Bontrager TwentyFour12 - 2013

A not-so-short account of our first Bontrager Twentyfour12 event.

It all started one day back in early February of this year.  We'd gone for a ride around Haldon Forest and were just packing the bikes back into the Land Rover when a guy wandered over and started chatting.  Apparently, appearances really can be deceptive, since he thought we 'looked like XC racers'.  The purpose of his approach, was, as is so often the case when you are out on a mountain bike, to just have a friendly chat, to check out our bikes, and so forth.  To this day, I have no idea who he was or where he was from, but I guess that's kind-of the point;  in my experience mountain bikers are nice people who just love talking about biking.

The main thing I took away from this brief encounter was news of an event called the 'Bontrager Twentyfour12'.  It wasn't something I'd heard of before, but it was relatively local (in Devon) and sounded like it could be a fun weekend.   For those as unfamiliar as I was, the event is a mountain biking endurance event with 12 hour and 24 hour races running at the same time.

Kate and I were relatively new to endurance racing.  We'd done the Mountain Mayhem event in 2012 and were singularly unimpressed with it for a few reasons.  It had left a fairly bad taste, and so we were a little reticent about the prospect of something similar.  Back at home, we did some research and on the face of things, the Twentyfour12 looked very different.   We bit the bullet and submitted our entry to the 12 hour mixed pairs race.

As the event got closer, the mixture of excitement and a little trepidation grew until we found ourselves rolling into Newnham park on a Friday afternoon in late July to get ready for the event.

The first thing that struck us both was just how chilled out everything seemed to be.  There was no frenetic energy around the campsite or the trade arena.  People really were just standing around chatting and enjoying the weekend.  There were also a lot of families at the event with plenty of kids zooming around the site on bikes.  The weather was nice enough, and had cooled a little from the 29 degree heat we'd had in the preceding week.  We picked a nice spot to camp and got set up.

At registration, we were greeted by the event organiser who, despite undoubtedly being utterly exhausted already, was cheerful and enthusiastic.  We grabbed our race numbers and goodies and had a quick wander around the arena.  There was a nice mix of trade stands, the main start / finish line and the famous Bontrager Yurt (more on this later).

Back at the camp, after getting the bikes assembled and going through the normal checks / lubes, we decided to grab the opportunity to take a look at the course.   We set out on a very gentle ride around the 7.2 mile lap to see what was in store and it looked very promising indeed !  A nice combination of climbs and descents.  Unlike some rides I've done, there was a reward for the hard work.  Some great singletrack sections and a few nasty little technical obstacles to catch you out if you lost concentration.  The main thing was that the course was all rideable; an endurance event shouldn't be about whether you can survive the first lap !  It was also very well thought out.  Thought had been given to the possibility of bad weather and the mixed abilities of the riders.  The course marking team had even gone to the trouble of highlighting some of the more dangerous obstacles with yellow paint, something which proved invaluable in the night laps.

Our main worry was the amount of very narrow sections.  We were most definitely in the 'riding for fun' category over the weekend, but we knew that there would be riders and teams who were there to win.  Some very bad experiences at Mayhem with some truly obnoxious people on-course left us a little concerned that we were just going to be the target for aggression if we held the competitive riders up.

We returned back to the start / finish, enjoying the huge descent at the end of the course and headed back to camp.  On the way, we bumped into the event organiser again and I made a point of expressing my thanks to him and the course marking team for such a great job.  It's easy to forget just how much effort goes into the event before anyone even arrives.

