Over the last five years I have been working with Jon with the primary aim of not making a fool of myself when aiming to compete rather than just attending the World 24-Hour Mountainbike Championships.
I would consider myself quite a competitive person, so when the thought of racing at the top level of 24-hour racing was put in my head a number of years ago, looking for a coach was pretty much the first thing on the list. Even though I had been competitive at things like Mountain Mayhem, I didn’t have any king of focus or structure in how I ‘trained’ for these events. Working with E3C transformed this and transformed my approach to racing, lifting it to a different level, allowing me to obtain three winners jerseys in the singlespeed category, and on two occasions finishing well inside the top-10 overall, including a third overall in 2018. Hopefully these words will give you an idea how each of the three title has been very different in how they have come about, and how working with a good coach means that the hick-ups along the way are not just swept aside, but understood and used as a way of improving.
2016 – Rotorua, New Zealand
The original plan was to train to be competitive for the 2015 WEMBO race in Weaverville, California. Things were all on track until 4 weeks before the race in October, when my competitive spirit got the best of me at the UK Singlespeed championships, and during a ‘race’ on the night before the main event on very small kids bikes ended up with me spraining my rotator cuff in my left shoulder. This left me in a lot of pain and reduced strength in my left arm. An understanding doctor, Four weeks of physio, four weeks of turbo trainer work and some very good advice on pain medication ahead of the event meant I could still go. Unfortunately, 14 hours in, while still at the sharp end, the pain killers were not working and a loss of strength in my arm meant that self preservation on a fast 8-mile descent forced me out with lot of frustration and a feeling of unfinished business. At least I came away from this knowing that I could be competitive and dispel the concerns about making a fool of myself, which had still been kicking around until just before the event.
Before we got back from California, my wife had given me the go-ahead to get to New Zealand for the 2016 race and have another go. Plans were quickly put into place to fund the trip and a successful Crowd-Finding operation meant I was going to get there.
The next four months were focused on maintaining the fitness I had achieved for California, and ensuring my shoulder healed. This meant continuing the exercises my physio had prescribed and four months of training through the worst conditions I had ridden in for a while. But, when you have such a clear goal, and the support of such a lot of people from the funding exercise, the motivation to plug through the conditions just appeared.
I arrived in New Zealand in great form, relaxed and excited to be riding in one of the best places on the planet. I was on my own, which was a strange thing as all my other racing had been supported by my wife. I did however have the support of a mechanic and his family that were friends of the Singular importer in New Zealand.
The support I had was excellent – they were only there because I was, so they helped with anything I needed during the race.
On race day itself, it was hot and humid. The track was in excellent condition, flowing and pretty rooty. On the start line, I was aware that there was one of the elite riders that had made a late change to Singlespeed (Ed McDonald) and local singlespeed favourite Garth Weinberg… Ed took a flier at the start, and knowing that he was riding well above my sustainable pace, I left him to it. A couple of laps circulating with a couple of other Brits got me into the race, and following a pitstop 2-3 laps in, things spread out a little, and I settled into the usual 24-hour thing of riding with my own thoughts and regular pitting/eating/drinking. 6-hours in and a change of bike was needed – the relentlessly rooty sections meant that rigid forks were not the right choice and a swap to the spare bike with suspension forks was in order to preserve my ability to hold on through the techy parts of the lap.
I had not asked for my position, but 12 hours in was really exciting as my crew told me that Facebook had just gone crazy as the dot watchers back in the UK had seen I had just passed Ed at the mid-lap timing gate. Hearing this was better than any caffeine shot mid race, and gave me a big focus and adrenaline boost that would see me through the tough hours around daybreak.
The second 12 hours were focused on maintaining my pace and the gap to Ed, which was bouncing around between a handful of minutes up to half and hour. The crew were playing mind games too, with Ed’s support in my pit trying to find out how I was holding up, and mine latching on & playing the same game back. Support from back home over Messenger and Facebook helped deal with some issues with food & drink.
Early morning saw me lap Garth which took a little pressure off as I knew he was in third in the singlespeed category. With a few hours to go, the feedback was to hammer the penultimate lap to ensure I maximised the gap going into the last one as it was clear the race was close enough to come down to the very last lap and showing Ed I was in control…
The last lap started with a 22 minute lead on a 55 minute lap. That lap started OK, but the previous lap had taken a lot, and I was now struggling with upper body strength and the heat. One climb in the trees that I had ridden every other lap saw me getting off and pushing, and I must have looked like crap as the marshal at the top asked if I needed a medic, swiftly followed with my comment along the lines of ‘there’s no way im not getting to the finish’… By the end of the lap, I was slumping off one side of the bike where my left side had zero strength left and shouting at the sheer effort to hold on to the finish. At the finish, the gap was down to 16 minutes. I crossed the line and fell off my bike and ended up going straight to the first aid tent where they helped me deal with the heat and dehydration. The feeling of winning the Singlespeed category, and finishing 6th overall, with it being so close after 24 hours and 200+ miles or riding left me on such a high that lasted a couple of weeks.
