It’s 3.30 on Sunday afternoon and I’m driving east on the M4. Jo is asleep in the passenger seat and I’m hoping there are some services soon. I really really need a can of red bull. The last time I slept properly was Friday night…
A few weeks before chance conversations with Jo Burt and Rory Hitchens somehow sees me invited to be official photographer with the Pivot-Boompods racing team at Mountain Mayhem, the 24 hour mountain bike race in Gatcombe Park in Gloucestershire. After setting up camp late Friday afternoon I am surrounded by riders fiddling with bikes and sorting out kit for the race. Seeing as I know all my camera batteries are charged I crack open a beer. A few hours later stories and beer flow long into the night as the more sensible riders drift off one by one to tents and vans for well needed slumber. The rest of us drink and chat until the early hours.
On Saturday morning we all wake to clear blue skies. Apparently this is unusual for Mayhem. Bikes are fettled some more, warm ups ridden, lap orders are worked out. I’m meandering around with a camera trying not to get in the way whilst simultaneously getting in the way. As midday nears I head for the main arena. I watch the mad dash at the start and stroll off into the woods to find some good spots to watch and snap. After a few hours of hours of wandering around the woods I head back to basecamp under the beating sun. It’s really very hot once out of the shade of the woodland. The riders must be suffering. Sitting in the shade for a bit I try to work out a plan for alternating photographing and getting some rest during the next 20 or so hours. A plan I don’t stick to.
Early evening I head back into the main arena to see how the race is panning out for the teams. It’s going well, both teams are in the top 5 and solo rider Matt is going good too. The Pivot-Boompods Allstars are swapping the lead with Salsa Factory Racing, the lead fluctuating back and forth, never more than a few minutes either way. I head back into the woods with a tripod and a beer and wait for darkness to fall. Slowly bright flashes of coloured jerseys give way to the tracings of high lumen lights twisting through the trees. Around 1 a.m. I pop back to the arena to find out what is going on. Euan Boompod twisted his chain on a lap so the Salsa team have taken a 10 minute advantage. It’s very quiet. All but the most serious teams have retired to sleeping bags and won’t be back out until light comes again. I decide to get some kip.
A little before 4.30 a.m. I’m back at the transition zone. It’s quiet still. The light is pale and weak, the sun still below the horizon. Whilst I was dozing the Boompods have clawed back five minutes. I grab a cup of tea with Jo after he returns from an early morning lap. As he heads for a nap I traipse of back into the woods. Golden beams of sunlight stream through the trees. I follow the course further into the woods, beyond the parts of the course I found on Saturday. Every now and again a Boompod or a Salsa screams past, there’s definitely a race on. The tracks are getting fuller and fuller as the sun climbs higher above the trees and riders awake and get back out on the course.
I find a section where the course pinches together and I can catch riders on two separate corners, one where they are climbing up from a lake, another a fast sweeping right hander. I shuffle back and forth every time I see a rider I know. Jo attempts to crash into me. I’ve noticed the Boompods are starting to do double laps. I’m snapping away whilst shouting encouragement. They must be closing the gap. By mid-morning I arrive back at camp as Matt rolls in with a thousand yard stare. He announces they are now 3 minutes ahead and disappears into the dark of his van. Rory and team riders are huddled over a sheet of paper working out timings and how to snatch the win. I really need a nap but there is no time. I stuff a biscuit in my mouth and stagger back to the transition zone.
The team are turning themselves inside out on every lap, barely able to stand after each handover. I feel bad shoving a camera in their faces but these are the pictures that will complete the story. After 24 hours the race is going to come down to a matter of minutes, possibly seconds. There is an air of excitement all around the arena, everyone know there is a race on. The big electronic clock is counting down, “One minute left” crackles through the tannoy. If Euan can get back within the next 60 seconds then Matt can get out for one final lap. If the Salsa team don’t get back within the next 60 seconds then the Pivot-Boompods Allstars win. If they both come into the arena together then it could come down to a sprint.
A huge cheer ripples through the crowd that deeply lines the barriers as Euan appears. There’s no sign of the Salsa rider yet. Euan crosses the line and hands over to Matt with 20 seconds to spare. Matt heads out into the field not knowing whether his final lap will be a lap of honour or if it’ll be a sprint chased by a Salsa rider. The Salsa team don’t make it back in time, by seconds. On paper the Boompods win by a lap, in reality they win by little more than a minute. The race between the Pivot-Boompods Allstars and Salsa Factory Racing has been immense. This isn’t to forget that the other Pivot-Boompods team had their own battle for third place which they only just missed out on.
It was fantastic to watch the racing and emotions play out at a slight distance, collating a set of images to share with the team to see what it looked like from the outside. Having one set of riders to focus on meant there was a structure to what I was capturing, a story unfolding through the lens. I had the privilege of seeing the race from many angles; riders preparing and relaxing back at camp, tensely waiting in the handover zone, hacking it around the course, exhausted and empty after each and every lap.
Next year I want to go back and race it solo. There’s plenty of time to come to my senses…
There a full sets of photos at
Many thanks to Jo, Rory, Paul, Euan, Frazer, Rich, Matt, James, the other Matt, Jono, Shaggy, Lea, Phil and the other Frazer.
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