Eldrik had missed our last race of 2008 thanks to a broken scaphoid. It required surgery and there were warnings about possible limited mobility, but thankfully over the winter it recovered well. But then Eldrik managed to get kicked in the knee by a fat Brazilian, whose staggeringly inept tackle during a friendly football game ripped off a chunk of cartilage and put Eldrik well and truly out of action. Two months later, Mayhem was imminent, Eldrik was still on crutches, and an advert was put out seeking a new team-mate. Mayhem's a popular event and in no time at all we had our fourth man, John Crumpton - a 24 hour novice but fearsomely keen cyclist who had once cycled in a relay from Land's End to John O'Groats in less than three days.
We had done three races in 2008. Each one was preceded by a severe weather warning, and each one ended up being a muddy nightmare. After the third one, we were pretty fed up of trying to push muddy bikes along the trail faster than anyone else could, and we all fervently hoped that 2009 would give us some nicer conditions. In the run-up to Mayhem I checked the weather forecasts obsessively, and even though I know that a weather forecast two weeks ahead is essentially meaningless, when the weather forecast two weeks ahead of time said it would be dry, I clung to that hope fiercely. As the event approached, rain began to appear in the forecast, but at least it seemed to be nothing like as much as last year.
And on the day we set off from London, it was sunny. I could hardly believe it would stay that way. We drove up to Shropshire with our now-traditional stops, first at a service station for a dirty Burger King meal, and then at a supermarket to buy vastly more food than we could possibly eat over the weekend. We arrived on site to find that John was already there and had bagged us an extensive spot to set up camp in.
In warm sunshine I was almost laughing as I set up my tent. Did we dare to hope that it would stay like this?
The next day dawned overcast, but dry. We finally got around to trying to sort out who would take on the Le Mans-style start and run 800m before doing the first lap. Andrew said I dont mind giving it a go"; Ian said "Nor do I"; John said "I could probably give it a go"; I said nothing. Expectant faces looked at John. "So I'll do it then, shall I?" Excellent! That's the spirit!
And so the start approached. The rest of us worked out an order, John said he was feeling nervous but still seemed up for it, and he gridded up as 2pm approached. This is the biggest mountain biking event in the country, and we were all there to cheer him on but somehow we lost sight of him in the throng, so we watched the stream of thousands of runners turning into bikers for a while, then headed back to camp to prepare for our own laps.
Last year we'd done two laps each; this year we were trying singles. All went smoothly, and at about 5pm we were three laps in and it was my turn. In the afternoon sun, I set out. The course started with a long slow climb and I was in my element, overtaking quite a few riders. Embarrassingly, as the trail crossed a closed-off road, I found myself looking both ways. I do most of my cycling in London and it seems I've developed certain instincts that will now kick in regardless of where I am.
After a fun grassy descent and a trip back through the arena, it was time to tackle the Kenda Climb. This fearsome uphill climb had been at the very start of the lap last year, a killer for muscles yet to warm up. After half a lap it was a little bit easier. I dropped down the gears, tried not to look at how far I had to go, and wobbled my way up. The rest of the lap was pretty straightforward. There was one frighteningly steep descent that I'd picked my way down very slowly on our practice lap, but for the race there was an alternative route that I had no shame at all about taking. It turned out to be quicker than the descent anyway.
I got back to the arena, handed over to John and headed back to the camp to take in a large number of calories.
My second lap came just as darkness was falling. It started ineptly - as I powered down the incredibly bumpy gravel road leading to the first climb, my bottle bounced out of its cage and off the track, emptying itself as it flew. Luckily, someone camped just by the trail gave me a refill. I pushed the bottle back on and carried on. After a lap of no dramas I handed back over to John, and we switched to a double lap strategy.
It was 2am when I went out again, and all was going beautifully. The first half of the lap went well, and the only trouble was that I was beginning to feel the effects of my bike's inadequate suspension. I'd had it booked in for a service at my local bike shop, only for them to tell me they couldn't actually do it before the race. So with limited travel in the forks, the bumpy bits of the course were getting pretty unpleasant for me to ride.
But apart from suspension issues I was feeling fine, until I felt a few spots of rain, which quickly turned into a decent shower. Within no time at all the course turned into thick gloopy mud. I was livid; for the third race in a row, I was trying to push my bike through the mud faster than other people could push theirs. It's a really stupid way to spend a sleep-deprived night. It made my lap very slow, and running with a bike is much more strenuous than cycling, so I ran out of water. I finished the lap and headed back to camp to restock. As it turned out, it was about the time Andrew was going to take over from me anyway, so I gave him the baton and off he went.
Our tactics fell apart a bit in the morning. I'd swapped shifts with Andrew because I prefer going out late to going out early, but then I ended up getting hardly any sleep because by 6am the campsite was already busy and noisy. When I got up to get ready to go out again I felt horrific. Luckily, Ian decided to do a morning double, giving me a bit more time to wake up, but my lap was still a bit of a lap of pain, juddering over the bumps in a state of exhaustion.
It turned out to be my last lap. It looked for a while like I'd get another one: John and Ian said they'd do their best to do make sure Ian was back before 2pm, and in return I did my best to look enthusiastic, but we weren't quite in a position to do it. Ian put in his seventh fast lap of the event - his slowest was only a few minutes slower than his quickest, and every one of them was a good bit quicker than my quickest lap - to get back at ten past two. We'd done 22 laps, and we finished 77th out of 230 team in our class.
It was a much better performance than last year. I didn't much like my third consecutive 2am misery lap, but we'd vastly improved on last year's 145th, and made it into the top third of the order. Now it was only six weeks until SITS, where we'd done a great job last year. How much higher up the field could we get this year? I couldn't wait to find out.
I cycled to work the morning after the race. It seemed like a good idea, somehow, and for about twenty minutes afterwards I felt fantastic. Then I realised I'd made a huge error, and I felt like death for the rest of the day.