Wembo 24-Hour World Championships 2017 Finale Ligure, Italy

2017 WEMBO World Endurance Mountainbike Championships Finale Ligure, Italy

 

Part One:             Preparation perfectionist

I set foot off the plane in Milan. My first time overseas in more than 7 years. I’d never raced or even ridden a bike overseas before. I had high expectations for Europe. Before I knew it we were on the motorway heading north in search of somewhere to train in the warm climate. Europe is truly next level. I won’t go into detail about how the system works over here or how different life is. We spent the first night in a ski village in the Swiss alps. The next few days consisted of travelling, riding and planning. Training was the number one priority over this period. We found ourselves in Germany in the 30 plus temperatures. Fortunately, the trip was timed so I could not only have the best training conditions and environments but also were able to witness fellow Kiwi Trek rider Anton Cooper place 3rd in the Albstadt UCI XCO World Cup. It was inspirational to witness one of the athletes you look up to have one of the best races of his life right in front of your eyes. Kiwis can fly.

This however is my story. I continued with the final training block before departing for an 800km journey south to Finale Ligure, Italy. Finale is one of the biggest gravity mountain biking destinations on the globe. Trail networks for hundreds of kilometres linking towns, villages and cities together across the dry baron steep Italian landscape. We rolled into town Monday evening to prepare for the race on Friday.

Tuesday morning was spent with Nicola and James from Kirkham Racing NZ on the course trying to navigate around the race venue. Studying where and how the pits were going to be set out, how long the course was going to be, where we were going and looking for difficult sections to practice. We discovered the race course and had 80% of it correct for when it actually came race day. I had lines dialed on the difficult sections. I knew I needed fast but smooth lines. In 24-hour racing it is vital to protect the wrists and hands. For me this is the part of the body that hurts the most. First time on trail also made me very aware how important my Ride 100% Speedcraft glasses would be with the striking sunlight and the excessive dust.

The two 2016 U23 World Champions. We met up to recce the course in 2017.

Tuesday afternoon Chris (Coach), Tony (Mechanic) and I ventured down into Finale Ligure town in search of supermarkets, bike shops and the other Kiwis. We stumbled across John White, Leonie Smith and Thomas Wood. After a quick discussion about the course, venue and climate of Finale we continued our afternoon explore. It wasn’t long before we came across #teambemis. Madeline Bemis was the co U23 World Champion from 2016. Since Rotorua 2016 we’d stayed in contact and along with Nicola Kirkham the three of us had decided to share two race sites. Chris and Tony went off to finish the shopping while I spent the remainder of the afternoon laxing in the shade along with a quick dip in the ocean before returning to the hills for a night ride. I knew the race lines and lap times would differ overnight and I wanted to simulate this as best I could prior to the race. It became apparent that the temperature wasn’t going to drop much less than 20 degrees overnight and therefore my Champion Systems Performance top and bibs would be more than suitable for the conditions. The dust however didn’t settle overnight and we realised that keeping the drive chain in working order was going to be a challenge. Squirts long lasting dry lube sure did have that covered. Chris struggled to keep up in with the night surrounding and went down onto the hard rocky terrain following me on a simulation lap breaking a rib. Chris wasn’t phased. He continued with the practice session without complaint so my mind wouldn’t be effected.

Madeline and I working our way through registration forms in Italian.

After some great night lap simulations, I woke up late Wednesday morning for my last few laps on course prior to race start. The course wasn’t marked so again we were doing the best we could with the material and information we had to ride a lap that we thought would be the race track. I worked out spots on the track where I could feed, Gu waffles and gels were among the nutrition plan and would sure be a treat in the race. Madeline and I met up for a lap. We discussed sections of the course for feeding, drinking, passing etc. The second lap of the day was with the other two kiwi boys Thomas and Cameron. We’re good friends now but hadn’t met prior to arriving in Italy. I videoed a lap of the course (80% similar too actual race course) and this footage will be uploaded to YouTube in the coming days. Lunch followed and then it was home for rest.

