For anyone contemplating Revolve24 at Brands Hatch, I submit for your reading pleasure an account of my experience as a solo rider at this year's Le Mans 24 Hours Velo race, taking place on the 4.185km Bugatti circuit of Le Mans.
I had decided to do this event 18 months ago. I'd seen photos in a French cycling magazine and thought it looked awesome. Combine that impression with a mid-40s crisis and I was pretty much hooked. After seeking advice from a number of forums, here and elsewhere, I decide to aim for a 500km target. Doubtless that may seem modest to many of you here but it's some 3 times further than my longest outing to date.
I'll skip much of the surrounding experience - the camp site, registration, facilities, general marshalling and so on. In summary, these were "adequate", but only just. If anyone would like to know more about these things, please just drop me a line via the road.cc contact form and I'll answer anything I can.
Saturday 22nd August
Having picked up my timing chip and dossards the day before, I'm dressed and ready to go 5 hours before the 3pm start, like a kid at xmas. This is also practical though - it's already 30C and the sunshine is intense.
Eat, drink, rest. Attend the briefing - none of it in English. I get the general idea though. Drink, rest, eat.
At 2pm, we are in our pit garage ready to go. We're sharing the space with over 20 other riders including last year's GC winning team. They look very motivated. At 2.15pm, we're called out to start our 'parade' lap. The serious relay teams get pole position. Solo riders are put right at the back of the grid. Once we are all there, we stand in the sun whilst 20 or so national anthems are played. It's now 35C and there's no shade where we're standing.
5 minutes, 3 minutes, 1 minute. Flag! We run across the track in the traditional Le Mans start to our bikes, and we're off. The pit lane is full with team supporters and riders who will be relaying throughout the day. To me it seems a lot of noise. By the time I reach the start line, the top teams are already out of sight over the hill at the Dunlop bridge. On the first climb of that hill, there's more spectators shouting and a brass band playing.Then you're down the other side and there's no one else around except your fellow soloists and some of the "fun" relay team riders.
Despite telling myself to calm down, slow down, take it easy, that first lap was my fastest of the whole day. Ooops. I try to find a few riders of a similar pace, but we're scattered all around the track and none of the groups that form up last for long. Still, the asphalt is perfect, the track extremely wide, grippy and free of traffic. My bike has been cleaned and tuned and is running silently. All is looking good.
The slope from the bridge includes a long sweeping right hand bend. It's the fastest point of the circuit and I make of point of always crouching down and getting as aero as I can to pick up as much free speed as I can. I'm surprised how few other people do so. Some large gaps get closed very quickly like this - later on it proves invaluable.
After 30 minutes, I realise I haven't eaten anything. Ooops once more. I don't make that mistake again. I force myself to calm down. The heat helps reinforce that message. It's still 35C and whilst the breeze helps, I realise I'm going to have to change my fuelling strategy pretty urgently. What was hoped to be a 3 hour stint is truncated to 2 hours when my two 1 litre water bottles - one for energy drink and one for salts - are empty. Other riders are already showing a build up of salt on their shorts. A quick pit stop to collect fresh bottles which are ready and waiting for me and I'm back under way. However, the few minutes that I'm not moving give my legs a chance to realise what they've done, and they don't like getting started again.
The next hour is rather unpleasant. I'm mostly on my own. I can't seem to find a rhythm. The hardest time comes at 3 hours in (6pm) when the temperature was still 34C and the first symptoms of niggles start to set in - tingling fingers, a sore toe, stiff neck and the like. Thinking that there were still 21 hours to go makes the target seem out of reach.
I'm fortunate enough to meet a few other soloists and share a few words each time we catch up. The first of these gives me some great advice to look at shorter targets like "it will cool down when the sun gets lower - that's just 30 minutes away. You can last till then, right?" I get past my initial anxieties and I start to settle in to a steady rhythm as night draws in. As the temperature falls, it all feels very much more comfortable and I reach 200km after only 8 hours. I have to knock back premature thoughts that this might be easy.
At this point, the wind shifts slightly. Smoke from a large forest fire in nearby Mulsanne, apparently tackled by some 190 firefighters, starts blowing over the track for nearly two hours. It isn't choking, but it doesn't taste good. The track is blanketed in an eery warm fog, picked out by the track floodlights. Eventually the wind shifts again and drops in strength. It ends up in a way that makes the circuit easier to ride - tailwinds down the long straight, headwinds into the slow hill under the Dunlop bridge. This was the best time of the race for me. My lap times are consistent, I'm comfortable and 2 hours pass by almost unnoticed.
All is well until 4am or so, when a thunderstorm arrives. They say that a little bit of rain never hurt anyone. Well, suddenly I'm cycling at 15mph into a 20mph headwind full of water. It stings the face and washes salt out of my crash helmet and into my eyes. I am only a quarter of the way around the circuit. In the 7 minutes it takes to get back to the garage, I am saturated! The wind goes from 15kmh to 35kmh and switches direction completely.
