Where do I start? The race is something of a blur. Things happened but working out the order is hard as anyone who has done a 24hr solo will tell you that your mind wanders and thinking coherently is hard. People often ask me “What do you think about?”. Usually I’m concentrating on the race and trying to think about lap times, laps remaining and splits. I sometimes spend the whole lap trying to work out some basics maths to come into the pits, get some new info and start all over again!
So I will try and rewind and explain what happened as best I can. Memories tend to come back over a few days, so if I remember anything else I’ll edit it and tag it on at the end.
Before the race I was far more relaxed than previous 24hr races, considering I’d flown half way around the World for this race and any number of things could go wrong, but for some reason I was calm. My only worry was that my previous 24hr Solo was May 2011 when I won the UK/European title. Could I still do it? Would I remember what to do? The weather had been rather unkind in the run up, with 52mm of rain falling the day before and even snow on the higher peaks around. Cold temperatures were forecast with the chance of showers. Before the race my first aim was to better the 6th place I achieved in 2010 and beyond that try and get onto the podium.
On the start line I was still calm. Lining up next to Cory Wallace, without a doubt one of the top racers in the World. In 2010 I watched him and Jason English disappear within 400 meters not to be seen again. Would the same happen again? Jason had joked before about who would take up the early pace, my money was on Cory. When the gun went I pedalled off and found myself on the front and no one tried to come past me. The pace was fast but not suicidal and I decided to use it to my advantage and lead into the first singletrack.
The first section lasted 2km, after which there was a short fireroad and at that point Cory came past and shot off. No one tried to follow, Jason seemed quite happy to let him go and continued chatting behind me. Another few kilometers went by, the next rider to make the jump was local rider Ed McDonald. No one else made the jump that lap, a group of about 6 finished the lap together. In that group was Sam Chancellor, Shane Roberts, Andrew Hall, Jason English and myself. Cory had about 30 seconds lead.
On lap 2 the group stayed together still, the pace was good for me and I was content to stick with it and at this early stage I certainly had no plans to jump ahead. Onto lap 3 the track started to get quite busy with team riders, so there was lots of overtaking. Jason English was some way back, he had stopped to adjust something on his bike, perhaps the group took advantage as the speed seemed to increase. I remember following someone and a gap open up, allowing the first few people to get away. I tried to get back in touch, feeling confident I could close the gap on the long descent to the finish, but just as I entered the singletrack I made the call to pass a rider and he stubbornly refused to budge. I started to wonder if I would spend the whole race stuck behind stubborn Aussies, but thankfully I managed to make the pass and that just an isolated incident as everyone else was really good. The situation angered me though and I pushed hard on the descent and managed to close up the gap, crossing the line in 5th place. Jason was still behind, I didn’t know how far back. The weather was a little mixed, mostly cloudy but with the occasional bit of rain. Overall the course was fine, although the first 2km of the Red lap was a bit stick and there were a couple of really muddy sections on the Blue lap, but thankfully they were short. The conditions didn’t bother me, in fact I was glad it was raining. It didn’t last all that long, but it did wet the ground enough to cause a few more muddy patches.
Gaps were starting to form in the group and I couldn’t keep track of who was where. Cory had dropped back into the group and at some point Sam Chancellor pushed on with Ed at the front. Jason English took a few laps to catch back up. My lap times stayed consistent and my pit crew were flawless, I’d often make up time or pass people because of how fluid we were. Bike changes were CX style on the run, bottle changes were on the go. At this stage of the race there was nothing I needed to stop for. I always try and get my bikes as identical as possible, but I will normally detect a few very small differences, either saddle height (~0.5-1mm), angle and grip/shifter positions, but this time I really couldn’t detect anything. Even my suspension was identical, normally identical pressures feel different and I have Simon at Loco Tuning to thank for that as he serviced both forks prior to the race using superiors oils and seals. I was amazed by the amount of support I was getting on course, it was as if the race was back home in the UK. Loads of people on course were cheering me on and chatting to me and everyone in Australia knows Wiggle which was another conversation starter, especially as you can’t really miss me in my kit.
After about 5hrs Jason seemed to kick, Cory followed but I didn’t. From then on I was almost always riding on my own. The first 6-7hrs seemed to pass by really quickly and with it darkness drew in. With my Exposure Lights on I was ready for whatever happened, confident in my kit and my ability to ride through a cold, muddy night. As darkness fell the temperatures started to drop, my longest stop of the race came when I added arm dhb seemless warmers. 30-45 seconds stationary at the most and I was off again. Other pit crews were drawn to ours, Nia tells me of how they asked questions and picked up little things that we do that saves time. There are a few things that remain secret, although keen eyes would see them if they watched closely.
