(This might be a bit long...)
Anyone hear the breaking news that 1000 cyclists were treated for trenchfoot in Plymouth over the weekend???
Well, not really, but unfortunately not far from the truth.
This was the second year that Agata and I made the trip to Plymouth for the Bontrager Twentyfour12 endurance race, to compete in the 12hr mixed pairs category. Last year, beyond our expectations we took 2nd place in that category so we return this year in the hope of going one better.
The weather warnings were ominous, so we packed every last stitch of cycle clothing we had on Wednesday and prepared ourselves for the worst...which was more or less what we got. Driving down the M5 on Friday, some of the showers were so bad that I had to slow to a crawl as I couldn't see out the windscreen, thankfully they eased off a touch as we arrived in Newnham Park where Aine, Conor and Paddy already had the tents set out trackside in preparation for the rest of the Irish contingent's arrival over the course of the evening.
We took in a quick practice lap, found a little but not too much mud (more slidderiness than mud) and decided that the course was not as good as last year - other than the Cottage Return descent, which closed out the lap last year but this year was encountered after 15-20 mins - there seemed to be little return for all the effort involved in just getting around the loop. Normally, I love a bit of climbing, but this just seemed to climb and descend endlessly without any real notable features or mental markers which one could look forward to or work towards. I think that "uninspiring" is probably the word that sums it up in my mind, compared to last year when we couldn't wait to get out for another lap. We hoped that, given that the course had obviously been tweaked with an eye on the impending weather, it would at least remain mostly rideable for the duration of the race.
After a dinner cooked on the bbq, we retired to the tent for a night of non-sleep as the thunderstorms rolled in, rain battered on the canvas and the water levels rose. and rose, and rose. Thankfully Phil had gotten up at 3am for a pee and spotted that everyone's belongings were getting soaked as the water level in the field popped above the ground and lifted what he could onto tables, chairs etc, so at least some people had dry gear to start the rain in. First task of the day was to assess the damage and move the gazebos to firmer ground. Word quickly spread around the campsite that the go-ahead for the race would only be given at 11am, due to the rising level of the river running along the length of the campsite and the risk it posed to the many bridges crossing it - indeed it seemed that we were lucky not to have to evacuate the campsite in the middle of the night.
At this stage, I was in no mood for starting what I knew was going to be become a 12 hour slog - I hadn't slept a wink and my appetite had seemingly been washed away in the storm - not a good starting point really. Agata tried her best to coax me round, but it was with a sense of duty rather than excitement I pulled on my lycra and headed for the start line, for the usual standing around for 20 minutes in order to get a position near the front.
The countdown happens and there's the usual pushing and jostling for space as hundreds of cyclists dive for the fast line through the first corner and onto the start loop. Returning into the arena 6 minutes later, I'm counted through in about 20th position, so my start obviously wasn't too bad but there's still room for improvement as I make it up to ~15th overall by the end of the first full lap and hand over to Agata. At this point it's probably worth noting that the first lap was by far the most enjoyable - in a fast group, track not yet properly muddy (98% rideable) and hammering, feeling good - this is the abiding highlight of the race.
The rest of the laps passed by in a muddy fashion - ride, try not get the derailleurs too clogged up, run, ride, run run run, finish, clean bike, eat, repeat. Agata was putting in a strong performance and we were having a good dice with another couple for the top spot, although she was getting weaker and not feeling great. Around 7pm, I decided that I'd do a double lap, partly to give Agata a chance to get a proper meal, rest and fresh set of clothes in the hope that it'd raise her spirits a bit, and partly to make the most of the dwindling daylight and get in two solid laps before nightfall - I gambled that seeing as the other team's female was a good bit slower than Agata, her first night lap would be slower still and I could put 15-20 minutes into them over the two laps.
At 21:45 I handed over to Agata again, who buoyed by dry clothes, hot food and caffeine gels, bounded off down the course, her enthusiasm having spiked and she was feeling great again. In the break, I had to get the bike unclogged and a new derailleur
fitted, having damaged my rear one 10 minutes into my double lap - thanks to the Cycle Surgery mechanics for sorting me out. An hour later, she returned and at transition, we had a brief 5 second chat about who would do the last lap - she was feeling great and put herself forward - I was willing to do a double stint now to the finish if we needed it, but only having the last time check to go by, we assumed we didn't.
I came around at 23:50, perfect timing and still in the lead and handed over to Agata for the last time. She had no idea what the gap was, as the timing screen had been down since the end of her last lap and there was no one around to check with. The gap at the last time check was about 12 mins, and we assumed that their female rider would have to do at least one of the last 3 laps, which would maintain the gap - their male rider was faster than me, but not by that much!
Unfortunately this was an assumption too far on our part....we didn't realise that he was out there on a 3 lap stint, starting the last lap 5 minutes behind Agata!
I was a lonely, nervous figure as I waited in the arena, hoping that Agata could pull it out of the bag, hoping that maybe 3 laps was too much for him and he'd relent a little in the poor conditions, but at 12:54am he crossed the line with arms in the air and my heart sank. Agata followed 2 minutes later, almost inconsolable - this was the one event she really really wanted this year and we had come so close to taking it. 2 minutes and 44 seconds over 13 hours of racing in atrocious conditions. It couldn't really have been any closer.
As we sat down to a hot meal and beer after a long shower, a bad case of the "what-ifs" set in - what if I hadn't had mechanical trouble on my double lap, or crazy chain suck for my last 4 laps...what if Agata hadn't needed to get sick after a few hours - we just needed to be 15 seconds a lap faster. What if the timing screen worked, and we knew we only had 6 minutes to spare with 2 laps to go - I could have doubled up for the last lap, taken it reasonably handy and still won. As time goes by, these questions become increasingly both infuriating and irrelevant - we rode at the speed we rode, made the decisions we made, and we have to live with that. We'll be back again, fitter, smarter and having learned from the experience.
Many congratulations to Alex Nichol and Jason Smith from Team CCN, worthy winners and sporting opponents - we look forward to a return battle in the future.
Interestingly, our times this year would have placed us 4th in the male pairs category, or ~7th in the teams category, and we were 2 laps ahead of the 3rd place couple, so objectively speaking, we were about where we needed to be.
The contrast between this year and last is striking, for me. Last year, we went with no expectations, absolutely loved every second of the course and the race and finished 2nd, 25 mins down on 1st place, and absolutely delighted with ourselves. This year, we went there wanting the victory, hated the course, finished second by 3 minutes and came away disappointed with ourselves. Like night and day...or sunshine and crazy rain storms!
Maybe we'd be happier if it didn't take 2 hours to powerhose some of the mud off our kit, and that's before we tackled the laundry!
On a concluding note, I have to thank team manager and soigneur extraordinaire, Aine, for all the help she have over the weekend, she is the one thing that held the whole camp together when people, bikes and tents were falling apart. As always it was a pleasure to travel with the MAD riders, each of them had their own battle over the weekend but offered fun and laughs throughout, even when, at times, some of us were in serious danger of a sense of humour failure.
Thanks also to Martyn Salt and his event crew for keeping the whole show on the road over the weekend in extremely adverse conditions - I'm sure there were plenty of nervous and stressful moments but the event passed mostly successfully, a credit to their hard work and dedication to the sport.