Prickled

Clothes were shoved into bags with great haste; somehow it seems that an evening flight enabled me to delay the packing of all things essential until the last minute. Alas, I was on the bus chugging to DIA at 6pm, wishing I had forethought buying a burrito before lift off.

Denver was cold. The airport busy. Luckily internal flights require little stress, and we headed straight to the gate to find some liquid relaxation.

I was asleep by the time the wheels left the ground, but luckily I awoke for the decent into the Grand Canyon state. Tucson is bigger than I remembered.

The desert isn’t always warm – Mt. Lemmon which towers above town was snow covered, and clouds hung around on our drive out to the venue.

According to GPS, the venue is in ‘Florence’ Arizona… but maps dont seem to recognise such a place. Oracle might be the closest town. The land out there is called Willow Springs ranch, and although arid, cows seemed to be able to pick the fresh winter grass from between the cacti.

Cholla (pronounced ‘Choya’ to those without Hispanic persuasion) are an evil mass of sprawling tendons, each reinforced with hypodermic weapons. Their modular structure means clumps will break off at the slightest brush from skin, borrow unimaginably deep into appendages. Pliers are as useful for body as bike here.

24 hour town seems like a halluciation sometimes. we’re absolutely nowhere, but there are 3500 people here with me. The common purpose of relocating to the desert for a weekend makes this a town like no other – can you imagine living in a place where everyone was this passionate about pedalling? Just one of the things making this event special.

Our practice lap of the 16.1 miles of singletrack was done on Friday. An un-uttered dismay held about the team, as the sun refused to surface from behind clouds. Warm whilst riding, but no sunbathing was possible.

Although our team had perhaps the most professional base camp going, consensus was to drive back to civilisation for dinner on Friday night. It was a good idea. The waiter was perplexed by our zealous consumption of Tortilla chips. By the time our meal arrived, hunger levels had equalised to moderate, allowing us to dine with less haste.

The morning of a race is tense. I get tense, and display this with great quietness; withdrawn into my head with not much regard for conversation or dialogue. Being on such a lively and large team, this sometimes causes confusion. I’m not really grumpy… just thinking.

the race starts much like every other 24 hour race – the huge number of people and range of abilities means that a bike start is impossible, thus carbon soled cyclist take to the dirt road in an unsteady stampede before finding their bikes in the melee of bodies.

Bryan has done this before – I knew our team would be in safe hands with his lead out. It also gave me an hour to get on the bike, get in gear and prepare to hurt myself. Pleasurable hurt, of course.

We had great expectations going into the weekend. We’re a positive bunch of people – this was a half-full kind of weekend. Nerves had been wracked a couple days earlier though, when Cycling News told me I would be racing people I normally read about in magazines, people that get paid to do what I wish I got paid to do. Undeterred, we went into the race with the mindset that riding bikes in the sunshine couldn’t not be fun.

It hurt, out there. I got back, ate, napped, sat in the sun that finally appeared. I cheered for teammates and strangers from the ringside position. Suddenly the realisation that I could do this racing business lifted the weight off my shoulders, and conversation could be held without too many brain cogs whirring in the background.

24 hour racing is an experience like no other, and in a sport where individual toughness is normally key, the reliance on three other people can be difficult. I think the fact we ride so much together and socialise outside of racing makes our team very different from others – we know the ins and outs of our team mates. Being able to take a joke at 3am whilst dressed in damp lycra is an essential part of the deal.

Alongside the race, the downtime is another alien feature; a standard XC race is over in a day; from start to finish, there are things to do, and little time in between, or after to relax. Here, time between laps goes fast, but the time to socialise is there. No-one has to leave, and thus I got to talk to people that I’ve known for multiple years for longer than I ever normally do. It was refreshing.

Being at a bike race also allows the opportunity to not talk about bikes. Some people, I know, wont believe this, but it can happen and is fantastic when it does. I’m not actually a 2D bike racer, and knowing other bike racers who can converse on more than one plane is stimulating.

The race ended in disappointment. Not for us, though. We were elated with lapping second place and annihilating the competition. But for those looking for a show-down, I’m sorry we ruined your plans. There was no sprint to the finish. Sam cruised across the line with a huge grin on his face, knowing he’d anchored us onto the top of the podium. For us, the finish was not victory, but vindication of the time spent over the winter that no-one else hears about.

The journey home was difficult. Sunburnt sweat stained bodies were piled into car, piled into restaurant, piled into hotel room, piled onto plane. Our group lumbered from each situation with un-hidden lethargy, glad to be done racing and no incentive to move faster than need be.

The return flight was very similar to outwards – eyes shut, head lolling in sleep. Head filled with what real rest might feel like.

It felt good.