During the early part of the night several of the front runners had dropped out, including Ed McDonald and Sam Chancellor. With those two out I was in 3rd position, although I had no idea at the time and thought I was still in 5th. Jason English was ahead and pulling away and I’d lost track of where Cory was as he seemed to be yo-yoing through the field throughout. One minute he would fly past, then slow right down. The other rider in the mix and riding very consistently was Andrew Hall. We rode together for a while which is when I’d heard that Ed had pulled out. I slowly pulled away from Andrew, although it wasn’t really a conscious decision. Coming into the pit around midnight I asked Nia “Am I still in 3rd” to which she rather surprising said “No! You are in second, just Jason ahead”. So that’s when I found out Sam had pulled the plug as well. Second, wow. How did that happen? It took a little while to sink in. Next lap I asked what the gap to Jason was, “About 10 minutes”. During the night the course conditions dropped a little, the blue lap because quite tacky and slow and more mud was being collected on the bikes which meant I was changing more frequently. Steven Callahan was my mechanic, although my bikes were flawless so most of the time was spent washing bikes. Temperatures before dawn were at the lowest point, reaching 3 degrees. My feet felt like blocks of ice, my knees were a little cold but my hands and upper body were fine. You don’t need to feel your feet to pedal, so I just kept plugging away.
I honestly didn’t think I had a chance to beating Jason and didn’t attempt to increase the pace and chase him down. I just kept riding and tried to be consistent. I came around the next lap, “7 minutes”. Wait a minute, that can’t be right. I was gaining? Another lap went by. “4 minutes, come on Matt you are doing brilliantly keep it up”. It was still dark and the night was really dragging, I started the countdown to dawn. Looking out over the city of Canberra to the east I could see the early signs of dawn, a red glow started to appear in the sky. I started to think about if I was really capable of catching Jason, I couldn’t believe I was on the same lap as him let alone just a few minutes behind. Dawn arrived, with it I waited for the boost in energy as I began to realise I am on the final push for home. Nothing happened. I searched for energy but started to struggle, my lap times slowed and I started dreading every blue lap. My focus wandered, my mind was all over the place and I couldn’t concentrate on the course. I was missing lines, bumping into things and slipping off all over the place.
4 minutes turned to 5, then 6.30. Time was slipping away but that wasn’t what was concerning me. I started asking for splits back to 3rd, then back asking who was in 4th! I was in a dark place and needed to snap out of it. I started taking caffeine on board, 4 weeks of abstinence before hand had better pay off! At first I nothing happened, I was still plodding around, barely able to hold a line but about 20 minutes in and it started to kick in. I felt more alert, stable on the bike and a little speed came back into my legs. I had no thoughts of catching Jason, but felt I could stay in 2nd. The gap to Andrew Hall 3rd had come down to 15 minutes but slowly started going back out. The lap countdown in my head had started a long time ago, but considering I didn’t know how long my lap times actually were I could only really guess and never had the chance to ask my pit as there was always something more important in the 10-15 second stops.
Coming into what I knew was the final few laps there was a little disagreement with my pit crew as I was adamant I had one less lap to do than they said. On my final lap of the blue I thought it was my last lap of the race, counting down the kilometers I was as happy as I could be. As I got close to the pit I was informed that I had one more to do. I let off a few expletives and then got on with it. I’d cycled 390km so far, what was another 12? The first few kilometers were the worse, although flat the course had become tacky and slow, the mud was almost like quick sand in places and stopped the front wheel in its tracks. Then came the long singletrack climb, ticking off each switchback and eventually reaching the top, the final 3km almost all downhill. Not a time to push the limits, just get down and be safe but enjoy it. “Skyline” was ace, “Luge” as tight and twisty as ever and the final run down the DH track jumping the doubles near the bottom. Coming into the final straight emotions took over, a realisation of what I’d achieved. I crossed the line, 2nd place just 22 minutes behind Jason.
31 laps. 402km. 6500m+ climbing.
60 Torq gels consumed. 10 litres of Torq energy drunk.
I went into the race thinking that Jason was a step above everyone else. Unbeatable or at least certainly above what I could achieve. I’ve never been so happy to finish in 2nd place in a race before, it feels like a victory for me but perhaps the most important factor is that I’ve learnt that I can race on the same level and actually feel like I’m in the same race. I would consider this the best result of my career to date, the quality of the field and the event in general was world class and a great taste of what the WEMBO event will be like in 2013.
Jason can be beaten, I think I can beat him. A little more belief and hard work may be all it takes.
Massive thanks to my wife Nia and Steven for the pit support, without them it would simply be impossible to compete. Mike Lelliot from Knog was also part of the team, mostly there to get some photos for an upcoming feature in Privateer, but he also chipped whenever needed. My Felt Edicts were absolutely faultless, it is a real testament to how strong, resilient and comfortable they are to survive 24hrs at Stromlo! Also a big thanks to everyone at Canberra Off Road Cyclists who were so accommodating and also to Andrew Hall and his wife Robyn for being so making us feel so at home int he week before the race.