Racing a 24 hour mountain bike race in the solo category can be anything from a New Years resolution, a dare from a mate, a personal goal, or a professional accomplishment. But the challenge of riding your mountain bike isn’t diminished, not matter the reason for you to sign up to a solo 24 hour mountain bike race.
In November this year, the WEMBO 24 hour MTB World Championships will take place in Armidale, NSW, Australia. While COVID-19 restrictions are likely to impact international participation, the race will no doubt be a goal for lots of endurance mountain bikers in Australia. And perhaps more than usual given there has been almost no mountain bike racing since the middle of March.
We spoke to 24 hour racing specialists Cory Wallace and Kate Penglase for some insights into what makes a successful 24 solo campaign.
How does having a 24 hour race on your calendar focus your training?
“I find one 24 hour race is enough each year so I generally just focus on the Wembo World Championships,” replied Cory Wallace via email from Nepal, where he is currently staying. “The dates change every year so it can make it tricky to tie it into the race schedule if it’s mid season, such as the World Championships in Brazil last year. I had to sacrifice a few races such as BC Bike Race to focus on Worlds as I had the title to defend so had to make sure I had all hands on deck to do so.”
“A 24 hour race on the calendar requires the need for structured training through a program,” stated Penglase. “Provided I have maintained a base level of fitness, a 10 week program is generally enough time to build to 24 hour race fitness. This typically consists of some high volume blocks mid-way through the program, with shorter, higher intensity race-focused sessions in the second half of the program. Intervals are a must throughout the entire program (aka ‘sessions from hell’). It will generally be one ‘session from hell’ per week in the first half of program, increasing to two sessions 4-5 weeks out from race day.”
Given Wallace is a full-time athlete, he tends to be a little more adventurous with his training, which will be no surprise if you follow him on social media.
“Each year I put in a large period of base training, the past three winters this has been in the Himalayas of Nepal. I find after this big block of base mile is in the bank then my endurance is good to go for the season. I will make sure that in the 2 months before I do another big 2 week block of bike packing miles, often averaging 6-8 hours a day. Other than that I can focus on shorter races such as BC Bike Race and local marathons which are generally 2-2.5 hours in length. Over the years I’ve become good at reading my body and can tell when it’s time to up the endurance again and when it’s time to rest and focus on the high end power.”
So for those looking for some hints – build your base now! But just because you’re racing for 24 hours, it doesn’t mean you can neglect intensity and top end work. As they say, train slow and you’ll race slow.
Stopping doesn’t make sense for bike racing, but is there a time you should stop in a 24 hour race?
“I use to stop during 24 hour races, but that was when I wasn’t winning,” explained Wallace. “I began realising that Jason English, who won everything for about 8-10 years, never stopped.”
Penglase agrees, stating that minimising any time in the pits is a key to doing well. “For the analysts out there, I tend to approach it like I would a cost-benefit analysis in my day job, and weigh up the cost of stopping vs the benefit gained from stopping through being able to race faster.”
But how does stopping or carrying on play out on the score sheet? Cory is pretty upfront with his findings from WEMBO 2011. “I believe Jason stopped for a total of 7 minutes during that race. I stopped for 45 minutes. I came in 2nd that year, about 45 minutes behind Jason. This is when I realised stopping wasn’t an option. The only time I stop now is if I have a comfortable lead and I go into a conservative mode, double checking the bike, taking extra time to look after my nutrition and put a full focus on not having meltdown, as the race is likely in the bag and only a catastrophe could stop the victory.”
In 2018 at WEMBO in Scotland, Penglase got to reap the benefits of calculated decisions, knowing when to use the time in a stop to find time later in the race. “It had been raining non-stop for 20 hours and all of my gear was saturated and I was freezing. I was in a battle for 2nd place and I had to weigh up whether it was worth stopping to put on dry kit so I was comfortable for the last 4 hours of the race. I chose to stop and put on dry kit which saw me fall back to third, but because I was comfortable and dry I was then able to finish strongly, finishing the race in 2nd place.”
What is clear is that stopping is dead time, but if you are stopping, do so with a plan. If your stop will benefit your bike making it through the race, or involves being sure your lights last, you’re well fuelled or just dry and comfortable, then it could be a very important reason to stop.
What are the most essential pieces of equipment for your 24 hour races?
“While this isn’t a piece of equipment, the most essential thing to have in your pits is a good support crew,” Penglase told us. “You can have all of the best equipment in the world, however, if you don’t have someone in your pits that is on the journey with you throughout the entire race, you won’t be able to fully capitalise on your riding abilities out on the track.”
