The 2019 National 24 Hour Time Trial

Across the weekend of 20-21 July, the Mersey Roads National 24 Hour Time Trial was held largely in Shropshire though it started in Cheshire and the last few hours were spent across the border in Wales. I attended in support of clubmate Martin Brown, who had completed the event unsupported(!) in 2017 and managed over 400 miles. The target this time around, with Coach Dave Truman, Richard Bryant and I there to support, was 435 miles or 700 kilometres.

Richard collected me just after 8am as the rain began to lash down in Hitchen Hatch Lane. I had set my alarm two hours previous to get out for a quick bike ride and managed to miss any moisture coming from the air, though there was a bit of surface spray. The rain showers reduced visibility a little for the first hour or so of the drive, with a partial lane closure for surface water on the M25 (or possibly M40?). Once the rain stopped we made really good progress, getting to the rather small Warwick Services before 10am for a quick coffee stop.

The going was good post-stop and we reached Prees roundabout, our home for the next 24 hours, before midday to set up camp. Prees RAB is the chosen location for most support crews as riders pass through ~25 times before heading to the finishing circuit. The spot Martin and Dave had reserved for us offered front row seats to the action -- namely articulated lorries being cut up by boy racers with cyclists trying to squeeze through unscathed.

Room with a view

With Martin clearly eager to get on with it and, I suspected, not too keen to talk about what he was about to do, we got to work setting up the club gazebo. I did have a brief chat with Martin, who congratulated me for graduating the day before, and I tried to avoid talking too much about the race. Martin and Dave left not long after to drive to the start. For some reason the 16 mile warmup into a headwind didn't appeal...

Once all set up, Richard and I were joined by Sam Dorkings from GS Avanti, an Orpington-based club that compete in the Interclub series along with Sydenham Wheelers, and we chatted whilst waiting for the first riders to come through.

From our scenic, polluted vantage point we saw the marshals -- one of whom was a lady of at least 70, take to their positions to count the riders through. We anticipated it would take Martin 45 minutes to ride the tailwind-assisted 16 miles to Prees, and Richard and I crossed to the other side of the RAB (this would be the one of only two occasions Martin and the other riders didn't come directly past our camp) to cheer Martin on his way. The plan stated no requirements for this passing but we took some food just in case.

Prees roundabout: A hive of activity for one day only

There were a variety of riders, wearing all sorts of coloured branded kit, from podium hopefuls in their wind-defying gear to the first timers on a road bike, it was great to see them all at the beginning of a day that would define so much to each rider -- in one sense or another.

The intriguing take home for me, as I watched riders pass with over 23 hours still on the clock, was that this was a race that was the same for everybody, regardless of speed. At an evening 10 you might find some guys rocketing up and down the road, finishing in 18-20 minutes whereas others might take double that time. A timed event lasts just as long for everybody. To paraphrase Greg Lemond: It doesn't get any easier, you just ride farther.

Martin, surprisingly to us, got to the RAB just after 3pm meaning he must've averaged 21+mph for the opening miles. He arrived at the same time as two others (nobody was drafting), threw an empty bottle to the verge and called for Dave to bring him another bottle, up the road. Neither Dave, Richard nor I anticipated Martin needing any fluids at all though I still felt ill-prepared for not taking a bottle with me. This slight balls up brought about the metaphorical tearing up of the plan and, later, we joked that everything was going brilliantly for the first 16 miles!

We returned to the gazebo, Dave and Richard set off to meet Martin up the road (you're only allowed to pass the rider you're supporting once every 10 miles) whilst I waited and chatted with other Sam.

A message came through that they'd be back around 5.25pm and could I prepare two bottles, one with rice cake attached the other with a bar, though I mistakenly read it as Martin would be coming through at that time. All but one of the bottles were in the car with Dave and Richard and my feelings from earlier of not being suitably prepared resurfaced.