Trek Top Fuel ready to roll

Thursday was spent charging lights, Garmins and other devices that would be important for the race the following day. The race pack was picked up and number tied onto the Trek Top Fuel. A final supermarket run was made and a race plan was discussed with Chris and Tony. We planned how much fluids I was going to consume and worked out the Camelbak Podium bottles would be suitable for the job and I wouldn’t need the M.U.L.E pack which I’d been training with. We worked out when lights were going on, off and batteries would be changed. Everything was ready.

Jordan and I at race briefing.

Riders and supporters listing up at race briefing.

 

Part Two:             A new start

At 10:00 am on Friday 2nd of June 2017 the Elite riders and Single speeders set off for the Le Mans start at the World Mountainbike Endurance Championships. Next, we (the age group athletes) lined up with a 5-minute wait for our start. The 5-minute wait went fast and before I knew it the final ten second countdown was on.  The temperature was nice, loads of cloud cover and even a chance of rain in the afternoon. I had sunscreen on all the same and was prepared for whatever Finale Ligure had to throw at me. The next thing I remember is springing out of the start gate for the Le Mans start. A Le Mans start is when we all line up in our lycra, carbon soled cleats and helmets. We then had to run a kilometer before we could finally mount our bikes. I focused on running steady, not rolling my ankles and not falling over. After a few minutes of push and shove, climbing and scrambling around the Italian countryside I found my bike and departed from the pits for my first lap. The race laps were 10km long, with 350 meters elevation.

The Elite riders line up for race start.

Us age group riders tackle the Le Mans style start.

It is vital that the first six hours of a 24-hour race go well. It is vital that you do everything right at this stage of the race. Every extra calorie burned or poor line taken will punish the rider later. I found myself in about 30th of the age group riders with the Elite and Single Speed riders pushing on ahead. On the first few laps I scrolled through my Garmin screens (bicycle computer speedo) looking to see if I was matching my numbers. The lap was longer than we had practiced earlier in the week but there were no techy sections that hadn’t been practiced so I was able to push on in confidence. However, I had not set up my Garmin to display lap time. Instead I had two screens showing heart rate. This meant that for the whole race I would have to guess my lap times. I didn’t let it get to me and continued on. The Trek Top Fuel was in great condition thanks to Cycle Obsession back home and the body was feeling great with some help from Perimeter Coaching.

The first few laps went fast, I made sure not to show the other U23 riders my lines. I worked hard to stay on my bike on the climbs when other around me were already off pushing. I knew that as soon as you hopped off to walk or run a climb more energy would be wasted than riding. I continued to roll around with Jordan Butler (2nd U23 Male in 2016). We knew the other two kiwi boys were ahead. I had never seen a snake in the wild before and I have a huge phobia of them to say the least. On lap three I was descending on my own when dark coloured snake slithered straight across the track about 10 meters in front of me. I jammed on the breaks until it disappeared. So, I now could confirm that there were snakes around. More about this later.

The early parts of the race are not where the race is won. But it certainly can be lost at this stage. It’s vital to set yourself a sustainable pace in which you can keep an eye on who the competition is and where they are in regards to you.

 

Me trying my best to stay upright during the run.

A glimpse into how many bikes were stacked in the racks.

 

Part Three:          To keep your balance you must keep moving

As we rode past midday the clouds cleared to reveal the sun pumping its rays down on us. Before I knew it, we were frying in scorching sun. There was no escape. With little shouter on course I did my best to ride on the sides of the trails to keep in the shade as much as I could. The first 3 hours a 710mL Camelbak Podium bottle was lasting me two laps (laps being about 40 minutes). But now with the sun fully exposed to the Italian country side I was consuming a 710mL bottle in 10 minutes. I was beginning to dehydrate! Prior to this race I’d never ridden or raced in heat this severe. It was so taxing on my body systems. The pit crew were onto it quickly as I was soon complaining of stomach aches from the high temperature (something I’ve never experienced before). I was switched to water in my bottles and handed two. One for pouring over myself and one for drinking to cool my body down.

