Saturday 15 October 2011

Summer Trails In October

‘Why was I wearing shorts?’ My legs screamed as the icy cold air tore through their muscles.  Leaving home early, I promised them they’ll thank me later once the sun comes up.

Taking it easy up Reigate Hill, there was an air of expectancy; I was going to have a good ride.  The weather forecast was good, the trails were dry, and I had recovered from a heavy gym session earlier in the week.

Overlooking Reigate from Coley Hill, the mist covered the quiet sleepy town with only the brave venturing out this early.  The sun’s heat stared gently onto the grazing cows.
Veiw from Colley Hill
Tearing across Banstead common, I could tell this was going to be a fast ride.  The Kenda Small Block tyres lapped up the dusty trails, gliding effortlessly as the trees rushed by.  I needed to slow down as this was a base training ride.  Although the temptation to speed was immense, I focused on going as fast as I could whilst maintaining a low heart rate.

Linking up with Stane Street, then over to Norbury Park, I picked up a few newly discovered trails and headed up to Ranmore.  The sun was now in full blaze as it poked through the trees in the woods.  Descending the steep South side of Ranmore, the fallen leaves covered the trail obscuring the roots, gullies and rocks.  I was knocking on the door of Fear whilst opening the window of Adrenalin as I hurtled down the track.

Finding a suitably steep route to get back on to the ridge, I leg it over to Newlands Corner with my average speed slowly rising.  Making the turn at the A25, I head back exploring a slightly different way to Ranmore. 

Squeezing in an extra loop, I clocked up 40 miles as I arrived at Bocketts Farm for a well deserved cuppa and piece of Tiffin cake.  Its never going to be as good as my Mum’s Tiffin but it’s just the ticket to see me home before lunch.

The final 10 miles was a long slog with lots of climbing.  Crossing over Reigate Hill I charge down the other side to get home.

With 50 miles in the bag, this was an excellent training ride in preparation for the Solo World Champs in 2012.  More on this later...

Monday 29 August 2011

The Other Side of the Fence

“3 scoops of energy powder per bottle with a gel, and an electrolyte bottle every 3rd lap with 2 gels.”  The pre race briefing for Torq 12:12 was very detailed as meticulous notes were taken.  Having ridden this race solo last year, see report, I knew the challenges that lay ahead for the riders.  This time, instead of riding I was staying in the pits providing support.  Involved in the race from a completely different perspective was a new experience.

The AQR / Cotic race team had 2 solo riders, Rachel and Simon, and a team of 4 consisting of Ian, Rich, James and Kate.  Another Ian was the chief mechanic, Ant did everything including taking photos, and Carole was ‘Pit Mum’ an essential role for keeping everyone fed.  I took on the role of Simon’s buddy to ensure he had everything for his solo ride.

Although we all had our roles, we all did everything.  The well oiled pit machine was able to turn a rider and bike around in about a minute.  Having experienced this frenzy of activity on the Exposure 24 ride in May, it was very interesting seeing how it all came together.  The ETA of each rider was calculated and as the time approached someone was on lookout duty to spot them ride across the hill, giving us a 2 minute warning.  Prepared bottles, gels, clothes, mug of tea, bowl of warm water and flannel were all on hand for the rider whilst the mechanics were armed with the pressure washer, lube, spare lights and a spare bike.

As the rider approached, rapid instructions were given for what they wanted which were immediately produced by the swarm of busy pit crew surrounding them.  The warm flannel for the face wash was never requested, but always appreciated.  Notification of their race position with the lag and lead times was provided before the rider was cheered back on to the course.

Whilst clearing up the aftermath of the pit stop, notes were taken on food intakes, lap times and any other useful details, before the preparations started for the next time.
As the day progresses there were numerous tasks to occupy us between the laps; preparing the pit area lights for the night time, modifying the gazebos to cope with the heavy rain, refilling water bottles, drying clothing, checking race positions, updating Twitter and endless bike maintenance.  In addition to this Carole provided us with numerous cups of tea and food to keep us going.

