It seemed like a good idea at the time. Having enjoyed riding with Jon and Hamish, the two founders of up-and-coming cycling kit brand, Komraid, in Mallorca earlier this year, I suggested we consider putting a team together for the Red Bull Timelaps 25-hour race in Great Windsor Park.
We just needed a fourth member stupid enough to want to race for 25 hours. Enter Mark Shepherd, or as some of you probably know him, Gobi. Mark and I have been friends a long time and I knew he’d be crazy enough to accept the challenge.
The format is simple. Taking place over the weekend that the clocks go back (hence it’s 25 hours, not 24), you start racing on a 6.7km loop of Great Windsor Park (near the polo fields) at noon on Saturday and finish at noon on Sunday. The team that completes the most laps prior to noon on Sunday wins. There’s a ‘power hour’ at 2am on Sunday morning (as the clocks go back), but don’t worry about that bit too much.
Unfortunately, Hamish had to drop out last-minute with family commitments, but we found Ian Neville (aka “Nevster”) to step in and bring us back to full strength.
Team Komraid Splinter Cell was good to go.
As complete newcomers to this event, we agreed on the very simple strategy of each doing five-lap stints (roughly 34km) before handing over to the next rider. I put Mark off first, as I expected the start to be frenetic and knew he’d keep his cool, be sensible and not bury himself on lap #1 to stay with the leaders (as I probably would have tried to do).
A single sighting lap gave us a feel for what the course would be like, including the aptly-named Breakheart Hill, the only real sustained climb on the circuit. I had brought two bikes with me (both Giant TCRs, one an SL with rim brakes and one with disc brakes - looking at the weather forecast, I elected to start with the disc brake bike).
As the race started, the first two laps were supposed to be neutral, but by the time the lead pack crossed the line onto lap two it didn’t look very neutralized! It was clearly game on. Mark was in the third pack and I could see he was already working reasonably hard.
Mark’s first stint was thankfully uneventful and he handed over to me safely after his five laps. As I went out, the field had already dispersed somewhat and there were no obvious wheels to jump on. So it was time to time trial and just ride to power until I either caught a group fast enough to let me have a little break without losing too much speed, or latch on to a passing train.
Towards the end of lap one, on a narrow section through ‘Plantation Woods’, I was passing slower traffic to the left when some aggressive shouts from behind announced that the leaders were about to come past. I know it’s a race, but three abreast was perhaps a little risky and I think the aggression only 6-7 laps in to a 25 hour race was somewhat over the top. At least I got a little tow up Breakheart hill as they all stormed past!
The rest of the first stint was a little frustrating as I couldn’t find anyone that wanted to work together. A few people were happy to draft me but not come through, and a few packs that did look like they might be effective quickly disintegrated on one of the sharper inclines. I had honestly expected more riders to be up for forming groups and working together effectively.
As such, my first stint felt more like a time trial than a road race. For some reason (still can’t explain it), my calves started cramping on lap three (thankfully didn’t do it again on later stints) and my back was getting very sore (I’m super comfortable on my TT bike, so maybe I need to look at my position on the road bike again) after 25km or so. It was raining lightly and windy, but otherwise the weather wasn’t too bad.
As my five laps came to an end, I headed into ‘transition’ and handed-over to Jon. All good, time to go back to the motorhome, down a protein shake and get changed out of my wet kit (one of the many lessons learned this weekend, bring more kit than you think you need!).
Jon handed over to Nevster and all was going well until lap three of his stint when he unexpectedly arrived back in the pits!
“I’ve punctured!” he shouted as Mark scrambled to be ready. Good job Nevster for riding it back to the pits. Thankfully we had agreed in advance that the next rider should be on standby as soon as current rider was on course (for just such eventualities).
As such, Mark was more-or-less ready and by his second lap was back under 12 minutes. We were back in the game.
Then WhatsApp lit up (we’d all agreed to carry our phones at all times, for easy communications). It was Mark: “I’ve punctured, tyre’s shredded, sealant doesn’t work”. Double sh*t. Mark was on tubulars and it was game over, for that stint at least.
We had no choice but to wait for Mark to be picked up by a sweeper vehicle and hand over to me (as per our agreement, I was in fresh kit and ready to go) once it deposited him at the pits. It took well over 20 minutes for Mark to get back; the equivalent of at least two laps lost.
I grabbed the team armband and headed out myself. Desperate to make up time but also conscious that tyres were shredding (there was a much higher number of tyre punctures this year than previously, rumoured to be due to resurfacing of the roads in the park which left little flints and stones perfectly-placed for puncturing tyres) all over the place.
Within a lap or two of my second stint, the light rain turned to torrential rain. I mean torrential. Rivers were forming on the hills, bringing yet more crap into the road and making conditions quite slippery (it was only afterwards that I realized just how hard and fast we were taking the corners in those conditions). Again, I found a few groups half-willing to work together, but it wasn’t very effective and it ended up being largely another time trial.
My lap times were a little slower than my first stint, a combination of me being sensible with my power when time trialling solo and also the effect of the heavy rain. Thankfully, there we no punctures and I handed over to Jon again after my five laps. It was proper wet and miserable now.
As I got back to the motorhome, I realized just how cold I was as I started shivering uncontrollably. Straight off with the wet clothes and into a warm shower (thank God for the motorhome). As I got out of the shower, another WhatsApp message, this time from Jon: “I’ve punctured, fixing it here”.
He was only two laps into his stint and at the point on the course furthest from the pits. But at least Jon was on clinchers and could whack another tube in… but that was three punctures in rapid succession and another 20 minutes lost. Another two laps down on those ahead of us.