There wasn't a lot else I could do but wait by the side of the road (this was the second time Martin and the riders would pass nearby but not the side of the RAB we were all stationed) and chat with the other support crews, all of us staring up a long stretch of the A41 trying to work out whether the dot was our mate or not. Part of my reason for wanting to support Martin was the atmosphere among support crews and to experience the event itself. One woman I spoke to was wearing a bright yellow 'Harvel 5' t-shirt -- an event held near to where Sophie and I used to live, and the reason for my sparking up a conversation -- and was supporting her husband, a Catford CC rider, Rob Bullyment.

Fortunately the guys arrived back in plenty of time. They had successfully replenished Martin's stocks and we were suitably prepared to offer more hydration and nutrition products. Martin rolled through not long after Dave & Richard arrived and, rather than take a bottle from either Richard or I, he pulled over and said 'Food, not water, I need food'. So Richard & I stripped the food from the bottles, gave Martin the rice cake, a banana and a bar I had stashed in a trouser pocket.

Our next piece of support wouldn't be for an hour and half, so we settled in for the early evening and Richard prepared a dinner of chilli con carne with boil-in-the-bag rice, which went down very well. Then it was time to prepare for Martin's next passing, around 7.10pm. The near constant clock watching and double, triple, etc. checking of how long it would be until Martin would be coming through again would become a recurring theme throughout the entire support mission.

Martin arrived a few minutes ahead of schedule: Dave fitted another rear light, Richard sorted the food and I gave Martin two rice cakes and a gel. A slick pit stop and Martin was away again.

The next two passings were very easy: Martin simply cycled past and said 'two more', then later 'one more' while ignoring the food/fluid care package combos. Happy days.

Fortunately, as the light faded, the traffic on the Prees RAB gradually died down to a reasonable level as most of the artic lorry traffic kept away with one passing through only occasionally, and the majority of traffic ordinary cars.

Martin's next stop, at 8.56pm, came with what he called a 'technical issue' -- nothing wrong with the bike but an aggravation in the left calf. Dave was tasked with fitting and sorting the lights on the bike, I dug a spiky physio ball into the aforementioned calf, while Richard prepared a black coffee and food. Within 10 minutes Martin was fed, rested, restocked and ready to go again. His spirits seemed high and I noticed a determination about Martin that, I presumed, was in preparation for the night riding to come.

Weapon, with a view

Two more 12.6 mile "Quina Brook" loops were successfully completed at ~20mph before Martin and the other riders were sent back down the A41 to the "night circuit", a ~20 mile out-and-back along a road with a surface quite rutted in places, mostly the line where cyclists usually ride. It's not just Kent that utilises the "cyclist trench" then!

First proper stop

Martin started the night circuit at 10.30pm and requested his gilet, which would need his number pinned on, the next time he came around. Once Martin had gone, Dave headed back to his hotel room for a sleep until the morning; Richard and I would take turns sleeping in the back of his car, for 3-4 hours each, so Martin always had at least one person there to help.

Panoramic full scenic

The next time we saw Martin was at 11.27pm -- another 20mph lap! He didn't want the gilet yet, just more food and Nuun and off he went again. If our calculations were correct he had done 186.3 miles in 9:10, 20.3mph average!

Richard said he'd prefer to go to bed later, so I went to bed after Martin left. The set up was a sleeping bag on a camping mat in the back of Richard's spacious Mercedes. Once inside it was remarkably peaceful, given the constant noise of people and occasional traffic outside, as well as being comfortable. I set my alarm for 3am and started to drift off to sleep when Richard opened the car door and said 'We're going for a drive; Martin's come off'. My initial response was 'How bad was it?' but luckily it didn't seem too serious, judging from Richard's phone conversation with Martin. It was just a case of needing to get his spare helmet and give him the once over.

