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?”

Mountain Mayhem 2015

Second ever race of any kind, first ever solo 24 hour mountain bike race.
Second ever race of any kind, first ever solo 24 hour mountain bike race.
The bike was more ready than I was
The bike, a Kinesis FF29, was more ready than I was. Tyres converted to tubeless just a few days before.
Whenever seen standing was ordered to sit down and put my feet up.
Whenever seen standing was ordered to sit down and put my feet up. Two hours to go.
Almost time
Almost time
Three hours and three laps in.
Three hours and three laps in.
Lap 5, maybe.
Lap 5, maybe.
Six lap tan.
Six lap tan.
Nutritionally useless comfort food
Nutritionally useless comfort food
Lap 7, or maybe 8
Lap 7, or maybe 8
midnight(ish), after lap 9. on target for 18 laps.
midnight(ish), after lap 9. on target for 18 laps. [photo: Jo Burt]
Sock change and cup of tea before the proper night laps.
Sock change and cup of tea before the proper night laps.
stupid o'clock. not feeling great.
stupid o’clock. not feeling great. [photo: Jo Burt]
6am. Lap 12 was horrible, legs working fine but emotionally shattered and mentally broken. Considered jacking it in. The 18 lap schedule went out the window sometime around 4am.
6am. Lap 12 was horrible, legs working fine but emotionally shattered and mentally broken. Considered jacking it in. The 18 lap schedule went out the window sometime around 4am.
Stern word with myself and a change of kit and I'm ready to go back out. Well, in search of a bacon sandwich first. Then maybe a couple more laps.
Stern word with myself and a change of kit and I’m ready to go back out. Well, in search of a bacon sandwich first. Then maybe a couple more laps.
12.01 Sunday. 15 laps completed. Even had a bit of a sprint at the end of the last lap. Not sure why, I certainly wasn't going to go out for another lap had I crossed the line within 24 hours.
12.01 Sunday. 15 laps completed. Even had a bit of a sprint at the end of the last lap. Not sure why, I certainly wasn’t going to go out for another lap had I crossed the line within 24 hours.
All over for another year. And yes, I'll be back again next year, and now I know what is involved I'll do some actual preperation and training.
All over for another year. And yes, I’ll be back again next year, and now I know what is involved I’ll do some actual preparation and training.

24 hour party people

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.

tweaked 15On 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.

tweaked 62Early 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.

tweaked 102tweaked 117A 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.

tweaked 126I 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.

tweaked 182The 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.

tweaked 197A 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.

tweaked 238It 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

https://www.flickr.com/photos/themanfromicon/sets/72157645513425521/

Many thanks to Jo, Rory, Paul, Euan, Frazer, Rich, Matt, James, the other Matt, Jono, Shaggy, Lea, Phil and the other Frazer.