First published in Singletrack Magazine Issue 102. Click below for subscription information:
As 24-hour racing approaches its 25th year, Chipps looks at how the sport has expanded, contracted and evolved over the years and where it’s headed.
Words and pictures by Chipps.
The discipline of 24-hour racing started in 1992 with the first 24 Hours of Canaan (in West Virginia). In 1998 Pat Adams introduced Red Bull Mountain Mayhem to the UK at Trentham Gardens near Stoke and the event has been running ever since, now on its fourth venue. The early noughties saw a huge growth in the sport of 24-hour racing – events sold out in a matter of days and huge fields of up to 2,500 racers descended on courses in Sandwell and Eastnor for Mayhem and other 24-hour races across the UK from Plymouth to northern Scotland.
Throughout the early years of this century, from the Strathpuffer, up in Inverness in January, to Relentless in Fort William in October, there was a full calendar of 12- and 24-hour racing throughout the UK. It was a discipline that any self-respecting trail rider had to have a go at. And many riders found that racing once would lead to a whole lot of potential ‘Next time…’ ways to improve on their performance, race enjoyment or camping comfort that necessitated another go the following year.
However, the 2008 financial crash also seemed to coincide with several consecutive wet summers in the UK, and numbers for Mayhem and other British 24-hour races dropped, despite the solo categories being more popular than ever.
Recently, though, there seems to have been a resurgence in interest in 24-hour racing. Though it’s not the racers of yesterday returning. The numbers seem to be coming from a surprising new direction…
Since my first 24-hour race (at Canaan in 1996), I’ve done over 30 24-hour races. I’ve never once been remotely competitive; I’ve gone to events as 90% of the other racers do: to see friends, camp out, eat charred food and drink some beers – with a bit of bike riding thrown into the mix. Over those years, I’ve seen the scene grow, wane and now diversify.
I’ve found that the core of riders that make up the racing fields has changed. Whereas ten years ago, the start line would be ‘normal’ regular mountain bikers, it seems those riders aren’t that visible any more. Anyone who wanted to do a 24-hour race, seems to have done one by now, or two, or three. And then most of them stop. Even if you love the racing, the darkness and the festival atmosphere, all it takes is a wet year, or two wet years in a row and you’ll start questioning whether you’ll race a 24 again.
Some, however, try the 24-hour teams thing, get the bug and then go on to the harder and more specialised challenge of pairs and solo racing, and this niche of a niche seems to be more alive than ever. There’s not quite enough solo racers, it seems, to warrant solo-only events, but there are many racers for whom a solo 24 is their goal for the season.
So, as dedicated trail riders take a step back from 24s, perhaps to take part in the Scott 100 events, or avoid organised events altogether in favour of weekends at a trail centre, who’s then making up the sizeable fields we still see at Mayhem?
These full race fields seem to be people entirely new to mountain biking – or at least not fanatical enough to consider themselves ‘mountain bikers’ above all else. They come from doing other organised events, like the Thunder Run 24-hour running race, road sportives or the company sports club – where they rode the coast to coast last year and this year it’s going to be a 24-hour mountain bike race.
As Mountain Mayhem organiser, Pat Adams says: “It’s a different group of people. You don’t get the £8,000 bikes as much, more the £1,000 to £1,500 bikes. Racers come prepared for a weekend of camping with their friends and colleagues. They have fully stocked larders of food and wine and they’re definitely up for some glamping. Although they seem a little less clued up on what to eat at four in the morning when bacon has lost its appeal a little!
“We’re still sustaining 1,700–1,800 riders after 18 years. There’s still the hardcore racer who’s always done Mayhem, but they’re now joined by the true weekend warrior. We’ve got more families coming nowadays – they bring the kids and want to try the big event. It’s a tradition, like the London Marathon. Our title sponsor, Go Outdoors, has realised that and it’s seeing that the typical Mayhemer is an all-rounder competitor and event-goer that wants to buy camping gear, so it’s a great fit.”
Just the one
It seems that solo riders, while dedicated, simply don’t number enough. Sara Randle of SIP Events, who put on the UK Solo12-and-24 Hour Championships for a few years, eventually had to stop due to a lack of numbers.
“I started the UK and European Solo Championships to try to give solo racers a focus and encourage newbies, but it was ten years too late really. There’s never been the appetite for solo racing in the UK – it’s something people either do once (or twice) to say they’ve done it, or they’re an endurance specialist – but even they have a lifespan of racing as the training and racing at the top level is such a punishing regime.
“There’s definitely been a shift in the type of people riding 24-hour races. They used to be the place to go and hang out with all your mountain bike friends, a free weekend camping with or without the family with some racing thrown in. But as with everything, people got bored and moved on to the next new thing and as friends drifted away, so their whole riding circle went with them and weekends at trail centres, in the Alps, enduro racing or wherever, were far more attractive.
