Domestique – Breaking a World Record

It’s 5.00am, 43 hours into pit crew duties to support a cycle elevation gain world record and I’m sat slumped in a camp chair on a Welsh hillside. This is savage. My mental state in tatters after only 90 mins sleep since waking up 47 hours ago. Head in hands wondering how I’m going to function for the remaining crucial 5 hours to help my mate Alan Colville. I can’t even do the basics of remembering to write numbers on a board. And I haven’t even been cycling up and down the same hillside for that same time! Here’s the story of an utterly bonkers journey to break a cycling world record that began years ago to help a buddy realise a childhood dream. 

Getting to the start line

Before the actual story there’s a story before the story. Although it’s slightly painful territory to cover this crazy challenge to help my mate Alan break the world record for cycle elevation gain in 48 hours began a few years previously. Alan, and my then coach Jon, had the ambition to set a different world record, for the highest anyone has ever cycled (nearly the height of Everest)! This involved an ambitious plan to do the training, get the gear and crucially the finance to take on this mega task. To help them in their goal I spoke to a few friends to see what we might be able to do to help fundraise towards their costs and fundraise for mental health charities. From this ‘Lap of My Mind’ was born. We intended to cycle 4800 miles around the coast of the UK with 10 riders in relay each doing on average 480 miles, in the middle of winter, on crappy coastal roads. The finish would be on the darkest day of the year so fitting with our goals of raising awareness of the benefits of cycling for our mental health. Cutting a long story short, the whole event had both short-term and long-term implications for me with my ride causing ulnar nerve damage that only 18 months later was fully fixed with surgery. The whole thing was seriously stressful and I just wasn’t ‘right’ for weeks afterwards, mentally and physically exhausted. I won’t go into all the details but eventually this led to some difficult times and broken friendships and I have to admit I hadn’t really moved on fully since. What should have been a massively positive experience raising funds and awareness of mental health, and for my mates Alan and Jon’s record attempt ironically ended up affecting my mental wellbeing for quite some time afterwards as their record attempt never materialised and I never felt I had closure for various reasons.

One lasting positive thing that did come out of the whole experience was strengthening my friendship with Alan. I guess you get to know someone a lot better when dealing with difficult things. I think the bike world is super for lots of people hanging out and getting together and even more so with mountain bike racing. But I think we could probably question how well we know people outside of this bubble as we rarely build friendships in the ‘real world’ outside of racing. On reflection myself and Al have a lot in common in terms of outlook and morals but also the fact that he has literally half an arse due to a horrid accident with a truck years ago that took him from top end XC racer to being laid up for months, in a difficult mental and physical state for a long time (before I knew him). By chance I also have some of my arse missing from surgery to remove a cancerous tumour a few years ago which also laid me up for a time albeit much shorter and far less severe. So maybe between us we have a whole set of buttocks at least! 

After the disappointment of the first world record attempt it was clear Alan still had ambitions to realise his boyhood dream of becoming a world record holder. After the Lap of My Mind dust had settled I said to Alan lets just go and plan a challenge just for us over the following winter as a positive target. No faff, no bollocks, just smashing out something and feeling good about it. 

In between this I’d also had some disappointments having had to pull out of the UK 24-hour MTB Championships due to my dodgy ulnar nerve, so it was good for me to have a goal as well. So just for shits and giggles we decided to have a go at an ‘Everest’ where we would cycle non-stop up and down a hill until we reached the height of the famed mountain. Further bad luck ensued and I missed the first Everest that Alan and friend Ian Walker did due to illness so eventually we set a date to take on Draycott Hill in Somerset, a hill known for its steepness. Completing this together felt like a first step on the road to recovery for me in many senses. But it also struck me how easily Alan had done the Everest whilst I was relatively blowing out of my arse. I can’t remember the exact sequence but Alan then ended up doing multiple Everests over a period of time (absolute nutter) both indoors and out (I joined for half of his indoor double Everest, ugh!). Around this time we realised Alan had a raw talent for riding up hills and I found there was a Guinness World Record for the most climbing on a bicycle in 48-hours. It sounded  bonkers but potentially achievable for Alan. So the record attempt was born. We knew we had a team built on trust and friendship, the rest would fall into place. 