“It’s also important that you and your support crew approach the race clinically, almost like a business transaction. You don’t want to be mollycoddled by your support crew when things start to get tough in the second half of the race. You want them to have your welfare top of mind and to make the call if they believe you are at risk of hurting yourself due to injury, fatigue or illness, however, you don’t want them to be giving you a cuddle when you start to get a bit tired in the middle of the night.”
We have seen Wallace draw support from a variety of people, but he puts a lot of his faith in his equipment. “You need two bombproof full suspension bikes such as the Kona Hei Heis which I have ran the past 3 years. I know how these bikes handle, what tyre pressures to run, how often to swap bikes to get them checked over. With two strong bikes it takes a huge pressure off my head, knowing it’s really just up to me to power them through the race.” With two bikes and a support crew, if you have a problem you can swap in the pits and let your trusted supporter sort it out for you.
“The other key piece is a good set of lights,” explained Wallace. “Often half a race is spent at night so it’s important to have a strong set of lights which takes a lot of stress off the eyes and can allow me to ride the descents at full speed during the night. I have been luck you have been supported by Radical lights through my past 3 Championships.”
Nutrition, what has worked for you that people think is crazy?
“Hot reconstituted mashed potato (i.e. Deb) with vegie stock and maltodextrin,” explained Penglase. There is a huge variance in what riders use for nutrition, but what they have all got a method and reasons. “My support crew put this into a snaplock bag and then chops a corner off which allows me to suck it out of the bag while still riding. It’s salty and hot and when it’s 2 degrees and you are 12 hours into a race with lots of sweet carbs already in your tummy, it tastes absolutely amazing.”
“Nutrition is still a work in progress but I’m getting the fuel dialled in better every year,” said Wallace. “During my first World Championship win in Italy, in 2017, I was in a rush to make my home made electrolyte mix the morning of the race and put way to much of something in the bottles. With about 6 hours to go in the race I went from having the ride of my life to one of the worst upset stomachs of my life. I felt poisoned and could barely eat or drink anything for the rest of the race. Luckily I had a big lead and, already having lapped everyone, I could ease off on the accelerator and just cruise it in for the W while trying not to barf. As for food, I heavily rely on Clif products such as Clif Bars, Clif Blocks and Clif gels. This makes up about 60% of my calories while the other 40% comes from corn cakes with almond butter, homemade baked goods, a few bananas and maybe some hemp chocolates.”
While each of the options works for the given rider, be assured they didn’t just happen upon their nutrition choice. You need to do your research, and then put it to use to find out what works for you – and do this well in advance of your race!
In the pits, have you spotted any crazy nutrition or equipment strategies?
“I’ve heard rumours of Jason English eating pizzas mid race, and other pretty heavy foods. His wife is a nutritionist so she tries to keep him in line, but I think if it was up to him he would eat everything and anything during a 24 hour race,” said Wallace. “I’ve seen other racers stop and engulf huge plates of food, likely over 1000 calories in a sitting, that strategy usually leaves them with a food coma induced DNF.”
“The craziest thing I ever seen anyone eat consistently during a 24hr was banana bread smothered in vegemite,” Penglase told us. ” I love both items separately, but together, I’m not so sure. I think I need to put it on my list of things to try because the individual swore by it.”
What easy tips would you give to get your bike and body through a 24hr?
“Break the race into time segments (e.g. 4 x 6hrs) and have the goal to get through each individual segment before thinking about the next segment. If you think about the race as one 24hr segment, it’s far too overwhelming to get your head around,” Penglase told us.
“It’s important to know one’s body during a 24 hour race and to ride within oneself, knowing there’s an extra gear in the legs when it’s time to put the hammer down,” said Wallace.
Penglase also said that fuelling can never go out the window. “Nutrition is your fuel. Like a car, if there is not fuel in the tank you won’t be going anywhere. And talk to people throughout the race. It’s amazing how a conversation with someone out on track can perk you up.”
Wallace also said to be mindful of your equipment, but know when to take a risk.
“Know your bike’s limits and don’t put it at risk unless it is a decisive moment of the race. During Worlds in Scotland in 2018, I had been in the lead for a bout 6 hours but was caught by the Americans Taylor Lideen and Josh Tostado around midnight. They had the momentum from having caught me, but I could tell I was riding as strong or stronger them on the climbs. I decided to make my mark on the slippery technical descent on course. Having spent years riding on the gnarly west coast trails of Canada, I figured the slippery course was to my advantage and that dropping these guys on the descent would put there race aspirations in doubt. Slip sliding down a mountainside in the dark was a bit riskier then I would normally put my bike through that far into a 24 hour race. But this helped establish a lead which I would never relinquish. It’s good to be conservative for both the bike and body during a 24 hour race, but it’s also good to know the limits so that when it’s time to go that both you and the bike can handle a bit of abuse!
If you want more details on WEMBO in Armidale, you can find everything you need to know on the event website.