Imagine, if you will, climbing onto your bike early on a summery Saturday afternoon and going for a 60 minute solo ride at a pacy 21.5 mph. Sounds good, nice even.. Now imagine staying on your bike, needing to maintain that speed, for another 23 hours straight. Doesn’t sound so good anymore, does it? Imagine how you might be feeling by 10pm on Saturday evening; with darkness falling, knowing that you will still be going hard at 10am the following day, having ridden right through the night with only burning muscles and an exhausted mind for company. And when 10am finally rolls around you still have four more hours to do. At the same viciously relentless pace.
Welcome to the very singular pain-cave that is the 24 hour Time Trial.
On 22nd July, whilst most of the cycling world was focused on the casual Parisien denouement of the Tour de France, a few hardy amateurs were completing the Mersey Roads 24hr National Championships Time Trial. Having taken themselves to their limits for a full day and a night, the event was won by Stuart Birnie, riding his third ’24’, with a spectacular distance of 518.372 miles (833km) – beating the defending champion, Ultan Coyle, by a margin of just 5 miles, less than 0.5% of the collective mileage. For most of the race they were only separated by a couple of minutes at the respective time-checks. If the distances alone are impressive, then the addition of the pressure of a closely-fought encounter is incredible.
At the beginning of most races you stare at the road ahead, considering the distance, the route and the rest of the field. In an extended TT competitors are also forced to confront the spectre of Time itself. The hugeness of the task ahead is overwhelming to most outsiders. “Twice Around The Clock” is used as both a rallying cry and a bone-chilling warning. Pacing becomes key. Anyone who has stayed up all night working to meet a deadline knows that the mind and body don’t like being treated like this. At first they whinge and whine in protest at the extended demands being made of them. If this doesn’t work then they start shouting in protest before eventually going on strike. “What the Hell are you doing?” they scream, “Stop!” Simply coping with the duration of the event is a massive extra burden on the riders’ resolve.
So the first question is simple:
How on earth do you decide to do a 24?
Stuart Birnie: “Initially I just liked the idea of setting a bit of club history. Meurig James, a rider in my club, Willesden CC, broke most of the club’s TT records around 2009. The 24hr record though, he’d not set. It was still held by Simon Doughty from 1995. I did some maths and thought it might be doable.”
Birnie is a 34 year old Australian, known by his club and beyond as ‘Hippy’. He grew up in Melbourne, where he raced local Criteriums, moving to London in the mid-nineties to work as a software engineer. He raced shorter distances TT’s from 2009 before stepping up to the 24hr in 2011.
SB: “I did a 100 in 2010, somewhat famously forgetting my cycling shoes and riding the whole thing in skate shoes. That was my longest ‘race’ before the 24hr.”
The step-up in distance involved an equal step-up in seriousness and preparation. Birnie convinced his friend and professional bike-fitter, Scherrit Knoesen, to act as his coach and, with his girlfriend Malwina, they also acted as his Support Crew. His first attempt at the club record, at the East Sussex Cycling Association (ESCA 2011) – where Andy Wilkinson set the competition record of 541.214 miles – ended a few miles short of the 459 miles required but left him confident that, with better preparation, he could return and clinch it the following year. It’s testament to the hardness of the event that, even in a country such as the UK, which has a much richer history of TT’ing than many of its European counterparts, there is typically only one event of this distance run each year.
SB: ” The second attempt started about 2 minutes after coming so close in the ESCA 24hr in 2011. I did just under 450 miles with a lot of things going wrong. As soon as it was over I knew I could get the record and I knew I would ride again the next year.”
Birnie’s second attempt, after another winter and spring of long training rides, was ridden at 2012 Mersey Roads event and saw him not only surpass his club record by 20miles but also finish second overall. His surprise at this was evident when he Initially assumed he must have calculated his 480.7 miles incorrectly when third place was called up with 475 miles. Coyle took the National Title with 8 more miles than Birnie, who had made significant improvements to his set-up and approach to the event. Whilst he stopped for more than an hour in total in 2011, this was reduced to 35 minutes in 2012, equating to a gain of around 10 miles. He and Knoesen, known as the Bike Whisperer, had also instigated a move to a mid-sole cleat position to reduce stress on Birnie’s achilles and to find a more aerodynamic position. Other lessons about pacing, feeding and resilience, all harshly learnt in the painful hours of the first attempt, contributed to the increased total. Achieving the club record should have been it for Birnie but his strong showing ultimately provided more questions than answers.
SB: “It was the close finish that prompted me have a 3rd crack to see if I could win it.”
Adding the stated goal of winning took things to a new level for Birnie and his support team. Adjusting his aims brought about significant ramifications to the overall approach.
Did going into it this time, looking for the win, change your attitude to training and your focus?
SB: “Yes, the pressure was higher. Setting an arbitrary distance removes other racers from the equation – you only have to work out what you want to do and then do it. Attempting to win the event means you have to factor in what other people are doing as well as getting yourself to the stage where you can be competitive, which in this case was doing more than 500 miles.
“Having won a second place medal now meant I felt good enough to spend some more money on my kit as well. In the months leading up to the event I tend to go mental thinking of ways to make my life easier, to ride quicker, to recover better etc. I knew where things cost me distance in the past events so I addressed them. I knew where I could buy speed so I did.”
