I guess there are two clues in the name of this event. Even so, the amount of mayhem at our second 24 hour race was far greater than we could have imagined. Steve had emigrated back to Australia since our last event, so the team this time consisted of me, Andrew, Eldrik, and Ian who Eldrik and I had known at school.
Our preparation for this event was better than ever before. I had not bought a bike just the day before, I'd been riding lots and I was much fitter than I had been for our previous races. And we managed to get out of London early. The journey there was enlivened only by Andrew's constant struggles to get the van into fifth gear, and a brief confusing detour through a small town in Oxfordshire due to roadworks.
At the site we drove around looking for a spot to camp, but it was already quite busy. The spot we ended up in looked far from ideal at first, seemingly miles away from any water and a long way from the start. But it only seemed like miles from the start because of the windy road we'd driven in on, and in fact there was water just at the bottom of the field. Not only that, but shower blocks as well.
We set up camp. Improvements over previous outings were one tent each, two stoves instead of one, and a big blue inflatable rubber sofa. The only drawback with the sofa was that it took a couple of hours of strenuous pumping to inflate it. I hardly had any recovery time from that before we set out for a pre-ride of the course.
On our pre-ride we quickly perceived a difference between this and previous events. Dusk 'til Dawn in Norfolk is obviously pretty flat, and Sleepless In The Saddle in Derbyshire only had a few short sharp climbs. But this course had a brutal 385m of climbing per lap, most of it concentrated into two vicious hills near the start. We shifted down into very low gear and spun up the first hill, enjoyed a little bit of single track downhill through the woods, then tackled the second climb. After that, the rest of the course was pretty straightforward, with just some nasty off-camber single track to worry about. I wasn't looking forward to the hills during the race, but at least we'd managed to pre-ride the entire course - something we hadn't managed before.
Friday had seen glorious sunshine, but Saturday morning dawned grey and threatening. All the weather forecasts we'd seen were predicting apocalyptic rain at some point during the 24 hours. Andrew decided to take on the Le Mans-style start, and so at 2pm he lined up with a few hundred other people to get our campaign under way. I watched from around the first corner, amused to see the people at the front trying to sprint the 400m back to their bikes, while people at the very back just sauntered around, obviously taking a 'marathon not sprint' attitude. I didn't see him go by but I presumed Andrew was somewhere in the middle.
Just over two hours later, Andrew was back and Ian went out. Ian had arrived late on Friday, and hadn't had time to pre-ride the course, but this didn't stop him from setting a blistering pace. He was so quick, in fact, that before I'd even started to psyche myself up for my two laps and go over to the arena for the changeover, he was racing towards the camp shouting at me to get out there. I rushed out onto the track.
After a quick easy sweep through the arena, all too quickly I was at the base of the climb, looking up at a terrifying angle. Down the gears I went, and slowly up the slope I slogged. But once the first climb was out of the way, the rest of the lap seemed easy in comparison. A bit of drizzle had made the course pretty slick, and I did have one high-speed off going round an off-camber left-hander, but otherwise there wasn't too much mayhem to be had at this stage. I completed my two laps in just over two hours, and handed over to Eldrik. Eldrik had no major problems, the apocalyptic rain was not around just yet, and the early part of the night went as smoothly as could be expected. At about 10pm, we had all completed the two laps required for our team to be counted in the results, and Andrew went out for his second stint.
At about 11pm, I was sitting in the van updating our whiteboard with the lap times we'd done so far, when rain began drumming on the rooftop. It quickly got heavier, and soon enough it was apparent that the much-feared apocalyptic conditions had arrived at the worst possible time. I hoped Andrew was doing alright out on the course. Suddenly he was back at the camp. He dived into the porch of his tent and began furiously stuffing his face with jaffa cakes. He hadn't taken a lot of food with him and said he needed some more fuel for a second lap. But before he could swallow the eight jaffa cakes, Ian emerged from his tent, all ready to go out for a stint, and decided to head out.
