Qualify 1 on 1
At some point in 2017, I decided to register for the RAAM... The idea was not totally new, I had been thinking about this since Race Around Ireland in 2013 when, after the race, already 4 years ago, I received a mail informing me that "hey, you know, you qualified, you could register, we are waiting for you, this is gonna be a lot of fun". You get the idea. The point is, when you qualify, it's time scoped, and it lasts only 2 years or so. So I did not go in 2014 , neither in 2015 , neither... Well, see, it just expired and I could not go any more. But chatting with the race director, and acknowledging that in 2016 I have been quite active, as far as sport is concerned, technically, I was allowed to register. Only, I still thought it would be nice to qualify in a more official manner, so I started to hunt for a qualifying race that would be a no brainer to participate into (as in cheap in terms of money and time) with the hope to get a "RAAM qualified" stamp for real. Just, to be sure.
And I stumble on this wonderful 24h in Brands Hatch which is exactly what I want. It's not too far, it's not too expensive, and it lasts only a short week-end. Per-fect. What's more, it's in September so after all the summer races. Just so fine. So the idea is just to bike as many miles as possible within 24 hours. It's on a car racing track so one can guess it's a nice piece of road. I register now, and think after.
Aouch. I'm not a bad cyclist, but I'm essentially better when the distance is long, like, very long. On 24h, I did a bit less than 400 miles on Bordeaux-Paris 2010 which is OK but not so extraordinary. Let's say the 400 miles I need to do are in my reach, I just need to be serious about it. Only then I realize... the lap is 2.4 miles but has also over 210 feet elevation. 210 feet does not sound that much but lap after lap, it adds up and means something. This is stressful. Now doing 400 miles sounds much much harder. Hopefully, looking at the race rules with more attention, I discover that Brands Hatch being special, because, as you would expect, many other 24h races possibly use as-flat-as-possible tracks so that racers hit high numbers, when racing here, the minimum to qualify for RAAM is "only" 350 miles. Which, sounds a lot more reasonable. Not forgetting that 3 weeks before, I was at the 6 Jours de France 6 days running, so both my cycling mileage is low and the leftover fatigue from the race is high.
Well, we'll see. Worse case I fail and the consequence is "Christian, you're not up to it, you need to train harder". Knowing that the "you need to train harder" is gonna be true whatever the outcome of the race is.
So, as far as RAAM is concerned, what is important is of course the legs and head of the cyclist, but also the energy and logistics skills of the crew , so I chose that opportunity to bring some of the crew along, to have them train too. So two members of my 2018 crew are here to help, Alison and Florence.
A busy week-end
Alarm clock rings at 4:00 am, local French time. Yeah, we have a long drive to catch the train. We leave my place shortly after 5:00 am. We drive to Calais, hopefully having real passports that will allow us to cross that border. We arrive just an hour before the Eurostar boarding time. I don't know if you've already taken that Shuttle, but it's just... so strange. The car is just stuck inside a giant wagon, and the landscape moves outside, it just sounds so wrong, looks like a bad simulation or optical illusion. I try to sleep a bit but do not really succeed. Then we set foot, well, wheels, on English ground, at about 10:00 am English time I think. We drive to Brands Hatch and then, first blunder on my side, I just blindly trusted my built-in car GPS and we waste time finding the entrance, which is quite well marked. We stupid should scale up and get smarter in the US, else this is not going to be the success story it should be.
First contact with the track. And let's face it, almost a crush, love at first sight, for me. Almost. Colors are saturaged. The grass is green, just oh so green. Hey by the way, to you know how to make one of those wonderful English lawn? Just so easy. Prepare the ground, put the right seeds, and then let it rain on it every day for 500 years. Sorry about that one. But let's come back to the track, it has a quite unified set of colors, mostly composed of white, grey and red which really makes it typical, and that oil and fuel slight smell adds a final touch to it. Honestly, this is cool.
We get my race number and set our gear up. Now this is nice, the pits are big enough, not packed like at the 24h du Mans Roller , and we can comfortably put our things. I filled my family car with pretty much everything which could prove useful so we have table, chairs, even a portable bed and a giant battery to charge the phones (the big, lead-based one, something 10 pounds, which can help you start your diesel car in winter when your battery is flat, no the joke that weights half a pound and charges half a smartphone), lots of food, we have it all.