Although Alan was doing all the hard work in training for this thing I really enjoyed helping him with elements that could help him realise his ambitions, nutrition, bike setup, hill section etc. It was a mammoth task to take on particularly if you want to break a World Record that’s been held for over 5 years and, apparently, one there had been hundreds of attempts at. Alan had an insatiable thirst for knowledge being relatively new to ultra events and was able to draw on a wide range of people’s expertise. People who were only too willing to give it to Alan as he is basically a bloody nice chap. 

After a few months of Alan putting in the miles we were set for 48-hour record attempt one and I was part of the second pit crew team due to head out for the second 24 hour stint. However due to ridiculous heat, this attempt at the end of August was halted during day one. Lots of lessons learnt and Alan was quickly set another date to go again. This time I committed to be there for the whole time as our newborn was a bit older by that point so a whole weekend away was slightly more acceptable. 

Two weeks out and the weather wasn’t looking favourable for the planned dates at the end of September so some rushed discussions resulted in a last minute change of date for the attempt. Bringing it forward a week to a period where the wind direction would be much more favourable and the skies clearer. Unfortunately this then halved the availability of the pit crew from four to two. This was a massive risk as crewing for 48 hours with all the requirements of capturing evidence, keeping an eye on nutrition etc was a big burden for just two people. However we decided to go for it as it would have been the last chance we had this year with decent weather. Thanks to mine and Budge’s super-supportive other halves we were given passes for a few days of pit crewing on a hillside in Wales! Game on. 

Top of the hill, what a view!

Day 1

Myself and Alan travelled to site in the motorhome he had hired the night before, with Budge making the long drive down from the North West on the morning of the challenge. The hillside was near Builth Wells, right next to a military firing test area, and the hill had an average gradient of 10%. The wind was also blowing in the right direction, a massive boost on the exposed road. Our pit area in a roadside layby just before the top was pretty exposed to the strong wind gusting up the road so we were well wrapped up. 

To break an official world record there is a massive amount of faff, bureaucracy and expense involved. Once you start the process you soon realise that Guinness is just a commercial organisation that has to raise funds to keep going. It’s sort of like when you realise Father’s and Mother’s Days are created by card companies to make money. This meant lots of evidence capturing requirements and timing equipment which Alan had spent a lot of time organising, and relied on pit crew to keep on top of as well as everything else involved in keeping someone going up and down a hill for 48-hours. Over evidencing we all agreed was the way to go. 

At the 10am start time I went down the hill to film the start and the first couple of reps on my bike with Alan. Halfway up the first climb I noticed a wobble in his tyre and before I could insist he stop to check it, BANG!, the inner tube blew as the tube had been caught in the tyre. So we fixed it then restarted the challenge at 10:21am. Luckily we didn’t have any further tyre trouble after that. 

Porting equipment around the hillside

Alan got into the rhythm of pushing out hill repeats and pit crew in the routine of logging activity and handing up endless food and bottles. We had people appear to either photograph or ride with Al at times which was great to break up the time. Darkness came surprisingly quickly and Al was still going well and to plan. We gave him the planned 20 minutes sleep on night one and worked through the hours without any major dramas. I had a brief lie down but didn’t sleep, whilst Budge managed a short nap after being up for longer. Al’s first wobble came overnight as lap times started to drop right off around the middle of the night, pleasingly some sleep sorted him out and he eventually drew back on the schedule. 

The man himself!

There had been a number of rushed efforts in the days before the attempt to produce a spreadsheet that we could use to track pace and basically tell Al whether he needed to speed up or slow down. Budge valiantly tried to work with other people’s workings but ended up doing a modified version himself which eventually became somewhat of an obsession as we were both nervous about giving Al inaccurate information. We constantly checked our calcs back and forward thousands of times – it felt like!

Early on filming evidence

I was glad Budge took up spreadsheet duties as numbers aren’t my forte. I focused on nutrition and performance but I was equally nervous ensuring Al had the right nutrition to keep the legs turning, especially given he had had issues with vomiting on the failed previous attempt. I’ve been on the other side of the tape many times and although it sounds ridiculous to complain if someone hasn’t got the right thing ready for you in the pits, it can be disproportionately frustrating. I tried to then put myself in Al’s head space and think what he might need at any point. 

Mr Calc

Me and Budge made a decent team, by that I mean he didn’t kill me after 48 hours working so closely together. Budge started Team JMC and has created a club that contains a super group of people that go and enjoy events at all levels, supporting each other along the way. This was probably one of the most extreme shows of support for our teammate Alan. 

