Rob Dean’s Top Tips for Sleepless in Saddle

Competing in Sleepless in the Saddle this weekend? We will be and we are somewhat inevitably worried about our (under) preparation, so we sought some advice on what can yet be done to make the weekend go as painlessly as possible as well as learn about what we should do next year when we go back on the bonky early hours promise to never do anything that silly again.

Riding for Santa Cruz Bicycles and The North Face, Rob is now well established as one of the UK’s top endurance racers. He has competed in Sleepless in the Saddle more years than not over the years, ticking off male and mixed teams categories, geared, singlespeed as well as male pairs and solo before he got all racey on us, winning solo at SITS two years ago in 2009. This year he’s completing the full set and will be racing in the mixed pairs category.

Rob Dean at rest... Pic by Dan Milner

STW: First up, what should we be doing between now and race day? Massive rides, sprints, eating mountains of pasta or just worrying?

Rob Dean: As you’re probably aware, it’s too late to build up training base the week before a race. You should have done your last big ride the weekend just gone and nothing too hard, just a few hours. After that it’s tapering where the aim is to avoid tearing your muscles and to allow them top recover fully from the training you’ve been doing as well as to store energy for what lies ahead next weekend. This doesn’t meaning sitting still, you’ll want to ride most days, just gently.

Inevitably, as we’re all undoubtedly aware, this also includes “carb loading” in the days before the event. Don’t go crazy just before though, as you don’t want to line up feeling sick and bloated. This can be the classic pasta or potatoes, but you’ll be pleased to know that fat free sugars such as dolly mixtures (on 3 for 2 at the corner shop in Hove) are just as valid. Well, I was pretty excited about that anyway. The normal sensible tips of eating well, lots of greens (iron) and as much sleep as you can get always help too. And drink plenty of water.

STW: What about eating during the event then, any dos and don’ts we should be aware of?

Rob Dean: My first piece of advice is “never use anything new on race day”. This applies to kit and food. If you’re not used to eating energy foods, trying to survive on them exclusively for 24hrs of racing in addition to scoffing them freely the morning before the race could end unhappily. Myself, I use a mix of SIS GO gels and electrolyte GO powders, avoiding solids gives my stomach a far easier time of digesting and helps keep the nausea at bay that can come into play after hours of non-stop eating during solo racing.

My first piece of advice is: never use anything new on race day

For team racing I switch back to solids as well as energy products. There’s time to digest plus the treat of proper food is a massive boon for my head and helps keep a smile on my face. If you’re looking to go as fast as possible, avoid anything too fatty or too much milk as this will just block your stomach and reduce energy absorption. There’s plenty of time to eat all day breakfast sandwiches after the race has ended.

No matter what category I’m racing in, it’s always good to have a few favourites in there to act as treats and rewards, jelly babies and flapjacks work well to fill this void. Oh, and remember to drink plenty. if you’ve not had a wee in a while, that’s not a good sign for your speed on the upcoming lap. Oh, and increasingly liberal use of caffeine as the race progresses never did anyone any harm either.

Tapping it out... Pic by Dan Milner

STW: So, other than eating lots, what should we be doing when riding? In particular any pacing advice?

Rob Dean: When attempting a solo race, I always remember an excellent piece of advice, which was that, while no-one wants to set off full throttle and blow up, it’s always best to start a little faster than you think wise, as you get more tired you’re unlikely to speed up! Team racing is often a case of setting off full throttle and trying to hold on (or hold off the inevitable cramps) until the end. Nutrition, hydration and electrolyte consumption, through gels, energy drinks, tablets or bananas are your friends here. A pair is the hardest formula to manage I find, as there’s never time enough to properly recover or rest, yet the laps seem very long each time. The key here is to be organised between laps and a quick exchange of words at the changeover is always time well spent either swapping notes on the course conditions for the rider going out or “can you just” for the rider going in. When you get back to the pit, whilst it will make me sound like your mother, putting something warm and dry on straight away, will pay you back.

A key trick here is to keep moving out on the course, whether solo, in a pair or as a team; always have someone out there. A 30minute rest may seem to make you feel twice as fast, but try going 5 minutes faster per lap for the next 6 hours to make that time back and see how horrendous it feels. It’s always better (within reason, of course) to keep moving, but just a little slower.

STW: What about the bike, are there any dos and don’ts for an endurance event over a weekend day ride or a mid week post-work blast? Oh, and “what tyres?” of course

Rob Dean: Glossing over the last question with the lazy “the ones on your bike” (pressures and familiarity with the traction of your tyres are equally important for a tired rider in the dark at 3am), a fatter tyre will help look after your body for the full duration of the event. If conditions become somme-esque, a pair a dedicated, narrow, mud tyres are an irreplaceable spare to have on hand of possible.

I’m a big believer of “if in doubt, pack it”

As for the bike, the key here is never try anything new on race day. This applies from top to bottom of the setup. Maybe run the suspension a little softer of you’re racing solo, but we all spend hours on end on our bikes and our bodies are adapted to them, given we’re all about to spend a lot more time than normal on them in one go, now is not the time to ask our bodies to adapt to a new position!

STW: What kit should I bring and what should I race in? Any pit-couture tips?

