Ever since riding my first 12 hour race back in 1996 I have felt I had a 240 mile (20 mph) ride in me. But unlike the 24 hour I have never fully focused on a 12 and this year was a chance to see what I could really do.
My first 12 hour race was in Sussex in August 1996. It started at the foot of the South Downs and started by climbing straight over them. I had no idea how far I could ride so I just set off at a pace that seemed sustainable. It wasn't, but mostly because of stomach problems (sports nutrition not being what it is now) though I still recorded a very respectable 233.3 miles. Since then I have ridden three other 12 hour events: one I started off far too fast and paid for it later; another I suffered problems with my hip and had to stop; the last one I wasn't really fit enough and was cooked after 10 hours or so and abandoned.
My primary target for this year was a fast ride in the Mountain Time Trial. But having achieved a good level of fitness in May it seemed an opportunity to build on that for a 12 hour race in July or August. And if you are racing a 12 hour you might as well ride a 50 and 100 to qualify for the BBAR (which requires an average speed of 22 mph to get a certificate). Hence my travels to Yorkshire in June for a fast 50 and to Shropshire in July for a relatively fast 100.
The West Cheshire 12 hour wasn't my intended 12. I entered the Team Swift event just south of York three weeks earlier, but the forecast was for 40 mph winds and rain for the first 6 hours so I didn't start and looked for other options. As it happened the Team Swift event was abandoned after 9 hours due to an unrelated motorbike accident on the course, so I was lucky not to have put my efforts in to that day! The only remaining event was the West Cheshire 12 on 19th August, so I was heading back to many of the same roads from the 24 hour and from the 100 in July.
There are faster 12 hour events to ride, but they are based on dual carriageways for most of the day which doesn't appeal. The roads for this event are almost all single-carriageway; some of them are A roads, but mostly they are B roads out in the countryside. The terrain is gently rolling - not pan flat but no major climbs either.
The logistics for the race were going to be interesting. Most of the riders would have a dedicated supporter or two driving to various points on the course to hand up bottles and food. Charlotte doesn't drive, so we booked a B&B on the "daytime" circuit for the race so she could provide me with drinks and food from there. I wouldn't reach her until 103 miles were covered, but the organisers had arranged to transport supplies to a different area on the circuit so I also left bottles and food to be available there from 88 miles onward and to be brought to the finish circuit in Wrexham later on.
One mystery of 12 and 24 hour races is how many laps you will do of each circuit. The race programme stated up to 5 laps of the daytime circuit, but that is usually for the fastest riders only although it isn't clear at what time of day they decide you won't go round the circuit again. So we arranged that I would stop and fully restock on food and drink on lap 1 (103 miles) and on lap 4 (169 miles). I would then be carrying enough to get me to the finish circuit regardless of whether I was sent around for a 5th lap or not. At that point Charlotte would cycle the 20 miles to Wrexham.
The weather forecast for the day could have been better. The remnants of tropical storm Ernesto were expected to bring rain and strong winds. The wind was forecast to be a southerly wind in the morning, swinging to become a westerly later on. Given that the race starts at Wrexham and heads south almost to Telford, 33 of the first 46 miles being in a southerly direction, it was looking like it was going to be a tough start and not necessarily with a payback on the return later in the day.
My start time was 06:33 and I arrived at the Club House in Wrexham Industrial Estate with a good 45 minutes to get myself ready. Bottles and food were dropped off at sign-on, numbers affixed, bike tyres inflated and bottles added. All was going fine until it came to putting my contact lenses in; for whatever reason I just couldn't get my right lens to stay in. Having spent 15 minutes trying I was running out of time and with 5 minutes to go had to make the decision to ride with glasses instead, which meant removing the visor from my aero hat. Under pressure I couldn't get the screws to budge and I had no screwdriver, but fortunately a fellow competitor nearby was much calmer and managed to undo the screws for me. With two minutes to spare I was at the start line and ready to go.
The first few miles were fairly easy, and gave a preview of half the finishing circuit - the hill on the circuit was going to be much harder with tired legs. After a few miles the course passed where my 24 hour races had started in the past, and the next 80 miles were on familiar roads. I passed through 10 miles in a time of 26:37 (22.6 mph), so far so good, but that was wind-assisted. The general plan was to stick to a power output I thought I could sustain, which was 180 watts. Having raced much harder than that for the rest of the year it is hard to keep the pace down at the start, and my 197 watts for this section was definitely too high. I have my Garmin set to record intervals every 10 miles which allows me to review progress (power output, speed and distance) regularly. Fortunately when aiming for a 20 mph average speed the maths is fairly easy!