I sit things out for 30 minutes and take a quick nap. I check the weather radar and forecast - no change expected soon - so I get togged up and go out again. It's miserable. I'm fatigued, pushing through strong winds and constant rain, and wearing waterproof gear that flaps about and gets progressively damper inside. I worry about chafing. I'm glad though that I've swapped onto a second set of wheels with some Continental 4 Seasons tyres. They're very assured and concerns about sliding off pass very quickly. Others weren't so fortunate. I think I last about an hour, at which point I traipse back in, peel off the wet gear, eat some real food and get some sleep, I think for about 45 minutes.
That helps a lot. Although it is still raining, it is barely a shower and the wind has dropped. I put on lighter wet weather gear and get back to business. I am at 330km by this time, so have about 9 hours to get just over 170km further. That still feels achievable, so I get to work. As day breaks, the rain eventually subsides, the cloud thins, then parts, and the circuit starts to dry. With those problems out of the way, I set to chipping away at the remaining laps. It's harder now - the change in the wind means that on the exposed back of the circuit, the long straight is square into a headwind. I shamelessly suck at whatever wheel I can catch down the Dunlop hill.
The next problem surfaces, namely being able to eat anything. I have been steadily consuming banana loaf, cereal cookies, energy gels, energy drink and electrolyte fluids whilst on track, and chicken soup and pasta in the garage, and I just feel completely full. When I do force something down, the boost is almost instant so I am clearly running on next to empty. I struggle to get my heart rate above 125 when my maximum is nearer 185.
The target keeps getting nearer though, and then the sun come out at 1pm and it becomes clear that I am going to get there. Sure enough, at 2:20pm, I break 500km and do an extra lap to be sure! I return to the garage to celebrate and as soon as I get in, the heavens open again, but only for 10 minutes. I head back out and do a further two laps in bright sunshine to savour what crowds there are, lining the pit wall and the hill to the Dunlop bridge. I get the "last lap" bell, and cross the line 24 hours after having started.
I'm a Finisher. I am also completely finished.
As I make my way back to my garage, I meet a couple of the solos - Bill (the self-proclaimed "Old git on a bike") and Laura who finished 3rd in the solo female race - that I'd chatted with during the race. We exchange congratulations and go on our ways.
I get back to the garage. My wife Joan has already packed up most of our kit and as such we get away before the worst of the chaotic crush that is clearly coming. I am mush. Physical and mental mush. Joan, who has been my pit crew for the whole event, tells me what I need to do, and I am careful whilst doing it. Every effort leaves me a little giddy. The lure of home, a comfortable bed and a bath is just too powerful and we decide not to stay in the camp site overnight. We're away from the track by 5pm, a McDonalds meal is inhaled, and Le Mans disappears behind us.
On the journey home, the event as a whole sinks in. It was simply one of the most enjoyable things I've done on a bike.
There were times when I was on my own on the track, in the dark with a setting half moon ahead and the wind behind, riding a silent bike on a perfect road. These times were calming and a real boost.
As for the other 22 hours, well, other riders provided much of the entertainment. Whilst I was riding in a solo category, there were hundreds of other teams, some professional, working in relays. These guys and girls simply hurled themselves around the track, all day, all night, all day. After only 18 minutes, I was lapped by the leaders at a speed I could barely reach, let alone sustain. The noise of their top spec carbon bikes and deep section wheels was like that of a train passing in a station. It was impressive and a regular occurrence throughout the entire event. Occasionally, I'd get passed on a straight and would get sucked along at nearly double my normal speed, until the next corner where I made sure I got right out their way!
The occasional chats with other riders helped - Bill and Laura especially - a couple of hours passed practically unnoticed in their company. Hopefully, they're saying the same about me!
Everything that I've written above simply couldn't have happened without Joan, and I am enormously grateful. She took care of everything that had to happen. Logistics, encouragement, caution, neck massage, face cloths to freshen up with, fresh clothes to change into, towels to dry off with when wet, warm clothes to wear when cold, hot chicken soup, fresh water bottles, wrapped portions of banana loaf and cookies, live Twitter feed, email updates to friends and family, and more. She was there for the whole 24 hours as well, with no opportunity for a quiet rest in a comfortable chair, few people to chat with to pass the time, and little to do but wait for me to come in for my next pit stop. She got us packed up and on our way home before I'd really worked out what she'd had to do to make that happen.
I will never ask her to do that again.
The cycle ride itself was a great success. I completed 123 laps of the circuit, for a classified distance of 514.7km, coming in 25th out of 63 in the solo men category. That exceeded both my primary and secondary objectives of 500km and "top half of category". The obligatory Strava record gives me a suffer score of 547 "Epic", but it's wrong. It was actually great fun and I'd do it again in a second if Joan volunteers!
I got everything out of it that I wanted. Le Mans 24 Hours Cycle. Tick!
The only target left unfulfilled is my fundraising. Thus far, I've raised £830 for Macmillan Cancer Support, and obviously want to keep topping that up. Should anyone feel inclined to do so, please pass some of your money their way via my JustGiving page at http://www.justgiving.com/nemovelosolo - Thank You.
As I said at the top, if anyone wants more details about any aspect of the event, please just drop me a line. No problem.
To anyone tackling Brands Hatch Revolve24, good luck!