Going into the 24 Hour World Solo Championships in New Zealand I knew it would take the race of my life to defeat six time World Champion Jason English from Australia. I had that race and I am still shocked at what went down in Rotorua during those 24 hours.
Having finished eight previous 24 hours races, all containing some sort of massive meltdown, I had always dreamt of having a race in which the body fired properly for the whole 24 hours. I told myself I would keep racing 24 hours events until I had that ride. On February 20-21, that ride finally came. My support team of Tarren Sohier, Jason Beacham and Justin Price came together the day of the race and the four of us melted into a well-oiled machine, keeping the average pit stops around 15 seconds. English pitted a bit faster, but he is a mongrel.
Feeling fresh on the first lap I pushed the pace a bit to test out the field. I felt strong but the course was pretty simple and had nothing selective in it physically or technically to split the field apart and eight or 10 of us rolled through the start/finish together. At this point I knew it was going to be a long race of patience and consistency on the flowing trails so I backed off the throttle to settle into diesel mode for a while. For the next 10 hours I rolled around the course between fourth and sixth position with Adrian Retief from New Zealand as the keeners went off the front at a pretty mental pace. It was a cruisy ride as the course wound its way through some thick green New Zealand foliage with massive silver ferns lining the course. The setting reminded me of Jurassic Park and I kept expecting a velociraptor to jump out of the forest at some point. Just after midnight the time splits were starting to near 15 minutes to the lead duo of Jason English and Swedish rider Tobias Lestrell. This set off an alarm; if it grew much bigger the race would slip away.
Normally 1 to 4 a.m. is meltdown time as the body starts to tire after 13 hours of racing and the mind starts to wander into a sleep-deprived daze. Knowing it was going to be rough no matter what, I decided to crank the throttle wide open in an attempt to get back up to the leaders and try to build some momentum to carry through the night. The lighting system from Radical Lights allowed me to put down the fastest night laps of the race and by 4 a.m. I had worked my way up to Jason English in the lead. Tobias had been riding strong but unfortunately suffered a crash, losing time and energy. The other guys in the top five seemed to be slipping a bit, feeling the effects of their early efforts. It was a welcome sight, then, to finally see English’s Australian jersey in front of me. Not wanting to stir the resting giant, I opted to hide my existence by stopping for a pee, refuelling the body and then trying to attack him at the base of the only climb on the course, a three minute little burner. Blowing by English at the base of the climb, I managed to gain a small gap but he would slowly close it on the endless flowing single track which followed and soon we were back together. This kicked off the next 10 hours of what was the hardest battle of my life.
The 17.3 km laps contained 15.5 km of singletrack and 1.8 km of fireroad. It became clear pretty early I was riding stronger on the fireroad sections, and English maybe a bit more consistently on the rest of the course (and also pitting slightly faster). Unable to drop him out on course, as I approached the pit late in the night I told Tarren that next lap I was going to roll the pit stop and try to gap Jason there. It worked brilliantly as we gained a 10 second gap on English heading out of the pits. Burying myself on the first part of the course which contained the fireroad sections, the gap grew a bit bigger but somehow my friend found another gear and clawed his way back by the end of the lap. I couldn’t believe the guy could come back from the effort and I knew it was going to be a race to the end at this point.
For the next eight hours we would take turns attacking each other, Jason usually just after the pits and myself on the climbs and fire roads. It didn’t seem to matter what either of us did, however, as the other guy would just grit his teeth a little harder and close the gap. The speeds we were reaching were shocking and I was concerned a massive meltdown was going to hit. I could envision me falling into the thick foliage, twitching out and in need of rescue by the medics. Surprisingly, that never happened and with four hours to go I noticed Jason was looking a bit shaky. I put down another big effort on the fire road and gapped him good, maybe just over a minute. I thought that if I laid every ounce of energy into the pedals to increase the gap I would give Jason his first 24 hour loss in seven years. The speed I was going I figured I had to be gaining on him. It was a crazy sensation as the body was exhausted but feeling good, although the legs were pretty numb and not quite firing at 100 per cent anymore. I kept getting glimpses of someone closing in. At one point I looked back and saw the beast standing up, smashing his pedals just off my wheel. WTF? How the hell did that guy close that gap, he hasn’t ridden that strong all race but now 20 hours in he’s finding another gear? I looked for another gear myself and fired another counter attack his way. We were both riding in a crazy state.
For the next lap we cruised together, both screwed but trying to hide it. I had another problem growing too, as my bladder was ready to explode. I asked Jason if he wanted a neutral pee stop. He was fine and said no but offered to ride slowly and wait while I did my business. It was a piss that would have made a camel proud, but Jason stuck to his word and pretty soon I was back to within five to seven seconds of his wheel as we both hit a long rolling descent. As we we were refuelling, we approached a small drop off. Hitting it slower then usual, my front wheel snagged a root and I found myself being launched 10 feet down a steep sidehill into an entanglement of ferns and plants. It would’ve hurt like hell but the thick foliage broke my fall. Unfortunately, it also made it hard to get out of the mess. I probably lost close to minute getting back up to the trail. I had some work to do and chased down Jason for the next half lap, finally catching him, but he would soon put in a small effort to separate himself as he could likely sense I was a bit tired from the chase. He extended the gap by a few more seconds in the pits and all of a sudden he was just out of sight.
Now it was go time but unfortunately the body was battling a low point. I dropped a few minutes this lap and had 3.5 minutes to make up heading into the final lap. Yelling and dumping water down my back, I tried everything to find any ounce of adrenaline or energy left in the body and pretty soon found myself cruising really well and getting momentum back. I’ve had laps like this before in past 24 hours and had caught whoever I was chasing and figured that unless Jason was riding out of his mind I would surely be gaining ground. There was also another race on the line: if I could come in before noon there would be an overtime lap to decide the title. Everything was being sent on this lap to get in before the cut-off. I’m not sure what would’ve happened on the next lap if I actually made it as my body was in a surreal state. Too bad for me, Jason is a monster and he was also having an adrenaline-fuelled lap. He put down one of his fastest laps of the whole race and even extended his lead by 30 seconds. Fighting the clock now, I came in 40 seconds past the noon cut-off time and thus ended my bid for my first World Title.
It’s been an emotional roller coaster the past few days, being so close to one of my major cycling goals yet coming up short, but also having the satisfaction of riding the best 24 hour race of my life and having reached farther and deeper than ever before. I’m content with the effort and the race which occurred and keep reminding myself that Jason specializes in 24 hour racing and is the best the sport has ever seen, while I try to wing one once a year around my normal racing schedule. There was a lot learned during this battle and the limits my mind used to set on my body have been stretched. That being said there is a gutted feeling right now and some unfinished business which I look forward to taking care of in the future. CW