The dip after I got back home and the euphoria had worn off was something I hadn’t considered! Goal achieved… what now? It took a long time to regain that mojo/focus/motivation. I can actually pinpoint the time its started coming back. Jon had told me just to go out and ride somewhere, so I chose Cannock Chase one Sunday morning… I was crossing the road between two sets of trails and someone stopped me and said congratulations to me, followed by turning round to his fellow riders and told them where I had been and what I had just done. Amazing. This got me back on the wagon and happy about riding and training again.
2017 – Finale, Italy
This couldn’t have been any more different to Rotorua…
Ingrid couldn’t come as she was working and subject to school holidays, so not great. However, Jon was there to support me, along with a few other E3 competitors, for which I am really grateful. As we were in Europe, my brother, Mark, was there to help too (he is based in Austria), and this was the start of a partnership that was going to develop over a couple of events after this one. However, the attention of my parents and the rest of my brothers family did add some extra pressure – they wanted to see me race and it’s difficult to say no, even though I did make it very clear that they were likely to see a very different side of me that they may not like… Seeing someone push themselves to the limit of their endurance would be tough, and I didnt want anyone there that would be suggesting I stop or instigate any doubt in my mind. Not an easy conversation to have. After the event, Jon told me he could see me getting tense when we went for dinner with everyone on the Friday. Socialising, when I should have been relaxing and getting my head into the event clearly didn’t help me – sometimes it’s best to shut yourself away and find some focus or lose yourself in your own thoughts.
Combine this with the poor organisation on arrival, and no-one really knowing the full lap, or even agreeing how long it was up until the first lap was done, plus the really high temperature and cramped pits all added to my growing anxiety before the start. Oh, and did I mention everyone asking if I was going to get my second singlespeed win on top of me putting myself under extra pressure of wanting a top-10 overall regardless. Looking back, it was all far from ideal.
I went off on a flyer. Jon had managed to convince the organisers to let the singlespeed category go with the elites, but this meant more fast laps that I would have liked – seven of them before my lap times started to plummet.
The course was tough – fast, rough, dusty, all the climbs out in the open with the scorching sun on my back. The climbs were short but sharp, and on a short lap, the elevation gain was deceiving… Before dusk, I had already started to suffer with aches and pains, but I was inside the top-10, although things just weren’t flowing or as enjoyable as previous 24’s.
The real downward spiral started around the half-way mark with a collision with a tree on the run back to the pits. I was close behind someone, moving at speed through a tight and twisty section when my front wheel slipped in a turn and I smacked a tree with my head, hard enough to knock me to the floor and crack my crash helmet. In hindsight I may have been slightly concussed – trying to get back on, I simply fell straight off the other side (much to my brothers amusement)! I got back to my pit and Mark and Jon tried to straighten me out as best possible.
Photo courtesy of @CharlieLees
At this point my lap times plateaued, but my focus was non-existent. Another high speed crash before daybreak pretty much finished me off both mentally and physically and saw me start to drop down the overall as everything was hurting, to the point where there were extra breaks between laps and the draw of sitting down and talking to those around me became too easy to resist.
Fortunately I had a good lead in the singlespeed category, but come the end of the race, I had fallen well outside the top-20 and was well down the running compared to the rest of the Brits racing. I put my brave face on, and I was really grateful for the ‘well done’ from numerous folks, but inside I was gutted and frustrated. Crashing is part of mountain biking, but the number in this race simply was not me – I had lost focus over how I should run my race, and had tried to change my approach. This was a race I’d rather forget, but was important 12 months later in understanding how to approach the next big one…
Photo courtesy of @CharlieLees
2018 – Fort William, Scotland
2018 was a tough year… Being diagnosed with DVT (deep vein thrombosis) after a holiday in Florida early in the year was a very big shock. Two things happened in very quick succession the day that the diagnosis occurred:
- Realisation of my own mortality. I had never been diagnosed with anything that I hadn’t caused myself (injury due to my own stupidity or competitive nature). It scared the crap out of me…
- Stubbornness, fight, denial? Not sure which, but no way was I going to let this get the better of me. Literally within a few minutes of picking up my prescription, two phone calls had been made. The first to my wife, the second to Jon. By the time I phoned Jon, I was in fighting mood…
The meds meant 3 months protecting myself from injury. I couldn’t afford a big crash out training due to the nature of the anticoagulant medication and me doing most of my training rides at the unsociable end of the day. Needs must, and the turbo-trainer was dusted-off… This would keep me pedaling until July if I was given the all-clear after the 3-month treatment.