Birnie rode a Specialized Shiv on his 3rd attempt (a change from the ‘tweaked’ Planet X of previous outings) with Zipp 808’s, an Assos skin suit and a Bell aero helmet, but all the technical talk shouldn’t downplay the simple reality of the relentless amount of physical training needed.
So, how many hours training a week?
SB: “Lots! It depends on the week in question but my longest single rides in training might be up to 12 hours. Any more than that and I’d probably quit before making it to the race! The months of training are pretty bad.”
Once out on the course Birnie rides to a power output worked out with Knoesen, who along with Malwina, carry out their own race to be at pre-arranged meet points to provide food, water and clothing and equipment changes. They also provide the much needed stats about the other riders’ progress. The 24hr courses are run on a series of loops, which the competitors switch between as time progresses, rather than a single circuit so just anticipating where Birnie was at anytime was sometimes a struggle, despite GPS tracking, and his ride reports are replete with mentions of the stress of missed meets and sudden, unexpected ‘hand-ups’ of gels or water. As the day wore on and night fell the real effort of racing began. Even at the height of summer there are long hours of cycling in the dark to be negotiated. And then comes the horror of the dawn.
SB: “The worst part of the actual race is Sunday morning – your body wants to shut down as it think it’s dusk. You’re within minutes of your rival but you’re falling apart mentally and physically and you think to yourself, ‘Oh shit, I’ve still got 8 hours to go!’ Grim, grim, grim.”
Surely just staying awake is hard enough? Is it a case of just lots and lots of caffeine? ‘
SB: “I did have more caffeine this year than last year but the quantities we are talking about are certainly not excessive. People in my office at work consume more in a given 24 hour period. Most of the ‘awakeness’ comes from riding the bike and having a goal to focus on.”
All of which leads us to another question, Do you guys have to do Doping Control?
SB: “I’ve not heard of anyone being tested by doping control at a time trial but we are bound by the WADA code just as at any other CTT or BC event so it’s certainly possible.”
Maintaining concentration seems like a massive part of the effort. How do you keep your mind from wandering? Did you have to develop tricks to pass the time?
SB: “If you find it boring then you are not racing.You need a great deal of focus to hold race pace for such a long event. I’m constantly monitoring stuff – power, feeding, drinking, remembering where that totally hidden pothole is on the hill! It’s not like I’m looking of ways to pass the time. I’m, relatively speaking, on the limit for a lot of the event and just trying to convince the legs to keep turning is a large part of it for me.”
You have spoken about how you almost gave up during your First TT. How close was that moment? Was that exhaustion or just your mind playing with you? Is it more a case of “Shut up Head” than “Shut Up Legs”?
SB: “I’m not normally a quitter. Everyone that knows me would vouch for my stubbornness but I tell you that I really felt like it was touch and go. I just wanted to stop. It’s physical and mental fatigue, it’s thoughts of sleep or thoughts of pain-free legs. There’s so many reasons to stop and you’re constantly fighting to find reasons not to. I have a great team with me and there’s a bit of guilt too, in dragging them out into the countryside for this craziness you don’t want to let them down by giving up.”
But at times you have resorted to playing a bit of music on the 24hr attempts…
SB: “I’m a techno head with previous as a head banger so I have a selection of favourite techno tracks, a selection of heavy metal and then some joke tracks that I throw in to maybe make me smile or something during the race. Queen’s ‘Bicycle Race’, the ‘Captain Pugwash’ theme, a punk version of ‘I would walk 500 miles’, stupid stuff like that.”
And how do your feelings change during the race?
SB: “During the race it is anywhere from ‘Great!’ to ‘OMG, kill me!’ and after, depending on if you’ve achieved your goals can either be a bit sombre – I missed my 12hr club record by 1 mile, 3 weeks after the 24 and was a bit miserable about it – to brilliant. Winning a National Champs after all the work I’d put in was pretty bloody awesome.”
You’ve mentioned monitoring your power, feeding and water but not about your mileage. How important is knowing how far you have gone?
SB: ” I’ve always had the ability to monitor my distance with a computer or whatever but I tend not to look at it until the dying stages of the race, so for example when I wanted to break the club record last year I definitely watched the odometer tick over that mark and then I knew I was just adding to it so distance became less relevant.”
But this year, even though you knew you had attained your secondary goal of surpassing 500 miles, the race with Ultan was so close that you didn’t know you had won until the results were handed out at the post-race presentation. How were those minutes of waiting?
SB: “I was pretty sure I’d won based on info from my team but there was no way I was going to let myself get excited about it until I saw it written down so I guess it was supressed excitment, calming myself in case it’d gone wrong and someone else had taken the win without us noticing.”
You’ve said each 24hr would be your last. I think you are going to find yourself talking yourself into doing another. What would be your goal then? Retaining the title or looking for a faster TT? What are your thoughts about Andy Wilkinson’s British Record of 541 miles. Is it beatable?
SB: “I think it took about 4 days after this year’s race before I mentioned the possibility of riding the 2014 event to my team. I think they wanted to string me up. I know where I let slip a few miles in this year’s event so if I was to do it again I’d be looking for a title retention and further distance. I really never expected to go near 518 miles this year and have always looked at Wilko’s record as being unbeatable (by me at least) but there was a little glimmer there… Hey, it’s only another 1 mph…”
Read Stuart’s accounts of his 24hr TT’s here.
Image Credit – Malcia Photography