The Audax Diaries: The 24 hour TT


WORDS: *James Fairbank, Ultan Coyle and Max Leonard* | FILM: *Basia Lewandowska*

On July 23rd Ultan Coyle and James Fairbank took on the Mersey Roads 24-hour Time Trial to prepare themselves for the PBP in August. 60 riders on bicycles, tandems and trikes converged on a course of A-roads between the English towns of Telford and Chester to see how much they could chew over an entire 24 hours.

James Fairbank: Gone Native

PBP was originally conceived as the mother of all reliability trials, 1200km from Paris to the city of Brest on the Brittany coast. In the late 19th Century French bicycle manufacturers were concocting longer and longer rides to promote their latest contraptions. September 1891, 206 cyclists set off for Brest, the winner completing the distance in a touch over 70 hours. The organiser, Pierre Giffard, came to the conclusion that the event was so over-the-top that it should only be run every ten years.

When 1901 came around the field had been separated into Professionals and Touristes-Routiers, a situation that persisted until 1951 when the number of professionals dropped so low that it was no longer viable to separate the fields. Star of the six-day, Maurice Diot had set the record that still stands to this day (though the route has been changed over the years) of 38 hours and 36 minutes.

Fast-forward to 2011. All competitors, whether on ‘bent’, ‘trike’, tandem or conventional bike have 90 hours to complete the 1200km. The Vedettes of 24-hour racing will complete the 1200km in under 50 hours, though in the spirit of Audax few are the prizes for quick times but kudos for completing the challenge is awarded to all. Just to get to the start line you have to complete a Super Randonneur series of timed 200, 300, 400 and 600km rides in the calendar year before the event (see previous Audax Diaries.

Photo: Ben Ingham

So where does Rapha come into all this? It started in 2009 with the Mersey Roads 24-hour time-trial. At the time Rapha was sharing a cramped office space with Rouleur magazine. Graeme Raeburn, Rapha’s product designer, was showing propensity for stupid distances and plenty of athleticism but zero competitive instinct. Rouleur’s editor, Guy Andrews, jokingly suggested the 24 Time Trial and Graeme accepted the challenge. Riding an un-adapted road bike he raised some eyebrows finishing with 420-odd miles. The fire had been lit.

Around the same time Rapha’s Art Director, Ultan Coyle, started showing a similar inclination for distance and chose to enter the 2010 event with Graeme looking to improve on his 2009 figure. I’d gone along to support (a massive mistake, PBP was already gnawing at me) and seeing two riders I looked up to going through such an incredible mental and physical challenge meant that I instinctively signed up to ride the 24 TT 2011 as part of my PBP preparations.

And so, on Saturday July 23rd , we arrive on the junction of the A41/A39 in Shropshire, middle England: 24-hours riding various loops of the same un-closed roads, for an entire day.

Imagine riding 100 miles, then double that, then double it again and add a bit: Time becomes both elastic and stationary, emotions heightened and numbed. Insecurities that you aren’t even aware of in hour number two are all you can think of in hour number twenty. Cadence slows and the heart rate refuses to rise, the minutes drag on, and the tears flow.

Photo: David Goodfellow

As an event the 24-hour time trial rewards experience; the UK record was broken earlier this year by 47-year-old Andy Wilkinson who rode 541 miles (A staggering average of 22mph for 24 hours). Wilkinson spent less than a minute off his bike over the whole day, choosing to piss down the leg of his skinsuit. The footage of him being lifted off his bike at the end of the event is some of the most moving cycling footage I’ve seen; hardly any crowd, no instant gratification, just his wife and support team putting him in the recovery position. It’s the very antithesis of the grandstanding, chest-thumping sprint victory. The hollow and disorientated anti-climax of finishing a long ride is now somehow more compelling and more real.

Qualification for PBP has taken me all over this history and rain-soaked Island. I’ve cycled from Chepstow to Menai in Wales and back down the principality: 635km with 9000 meters of climbing in 33 hours. I’ve seen the Cotswolds from almost every angle and the Vale of the White Horse in the twilight. I’ve cocked-up paperwork and had to repeat a 300km qualifier, screamed at a head wind that sat me up for 200km of a nightmare 400km qualifier. (On the same ride a fellow rider fell asleep on his bike and rode into a ditch.) I’ve fought a constant battle against knee problems lurching from Cyclefit to the physio to another long ride and then back to Cyclefit and more physical therapy.

