24-Hour Mountain Biking | Why Would Anyone Want to Ride All Night?
We went to Fort William to find out why riders submit themselves to sleep deprivation...
“I like to keep breaks as short as possible. Absolutely no sleeping. I take some caffeine during the race and then I don’t have any issues staying awake for 24 hours.
“I don’t let myself sit down to eat. I just take a full water bottle and grab something I can eat fast. Then I have my gels, bars and candy while I’m riding. My regular stops are 30 seconds max."
The man speaking is Matti Tahkola. Matti is 22 years old, from Finland, and works full time as an electrician. He’s also a dedicated endurance mountain biker, and is speaking to me after winning the solo category in the ‘Relentless Exposure 24’, a 24-hour mountain bike race run on the famous trails of the Nevis Range in Fort William, Scotland.
It’s the first time Matti has ever raced outside Finland, and only the second 24-hour mountain bike race he’s competed in. He’s won both.
“I really don’t know how it's possible but it has given me more confidence to keep on doing this," he says.
You can enter the Relentless 24 as a team of eight, where the workload is split between the group, as a team of four, a pair of riders or alone as a solo rider. Matti entered in the latter category on his full-suspension Cube AMS 100 - and his 29 laps in 23 hours 45 minutes and 36 seconds were enough to beat his nearest competitor by 52 minutes and 42 seconds.
“I’m so new in 24-hour racing that I haven't fully figured out the ‘why’ of it yet," he says. "I’m enchanted by the feeling that I get when I race long hours.
“I guess the beauty of 24-hour racing for me is the mental battle. It's not all about the legs, it’s also about the heart and mind. All riders who are willing to do something like this are strong so in the end it comes down to training and who is willing to suffer the most."
After getting up at 2am to catch the sleeper train from Edinburgh to Fort William, I hazily feel like I might be the one who has suffered the most. My self-pity is soon put into context and barged aside when I remember that I’m only on my way to watch the 24-hour mountain bike race. I tuck my tail between my legs, wait behind some drunk clubbers to get a morning coffee from a 24-hour McDonald’s and then hop on the train up north.
I’m heading up to Fort Bill to meet Frazer Coupland, founder of No Fuss events who organise the 24-hour race. My northerly commute so far has only involved a stumble through some city streets, a crash back on a train seat and pretending a phone alarm which went off at 3am on the people-who-can’t-afford-a-cabin carriage of the sleeper train wasn’t mine.
"We’ve had incidents where participants have been so tired that they actually lose their sight"
I’ve been riding a mountain bike for quite a few years but in my exhaustion the idea of doing it on loop for 24 hours is just as baffling to me as the fact that I somehow managed to set an alarm on my phone for 3am. Peddling a bike up and down technical ascents and drops on a course which rises and falls 1000ft, in the dark, between 1 and 6am, is not overly appealing when the alternative is... well, sleep.
Matti certainly isn’t wrong about the mindset. The race takes place on a late October day in Scotland, which means the sun doesn’t rise till just before 9am and will set before 6pm. Out of the 24 hours of racing, the riders would only be under sunlight for nine hours 24 minutes.
I hitch a lift to Nevis Range base camp with Colin, one of the head marshals for the event, on arrival in Fort William. He’s a man armed with all-weather gear, walkie talkies and years of experience of these sort of events.
He tells me about a previous edition of the Relentless 24 Hour where a rider at the end of a lap warned him that there was another cyclist vomiting halfway through the course.
Colin sent the motorbikes out to check and found nothing. The same cyclist then came back down and asked why they weren’t doing anything. He said the aforementioned competitor was still throwing up in the same spot. Colin checked again and still found nothing. This happened several times until they discovered that the vomiting cyclist had gotten into the routine of doing a lap, vomiting, sitting out for five minutes and then repeating. The other cyclist just happened to lap him everytime he was throwing up.
“We have to keep a real eye on how people are looking after themselves," says No Fuss boss Frazer Coupland when I arrive on site. It’s the same base camp used for the UCI World Cup downhill at Fort William.
“Particularly during the night when the fatigue is really setting in. We’re very lucky that we’re able to use motorbike marshals. They go round the course probably every 25 minutes.
“We’ve had incidents where participants have been so tired that they actually lose their sight and become quite ill. It’s happened a couple of times. Stomach cramps are fairly common if people get their diets wrong too. People get so fatigued."
The contest site is busy but subdued before kickoff. There are a few support marquees set up, a handful of tents and a small warm up area in the car park, all of which lead up to the bright orange No Fuss tent which marks the finish line of each race lap.