Turning south onto the A41 at Broxton meant a headwind for the hilliest section of the day, climbing 300 feet in 6 miles. I had already decided to burn a match or two on this section just to keep my speed up, so pushed a little on the climbs. A little way along this section my power meter started to show first questionable readings and then completely wrong ones, much as I would love to be able to output 2 kilowatts! A little later and a warning popped up for the battery on the power meter. I guess the two were related and for the rest of the day the power meter readings were all over the place. I was now back to old school racing mostly on feel, though I did have my heart rate monitor to keep an eye on.
Past Whitchurch the road weaves around a bit and there were faster stretches of road. The field was set out with the slowest riders first and I was starting to catch up with some of them. Nearly at Telford I became aware that my tool bag, which also contained my phone, had come loose and was dangling from under my saddle. The strap has a thicker end to it and so I thought it was unlikely to pull through completely, but it seemed wise to stop and do it up. This took a little more than 30 seconds and was the first unscheduled stop of the day. Together with time taken to slow down and get going again that was probably a minute lost.
Turning round at Telford was a relief, although the expected tailwind didn't seem to be quite as helpful as it could have been. Through 50 miles my time was 2:20, which from experience is a good position to be in for the distance I was hoping for. Nine miles north to Espley and then heading back down to Telford my bag came loose again, presumably on the same bit of bumpy road as last time. I contemplated what to do and decided to take a chance on the bag not coming off altogether given the likelihood it would come loose again if I was to stop.
After 81 miles I was back on the A41 heading north and being followed by a very patient HGV when a badly mended pothole was the final straw for my tool bag and it parted company with my bike. Luckily I heard it go and was able to quickly stop before running back 20 metres or so to rescue it from where it had fortunately come to rest at the side of the road. I didn't have many options on where to put it so it went down the front of my skinsuit until I could offload an empty water bottle and stow it securely in a bottle cage behind my saddle. Unscheduled stop number two and another 30 seconds to a minute lost.
Reaching the day circuit at 88 miles I was able to see where my bottles and food were should I need them. I was good to make it to Charlotte at the 103 mile point so kept going.
The "daytime" circuit is 22 miles long and much of it was on roads completely new to me. The first stretch down to Welshampton was very hard into the wind and with several uphill drags. Part way along was an unexpected set of temporary traffic lights. I got lucky on the first lap - in fact I only had to stop there on one of my laps although one lap did require almost a sprint to make it through on green.
At Welshampton the course turned left, but still had an unfavourable wind for some miles until another left turn took the course onto country lanes for a couple of miles and finally a tailwind. Just along the lane was a timekeeper at the 100 mile mark, and my Garmin showed 4:43. Whilst my plan was initially to ride to a power output I was also aware that a 100 time of 4:45 was where I wanted to be to hit a total of 240, so I was in the right place in terms of time. However, I was also aware that the level of effort taken to achieve that was higher than I wanted and I was quite concerned with how the rest of the race was going to play out.
Reaching Charlotte after 103 miles it was time to restock with food and drink. I had finished all of my bars and gels and had a small amount of drink left so that part of the plan had worked out perfectly. Taking on two bottles, 3 bars and 4 gels should see me through the 66 miles of the next three laps of the circuit. I also stowed the toolkit in the empty bottle cage and got rid of my arm warmers. I also expressed my doubts about how far I would end up riding. In total I was stopped for less than two minutes. I set off again clutching a granola square, which became something of a liability as I ploughed through a section of badly surfaced road half a mile later in Quina Brook.
From there I had to back off the pace a little as I simply couldn't sustain what I had been doing - my legs were already feeling tired and I wasn't halfway. I had 17 hard won minutes ahead of 20 mph pace in the bank after 5 hours and the aim now was to lose them as slowly as possible. 10 mile split times of 26 to 28 minutes became 29 to 30 minutes. It felt like I was riding as hard as before but the speed just wasn't quite there.
On lap 2 I needed to stop for a call of nature, but otherwise the lap was uneventful. I collected a banana from Charlotte but didn't stop. What was noticeable was that the wind was swinging to the west. The turn at Welshampton now gave a little more assistance, making the circuit a little quicker.
Lap 3 was a much better effort from me, and rather than having time slowly slipping through my fingers I managed to bring back two minutes. It wasn't much but it was important mentally to stem the loss of time and show that I could turn it back in a positive direction. By this point I had been starting to suffer from cramp in both feet, as well as occasional twinges in my inner thighs. Experience from my previous long distance time trials tells me that it is possible ride on through cramp and there are ways to manage it, though that doesn't make it any less pleasant.