Among all the gear I took, I have UHF radios to communicate with my crew while I'm riding. Here on the track it's probably useless but it could be useful in the US, it has a couple miles range, and I took models which are supposed to be water and dust proof. However, bad news, I skipped that in the race rules, but here, this is clearly forbidden. For whatever reason, maybe again that security thingy, or possibly the fact the officials want to have free frequencies for their own use. Well, let's call it a day, we'll toy around and practice with those another time. I give a quick brief to Alison and Florence about food, clothes, and the various stops I have planned, after that we enjoy some junk food from the truck, which is rather tasty. Then I try and rest a bit before the start, without much success, not much time left, and I fail to really fall asleep.
Just before the start, I hear behind me "hey, I love your jersey!" so I turn around and this is Alan Heary, race director of the RAI. As he's dressed up in cycling gear, I ask him wether he's riding solo or in a team. He informs me he's in a team of 4. But 3 of his companions did not come. But, he's here. So I'm inferring "you're solo then?...". But no, he insists, he's not solo, he's in a team of 4, but the team is not complete. Now if you want an enthusiastic point of view, a load of positive energy, ask Alan, I think he's The Man.
The start is like on a 24h car race, the bike is on left side, held by some crew member, and the racers are on the right side. When the gun fires, every one is supposed to run across the road and jump on its bike. Now I'm gettin too old for this sh*t, I'm racing solo, and I just think it's not a matter of 30 yards more. So I walk and just calmly take my bike, ride it, and that's it.
I have not tried to ride a lap before the race. I should have maybe. Because I would have discovered something interesting. Namely, the electric cable that runs from my front wheel hub to my handlebar is misplaced, so it gets in the way and is dangerously making a worrying clicking sound as it hits my front wheel spokes. Now this is me, I did not even go half a mile, and already, I'm having some mechanical issue. This is stupid I tried my bike for one or two minutes before the race but at such a slow pace that the problem did not show up. I tried to fix it on the go. Deadly clever, trying to fix a bike with my right hand hanging low near the fork, while holding the handlebar with the left hand, all of this in the middle of a crowd which is not incredibly dense, but still. I can't make it. Ah yes, now I can. I managed to pull it away. Now it's hanging on the outside but it's not that bad, at least it's not hitting the spokes any more. This is really a stupid thing, I should have known better, I just had to pay attention when mounting the front wheel. Now true, this bike has not been out since Paris-Brest-Paris 2015 so it's no big surprise to have at least one thing going wrong with a bike that stayed two years in a garage. And then, when fixing that thing, I broke another one, I misplaced the little device supposed to report my instant speed. So I won't have my speed but also not my distance, average and so on... Unless I stop and fix it. Now, let me think. What would be the impact on the crew? I told Alison and Florence I was "not here to f*ck spiders" (official Australian translation of "on n'est pas là pour enfiler des perles" suggested by Alison) and then, 1st lap, one guy stops, and it's me. This would not drive high spirits. So I won't let the mood go down and keep on riding, wether I know how fast I ride might not truely change the actual rythm, the speedometer that actually speeds up the bike is probably yet to be invented. The secret weapon is composed of: legs + head. The rest is futile, so let's go, and pedal on! I planned to have some "little stops" as in changing for a new bottle, every 2 hours, and some more significant "big stops" every 4 hours, with meals and everything.
Now, a "little stop" should be short, very short. I'm not beating a world record, so once again, no need to risk my lifre for 3 seconds, however, I make really care about a complete minute. So well, it's just about getting a new bottle, hey there hi, thank you and leave.
The "big stops" are different. Here I take the time to sit down and eat. But, there's a trick. I eat fast. Apparently, I quite impressed other teams, because lots of people are doing a relay race so there are a lot of people hanging around in the pit stops, by eating 4 or 5 pizza slices in a quite short amount of time. Sorry guys but I was at the dentist last week and need to come back next week so I had a temporary patch on the right side, so you know, I could only chew with my left teeth. Normally, I eat even faster. My longest pause during the race lasted less than 10 minutes, because my slowest lap was just above 17 minutes, and I was rarely riding laps in less than 9 minutes. The big secret in all those timed races in solo mode is: you don't win them in the pits, this is where you usually loose them. By applying a naive strategy such as "stay on the bike, no matter what" you have done pretty much half of the job. Easier said than done.