I was up next. Rain was hammering down, and lightening was flashing around the skies. I wondered what the chances were that they would red flag the race and save me from a lap of misery. Suddenly Ian appeared back at the camp. He'd done one lap, but needed to change tyres to an extreme mud set. As he started sorting this out, I decided that rather than waste time I might as well get going. What I didn't consider was that I had a mud tyre on the rear but not on the front, and I was going out into the muddiest conditions you could ever get in a mountain bike race.
With the error of my ways yet to become apparent, I headed out. The rain had died down a bit, and the course through the arena was slippery but not horrifically muddy. The first climb was actually quite fun. I overtook a few people going up, and the track was grippy, gravelly and dry. But then I hit the single track. Within seconds, the mud was so thick that riding was impossible, so I got off and pushed. After three quarters of a mile of pushing I was not particularly enjoying my lap, but it soon got worse. The mud was so thick that even just pushing my bike became impossible. Every couple of minutes I had to pull great lumps of mud out of the front and rear wheels, just to be able to push the bike.
I was close enough to the start of the course that I thought about giving up there and then. But the rules say you can't do that so I carried on. Earlier at the camp site I'd spoken to a Welsh guy who said him and his team mates weren't bothered by the mud, as they cycled in the Welsh forests every weekend and were used to these conditions. Now I met him again, walking back down the trail saying "This is ridiculous! I'm giving up!". But I pressed on, painfully slowly. I met another person on the trail who was offering to sell his full suspension bike for three pounds, so useless was it in tackling the seas of gloop.
A long section of single track on a fairly steep slope was the nadir of my lap. I moved out of the way of one of the few people still riding, and slid slowly down into the bracken. It was almost impossible to climb back up, and I spent a miserable twenty minutes or so struggling to get me and my bike out of the woods and back onto the track.
I'd gone out at 3am. By 5am I had covered just four miles, and it was getting light. The rain had stopped, and the dawn light was beautiful, but I was not appreciating it at all. I was angrily thinking that this was the least fun thing I had ever done of my own free will. I fractured my skull once, and even that was probably less unpleasant because I hardly remember any of it. After four and a half miles, I reached a part of the course that was just about ridable, and rode the half mile back to the arena. I decided I wasn't going to spend potentially another two hours out on course to do the second half, so I broke all the rules and quit my lap.
I went to bed, and slept deeply. I wasn't planning on doing any more riding unless conditions improved drastically. But Eldrik had two mud tyres and set out. Although the rain had now stopped, high winds were now battering the area. Apparently, though, this dried out the course remarkably quickly, and most of the course was now ridable. But disaster struck on Eldrik's second lap when he came off his bike, hit his elbow on a rock, and cut himself deeply. He had to be picked up in a quad bike and ferried off for medical treatment, which turned out to be 18 stitches.
That clearly ruled Eldrik out of any further proceedings. Fortunately, the track was dry and rideable now, and the last few hours of the race were much less horrific. Ian did two more laps, Andrew did one more and then at about 1pm I finally got up, and went out for what would be the final lap of the race. My team mates were all telling me that the course was totally fine, but with 4am mud-walking memories still fresh, I didn't entirely believe them.
But in fact, they were right. The wind had dried out the course, and I really enjoyed my last lap. I took my mp3 player and some mini speakers, and listened to tunes as I did the nine miles in about an hour and a half. It was great fun doing the last lap, coming into the arena with crowds of people spectating, but embarrassingly, as I came around the final corner onto the start-finish straight, my chain fell off. I leapt off and finished the race pushing my bike at a sprint.
We had done 15 laps, and our total climb between us was some 6,545 metres. We had hoped to do an aggregate climb of more than the height of Everest, and we would have made it had it not been for the hellish mud and Eldrik's major elbow injury. In our class, we finished 144th out of 246, and if we'd have entered in the class above we'd have been 27th out of 60.
We packed up wearily, with the blue sofa taking hours to deflate. Our bikes were all still caked in mud but no-one felt like cleaning them now. My night lap had been an extremely unpleasant experience, but now the race was over I was already looking forward to Sleepless in the Saddle in seven weeks time.