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How to Prepare for a 24hr Cycling Race

Hannah finds out what it's like to train for and race a 24-hour event

Words by Hannah Attenburrow / Twitter / Instagram

This year my main goal was to race Pivot TwentyFour12, a 24-hour race at Newnham Park in Plymouth. Preparing for a 24-hour solo mountain bike race is a long process that is best broken down into chunks; long rides, night rides, nutrition and good lights.

To be able to stay in the saddle for 24 hours I broke my training down into 4 sessions a week; a Pilates session, a tempo 2 hour easy ride, a steady ride working up to 6 hours in the saddle with no rest, adding in hill or speed intervals and a short hour intervals session.

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Every three weeks I would reassess how my training was going, test my fitness and add a few more hours to the long ride. On 5 and 6-hour training rides my aim, minimal stops, and to take all my food on the bike, like in the race. And then, as I got closer to race day I started taking more of my rides off-road to replicate race conditions.

Over the 6 months of build-up to the 24-hour solo race I did a few night rides to get used to the change in conditions these were really helpful as riding in the dark all your senses become more heightened and it’s easy to get spooked and lose concentration.

Another important training factor was Pilates this keeps my core strong and enabled me to strengthen my muscles to help with stability over the 24 hours.

Nutrition

Nutrition on and off the bike is crucial. Since January I have cut out processed food, reduced refined sugar and rarely drank alcohol. I increased carbohydrate on longer ride days and minimised it on rest days.

To be eating the best possible foods on race day I tried a mixture of things from peanut butter and jam wraps, dates, salted peanuts, cheese scones and jelly babies. This helped me find foods that gave me energy without making my stomach upset.

During the race I would try and eat as much natural food as possible, supplemented with gels if I needed.  My plan was to eat around 60g of carbohydrate an hour which is the equivalent to 1 banana, 1 energy gel and 2 large dates. This is a lot of food but if I eat enough I should be able to maintain my energy levels for the duration.

How to maintain your energy levels on a ride

From experience, I would crave savoury foods so hot snacks when I stop would include pot noodles, porridge pots, cheese sandwiches and maybe some ham and olives.

I would drink mainly water but have some Vitamin C tablets and Dioralyte as well to keep on top of my electrolyte replacement.

Lights

When mountain biking at night you need a good set of lights, ideally, a head torch and a handlebar mounted light, this helps increase your field of vision. Having a head torch is great and the Exposure Joystick I was using was useful in the wooded sections and bomb holes as it allowed me to move the light in the direction I was travelling. On my handlebars I had an Exposure Strada which created a large field of vision in front of my bike.

What to pack

The Great British Weather can throw anything at you so being prepared for anything was key, this year the forecast was rain.

Clothing wise I had a complete change for every 6 hours plus a selection of Grip Grab arm and leg warmers and two waterproof jackets.

From experience cold feet mean a cold body so I had 7 pairs of socks for over the 24 hours. I also had two pairs of shoes and overshoes just in case.

I hoped being able to change into dry and comfortable clothes will make the whole situation more bearable.

Race Day

I arrived at a wet campsite full of brightly coloured tents, loud music and plenty of bikes. The event had a real festival feel and friendly atmosphere. We pitched the tent at the side of the course and I prepared my food and drink for the next 24 hours.

My plan for the race was to ride until 7 pm, have a hot food break and then continue to 1 am when I would have a little sleep before continuing around 4 am, knowing my body I knew I needed to have some sleep.

Plan in place, number board attached and food in my pocket I headed to the start line.

The course was a 14km loop containing one main gravel hill climb (The Cliff Climb), lots of fast twisty singletrack through woods, a bomb hole run, river crossing and grassy descents. If it had been dry this would have been a really fast course, the rain made it a mud bath. As the laps added up so did the amount of mud you had to push through. I stuck to my food plan and was drinking as much as I could, the mud was making drinking unpleasant but I knew how important it was to stay hydrated.

