The fourth time I rode a mountain bike was my first lap at the inaugural Bright 24 hour mountain bike race. A few weeks before, I’d not even known what a 24-hour race was.
To give you context, I’m not a naturally sporty person. In fact I spent the majority of my life as a couch potato; I came to exercise late and really have to learn physical things. However, through good fortune (and a running injury) I found myself ensconced in, and passionate about, road cycling.
So how does a slightly uncoordinated, passionate road cyclist find herself embarking upon a 24-hour mountain bike race?
Like most things in life, through a series of inconsequential circumstances. It started with a futile attempt to impress a boy, by purchasing mountain bike shoes. Then, a random conversation with a ride buddy. Later I mentioned to some passionate MTB friends I had said shoes…the rest is history.
I have to admit, my first time on a MTB was a world apart from my life on a road bike. I was immediately taken with how comfortable, and fun, dual suspension is. I was also surprised at how absolutely engaged my mind needed to be at all times. Every moment was a decision; what line to take, how to get over an obstacle, when to throw my weight back on the bike. On a road bike my mind drifts…what am I having for breakfast? What shoes am I wearing to work? How much time do I have for post-ride coffee? The single-mindedness of mountain biking was meditative. I loved it.
And here’s the other thing. I was pretty good at it. Possibly the first time I’ve ever done something active where I’ve picked it up straight away…except for the few times I came off of course.
And somehow from those innocuous beginnings, with only a few rides under my belt, I found myself at the Bright-24 as part of a six-girl team sponsored by Thule (giggling at the team name we chose ‘Check out our Racks’).
So how does a novice chick end up racing at Bright-24? Well, that’s easy, its all about the incredible mountain bike community.
My friend and MTB mentor, Sarah, encouraged me from day one - and I mean encouraged in the true sense of the word. She rode beside me, she explained position and technique, made sure I knew I was doing well, and handed me a beer after my first ever ride. She also, at some stage, mentioned she was racing with a group of girls and they needed another rider…and then looked at me expectantly. Half of me wanted to run away from such an absurd suggestion, but the other half loves to step up to a challenge. I did protest I was a complete novice but she insisted I knew how to handle a MTB, and she’d word up the other girls (all experienced riders) that I was green. And true to what I’ve found to be an amazingly inclusive community, the other girls were more than happy to have me along.
And that was it.
As I drove up to Bright, with my new MTB I’d picked up literally en-route, I did wonder what the hell I had got myself into. Let’s run through this:
- I knew nothing about mountain bikes and next to nothing about mountain biking.
- I had never ridden a MTB on my own.
- I only knew one girl on our team and she wasn’t coming up until the next day.
- We were camping. I don’t campI Let alone share tents with strangers.
- I had borrowed a head lamp and front light from a friend - yep, a 24-hour race involves night laps. Night laps! In pitch black dark. Eek.
What the hell was I doing?
Its fair to say I felt a little overwhelmed as I drove into what I can only describe as a mini-tent city; with bikes everywhere. But even on the short trip down to our campsite, I felt something special unfolding; and I’ll come back to it often talking about the Bright-24; it was a sense of community.
Whether out the front of tents, beside a car, in a communal area there were people smiling, groups laughing and calls of recognition as more and more people arrived. It may sound lame, but there was genuinely an inclusive air of happiness about that even a nervous novice like me felt. And as far as rocking up at a camp site to greet my team mates for the first time, I couldn’t have been made to feel more welcome. The girls were amazing and in no time awkwardness had dissipated and we were team mates.
And as the sun set that night, I watched car after car pull up; bikes coming off roofs, and riders walking about with tell tale long cycling socks. It really is a pretty special dynamic that unfolds when you have hundreds of like minded people in the one place, for the one event.
And then it was Saturday. Race day.
I’d grilled the girls on what to expect. The course was about 16km long. Each person would do a lap, they’d return and immediately the next rider would go out. As quickly as possible; the objective is to get as many laps in within 24 hours.
Our first rider was Crystal; a petite blond who knows how to handle herself exceptionally well on a bike. At the start line, there was a real energy in the air as all the starting cyclists lined up on a narrow stretch of path to jostle for position, team mates cheering on. Off they went, and off we went back to the camp to wait for Crystal to finish her lap.
In she came. Out went the next girl.
I sat there, in my lycra, waiting. Eating snakes, hydrating, chatting and wondering what I was in for.
In came the next girl. Out went the next.
Then it was my turn.