Junior riders pushing up a hill on their way out to the track to support us riders.

We carried on pushing into the afternoon. The views over the coast were spectacular. I remember down in one of the bays a few hundred meters below the track lay some yachts and boats with people enjoying fishing and swimming in the beautiful Mediterranean Ocean. The water looked so inviting. I could hear the waves washing against the rocks far below and would love nothing more than a quick dip into the beautiful turquoise coloured waters below. It wasn’t long after thinking all about swimming that I caught the first of the other U23 kiwis. Cameron was feeling good around 2pm when I rode past him. We had a chat and exchanged a few jokes before I set off once again. At this point to my knowledge I was in 2nd with only Thomas Wood in front of me. However, I knew Jordan was hot on my heels.

Within the next lap or two I caught Thomas. Once again exchanged a few jokes before pushing on. I checked with Chris and Tony to confirm I was in 1st place. The word was yes. I now had my sights set on a top 10 placing in the overall. I didn’t however push myself too hard as I knew I had a long way to go. I was comfortable with the gap back to Jordan and my brain began to relax. That seemed to play out just like last year I thought. I thought to take it easy for until midnight and then push myself on in the early hours of the morning.

Lights on at around 7pm. The pit crew is put to work. James and Tony look after the bike. Chris feeds me, and the old man David behind the lens.

I continued to circulate matching my lap times together and focusing on heart rate zones along with cadence parameters. I continued to struggle with consuming food as the temperature continued to rise into the late afternoon. I consumed water with the odd gel. I needed carbohydrates, and was starting to worry both myself and my crew that I wasn’t getting enough. What was to happen next however would change everything.

 

Part Four:           Through the gates of hell

“What position am I in overall?” I curiously called out to Tony as I rolled past our pit site. “Second position” he replied. What? How can I be in second overall? I’m way further down than that. Top 40 was my prediction and Tony was telling me I was second. My mind whizzed around as I tried to make sense of what was happening. Then it all clicked. Was I second in U23? I rolled through the pits further until I came across Chris who was waiting to receive my bottle. He confirmed that I was indeed in second place in U23. This can’t be happening! Why hadn’t they told me earlier (I was about 8 hours into the race at this stage). Who was he? When did he pass me? What did he look like? Where was his pit crew? All these questions and more shot through my head. My heart sank. My head was confused. My body felt dead, empty, useless, worthless. Chris told me the gap was around 5 minutes.

Throughout that next lap a lot went through my head and I came out thinking that all I had to do was chase him down. When I rolled through the pits the next lap I was told the gap was in fact 15 minutes. This really got into my head. I was second guessing everything. I still didn’t know who I was chasing and I knew the gap couldn’t extend by 10 minutes in one lap. What was happening? Then I felt a sense of betrayal. Why are Chris and Tony changing the information they’re giving me? First, I’m leading, then I’m in second by 5 minutes and then one lap later I was 15 minutes down (almost half a lap at this point of the race).

Later after the race I would learn that with the lack of internet connection and reception along with lack of results being posted that no one had results until around 8 hours in unless you were keeping notes on the opposition from lap one (which we weren’t with over 400 competitors). I panicked, all I wanted to do, all I needed to do is close that gap down, and close it down fast. I wanted to have him by midnight. This gave me 4 hours to close down 15 minutes. That means I had to be 2 or 3 minutes faster than him per lap until midnight. This allowed for him to attack and me to catch and have a battle for the remaining 10 or so hours. I began to close it down. 2 minutes a lap. It dropped to 13, then 11 and even as low as 9 at one point. He knew I was attacking and began to push back himself. It was at this stage I entered the gates of hell.

A little snippet of what the course looks like at night time filmed as Tony chases me down the trail on a practice lap earlier in the week.

