Mayhem Weekender

Sometime after midnight on Monday morning in a 24 hour petrol station on the edge of Brighton

Cashier: “Have you done the bike ride today?” [Sunday was the annual London to Brighton charity ride]

Me: “No, I’ve done a different bike ride. A little bit further.”

Cashier: “Wow, further! Where have you ridden from then?”

Me: “From near Gloucester”

Cashier: “Gloucester!? Flipping heck!”

What I didn’t add was that I’d actually ridden there on Friday evening, done a lap of a mountain bike race that morning, before riding home from mid-afternoon until now. There was already a look of incredulity on the woman’s face and adding this additional information would have only led to the inevitable “Why?” question and I was frankly far too exhausted to think of an answer. I took my change, picked up my ready meal for two, stuffed it in my musette, and walked out of the garage, hopped back on the bike and rode into the light pollution for the final couple of miles home.

The weekend just gone was the last ever Mountain Mayhem 24 hour mountain bike race. I came to this event late, only attending my first one four years ago. That year I was there to help out mates and take some photos. That in turn prompted me to buy a mountain bike and return in 2015 and 2016 and do the solo race (in for a penny, in for a pound). This year being the last ever one I considered soloing again but sensibly decided it was a bit close to the start of the Transcontinental to recover in time properly. A plan to ride from Brighton to Gatcombe Park and then back again was hatched instead. This would mean I could hang out with mates and watch the last race with the added benefit of getting a couple of 200km night(ish) rides in as Transcon training. What with camping at the race too it gave me an opportunity to test out my sleeping stuff for the Transcon and see how most efficient to pack it on the bike. In the back of my mind I knew that if there was a spare bike kicking about I’d try and get a cheeky lap in too.

Friday

I left Brighton just before 3 o’clock on Friday afternoon (due to having run out of annual leave allowance I needed to fit the riding in around work. A couple of long days in the preceding week meant I could bunk off early) and headed along the coast for a bit before turning northwest. Annoyingly there was a stiff breeze coming from precisely the direction I didn’t need it to be coming from, but the sun was shining and the forecast was good for the whole weekend.

It says a lot about the last few months that I now consider the roads as far as Petersfield as ‘home roads’. Distances have not only become greater but there have been a lot of rides out this way, to Bespoked a couple of times, to Wales on an audax, and various long rides that have headed further into West Sussex that I ever did before (I usually head into East Sussex as I know the roads better). It’s only once past the climb over the Ashford Hangers or “Little Switzerland” as it is known locally, and there is something alpine-esque about the climb, in character rather than height, that the roads start to feel foreign and the excitement and anticipation of the long ride kicks in. I have ridden across parts of Hampshire and Wiltshire many times in the last two years but my route this weekend took in new roads to me. I was in roughly the same areas as previous rides, familiar names on signposts triggered memories. It was early afternoon by the time I got past Petersfield and Hampshire looked about as pastoral and bucolic as it’s possible to be. Narrow lanes carried me through endless fields of wheat and barley rolling across low downland until I popped out on a familiar road through the Bourne Valley towards Wiltshire. I crossed the border as the sun was setting and headed for Marlborough. Somewhere along the way a rustling sound from a field to my left startled me and I turned to see a group of deer bouncing through the golden field, not only a sight to behold but the sound of them swooshing through the tall crop was beautiful. Then a barn owl swept across my path. Idyllic.

The last of the light was fading from the sky as I reached Marlborough around 10 o’clock and by the time I dropped off the Marlborough Downs stars could be seen in the dark sky. There was an orange glow on the horizon to the northeast which I guessed was Swindon. From previous years of driving to Mayhem I knew this is where we turned off the M4 so it couldn’t be too much further. The Garmin distance told me similar, somewhere around 50km to go.

The next section passed close to Royal Wootton Bassett, Malmesbury and Tetbury but I’m not sure what the landscape was like as it was properly dark by now and I was tired and concentrating on pedalling, snacking and drinking. At 1 o’clock in the morning I was sat on a bench outside the pub in Avening eating the last of the emergency peanuts before the last couple of kilometres up the hill to the Mayhem site.

