I’m happy that I stuck it out to the end and didn’t give up like quite a few others did, and I don’t reckon I could have done any better given the conditions. The top bike teams only did about 20 laps this year (they usually do 30+). Perhaps I should give it another go in better weather… hmmm.
Although they probably won’t read this, I’d like to thank all the spectators, commentator and other riders for their incredible support. As unicyclists we usually get a fair amount of interest and respect, but I think the fact that I was racing solo made it even more of a novelty. I think I only got two negative comments during the whole race, one a fairly lighthearted “I don’t think you ever ride that puppy” from a bloke who always seemed to pass me in the bits I couldn’t ride (but he said it when I was feeling particularly pissed off at night), and one “give me the line NOW” from an arrogant idiot half a second before he pushed me into a bush on my penultimate lap (“on your left/right” would have been nice mate :().
So, same again next year and hope for better conditions? Not at all sure at the moment!
BTW, I didn’t take my camera, but there are a few pictures up on Joolze Dymond’s site and a few other links on the Singletrack World forum. Also sitspix.co.uk has a few. The results aren’t out as I write this, so I don’t know how I did overall. I know the first three solo men did 20, 17 and 16 laps respectively - amazing.