 

Part Five:             Dancing with demons

The steep challenging climb was described by Madeline Bemis as ‘Hell’. Although it was tough I felt that this next stage of the race was hell for me. I had entered the gates and now began to see demons from deep inside me arise to surface. Carwyn had now responded to my pace rise and we were trading lap times, giving and taking 30 seconds or a minute each lap as we rode into the sunset. This was until just over 13 hours into the race when I was picking my way down a rocky decent when I heard a bang. Following this there was a siss, siss, siss. I knew straight away that I’d punctured and was begging for the Squirt sealant to plug the hole so I could limp my way to somewhere with a pump. The tyre took a massive gash about the size of a fingernail. Sure, enough it was plugged and with about 7 psi left in the tyre I made my way around the next few hundred meters. I was sure to jump off and run through the big rock sections and pick tidy smooth lines for the rest of the time. I found a pump and got just enough air into the tyre to get me down the final decent to the pits. I switched my Top Fuel out for the Procaliber and set out again. Still hungry, still driven and still fast.

The next lap was steady but fast enough not to lose too much time. Mentally I was in a sound state. I made my way down the decent that I played victim to on the previous lap. I didn’t think to take a different line. I paid for it. Again, I received a flatty. Again, the Squirt sealant stepped up to the occasion. Again, with about 7 psi I limped around to the same tent for air and then back to the pits to switch bikes. I thought to myself that this wasn’t going to define me. This was just a challenge I had been thrown and I would work through it.

In terms of the punctures themselves they were entirely my fault. I was lazy, sitting down heavy on the bike. I had thick tyres on and both times the tyre was pierced through the roof in exactly the same spot. The sealant really saved me and allowed me to save some time getting back to the pits.

I set out for my next lap at the 11-hour mark. Lap number 19. I wasn’t at all rattled by the punctures. I knew I was still on track to bringing the gap back with small margins at a time but I also knew the gap was over 20 minutes now. I would have to execute the best 13 hours remaining I could. I felt pressure on my shoulders. I hadn’t come all this was to come second. I was so focused on doing the job right that nothing else mattered to me at this stage. I started the lap in a good place physiologically, but that was all about to change.

With the number of punctures riders were experiencing being so high the sides of the course began to full up with old tubes. People were changing their tubes out and leaving them on the side of the track. With the beam of light in front of me covering only a small section of trail I couldn’t see what else was around me. In the corner of my eye I was see these long thin black shadows. SNAKES! I would screech to myself. This didn’t happen once or twice but more than five times in that lap. From here it only got worse. The second 5km of that 19th lap would really get to me. The heat had punished me throughout the day and now it was time to pay. For the first time in my life I began hallucinating. It started with the big roots but within minutes I was perceiving every root to be a snake or some other form of wild creature. I took different lines, I lost balance on the bike, I struggled to keep on the trail. My mind was going insane.

It continued onwards. I wasn’t enjoying myself at all. I was in complete terror and shock. Why was this happening? What can I do about it? I tried a few mental mind tricks to get my mind to another place. But as I climbed up the techy climb around three quarters of the way around the track I deteriorated further. I became fearful of the rocks on course. The thoughts going through my head is what monster lives behind there, when is going to jump out at me, what will happen to me? Although the rocks were no smaller than a fist or no larger than a rugby ball I was still beside myself at what lay behind. Although my spiritual beliefs fall under no religion or category (if you can call it that) I still felt I needed help from someone or someplace else. I sent out a ‘wish’ for the strength to make it to the finish and execute a race that I would be proud of. Too little to late I guess. With my stomach aching all afternoon, the warmest temperatures I’d ever ridden in, the dust slowly fulling my lungs all afternoon and now the hallucinating ordeal along with losing balance on the bike I began to give up hope. Other thoughts going through my head included letting both tyres down or curling up on the side of the track until the sun came up.

