Monday, 7 November 2011


The dust at Ashton Court settled a long time ago and the pain in my wrists, knees, feet, neck and back has faded with time, but the memory of the effort is still inprinted in my muscles.

Ashton Court's Oktoberfest took place on Saturday 15th October, giving me a return to mountain biking racing after a two year hiatus. Somewhat foolishly, and perhaps because most of my mountain biking friends weren't interested in the competition, I decided to enter the solo category: eight hours of laps around a 6 mile course.

I'm not a regular mountain biker, much to the disappointment of my Kona One20 hanging in the garage, but I'd been putting in the odd off-road session over the summer to get some practice in. The most I'd managed was three and a half hours, less than half the racing time of the competition and nothing like the preparation I do for road events, yet still I lined up with several hundred other competitors on a sunny October morning in a meadow in Ashton Court a few minutes before 9am.

My bike, along with everyone else's, was an uphill sprint away at the top of the hill. The infamous Le Mans starts at Bikefest and Oktoberfest are designed to separate the riders before the first narrow singletrack sessions.

The countdown from 10 had barely reached five before the mass charge began. I made a good start, despite the food in my jersey pockets threatening to leap out, finding my bike quickly and getting on the trail towards the front of the pack.

As soon my Kona hit the grass its dual suspension seemed to act like a sponge, sapping my speed and allowing other riders to charge past. Still, knowing the twists and turns of the trail allowed me to pick up speed throughout other sections of the course, powering up the hill sections and picking the right lines through the berms.

Several laps in and I was enjoying the race (despite finding out that Wales lost in the Rugby World Cup semi-final), seeing some friendly faces on the sidelines and enjoying that dog-eat-dog attitude that racing brings.

I covered three and a half hours before my first food stop, which I now know was too long to wait. As soon as I'd eaten I felt so sluggish. Another two laps down and I had to stop again for more food and to ease the pain in my wrists and back.

This time I sat in my van necking Red Bull, eating pasta and sweets and feeling sorry for myself. I must have stopped for 45 minutes before I convinced myself 'just one more lap'.

Jumping back on the bike reminded me just how mountain biking differs from road biking. My undercarriage had taken quite a battering and even just sitting on the saddle was painful!

That first lap after lunch was tough and I almost threw in the towel but seeing the clock at 2pm reminded me that there were only three hours left. I'd raced three hours in the morning without too much trouble. I reasoned with myself that if I could just keep going at a slow pace I could be proud that I'd made it to the finish.

Another two slow laps ticked by, battling for space on the singletrack sections, not caring about being overtaken and barely able to race the singlespeed riders up hill. Who cared whether I was racing people in teams of four or two, or those doing one of the four hour races. I stopped glancing at the category each rider was in when the passed me. I rode my own race from this point and stopped chasing down anything in front of me.

Every time I passed the start/finish line I'd see support teams lined up handing their rider a banana, an energy bar or even paracetmols. I had a few crumbs of fruit cake and an energy gel left in my pocket. With a little over an hour to go I necked both, washed down with a healthy swig of Powerade. Two laps in one hour five minutes was more than possible at the start of the race. Now I wasn't so sure. It was now or never.

I used my usual tactic. Go hard at the start and hang on at the end. I raced the first lap hard, nipping past slower riders where there was barely room, hammering the hills and forcing my body out of the saddle as the gradient increased. Whenever I felt my speed slow I'd check my clock and try and do the maths. The notion of setting out on my second lap only to miss the cut off time was worse than the pain of racing.

You could sense the urgency all around now. Riders were sprinting where otherwise they'd have coasted. Corners were cut and risks were taken to gain a few extra seconds. My back wheel slipped on a couple of occasions but I stayed upright and made it to the start/finish lap with 32 minutes to spare. Then I caught site of a familiar face.  Pete had come to cheer me on. "Yeah, go Hillsdon!" I heard.

I had one more fast lap to finish by 5pm. From racing this event in previous years I remembered how that final lap is always one of the fastest. Give it everything you have. Ignore the cramp and the battered muscles. Never mind that your gears aren't shifting properly. Don't worry that you've run out of water, it'll weigh you down anyway!

I crossed the finish line with about two minutes to spare, recording my third fastest lap of the day. I climbed off my bike very gingerly, bowed my head to my handlebars as if I was praying, and composed myself for a few minutes.

By the time Pete and Catriona found me they didn't like the look of my pale complexion and sunken eyes. Another Powerade and a chocolate bar later I was back on form and enjoying celebrating finishing with friends and work colleagues.

With 13 laps complete I was some way off the front runners who notched up a superhuman 16 laps, a good hour and a half faster than me. I later found out that I came 19th out of 59, which I was pretty pleased with. Next year, paracetemols!

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