Well we returned from dinner expecting the worst, and at first sight the campground looked like a disaster. Water everywhere, the dirt road leading in had flooded and turned into a quagmire, cars trying to get in were slipping and sliding all over the place. One poor bloke even ended up in the trees after getting a little too carried away.
But our site was in pretty good order. Aside from a few wet bits and pieces, and a leaking fly and large puddle of water in my tent, it wasn't a disaster. Luckily Jukka, Julie and Rick had turned up in the meantime and had taken some preventative action. The rain continued until about midnight, and I drifted off to sleep, dreaming about boggy tracks and destroyed drivetrains.
Saturday dawned clear, bright and crisp. The upside of the rain was that it had settled all of the dust, and it was shaping up to be a cracker of a day. We pottered around getting bikes ready, mounting number plates, drinking coffee, and nervously joking about what the next 24 hours was going to being us.
The numbers were pretty massive - a total of 2400 riders competing, with probably 20% on course at any one time (accounting for the teams of 4 and 6). Shunting everyone onto the track at the start always proves to be interesting, so the tradition is to use the Le Mans, or running start. Basically all riders have to run about 300 metres before the start, up to a helper who is holding their bike, and then the lap proper starts. The idea no doubt is for the run to create some sort of self - seeding, where the quicker runners (and probably riders) make their way to the front and thus hit the track first, causing less congestion and necessity for overtaking. The theory is sound, but in practice it is not the most elegant solution. But until someone comes up with something better, that is the way it is.
We sent Mike out for the first lap. He hadn't benefited from a practice lap, and the first lap usually being a little slow, it would be a good familiarisation for him. Mike is whippet quick, and a Canberra local, so he had the benefit of knowing the type of terrain we'd be riding, but not the specifics.
And we're rolling. The next 24 hours were to be spent eating, drinking, riding bikes, avoiding mechanicals, fixing mechanicals, and enjoying the atmosphere.
Strangely, the racing part of the 24 hour period is probably the most straightforward of the lot. Everyone is working towards a common goal, all the organisation has been done, and it is a matter of sit back, let the machine run, and pretty much either eat, sleep, or ride your bike.
I was third man out, and a little nervous about the track. I wasn't sure how boggy it was going to be after the rain, how it would hold up to the traffic, and whether my pre-ride assessment had actually been on the money or not.
There was nothing to fear. This track was all killer, no filler. What had been a dusty track yesterday was now smooth, grippy and fast. No real muddy sections, a couple of soft spots where water had not drained away properly, but this was possibly the fastest track I had ridden for a very long time.
I wasn't sure how the lap times were going to work. My practice lap had been 1:05, with stops, cruising, talking, and generally wasting time. I thought 0:55 at race pace would be about the mark, but after a lap at full throttle, I managed about 59:30, and doubted I could go much quicker than that. The course was a double edged sword, quick but at the same time no respite. The typical MTB course will have some defined climbing, and then a downhill section which allows you to rest a little. This was different - you were on the rivet for the entire lap. The pros seemed to be having the same issue. Normally they would be a whole lot quicker than the field - for example at the Scott 24 last year, a pro lap was 36 min vs punter lap at 1 hour. Here they were doing 44's to our 1 hour laps.
We rolled through our first 2 sets of laps pretty easily. No mechanicals, no flats, no injuries. The plan was to run double laps through the night, potentially providing 6 hours between riding, and the chance to get a little sleep. I managed to time it right-ish, getting back from a lap about 7:30pm, allowing time to get some dinner, hike up to the showers, get settled, and get 3 or so hours sleep before I had to be out on the bike at 1:30am.
Sleeping on command is not a skill I possess, but I am getting better at it. Knowing I have to wake up early, or at an odd hour though usually results in very light, restless sleep, and this was no different. I swore I woke up every 15 minutes for the next 3 1/2 hours. Finally scraped myself out of bed, geared up, started eating, and got ready for a rider tag down at transition.
Lisa was out before me, and had the benefit of trialling new lights. She had a great first lap, but bonked a little on the second, which had her lap about 15 minutes slower than we first expected - so I spent too long sitting in transition shivering and getting cold waiting for her. Once we tagged and I went out, I had to warm up, and warm up quickly.
I love night riding, and don't get to do enough of it. I also love my AYUP lights, but I had to make a few modifications to suit the conditions of riding through a pine plantation. The tight pattern of trees made riding a bit interesting, with the narrow and intermediate beams flicking around through the trees, it was bit like being in a seedy club at 3am, with an epileptic strobe light, all while being on a bad acid trip. Very Blair Witch. I managed to counter this by switching one of the lights to the new medium beam unit that we bought a couple of weeks ago for Elsie to commute with. It's an awesome unit - alot of beam spread laterally, which was great for getting light down to the ground without strobing through the trees. Combined with the intermediate on the helmet, I pretty much had it nailed.
Heading out on the double lap, I was a little dubious. 37km of being on the rivet could have been interesting. But it went really well. I'm coming to the realisation that I am not a sprinter, I'm a stayer. I get stronger and more consistent the longer I ride. My second lap was only 30 sec or so slower than the first, and given that I had a 1 minute break between them to finish a bottle and eat a gel, it was probably actually quicker.
I think I made it home about 3:30 ish from the double, and this meant more sleep until about 6am. There was clearly a disturbance in the force - 6 hours sleep at a 24 hour race? Unheard of! I seriously could not be stuffed getting changed though - so just took off my jersey, hung it out to dry, and climbed into the sleeping bag, knicks and all.
Once the new day dawned, we knew we were on the home stretch. Back to single laps and keep rolling through. Time to start eating again as well. The original plan was to get 24 laps ridden, but with a few slower night laps, we were looking like being closer to 22 or 23 for the 24 hours.
I got back from my 5th lap at about 9am, and Lisa declared that she was done and dusted. No more riding for her. This of course meant another lap for me, which would be 6 for the 24 hours. And if I busted out hard, I might even make it back before the 12pm cutoff, and someone would go out for a 7th. How quick could I go?
Not quick enough, unfortunately. I was within about 500 metres of the transition area when the countdown started. Dammit! Official finish time for us was 24:02:58 with 22 laps, enough to put us 11th out of 48 in the Mixed 4 division. If I'd only managed to pick up that last couple of minutes, a 23rd lap would have pushed us to 9th.
And so another 24 hour race comes to an end. It was an absolute pleasure. Great track, great camping, great weather, and best of all - no dust.
Can't beat it.
It's now Friday, it's taken me the best part of a week to write this, and pretty much all I've done all week is eat and sleep. And eat.
I think today might be the day. I'm almost ready to sit on a bike seat again.