Last month 7 complete strangers came together in the shadows of Eastnor Castle to pull on an Alpkit cycling vest. The occasion was Mountain Mayhem, the UK's largest 24hr mountain bike endurance event. Since there were 3 Pauls in our team we decided it would be simpler to refer to everyone as Paul, however for the sake of this article we shall refer to everyone by their real names.
"I was greeted with 'Hello, would you like a beer', which was a great start to what was an awesome weekend. Once I had thrown my gear in to the lovely new tent already pitched and containing a Wedge sleeping mat and a Pipedream sleeping bag to take care of all my Zzzzz needs it was time for tea." Stephen
Some people don't do teams. Like Clint they prefer to ride solo, they go the duration non stop but don't think for an instant that they go slow. Those looking for an even greater challenge do it single speed, but their numbers are few and most riders do it in teams of four to ten. Our team was one of the tens... seven strangers and three of us. None of us had done Mayhem before. Gulp.
Amy was the first to join the team. She hopped out of her car at Alpkit HQ.. and hopped right over to say hi. We say hopped because Amy's right leg was either in a cast or the most outrageous SPD shoe you are likely to see! To confuse us even more she pulled her bike from her car and thrust it upon us... no mistake, she was riding!
The rest of the team arrived in good health during Friday evening; Sarah, Harvey, Stephen, Paul P, Paul M and Paul B, each wheeling in an impeccably prepared bike which trumped those that we already had. At one point with 4 Genesis i0s and a Kona Explosif in the stable it looked like we were going to be an all singlespeed team.
"Being part of a large team was great and it made a change for me to be giving out beer to teammates in transition rather than a protein shake. Considering the amount of booze drunk, there seemed to be some pretty quick lap times from all, and getting 8th without any competitiveness was a great turn out." Sarah
The balance was addressed with the new arrivals and we were looking at a well balanced team. They looked like they knew what they were doing and when chat turned to components, tyre choice and fettling it sounded like they knew what they were doing, and if we hadn't discovered Amy had her tyre on back to front we would have given them full marks for preparation. It was all getting a bit bikey when we were saved by some good odours wafting from the kitchen.
"We were treated to a feast fit for kings thanks to Nick's superb cooking, he seemed to be cooking non stop for the whole weekend, there really was not a time when there wasn’t something tasty, hot or cold to hand." Stephen
Of all the facilities the kitchen was central to our set up. Chef for the weekend was Alpkit Nick who revelled in the challenge of keeping a constant flow of tasty and nutritious food on the table. The Friday night curry was the ideal time to get to know the team but he just kept going with a choice of a cooked breakfast or porridge, soup, cake, pasta, stuffed pittas and snacks to keep us going through the night. Nick was on a 24hr challenge all of his own. Whatever our role we were all in it for the duration.
By the morning things had calmed down. Bikes and beer were wheeled down to the Shimano guys in an attempt to secure a last minute service and it was finally time to confront the nitty gritty. We figured it was the done thing to have a race strategy. If all else failed we could at least make a scapegoat out of team manager Mel Ross.. there would be resignations, recriminations, scandal, intrigue and all manner of hoo-haa. Cut the drama, it didn't come to that, to be honest we really could not have been in better hands. Mel is as experienced at these kind of events as Claudia's blueberry sponge cake was moist; so experienced that she had had the good sense to manage rather than ride. We also had the bonus of Mel's husband Shaggy, a Jekyll and Hyde kind of guy who shuffles around behind a beard engineering airplanes by day, but put him on a bike and he turns into a pure riding machine. A regular MM soloist, Shaggy was this year taking it easy by riding for the The Kinesis Morvelo Project. In short we had the insight to compete with the best.