All seemed to be going well though and we mixed in some real food amongst the packaged stuff and he stayed off gels for as long as possible. His digestive system seemed to be amazingly on song which is a massive factor in ultra efforts like this. 

[Skip to next paragraph if easily offended] We also took time management to the next level by taking Ian Walker’s tip to eat whilst on the toilet. This really did save time in pit stops which we were generally keeping right on point and to plan. I managed a short nap on the first morning which helped reset me for the day. 

Al had spent a long time doing an hour by hour plan for everything.  A plan we broadly followed but the reality is that everything is going to go tits up at some point when riding for so long and it’s critical you react and adapt the plan appropriately.  It was pretty stressful constantly trying to think what Al would need and also what needed doing at any one point. There wasn’t as much sitting around as you’d think! Every minute he stopped was losing 12 meters of climbing, so the pressure was on unlike any other race I’ve witnessed or been part of. 

Although a relief to make it through night one after some serious pacing doubts, it was sobering to think that we would have to go through another night to get to another morning! 

Day 2

Visiting riders helped break things up for us all and messages of support via WhatsApp kept us motivated. Al’s family arrived during day two and ended up staying later after a trip for some lockets and burgers to keep rider and pit crew respectively going. Once they had departed, showing how great minds think alike, myself and Budge had individually given Al a gee up to say right you’ve had the nice family time, now it’s race time again. Hoping to give him a boost for the monstrous night to come. Our evening was brought to light literally by military flares booming over the adjacent hillside and we just hoped that our countdown timing clocks weren’t targeted! 

Myself and Budge made the decision that we would both be just sucking it up and staying awake for the whole time of the second night. As both of our bodies and minds started catching up with Al’s levels of fatigue we figured two half minds and bodies were better than one! We could see this could be possible, we just had to throw everything at it as a pit team to support Al. 

Ugh

We continued to be about on schedule to break the record but on the rare occasion when an unplanned stop happened, no matter how short, it quickly became apparent how detrimental this could be for the record. Al had planned for his rep times to slow but as we neared the hardest hours of the night, Al really started to slow and we became really worried as times slipped from 18 mins to 21 and he pulled in to tell us he was really struggling before setting off again. I jumped on my bike to ride behind him to see what was happening and Al down was very slow on the descent and more wobbly than we would have liked. Especially given the winding hillside, speeds of 30+mph, the ever-present risk of sheep wandering onto the roads and a cattle grid to cross. Reports of hallucinations were very worrying, was this the end?

At the turnaround it was clear Al needed some sort of intervention. We didn’t have another stop planned for 2 hours so anything at this crucial time would undoubtedly set us back. Added to the fun was at the bottom of the hill I had pinged my achilles that had been recently injured and it was properly painful. I had to pedal one legged up the climb whilst trying to plan and agree a course of action with Al, whilst calling up the hill on the phone to Budge. 

This was all really concerning and whilst pedalling up a 10% slope in my trainers and down jacket I had to quickly think about what to do. So I made a quick instinctive decision to let Al have a stop and try and get him to close his eyes for a few minutes and hope he could then make up the time afterwards. This was a really concerning time as when he came in we had to direct him to bed with care. Myself and Budge talked outside about what to do whilst Alan was sleeping.  I was on the side of get him up and running as soon as possible whereas Budge was (rightly so) extremely concerned for his safety. It was obvious that IF he did go back out he would have to be accompanied but I had just given myself a sick note and could barely walk and Budge hadn’t brought any cycling clothes or bike with him. 

Once Al had been given a 5 minute nap and a hot bowl of food he fortunately started to show regain some colour in his cheeks, enough that Budge was convinced to jump on my bike to ride alongside him. Thankfully the rest did the trick and Al started to crank up the pace again whilst I hobbled round the pits in pain and feeling pretty useless. Budge quickly pulled in as he wasn’t enjoying riding full speed downhill, not clipped in, over cattle grids, on someone else’s bike, but he reported life signs from Al which was a massive relief. Fortunately we didn’t have to get to the point of forcing him to stop but this step wasn’t far away. This was a super hard situation to deal with but one where I felt strongly that Al could continue if he had a nap. It wasn’t until afterwards that I realised it wasn’t just a hunch that suggested that course of action but from something I had recently read about ultra runners doing two overnights back to back with no sleep and solutions to exactly the same problems. A short eye close could work wonders. Either way it worked and Al began to fly again making up time quickly and agreeing we would completely cut out unnecessary stops. During the ‘intervention’ in total he had been in the pits for about 18 minutes, amazing what the body can achieve. In hindsight we never really considered what Al wanted to do and we didn’t ask. It seems very odd but in that situation we felt a huge sense of guardianship for his well-being.  Al also never made one single comment you often hear in these situations, ‘can’t’ or ‘don’t want to’ were not in his vocabulary such was his focus on the challenge and ambition. 