A few minutes later, and after getting lost on the campsite, I pulled into our camp where Rory and Shaggy gave me a hug and a beer, and Jo handed me a plate of pasta. Part one completed, 215km in ten and half hours.

Saturday

Much sitting about in the shade trying not to melt in the sunshine. Beer. Food. More beer. Heckling mates racing. Due to some motorway closures one of Jo’s team of ten, My Knees Hurt (usually a team of four and raced all 20 years of Mayhem, singlespeed in the old days hence the team name, this year all previous riders and helpers have combined to make a team of ten) can’t make it to Mayhem so they are a rider down. Frazer from the Pivot Boompods team very generously offers me his Pivot Les to do a lap standing in for ‘Scottish Phil’. Some number crunching is done and it is decided that I will go out for the dawn lap on Sunday morning. I then drink some more beer as I have hours to go before I have to ride.

Sunday Morning

I awoke to Jo saying “Oi, you’re supposed to be awake. You’re out soon”. I checked the time, it’s 04:18 and two minutes before my alarm is due to go off. Bleary eyed I gave Jo the spare number board to go on the bike whilst I dragged my kit on. Half a flapjack and a spin around the campsite to make sure the bike is set up OK and I set off to the arena to take over from Rory when he gets in from his lap. Yes, I know it would have made sense to check the bike the day before but it was being saved as second bike for Rich who was racing solo so I didn’t want to mess around with the seat height until I was absolutely sure he wouldn’t need to use the bike.

Rory beeped over the timing mat and handed over to me. I hopped on the bike and headed out of the main arena into the field before the woods. First corner and the rear end squirmed all over the place. Bloody hell, I’d not ridden a MTB since last November and I had completely forgotten about how low pressure you can run a tubeless tyre. I minced around the first few corners, almost slid out over a root into a tree, until I got used to it and then I was off. It’s a lot more fun knowing you only have to put one lap in rather than ride non-stop for 24 hours. For the first time I was riding up behind people and saying “on yer left” or “on yer right” and slaloming between slower riders. Most of the course was ingrained in my mind from two years of solo racing and the trails are so dry it was easy to get some flow going. Despite not having ridden a mountain bike for months it felt like the best I’ve ever ridden.  After a few corners I can see the sun squeezing between the trunks and branches, sun rise! A magical time of day to ride a bike. I love riding at dawn but my previous experience of dawn at Mayhem is utter exhaustion and a slow (rapid) unravelling of my sense of humour or resolve. I’m usually having a lie down and sulk not long after the dawn lap. This was riding at dawn without all the tiredness and mental fragility of soloing and it was ace. I even rode the entire course, no parts were walked, a mix of having a really lightweight bike to ride and all the Transcon training, plus the fact I only had one lap to do so didn’t need to worry about conserving energy (I may have eased off on a couple of fire roads knowing that I had to ride home later in the day). It was the most fun lap I’d ever done at Mayhem. Through the campsite section I could see Phil was still at camp and not at the handover waiting for me. “Phil, I’m back…” I shouted as I whizzed past. Through the last bit of singletrack into the arena and I span along until I saw Phil riding round to take over. I rode over the timing mat just as he arrived. I passed the baton over and went looking for a bacon sarnie. Then I dozed some more.

The rest of Sunday

All packed up and goodbyes said I pedal out of the campsite just after 2 o’clock for the 200 or so kilometres home. It was ridiculously hot and I had toyed with the idea of just getting a lift home, but this was the last big Transcon training ride, and getting a lift won’t be an option on the Transcon. I had a framebag stuffed full of snacks and two bottles of water which would get me as far as the first shop. I had routed myself home pretty much the same way as I’d ridden on Friday, so knew that I probably wouldn’t see anything open until Marlborough. Two bottles of water would not get me that far, not in the heat, but I also knew that I would pass close enough to Malmesbury to detour if I needed to. However it turned out my route back was slightly different, I rode through Royal Wootton Bassett rather than near it, so was able to buy some food and water to keep me going to Marlborough.

