Last weekend saw the inaugural Kielder Chiller 24hr mountain bike race run by High Fell Events. A 24hr mountain bike race? In Northumberland? In February? Madness surely! As it turned out, the riders got hit by everything and more they could have possibly imagined! Competitors could race quads, pairs or solo. Rich raced solo. Yes, 24hrs non stop. He was out to win no matter what…

I had focused on this race for several months. It was my home turf and well, my history of 24hr solo races has been slightly frustrating; injuries and illness in the run up to several key target races has put me out of contention in recent years. My head was in the right place for Kielder and my training had gone very well.

So imagine my apprehension along with that of fellow competitors on the 12am start line last Saturday, when the rain was falling through the trees and the forecast promised sleet, snow and more rain. Temperatures would hover just above or just below freezing for the duration. The ground was  already saturated meaning this would be no winter wonderland.

“It’ll be fine!”

Off we went. A fast start to get up front and make some ground on the initial technical sections. So far so good. But this was a course of two halves and after leaving the technical man made climb, we headed over and traversed a fell before dropping down sodden but fast heather doubletrack. This is where the ‘fun’ started! Wheels threw water straight up from soaked ground and within a couple of laps, clothes were completely soaked through. In these temperatures, this spelled trouble. It was simply impossible to stay even vaguely dry. Laps of freezing descents were followed by muggy cold damp climbs in multiple clothing layers that needed to be frequently changed as they wetted out. Mud covered everything, meaning eating on the bike meant either mouthfuls of grit, or valuable time spent stopping to remove thick winter gloves. To compound all this I had very limited (but invaluable and highly appreciated) support from Team JMC who also had solos and teams in the event to look after.

I knew my situation was precarious and any lead I built up could vaporise in the blink of an eye in these conditions. So I pushed on, determined to build a solid buffer. The lap was short and I managed to get one lap up on second solo, Team JMC’s Tom Hodgkinson. Soon after, my race nearly ended…

Hitting the fastest section of fire road full tilt, I had not noticed a longways ridge that had formed, worn in by all the riders taking the left side of the track. My tyre ran along it and took my centre of gravity away at something like 25 to 30 mph. I hit the ground very very hard and just didn’t expect to get up. Lying on that cold dark fire road with sleet and grit sticking to me was definitely not the highlight of my weekend. Several items of clothes were shredded and my forearm was numb from the impact. I gingerly bent my arm… very painful but it worked. Blood stuck to my clothes and I decided that the best thing to do was not look at it as long as my arm worked. Which it did. Happy days.

The next few hours were spent mostly riding downhill with my left arm. Which was not bad providing you were turning left. Eventually I realised ibuprofen might help and cadged some of the NIER team (thanks guys!). This brought some relief and brought some welcome distraction from the other forms of torture the course was unleashing on it’s victims!

The bitter northerly wind was picking up now and the top exposed section of the course resembled a bad day at the office for Scott of the Antarctic. Blizzard conditions smashed into your face on that cruel headwind and those late Saturday evening hours were the most difficult I have ever raced a mountain bike in.

Around midnight I knew I needed a complete change of clothes. This took around 20 fumbling uncoordinated minutes in the back of the Cycling Generation transit van but it was worth the time penalty and was a slight turning point (though I did look at my arm. And regretted it). A 24hr race starts at midnight (as they say) and just about then, we got a brief respite from the seemingly endless blizzard conditions; the sky cleared and the moon appeared. Strangely, nothing fell from the sky. The bitter northerly wind raged on but without it’s evil precipitous counterparts, it felt relatively benign. I could see the end even though the toughest hours were still to come.

The course was very quiet now. Only the podium chasers, the slightly insane, or the truly hardcore saw the witching hours. But it was strangely calming and peaceful. I was on my mountain bike, with a full moon, and between some great tunes on my headphones, the solitary remaining riders and I exchanged some brief words and prods of encouragement. This is what you train for; the hard bit. The bit where sleep deprivation attempts to smother your mind and drug you into submission. I know this enemy well though and pushed through, ready with my own counter strategies.

The relief from the weather was short lived. The patchwork sky turned to ink blot black and the temperature rose that one or two degrees that signalled precipitation was just round the corner. Down came the sleet and snow once more but the end was in sight. The home stretch.

Through the black murk the sky slowly lightened in the east. Getting time gaps was tricky with time lags on updates. However, I knew I was now ‘comfortable’. I just needed to tap it out till around 11am, when my lead would be unsurmountable.

The last few laps.

I enjoyed those last few laps. The course was actually a great 24hr course, it had just been hit by exceptional weather. The final descent was an absolute corker that twisted and flowed with enough technical interest to keep you on your toes. Just right for a long race.

Then it was done. My lead was comfortable and at half past ten on the Sunday morning I rolled into my pit, grateful for some warm dry clothes!

Male solo podium: Tom Hodgkinson (Team JMC), Rich Rothwell (Cycling Generation / M Steel Cycles), Richie Smith (Team Cycles)

As rough and difficult as it was, this was a great event. High Fell Events took on an extremely ambitious race and it delivered everything we expected (and more!). I really hope it runs again next year. Everybody learned from the extreme conditions and next year we will all be better prepared, should the north east produce it’s worst again!

A massive thanks to:

  • High Fell Events staff and marshals (who stood out there all night making sure we were safe)
  • The Forestry Commission
  • Team JMC for their support
  • Everybody who gave me encouragement throughout the event
  • M Steel Cycles for patching my Epic back together (next week 😉
  • Exposure lights – the best lights hands down
  • Mt Zoom (brake pads, brake pads, brake pads…)
  • My wife and James for their support

The good folks of Team JMC

Massive respect to everyone who got through the event: there were many ‘first timers’ out there; a true baptism of fire!

I would also like to make a special mention of my good friend Alan Barlow, who runs AB Therapies. After riding long distances for many years, the wear and tear on my body has been substantial and I have only partially addressed some of the injury issues. For several weeks in the run up to the Chiller, I have visited Alan for a weekly sports massage. Anyone who has had a sports massage will know that it can be an uncomfortable experience at times but the discomfort is more than worth it. Muscles become more flexible and supple; this was as true in my shoulders and back as it was in my legs. Blockages and tension are released and nutrients are better absorbed by the muscle amongst other benefits. This service is another one that many people feel is a luxury, but it’s a bit like coaching; what’s going to make you a better rider? That fancy set of carbon handlebars or some sessions that will improve your skills or your body’s performance? Thanks Alan; your care and work paid off.