I heard of Mersey Roads on my first audax, when Chris Herbert introduced me to Jasmijn Muller, who had recently won the national title. A few months later I’d be on the Transcontinental Race and rolled into CP1 just behind Hippy and Ultan Coyle, both previous title holders. It’s been on my bucket list ever since but falling, as it does, on the third weekend of July, it has always clashed with the big ultras (TCR 2016, LEL 2017, TABR 2018). This year my big target is PBP, which isn’t until mid-August, giving me 4 weeks to recover.
The 24 is held on a selection of open road loops, close to Wrexham, all centred around the Prees Heath roundabout, where crews set up a supporters village. New LEJOG record holder Michael Broadwith has won three times, averaging almost 36kph (22.2mph). The year that Hippy won his total stationary time was 6 minutes and most of that was for a mechanical problem.
Chris is an experienced time trialist and was generous with his time and his old kit, having given up riding on dual carriageways. I was keen to compete on a level playing field and TTs are almost entirely about aerodynamics. This is one discipline where it really is about the bike and other equipment.
I tried a couple of rides on Chris’s Dolan but couldn’t match the speed of previous efforts on my road bike. Despite being a very similar shape I couldn’t make the bike fit me and would’ve struggled to hold the position for an hour, let alone 24. No worries, I already know I can ride my Laverack quickly for 24 hours and it’s much more comfortable than the TT rigs others would be using, even if I’d be giving up extra drag. I removed the dynamo lights and added a set of disc-brake TT wheels from Parcours. A deep 77mm front wheel and a full rear disc, both with tubeless tyres. At the very least I’d have the classiest bike in the field.
Mike would be starting two minutes behind me so I reasoned that if he hadn’t passed me within the first hour I was probably riding too hard. Despite the uphill opening section and the mantra of steady pacing, the first hour was ticked off at 40kph, giving me a confidence boost. I’d barely done any specific training for this and didn’t really know what to expect from my performance. I figured my experience in ultras would carry me and I just needed to concentrate on staying aero.
That early speed caught out my crew, who were at the Prees Heath roundabout that serves as the event village. I was arriving a couple of minutes earlier than expected and as I approached I spotted them scrambling into place to hand me a bottle. The hand-up was pretty straightforward, which was a relief as that hadn’t been properly practiced either. There was a bag of food items taped to it, a little too securely. It needed two hands to wrestle that off before I could stow the bottle and I made a note to flag this on my next pass. They’d already rustled up elastic bands by then, which worked much better.
You might think you’d be bored riding around for 24 hours but time was flying by. A five hour ride feels much longer than the first five hours of a 12 hour ride. It’s all about expectation and how we calibrate our minds coming into an event. Mike eventually caught me after 90 minutes and the speed differential was dramatic, though he looked to be gliding along pretty effortlessly. He’s a stronger ride anyway but the gulf in aerodynamics was, by now, pretty stark. Reviewing the data after the event suggested I was almost as efficient as Mike for the first hour, which I’m blown away by, especially riding my round-tubed road bike. The trick, of course, is holding that efficiency for 24 hours.
Soon after this I was conscious of an inability to find any real power but I couldn’t understand why. This was riding at a pace I expected to ride for two full laps of the clock, so it was very mellow for a two hour ride. Even so, I couldn’t seem to push any harder than I would on a normal six hour ride. In hindsight I think this is down to how I train and ride the rest of the year. Sure, I’d ridden across whole continents in this position before, but at a slower pace than today, using different physiological systems. What I lacked was specificity.
The power figures dropped away fairly rapidly, hour by hour. 250, 220 and then stabilising at 199. I was horrified that it’d dropped below 200 so I was trying hard to push it back over but simply couldn’t. Four and a half hours in and I was also struggling to digest food. The ride was quickly derailing.
I carried a small top tube bag on the bike and at each hand-up I’d be given a small bag with items for the next hour. As I approached a hand-up I’d toss the old bag and bottle into the verge and my crew could check the contents to monitor what I’d eaten and drunk, adjusting the next hand-up to accommodate what I still had leftover. For 90 minutes I couldn’t tolerate any food at all and barely any fluids, despite being hyper-aware of the primary importance of staying fuelled.
I’d taken to sitting up on all but the fastest sections, to give my digestive system a chance to catch up. I was realising another poor assumption in my ‘ultra experience will get me through’ mentality; during ultra racing I’ll usually sit up to eat because digestion is much more difficult when hunched over in a tight TT position. Somehow this period of under-fuelling didn’t punish me too much. Probably because my power was already quite low. Power output stayed flat but my speed dropped as a result of sitting up.