Having a good support crew (my boyfriend Martyn) is really important for endurance racing you need people ready to wash down bikes, sort out food and keep egging you on when you start to flag. Luckily I had pitched next to a mechanic who helped me out with washing the mud off my bike and oiling my chain to keep things working. Thank you bikecity.biz

On my third lap, I was making my way through a boggy section close to the river when I heard a crunch. Stopping, I saw that my rear mech and hanger were caught in my wheel. The only thing I could do was get off and carry my bike until I made it to the arena where I got some help, frustratingly I had to have a new rear mech which was an expensive and timely process! I took this opportunity to have some warm food and change my soaking wet clothes.

Back in the saddle feeling a little flustered I made my way back to where I had come off course and continued.

The night shift

Slightly later than planned, I pulled off and had a hot food break and a well-needed cup of tea before fixing on my lights and heading back out.

In the dark, the course felt different the rain sounded louder and the descents were harder. After the Cliff climb was a motivation station reaching this point where the gazebo, dressed in fairy lights boomed out loud music was one of my favourite places on the course it was just before a long wooded section which in the dark was eerie and mysterious.

It felt longer and there seemed to be no one else around as I made my way through the mist. I was soon joined by a twinkling light up ahead and had to work hard to catch them for the long fire road descent which took us back up to the motivation station before swooping off down more singletrack.

Riding at night is an interesting experience your senses come to life as your eyes adjust to the change in lighting. I could hear the rain clearly, the crunch of a branch, I was aware of the water dripping down my face and the cold in my fingertips. I felt alive.

Nearing the end of my second dark lap I had lost all use of my back brake, because of the mud, I decided to pop into the mechanic tent to get it looked at.

Riding into the arena the rain was being blown sideways under the big lights it was easier to see just how heavily it was coming down.

I stood in a queue to wash the mud off my bike and then took it to the mechanic’s tent where I waited under the light trying to keep warm. Teeth chattering, I made the decision to have a well-earned rest for a few hours and headed back to the tent, put some oil on my chain and peeled each sodden layer off. I have never been so muddy!

Embracing the mud there was only so much a baby wipe could achieve! A quick bite to eat and then it was time to get a few hours rest. It took me ages to stop shivering my whole body was frozen, Luna (the dog) was a great foot warmer.

At 4 am, the alarm started ringing but not quite loud enough to drown out the rain on the tent, I decided to have another hours sleep… 5 am, I slowly wiggled my way into dry clothes and sorted my bike out as Martyn made porridge and a cup of tea.

My mood boosted by the appearance of the sun and blue sky I set off on what was meant to be my first of five laps… The mud had turned to gloop not dissimilar from PVA glue and it wasn’t long before I was pushing my bike up a sticky climb at the top I jumped back on, pushed down on the pedal and heard the heart-sinking cracking sound.

I didn’t need to look, I knew what had happened. My derailleur was bent out of shape but had flung itself back. I unclogged all the mud, three pedal revolutions later I was back with my feet on the ground unclogging yet again. This time, the bend in the derailleur looked worrying, for a split second I wondered if I could push my bike around… that’s not a good idea the rational part of my brain decided and so it was with great frustration that I walked back to the arena with my, yet again, poorly bike.

The mechanics couldn’t fix it and had no more rear mechs to buy so my race was over. I felt disappointed that I couldn’t finish my race the way I had planned but the lesson learnt was that you can’t plan for everything and sometimes things happen which are beyond our control and we have to just go with the flow.

I washed my bike down and headed for a shower. Martyn made me a cup of tea which I enjoyed in the sun as he packed the car. Leaving the arena I decided to just see where I came as I dropped off my Exposure lights and couldn’t quite believe it, second place! I was delighted and was left with the thought if only I had been able to carry on!

Top tips for a 24-hour mountain bike race:

  1. See it as an adventure, enjoy the ride
  2. Have a good person to help you out and motivate you
  3. Have a selection of snacks you never know what you might crave at 2 am
  4. If the weather looks like it might be wet take lots of changes of clothes it’s better to spare some time to get warm and dry (don’t forget dry gloves and socks)
  5. Have a plan/goal

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