Sunday, 7 August 2011

SlTS 2011: Mixed Pairs & Competitive Grace

This weekend I returned to Sleepless In The Saddle 24hr race. Last time I raced I won the 24solo category. This year would be a little different as I was racing with my immense pit crew, directeur sportif and ever patient & supportive girlfriend "Competitive Grace" as she is known in the The North Face office, in the Mixed Pairs category. We were up against some experienced pairs so, as it's Grace's first year of riding & racing, we decided on the ever sensible "smash it, smile, enjoy and hope for the best" tactic.

The race went better than we could have expected! We led every lap and came home with enough time for Grace to have a little lurk to win the mixed pairs category for team The North Face / Santa Cruz. Good times :-)
The North Face / Santa Cruz (Rob and Grace)
take to the top step of the podium - a happy team

Pic: Rob Crayton

Here's how it all went:

Ready to Roll
We arrived at Catton Hall, the race venue for the last few years, late Friday afternoon and quickly made friends with our neighbours, the Fruit4London team, who proved to be as competitive in spirit as we were, so we knew we were onto a winning pitch by the time we'd set up the pit area that would be the base of the solitary waiting rider as the other was out riding throughout the race. Pairs racing can get very cold and lonely at times.

Despite the later than usual 2pm start, the morning of the race passed amazingly quickly, Grace snuck in a practice lap as this was her first visit to the venue and I prepared the pits, acting as directuer sportif for the weekend, a roll reversal for us for 2011. In this role a look at the start list revealed we had our work cut out, with Dirt Wheels Cycles in particular fielding a strong mixed pair including Jane Chadwick, a friend but, more worryingly, an experienced and very successful endurance racer with 12hr and 24hr national championship podiums on her CV from in last 18 months.
Bikes lined up at the start as far as the eye could see
At the front for the running start, but not for long!
Must do more (some) running this winter
Although I was directeur sportif (and an appalling runner) it was apparently decided that I would do the run at the start of the race before I joined the conversation. I detest Le Mans starts at the best of times and a distinct lack of running due to my shoulder injury meant I was particularly dreading it. I lined up at the front of the grid for my half mile (ish) run and, after 4mins 15 seconds, was distinctly not at the front any more, having watched an horrendous amount of riders skip past me seemingly effortlessly. Something to work on for next year. Once I was on the bike however, normal service was resumed!

Right, I've got a bike, now please can I
get on it! Just a few more strides.....
I set of on my Santa Cruz Highball, as the course was reasonably rolling and the surface was in good condition the outright speed of a stiff, light hardtail 29er couldn't have had a better hunting ground. It proved to be the right choice. I came round the first lap, having expended a lot of energy passing the stronger runners, and set out for a second lap, pleasingly having overhauled the run winner and, more importantly, having established a slender lead over the other mixed pairs teams.

For a few hours Grace and I slowly added individual minutes to our see-sawing lead as we got out of sync with the Dirt Wheels opposition pairs...

All's well as we establish an early, but slender, lead
....and then it rained. Oh boy did it rain! Luckily for me, and unfortunately for Grace, a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon transformed what can only be described as the sky falling down, occurred for about 20mins towards the end of Grace's lap. I just had time to grab a waterproof and switch to the extra traction of my Tallboy before I set out for the handover and a great decision it proved to be. However, despite the rain stopping I was soon wishing it hadn't and I wasn't feeling quite so lucky. It's not for no reason that the singletrack at the top of the course is known as "peanut butter woods" and the rain had made the trail both super tacky and super slidey as well as turning all the polished roots into a succession of delicate, testing moments.

Catton hall + Rain = Sticky Gloop + Testing Riding Conditions
Pic: Joolze Dymond

Setting an early lead with my Highball
Pic: Rob Crayton

The course quickly dried and became ridable, but stayed slippy through the night. We also realised that, despite the lack of really long climbs, the rolling nature of the course left little opportunity to let up on the pedals, let alone eat or drink. This was proving to be really hard. Add to that the conventional wisdom that pairs is the most unpleasant way of tackling a 24hr race as, between laps, there's enough time to get cold, not enough time to rest and barely enough time to eat, drink, refill your bottle, maybe put on a dry piece of kit and head back out, where laps are short enough that you can really smash your legs pushing hard. 

Grace pushing on through the night
Pic: Joolze Dymond

We were pretty tired by the time darkness came, but we were both looking forward to the night laps with a good amount of swoopy trails to play in. Darkness passed all too quickly, the rain held off, a dry line was getting established through the trails and, as the welcome sun rose, providing some amazing skies through the air pollution above Birmingham, it also provided some much welcome warmth to tired limbs. We looked up to see we'd marginally extended our lead. This was starting to look good.

Dramatic backdrops of the Birmingham light pollution skies
were an amazing feature of the night laps
Pic: Joolze Dymond

Zoom! Through the trees
Pic: Joolze Dymond
For the final few hours we monitored the gap to second closely, pushing on to try and make it decisive but never managing to really  break away from second. As the clock counted down and we could scent the win the aches and pains melted away and the prospect of the win started to become too close to let go. The last few laps were completed in what can only be described as an excited nervousness, with a strong emphasis on the nervous! We went into the last lap with a 35minute lead, knowing Grace had time for a little lurk as no-one else could do an extra lap, but one significant mechanical could spell doom. It would have been nice to have had a little more margin!

As 2pm approached, exciting though it was watching other racers stamping on the pedals to try and sneak in one extra lap and cheer them on as they headed out at 23:59 completed, I was ecstatic to see Grace at the front of the bunch of lurkers, creeping over the line a few seconds after the 2pm finish time.

We had done it. We won! A winning return to Catton Park for me, Grace's first podium finish and it was the top step for The North Face / Santa Cruz. Woo-Hoo! Happy times.
Grace leaving it all out on the course, powering on through the morning sunshine
Pic: Rob Crayton

The many, many outings required of pairs, plus the rain, meant we'd long since used up any clean or dry kit, so we donned clean green The North Face t-shirts to at least try and look "team" for our podium, I think the main look we achieved was being very, very happy though.

Two happy riders & The North Face / Santa Cruz on top of the podium
Pic: Rob Crayton

Aside from our own victory, this year's event was a great success. Pro-Velo Support & Singletrack Magazine struck a great atmosphere and the course was notably improved with all the organisers' hard work showing through. The icing on the cake for us was our campsite neighbours, the Fruit4London team, coming through from a disappointing  first few laps to seal 3rd place in the super competitive Mixed Teams category, well done guys!

On our way to victory, we were fuelled through the race by Science In Sport bars, drinks and gels and were powered to establishing a decisive lead through the night by Exposure Lights. So we owe a huge thank you (again) to you for all your amazing support guys!  

A lot of bikes ready to race
Head down, pushing on as the sun sets
Pic: Joolze Dymond 
Ah.. Sunrise! And not a moment too soon: One tired rider
Pic: Joolze Dymond
Me, hurting, 22hrs in, on the longest climb, that looked for all the world like it was flat.... it so wasn't!
Pic: Joolze Dymond
The same hill as above: Proof it was most definitely NOT flat!
Joolze Dymond captured the dramatic night sky to amazing effect
The dusk and dawn laps were an amazing experience against this backdrop
Pic: Joolze Dymond

No comments:

Post a Comment