The journey from Prees to the location of Martin's accident offered, in hindsight, a great juxtaposition between comedy and drama. Directly behind Richard's car somebody had pitched an orange tent. At the time we didn't even think about the noise that Richard's 5.5-litre Mercedes AMG produced when starting the engine -- you can just imagine what the person sleeping in the tent must've felt like hearing that roar inches from your pillow!

On the way there Richard struggled to negotiate passing cyclists as it was seriously hard to estimate the distance to the bright white lights up ahead on the opposite side of the road. Throw in a not insignificant amount of cars and artic lorries and you've got a dangerous scenario. (In the morning both Richard and I reflected on how dangerous the night circuit was and how we wouldn't have been surprised had somebody been seriously injured.)

Whilst all of this played out in the front of the car, I was trying to quickly get dressed laying down in the back. I was in my sleeping bag, in just boxer shorts, on top of a mat. Even when stationery the mat proved slippery, so with every turn of the wheel, no matter how small, I was sliding across the back of Richard's Mercedes, desperately trying to find my clothes and redress myself. It was like being on an ice sheet.

Fortunately I got dressed in time and we arrived to find Martin beside the road, covered in all sorts from the hedge he had fallen into. He seemed shook up but okay to carry on. The state of his aero helmet shows just how hard the impact was, and obviously why wearing a helmet is vital. We would later find out Martin was travelling at over 20mph when he crashed.

Ride without a helmet at your own peril

A quick helmet swap, once over of the bike to check for damage and remove bits of hedge from it, double check that Martin was okay to continue -- he seemed more annoyed than hurt though that might have been the adrenaline -- and he was off again, like a firefly against the vast black nothingness that was the A41 at night.

Back to Prees and I tried to get my head down. Thankfully I fell asleep quite quickly and slept well until the 3am alarm. Got up, quick pee in the service station and back to the gazebo to find Martin sat down talking to Richard. He was having a brief stop and, again, seemed in good spirits; clearly tired but not excessively so. I reminded him that dawn wasn't far away and he had a sunrise to look forward to.

Martin left, Richard handed over to me and all of a sudden I felt a much bigger responsibility. Richard assured me he had his phone on in case Martin needed to call him (my phone had died but was on and charging thanks to other Sam's power bank).

And so it was my turn to do what fishermen do best: patiently wait for that one moment of high octane action, though with a view of the roundabout where the A41 meets the A49, rather than a meditative lake, with riders intermittently passing  by, some faster, some slow, all moving forward towards the dawn that awaited them, shouting their number each time they passed the indefatigable marshals and timekeepers without whom this event would cease to be.

Beauty exponentially increased by not being able to see anything

At 4.15am Martin came through again, 'quite tired' and after another rice cake and caffeine gels -- one up each leg of his skinsuit -- no fluids needed and sent on his way with the promise of sunrise.

The horizon across the other side of the RAB started to clear and I hoped that all riders would be treated a well-deserved sunrise to savour to give them a boost for the remaining 8-10 hours.

Notice the changed front wheel and helmet

Although the traffic had died down through the night, the lorries kept coming, I'd say on average one every five minutes, as well as the odd car. I made myself a cup of tea shortly after Martin left and found it not as revolting as a young me had declared -- a sign of my getting old.

What wasn't getting old was how brilliantly Martin was doing -- 269 miles in just 14 hours at the last hand up. Averaging well over 19mph/30kph and motoring along nicely, even with a quick dash into a roadside hedge. His crash hadn't seemed to affect his form on the bike which was a relief.

Martin needed 166 miles in the remaining 10 hours which seemed eminently achievable yet wasn't to be taken lightly. Richard and I earlier had agreed we thought Martin was capable of a bit more, though that's not to say 435 wouldn't be a fantastic achievement, rather we had both suffered at the hands (legs?) of Martin on numerous group rides and knew him to be in fantastic shape.

