This article first appeared in issue 97 of Singletrack Magazine. Subscribers have full access to all Singletrack articles past and present. Learn more from about our subscriptions offers:
UK Riding: The King and the Joker
Words by Chipps, photos by Chipps and Colin Henderson.
Strathpuffer is arguably the hardest 24-hour mountain bike race on the planet. It takes place in northern Scotland in the middle of January. There are 17 hours of darkness and the weather is nearly always awful, with a frozen or gritty course that eats brake pads, drivetrains and riders’ spirits in equal measure. It has been exactly a week since Jason Miles and Guy Martin lined up for the 2014 ’Puffer. Jason, who is no stranger to solo racing, finished in first place while Guy, ‘that bloke from the telly who appears to dabble with bikes a bit’, finished second – in a field of 75 soloists. Both of them then generously allowed themselves a whole week off the bike.
In an attempt to work out what makes the unlikely friendship between the two racers tick, I’ve invited them down for a local ride the following weekend. They duly arrive in Guy’s Transit Custom (apparently bought with the proceeds of selling his fabled Aston Martin V12 Vantage as it mostly spent time in a draughty garage, ashtrays full of sweet wrappers, getting bird crap on it) and Guy immediately sets about saying hello to everyone and quizzing them about their bikes, their shoes, their names and, oh, is the kettle on? Don’t mind if I do.
“Are you brewing up?”
On the surface, they’re an odd duo: a flashy-looking, 200mph, TV personality and a quietly-spoken IT manager and family man from the outskirts of Manchester, but there is a lot more to both of them than their perceived personas give away. Chances are you’ll have heard of Guy Martin; he’s probably best known for being a motorbike racer, appearing as himself in the 2010 film ‘Closer to the Edge’ about the Isle of Man TT. He’s also been making more and more TV appearances recently as the new action hero, happy to throw himself down a ski slope on a sledge, or go for speed records on a bike slipstreaming a truck on a beach.
They’re like two scheming schoolboys who’ve found the keys to the physics lab
Jason, meanwhile, is a co-organiser of the well-loved Hit the North bike events and has done his fair share of racing 24-hour events too – usually solo, and usually pretty successfully. Initially he appears to be the more sensible of the two. Everyone seems to know that Guy is a bit of an enthusiast for anything with two wheels, but the pair catalyse each other, bringing everyone along for the journey. You can’t stop them when they’re together – they’re like two scheming schoolboys who’ve found the keys to the physics lab. Guy is full of questions about everything – and Jason is full of answers. You can see how they’re bound to get each other into trouble.
Even over the first cup of tea, Guy is asking Jason about tandems. “Do you reckon you could get a tandem round the Finale 24-hour course?” From there, the conversation escalates to tandem records, and then Land’s End to John O’Groats records. The latter doesn’t appeal though, because it would involve three days of staring at a stem while going full-bore through the Highlands. It seems that the plans they consider aren’t about making a publicity splash, or just setting or breaking a record – something only fits the bill if you can look back on it and say ‘Yeah, that was FUN!’
It’s all pretend, right?
It’s so easy to dismiss Guy Martin as someone who has a go at stuff for the sake of the TV, or to get another bit of PR coverage, but that would be doing him a huge disservice. He’s not another John Noakes having a go at bobsleigh for Blue Peter: the man is a mountain biker – and mountain bike racer – almost as much as he’s a motorbike racer. It’s just that one looks a lot better on the telly. He has finished the Salzkammergut Trophy (a gruelling mountain bike race in Austria with more than 7,000m of climbing over 200km) and placed 10th at the 300km, four-day Trans Hajar race in Oman. He’s also raced Mountain Mayhem, Sleepless in the Saddle and Relentless 24, starting in teams and going through pairs before starting on solo racing. “I used to look at solo racers and think ‘you sad bastards, have you got nothing better to do?’ but having done it, I have major respect for these guys. It’s not win, lose or draw. It’s not about tyres. It’s mental.”