It started off fine, but then I had to start navigating obstacles. A few logs and a few jumps. There were a couple of guys beside a jump at the start; my mind absolutely reeling in recognition I didn't know what I was doing. But I’d obviously done something right, albeit by pure chance, as they excitedly yelled something like ‘great pop’. I laughed inside at my novice luck and rode on not sure what a ‘pop’ was.
I started to calm down a little when I realised the obstacles weren’t as scary as I’d thought. Yes I needed to focus, but there’s always an easier route around, or over, an obstacle and worst case scenario I could stop and walk it. Although I’ll admit my ego was taking a battering; that’s fine in theory but in the mean time I was constantly being passed by more experienced riders.
Yet what impressed me; as slow and/or awkward rider there were times I held riders up, until I could get novice butt out of the way. But not once did anyone ever make me feel I was in the way. My fellow participants were nothing but encouraging.
And don’t fear if you’re not a technical rider, my ego redeemed itself on the fire trail climbs which require strength, fitness and endurance. Things road cyclists have in spades and as such I was able to pass many a mountain biker. Of course, they’d pass me again on the technical sections, but it was nice to have small moments where I rocked this race.
A few things that stand out as freaking me out. I came to a bridge that I swear was the exact width of my handle bars. My strategy for getting across that bridge was to hold my breath and hope I fit. It worked, this time.
I also remember having a little freak out on one obstacle. There were a series of large mounds, and you had to hammer it down to get momentum up. However the track up was really narrow and if you didn’t pick your line properly, you had nowhere to go but off the side. I’m a scary-cat so had a panic on this particular obstacle. Which was taken to whole new level coming down this mound. It was a sunny day and there was a huge brown snake sunning itself across the trail I needed to ride down. I was scared pre-snake, adrenaline already pumping through my system, so without thinking I angrily shouted rather loud expletives at the snake, and into the quiet of the Bright bush. Apparently snakes can’t hear, but this one heard and slithered off fast. I sat on my bike for a moment, gathered my composure and rode the rest of the course with no further incident.
Off went the next girl. First lap done. My next lap however was a night lap.
Night laps are tough. You sleep when you can, but as the girl before you goes out, you get woken by the girl coming in; dress, sit beside the fire and wait until it’s your turn to head out.
So off I went. I had a head lamp, and another light attached to my bars. I got 2km into the course and freaked out. I really couldn’t see; okay, you can see what is in front of you but not what is around you and my insecurities went into overdrive. Tears started to well and my mind screamed ‘NO!’. I had my phone and was about to call one of the girls to come take over my lap. The night lap seemed hard, it was unknown and it was scary; and I didn’t want to do it anymore.
I have no idea what happened next, but I gathered my fortitude and started to ride and it got easier and easier. Not easy, just easier.
Although that bridge I barely fitted through in daylight, became my undoing at night. My bars jammed on this lap (and the second night lap I jammed not only my bars but my saddle and it took me about five minutes of manoeuvring to disconnect my bike from bridge).
There was a series of switch backs that were tight, narrow, downhill turns that I’m sure experienced riders took delight in flying down. I didn’t, I got off and walked all the way down.
But it wasn’t all scary. Sometimes the night rewarded me. I still flew up the fire trails. And the large mounds that freaked me out during the day didn’t even hit my radar in the dark.
And then I had a moment, on a fire trail, in the light of the full moon of feeling still, minuscule and a part of something massive; and I don’t mean just part of Bright-24, but I really felt connected with life. That was very cool, and a very memorable moment.
And then I was back at camp. Back to bed for a short sleep. Woken up a little later and off on my second night lap. Slower than the first night lap, but with no freak out moments and enjoying the calm of the darkness. That was until my lights ran out. We didn’t factor in how slow I was and that my lights would need charging. I limped back into camp by the light of the full moon, and memory.
And not long after that, light returned to the town of Bright, our team of six amazing women finished our last laps as the clock ticked over to 24 hours of riding. And that dynamic that had started to grow on Friday night was by Sunday morning a well established friendship.
My advice. The prospect of riding in a 24-hour race may seem daunting at first, however give it a go. There are some exceptional folk who rode the Bright-24 solo but for the rest of us mere mortals get a team together; experienced, novice or mixture and just get out there and have fun. Have fun on your bike, have fun over dinner, have fun laughing at the truly awful state of the showers. And have fun amongst the amazing mountain bike community I discovered that weekend in Bright.
Cycling Enthusiast, Wellness & Nutrition Coach
For more information on the Bright 24hr Mtb Race head to www.bright24hr.com.au