“However, 24-hour racing seems to attract a lot of beginners and that’s no bad thing; anything that encourages people to get out on their bikes and give it a go is always good for our beloved sport.”
‘Twinkly Dave’, a long-time solo rider, agrees with Sara: “I doubt you’ll ever get a solos-only race in the UK again. Certainly not a 24hr only event anyway; the UK Champs ran as a 12- and 24-hour ‘solos only’ event for a few years, but even that was never oversubscribed. Organisers need to be able to make a profit from setting a race up, and restricting the field to such a niche market can’t make much business sense. Even the solo-only WEMBO race in 2017 in Finale is running a team event at the same time as the solo World Champs, albeit on a separate course. This seems (to me) like a great idea; you run the team events at the same time so those riders can see and be inspired by the soloists. That’s how I got into it; I bet that’s how most soloists did.
“I don’t think 24-hour racing is dying a death, it’s just a very niche end of a fairly niche sport. When the (as it was) Red Bull Mountain Mayhem first showed up, enduro didn’t exist and cross-country racing seemed to be on the wane. I think you’d struggle to entice riders who’ve moved on (or have returned, in the case of cross-country, which seems to be resurgent with races selling out in advance once again) back to 24-hour racing now. Maybe the laid-back ‘funsters’ and focused ‘podium-aimers’ alone are the future for 24-hour events. This doesn’t have to be a negative thing – there’s no way you’ll please everyone with the course/facilities if you try to attract every type of rider!”
That Jason off t’telly
Jason Miles is probably one of the best-known UK solo racers, due to his endless (and successful) appetite for 24-hour races and his 24-hour tandem exploits with Guy Martin. He too has seen the fields dip and then recover again, but this time with a different crowd. “You might get one or two Hope Factory riders at Mayhem, but the days of Giant, Scott, Hope, Salsa and others tearing each other to bits at the front of the team race seem to have gone. Things seem to be picking up after the horrible summers of a few years ago, but the lack of any real technical challenge at many 24s will probably put the enduro crowd off. Relentless and the ’Puffer have more ‘testing’ courses, but they’re further away. Perhaps we need a 24-hour race near the middle of the UK (such as northern England) on a testing course to lure those people back?”
You would think that the seemingly disparate aims of the focused soloists and the barbecuing weekend warriors would be incompatible on the racecourse, but that doesn’t seem the case to Jason: “Given the differing lap times and motivation for turning up, it’s a triumph of British Good Manners. (And the people who get pissed off normally vent their spleens on forums the week after rather than have a 2am dust-up.)”
He goes on: “The question about solo categories ‘taking over’ (or at least getting much bigger) is at least partly the responsibility of the riders who are currently racing solo. If you want to race solo against other people in future, the sport needs promotion. Riding lap after lap after lap just for yourself is all well and good, but if it’s something you love I reckon it’s your duty to encourage others to take part – you do that by offering advice, being friendly and approachable. If you’re half-decent you should be professional/not be a cock and perhaps think about organising a race of your own. Inspire others to have a go; maybe inspire them to try to win one or two of these things.
“Maybe your average Brit will be more inclined to race 24s if they knew that the Aussies were starting to dominate it.”
Rob Friel, another race regular, reckons that 24s have a unique balance of serious racers and ‘barbecue riders’. “The only mountain bike discipline where the ‘trail riders’ turn up in force is currently enduro. Regular cross-country and downhill races have lost a lot of ‘typical’ trail riders to enduro, but those events don’t have the Super Chilled BBQ Folk to make up numbers as well. Most people at cross-country or downhill events are only there to compete hard.”
Frazer Coupland of No Fuss Events agrees that the 24-hour experience has evolved while trail riders have been looking the other way at enduro. “I think the experience is different now, with live timing, 24-hour cafes and lighting support. Solo racing is certainly in the ascendency, as are the fields in general. We had 130 soloists this year [at Relentless] whereas at the event’s lowest ebb it had a total field of 150. I think that having had the WEMBO world solo event and the profile it got has made a difference. There is still a place for the endurance events.”
A hidden, night-time world
It seems that 24-hour racing isn’t going away any time soon. Long in the tooth old-school mountain bikers might have been there/done that, but a whole host of have-a-go fun riders have come to take their place. They view it as a challenge just to get round and modern bikes and lights have made the technicalities faced by earlier racers less of an issue, leaving it as a personal challenge akin to running a 10k. In among these people ride the hard-training, dedicated soloists, absorbed in their race within a race, but sitting easily among the rugby-shorted newcomers to the sport. With luck, the racers wanting harder courses will get off their arses and organise their own races and there’ll once again be a new challenge for those riders who vowed never to return.
For now, though, if you’re considering a return to the darkness of a 24, you’ll find a healthy scene waiting to greet you.
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