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Four months on from being ineptly tackled by a fat Brazilian, Eldrik was still on crutches. John, our very successful fourth team-mate from Mayhem, was otherwise engaged, so the call went out to see who else might fancy a place on an occasionally amateurish but always aspirational team for SITS. We soon got a reply from David Maloney, who had a string of extremely high placings to his name at endurance events. At first I thought he might not have read our ad properly and mistaken our bit about finishing in the top third with finishing third. But luckily it proved not to be the case and he felt our team was deserving of his talents.
As with Mayhem I obsessively checked the weather forecasts for days prior to the race. It looked like Catton was going to get an apocalyptic downpour, again - but would it be before, during or after the race? It turned up there on the Thursday evening. As we drove up from London on the Friday, it was clear, sunny and warm, and we began to dare to hope.
We set up camp and headed out for a practice lap. There was no doubt it had been raining, but we'd heard that there had been a major investment in weather-proofing after last year's horrors. It turned out this investment had all been put into the last two miles of the course, and the first five were a bit nightmarish at this stage. We came back plastered with mud. The course was great, though - some fantastic sweeping single-track, sharp climbs, fast descents and our old favourite S-bends swerving through a small gulley. If it stayed dry, it would be awesome.
In the morning I could hardly believe it. The sun was shining! Last year during the rider briefing it had been battering down, and I couldn't say I was particularly looking forward to getting out on course, but this year I could hardly wait. As at Mayhem, we operated a 'last one in, first one out' policy and sent David out to do the first lap. At 2pm, along with several hundred others, he was off on the Le Mans-style start, a quick half-mile run to spread out the field.
One of our failings at endurance races has always been the occasional missed change-over - mostly in the muddy races when it's difficult to have any idea of lap times. As the first riders began to come back after 40 minutes or so, it was nice to see this doesn't just afflict the amateurs. The two leaders had a couple of minutes on third place, and he had quite a gap to the rest, but as third came in it seemed there was no-one there to take over. DALTON!!, he screamed, but Dalton was probably in the catering tent enjoying a greasy fry-up, or perhaps enjoying the attentions of young ladies in the massage tent. Third threw up his hands in disgust and set out for another lap.
We, on the other hand, ran our team with great professionalism, and after three smooth changeovers I headed out for my lap. The course started with a long steady climb, and I was in my element. I powered up, overtaking a good few riders on the way, many of whom then swiftly caught me up in the muddy singletrack. I almost went over the handle-bars on the first steep descent, but then powered on up the next climb. I rounded a corner to find Eldrik by the trackside, shouting that we were in 8th place. Any thought of easing off quickly disappeared and I pushed on.
It was a hot afternoon, and the riding was great. We took up a position in the low twenties and maintained it fairly easily. By nightfall we'd all done two laps, the threshold for being included in the results. My third lap took us past midnight, and it went as well as any night lap I've ever done. Running more light power than I've ever had before I managed to gain two places when I'd feared I might lose some. Then we switched to a double-lap strategy and I had five hours to get some sleep before I was out again.
I got up at 4.30am. A faint pre-dawn light was emerging, and Venus was shining brightly overhead. I had hardly slept but I felt surprisingly good. I headed over to the changeover and waited for no more than a few minutes before Andrew appeared. A heavy morning dew had fallen and the course was pretty slippery. In the woods, I pinged off a root, and just managed not to throw myself into the trees. The rider behind, startled by my sudden slowing, crashed into my rear wheel and we both threw ourselves into the trees. She leapt up, grabbed me by the arm and virtually threw me back onto my bike. With an apology and a wave, she sped off into the night.
By the time I finished my first lap, the sun was just about to rise. A thick mist covered the countryside, and as I rode along the ridge after the first climb, the rider in front was just visible through the red haze. I wished I had a camera with me.
By 10am, we were running about 30th. It was turning into another hot day as I went out for my sixth lap. It felt disastrously slow but it was a few minutes quicker than my previous lap. I managed to power up the steepest climb, for the sixth time, passing a walking rider who muttered nice riding mate and then promptly jumped back on his bike and overtook me at the top as I failed to carry any momentum over at all. I got back to finish our 24th lap, handed over to David and then developed a major cramp in my left thigh.
By 1, it was about time for me to go out again, but my thigh was painful enough that I thought I'd see if David felt like going for another. Luckily, he did, or at least he didn't object too strongly. Somehow, for quite a while, my exhausted brain thought that his would be our last lap. But then, gradually, piecing together the obvious - David's typical lap was 45 minutes, he'd gone out at 1.15pm - I realised that we might actually get a 29th lap in. With massive reluctance, I headed over to the changeover. I got there at 1.57, and with a very few other stragglers, waited to see if David would get back. With a few seconds to go, there was still no sign. At 2pm the hooter went, and a minute and a half later David crossed the line in 28th place. I was massively relieved.
It was our best 24 hour race result so far. Since our debut here in 2007 we've climbed massively up the field, and by finishing in the top quarter and keeping a rider on course at all times, we'd achieved our aims for the race. I'm already looking forward to next year. A top 20 finish should be extremely possible. Top 10? I don't think I'd bet too heavily against it...