Amazing picture by Ant Pease

Just as things had started to settle back into a rhythm again I stood up and ping it felt like someone had stabbed me in the achilles again. I slumped back down into my chair and the sleep deprivation along with the stress of the situation just became too much and I had a short uncontrollable sob. Partly in helplessness and partly a bit of relief that this thing was now possible again. The emotional rollercoaster was a brutal one. Either way my head was all over the place and Budge had to take on the main duties whilst I tried to pull myself together. I couldn’t even remember to note down the basic things Budge had asked me to do. I madly texted a few local riders in the off chance they fancied standing in at 5am on a Monday morning as I didn’t want to be the weak link in Al’s support chain. I resorted to taking some of Al’s caffeine tablets and multiple cups of tea but I think that just made me feel even worse. It wasn’t until the golden sunrise that my brain adjusted and I was able to think straight again by which time the pain in my achilles had eased, helped with a handful of painkiller drugs that were now being rationed between me and Al! 

The 40 hour death stare

Al had somehow pulled out a blinder since his nap and was heading towards equalling the record with 45 minutes of riding still left (well what we thought at the time anyway). This was incredible considering where we were only a few hours ago. Myself and Budge were now totally exhausted but jubilant and we allowed ourselves a mini celebration when he broke the existing record. Amidst jubilant and hoarse screams filled with expletives, water was sprayed on Alan and Ant Pease (riding with Alan to video the moment the record was broken), disappointingly not champagne. However we knew he had to beat it by a margin so we pushed him on until the end supported by photographer come super support rider Ant Pease. We were still nervous as to whether or not to believe the numbers but with the time left we felt he would definitely be over the record even allowing for a margin of error. 

3 broken blokes

As the clock ticked over hour 48 we couldn’t believe he’d done it and it was certainly one of the highlights of anything I’ve ever done in cycling. To have that moment together at the end to celebrate was very special. Even Budge appeared to have something in his eye. Truly shivers down the spine stuff and a monumental effort by Alan which just blows my mind having witnessed it first hand. The feat is made even more impressive when compared to the previous record that was set on a very straight hill in California compared to this Welsh hill littered with sheep, corners, cattle grids and blustery autumn weather, with 10 hours of darkness TWICE.

Dream team

It was tear jerking stuff and on a selfish personal level it brought the whole Lap of My Mind thing to a close, finally helping a mate break a world record. Although I wanted to help Al in the back of my mind I also wanted to learn more about myself from the other side of the tape. Moreover to apply what I had learnt in ultra stuff over the years but to someone else’s benefit and ultimately close a period of my life with parts I’d really rather forget.

Lessons

Top tips from the other side of the tape:

  1. Make sure you have enough people to allow for sleep amongst the team if possible.
  2. Talk and agree responses to predicted situations in advance of them happening.
  3. Take EVERYTHING, doesn’t matter if you don’t use it.
  4. Put yourself in the shoes of the rider throughout, what might they be needing, food, moral support etc. Have multiple options of things to hand just in case. 
  5. Be prepared for an endurance event mentally, imagine you are in a competitive situation as much as the rider. 

Epilogue

In the last year some of the most satisfying things I’ve done in biking and life in general have been helping others to do stuff, whether that was doing a virtual cycling Everest to help fundraise for my now deceased mate’s family, starting a community energy group in my village and now Al’s ride. This is quite a change from the selfish lifestyle of a 24-hour solo mountain bike racer and all that it entails. But perhaps it’s shown me how important it is to get outside of your own headspace particularly in the current diabolical times we face and how that can enrich your own mindset whilst ultimately gaining the satisfaction of helping others. We could probably all benefit from occasionally being domestiques.  

You can read Alan’s epic account from inside the tape here: https://www.teamjmc.uk/2020/10/reaching-new-heights/ 

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