Lap 4 saw me reach Charlotte for the last time. Twisting my foot sideways to unclip from my pedal sent cramp all the way up my left leg. Amidst much swearing I was stopped for barely 30 seconds to pick up two bottles, four gels, and a smaller piece of granola than last time so i could finish eating it before Quina Brook! Passing 170 miles shortly after the stop I still had 14 minutes in hand on a 20 mph pace, so had remarkably only lost 3 minutes over 70 miles.
I didn't fancy a 5th lap of the circuit so it was a relief to approach the junction at Redbrook and see the arrow pointing straight ahead to Wrexham. However it also came with the knowledge that the road to Wrexham was now straight into the wind. The redeeming feature of this leg is that much of it is downhill and as you progress towards Wrexham the road swings north and the headwind became less severe.
The final few miles to Wrexham also saw another set of temporary traffic lights. As I approached there were two cars waiting at a red light, joined by a third car which had been supporting a rider in the race. As I eased my pace the lights changed to green and the cars set off, pretty much perfectly timed for me to follow them. As the road swung left they came head to head with three cars coming the other way. I had little choice but to enter the coned off lane on the right, which the driver of the third vehicle also indicated I should do. Once past the three cars coming the other way I returned to the left hand lane only to then face a full stream of traffic coming towards me. There was room to pass them all, being as they were now stationary, but I had to endure two shouts from drivers including one who advised me to read the highway code! I wonder if he repeated that to the other cars that were following me or if the advice was reserved for cyclists. Maybe I should have dished that advice out to all the drivers coming towards me. I consoled myself with the thought that they would be stuck there for some time, but hoped that none of the other riders would get held up by the ensuing chaos.
Immediately after the temporary lights were a set of permanent lights and again I was lucky. Seven sets of traffic lights (including the cow crossing) and I had only had to stop once!
Turning onto the finishing circuit was a real morale boost. I had covered 190 miles in 9:19, so still had 11 minutes in hand on 20 mph pace. I was really struggling with cramp though, particularly with my inner thighs and as soon as they cramped I had to come off the tri-bars until they settled down again. It was hard to get my head around riding for another 2 hours and 40 minutes, and not just riding but riding hard. For the first time ever I also experienced pain on the sole of my right foot, presumably due to pressure applied and the rough road surfaces. It is hard to describe - not quite burning, but really quite painful when pressure is placed on it. Just what I needed for the best part of another 3 hours!
For a while I had been reckoning that I could continue to ride the race out at 18 mph, but that wasn't going to be fast enough to reach 240 miles. I had other targets though - BBAR qualification at 209 miles was now effectively in the bag; a PB for BBAR average speed at 222 miles looked achievable; even a PB for 12 hours at 233.3 miles looked possible. It also looked like I could spend the last 2 hours watching 240 miles drift slowly and agonisingly out of reach.
Well, there wasn't too much point in worrying about that, so I just focused on the here and now, which was turning the pedals at a decent speed without cramping up.
The first lap was spent finding out how the course was going to ride given a different wind direction from the morning and a different level of fatigue. The first stretch after the HQ (from timekeeper 2) is along country roads and was quite pleasant with a helping wind. The next leg from timekeeper 3 was up the hill into the wind towards the top of Wrexham industrial estate before sweeping down a dual carriageway to timekeeper 1. From there through the industrial estate to the HQ was generally downhill with a tailwind. Overall I think the wind was in a favourable direction as the hill seemed to provide shelter on the climb, although the wind did continue to swing towards the north west.
Things became interesting on lap 2. Turning left just after the HQ at TK2 I was lucky to scrape through before the farmer started letting his cows across the road. It was my lucky day, as I expressed to someone's helper who was standing there... until a mile down the road where another farmer was also moving his cows across the road and I came to a halt with three other riders, one of whom was heard to ask the farmer if there were any more farms along the road. From evidence on the road I'm sure there were, but fortunately I didn't encounter any more cows during my race. I later found out that other riders had been stopped by cows within the first half mile of their race in the morning!
By lap 3 I had covered 210 miles and had lost a further 4 minutes of the time in hand over 20 mph, now down to just 7 minutes. I didn't feel like eating much so settled on a strategy of having a gel after TK2 on each lap and drinking as much as I could. I had plenty of drink but only enough gels until lap 4. I was expecting Charlotte to arrive before then and to be able to request some gels for the last lap or two. I could have stopped to pick them up from my box which had by now arrived at the HQ, but I really didn't want to stop and risk cramping up more than I already was. At the end of lap 3 she still wasn't there and I was starting to worry about her.