Guy’s TV persona might give you the impression that he’s a bit scatterbrained and easily distracted, but this is far from the truth, as Jason says. “I know that it would be easy to assume that [Guy] is easily distracted, but in reality he’s got this quite frightening ‘focus’ thing. I guess you don’t ride motorbikes on street circuits (and live) without it. If he’s decided he’s going to achieve something, he’s doing it, one hundred percent, whether that’s learning every inch of the Isle of Man TT circuit or making changes to his lifestyle to achieve success in 24-hour mountain biking.”
This focus is what helps Guy to race motorbikes, yet he seems genuinely puzzled that people now want to talk to him at motorbike races since he’s been on the telly. “To be honest [as he is, to a fault], motorbike racing is a bit of a pain these days. I only enjoy the events when I’m actually on the bike, but that’s not even two percent of a weekend. Now… well, I’ve got time for everyone, but everyone thinks they can just come up and talk to you right before a race because they’ve seen you on the telly.”
Mountain bike racing, especially solo mountain bike racing, appeals to him because everyone there is there to race, or to support a racer. There’s little idle chat, there are scant few spectators and even the competitors aren’t really out to beat each other – that’s been mostly decided in training, it’s just a case of applying it and keeping focused over the course of the race. So, Guy has the focus, but what about his infectious cheerfulness? Does that ever wane? Apparently not and, according to Jason, the happy rider is always faster than the unhappy one.
A ‘pre-fame’ Guy had raced at early Hit the North events and got to know Jason a little then, but it was when Jason won the solo category at Relentless 24 in 2012 that Guy approached him and asked for some help with training. Guy was planning on racing his first solo 24-hour at Strathpuffer a few months later and asked if Jason could give him some pointers on training and nutrition.
Jason: “We exchanged texts and emails, went out for a few rides and we chatted some more about big races and ‘other stuff’ – and lo and behold, it turns out he’s quite good at this 24-hour solo thing. He finished fourth that year.” This year, with a bit more practice under his belt, Guy came second. His mentor continues: “In return, Guy’s reminded me (I’m an old, slightly-jaded and grumpy 40-something after all) that as long as you don’t lose your focus on what you’re doing and plan properly, you’ll be there or thereabouts at the end. The main thing is giving it your best shot. As long as you do that there can’t be any complaints.”
Guy admits to being “quite honoured” to have been asked to go out riding with Jason and other endurance racers back then. He quietly confesses to being in awe of Jason and his ability to race bikes. “You get a false sense of security… the pace isn’t that hot, but the pace that he can do on a six-hour ride is the same one he can maintain for 24 hours.”
Jason has a full-time, ‘proper’ job with an IT company and frequently gets up at 5am in order to bang out a three-hour training ride before going to work. It’s easy to forget that Guy has a regular job too. He’s not a professional motorbike racer, or TV star: he’s a truck mechanic. Most of the week you’ll find him in his work overalls, fixing a Scania in a chilly Lincolnshire workshop. “I sort of cheat with my bike training. I’m out of the house at 5am and I ride 20 miles to work. If I didn’t live 20 miles away, I don’t think I’d be doing 24-hour racing. But I’m out riding to work because I get bored of sitting in my van, going through the middle of Grimsby. I don’t know how people do it; doing the same gear changes at the same junctions every day.”
It would be easy to mislabel Guy as a chatterbox
They touch on their ‘training’, which in both cases involves riding your bike a lot because you like riding bikes, getting up early in the morning, not watching telly or the internet and, well, more riding your bike. Jason: “It’s not easy with a full-time job and a wife and kids that need to be treated fairly. I’m lucky in that my work hours are predictable and my commute takes me 15 minutes each way, but a weekday can start at 5am with a three-hour ride. Sometimes the day ends with a ride – sometimes an intense hour, sometimes a few hours. If I’m riding at the weekend there’s no messing about having a lie-in, so I’ll probably be out at dawn then too. In common with every other endurance racer I know, I’ve got one of the most understanding and supportive wives a bloke could wish for! Thinking about it, if it wasn’t for bike races maybe I’d probably end up riding once or twice a week and spend the rest of my time mowing the grass or watching the telly… that would be awful!”
Any tyre, as long as it’s black.