7 hours into the race, I realised that I had hardly sat down.  There was barely time to get a 5 minute rest before Simon was due in again.  The 5 minutes, however, was just enough to keep me going until the finish.

One the race had finished, the riders still needed feeding and sorting out so they were warm and dry.  Cracking open the beers and firing up the barbecue with tasty burgers and sausages was especially satisfying. 

The celebrations were well deserved with Rachel winning the Female Solo, the team came 4th in the Mixed Team and Simon had to retire after 8 hours from 6th place.

The next morning after little sleep, bacon butties washed down with tea, provided the energy to pack away all the gazebos, tents and other equipment.

The AQR / Cotic team presented such a friendly atmosphere with uncompromised support to their riders.  Receiving such effective race assistance makes a huge difference to riding the race, whatever the weather.  It’s not surprising to see that AQR / Cotic have gained podium positions at all the many events they have attended this year.  I was delighted to be involved to see how it works.  Thanks for an amazing experience.

Tuesday 23 August 2011

Big Dog – Throwing away the rule book

As the trees parted revealing the dry twisty trail, with the wheels gliding over the knobbly roots, I found an incredible sense of unity with the bike. Flying round the blind corners looking to catch the next rider, a sense surrounded me that this was the moment. The moment for which riding is all about, giving your all for the buzz, the excitement and the passion of racing on two wheels.

The Big Dog race was such fun with a wonderful course, the thrill of riding was evident all over the park. Loads of top names jostled for position as a sea of prizes flowed from the numerous sponsors. The air hummed as riders completed their lap on a high, to pass the honour onto their team mate to enter magical woods.
Spot the Redhill CC gazebo
Pausing between laps was a novelty for me as normally I ride solo. The burst of energy with your heart rate predominantly above 90% for the 45 minute lap got the juices flowing. I was also much more relaxed beforehand as I had no race plans, no lists of equipment, no nutrition schedules and no timing sheets. After throwing all my kit together at the last minute the night before, I sat back with a beer, which I normally bann before a race.

The shock of the first hill on the course was quite a wake up call as I had hardly warmed up. Hitting the single track trails for the first time took a while for me to get my eye in. The trees bent together with barely enough room for the handlebars to squeeze through, and the roots caught my wheels trying to trip me up. Fighting with the off-camber corner the other side of the A27 reminded me of the wasp nest disturbed 2 years ago. An attack from the blighters coupled with a reaction, brought my race to an abrupt end. This time there were no angry bullets as I climbed the rooty trail.

Picture by Alan Gayle

The fast flowing single track on the second half brought a smile to my face before I was spat out in sight of the finish line.
It was just the 1 lap, then I could rest. What a luxury, what do I do? This novel experience felt quite odd, perhaps I should be out doing another lap?
Relaxing with a cup of tea and wandering around the stands of bike goodies, I soak up the atmosphere of the arena. As my turn approaches and I hit the trails again. Wiser with the roots, I pick better lines and climb the hills. 20 minutes in with my heart thumping, the feel good factor overwhelms me. This is awesome! I tear through the single track with the trees giving way and power up the hills overtaking anything in sight. What a feeling of delight as the wheels skip over the roots and hold tight round the corners.

Coming to an abrupt end, the finish appeared leaving that buzz of excitement resonating in my bones.

A fantastic day, thanks to my team mates Gareth and Alan, the Big Dog crew and all those involved.

Tuesday 7 June 2011

The Aftermath of a 24 hour Race

So you’ve sat on your bike for 24 hours, pedalled your socks off all night, created several buckets of sweat, burnt off 23,000 calories, consumed 30 energy gels, drank several gallons of liquid, and not slept for 30 hours. How do you recover from this?

Oh, and your legs ache, your arms ache, your back aches, your neck aches, you’re covered in mud, you don’t know what you want and you can’t think straight.