The weather is quite nice. Still I quickly dressed up for warmer clothes which suit for a middle season weather, knowing I have brought which can stand bad, ugly weather, if needed. But it looks like we only risk to face some general dampness and a typical English weather, but no heavy rain are biting cold, I would not go as far as saying this was good weather but then, this is London surroundings, in September, what would you expect?
After a few hours, I finally got familiar with the track. The steep descent with its following steep climb companion that sticks you right in the middle of it, then the turn at the submit, a descent again with that left two-steps turn and the second climb which has a progressive yet increasing percentage, the little ups and downs in the remote part of the track, and finally that long fast section which leads to the pits. Repeat. During the first laps I was doing complicated things with my gears but I soon learned how to keep it simple and only changes rear gears, sticking on the second one in front (I got a triple crankset there).
This track is nice. It's never boring. Quite an impressive amount of racers had a flat tire I thought. Strange, because the track was really clean. Some even fixed their tires on the side of the track. I suspect I would have tried to just ride flat until my pit. Anyway.
Some day I should find a video game that has Brands Hatch in its list of available tracks. And check if the developers did a good job at modelizing it. Because now, I know it. And I won't forget it.
And as usual, my best memories are associated to a tune. It's not really possible to listen to music while riding. But I have that crazy juke-box built-in between my ears. It does a decent job. So this time, the reference tune was Under Pressure by ZZ-Top (sorry Mouettes & Charbons but this one is better).
This is fall, nights are already getting longer, and days shorter. I turn on my light. Right, the cable did bother me in the beginning but apart from this detail, let's face it, dynamo hub lights is just awesome. On Internet, before the race, I stumbled on a discussion where some racers where talking about their lights. And they were talking about "600 lumens, enough, but I'm searching for something more efficient, what do you use". And I clearly remembered when I bought my Busch & Müller, it was advertised as 60 or 80, not more. So 10 times less powerful, which means you see at a 3 times shorter distance... But what do these guys ride with? I did not bother that much, as I trust my gear, I have been alone with it at night in total darkness, rain, and it's fine. And then during the race, guess what? No surprise, my light is in the upper field, maybe not the best but clearly high end. Where are those 1000 numbers gone? And it's while writing this report that I found out while I was wrong. Lumens and lux is not the same unit. Both are related to light but basically, lux is lumens by surface unit. So the lux really depends on how large your beam is. I was comparing two totally different things, so it was irrelevant. After all I don't care, be it 100 or 1000, the one thing that matters, at the end of the day, is: can you see the road ahead?
I also plugged the GPS on the dynamo. You know, the plug is there... My idea is that this way I can see my instant speed even at night. Since the beginning I have fixed my default speedometer, but this one is not lighted so I can't see it at night. The trick is that my Garmin GPS is backlit by default when it is plugged. So I just have to plug it on the USB output (bike 2.0, has USB charger built-in, what do you think?) and it's permanently lit. Only the mini USB cable has been under the rain in Lensahn, it's rusted now and does not work any more. So the GPS does show the speed but I have to hit a button to turn it on each time I want to have the info.
All in all, it's complicated for me to know my distance... So I use the rare stops I do at the pits to ask Alison or Florence. Looks like I did start OK, I'm at 187 miles after 12:04 into the race... Only 163 left, a bargain. Still, I need to keep moving. Interesting detail, being register as a "RAAM qualifier" I can't draft and follow other racers. This is sometimes frustrating, because it can be useful, despite the ever changing grade of the course. I could have gained a few miles doing this. But then, race rules are race rules.