At 4.44am, with sunrise less than half an hour away, the streetlamp which had been illuminating our camp overnight turned off (Tory power cuts for you...) in anticipation of sunrise. The sky directly above the horizon opposite had turned a peachy pastel colour which gradually grew until the overcast sky made way for a glorious sunrise.

Riding into the sunrise

Not long after sunrise Martin was back and keen for a bagel and to litter our "awning" with his empty wrappers. He confirmed his next stop would be the "breakfast stop" -- the plan said: black coffee, yoghurt, muesli and honey, and a bagel with apricot jam.

Dave returned to camp five minutes before Martin arrived, at 6.30am. I made them both a cup of coffee, Martin had his food while Dave sorted the lights on the bike, then drank both his and Dave's coffee, which seemed fair enough to all involved... You could see how much the effort had taken out of Martin (I suspect the same could be said for all riders at this point) and his hedge-diving antics had turned his black and white club skinsuit into a lovely camouflage with greens and browns all over his back, as well as a few rips here and there. Perhaps Martin has finally come up with a club kit that will satisfy all ~150 members...

Stick to the plan...

Now back on the shorter Quina Brook circuit, we'd see Martin every 40 minutes until the marshals decided to send him on to the finishing circuit.

Double teapot watching Dave sort things out

The next time we saw Martin he stopped for a quick Formula One-style pitstop featuring a change of front wheel -- from spare to original deep section (which had been changed whilst I slept) -- whilst Dave sorted the electrolytes and nutrition.

Between Martin flybys I sought breakfast in the form of a bacon sandwich (one each for Richard and I) and scrambled eggs for Dave (low carb *shudder*) from the greasy spoon which claimed was "as seen on television"...? No idea. Regardless, the sandwich hit the spot in a way half a packet of Gingernuts did not at 5am.

Not a participant

Across the morning smatterings of classic cars showed up in the truckstop adjacent to our base and at half eight the sun finally broke through the clouds providing a much appreciated warmth after a chilly night.

Take a moment to appreciate this

Just before 9am I developed a "game" of Spot The Time Trialist -- borne out of our collective wandering of how many riders were still on the circuit. I started recording the time each rider passed, which was also handy for calculating how fast selected individuals were going, or rather how little they'd slowed. I remember Michael Broadwith -- he of LEJOG fame and previous winner of this event -- covered the 25 miles in 1:10. Staggering speed 21 hours in to the race.

Martin twice came past, once for a Voltarol, which Richard thought was an exotic foodstuff, on his left calf before heading off to the finishing circuit, a 16 mile lumpy ride with a grippy road surface.

Along with all the other crews, we dismantled our camp and started to pack everything into the car. Dave took the important items to the circuit while Richard and I waited a little longer just in case Martin had been asked to do one more lap of Quina Brook. We did a few calculations, worked out a time we could reasonably assume Martin wouldn't be coming past then, once that time had been and gone, headed off to meet Dave.

With a car full of camping gear and after a brief chat with the elderly marshal aforementioned who, incidentally had been the first woman to ride the Mersey Roads 24 back in 1967(!) and had attended the event in one guise or another ever since, with the exception of one year when she was busy "producing the person who drove her here today"! Richard, rightly so, told her the event wouldn't run without people like her.

One of the indefatigable marshals, the first woman to ride the Mersey Roads 24! 

On our way to the finishing circuit we passed two riders, Ian To & Nick Clarke, both "fast riders" who had to do an extra Quina Brook loop. Nick's support team were three gazebos down from us at Prees and, as one of the guys challenging at the pointy end, was looking to maximise time on the bike.


Earlier I saw his own F1-style pitstop where he had support crew changing everything like worker ants while, presumably, his partner spoon fed him something resembling yoghurt, then he was off. A stop or two later he spectacularly kicked off about an apple gel, or lack thereof, shouting and swearing as he went past.

