Scaling the Mont

Tales from the trail, October 12, 2004

After saying for years that he really should have a go at a 24-hour race John Stevenson accepted an invite to join a four-person team at the Mont Australian 24 hour Championships.

We were team Earth Shattering Kaboom, and never was a group of four mountain bikers more inappropriately named. Our impact on the results at the sixth Mont Australian 24-hour was barely a whimper, never mind an enormous bang.

Still that wasn't really the point. While the solo and fast team riders deservedly get the bulk of the attention at 24-hour races, it's the vast mass of punters that make up the numbers and turn these races into the massive celebrations of mountain biking that they've become. After years of saying I'd get my lazy butt to one of these races, I was finally a member of the horde, and an excellent thing it was to be.

There were 2200 of us. At the apex were Josh Street and Tory Thomas, winners of the solo category and all-round superhumans. Also vying for demi-god status were the top crews in the various team categories: Yeti and Mongoose vying for top spot in the four-man class; bike shop rivals Clarence Street Cyclery and Endeavour Cycles in six-man; rival four-women teams AROC Chicks and Velofemme; six-woman vikingettes Helga Again and Netti Chicks and not-taking-it-too-seriously-but-fast-anyway outfits like Team SRAM which included three Australian Olympians Rob Woods, Paul Rowney and Sid Taberley.

Throw in to the roster of riders another three thousand-plus friends, supporters and event crew and you have a pretty damn big collection of mountain bikers, all scattered among the trees in a forest campsite. And somewhere in there, the four of us: Dave Hughes, father of two (one very recent arrival), computer tech support guy and rather useful rider; Matt Barr, programmer, whisky aficionado and recent convert to the notion that riding road bikes a bit gets you fit; Owen Barr, comms and network guy and also recently a daddy, though fatherhood seems to have impacted Owen's riding rather more than Dave's, and myself. I spend rather too much time at a desk, but have a 54km round-trip commute to keep me reasonably honest.

I won't bore you with the amazing farting about we achieved just to get there, except to give props to Matt for arriving first and doing a whole load of sorting out in the campsite.

Here are the raw numbers that tell some of the tale of our 'race'

And so you know what a serious four-man team looks like, here's some of the schedule for the winners in our category, Team Mongoose:

Earth shattering schedule

Matt went off first in the Mont's traditional Le Mans start, which involved an 800m run to the bikes - or in Matt's case an 800m walk. The idea of the Lemans start is that it sorts riders out a bit, saves organisers the headache of seeding and avoids 500 people riding into each other. Problem is that if you're a hopeless runner (which, let's face it, is most bike riders) 800m is a hell of a long way.

Matt cruised round, put up with being stuck in traffic a bit and rolled into transition to hand the 'baton' - a plastic card on a cord - over to me. I spent the first half of my lap trying to remember how to achieve that balance between going quickly and puking up lunch and the second half riding and chatting with soloist Kenneth Innes, one of my regular riding partners.

Dave cranked out our fastest lap, Owen went off for his only pootle round the course, and then it was Matt's turn again to roll out through the dusk.

That handed me the privilege of our team's first full-night lap. I realized, as I followed the string of tail lights up the start straight, that I hadn't ridden a bike off road in the dark for several years. I used to do quite a bit of night mountain biking, and had a very quick refresher down the singletrack switchbacks that comprised the first interesting course section. Ah yes, you can't really see, so you just react and hope for the best.

I handed over to Dave after a very fun and pleasingly fast lap. (Okay, fast for me. The fastest night lap was Trent Lowe of Team Yeti's 51:10. Ouch.) Dave did a double-lap trundle, battling punctures while Owen decided he was feeling really ropey and wasn't going to manage any more. And then there were three.

Meanwhile, I got some sleep. Woke up about 1.30am, got back into my cycling gear and set off into the night, armed with a half-depleted Niterider battery and a fully-charged one, planning to emulate Dave's double-lap feat.

That idea didn't last long. Two kilometers out, my glasses steamed up and stayed that way till about a kilometer to go. It had got cold enough that sweat and breath were just condensing instantly on glass even after wiping - and wiping just made things worse by adding dust to the mix. Since I can't see without glasses, the intervening 16km were very, very, very slow. Battery #1 - which has done a lot of commuting in the last couple years - turned out to no longer have its rated capacity, or anything close, even running on the 6 watt setting. That setting provides only a brown puddle of light anyway, which is okay if you're a) dark-adapted and b) not trying to peer through steam and mud. I switched batteries at the halfway point, whacked battery #2 up to full power and rode back to transition, still slowly, abandoning the idea of a double for now. Ate food, slept more.

