That's where a race like the 24 Hours of Oak Valley is different. Riding solo for 24 hours is not easily forgotten. You go through mental patches where you are not sure if you are even going to finish. Those are special moments. Memorable.
On my second attempt at the race I was more determined. I knew I had the ability to race long and slow, and I tried to prepare as best I could. I ended up taking third, but I learnt many lessons, and I endured the pain that I needed to feel. This race is more of a mental challenge than anything else, and experience is a big part of that mental process.
2015 was my year. I knew how to do it. I knew how much training I needed. I knew how hard it was going to be. I did everything I needed to do in preparation. I was cocky. I told a number of people I was going to win, including Meurant the race organiser. I'm not sure how many people believed me as I'm not known as a great rider. In fact, I mostly just film and edit other riders, so I'm known as the camera guy and edit nerd.
Leading up to the race, I was hoping to get a new(er) bike with dual suspension and a 1x11 setup but that didn't work, which was a bit of a blessing in disguise. I was left with my 2011 Cannondale hardtail. It's a great bike but it's seen many many kilometres. I have a 2x10 SRAM drive system on it. One thing I learned from previous years is that you need to conserve your bike if you plan to race non-stop. From dust and excessive use you are bound to lose your shifting after a while and also potentially your brakes. The 2x10 setup I felt was better than the new and highly desired XX1 option, because I was able to shift just once on the front to achieve a significant change in gear ratio.
From the start I was purposefully shifting as conservatively as possible. Some smaller climbs you just need to stand and push, some little downhills you just need to spin out and then freewheel. Through the length of the race smart shifting pays off. If I had gone with the newer bike and 1x11 system, I'd need to spin through 4 or 5 clicks just to get up a short climb. For large sections of the route I would stay roughly in the middle on my cassette and just shift up and down on the front chainrings.
My bike was a legend. I couldn't be more proud. It was a second-hand buy and the best value for money I ever spent. I put new brake pads in the week of the race so I was confident they would last. I had new sealant in my tyres. That was it. No mechanicals, I was super happy with my bike.
Probably the most important aspect of the 24 hour race is how to eat. You need to eat all the time to keep going. It's awesome having a spot where you can come past every 45 mins or so and get whatever food you want. That way you can afford to have 'normal' food as well as the gels and bars. Before the race I managed to convince Powerbar to help me out and I'm so stoked they did.
The start is Le Mans style and you have to run across the rugby field, find your bike and push onto the course. I think Meurant just finds it funny, something different. I didn't want to get stuck behind all the slow people but I also didn't want to get sucked up into the speedy front end where the relay teams were so I jogged determinedly and started just in front of middle. It's easy to go too hard in the beginning and that's what gives you cramps later on.
I had my HR watch on for the first ten laps and I was using it to control myself. For the first three laps at least I felt like I was going easy enough but my heart rate was pretty high. I assumed it was the adrenaline and the excitement of finally being here, but I kept an eye on it and never let it get too high. No major exertions. I rode ten laps with the GPS watch and HR strap, then threw it off and rode only on feeling. At the end of every lap I would grab something to eat. Often it is just whatever you feel like eating. A few biscuits, a little roll with peanut butter, half a Powerbar. I would grab another half-full bottle of whatever I felt like for that lap. I had Powerbar isomax, coke and water. Sometimes plain water is the greatest thing you've ever tasted. Every now and then I'd down a Steri Stumpie too, chocolate obviously.
On lap 11, I remember grabbing a Powerbar Harvest bar, which is their oat-based offering, and started eating it while riding the first few kilometres of the loop. It was one of the best experiences of my life. There is a flattish stretch that circles the dam. It's jeep track and it is pretty beautiful, in my opinion. I rode and ate and it was delicious. My body was so happy to get that bar and I was so happy to be riding my bike and I realised then that I was having a really fun time.
Doing the same loop repeatedly might sound junk, but it's really fun. My OCD brain thrives on it. All the fast downhill single track sections are awesome and you learn to get faster every lap. Or, you learn to do it at the same pace, but using less energy. There are so many cool things about the ride that I loved. My body was feeling great and it was fun riding. The sunset was spectacular.
When night time fell the moon was almost full. All the technical sections were in forests though so the lights were very necessary. I've struggled in the past with rubbish lights but this year I borrowed a decent one from Jarryd Haley and Matt Eagar (thanks guys), and had a couple average ones as spares. It's amazing how fast I could go down the single track at night. You can't really see far enough ahead but your body knows and remembers every corner and bump and you can just cruise. It is so much fun, and the night is beautiful.