"As I only did one lap I can't really comment on managing the riding/sleeping time but the organisation and system we had going worked like clockwork thanks to Mel. Everybody was ready on time and no transitions were missed which is pretty impressive for a team of realtive newbies to 24hr races!" Amy
Despite the deep insight the team didn't actually know what it was capable of. How many laps could it do? Would it fold in the dark? Would the rain stay away? How crucial would tyre choice be? Our strategy to take it in turns and see how far we got seemed sensible, but we still needed someone to get us on our way.
"Stitch-up a mate to go first, that half-mile sprint is a killer." Paul M
Paul M kindly volunteered to take the first lap which we all understood would involve a mass start with a short dash to the bikes. Imagine our surprise, no wait... imagine Paul's surprise when he found out it was actually a half-mile sprint... followed by a lap which can only be compared to riding amongst a herd of stampeding wilderbeast heading for that one safe crossing point. We didn't even see Paul come past as we eagerly waited to cheer him up the Kendra Climb leaving us thinking some crocs must have got him. It would have been a disappointing way to go, but thankfully he was having none of it and had battled through to place team Alpkit 10th in category.
"I am a pretty laid back fella and not competitive at all but when it came to my first lap that all changed. Paul M went first and put in a cracking run followed by a great lap, as I followed on from him I wanted to keep it up." Stephen
Stephen set off without having time to contemplate the implications. Did we really have a chance of staying on the leader board? Rider after rider went out and threw in some great laps, 56 minute - 75 minute, this was no fluke. We didn't know if we could keep it up but we were happy to go along with it as long as it lasted. The event had suddenly taken on a very different perspective, we were in the little big league!
A lap is about 8 miles. It includes uphill, downhill, singletrack, gravel road, grassy tracks, mud and woods. The pros could lap it in 40 mins, but most were lapping between 1 hr to 1 hr 30. The mud changed consistency during the night, it took on a sticky consistency sapping energy, it felt like riding on flats.
"The course was much better than I expected with a reasonable amount of single track. For me the 2nd half was far more enjoyable than the 1st. The sketchier it got, the more I enjoyed it. I understand that the views at the top of the climbs were quite spectacular but obviously I didn't see them as I had my head down going as fast as I could". Paul P
Alpkit Race HQ...
While each rider was out sweating for the team the others rested in camp Alpkit. We discovered that to save weight Paul B used tied off condoms as inner tubes, Sarah was celebrating having passed her uni course just the day before, Stephen showed us his collection of esoteric cameras, Nick plotted how he could switch his factory build i0 for Paul P's custom job and we merrily scooted around on Harvey's electric bike. They were good times but we couldn't get complacent. We knew that if we were to keep the team functioning at peak performance for 24hrs we would need to maintain focus and operate from functional and comfortable facilities.
"The support was impeccable and couldn't be faulted in any way. Come on, there is absolutely no way that any other team at Mountain Mayhem had a full time chef, team strategist, sports psychologist, camera crew, projectionist, fire starter, accommodation manager, general banter provider and great company all served up in a relaxed atmosphere. This was all laid on for a group of strangers who you hadn't even met before." Paul P
Our set up consisted of sleeping accommodation, bike maintainance area, dining room, kitchen and of course a cinema. Sleeping accommodation consisted of our new prototype geodesic tents. They were roomy and we fitted them out with some Wedge sleeping mats. When you are tired you don't want to worry about how you are going to stay on your mat, so these wide boys were the ideal choice. We also provided PipeDream sleeping bags, which, while a little extreme for the conditions, at least ensured that no one was going to get cold on our watch.
We thought it important to try and maintain a sense of 'routine' by scheduling meals at standard hours. In practice this was difficult because people didn't want to eat too close to their lap or they were out cheering on their team mates. Nick's solution was to keep a large pan of soup bubbling on the stove and cooked pasta on demand. Before we knew it the first day was coming to an end.
"My lap times were 5pm, 12am and 8am so nice and spread out giving enough time for cleaning, eating and digesting in between. I was a bit naughty after my midnight lap as I stayed up until 3.30am drinking tea and cheering on my soloist boyfriend so only got a few hours kip on Saturday night." Sarah
Night follows day...