Approaching the HQ at the end of lap 4 I decided I'd keep going for another lap before stopping for my gels. As I turned left at TK2 Charlotte turned in from my right and fortunately shouted to make sure I had seen her. Worry over, but too late for me to place my order for gels on the next lap!
Whilst I had been worrying about Charlotte and my feeding situation I had been steadily plugging away round the circuit. You can only do what you can do up the hill, so I relaxed on the uphill but didn't hang around on the easier parts of the circuit. Looking back at lap times my pace actually increased as the laps went on. 220 miles passed with an hour and 6 minutes left and somehow I had stemmed the loss of time again. With an hour to go I needed 18 miles and I could see I had been lapping at 19 mph. For the first time in many hours 240 looked to be on.
I had worked out where on the course I needed to get to - assuming my Garmin was accurate. It meant reaching TK3 on lap 6, fortunately before reaching the hill. Only two more ascents to go!
Approaching the HQ with just over 30 minutes to go I had hoped that Charlotte would find my box of stuff and choose something to offer me. I was hoping it would be a gel. She had found it and did choose something - a bottle! To be fair, that was the sensible choice. I had chosen not to attach a gel to each bottle for this race, in which case I could have had both. I chose to leave the bottle - no point in carting another half kilo up the hill - and reckoned on being able to finish without eating again.
Onward towards TK3 and it looked like another herd of cows was being prepared to move. I hoped they wouldn't get in my way on the final lap as I needed to reach TK3 as quickly as possible. The final distance is calculated by pro-rating the distance between the final two timekeepers, so it would be possible to pass 240 miles and then get held up before the next timekeeper and not get full credit.
The final lap was all a bit emotional. I was on the edge of tears from the effort I'd put in over the race and what that had taken out of me, combined with knowing I pretty much just had to stay on my bike to reach 240 miles (if you can call 18 mph just staying on your bike after 12 hours of racing). Or I could just miss out because I'd dropped my tool bag earlier in the day. Reaching the top of the hill for the last time without cramping was a relief.
Past the HQ for the final time and I was on a mission to get as close to TK3 as possible. As 240 miles passed with 6 minutes to spare it slowly dawned on me that I might end up reaching TK3 before my time was up. And so, with 90 seconds remaining, my last ascent of the hill became my penultimate ascent... It was very tempting to pack it all in at TK3 and opt to stop to avoid riding the hill, but in my first 12 hour race I had been in a similar scenario - my helper had driven past to the following timekeeper with 30 seconds of my time remaining giving me no option but to keep going, and by doing so I had beaten a rider for 10th place. So up the hill I went once more, finally finishing at TK1 before rolling a further 2 miles back to the HQ.
My Garmin showed exactly 242 miles at the 12 hour mark but I couldn't be sure of the official distance until I checked the course details later.
Reaching Charlotte back at my car at the HQ I was completely broken, physically and mentally. I'm sure I've never ridden so hard and the relentless wind had made the race brutal. My huge thanks to Charlotte for her support both during the race and with all the training put in to make such a ride possible.
Overall I finished 18th out of 68 riders, with a distance of 242.04 miles. Interestingly two riders finished with 241.54 miles - did they both stop at TK3 on their last lap to avoid the hill? Seven riders finished less than 3 miles behind me. One of them recorded 239.98 miles (ouch!). It really is worth pushing on to the very end.
In total I was stopped for about 6 minutes. I drank between 6 and 7 litres of energy drink, and ate 4 energy bars, 11 gels, 2 bananas and one and a half granola squares.
For the British Best All Rounder competition my average speed is 22.946 mph, currently in 39th place and quite a bit faster than my previous best in 1997. A triumph of experience and modern technology over youth and fitness!
The event was an amazing piece of organisation. So many marshals on so many junctions and roundabouts over such a wide area for such a long period of time. I tried to wave or shout a thank you to as many as possible but couldn't help missing some. Thank you again to all who helped run the event.
Overall I'm absolutely delighted to achieve a 20 mph ride. So many riders start off their time trialling in a club 10 mile time trial trying to beat half an hour to get a 20 mph ride, so to string together 24 of them consecutively is a real benchmark that I'm proud of achieving and is something that my fellow club riders can relate to... sort of!
If you aren't a club rider I realise this is all a bit beyond comprehension but hope it was worth reading.