It is rare to see a DNF next to my name in any race. It took lap 19 for my mind to switch polar opposite. I rolled into the pits. Stepped off the bike. Walked straight behind the campervan and demanded a ‘chat’ with Chris and Tony. After a short time and a few questions raised by Chris and Tony, I had given up. Helmet was off, shoes and socks came off. Into the camper to sleep it out until the morning. It was at this point I filmed the video below. It was so tough for me. But I honestly didn’t feel safe out there. Even looking back now if I were to be in that situation again I would still have a sleep but just make it shorter, get back on my bike and go again. But the situation I was in I just wanted the whole thing to just go away. FOREVER! I was done.

A look into my state of mind during the race when I ‘gave up’. I was fulled with terror and uncertainty.

 

Part Six:               Midnight sunlight

I woke up after about 30 minutes sleep. I felt depressed, empty and pretty upset. I was in the middle of a nightmare and I couldn’t escape it. This was the new reality. I was awake for less than five minutes when Madeline rolled into her pit booth next to mine. I arose from the camper to go witness her condition. She was struggling. When I saw how she was feeling a spark was ignited. I was weak enough to stop. I wouldn’t let her do the same. I was already regretting the decision I forced myself into making an hour earlier. Chris and Tony were nowhere to be seen. I put my same socks back on, my achy feet were slipped back into my shoes. I strapped my helmet on and began rummaging through the riding gear for a light and battery. I didn’t give her a choice. Jumped on my bike and we rolled out for another lap, she was coming with me. It didn’t take long for me to realise that I didn’t have a stomach ache anymore. I was able to focus on riding, where I could position the bike. It was awesome just having an English conversation with someone. I gained strength in myself by encouraging her to go on.

The tent which had the small pump inside for me to pump enough air to get back to the pits.

After a few hour long laps. I got the news that I was still in third place. (I only lost about a lap and a half from stopping) The heat had got to so many people. The track had cleared out. Of the 400 people that started it was said that only around 40 were still circulating. A lot of people, myself included had under estimated how much the sun was going to take a toll on our bodies. The techy sections of course along with the ruthless climbs tore the legs off so many people. The dust was like a thick smoke that had fill our lungs all day. So many riders had become victim of the Italian climate and geography.

I continued to ride with Madeline until we both agreed she needed a rest off the bike with her deteriorating state. At around 3:30am I was lapped by Jason English. Jason the seven times World 24 Hour Champion was hurting. Cory was already more than a lap up on Jase and Jason like so many others was also struggling. After about a 10-minute discussion with the best endurance mountain biker in history I learnt a very valuable lesson. Everyone his human. I rode away and set out in search of Jordan Butler who was currently holding down 2nd place. Between 4am and 8am I was consistently one of the fastest riders on track. I pushed myself on and on.

 

Part Seven:          What was I doing?

I found myself picking my way through the field like each rider was just an obstacle I needed to avoid. Jumping up the timing charts I was fast closing in on Jordan. I un lapped myself time and time again. I was riding like I never had before. I don’t really remember what I was feeling other than focus. By the time the sun came up at around 6:30am I passed Jordan and set out for Carwyn in first place.  I was chasing the fairy tale ending, and closing in fast. I passed him twice in a few hours. “I could actually do this” I thought to myself. “I can still win”. At 8:30 I was told I only had to pass him one more time. We knew it would be close and I would need to race right until the very end. I was sure to execute all my lines to perfection. Make as much time where I could and places where I couldn’t make time I aimed to save energy. With the sunrise so came a lot of riders re-joining the race circuit.

The sunrises over Finale Ligure with a little rain.

At about 9:30am I got the news that the calculations were wrong and I was still a lap behind. This meant all he had to do was cross the line one more time and the victory would be his. I refused to believe it though. I told myself they were wrong. I continued to dig deep pushing my limits further and for longer. I commenced my final lap and set out to pass him one more time. I never wanted anything more than to see his orange and black riding jersey in the distance. Something I hadn’t seen for the last few hours but would look for him around every corner I turned. I knew if I could spot him no matter how far away I would be able to catch him. I rode the whole last lap but never got a glimpse of Carwyn. Too little, too late I guess.