Most regular punters have made a beeline for some trail centre coffee and breakfast and the riders are getting ready to get set and go. There are puddles in abundance and the sky is best described as ‘dreich’ - a Scots word meaning ‘dreary’ or ‘bleak’, and primarily used in the north of the United Kingdom as that’s probably where it’s most commonly exemplified.
Much to my amazement, none of the riders look terrified. Or even nervous. The atmosphere is friendly. People are more than happy to talk us through their motivation and set ups.
“I hold them in the highest regard," Frazer says. “One of the things about No Fuss is that since we’re Highland-based we’re reliant on customers coming to see us two or three times a season. Really they’re friends rather than customers."
There’s a limit of 75 solo riders and 75 teams in the event. Frazer notes: “There’s been a huge growth in the amount of solo riders, but some teams are just here to party. There’s huge variation from dedicated athletes through to lads who just want to have a bit of craic."
He gathers the crew for a morning briefing and before you know it they’re lined up, and after a couple of false starts, they’re off and away. No parade. No fuss. Just a swarming peloton off to ride a set course on loop for the next 1440 minutes.
I ask Frazer about the course. “We’re very lucky here at Nevis Range," he says. Any regular mountain biker will know that’s no stretch of the truth.
“The network of trails gives us huge variety. This year we’ve had a really wet period for the past few months so we’ve had to design the whole course so that when it gets raced on for 24 hours it’s not going to break up.
“Other years when it’s dryer we can use more natural bits. There’s the Witches trail, the World Cup trail, and all the other additions. We’re never stuck for presenting a new course no matter what the weather."
"Near the end the enjoyment comes from knowing the race is almost over. I actually become so numb that riding actually feels easy and effortless"
And glad they’ll be for that. It’s no secret that the Scottish weather is a little like the current global climate - frosty, completely unpredictable and with every chance that’s it’s going to get worse the next time you shut your eyes.
Thankfully today it seems to be holding right on the edge of a downpour, so after getting a few viewpoints of the riders on course I leave them to it and get out on a bike myself.
I tackle the 6.2 mile ‘10 Under the Ben’ red track, a route based on No Fuss’ first ever event of the same name - a 10 hour mountain bike race which started a full 15 years ago - and criss-cross back and forth over the Witch's World Championships track as I go.
I always find the most remarkable part of riding in the Nevis Range to be the stunning views in the backdrop of the world famous trails.
On the Witch’s trails I’m treated to flowing turns that bring portraits of Ben Nevis framed by pine-trees, and I end a couple of hours of riding with a technical rooty trail and a route which drops to fields and rolling hills on my right and looks out over Loch Eli and the town of Fort William ahead.
It’s slippery, it’s muddy, and everything I own is now brown, but by the time I get back to base camp I’m more envious of the riders in the Relentless 24 Hour than I was before taking to the saddle. That said, the appeal of riding on through the dark, when the views disappear and you’ve just got yourself for company still seems a little jarring.
“Near the end the enjoyment comes from knowing the race is almost over," Matti admits. “And if I know I have done my best it's a magical feeling. The feeling of accomplishment is out of this world. I actually become so numb that riding actually feels easy and effortless.
"I didn’t use to do any physical activity. Building up from there to where I am now is something to be proud of"
“Of course, winning gives me motivation but the main reason why I do it is to have fun, to enjoy the long ride state-of-mind and push my limits. It is important to try to keep a positive mindset. Before the start, I just decide that I will keep on moving no matter what."
It stuns me to learn that Matti has only actually been riding bikes seriously for five years, racing for four, and that he doesn’t even come from a particularly sporting background.
“I didn’t do any kind of physical activity for years," he says. “Just played computer games and got fat. When I was 16 I realised how bad my fitness was and decided I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life like that.
“Building up from there to where I am now is something to be proud of. Cycling has made me the person I am today. I am no expert and I have never followed a training plan. I do it because I love it and because training for these events brings purpose to my daily life."
The Relentless 24 Hour has been going for over 10 years now, and it will be hosting the 24-Hour Solo Mountain Bike World Championship for the second time in 2018. Matti might still be an endurance newbie, but he’s a hell of a talent, and he's “already decided" that he’ll be back to compete this year.
Frazer Coupland, the man who runs it, admits that while he’s raced 24 hours personally a few times in the past, “it definitely wasn’t for [him]". We imagine a 16 year old Matti Tahkola on the other hand would have never imagined the solace he would find in such a demanding event.
It seems 24-hour events might just be the marmite of mountain biking racing. Or perhaps haggis might be a better analogy - it might sound like a strange concept at first, and you’ll either love it or you’ll hate it, but there’s only one way to find out.
To read the rest of our March 'Space' issue, click here.