Fiona Russell is better known as the journalist and blogger Fiona Outdoors. Based in Scotland she combines her passion for outdoors sports, including road cycling, with her written work. Fiona enjoys cycling sportives, cyclocross events and triathlon. Her greatest achievement as an adult was qualifying to compete for Team GB in the 2013 World Age Group Triathlon Championships. Read more articles like this at Totally Active Magazine.
Every August, cyclists take to France’s most famous car racing track for Le Mans Shimano 24-Hour Velo. The endurance event is a timed sportive of multiple laps of the Bugatti Circuit, located in the Sarthe department of Pays de la Loire.
The aim is to complete as many 4,185m laps as possible in 24 hours, starting at 3pm on the Saturday. Riders can race solo, or in teams of two, four, six or eight. The 8th edition of the event, which is organised by the CGO events agency and supported by the French Cycling Federation (FFC) and Le Mans Sarthe Vélo cycling association, takes place this August 20 to 21.
I raced as part of a novice press team of four riders last year and one of more than 4,000 riders. I decided to take part in the sportive because I love a challenge, especially events that are very different. To enter this year, see www.24heuresvelo.fr/en/.
It is the night before the Le Mans Shimano 24-Hour Velo and the first time that I have met my three team members, Lyn, Will and Scot. Enjoying a meal and a few drinks in the touristy centre of the city of Le Mans, we wonder out loud about what the sportive will entail.
The jokey atmosphere is peppered with all manner of anxious queries, such as the daunting length of this non-stop event, the weather, riding through the dark of night and what we’ll eat and drink.
The discussion goes on: “Will the track be floodlit?”, “How far will each of us ride during our turn?”, “Will we ride the same way around the track for the whole event?”, “Won’t we feel dizzy?” and “Will we get any sleep?”
In a bid to calm some of our nerves we decide to draw up a “schedule of riding” on a paper napkin found on the table and we name ourselves the Jolly Journos. The plan is an hour’s ride by each member from 3pm to10pm and then two-hour rides through the night – the idea being that we can each gain the potential for six hours’ sleep – before returning to hourly stints at 7am on Sunday and until the finish at 3pm.
As novices to this endurance event we have no idea what an hour of riding around a 4k track will feel like, let alone two hours in darkness and when sleep deprived. It turns out that some of what we imagined was true, while other aspects were completely wide of the mark.
Le Mans 24-Hour Sportive starts with registration at the track, located a half hour bike ride from the city centre, and a mandatory pre-race briefing. As non-fluent French speakers, we missed some of what is being said. Because of this I was surprised to discover that the cycling race starts with a run. (Although if you know anything about Le Mans races you will be aware that a running start is an historic tradition.)
Scot had nominated himself as the first rider and when the starter horn sounded he sprinted across the track to jump on to his bike. The thermometer was close to 35C and simply standing at the trackside felt draining. Scot set off at a good pace and we headed to our “pit” to track him on the “real-time” electronic ranking screen. The pits are usually for the cars but during the cyclo-sportive they are occupied by groups of cyclists and their supporters. We quickly learned something else: That most riders come with everything they will need for a 24-hour endurance event.
Other teams had bags and cool boxes of food and drink, bike rollers for warm-up and changes of clothes. Some had even brought slow cookers, microwaves, massage tables and their own physios.
Woefully underprepared, we had arrived on our bikes with only a few bits and pieces of snacks, bike lights, a waterproof jacket and a sleeping bag and mat to share. We had pitched two tents at the campsite for shared sleeping, although it turned out that we spent all night in the pit.
True to our napkin schedule, Scot returned to the changeover line just outside the pit after an hour of cycling. Again, we learned more about the race when we were told off by a marshal for having two people to help with the changeover. Only one, the next rider, is allowed in the changeover area. Scot was high on adrenaline after his first outing of eight laps and as Lyn rode, he chatted excitedly about high-speed cycling and the hill. “A hill?”, I said, gasping a bit. “Is there a hill on a motor-racing circuit?”
Lyn rode a steadier hour before Will swapped in and raced around the track at what seemed to be an exhausting pace. Will is a veteran cycle tourer and had spent the previous year riding from Rio de Janeiro to New York.
When 6pm came I was eager to get on my bike and take my turn in our team effort. Will’s grin as we changed over told me he was immensely enjoying himself. I had told myself beforehand that I would ride an even pace in my own comfort zone. As it turned out, I am too competitive. I found myself slipping into a “go faster” zone and I sped around the track overtaking people and trying to ride in the slipstream of others.
