Last weekend 5 really cool things happened: 1. I became the 2017 women’s national 24hr TT champion and – with a provisional distance of 456.45 miles – I came within touching distance of the all-time women’s competition record (461.45 miles), despite enduring far from ideal conditions; 2. I also became the 1st woman ever to get onto the overall podium at a national 24hr championship; 3. Together with my team mates Lynne Biddulph and Jacqueline Hobson we won the team prize; 4. Together with my fantastic crew, I ticked a last important confidence box ahead of my Land’s End to John o’ Groats record attempt in September; and 5. Thanks to James Hayden I finally rode a proper deep section HED Jet 9 wheel, something I didn’t think I would ever achieve as I am such a chicken!
This race had been my ‘A’ race for 2016, but unfortunately it wasn’t to be last year when Deep Vein Thrombosis spoiled the fun. But, there is no motivation like unfinished business and when you hit a low point, it is big goals like these that can get you through the hard times.
In the build up to this year’s National 24hr TT championships, I had already achieved a PB of 269 miles for a 12hr TT and 479 miles in a draft-legal 24hr race, both in June. Preparations in the final weeks ahead of this race had been less ideal however. I had picked up a minor injury on the back of my right leg after that last 24hr race in the Netherlands, which meant I had to take it really easy and back off quite a lot from my training. Luckily rest and a few good osteopathy sessions sorted me out in time. Work had been a bit busy too during the week leading up to the National 24hr. This resulted in very little time on the bike and a few very late nights. But I have learned that you got to take life as it comes and keep confidence that you have put the hard work in previously and that, ultimately, with the longer races the mental aspects are as, if not more, important than your physical strength.
After a work meeting in Coventry on Friday morning, I drove over to Birmingham airport to pick up my husband Chris who had been on a business trip to Frankfurt and Barcelona. Together we drove over to the AirBnB in Shropshire. After a quick check in, we spent some time driving the course. Although I knew most of the course well, the finish circuit for this year was a change from previous years and I wanted to have a good look at the rest of the course too just to decide on what the best places would be for bottle hand-ups and remember where the potholes were. Finally, after a stop at the supermarket for bananas, coke and Ambrosia rice pudding, followed by a quick meal at a local pub, it was time to go to bed and catch up on sleep lost earlier in the week.
One of the great things about the National 24hr is that the event doesn’t start until 1pm. This means you can sleep in and take time in the morning to sort out your bike, spares, food etc. Once all was sorted out I went for a little spin down the road from the AirBnB just to stretch my legs and fairly soon it was time to make our way to the new HQ for the race at The Club House Wrexham.
When we arrived at the HQ most competitors were already there and some of the early starters were either warming up or making their way to the start. I said a quick hello and good luck to Jane Moore who was riding the event on her tricycle – not easy at all I now know after a hilarious little test ride on her tricycle after the North Norfolk 100 earlier this year. I signed on and got changed while Chris briefed Kevin who had driven up from Surrey to support me for the event.
With a variable weather forecast it was hard to decide what to wear. In the end, I settled on comfort over aerodynamics and opted for:
- Assos S7 T.laalalai bibshorts
- Born to Bike NoPinz jersey (which is sadly a bit too large for me so not very aero)
- sleeveless baselayer
- custom Isobar Compression calf guards (which kept my legs strong and happy)
- pink socks with reflective bits on the back (which helped my crew to spot me from distance)
- Specialized Zante shoes (1 size larger) covered with warp sleeves and yellow Velotoze toecovers
- Together with Sportful Fiandre arm warmers, gilet and a swap between TT helmet and road helmet with helmet mounted light, I thought this should give the most flexibility to adjust to the conditions.
At the end of the previous week when it was still really hot I had been eyeing up the Lazer Wasp Air Tri helmet which has more ventilation than my old Kask Bambino (which really should be phased out after 4 years use now), doesn’t dig into my big cheekbones like the Giro Aerohead I tried out during the National 100 and, importantly, has an aquavent to pour water over your head when it gets too hot. But with a forecast for heavy rain, that now seemed like the last thing I would need!
13:56 – I am being held up and hear ‘5,4,3,2,1 and go!’ With every race there is some nervous energy, but for this race the overwhelming feeling was excitement. I felt excited to finally race that one race I had had my heart set on for so long and to give it my best shot.