Rob Dean: I’m a big believer of “if in doubt, pack it” when it comes to cycle kit on race weekends. If it’s wetter, colder, windier or hotter than expected, it’s important to remain as comfy as possible, for one’s head as much as for one’s body, as both play an equally important part in 24hr racing across all categories. Waterproof shorts or mudguards are your best friend if it’s a wet weekend, so these are always a must. I’d always hope to start in just a jersey and shorts unless it’s really miserable and then, as it cools down during the night, I slowly add, arm warmers, a gillet and maybe some knee warmers, which gradually come off as the sun comes up and everything warms up again. Fresh kit from time to time, even if it’s just gloves, can feel like a real luxury. There are no environmental awards to be won minimising washing upon your return home by only using one pair of shorts for the whole weekend. Between laps, it’s a race to get into as much warm, dry kit as I can! A down body warmer is a particular favourite piece of kit, as is a good woolly hat (or beanie, if you must).

Wellies and woolly hats; although an undoubtedly strong look, pit couture is not a high fashion environment. However, that said (and it needs saying, based on my experiences at other 24hr races this year), there is never, NEVER, any excuse for bib shorts without a top on!

STW: You mention managing your head, what are the issues and how to tackle them?

Rob Dean: In the dark and cold of the middle of the night, with over 12hrs of racing pounding at your body and with an intimidating amount of racing remaining, you will feel tired, cold and less than 100% happy with the thought of pounding the pedals with absolute enthusiasm. This is moment the test. Overcome this and you have won, the rest is just fun and you can look back at the weekend with a deep satisfaction that only great athletic prowess can bring. This moment can last a minute or an hour, the key is to just keep on moving, even if this involves walking, eat your way through it, drink, recharge, probably put some warm kit on as soon as possible, you can always take it off again in a minute, and wait for your body to come back to you. Most of all, remember to smile.

This is moment the test. Overcome this and you have won, the rest is just fun and you can look back at the weekend with a deep satisfaction that only great athletic prowess can bring.

We’re all doing this for fun, remember. Night can be the most fun, but the biggest test of the head, but if (when) you make it through, the fabled “dawn lap” can be simply the most uplifting experience, as the sun magically refuels your legs, and is well worth all the perseverance.

If in doubt, the answer is always to eat your way through it – this is one of the many things that makes this a truly great past time…

STW: What about time off the bike; any secrets for before the race and between laps?

Rob Dean: Before the race it’s just a case of keeping off your feet as much as possible, which is alarmingly tricky to do as we’ve all got friends we want to catch up with, stands to go and see, signing on to be done etc.

Between laps, the pit area is your friend, time spent making a somewhere to huddle, keep warm, refuel, chat and plan the next laps assault on the placings will pay back. Essential kit to have includes: a table to put stuff on, plenty of big water carriers, wellies in case in rains and a white board for noting down when people need to go on out or came back from their laps so change overs are not missed, I’ve been both victim and perpetrator of the missed changeover, in both cases the whiteboard was forgotten at home and it was a pretty rubbish experience I can assure you! If you can beg, steal or borrow one an EZ-Up, gazebo, or equivalent, it’ll be a great addition to any team pit area (or solo trackside for your solo supporters)

STW: So, what should we have done leading up to the race? 100 mile epics? Hours of painful, turbo trainer intervals?

Rob Dean: A little of either of those two will do you no harm , but neither are actually necessary. Regular riding is all that’s really required, even to compete right at the front. 3hr-5hr, medium intensity rides are the key to a good base mileage. Time is a much better gauge than distance. The odd longer ride will be a benefit, particularly to make sure you’ve got the eating and drinking right for a solo ride. I really enjoy a long day out in the saddle from time to time, so I’m lucky that my “training” and my riding for pure enjoyment are pretty much the same thing. For team racing, intervals and working on that top end speed will help, but as a hater of all things turbo trainer (I don’t own one) racing your mates (and I mean flat out up and around, not just down) on your mid-week thrash will go a long way to simulate this, just without quite the same efficiency.

When I first started I used to reckon one long ride a month (50 miles on the mtb or 100 miles on the road) from the new year, with weekly night rides in the week and a commute to work by bike every day would sort me out for a summer’s team racing and the odd solo. My training time is currently significantly more than this, but the cornerstones of it are still the daily commute, a mid week blast with my mates and the occasional long day out when hectic real life schedules allow.

The secret is, unfortunately, to start as far out as you can and to just get the miles in, constantly, which means getting base miles (hours) in, in the winter. This just can not be done in the summer with races to do as well as “real life” family and social commitments of BBQs and weddings to get to at event free weekends. Regular long rides through the winter months can have more than their fair share of “why am I doing this” moments, I can assure you, but just can’t be replicated by smashing it over the busy summer months, which normally only allow a topping up of the form gained (or lost) over the quiet, and longer, autumn and winter time.

STW: Thanks for your time. Finally, if you could give just one piece of advice, what would it be?

Rob Dean: Well, my golden rule is “never use anything new on race day” however, the best advice I’ve ever had, by some way, was to just go out there, do your own ride, and enjoy it. Oh, and don’t forget to smile.

If you’ve got any questions for Rob, he’ll be lurking around his Santa Cruz EZ Up all weekend, or read more on www.bigrobracing.co.uk

Online entries are now closed for Singletrack Sleepless in the Saddle, however if you email provelo@talktalk.net you may still be able to arrange an entry.

If you’d prefer to download and print a paper entry form along with a cheque – or hand deliver it to Patrick Adam’s house – then you can still do that.

Click HERE to download the PDF file.