You’ve just competed in a race at European level, everyone is praising you for your achievement, and you feel like a jabbering wreck and want to curl up into a ball and go to sleep.

I gulp down a recovery drink as I’m escorted to the shower with wobbling legs. Anyone would have thought that I smelt or something. I’m handed my prepared ‘Finish’ bag with a change of clothes as I shut myself in the tiny cubicle. Fumbling with my fingers that had little sense of feeling, I awkwardly operate the shower controls to eak out a squirt of mildly warm water.

Removing my sodden clothes with arms and legs that didn’t bend very well while bashing against the walls, must have looked like a poor impersonation of Houdini getting out of a straight jacket in a box.

Eventually, looking relatively mud free I emerge from the closet and wobble like Scott Tracy from Thunderbirds back to the pits.

It’s an odd experience; you’ve spent many months slogging away in the gym and on the bike, pushing your body that extra bit each time. You’ve deprived yourself of indulgent foods and alcohol, limited your social life as you focus on your race. You’ve thought for hours about the logistics of the event and meticulously planned every item of equipment. You set out on a journey that will last all day and all night, where you only have yourself as company. You’ve then gone and pushed your body far beyond where it has ever been before, tolerating immense levels of pain until they hurt no more.

And then you cross the finish line. You’ve done it. You can get off your bike and say “Yes! I’ve completed the 24 hours of Exposure” which no one can take away from you. The achievement is awesome.

Discovering I had qualified for the World Championships was doubly awesome. The feeing is just amazing, making all the training so worthwhile.

So how do you recover from a 24 hour race?

I couldn’t eat much immediately after the race so I consumed recovery drinks and found a fruit salad the most palatable form of solid food. I stretched my limbs as much as possible, but the 7 hour drive home cramped up in the car was most uncomfortable.Sleeping very well that night, I had a massive protein craving in the morning. Whole packs of sausages and bacon were cooked and devoured for breakfast.

A gentle swim loosened up my joints and a sauna helped to sweat out the toxins. Compression tights encouraged the blood flow and a gentle spin the following day finally made my legs feel more normal. Gentle Pilates sessions and regular stretching loosened up the limbs to regain some mobility.

Amongst the physical recovery, the car needed unpacking and the vast array of kit had to be cleaned and put away. It took virtually all week. Hitting the caffeine after a month of deprivation improved my state of consciousness to just above Zombie level.

Also, in my muddled condition, I had to write reports for my blog and the Surrey Mirror. This in some ways was harder than the ride itself.

A physio session sorted out a torn muscle in my calf and the various knots that appeared in my neck and back. The nerve damage causing a pins & needles sensation in my left foot took longer to heal.

It was 2 weeks before I got back on a bike, which was a slow and social ride with friends. The next week I ventured a bit further but still had to take it easy.

Four weeks after the race I set out for a ride with nothing much planned, only to find my legs were like coiled springs wanting to pump the pedals and power the hills. I take advantage of this renewed vigour and complete 50 very hilly miles in a personal best time. From this, I consider myself suitably recovered.

Was it worth it?

Ask a new mother if it was worth going through pregnancy and labour pains to have her baby.

How often can you get a pass to spend all night doing what you enjoy most, being on your bike?

Bring on the World Championships as I want to do it all again!

Tuesday 10 May 2011

24 Hours of the European Championships

Very clean before the start
Stopping overnight, we completed the 400 mile drive to Newcastleton in Scotland where Rock UK were hosting the 24 Hours of Exposure.  As one of the very few events in the world dedicated to just solo riders, it attracted top riders from 7 countries jostling for the coveted title. My brother Dave provided support for the weekend, where we also joined forces with the CoticAQR Race Team.
With 130 competitors for the 24 Hours of Exposure, a further 110 riders took part in the 12 hour race finishing at midnight.  Everyone gathered in the village square on the sunny Saturday morning entertained by a local band.  After signing in, the controlled start at noon was led by a piper and the local cycle club. We headed through the village at a relaxed speed, then went up the hill to the race circuit.  Although fairly spread out by this stage there was a bit of congestion as we funnelled into the single-track. 