We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening doing what everyone else was doing, just relaxing and enjoying the atmosphere of the event.  We ate some (uncharacteristically healthy) dinner and wandered back over to the arena to see if anything was going on.  Most of the trade stands were up and running now and more than happy to chat.  It was nice to hear that so many of them were entering the event themselves.   I have to say, my favourite stand was Torq energy, who seem to have been able to perform some witchcraft and produced energy gels which actually taste *really* nice.  A close second was the Clif stand, who were very generously giving out unlimited free samples of their products.  I must admit, I've become just a little addicted to the strawberry Clif Bloks.

bontrageryurtI mentioned earlier about the Bontrager Yurt.  This is a lovely addition to the event and really helped with the chilled-out atmosphere of the event.   A lovely big yurt tent with mood lighting inside, an open fire and a load of bean-bags spread around.  People came and went, chatting, relaxing and just enjoying themselves.  Whilst in the yurt we were treated to a short talk and a Q&A with Mike Hall, cycling legend, who recounted tales of his round the world bike race win, and tackling the tour divide.  What struck me most about Mike was what a nice chap her was.  Really down-to-earth and genuine, and someone who just seemed to love riding.  Such a good choice of guest for the event.  He was even entered in the solo 24 hour race !

After a thoroughly enjoyable evening, we returned to camp almost forgetting that we had a 12 hour race ahead of us.

Saturday was race day, and we both woke up unfeasibly early, had breakfast and waited.   The start was at midday, with a rider briefing at 11.  We killed time tinkering with the bikes and enjoyed the kids race in the main arena.  There's always something heartwarming and inspiring about seeing kids racing..  I just love it.

The rider briefing arrived and, despite a few technical difficulties, the battle rules were outlined.  Again, the differences of the Twentyfour12 to other events was very apparent.  There was a lot of emphasis on making sure that everyone enjoyed the event.  Yes, there were people there with the intention of serious competition, but it was made clear that race etiquette was king.

The 12 and 24 hour races started at the same time, midday on Saturday.  It was an on-bike start (non of this silly running around nonsense) and as we joined the massive body of cyclists on the course there was a real mood of excitement and fun.   The first lap of the event was to be around 1.5 miles longer than usual, with a loop around the arena and camping field to spread the riders out a little.   As the horn sounded, the mass of riders slowly began to set off and wind around the course like a massive snake.  After about 30 seconds, we were able to get going and our race was underway with the assembled crowds cheering and clapping all the way around the arena and campsite sections.

Right from the start, the faster riders began to push hard to get clear of the pack.  With so many riders in a confined space, there was bound to be a bottleneck soon.  True enough, halfway around the loop we converged on a narrow section of track up a steep hill.  A couple of riders misjudged their choice of gears and slowed the pack.  The concertina effect of so many riders soon brought the lap to a near-halt with riders (including myself) opting to carry or push their bikes up the sides of the short incline to avoid the congestion.  As everyone recovered, the field spread out into a constant stream of riders and we returned to the main arena to begin the lap proper.

Winding through the course, we approached the first big challenge of the course, the 'Clif Climb'.   It appeared fairly innocuous at first sight;  A long, steady ascent on hard-pack and asphalt.    No matter how it looked, the climb felt very long and tough and I swear it got steeper as the race went on.    At the top of the Cliff was a short section of singletrack through the woods.  Again, the first lap saw some inevitable bunching of riders, but there was no hassle and everyone just got on with the job.    The tracks widened again and led us to the first really technical part of the course.  A fast singletrack descent through the woods.  It was tight and windy with a combination of tree roots and narrow turns to navigate.  This section brought a massive grin to my face every time I rode it.  Another climb on gravel tracks led to more fast downhill stages.   The whole lap was very much the same, work and reward.

At approximately half-distance, we returned to the arena and campsite as the course wound its way past the campers and visitors.  Once again, we were greeted with cheers of encouragement from complete strangers, all enjoying the spectacle.  The obligatory 'Jump of doom' made an appearance on the course and made everyone grin as we headed out of the site for the second part of the lap.   Every time, I found the second half much tougher than the first.  The technical stages were more sustained and the rewards fewer.  The boulder-strewn sections of the course took concentration to clear, and on many occasions a badly-placed wheel found me having to stop and reposition.   Tired legs also contributed to the second half of the lap as did some of the soft, peaty ground in places which just wanted to grab your wheels and never let go.