The section between Wootton Bassett and Marlborough was gorgeous. I’d not been able to see it in the dark on Friday but white horses in the sides of the hills at Broad Hinton and Hackpen hill glowed in the bright sunshine. On the Friday I had a feeling that the road between Hackpen Hill and Marlborough was nice, the twilight meant I had been able to make out silhouettes of the surrounding landscape, but it was an absolute cracker made even better by the fact it was a gentle but fast descent for the best part of 7 or 8 kilometres. More food and water in Marlborough before a quick blast along the A4 to get back into the quiet lanes across Wiltshire and Hampshire. The Bourne Valley again. Love this stretch of road. Under the A34. Dinner sat on a step in the shade by the river opposite the little Tesco in Whitchurch. Over the M3. Yet more hedge lined lanes through yet more fields. This part of the country always makes me think of Lemon Jelly record sleeves.

Picture Perfect England™.

A kestrel glides low over the field to my side before swerving across the road and through a gap in the trees to my right. Then I chased a hare along a lane a few minutes later.

Petersfield again. More food, more water. Home roads. Tired. Hot. Probably dehydrated. Actually, absolutely definitely dehydrated. Twilight. By this point I was starting to lose interest in riding, bored even. Close enough to home to just want to be there, far enough away to know it was still a couple of hours away. I plugged my earphones into my phone and hit shuffle. I pedalled on. Home roads. Autopilot. Village names got ticked off the mental list – Harting, Cocking, Graffham, Greatham, Storrington. Dark now, it was late. Even the main roads were quiet. Swerved a hedgehog. Route 1 home. Washington, Steyning, Shoreham. Head down, high gear, push pedals as hard as possible. The fast road and the cement works. A way I would never ride in the day, but 11 o’clock on a Sunday night it was OK. Tempted by the drive-thru MacDonalds, but no, cracked on. Didn’t even cross the lock gates for the quiet of Basin Road, I stuck to the coast road. Hungry. Tired. Get home, maybe stagger to the kebab shop. Then I saw the lights of the M&S shop at the all night petrol station near Hove Lagoon…

“Have you done the bike ride today?”

M+1

In 1990 I went off to Canterbury School of Art in Kent as a fresh faced scrawny twenty year old taking my Raleigh Scirocco racing bike with me. Not only would the bike let me explore my new environs but as I lived ten miles from college on the coast at Whitstable the bike was the cheapest way to get to and from college. Towards the end of my first term my head was turned by a bright red Trek 820 mountain bike in the window of Herbert’s Cycles on Whitstable High Street. I flogged my Scirocco to my landlord and topping up the money, probably with some student loan, unless I’d already spent it all on records, purchased a sparkly new MTB. I took my new pride and joy home that Christmas but it was promptly nicked out of the shed one night by some lowlife scum. In the local bike shop in Camberley there was a 1990 Marin Palisades in the January sale. I was instantly drawn to the matt grey frame and fluoro yellow bars and forks. It was way cooler looking than the Trek. Oh fickle me, how soon I moved on. I borrowed some money from Dad on the assumption he’d get it back off the house insurance and by the time I got back to Kent I had another new bike.

On Monday mornings Chris (Muddy Fox), Matt (Saracen) and I skived off Cultural Studies lectures to bomb around the woods up the hill outside Canterbury. I rode it hard and bounced it off trees, crashing it more than once. I found new ways to ride between Whitstable and Canterbury that didn’t involve the A-road. I rode it along the coast and over the cliffs as far as Broadstairs. I have a vivid memory of sitting on it on top of a hill overlooking Canterbury one beautifully sunny morning listening to Saint Etienne’s Nothing Can Stop Us taped off the radio on a Walkman. When I left college it got smashed around the woods back home, the same ones I trashed my BMX around as a kid.

There were a good few years when I bloody loved that bike, but then I was distracted by a few Vespas (150 Super, two Vespa 90s, T5, PX200) and then a Lambretta (LI 150 Special). Having motorised two wheeled transport I rode the Marin less and less. I lent it to my brother for a couple years and moved away. Visiting my parents one weekend I saw it in the shed with a ripped saddle, a bent rear wheel, and the rear mech hanging off. The front wheel was nowhere to be seen. I have no idea what he did to it and I didn’t dare ask. Knowing what I do now, and the things he was getting up to, I’m lucky to have got it back at all. It stayed in my parent’s shed in that sorry state until they decided they no longer wanted it taking up space. It was delivered to me in Brighton one weekend, unceremoniously piled in the back of Dad’s car along with a load of boxes of other stuff my parents decided they no longer wanted to look after. Most of it ended up at the tip soon after but I didn’t have the heart to scrap the Marin. Every scuff and chip told a story. So I rebuilt it with (really) cheap parts and rode it to and from the studio and locked it to lamp posts outside pubs. It was enough to reignite my interest in cycling. No longer fresh faced or scrawny I eventually decided to get a road bike again in an attempt to get fit. My first love of road riding was rediscovered on the very first ride. The Marin got ignored again.