Signing on
Each lap was just over 11 miles long with more than 1500 feet of climbing, which is similar to 5 times up the chalky path on Box Hill.  The long rough climbs provided me with good overtaking opportunities as I kept the pressure on the pedals.  The course was rich with smooth flowing single-track featuring berms, jumps, dips, drop-offs and a few rocks in awkward places to test the concentration.  Some of the open sections were covered with large shingle the size of tennis balls, and the grassy parts were extremely bumpy making the going tough.

Pre race briefing with Dave

The second lap was my best and most enjoyable.  With riders spread out, I could blast the single track and power up the hills.  Then the rain came!  Some of the trails got slippery and mud splattered everywhere.  With 4 fast laps completed, I stop for a break to put on some dryer and warmer clothes.  Monitoring my Nutrition carefully and using compression tights, my legs just powered on.
As the sun set the lights came on.  In many places a thick mist appeared where the light beams glared back obscuring the ground.  Getting familiar with the trails, I continued to push on at speed into the darkness with limited visibility.

One of the dryer laps

 Setting out at midnight for lap 9 in heavy rain was hard.  With an extra waterproof I slid back out onto the course.  Riding most of the circuit alone as the 12 hour riders had finished made it tough.  I decided not to stop after this lap, otherwise I would not have got going again. 

Pulling in after each subsequent lap, a pattern emerged.  Swamped by 5 support crew; the bike gears were washed and lubricated, food was stuffed in my mouth, the CamelBak was refilled and gels were replaced in the pouch, all within about 90 seconds.  The CoticAQR (A Quick Release) team were awesome who thought of all the details.  At one point someone used a warm flannel to wash the mud off my face and swapped over my wet gloves.  I wasn’t used to all this pampering.
Parts of the course were un-ridable with 6ich deep mud.  The final grassy descent was like an ice rink with no grip whatsoever, pure balance and concentration kept you upright.  Puddles invaded the single-track sections splattering mud everywhere.

Wearing out the rear brake pads, I continued the lap with just the front brake.  CoticAQR were brilliant as they changed both set of pads in just 7 minutes. 

One of the joys of riding through the night is experiencing the first light of dawn.  It’s such a wonderful sight that makes all the pain from the night time evaporate away.  A new day had dawned and all was forgiven.

The Pit area beside the course
Entering the last part of the ride, positional information and lap times were crucial for a good place.  I’m informed that I’ve only got time for 2 more laps.  Knowing the end is in sight, I push a bit harder.  Reaching the pits, they turn me round very quickly saying that I’ve just got time to get in 2 more laps.  I had prepared myself for just 1 lap, but this extra lap would need me to dig really deep to find sufficient energy.

The local school children had designed posters that were positioned around the course.  One apt picture of a bicycle had the words “Don’t Stop or you’ll Lose” wonderful motivation from the local community.

I've finished!

  I stay in the middle ring forcing my legs to power me up the hills.  Still overtaking riders on the climbs, I finish the lap with just enough time for one more.  Relieved to reach the final lap I give it my all to complete the now deserted course.  Thanking all the marshals who had also stayed up all night, I climb each hill for the last time.

Reaching the finish after 23:40 hours, I clocked up 165 miles on the 15 laps, with 23,000 feet of climbing.  Out of the 30 entries in the vet (over 40) category, I’m really pleased in achieving 6th place.  I equalled the results of the Portuguese national champion and came 23rd over all out 130 entries.  

To my surprise, I was awarded a spot prize for ‘Valour’ displayed during the race - Wow!