John Forbes was my minute man. I tried to start conservatively, but as usual I probably went out a bit too hard. Still, it took me 80 miles to catch John who got out of the blocks even more enthusiastically than me. Unfortunately I later found out he didn’t finish the race because of a number of issues (including a crank that fell off, failing lights and hypothermia). I wish you better luck next time John!
The first part of the course is quite rolling and after c. 26 miles you arrive at Prees Heath roundabout, the ‘heart’ of the event and the central point you come back to on all circuits used during the race, apart from the finishing circuit. Much of this first section is uphill, but with fresh legs you hardly notice it.
All riders then first complete two laps of a c. 49-mile long loop that runs from Prees Heath RAB to Espley RAB via Ternhill RAB and back and then all the way out to Battlefield Church RAB before returning to Prees. By this point it was cloudy but still dry and relatively low pressure. Heading south, we had to battle our way into the headwind, but at 16 or 17 kph, this wasn’t too hard. The hardest thing about this section of the course is that it has quite a few rollers and just when you think you should surely be at the turning point at Battlefield Church RAB there is always one more roller to get out of the way… The road surface is generally good and although there can be a few lorries on this section, I think we hit it at a good time and there wasn’t too much traffic to worry about. One of the most fun sections of this loop is the long descend just after you have climbed your way up to the top of the A49 flyover at Prees village. It is straight and smooth and fast and also brings back good memories from when this stretch of road was used in the National 12hr TT championships in 2015.
After that, the most fun part of the course starts: the Quina Brook circuit, a 12.6 mile loop which riders cover up to 7 times during the first afternoon/early evening. At first glance, the circuit looks rural and slow, but in reality it can be fairly fast as it is sheltered by hedges and, more importantly, really scenic and fun to ride with its twists and turns. Mentally, I find that circuit really gives me a boost and that is worth so much in these long events. For hand ups we used a place where the road slightly rises and there is a quick short cut back for the car to Prees Heath RAB.
By now, I had stopped using gels and switched to just drinks, bananas, diluted rice pudding/Fresubin mix, baby food and the occasional energy bar. Some of the hand ups went better than others. But we only dropped 1 or 2 bottles during the whole race. There may have been the odd banana changing course at the last minute, which meant I missed it. The first hand-up of baby food (attached to a bottle) was a bit of a messy one. I felt for my poor bike as I left the cleaning up job for a good few days, but baby food is easy and quick to hand eat on the bike, comes in a number of sweet and savoury taste combinations and provides a nice top up of fuel without drying out your mouth.
By 10pm, we were all switched to the ‘night circuit’ which is a 20.6-mile long lap with Prees Heath RAB and Espley RAB as turning points. Again, riders complete up to 7 laps of this circuit, with the cut-off determined by the fastest riders. The best thing about this part of the race was spotting Andy Wilkinson (all time 24hr record holder among various other achievements) shouting encouragement at riders throughout the night, despite the pissing rain.
I cannot remember anymore exactly when it started and stopped raining, but it felt like it had been raining on and off from 4pm onwards with only the final 3 to 4 hours properly dry and warm. The temperatures only dropped as low as 10 degrees Celsius and the wind eased off significantly over night, but many riders were caught out by the heavy rain and plenty opted either to make a longer stop to change clothes/warm up, or to retire from the race altogether.
I have very weird circulation, which I still don’t fully understand. I have Reynaud which makes my hands turn white the moment I step into a large supermarket, yet when competing in a race I can cycle throughout the night with just short-fingered gloves and not be affected at all. As was the case during the night in Borrego Springs for the World 24-hr TT championship last November, most competitors wore many more layers than me for the night, yet I was so pumped with adrenaline and having fun dancing on my pedals through the rain, that I hardly felt the cold. My undercarriage on the other hand would have thanked me if I had bothered to stop and changed my bibshorts at some point, because no matter how good your shorts are, once they are fully soaked the risk of saddle sores increases drastically and this became an issue after c. 16 hours for me.
Around 6am the next day we were all directed to the Quina Brook circuit for some more fun in the lanes, before making the long way back up the A41 and A534 to the 8.53-mile long finishing circuit near The Clubhouse Wrexham.