It was a hugely exciting experience. Riding in a peloton of fit riders offered great advantages because I was shielded from the headwind and could use less energy for pedalling yet clock superb speeds. I reached new-found levels of cycling Nirvana as I raced some laps flat out and in very calm conditions. However, it wasn’t always plain sailing. Riding as part of a big pack is nerve-wracking, especially on tight bends and often left me wobbling dangerously and holding too tight to my handlebars. I was frequently dropped from the faster groups and then had to find the courage to join in with another peloton as it swooped up behind me. Some packs were so fast that I could do nothing more than listen with admiration as they whooshed by like frenzied swarms of wasp.
There were plenty of slower riders, too. Some rode mountain bikes or hybrids although the majority were taking the event seriously and rode racer and time trial bikes. I was a little frustrated to be on my cycle touring bike – I had joined the sportive mid-way through a cycle touring holiday of northern France – and wished I had my time trial bike to ride. Yet the race was thrilling enough. As I rounded my fifth lap I started to understand what Scot had meant by “the hill”. Dunlop Hill isn’t a huge incline but just after the start line the track rises by about 30m and if you are riding hard for hours at a time the ascent is remarkably tough.
An hour for my first outing seemed about right, especially in the heat, and as I cycled into the pit for the changeover Scot headed out on his second stint. Daytime turned to evening and we had each completed two one-hour stints. According to the plan, Scot would ride from 11pm to 1am, which meant each rider would have six hours off the bike when they could sleep. Except it didn’t work out like this.
Firstly, we discovered that riding in the dark around repeated laps of a 4k track is, at first, a novelty, but after a while it becomes quite dull. As we all waned mentally and physically we decided to adjust the napkin schedule to “up to an hour or whatever you can manage” instead of the two-hour rides.
We had also underestimated the noise and distractions of the pit. It was fascinating to watch the other riders and their routines. By chance, we were sharing with the eventual female solo winner, Elena Novikova, and the winning team, S1NEO 2015. And having just met each other, us Jolly Journos found we had a lot to talk about.
Another aspect we hadn’t thought about was that as each rider came in after their ride, they required the support of another team member for food, drink and advice. All this meant that sleeping was difficult to achieve.
Then the weather suddenly changed. A beautiful and sunny day had turned to a chilly evening, with rain threatening. As I set out at about 3am to ride my next stint, drizzle became torrential rain, then thunder and lightning. I struggled with a slippery track, rain-covered spectacles and cold. I tried as hard as I could but I managed only 35 minutes. With teeth chattering uncontrollably, numb hands and feet and the dispiriting feeling that I had let everyone down, I wimped into the changeover area early. Scot had to do a quick and unexpected turn-round, pulling on more clothes and a waterproof to keep our non-stop riding relay going. My team guided me into the pit. I felt morose; I was freezing; I had no clothes to change into and my only warm layer was a lightweight down jacket. I sat shivering, wrapped in our only sleeping bag and crying inwardly.
Then, I saw a man gesticulating at me from across the pit. I speak only simple French and his English was similarly basic. However, it seemed he wanted to help me. With a big grin, he came across with a full set of his dry cycling kit and food. I was overjoyed and, to his surprise, I hugged him tightly. Now, with dry clothing – even socks – and a borrowed waterproof jacket I could envisage taking another turn on the nighttime track. I could not have been more thankful for the kind gesture of Claude, of Bordeaux Club Cycles Laurent Merignac.
By 6am and still in darkness, our combined sleep deprivation and a lack of substantial carbohydrate based foods, while also watching as other riders had all this and more, affected team morale. Being relative strangers to each other, we were too polite to be overtly grumpy but I know we were keen to see the sun again. By now we were taking our turns as best we could. If someone could pull off eight laps in one go, they did. If someone else felt that five was enough for them, they rode that. Yet, incredibly we did rediscover our cycling mojos. As the sun came out again and lunchtime approached we faced out final outings with smiles and renewed vigour. We talked excitedly about who would do the last laps and I was chosen.
I did 45 minutes at about 1pm and then it was my turn for the final 25 minutes. I had no idea I had any energy reserves left but the competition sucked me in again. Our novice team was so far down the rankings it hardly mattered what we rode in unison but we had spotted that we might have a chance of beating one other similarly placed team and for some reason it drove us on. As I cycled my three laps I pushed hard. I could feel the lactic acid building in my legs. Another rider, in team 678, seemed to want to help and without speaking he rode in front of me and egged me to keep up in his slipstream. I did so and I was thrilled by our speed.