I get a little tired at about 1:00 am. Or was it at 23:00 pm. Anyway at some point I had to stop and sleep for 2 minutes. This is just a very quick, express nap, just to recover from dizziness and avoid falling asleep and crash. Let's not fool around with security. At 3:00 am, I make one of those "big stops" with lots of calorie intake, eaten as fast as possible. Then I leave. And at about 3:30 am, as I'm trying to concentrate and not fall asleep, I wake up... in the gravel. Holy sh*t what am I doing here! I just went straight ahead at the first right turn in the lap, before the great steep descent. So there I am, just freshly woken up, with a road bike and thin tires, riding in non stabilized gravel. This is designed to stop cars that went off track, not for sleepy bike riders. So wheels get deep into it. I try to remain in control, and somehow manage to get out of it without falling down. Now my first guess is to get some sleep but then I just got a super strong adrenaline shot and there would be no way I would fall asleep now. Thinking of it, it's been more than 24 hours since I woke up this morning, no big surprise at some point I get a little low.
Just after this, fog shows up. Real fog. Thick and wet. Visibility in night fog, on a bike, wearing glasses, is far from optimal. I need to slow down in some places. I already got once out of the track, let's be safe now. To remain on the positive side of things, this is quite magical. We are less numerous circling around now. I don't know what's my place, but I'm dead sure I'm moving up the field now. 5:00 am, fog, cold, dampness, already 14 hours into the race: excuses to take a nap are just so easy to find. Only, you should not stop.
The day after
Dawn is here, but the fog remains for some little time. Alison and Florence took shifts during the night. They were unbelievable, always there, I tried hard, but was unable to ask for something they would not be able to find or fetch in a very short time. Always positive, and with that nice kick in the butt to put me back on track and avoid wasting time. It's complicated to be an efficient crew, you get lots of long idle periods, then when the racer is here you're on a fire, you would like to help, but sometimes the best way to help is just push him back on the track. This is the basic, universal rule: you get nowhere sitting on a chair.
My feet hurt. I already had problems at the triple in Lensahn because of the cold. Here, same story, my feet got cold during the night, despite all the stuff I had around my shoes and the warm lycra on my legs. I do not need to take a look, I know they are all white, blood stops flowing. The problem is when I stop. Blood gets back in, wether I stop at my pit or just stop pedaling it's pretty much the same. Quite unbearable. For now I think it's really just a problem of blood badly flowing in, like it stops being there, there flow is back on, and this is when it hurts. At least it hurts less when moving, so it's a good reason to keep going.
I chat with another French fellow who's also riding solo. He's easy to spot, has a bright pink jersey. I ask him wether he has a target. He does. 563k. Which, in miles, is 350. Dude, wouldn't you be preparing the RAAM? He is. His name is Jean-Christophe Teppaz and we chat even more, and this is truely welcome in this late morning, early afternoon. He's faster than I am, has a greater mileage at the end of race, but I think he's getting kind of bored here. True, these hills repeats can kill a man's nerves. I still appreciate it. My crew girls recently gave me my mileage and... I'm going to make it. I can see the instant I only need to do a 14 mph average to reach my goal, then only 10 mph, and then... it's done! I celebrate this with a one minute stop. And then put a few more laps in the bank, I have a little more than half an hour, maybe even 45 minutes, left. On one hand, I'm happy, on the other hand, my feet are killing me. Like they never have. I must admit near the end, I used lonely moments at the far end of the track to cry a little and let the nervous pressure go down.
This is over
And this is the last lap. A difference with running events is that here, the extra distance you do during your last lap is not counted. Only the last time you cross the finish line before the 24:00 barrier matters. I end up in 9th position. The 8th is not far ahead, but I think I would not have tried to get him, even if I knew. I came here with one goal, put 350 miles in the bank. I have 357, this is done, period. One detail, I probably have climbed almost 30 000 feet during that thing. Slightly more than an Everest, from sea level. I told you it was hilly...
The story is not completely over, as I'm writing those lines, I just learned that Accent Français, a French school, as in "school of French, teaching French" is going to support and fund me for the 2018 RAAM. True, this is my sponsor so I'm not neutral here, but should I have to learn French (which, I don't need to, as I am a native French speaker) I would clearly appreciate to do it with them. They are based in Montpellier, which is an awesome place in the South of France, near the Mediterranean Sea. The typical place I would go on vacation, to be honest. Give it a shot!