Dave had planned another double lap, but took so long sorting his stuff out that it wasn't worth it, so he rode our dawn lap, then Matt and back to me. Time for an intra-team challenge. Dave had now done four laps. I'd done three. Matt was on the course. It was 7am. If I met Matt as he finished (rather than waiting for him to come back to the camp) and cranked out a couple of laps, then handed over to Dave, he and I would be level, five laps each. Otherwise, the fit sod would do six and make me look like a slacker. I announced I was going to do two laps, but asked Dave to be ready at transition in case I was over-estimating my state.

An hour and a half later I roll into transition. "Okay, I'm feeling good, I'm going to do two. Got any food?" Dave hands over a small Mars bar and Nutri-grain bar. I attempt to eat the Nutri-grain bar on the start section but it's like chewing cardboard. I give up and concentrate on sucking down water, realizing how little I've drunk in the last few hours. To my surprise, I feel okay, but I'm not fast by any stretch of the imagination.

The first half of the course is the harder and slower as it contains most of the climbing, so you know that when you reach the half-way sign, the light you can see really is the end of the tunnel and not an oncoming train. My back is starting to whinge from the constant pounding and leaning forward so I stop, stretch and scoff the Mars bar. It's sweet and delicious but it's also fatty and disgusting and I have to ease off on the following short climbs to keep it down. At the '5km to go' sign I feel the sugar kick in just as Rachel Inkster from Turramurra Cycles passes me.

Rachel is coming to the end of a 1:10 lap and with her as a rabbit I limit the damage on my final lap to just under 1:30. Thanks, Rach!

With 45 minutes to go, Dave has nothing to prove, just one more lap to clock up so our total isn't completely embarrassing. Under Mont rules, the lap you're on at the 24-hour mark counts - for most US races it doesn't. If we were in, say, Moab, it wouldn't be worth Dave setting out, but here we'd get a DNF for that. So Dave rolls off while announcer Stuart Plant hands me the mic and gets me to talk a little about my first 24 hour race. Five years ago, at the first Mont, I was doing his job and it's a damn sight harder to talk for 24 hours than it is to ride for six or seven and hang out the rest of the time.

I'm pleased with what I've done this weekend. Even in a team, even when you're nowhere near the leaders, even when you're not much more than a bunch of mobile obstacles for fast guys, there's huge personal achievement in going out and doing the longest, maximumest ride you can. I'm not, however about to have a crack at the solo class.

Random observations

Shaun Lewis from Team Yeti passed me on my first lap. The race was barely two hours old and we had already been lapped. That wasn't too surprising - did I mention that we weren't taking things very seriously? - but what was startling was just how fast the truly quick guys were going. Shaun went past me like I was going backwards, quickly - and so did James "Willo" Williamson who was in hot pursuit as a member of eventual winning team Mongoose. James, Richard Vollebregt, Dylan Cooper and Nick Kiraly clocked up 28 laps in 24:39:47, and average of 52:31 per lap.

I got chatting with a lad riding solo on a six-inch-travel Scott downhill bike with RockShox Boxxers. He was comfortable, he said, even if he was struggling with the climbs a bit. Sounds daft, till you consider a) the course was very bumpy b) Josh Street was aboard one of the new Specialized Stumpjumper FSR 120 bikes with almost five inches of travel.

Waking up in the middle of the night to pull on cycling clothing and ride off into the darkness is one of the most surreal things I have ever done. Sure, any excuse for a bike ride, but it's 2am - what the heck am I doing on a bike in a pine forest? And how come there are so many other people as stupid as me?

I was hungry all the time, or felt I should be eating. But since eating within a couple of hours of a lap is a bad idea unless you want to get a second look at the meal, I quickly learnt to scoff after riding, then sleep and digest. Or just digest.

I can't believe how good I felt this morning. Had I had lights I was almost tempted to ride to work. After the last endurance MTB event I did I could hardly walk because I'd ridden through some serious cramping episodes. This time I managed to stretch them out before they got too bad (I can recommend getting changed inside a very small tent as a stretching exercise) and I have no major soreness today.

Results system tech god Russ Baker sums the event up as "Approx 5500 in the forest, 525 on track at once, 2200 riders, 8400 laps and a distance of 4 times around the planet... Other than that, a quiet weekend."

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