When the last big descent of the lap came into view, it lifted the spirits and drew a last push to get up the final climb and hurtle towards the finish line.  Off the brakes, and letting gravity do what it does best riders were able to enjoy the view as they returned to the arena and to the end of the lap.

As I reached the transition area, the riders were lined up, ready for racing changes.  Our team was slightly less 'racy' and I rolled in to give Kate a bit of handover information.  The course was superb, get out and enjoy riding it.

racestartAs the event carried on, we completed our laps and handed over.  We didn't ride constantly, instead opting to take a few breaks as the day went on.  We weren't there to try and win, enjoying the ride was everything for us.

With night falling, we thought about how we wanted to continue.  Kate had decided not to do a night lap.  She'd had a bad fall at Mayhem the year before (fracturing her ribs) and decided not to tempt providence.  I was certain I wanted to ride the course at night, but didn't want to burn myself out by doing too many more laps.  I wanted to finish my final lap as close to midnight as possible, so with that in mind, based on our previous lap times I set out into the darkness with lights blazing.

If you've never ridden at night, it's a totally different experience.  Things come at you much quicker and you have to really think about where you are looking far more than riding in daylight.  That said, I love doing it.  I was grinning like an idiot for most of the lap, dodging between the trees, splashing through the water crossings and even going up the Clif climb.  In fact, one of the most memorable images from the event was looking up the climb from the bottom and seeing the string of lights ahead of me.

As it turned out, the timings were spot-on and just as I started the long, fast descent back to the finish the fireworks went off and midnight passed.  From my place on the course, I had a grandstand view of the arena where the second 12 hour race (called the 'Torchbearer') was just starting.  It was a magical sight, seeing hundreds of dots of light moving around the course.

I crossed the line a couple of minutes later, once again to the welcome cheers of the hardy spectators, still going strong.  I was tired but buzzing with energy.   At that point, I felt like I could go and do another lap but I have no doubt that feeling would have faded very quickly had I tried !

As we headed back to camp, we could see lights moving all around the course.  The course now belonged to the 24 hour riders and the torchbearers.   We sat and reflected on the race with a couple of friends who had also been in the 12 hour pairs and enjoyed a quite beer before heading off to bed.

Whilst our event was over, it was still very much in progress for the riders out of course.  A cloudburst in the morning had doubtless made the course slippery in places, but even so everyone seemed to have a smile on their face.   We spent some time in the arena cheering on the intrepid few who were still going and eventually, as the site emptied out and the racers finished the event drew to a close.

My overriding impression of the weekend was of how friendly it was.  Everyone from the organisers, the marshals, the traders, first aiders, caterers and even the poor chaps tasked with maintaining the portaloos had a smile on their face all weekend.  People were helpful and polite.

Our biggest fear from the weekend turned out to be completely unfounded.  The riders out on course were friendly and polite.  People actually asked if they could come past rather than just assuming that you would get out of their way.  If you moved over, you were always thanked.  Riders, even those who were clearly on the most heroic of charges, were patient and safe.  They didn't try to barge past when it would cause problems, instead opting to let you know they were there and waiting to pass when they could.   In the same way, on the (very rare) occasions when I passed other riders, they were courteous and polite.   This, more than anything else, made it one of the best events I have ever ridden.

I've been involved in organising events, and I know just how much effort is required to make something like this work.  The fact that we were barely aware of the organisation is a testament to just how well the event was executed.    My sincere thanks to the organising team for such a slick and painless event.  Thanks to the marshals out on course..  I tried to shout my thanks as I went round the last lap, but I have no doubt that there were many people I missed.  Thanks to the traders and of course the sponsors of the event, I hope it continues to be a worthwhile exercise.  Of course, Bontrager must get a special mention.  Thanks to my team-mate Kate, without whom there just wouldn't be any point.   Finally, a huge thank you to all our fellow riders.  All through the weekend you showed true sportsmanship and courtesy which made the event a pleasure to attend.  (Also, apologies to anyone I held up !)

A few links that may be of interest:

The Bontrager TwentyFour12 website
The Torq energy gels of loveliness


The official event video is also quite fun :