It languished in the hallway in a state of slow entropy. I thought about fixing it up but never found the time or inclination. Then I started to acquire other bikes including another mountain bike, so the Marin just seemed to be redundant. Yet I still couldn’t bring myself to chuck it out so it quietly sat there rusting under the gathering dust. After walking past this sad sight one too many times my friend Jo finally broke. He could bear witness to my neglect of an old mountain bike no longer.

“Just leave it with me, I’ll fix it.”

With bits dug out from the dark recesses of Jo’s shed – other histories, a multitude of stories – and a few new parts it has been resurrected as a different bike, re-invented as a singlespeed. The first bike I’ve had with only one gear since a BMX (Prolite) when aged 14. It’ll probably make me hurt and swear but commutes over the Downs should be interesting. However having just ridden it home I reckon it’ll also be a hell of a lot of fun! It’s nice to have you back Marin.

the other 20 have gone missing
1993 (probably)
1993 (probably)

Hometown Woods

IMG_20150505_082319Army barracks and the sound of gun fire. No red flags, it should be OK. My first ever race. Why would I start racing at my age. Idiot. Please let the rain stop. The terrain and smell of damp pine takes me back. I revert to a 13 year old kid on a BMX hacking around like a loon. This means I go off too fast. I regret this. Idiot. I feel sick. Tyres squirmimg beneath me. An intense, deep brown line weaving through the bright rain intensified spring green. Checking the other side of the bomb hole before I drop in as I’m going to be jettisoned out the other side before I can think of my exit point. Staying high on that off camber bit so if the tyres slip there’s somewhere to end up other than falling down the bank. A momentary lapse in concentration and finding myself lying on a soft bed of pine needles. Realising that bridge is there because the line through the ditch isn’t really a line. Getting that corner wrong every lap. Smoothly flowing through that other bit on every lap and it feeling awesome (totally rad like, dude). Not taking line B and jumping that log but bottling that vertiginous drop to the canal bank. Pulling over to the left to let the Pivot-Boompods through as they chat amongst themselves like it’s a Sunday social. Finding line C, or maybe D, on that bit of lap 3 where I just want to climb off and go home. Clipping my foot on that sodding branch every bloody lap. Every part of my being screaming at me to stop except that tiny bit of my brain that tells me “You’re not giving up”. Spending the next half lap praying that my chain snaps as I know I don’t have a chain tool with me. Using the emergency gel at half distance. Keep forgetting about this tedious section. Why is there a root just there. I hate this. A cheery hello from Rory when all is black and murky in my head. As I come out of the woods at the end of the lap I wish I could just ride across the field, freewheel down the Old Bisley Road home for beans on toast, but Mum and Dad don’t live there any more. Sun comes out. Roll the arm warmers down. More cake. Maybe I can do another lap. That first bit gets mushier and slippier every lap. Ride that vertiginous drop to the canal bank. Love the way you get flung out the other side of that bomb hole. Not liking having to grovel the last few feet up that bank every time. Throw the last of the Jelly Babies down my neck. Maybe I can do another lap. Instantly realising this is a shocking line and knowing the only way out of it is going to hurt. Hitting my hip on a root and cramp spasms through my leg. Can’t move. Want to cry. Why the fuck didn’t I bail at the end of lap 4. Idiot. Finally not dabbing the front brake into that swoopy bit where no braking is needed. It’s only taken five goes. An eternity later I cross the line. That was horrible. That was brilliant! When’s the next one?*

 

Photo by Nick from RPM90. Thanks to Nick for hanging around after he had a mechanical on the second lap. Also thanks for that amazing chicken salad.

*the next one is 24 hour Mountain Mayhem. Solo. Idiot.