24 hours of mountainbike magic

Andrew Howett - All photographs by Sportograf

Andrew Howett – All photographs by Sportograf

Competitor Andrew Howett, now fully recovered from the World Solo 24-hour Mountainbike Championship at Fort William, gives his personal account of an extraordinary event.

Often the things which are most simple in concept are the most difficult to accomplish in reality. The idea of a 24-hour mountainbike race is easy enough: ride around a course for 24 hours and whoever does the most laps wins. However, 24 hours is a long time to do anything for, never mind race.

In October Fort William hosted the 24-hour Solo World Championships, the first time the event has taken place in the UK. After the huge success of previous events in Australia and Italy, Scotland would have a lot to live up to. The pressure was on the course to live up to expectations, and we were hoping the weather would not let us down.

Defending Singlespeed Champion Brett Belchambers

Defending Singlespeed Champion Brett Belchambers

Following practice sessions earlier in the week confidence in the course was high. It was going to be a tough race, the lap was just under 8½ miles long, with about 1,600ft of climbing, and of course 1,600ft of downhill. Most of it had been used for the cross-country world championships. In a two-hour race, with everyone wide awake, it was a lot of fun but in the wee small hours, with everyone half asleep, it would be really tough. Over two hours, the climbs were relentless and the descents a hoot to ride but with plenty of tricky rock sections to catch the unwary or overconfident. The consensus was that it was one of the hardest 24-hour courses around, and whoever won would be a very worthy world champion. As for the weather, in Fort William, in October, there would probably be a bit of everything.

However, following a day of rain on the Friday, Saturday morning dawned bright and sunny. The start was at noon, and the 170 competitors from 23 different countries lined up behind a pipe band, which led them out of the pits and on to the racetrack. The first couple of miles were neutralised behind the motorbike to give the riders a chance to spread out before the course became too narrow. It peeled off after a couple of minutes and the race was on! American Kelly Magelky took an early lead, pursued by Scotland’s Rob Friel, England’s Richard Dunnet and the Swiss rider Daniel Schmidheiny. The defending champion, the Aussie Jason English, was playing the long game and crossed the line at the end of the first lap in 10th.

All-lined-up-and-ready-to-go

Despite the length of the race there can be no taking it easy. The standard of competition is so high nowadays that, at least at the sharp end, everyone will be pushing hard from the outset, a balancing act between going as fast as possible and minimising the risks in the difficult sections. The other important aspect is keeping the length of the pit stops down, just the briefest pause to refuel, taking on as much food as one can, along with the occasional change of clothing or lights.

By nightfall the defending champion was at the head of the field but he was not being given an easy time. Magelky had dropped back but Dunnett and Elias Van Hoeydonk, from Belgium, were pushing him hard. Being late in the year the night was longer than would be normal at a World Championship, over 13 hours of darkness out on the hillsides and even more than that in the dense woodland sections, which just added to the difficulty of the event. There was a brief shower around midnight but otherwise the elements were extremely kind to us, far better than we had dared to hope for at this time of year.

In the women’s race, Scotland’s Lee Craigie who had led early on, had retired, handing the lead to England’s Ricci Cotter but New Zealander Kim Hurst had fought her way up to the top spot by dusk. Both races were developing into excitingly close contests.

Things had changed again by the time the sun finally rose, well after 7am. England’s Ant White had been plugging away all night, nothing spectacular but strong consistent laps had seen him creeping up the order as those around him tired and fell back and by sunrise he was up to second. On lap 16 there were 30 minutes between him and English, but English was starting to suffer. By lap 23 the gap was down to 14 minutes, a far from comfortable margin for the leader. White was still pushing hard, and gaining. A World Championship was within his sights, but a snapped chain cost him dearly and he dropped out of contention in the closing stages. To be more precise, what cost him dearly was hands numbed by cold and twenty-odd hours of vibrations, which rendered them useless at mending a snapped chain.

The final order was Jason English (Australia), Ant White (England) and Richard Dunnett (England) with Kim Hurst (New Zealand) taking the win in the women’s race and finishing 12th overall, just ahead of Ricci Cotter (Wales) and Erin Greene (New Zealand).

To underline just how impressive his ride had been English had won another 24-hour race only a fortnight before, giving him minimal recovery time. To compound matters he had only been given two days off work, the Friday and the Monday. However, thanks to the time difference he was able to arrive in Fort William on Friday afternoon. He had very little time to practise, but the very nature of a 24-hour race countered any effects of jetlag he may have been suffering. Having won the race he hopped straight back on to a plane on Sunday afternoon in order to be at work first thing on Tuesday morning, the time difference working against him for the return journey.

Matt Page pursued by Craig Bowles and Ant Jordan

Matt Page pursued by Craig Bowles and Ant Jordan

There were some very strong performances further down the field, and I will just pick out a couple.

As if racing for 24 hours wasn’t daft enough, some people make things even harder for themselves by doing it on a singlespeed, a bike with only one gear. Aussie Brett Belchambers is a legend of the sport and started the race as hot favourite, and was a favourite among the crowd, too. Much to everyone’s surprise he didn’t have it all his own way and was pushed very hard indeed by Englishman Saul Muldoon. Proving that having only one gear is no handicap they not only dominated the singlespeed category but even more impressively took 7th and 9th places overall.

Craig Bowles, the 2012 bronze medallist and 2013 European Champion, was flying early on. He was having a fantastic battle with Ant White throughout the wee small hours, fighting hard over third and fourth places before moving up to second and third when Rob Friel dropped back. However, Bowles’ last few laps were a lot slower. He looked like he was really starting to suffer, his breathing laboured, every climb a real effort. He hung on, dropping back to 16th overall by the finish but still winning his age group, a ride of real determination. He then spent the next few days in hospital with pneumothrax (air outside his lung, a condition brought on by overexertion) and missed collecting his medal.

Andrew Howett chased by BJ Doherty

Andrew Howett chased by BJ Doherty

As for myself, I struggled round to limp home 77th overall, thanks to a feeling of general yuckiness, which the following day became tonsillitis, so I will use that as an excuse.

I would like to thank XCRacer/Scimitar, Mt Zoom bike components, Accelerade energy drinks and USE/Exposure lights for their support all season. Ant White rides for the same team and he got on to the podium so we know they all work perfectly well, I was slow entirely on merit.

Next year we will be in Weaverville, California, before heading to Rotorua, New Zealand, in 2016 and Finale Ligure, Italy, in 2017.

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