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Sleepless in the Saddle 2008

Sunday, August 10th 2008

Six weeks after the muddy horrors of Mountain Mayhem, we were back on the race track, returning to Catton Park in Derbyshire for our second go at Sleepless In The Saddle. Last year we'd covered 24 laps, finishing about two thirds of the way down the field in our class. With 36 hours more competitive racing under our belts, we were hoping to do better.

Stormy weather

So Mayhem had been disgustingly wet and muddy. Surely SITS would be like last year - a sunny weekend in the midst of the wettest summer the UK had ever seen. Sadly, no: the forecast was similar to Mayhem - it would be deceptively sunny on the Friday, start to rain some time on Saturday, be apocalyptic during the night, and then be sunny again on Sunday. It was so deceptively sunny on Friday that I just couldn't believe there would be rain, and this made it all the more heartbreaking when the rain arrived right on schedule, a couple of hours before the start. We listened to the rider briefing huddled under an umbrella.

Eldrik got us under way at 2pm, and set a blazing pace. When he got back, he was coated from head to toe in mud, but he'd enjoyed it, and we were in the top 20. Ian went out second, and maintained our position, but the mud was getting a bit stickier and Ian was much less enthusiastic than Eldrik had been. Andrew and I went third and fourth, and we were about 20 minutes slower than Eldrik had been as the mud thickened.

Tough night

By nightfall we were running around 40th out of 160 teams in our class. It was heavy going on course, but it seemed that the worst of the rain had passed, and it would be mostly drizzle throughout the night. Ian came in from a lap pretty much at nightfall, and then Andrew went out. By now the mud was making the course every bit as unridable as Mayhem had been, and Andrew's lap took just over two hours. When he came back, astonishingly, he was keen to go out for another - our plan was to do doubles in the night. Eldrik, Ian and I cleaned up his bike while he grabbed a quick bite to eat, and off he went into the dark muddy night. Almost three hours later he was back - it was a heroic stint, at a time when the course was almost deserted as willpower dissolved in the rain.

And then it was my turn. Just like Mayhem, I was heading out at 3am, and just like Mayhem it was filthy mud from the start. But the first two miles here were fire road, which was a lot easier than Mayhem's vicious climb followed by single track. The fire road had a slick layer of mud about two inches thick on it, and I slopped through, powering past quite a few riders. My mud tyres were working nicely but it was still pretty slippery. I called out "on your left" at one point only to lose the front end and almost hurl myself off as I corrected. "On your right, sorry...", I said, and slid by.

In the forest, for the first half of the lap, things were quite ridable and I didn't have to spend too much time pushing the bike. But later in the lap things were more and more muddy, and eventually I was spending most of my time pushing. Trudging through the woods at Mayhem had been the least fun thing I'd ever done voluntarily, but this was worse if anything. The utter lack of fun was compounded by outrage at the sheer stupidity of doing this for a second time. After the first half of the lap I thought I might get around in less than two hours, but as the second half dragged on I realised I'd be lucky to make it in three.

Few people were riding. All the talk on track was about how we couldn't believe it was turning out the same as Mayhem. Towards the end of the lap things were getting a tiny bit more sensible, and after a stop to pull lumps of mud out of my wheels, gears and brakes, I jumped on to ride up the last long climb of the lap. But there was a nasty crunch from the rear as soon as I pushed, and my rear mech hanger had snapped. I was going to have to push all the way to the end.

At the bottom of the long descent into the arena, a South African by the trackside asked me what it was like out there. It was his turn for a lap, and he was looking for excuses not to go out. I was happy to give them - unless you had really skinny mud tires and a huge masochistic streak, lapping right now just wasn't fun. I said if he was here to challenge for positions he should go out, but if he was just here for fun then leave it for an hour or two. The Sun had just risen, and there were blue skies overhead, so things would be looking up before too long.

Finally I got back to the finish line. My lap came in at a few seconds over three hours. I pushed back to the van, hurled my bike down in disgust and went to bed. It was 6am.

Morning

Ian was pretty happy with the way things had turned out. He'd got a good night's sleep, he hadn't had to do any night riding at all, and now he was due on course just as things were cleaning up a bit. He did two laps in slightly less time than my one had taken. Despite the conditions and my mechanical failure, we were still running about 45th. Our aim now was to maintain that and finish in the top third.

By midday, with just two hours left to go, the weather was uncannily similar to Mayhem and strong winds were drying the course. Andrew went out for a fifth lap at about 12.45. We weren't sure whether he'd get back in time for someone to go for another, but he appeared on the back straight just before 2pm. I told him to go for it, he could make it back to the start, and off he went, suddenly finding enough energy to overtake three people on a sharp climb and power off around the final few corners. But sadly, just as he was overtaking the third person I heard the hooter go. The race was over.

Our final position was 44th out of 146. We'd held onto a top third position, and put in our best performance yet in a race. I vowed never, ever to ride in such ridiculous conditions ever again, and hoped that our next race in October would be a dry one. After all, it had never yet rained at Dusk 'til Dawn...

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