There were two guys on a tandem that really tickled us every time we saw them as the rider on the back looked like Andy from Little Britain! Both in their seventies, the guy on the back -- who we later found out was called George -- looked like a real character with buck teeth and a look on his face that he had no idea what was going on or where he was but he was riding his bike with his mate so all was right with the world. Fantastic.

70+ years old on a tandem -- George on the back resembling Andy from Little Britain!

We found Dave just after the 'TK2' junction stationed at an incredibly scenic, relative to our previous location, view of hedgerows and a long slight uphill straight for the riders approaching. The location, particularly the drastically reduced level of traffic, was literally and metaphorically a breath of fresh air.

Quick stop on the finishing circuit

Martin was maintaining an incredible 18mph on the finishing circuit which was by no means pan flat and included an 800 metre hill at an average of 2%. Ordinarily nothing to write home about but you can bet anything that would have hurt 22 hours into the race.

The first pitstop in the new location was slick, applying Voltarol to the troublesome left calf, liquids on the bike and a fresh stock of food, including a tin foil-wrapped cheese bagel up a skinsuit leg. The next time we saw Martin he hadn't touched the bagel as his hands weren't working properly and he couldn't open it! Dave ripped it in half, gave Martin the unwrapped portion and off he went again.

Barking instructions...

There was a gentle breeze, though it might have felt a bit more exposed on the bike as we were sheltered by a hedge. The riders continued to roll through past us, some faster than others, all deep in their personal pain cave, but moving forward nonetheless. It was fascinating to see the grimaces on the faces of riders, regardless of how much distance they had thus far covered. Some were fighting to maintain certain speeds and squeeze every mile out of their legs; others were just trying to keep the pedals turning and keep moving forward.

Michael Broadwith's face in particular stuck in my mind: a full gurn with his tongue lolling around the outside of his mouth like a puppy's. Mark Turnbull maintained a seemingly permanent mouth-open-top-lip-peeled-back-above-upper-teeth grimace that didn't change the four times we saw him.

For the women the two "favourites", Crystal Spearman, who won last year, and Christina Murray were both a picture of steely determination and concentration.

The impervious Crystal Spearman

Our calculations suggested Martin was on course for 449 miles, there or thereabouts and, after completing the penultimate loop, he had amassed 440 miles and had 26 minutes left.

GS Avanti's Chris Dines, who had started 23 minutes before Martin finished, as you might imagine, 23 minutes before Martin was due to. Chris dismounted and practically collapsed onto the grass roadside verge. Quite worryingly he soon started shivering but Sam and the crew covered him in a jumper which did the trick.

Martin had shouted "TK3" on the last loop, so Dave drove there in anticipation of that being the location where Martin would finish. As it was Martin finished just around the corner at TK2, and Richard and I were there to shepherd him back to Richard's car. Martin got off the bike and hobbled a bit but generally looked great for having just cycled for an entire day.

Dave returned and we got the bike in the back of the car and all headed to the HQ for the results. Martin went off to have a shower and came back with a funny anecdote of sharing a communal shower with Michael Broadwith and another rider, with none of them capable of performing basic tasks such as taking clothes off and cleaning themselves. What a sight that must have been!

From the time I left home to when Richard dropped me back was just under 36 hours. It's incredible to think how much happened in that relatively short period of time. To have witnessed Martin's heroic efforts on the bike were worth all of the travelling and partial sleep deprivation.

The results give a total of 446.65 miles at an average speed of 18.61mph and Martin as 23rd on the day, but I think you would be hard pushed to find a more impressive performance than that of Martin's, among the 64 finishers. At the age of 58 when his contemporaries are slowing down he is only getting faster. I think that is a testament to his dedication to training on the bike (400 hours already this year, an average of 565 hours/year over the last 5 years according to Strava), his consistency with off the bike stretching/pilates, and a strict nutritional routine seemingly revolving around homemade rice cakes.

If, and this really is a big if, Martin decides to race the National 24 in 2020 I would put money on him surpassing this year's effort even though he has set the bar astronomically high.


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