It would be easy to mislabel Guy as a chatterbox. After all, that’s what he seems to do on TV, isn’t it? That’s just not true, though. Guy is a quizzer. He has a deep thirst for knowledge and wants to know the answer to everything. The day is full of Guy asking a question and people falling over themselves to answer it. And it’s not just to make people feel clever, as Jason says; he remembers and heeds every single ounce of advice he’s given, becoming stronger as a result.
As we get bikes and riders out in the surprisingly mild, grey day, Jason answers an onslaught of questions about his bike. It’s the only bike he has with gears and it still has the ‘optimistic’, file-tread Stan’s Crow tyres of summer racing fitted. Guy has brought his very shiny Orange Gyro, a bike that he rode at the Strathpuffer (though not before doing the first 20 hours on an Orange Clockwork hardtail). It’s shiny and full of Hope kit, though he can’t tell you what tyres are on it: “They’re black and round.”
As we winch up the brutal first road pitch, Guy and Jason are off the front, chatting. Not because they’re showing off, but because they’re both genuinely fast riders and both of them are glad to be back on the bike after their week off. Guy said he’d got bored of driving to work after a couple of days (he’d taken the Monday off work, which barely gave him time to drive back from Inverness and put his kit in the washing machine). The heavily-breathing peloton catches up on the first of many false summits, as drops of rain begin to fall. “Ahh, I needed this!” says Guy. We press on as the heavy spatters of rain turn the sky black. He’s full of questions still: about the bike market, about racing, about wheel sizes; and, unfortunately for me, all of the answers require multi-syllable replies that I gasp out while he accidentally rides away from me.
The rain turns to turbocharged hail, but Guy, dressed in a jersey and a thermal, mutton chops dripping water, doesn’t seem that bothered as he waits good-naturedly for everyone to catch up. Jason nearly shows us how it’s done with a virtually bald tyre, but even he is defeated by the slick moorland. Undaunted, though, we figure we might as well bag the summit and we push up the steepest pitch, right into the path of the hailstorm – touching the summit cairn before turning tail back the way we came.
“I’m good at crashing, eating cake and drinking tea.”
Back in the almost-welcome rain again, we switch from slogging to freefall on one of my favourite descents. Guy is no slouch downhill and drops everyone on a track he’s never ridden before. Jason has seen him have huge crashes on the mountain bike, but because they’re never anything as bad as he’s experienced on the motorbike, he seems to shrug them off. He stays upright today though and is waiting by the gate at the bottom for me. As we chat, we see Jason, silhouetted on the skyline as he gingerly nurses his bald tyres down this slick descent. Guy gives me a conspiratorial look and says: “He’s a bit of a hero to me, is Jason. Such a great rider.” I’m so completely derailed by the genuine humility of the man that I don’t know what to say.
By the time Jason and the rest of the pack join us in sheltering from the rain, I put it to them that there’s a choice of another stiff pull and great descent, or home on the canal for crumpets and tea. The vote for crumpets is unanimous, with the pair of podium-topping hardmen among the loudest voices.
Back home, the pile of wet gear by the door grows and the kettle goes into overdrive. Guy and Jason bookend the table and our attention is drawn first one way, then the other as the two racers swap bucket lists. Jason: “My mountain biking bucket list is gigantic, as I’m sure everyone else’s is. Not just races (although that’s a big list) but just big rides in epic locations. The trouble is, the list of races that I’ve already done but want to do again is just as big as the list of stuff I’ve never done… I’ll probably have to ride until I’m 90 to finish them all off at this rate.”
Guy is fulfilling one of his dreams this year by racing a turbocharged motorbike at the Pikes Peak hill climb, but he also wants to ride a pushbike from sea level to Everest Base Camp. And probably then climb it – the short odds of success (of doing it and living) just spur him on more. With a stage race under his belt, he’s considering the Trans-Provence and, seeing as he’s ticked the box of getting onto the podium at a 24-hour race more than once now, he might as well go for the win next time.
As we polish off the last of the crumpets, Guy and Jason let slip another project in the pipeline. Something to do with world records and bicycles made for two, but the details are hazy. Or perhaps it was the sixth cup of tea blurring things. Either way, you’re as likely to see either of these chaps out on the trails as you are on the telly. Both of them have worked hard to get where they are, yet both refreshingly retain a love of riding bikes.
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