Jon kept me ticking over with training, and as the end of July approached we started scheming the run up to WEMBO in Fort William. Jon gave up his weekend to come up to Scotland with me to spend a weekend focused on riding at the Nevis Range. It was the same weekend as the 24-12 down in Plymouth, so was not a decision taken lightly by either of us as that was going to be where the rest of the UK’s top 24-hour riders were likely to be racing. I had history at Fort William, with two DNF’s at Relentless in 2016 & 2017, so I needed to know I could see past this past experience as well as understand where I was physically and mentally after the DVT.
This was a turning point for me, and with Jon’s support, I walked away from that weekend on a high, knowing I had not lost any fitness, knowing I could see past my last two experiences at Fort William, and having defined a very clear plan that we both believed in for that October.
The way we approached the race was much more like Rotorua – calm, focused, excited. The bonus was having my wife, Ingrid, and brother there. Between them, I knew I had the best support possible. Ingrid knowing what makes me tick and how to pull me back in line. Mark knowing what to do to keep me pedalling and on track with the plan. We deliberately avoided spending too much time at the venue before the race, deciding for some quiet time where we were staying. No distractions.
It all worked a treat. Apart from slipping off a short section of boardwalk at the top of the course on lap 1 and dropping most of the way down the pack, everything fell into place perfectly. Having Mark reminding me of the plan every lap, and not paying attention to anything other than my pace, eating and drinking, I stayed relaxed and focused and was able to enjoy the course. My lap times gradually tailed off rather than dropping off a cliff. The foul conditions from 12 hours in didn’t distract me, and Ingrid ensured I stayed warm through the night and horizontal rain.
Like the New Zealand race I was unaware of my category position, until 18-jours in when Ingrid and Mark felt strongly that I needed to know. My lead over Paul Renshaw, second singlespeed was less than a lap and not changing significantly, so needed managing over the last few hours of the race. At this point I had no idea of my overall position.
Photo courtesy of @SportGraf
Having a slick pit team is so important, and their reaction to my comment about brake pads wearing out with a few hours left saw them grab a mechanic for the end of my next lap saw a rear quick turn-around when I got back. Doing a lap with only a front brake also gave me a much needed adrenalin shot and ensured I stayed focused to the finish.
As I rolled over the line, I got the confirmation of the win, and the best news of a third overall. The plan had worked and I had shaken off the bad start to the year and got my third WEMBO jersey.
So, in summary, and looking back over the past 5 years there are a few things to pull from my experiences, of which these are just a few in the last 14 years of solo 24-hour racing… Firstly, the importance of riding your own race. This is only possible when you are aware of your sustainable pace over such a long duration, something I have learnt with so many years riding 24’s solo, and the hours put in under Jon’s direction. Even with this, it’s easy to get distracted by those around you when in race mode (as happened to me in Italy). So discipline and having a plan with a support team who know what the plan is and are strong enough to enforce it are both important. So, this brings preparation and trust into the equation too. Preparation comes in many forms from the massive number of hours in the saddle leading up to a race, to the prep of your bike, dealing with hiccups along the way to a race to make sure when you arrive at the venue the only thing to think about is the event. Trust in the crew in the pits to support you when things get tough, by giving you words of encouragement, a hug or giving you a jacket, telling you to man-up and pushing you back out in the rain when all you want to do is sit down.
Finally, none of the above would have been possible without the support and belief of those that have helped me out over the years. My wife, son, brother and parents for the never ending belief in me. Jon and E3C for the same thing, and his ability to listen to and interpret my insecurities and doubt in my performance/ability that get dumped on him from time to time and then turn it round to re-motivate me. And my sponsors, who have stood by me during the low points and helped support my addiction to racing through the assistance with, and opportunity to ride with some amazing parts, clothing, food & drink, race entries, and moral support – Travers Bikes, USE Ultimate, Exposure Lights, Fibrax, Lauf Forks, Squirt lube & sealants, Precision Hydration, Rotor, Lezyne, Vee Tire, and C-Bear.