Thursday 28 April 2011

Ready for the UK Championships

Am I ready to take on the UK Mountain Bike Solo Championships?  In a word, No, but I’m prepared as I can be.  The months of planning are soon to become reality when the starting gun fires for the start of 24 Hours of Exposure on 7th May.  Riding with the top endurance riders will be an honour, yet daunting as I rub shoulders with those who write the many blogs and tweets I follow.. 

Preparations are meticulous, as always, to give me the best opportunity for an excellent ride.  So many of the seasoned 24 hour racers appear to turn up in their flash vehicles and team kit with new bikes, showered with sponsorship deals and full support crews.  It seems that many others have connections within the cycle or fitness industries to gain a competitive advantage.  I’m simply driving the 400 miles to Newcastleton with brother Dave and we are going to do the best we can.  Dave supported me for my South Downs Double ride in 2009 and has kindly agreed to help me for the 24 hours of Exposure.

Much of my training has been on the North Downs around Ranmore and Box Hill.  The 12 mile course for the race consists of 1800 feet of climbing per lap, which is the equivalent of 5 times up Box Hill.  Detailed research on nutritional information has helped me piece together a formula to provide sufficient energy during the 24 hours.  The 2 bikes are ready for action and just in case it rains, a spare set of wheels are primed with tyres more suited to mud.

Do follow me on Twitter @Hillburner where we will provide updates on my progress.  The latest tweets can be seen on the right of this blog.

Thursday 31 March 2011

Preparing for the South Downs Double

A few people have contacted me saying they would like to have a go at the South Downs Double.  To act as a reference for other potential South Downs Doublers, here is some information that may help.

The main difference between the SDD and a race or event, is that you have to organise your own ride.  Few decisions are made for you, so it’s a matter of making appropriate choices to help you achieve the Double.

Choose Start point
The Double has been achieved from a variety of start locations.  Originally Winchester was the favourite with the flatter start and finish, then riders chose Eastbourne to coincide with the BHF Randonnee events, whilst some have started from the middle.  Personally I think it sounds better going from one end to the other.

Select a date
Unlike an organised event with a set date, you have the wide choice for the time of the year and the day of the week.  Naturally the summer is better with the longer days and the generally dryer conditions.  Some experienced riders have taken the opportunity of a good weather window, leaving just 2 weeks of final preparation before their Double.  If you are attempting the Double for the first time, preparation is the key, and try to be flexible with the date in case there is bad weather.  I spent 9 months planning my ride with the choice of two weekends.  To help with navigation riding with a full moon will improve night time visibility, providing there is a clear sky.

Pick a Start Time
When choosing your start time, consider your natural body clock and the duration of darkness.
Setting out first thing in the morning will leave the night riding till the end when you are tired.  Alternatively, starting in the evening will help with the night riding but tiredness can set in on the second leg.  Check out the sunrise and sunset time for the hours of darkness.
If you're going for a record attempt you can almost avoid any night riding.  Ian Leitch chose well by starting at 3am  to finish at 9pm.

The official SDD route is on the web site.  A New Temporary route was introduced via Exon in 2009 and the End at Eastbourne was extended by about a mile in 2012.  If you are going for a record breaking attempt consider the routes used by your past, or future, competitors.  Check the directions carefully as there are some variations with the route currently marked and that used by the BHF.


If you are looking out for the SDW signs, you'll probably spot them.  However some signs and turnings are not immediately obvious.  Study the maps very carefully noting any turnings or forks.  Remember that some turnings can easily be missed when travelling in the opposite direction.

In several locations there are roads running alongside the SDW bridleway.  For the Double, the bridleways should be used.

Following tracks at night is relatively straightforward.  Traversing wide open spaces, especially in thick fog that may appear in the early morning, can be tricky.  A GPS navigation system will help you stay on the right trail but is no guarantee.

The most challenging hills are at the Eastbourne end with the hardest section being from Eastbourne to Ditchling Beacon.  The hills appear to go on forever with steep descents.

It is often easier, yet slower, to walk up the steepest hills.  Make the most of this opportunity off the bike to grab something to eat and use different muscles.

