The Racing Mind: Mersey Roads 24 Hour

The 2015 British National 24-hour Time Trial Championship was held in Chester on 18th and 19th July, and Duncan Coulter, production coordinator at Rapha, pinned on his number alongside 105 other long-distance hopefuls with a start time of 1.42pm on Saturday afternoon. 

Finishing the following day with a distance of 433.33 miles, earning himself and the Rapha Cycling Club an admirable 13th place, Duncan was the youngest rider in the top 15 by 11 years. Here, he offers us an insight into his thought processes during the race, and the coping mechanisms he employed simply to keep the legs turning. 

I’ve seen a dead body before, at an open casket funeral, but never someone alive that I thought was going to die. He was lying on his back, blood pooled around him, with a fast repetitive swallowing action. On the instruction of the paramedics, four of us rolled him into the recovery position. I had the lucidity to check his airway and suggest we undo his helmet strap. Someone advised that unless I was a doctor, I was of no further use, so I was on my way. I can’t be sure if I stopped for 30 seconds or five minutes, but that was the first time I got off my bike in nine hours.

A number of riders passed. All gave a look, but none seemed to be willing to let their conscience win over the endless pursuit of amassing the miles. One was an older rider I had been racing. Our bottle passes synchronised perfectly for a time, allowing for lighthearted taunts. He quit when the rain came.

My girlfriend Jess’ first bottle hand-up was like a first kiss: tentative with mixed body language, but ultimately firm and reassuring. We got the hang of it soon enough and eventually paired them with calls of ‘I love you’.

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Later my mind would turn to sensationalism for entertainment. Every oddly shaped cloud was nature’s poor sense of humour, and every gust was the wind’s jovial play flight. It slapped me on the arse periodically, but we spent much of the day butting heads like brothers. The entire race became a wilderness, with me the explorer, observing its inhabitants. Bull elephants, with their long protruding tusks and steady gait, circled one another as they asserted their territory. A couple on a tandem resembled a mother and its calf, clutching trunk to tail as they crossed the plain.

At night the landscape changed and I was travelling vertically. Islands of light in the pitch black became the water’s surface, and I would dive into its depths. Illuminated riders resembled effervescent creatures slipping past me in the darkness. I would reach another roundabout, push a bigger gear around its perimeter, hold my breath, and bow my head as I dove back into the murky deep.

After 13 hours the knee pain started. The flicking tendon had become inflamed and swollen. A gentle four out of ten on the pain scale ramped up to eight over the next six hours of rain, then a crippling ten when out of the saddle. I could no longer stretch my legs. I found an angle I could lock my ankle into that gave me some minor relief, but the pain still shot up my leg twice every pedal stroke. I called for painkillers but all we had were anti-inflammatories. My support team gave them to me with little explanation in the hope of a placebo, but there was no relief.

Jess plastered winter embrocation over my knees. Mixed with the rain, it was like being tucked under a white blanket of pain. Senses overloaded and feeling on fire, I kicked to bring warmth into my legs. I normalised the pain and carried on. Long after the sun rose I found my second wind, with a screaming ‘fuck you’ I vowed to grind my knees to dust.

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To be able to answer the question of ‘why?’ when in the midst of ‘when,’ after the ‘how’ has long since left, I had to draw on everything I have ever done. I took an idea and juggled with it for hours; a phrase, a theory, a concept, quotes from books, song lyrics and films. Quoting Mark Rigby in a mock Welsh accent: “The ride is like a complete enigma, there’s lots of variation, little puzzles at every stage.” I drew on patterns, and my potential OCD, cycling home from house parties when I was 17 – 17 x 2 = 34 + 8 = 42, my race number, 17 + 8 = 25 (my age).

I dug deeper. My past experiences became a score of advice and consolation. Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Blue Egg Run, training in the snow, ice cold waterfalls, being alone at Christmas, learning to sail, my first 20 mile bike ride after missing the train to college, my family’s military history, my granddad’s bike hung in our garage, my dad’s green beret, my mum’s patience, my longing just to be something, how much I love Jess and how much Jess loves me, friends who became heroes and heroes who became friends, and how maybe I could become one of them…

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