My girlfriend thinks I’m partially insane and I feel like I’ve lost the ability to relate to a chunk of my friends (you don’t get something for nothing). I’m extremely fortunate to work for an understanding employer but even my Etape-riding and racing colleagues think that Ultan and me have gone a bit native. It’s true, but I’m quietly glad of it.

Photo: David Goodfellow

Ultan Coyle: The Carousel

24. This year less daunting than last and the butterflies didn’t afflict me like 2010. Thanks to our Audax endeavours qualifying for Paris-Brest-Paris, James and myself had expanded the mental elastic. 15- to 27-hour rides became the norm for the month of May, so we knew 24 was no more the monster it once was. The worry for me was trying to hold pace and not get too excited.

Last year Gary Drew, of the Royal Navy squad, advised on my virgin voyage that I take it easy for the first 12 hours. This still rung around my head and when darkness descended I eased off a touch for fear of blowing the doors off and not being able to find my way out. As the end approached and I came out of a little dip I decided to empty the lot for the last four hours. In 2010 I was desperately asking the marshals for the time, praying that my torture be stopped. But this time I asked only once to calculate how much further I could go around the carousel. The marshals and timekeepers were almost willing us airborne with there shouts of encouragement. An hour to the end one shouted to me ‘Dig holes’. I’m afraid this event might become a tradition.

Max Leonard: A View from the Roundabout

We three sat, all in a line, on the edge of a roundabout somewhere near Telford, gazing out at a perfect stage set: Tarmac at our feet, chevrons on the central reservation, the other side of the roundabout beyond and the trees in the distance. At intervals, one of the 60-odd riders would enter stage right, to a flurry of excitement from the encampment of canvas and motorhomes that had sprung up on the verge – clapping from the supporters, pointing from the marshals, cries of “Dig in” from all around. Then the rider would loop round back the way they came and be off again.

They say Waiting For Godot is a play in which nothing happens twice. Well, our Godot – our two Godots – came. Now Ultan, now James… now Ultan, now James. And, time being equal to distance divided by speed, we were more-or-less ready to perform our duties when they did: A musette with food, gels and a bidon, and a shout of encouragement as they rode past. Or: An adjustment to the bike, a conversation and a change of layers. As it got later (and colder): a hot cup of sweet tea and a bacon sandwich from the all-night biker cafe across the lay-by. Most important: A word of encouragement and a hand on the back to where Graeme was holding the bike on the edge of the road, ready to push them onwards. Time to be on your way. “Dig in.”

In the intervening hours, nothing happened. The sun sank to our right and we put the sleeping bag over our knees, told stories and tried to calculate when they’d be showing up next. A chap riding past in a bright yellow jacket on a Brompton stopped for a chat. And though we could not see the dark miles the riders were now experiencing, on each pass we could see the distance accrued in the red rims of their eyes and the whitening of their faces as they slipped past again into darkness, steam rising off them.

Somewhere between 3 and 6am, James stopped making total sense and Ultan gained, then lost, then gained and lost again, time on the rider he was chasing. But when the sun rose to our left it seemed to give them a boost, and both set fair and strong, the finish line – around 2pm that afternoon – now in sight. After 10am, the marshals moved them on to the 14-mile finishing circuit, where their final distance covered could be accurately calculated. I went to sleep for an hour or two, the better to drive us all home later. When I awoke, all the riders were still pushing the pedals at an intimidating speed through the baking hot day. The sheer will that kept everyone going was the most impressive part. Our two riders started and finished nine minutes apart. We found them scattered, like so many of the competitors, at the side of the road, close to the checkpoint that confirmed they’d made the 24.

Congratulations to all competitors and thanks to Jon Williams and the Mersey Roads CC for a warm welcome and a fantastic event.

2nd: Ultan Coyle with 466.84 miles – close to a 19.5 mph average.
6th: James Fairbank with 424.566, in his first 24.
1st: Philip Kelman with 479.192 miles.
Best woman and 5th: Lynne Taylor with 425.031 miles.

Between August 20th – 24th Ultan Coyle, Phil Deeker, Anton Blackie and James Fairbank will ride the PBP 2011.

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