There are 190-200 gates encountered on the Double.  Learning how to open gates without unclipping your feet will save a bit of time and effort.  If you get really bored or need motivation, you can count them.

Support riders
Whilst it is reassuring to have riders accompany you on the Double, unless otherwise stated, it is meant to be a solo effort.  If other riders are with you, you will need to set the pace and open the gates as if you are riding solo.

Support Crew
This may be a 24 hour event for you but it's also a 24 hour event for your support crew.  Build in some rest times for the crew with a longer distance between some check points.  I gave my crew a 2 hour rest between Winchester and the QE2 Country Park when they could grab 40 winks.  Supply loads of food and refreshments for your crew.  I even provided some in car entertainment for them in the form of the Blackadder Goes Forth CD.  Apparently this helped them to keep awake in the early hours.

Check points
As you can choose your check points, space them out so your support crew can reach them in time.  It can take a while to follow the SDW by road where sometimes it is quicker to ride.
If possible select check point locations to be at the top of hills.  They will motivate you on the way up the hill and you won't have a dreaded climb immediately after a break.  Some of the check points used on the BHF ride have limited parking.

Have a plan in place if the support crew are not at the expected check point, with at least two forms of communication between yourself and the crew.

There are several public taps along the SDW.  Have a backup plan in case the one you want is not working.

GPS battery backup
If you use a GPS to validate your ride, ensure the battery will last the duration.  I made an external battery pack for my Garmin Edge 705.  Some riders have used a fresh GPS for the return leg.

To qualify for the South Downs Double, your ride will need to be verified.  Check with the adjudicators on the site for acceptable evidence.  A GPS log or photographs with a timing clock at specific locations could be used.

Completing the South Downs Double is a fantastic achievement, which has only been accomplished by a few.  Be aware that it's a tough cookie where there is less than a 50% success rate.  Whether you are a regular long distance rider or just a weekend warrior, it’s a mighty challenge that will get you smiling for a long time.

The official South Downs Double site is Do let me know if you come across any more advice that can be offered to potential South Downs Doublers.

If you want advice on preparing for a 24 hour event, see Anne Dickins

Enjoy the ride and watch out for the wildlife.

Thursday 24 February 2011

Starting at the Top

Endurance racing is definitely my strength so its time to enter my first official 24 hour race.  Starting at the top, I've picked the UK Solo National Championships, also known as 24 Hours of Exposure.  It has recently been announced that it is now the European Solo Championships, no pressure then?

The prestigious event takes place on 7th May 2011 where I will be riding along side a few other South Downs Doublers and the best MTB riders in Europe.  The list includes; Matt Page, Rob Lee, Rob Dean, Rich Rothwell, Anne Dickins, Rory Hitchens, Ant Jordon, Kate Potter, Rickie Cotter, plus many more.  Riding with such prestigious talent will be an awesome and humbling experience.  (The list a personal selection from the wealth of talent in the MTB arena.)

Training started back in October where I'm following Joe Friel's periodisation training programme.  It involves establishing a solid foundation of strength before developing the race specific abilities.  Spending many hours a week in the gym during the winter months, I focussed on bike specific weight training, gym exercises, spinning sessions, Pilates and swimming.  Riding the bike just once a week kept my hand in on the 2 wheeled rig.

With a solid core and powerful legs, more training is now on the bike in preparation for the race.

In my usual meticulous way, all training statistics are logged and plotted on graphs to note improvements or areas for development. Preparations for the race are carried out in a similar manner so the whole weekend runs smoothly. Dave (my brother) will provide support and help with the 360 mile drive to Newcastleton just north of Carlisle.

The 12 mile course for the race contains 1800 feet of climbing per lap, which is 160 feet per mile. The South Downs Way in comparison is 100 feet per mile, so this course is hilly! Selecting several of the toughest climbs on the North Downs, I've developed some demanding training routes.

Looking forward to a great race!