I think it was just before midnight that I actually took the lead. In fact, up until about 10pm the first lady was still in front of me. It's a bit worrying to be aiming for the win and having the lead lady ahead of you for so many hours. She is, however, a machine, but my plan was always slow and steady, just don't stop. I've never been in the lead of a race before. I was excited, but also troubled. They would not let me get away from them. At the end of each lap I would enquire to their whereabouts and they were always hot on my heels. It's quite terrifying knowing that they are always just a few minutes behind you.
Anyway, the real test came on my 24th lap. It's the only lap I did not enjoy. I felt sick. Nauseated. Every incline, no matter how mellow, was hard. I soft-pedalled, went slowly, tried not to throw up. It was a fairly lonely time in the early hours of the morning which was good. I preferred to be alone in that state. The final steep climb I got off my bike and pushed. It was necessary. My digestive system couldn't keep up with the energy spent. At the top I stood and forced myself to eat a PowerGel. When you hit that point you don't feel like eating but you absolutely have to. I think I had eaten too little and perhaps drank a little too much to get me to that point. It wasn't a mistake, it's just learning to understand your body when it's in this mode. So I ingested the gel (original flavour if I recall) and took it nice and easy on the descent. I told my dad how bad the lap had been and how sick I felt; he told me to keep going. I set off on the next lap and the PowerGel had done its job and I was back to normal. I slowed down a bit on the liquid and I was totally fine from there. I'd managed to pull myself out of a potentially endless black hole (thanks Trevor and Caron from Powerbar).
After that dark patch the fun returned. The setting of the moon was rad, and the sunrise was awesome. The whole experience of the 24 hours was kind of like 1 weeks worth of awesomeness. I had worked hard enough through the night to have a lead but not enough to ever stop and have a sit down. I just kept rolling. Slow and steady, being careful not to go too slow.
Managing pain is a part of the process especially as it gets past the 18 hour mark. The points you need to be aware of are the contacts; hands feet and bum. Not much you can do about the bum. I put on some Wintergreen anti-chafe cream and that was that. I didn't even bother to change my shorts during the race, no time. My left toe would get really sore every few hours, I think the left is bigger than the right foot so it touches the front of the shoe more often. Not much you can do there, I just waited for the pain to subside.
Hands are the trickiest part. You can get extremely bad nerve damage from holding that bar for so long. I know, it happened to me previously. My wife is a doctor and assured me that it's not permanent damage. Last year my fingers wouldn't work, had no power, and had pins and needles which I struggled with for over a month after the race. This year I was really good. I put bar ends on my bike (a must have) and I did a good job of using them. I changed grip all the time, wherever I could. Also ,my hands are more accustomed to the pressures. This year, my hands were totally fine.
Your arms also take a real beating. One of the roadie guys who was really strong for at least twelve hours had to stop because his arms were so sore and tired. It's a really bumpy ride, especially on the descent, and you need to be conditioned for it. I even did gym work in my training, working on the upper body, getting strong. I was worried about my arms because in the months leading up to the race I did almost all my riding on the road bike, but it seems the gym work etc was enough to see me through. I didn't stop for long enough to sit down ever, which I think was helpful for my back. You do get a sore and stiff back from riding so long but I didn't notice it at all until after the race.
Towards the end I was obviously tired, but not broken, not as broken as I was in previous years. I had a whole lap lead and a fair amount of time and I was confident no one could catch me as long as I didn't crash myself out of the race.
After 23 hours I knew I was a potential crash hazard so I slowed it down on some of the sections, I didn't need to take risks unnecessarily.
Like I said, I'd never won anything like this before, and I didn't quite know what to do at the finish line. I'm also shy so when people are looking at me, a large portion of my brain shuts down and my heart rate goes up. I didn't raise my arms in victory or shout, I didn't think of pulling a wheelie, didn't lift my bike above my head. I don't show emotion all that well but I was super stoked, especially after telling everyone I was going to win. Meurant came to shake my hand. I was really grateful to him for having this event. I won't win any other kind of race so I'm so grateful that he hosts this one.
I worked really hard to win it. Interval sessions, indoor trainer rides, eating strictly, I put a lot into it. It's a memory firmly lodged in my mind, hammered in there with painful strokes. So stoked!