I did spare a thought for the solo riders still pedalling painfully around the track. They had been riding almost non-stop for 24 hours and more than 100 laps in total. Their faces were etched with exhaustion. I cheered them as I rode by.
I will never forget my final lap. As the bell sounded and the spectators roared I felt the adrenaline rise inside and I charged onwards. I wasn’t going to win any prizes but I cycled like it was a 1km time trial.
My head said exhausted, my legs squealed in pain and my arms and shoulders ached after almost six hours spent riding on my drop handlebars, yet I wanted to put in my last best effort. The second I stopped, just over the finish line, the pain returned. My legs were done in. I could hardly even stand and reach up for our group hug. I needed to eat and I wanted to curl up at the side of the track and sleep. Until you have ridden for 24 hours around a 4km motor-racing track, even as part of a four-person team, you can never know the extremes of highs and lows. Why not give it a go?
• One lap: 4,185m
• Uphill altitude difference: 600 meters from 3.5% to 7% (before the Dunlop hump).
• Downhill altitude difference: 1,000m (2%)
• Solo rider Sebastien Berthlet won the 2015 sportive (he also won the men’s solo in 2009 and 2014 riding 832kms (517 miles) in 199 laps.
• Elena Novikova, of Ukraine, won the solo women’s category, riding 160 laps and 669km (415 miles).
• Our Jolly Journos team rode 156 laps and came home 109th in the four-men team Prestige category.
• Our team’s fastest lap was 7 minutes 19 seconds.
Bike, kit and clothing
• Bike: I rode my Giant Avail Advanced Pro carbon racing bike. I bought it for comfortable cycle touring and general road riding so it was great for the endurance sportive. However, for that top feeling of speed, I did wish I’d had my time trial bike, or at least a set of tri bars fitted to my own bike.
• Bike seat: A comfortable bike seat means a lot, especially over long distances. I use a women’s Selle Italia gel seat with the all-important middle cut-out.
• Cycle clothing: Further comfort comes from Gore women’s bibbed cycling shorts. For riding in the sunshine I also wore an Altura cycling vest and fingerless gel-padded gloves. When temperatures dropped I added Gore arm and leg warmers, a Gore gilet and cold weather gloves. When the rain came I added a waterproof jacket and over-shoes for my cleated bike shoes.
• Other kit: Bike helmet, prescription sunglasses, cleated shoes and pedals, front and back lights, water bottles in bottle cages, small top tube bag filled with energy gels, Garmin Edge 810 GPS gadget, puncture repair kit, spare inner tube and pump and Hoo Haa Ride Glide.
• Pitstop gear: Warm clothing including a down jacket, sleeping bag and mat. Items I wished I’d had: More jackets, down sleeping bag, blow up mattress or camp-bed, a larder of food and drink, personal sports masseur and several changes of cycle clothing.
Try it for yourself
1. Le Mans 24-Hour Sportive
August 20 to 21, 2016
24-hour cycling sportive
Ride non-stop laps as a solo cyclist or part of a team around the 4k Bugatti Circuit at Le Mans, France, from 3pm Saturday to 3pm Sunday. How many laps can you complete in the 24 hours?
2. Ride 24: Newcastle to London
August 20 to 21, 2016
24 hours UK city to city
Take up the challenge to ride seven stages of 40 or 50 miles – a total of 310 miles – from Newcastle in Tyne & Wear to London. It’s not a race but a fully supported endurance event.
3. Scope London to Paris 24
July 16 to 18, 2106
24 hours to ride 280 miles
Riders take on the challenge of cycling from the UK to France. After an opening 90-mile leg to Dover, riders roll off the ferry in France and into darkness, bound for an afternoon arrival Paris.
4. Mountain Mayhem
June 18 and 19, 2016
The world’s longest running 24-hour MTB event. Riders compete to complete as many of the nine-mile laps as possible in 24 hours. The 19th Mountain Mayhem returns to Gatcombe Park in the Cotswolds.
Billed as one of the world’s toughest mountain bike endurance events, riders race an 11km lap on forest trails, near Strathpeffer, in the depths of a Scottish Highlands winter and through 17 hours of darkness and seven hours of winter light.
This article is a feature piece from Totally Active, a completely interactive online magazine written by active people for active people. Totally Active are on a mission to push endurance to its limits, to help readers achieve their potential, whatever the sport or activity. Totally Active have brought some of the world’s foremost endurance, performance, nutrition and fitness experts together in a publication which informs and inspires readers to go to the edge, to break boundaries, and to succeed. Read more articles like this at Totally Active today.