Each member of the team managed to get a lap in the bag before darkness fell. The rain had held off, it was a clear night, the moon floated up above the hillside and stuck. Shaggy would be out there somewhere and he wouldn't be thinking about elevators or airframes, we pitied all who had the misfortune to cross his path. Back in the safety of the Alpkit camp the bikes were prepared for the night laps. The team got their stuff together so all they had to do was remember... wake, pee, ride. Nick put out enough food to see us through, a fire was lit and the projector was set up for the evening's entertainment. Still fresh from his efforts on the Genesis team, Paul Errington was first to commandeer the DVD player and embarked on a recruitment drive by loading up his copy of 'Riding the Great Divide'. Not sure if he had any takers, but it was a joy to watch others suffer. Later we moved on to something a little more light hearted.
"I can only apologise to anyone having to see me topless at 3am watching Flight of the Conchords!" Harvey
The night 'strategy' Mel was at pains to explain, was that a finishing rider would hand over the wrist band in the transfer zone to the waiting rider. They would then wake up the next rider who would have approximately 1 hour to prepare and get to the transfer zone, (we were writing the transfer ETAs on a wooden board. A system which as far as we know has been uniquely developed by the Alpkit team and one that although lacking the sophistication of F1 can be adjusted dynamically to race conditions and cannot easily be lost). You could then get a shower, eat, drink and sleep in whatever order you chose. Following these simple rules would ensure that we would not miss a single change over and keep the laps ticking over at a steady pace.
"Not done any night riding before so was loving every minute of it. I did end up over the handlebars on the night lap." Paul M
The team was equipped with lights from British company Exposure Lights. Toros were mounted on handlebars and Joysticks on helmets. The excellent illumination provided by these Exposure units meant that, bar a few minor incidents, we could continue to ride safely through the night with little impact on our lap times.
"...my night lap which was great fun with the Exposure lights kindly lent to us by Rory which were so bright they left me no excuse for clipping a tree on a muddy drop and flying over my handle bars. This time I managed to come in to the change over area at full pelt, which felt great." Stephen
Between laps we did our best to sleep, which wasn't always easy. By now the team was exhibiting a strong sense of camaraderie which meant that everyone wanted to know how everyone was doing. The night laps are also quite a spectacle, and from the vantage point atop the Kendra Climb you could see the whole race unfolding before your eyes. Back in camp the insomniacs were united under the projectors constant glow.
"I must have been too excited about the race because I didn’t sleep at all on either night which is not a strategy I’d recommend." Paul B
Day follows night...
Harvey came charging down the finish straight yelling 'Alpkit'. The change over was smooth, Mel would be proud. It was still dark as Ken set off with Col who now found himself in the hot seat for Genesis. They attacked the course as best they could and the night chills were soon long gone. As they were enjoying the flowing, twisting tracks a faint orange glow began to illuminate the skyline. Dawn was arriving at pace, and by the time they had passed on the baton to Paul P we were through the darkness.
"I always enjoy night riding, the tunnel effect heightens your senses and always gives a sensation of increased speed. As you have a more 2D perspective you also can't quite see how steep / long the climb is and so generally makes them easier." Paul P
The final push...
Even though there were still a good 8 hours of riding still to go we were securely on the home straight. Now we just had to keep the team motivated, fed, watered and hungry to get back on a lap. Aided by chef's challenge that if we could come home before 2pm he would do a lap the team galvanised to pull out all the stops. The reality of the challenge meant that the final two riders would have to put in personal best lap times, a tall order at this stage in the race. Nick was feeling pretty smug until Paul B did just that! The final rider was Paul M, it was his fourth lap but he was game for the challenge. James from Genesis entered the fray and donated his prototype hardtail to the cause while the team mobilised around the course and made some noise.
"If in a large team don’t expect to get a