Me pushing on in the morning. Lights still on I was so focused I didn’t turn them off.

 

Part Eight:           Just a Kiwi boy

At 10:25am on the 3rd of June 2017 I crossed the finish line in second place. With 320km ridden and 11,000m of elevation I was happy to be finished but in no way at all happy with my performance. Since the race I have been able to look back on what happened throughout the ‘nightmare’ and pick out many positive points and points that need improving. I am proud of what I was able to accomplish in the early hours of Saturday morning when throwing myself back into the saddle and am already planning how I can improve for next time.

I’m 19 and I realise that I have a long path ahead of me in both the sport of 24-hour racing and other off-road endurance events. I endeavour to continue endurance racing and I look forward to making another appearance in Europe and haven’t ruled trips to North America off the list. For the first time in my life I have experienced an addiction. (No Granny, I’m not into drugs.) I am truly addicted to endurance racing, forever chasing that perfect race.

Me enjoying the descent early Saturday morning near where I picked up the punctures.

The small town Noli in the background lies on the coast.

I would like to congratulate Carwyn on well-executed race tactic and the strength of his ride that took him to the World Title. Also, well done to Jordan Butler on a steady race which took him to the bronze medal. I look forward to racing both lads again in the future. Kudos to Steve Day, Cory Wallace, Jason English for some excellent riding and giving me a fair bit of inspiration here and there now and then to push on.

Well done to John White, Leone Smith, Tim Caughley, Ronel Cook and of course Nicola Kirkham who each made the journey to Italy to represent NZL proud with some awesome riding and came home with a stack of medals and even a jersey for Ronel! Of course, the two other U23 kiwi lads Thomas Wood and Cameron Kerr for the quality banter and smack talk, awesome effort on the race too guys, it truly was tough out there.

Carwyn, Jordan and I on the podium.

2016 U23 World Champion Madeline Bemis who continues to inspire me to push the limits. She’s the toughest 18-year-old I’ve ever met and I am so proud of her effort this year riding to a 9th placing in Elite this year.

A big shout out to Mum and Dad for their ongoing support along with Lachlan (backup) Haycock and the rest of the family both in New Zealand and across the world. Thank you to all my friends and supporters. Knowing that I have the best support is inspiring for me to keep doing what I love.

Special shout out to James, Hayden, Marj, Laura, Jo and the old man for rolling up as my no.1 fan club. Garth Weinberg has been a top mentor for the last 2 years to help mold me into the rider I am today and I can’t thank him enough.

James and I the day before the race start.

Of course, there would be zero chance of me doing what I do without the team right there to fall back and catch me. Chris Willett and Tony Jump traveled across the planet to make sure I had the best possible shot at winning and I couldn’t have asked for a better pit crew!

Chris, Tony and I out for a ride in Andermatt, Switzerland just over a week prior to the race.

 

Finally, my awesome partners and sponsors who have supported on the pathway to Italy 2017.

Contract Mechanical Services.

Cycle Obsession Mount Maunganui

Tauranga City Sunrise Lions Club

Stainless NZ Ltd

Trek Bikes NZ

Brand Display NZ

Nduro Events NZ

Little Rocket NZ

Champion Systems NZ

Squirt New Zealand

Camelbak NZ

Avsolutely Avos

Port of Tauranga

Trevelyan’s Pack and Cool

Ride 100% NZ

Gu Energy NZ

Hydralada

Mountainbike Tauranga

Toi Ohomai

Perimeter Coaching

Bronami

Can’t stop, won’t stop, never stop.

 

I may just be a 19-year-old kiwi boy. But I cannot wait to show the world how high kiwis can soar.

Thought I’d move mountains just by showing up, then I realised that I had to pick the shovel up.           –              David Dallas