Traffic on the way back up the A41 was heavy and like many other riders, I opted to ride part of it in the hard shoulder which luckily wasn’t covered in stones and potholes. The actual finish circuit was fun to ride: fast in parts, not too lumpy and mostly felt very safe. I hope the organisers will maintain this finish circuit for next year and it is definitely a big improvement on last year when riders had to spent much more time on the busy A534, including the steep climb up to the Cock o’Barton, and there were quite a few potholes to dodge on the back lanes.
By now things had started to go downhill for me. I knew I had built up a very healthy lead and only had to keep moving slowly to still take the win, and even then would maintain a large margin. But sadly I also knew that the all-time competition record on 461.45 miles was likely no longer on the cards. If conditions would have been different and if I had paced myself a bit better, I feel that I could still significantly improve on my final mileage. But that will have to wait until next year…
The main issues were the change in temperature (I don’t handle the heat well), a very aggressive set-up on my TT bike that is really only comfortable for up to 16-18 hours (a less aggressive set up will be on the cards for next year), and the saddle sores which meant that sitting on the saddle became increasingly challenging. I ended up riding around with my hands mostly on the base bars or even on the elbow pads to alleviate neck pain and crawled around like a snail just doing what I could.
When my time was finally up, the usual stress kicked in of a) getting to the next time-keeper as quickly as possible and b) being able to distinguish between who is a time-keeper and who are supporters. Finally after 456.45 miles (provisional result), I was able to climb off the bike by time-keeper 2, remove my shoes, have a pee stop (I only had 1 in the whole race despite drinking at least 20 bottles), and lay in the shade while Chris stuffed everything into the car.
Immediately after the race I had a weird mix of elation and frustration. By now I am just left feeling incredibly happy with what I achieved during my first 24-hour TT (keeping in mind that I had to climb off after 19 hours in Borrego Spring due to heat stroke/exhaustion). But immediately after the race, I was a little annoyed with myself for letting that other goal slowly slip away. But that is what records are for: to keep you hungry, to keep you dreaming and to make you want to come back the next year to have another go.
In moments like this I guess there is no better way to put things into perspective than to talk to the queen of the Mersey Roads 24hr, my team mate Lynne Biddulph. She has been agonisingly close to that competition record herself in the past and with 17 wins out of 24 events, little more needs to be said really about what calibre of rider she is. On this occasion, she came third with 403 miles and fellow 24-hour newbie Crystal Spearman took silver with a distance of 435 miles.
Together with Jacqui (who rode 316 miles) we defended the team’s national 24-hr team title. Libby, who had been part of that winning team last year really deserves the biggest kudos. Her distance may have been down this year, but risking it all after the year of knee operations she has had to me really shows how much she loves this event and am pleased no further damage was done.
Both Crystal and I ended up in the overall top 5, which underlines my theory that as the distance/time increases the gap between men and women reduces. Keith Harrod, who put together an amazing website ‘Legends of the Time Trial‘, helped me spit through decades of records from past national championships, but I am pleased to say with 100% certainty that my win and overall third place was a historic first: never before had a woman podiumed overall at a national 24 hour championship. Not even the great Beryl Burton. I may never break her amazing 12-hour record that has stood since the 1960s and only possess a slither of her talent, but I am happy to have one up on her in this case, if only because many of the strong men abandoned due to the rain and other issues.
Michael Broadwith took the men’s and overall race win with 532 miles (again close but not enough to break Andy Wilkinson’s competition record) and Victor Chetta put in a great performance for silver, riding 498 miles. I really hope for Mike all will come together next year to break the comp record, but I also reckon competition from Victor (and perhaps others) will become stronger. Nick Clarke was the third fastest man with a distance of 453 miles in his first 24-hour TT. I already look forward to the rematch next year to see if I can still beat him by 3 miles or that he will have upped his game and reduced his stopping time.
It was definitely a #BeTheEgg day. I am confident that most of my mental and physical preparation for my LEJOG record attempt in September are in place now, with just the logistical challenge left to bring it all together at the last minute. I look forward to realising my biggest goal ever, but should not forget to celebrate the smaller successes along the way!
“The same boiling water that softens the potato hardens the egg. It’s about what you’re made of, not the circumstances”.