On the live tracker, we were down from what had been a top 50 place to 162nd overall. We were all utterly gutted. In total, I reckon we lost an hour with the three punctures. A good 5-6 laps lost.
Jon made it back and handed over to Nevster, who thankfully had a straightforward five laps and made some good ground up before handing over to Mark. Who also thankfully didn’t puncture this time!
We changed our order a little for a couple of reasons: a) Jon had barely done two laps of his last stint so was still fairly fresh and b) we needed to get Mark back out on course for the Power Hour at 2am. By putting Jon out next and then doing a longer stint myself, we figured Mark would both be rested enough and well-placed enough to get directly onto the shorter dedicated Power Hour loop at 2am (get there too early and you have to do another lap of the full course first, too late and you’ve missed time).
So Jon took over from Mark and had a good ride, handing over to Nevster who also did well (no more punctures, yay!). Then it was my turn to do the longer stint. With my back playing up from stints #1 and #2 I knew it wasn’t going to be fun.
It was also now properly dark and still wet. My times were only a little slower than the daylight stints and I managed to find a couple of guys willing to work together for a lap or two, so I felt like the session went fairly well. I was pretty damn happy to come in after six laps and hand over to Mark who did just two fast laps before resting for the 2am Power Hour.
At this point, I went to bed! For about 45 minutes. I knew I was up after Mark’s 2am BST session for my 2am GMT session. I needed to rest. I downed a bit of pasta and got my head down.
Waking up I felt awful. I’ve never been very good at napping. I felt groggy and slow. Coffee was much needed.
I quickly checked WhatsApp for messages and it looked like there had been no major disasters and Mark was standing-by to enter the Power Hour loop. Unlike the main course, we knew if Mark punctured in the Power Hour loop there would be no quick handover, so I didn’t head to transition too early.
The rain had stopped and it was turning into a clear cold night. Time for my Komraid Splinter Mork winter kit (honestly one of the best winter jackets I’ve ever worn) and winter boots.
I eventually got to transition and tried my best to warm up and feel energized! A can of Red Bull may have been involved…
Mark came in and he looked good, obviously Power Hour had gone well.
Back out and to be honest, I can barely remember a thing about my fourth stint except how pretty it was going through Plantation Wood with the blue and green floodlights! I kept thinking how nice it would be to just amble through there instead of caning it at near-FTP power! Unlike the other guys, the night didn’t seem to affect my lap times as much. Once I was going, I might have even enjoyed my 2am (GMT) slot a bit!
I was still happy to hand over to Nevster after five laps, though. And head back to bed! Jon was getting ready as I got back to the Motorhome and then Mark took the last of the ‘dark hours’ sessions, handing back over to me as it was getting light about 6:45am. It was much drier now and the temperature was beginning to rise.
My lap times were consistently under 12 minutes and I sensed that everyone on the circuit was tired and so that little bit more willing to work in a group (self-preservation mode!). That was probably my best stint for actually working with people to get round and not just try to drop each other every climb.
The guys on the team very graciously offered that I could ride the final stint to cross the line at noon, but I was wrecked and knew I couldn’t do another five laps at full bore. So Mark offered to do six laps on his stint, meaning I had just three to do to bring it home.
By now it was a beautiful day, the sun was shining and we had 30 minutes to go until it was all over. And breaking the serenity of it all was a tired old MAMIL wheezing and grunting as he put every last ounce of effort he had into those three laps!
But eventually we did it. Crossing the line at the same time as the leaders, if not exactly on the same lap!
We’d climbed from a low of 162nd out of 222 back up to 65th. Not what we had hoped-for when we started, but something of a fight back that I think we were all proud of.
Some quick thank yous. First, to ALL THE MARSHALS on course, who were largely fantastic. Still shouting words of encouragement at 2am and 3am. I can’t tell you how nice it was to hear your friendly words when I was in some pretty dark (and wet!) places. I tried to thank you all as much as I could between wheezes on that last lap; I hope others recognized your contribution also.
To my team mates… Jon who kept everyone not only looking sharp, but as dry and warm as possible in the superb Komraid cycling kit. Mark, who took the hit on lap #1 and the Power Hour. I know it hurt mate, but we wouldn’t have reclaimed those places without you (just get better tyres, ok?! 😉 ). Nevster, for standing-in at the last minute and bringing such a great contribution to the team. Your endurance experience really helped us.
As for me, I was quite surprised by it all. According to Strava, I contributed 193km of our 714km team total. Just over 5 hours 40 minutes of riding and just over 2,000m of climbing. Not much more than an Ironman bike (albeit on a normal road bike with normal wheels and no aero kit). Each individual session was probably a little harder than I would have averaged over an Ironman-distance event (Normalized, my power was about 85-90% FTP per session). But I found the stop/start nature of it all quite draining. Getting out of a warm bed at 2am and 5am to go slog your guts out on a bike is perhaps worse than never getting off the bike in the first place?!
I said our strategy was very simple, and it was. I’m sure we could have been a bit more calculating and worked out whether shorter or longer stints would have saved us a minute here or there. But I also think we did well at adapting to challenges along the way.
In terms of bikes, my Giant TCR Adv Pro disc was faultless. Mucky as hell by the end but reliable throughout. Would I have been faster on my TCR SL or Propel? Probably, but the disc brakes give me a confidence that the lighter rim brake bikes might not have (although I would have loved the SL's lighter weight up Breakheart Hill!). I reckon a TCR SL disc with 55mm rims would have been perfect.
Would I do it again. If you’d have asked me at 1pm yesterday it would have been a blank “no”. Today, it’s a “maybe”.
I feel certain, however, that Team Komraid will ride again!