Brief Encounters

Basia Lewandowska Cummings recalls this year’s National 24-hour time trial in England. Basia was there as part of Ultan Coyle’s support team, along with Ultan’s two brothers, Oisín and Finn Coyle.

Photos: Wig Worland

There’s something perverse about cheering a loved one on into the dead of night. Why are we still shouting and clapping from the roadside to ‘dig in’ and ‘go harder’ after 14 hours have already elapsed? The pain is etched into his face, salt gathering in rough patches beside his eyebrows, his eyes no longer fiercely determined but red and sore from hours in the wind and the long, cold night.

And as his backlight disappears into the 3am gloom, flanked by huge articulated lorries on their own nightly missions, you’re left with a strange feeling of guilt and excitement. Guilt, at encouraging more suffering and wanting to go to sleep yourself, and excitement that the wheels are still rolling and the 24-hour mark is getting closer.

After the fleeting moment he passes by, grabbing a bottle from his trusty younger brother who pelts full speed alongside him to make the handoff, it’s back to the car, parked in its usual nondescript spot by a road sign, to rifle through endless boxes of food and energy gels, to get prepared for our next brief encounter.

This is our hourly rhythm: You’d be surprised how quickly the time goes.

By 4am, the thick smell of fermenting banana has come to coat almost everything in the boot, and the dodgy air-con has started to smell overwhelmingly of piss (we had been warned that it didn’t work…). We all shyly check ourselves, did one of us wet ourselves in a disturbed two-minute sleep we had in the back seat? No, of course not, but we’re at that farcically tired part of the night when all rationale goes at the window. Some bastard starts singing Boney M. We immediately tell him to shut-up, but it’s too late. It’s stuck.

Thankfully, all this delirium seems to fall away in the moments leading up to the pass: we focus, we fire questions to each other, checking what we’ve already given him – has he had enough caffeine? Shall we give him a gel or something proper to eat? We search frantically for his ‘lucky’ arm warmers, making sure every possible want or need can be sated within a seconds’ road-side scramble. As he approaches, perfectly on time, we dot ourselves along the road: me clapping, cheering, Oisín with the bottle and something to eat, and Finn, his older brother, holding out the blackboard to tell him his placing and average speed.

And then it’s over for another hour.

Everyone at the 24-hour has their own pace, their own rhythm. As the field of riders expands – this year there were 95 – the support teams also multiply. At Prees Island, the hub around which the circuits for the riders extend outwards, a traveling circus of cars and campers, tents and buses assemble on the grassy verge outside the infamous Raven Café – the place to go for a twilight bacon sandwich, and, if you are lucky, a glimpse at some impressive lorry driver cleavage. There, the atmosphere is fun and at ease; everyone chats and drinks tea, gossiping about the placings.

Dawn comes, and with it a sense of relief – we’re on the home straight. The blooming light warms the tarmac, and the passing wheels start to make that grippy noise that tells us that everyone is speeding up again, the disc wheels stop sounding so hollow, and start to rush. The riders are, however briefly, energized by the coming of Sunday.

Ultan’s times are good. He’s roaring and swearing but at least he’s still got the energy to shout. But then his minutes start to slip to Stuart Birnie, better known as Hippy, and what follows is seven and-a-half hours of incredible competitiveness from the two of them, each digging into some unknowable reserve to take minutes out of each other. It was both exciting and agonizing to watch.

In the end, Ult came in second with a distance of 513.6 miles, five miles behind Stuart ‘Hippy’ Birnie. Lying down on the edge of a graveyard (fittingly), Ult’s eyes were swollen and covered in gunk, his cheeks grainy and smudged with black, but there was a glint in his eye: he’d crested 500 miles. Only a handful of others have ridden such a distance. There, amidst tears (mine), hoarse laughter and anecdotes from the 24 hours that had just passed by, a familiar feeling returned: we have to come back. There are still records to be won, providing Andy Wilkinson doesn’t return with a vengeance (his distance of 541.17 miles is still, unbelievably, the one to beat), and there’s still so much life in the event, despite the club’s recent struggles to find enough people to support it.

Still, after three years at the roadside, I have no idea what drives people to cycle this niche race, but I can feel its addictiveness. Even the marshals who have been coming for 50 years are unsure. Theories circulate, but us roadsiders have no clue – who knows what happens down those dark roads, what dim corners of determination and competitiveness are visited.

We sit through a cheerful awards ceremony in a village hall full of sleep-deprived zombies, exhausted but happy. The Williams family, who organize the event each year, come out in force, all generations of them. They congratulate and commiserate, and Jon, the organizer, cheerfully bellows at Ult that he could have done better. As we all huddle to watch the final stage of the Tour de France on a tiny television, bikes, trikes and tandems now lying discarded; we begin discussing what improvements we could make for next year.