Targets were reset to 200W and the upright position allowed me to gradually increase food intake again, but less than a quarter of the way through the event I’d thrown away any chance of a high placing. Of course, with hindsight that was always optimistic. A less generous and more accurate turn of phrase would be ‘cocky and arrogant’. There are many similarities between 24 hour time trialling and ultradistance racing but there are a few very crucial differences, the significance of which I had failed to adequately appreciate. Chief among them is the aggressiveness of the position and the ratio of time spent in it. This impacts digestion and changes the way the muscles are stressed.
Scratching doesn’t come naturally and I say that as an admission of weakness rather than a boast. Several times in the past I’ve ‘soldiered on’ long after I should really have accepted defeat. Another new thing for me was having a support crew and having dragged four friends out to stand on a roundabout for 24 hours I was not in a hurry to throw in the towel, no matter how atrociously my pace was plummeting. This year was supposed to be a test to see if it’s something I want to dedicate a season to in the future. Chasing a result wasn’t the main target and I still had lots of learning opportunities from sticking it out.
Darkness fell and a few more hours ticked by. My pace fell again and on the next pass of Prees I pulled in to have my tyre pressures checked. Sure enough they were virtually flat. My pace lifted again and I kicked myself for riding 90 minutes on soft tyres but it turns out I was now on borrowed time for other reasons.
My neck has been a weakness since the velodrome crash and the helicopter crash in 2017. With the help of Nicola at Velophysio I’ve been able to rehab things well enough to hold a decent ultradistance position but, as previously mentioned, there were some subtle but significant differences when it comes to a 24 hour TT. The Giro Aerohead helmet I’d borrow from Chris is brilliantly fast but a little heavier. My TT position was a little lower at the front and tucking my head low out of the wind was a constant focus, while I was still feeling able to. The particular stresses and strains of this hadn’t been trained and after ten hours my neck switched from painful to red alert.
Shermers Neck is when the muscles of the neck can no longer support the weight of the head. It’s not very well researched because it’s uncommon outside of ultradistance cycling and TT events like RAAM. The absolute number of cases is very small but it’s a constant threat for our niche community. After my whiplash injuries I read up what I could and knew that it comes on fairly rapidly and progresses to total failure within a few hours.
I sat fully up and avoided the aerobars all together. Hopefully a ‘complete rest’ would reset the clock on Shermers Neck. Unfortunately even an upright position was a struggle for my neck now. If things hadn’t improved by the time I passed the crew next time – about 45 minutes time – I reasoned I should park the bike and abandon the ride. There was no improvement but the wrestling match in my mind hadn’t been resolved and I wanted to be fully sure about any decision before I packed, so I rode on past the crew for another loop of the shorter night circuit. The inexorable deterioration continued and by the time I’d completed half the loop I was absolutely sure that stopping was the only smart thing to do.
Power 197W (211W NP)
Earlier in the year I’d read the brilliant book, Black Box Thinking, which helped to formalise a way of thinking I’d adopted when I began cycling. Having made many mistakes during earlier ultras I’ve always been quick to point out that you learn more from these than from perfect races. In the past that’s felt a bit like an excuse for performances below expectation but the reality is that nobody is born a master at anything. Mastery takes time and is the result of lessons learned through many failures along the way. The real goal is to make sure you extract the most learning from those failures, reducing the time it takes to master something. Our whole relationship with failure is kind of broken.
Looking back on the ride, applying this new thought process, I’m not unhappy with the outcome. I have newfound respect for the craft of time trialling and the volume of work that the top riders have invested in honing their position and training their ability to hold it. It’s taught me a little more about my digestion over long distance at higher intensities and it’s flagged an issue with my neck that may rule me out of competitive time trialling. It’s highlighted the size of the possible aero savings to be found and the potential impact they could have on ultras. The experience has also tempered my ego, which is rarely a bad thing. It’s reinforced the principle of specificity in training, to a higher degree than I had credited it. I love riding bikes quickly over long distances but the kind of training needed to hang with the quickest riders in these conditions is not for me. I despise the turbo and I’m unlikely to ever put enough time into training in the most aggressive aero position to be competitive. I’m cool with this.
The most positive thing I took away from my experience is, finally, the wisdom and maturity to know when it’s time to accept defeat. By stopping when I did I was able to recover within a few days instead of scuppering plans for my biggest target of the year – Paris-Brest-Paris – coming up in less than four weeks. This is the first time I’ve quit a challenge and I was perfectly comfortable and confident doing so.
Graham Kemp and Christina Murray went on to win the mens and womens 2019 national titles, smashing both course records in the process, with 544 and 478 miles respectively.