The North London Thundercats Take On Redbull Timelaps
We asked Altura sponsored North London Thundercats what it took to complete a 25 hour race, the infamous Redbull Timelaps. We'll hand over to Jess to tell us all about it.
The day is Saturday October 27th, 2018. My team and I began our Red Bull Timelaps experience with a sense of trepidation mixed with naive optimism. On one hand, the idea of a 25-hour race in the middle of autumn is enough to turn the stomach of anyone with a shred of common sense. On the other, we were excited to ride together as a team and share the load. Six and a bit hours each couldn’t be too bad, right? Right? We had tents, sleeping bags and lots of food so what could possibly go wrong?
Each of the 190 teams in the race was comprised of four riders. Our North London ThunderCat Black Metal Bicycle Club (NLTCBMBC for short!) team was all-female and was made up of: Jo, our fastest racer who is equally badass on track, grasstrack, fixed crits and road. Caz, who has been racing fixed crits and track since 2016, Lina our newest recruit who seemingly can’t stop riding bikes no matter what the weather and me, a lunatic willing to take on any race just for the fun of it.
On arrival to Windsor Great Park at 7.30am it became clear that we’d underestimated the event somewhat. Thick frost coated the ground and all the layers I’d packed, which at the time seemed like ludicrous overkill, were suddenly essential. Extremities had to be protected at all costs, head and neck covered at all times. Down jackets and bobble hats appeared to be the prerequisite uniform. The UK was suffering a freak cold snap after an otherwise tropical October, and the realisation that we were stranded in the countryside for 36 hours when temperatures weren’t even going to scrape double digits – with only millimeter-thick plastic walls to shelter us – began to sink in.
Red Bull Timelaps Tip: Pack ALL the layers and other things to keep you warm (gazebo, blankets, sleeping bags). If you want to be really smug, bring fleece lined boots.
With so many teams taking part, the majority of the event was made up of the racers themselves rather than spectators. Nearly 800 friendly riders milled around the race camp, which was made up of 190 neatly-sized rider pits centred around a huge communal marquee replete with gas heaters and hot water urns – a welcome sanctuary when the cold got too much. With 18 female teams and 42 mixed teams there was a pleasing number of women around, 131 in total giving the event a well balanced atmosphere.
After signing on, our two (one all-female, one all-male) teams set up a borrowed gazebo in the pits and discussed strategies. We are a multidisciplinary team but more used to fast and furious crit and track races, so this was a new format for us. Advice from Timelaps veterans was that one hour stints per rider was enough to keep average speed high and give others enough time for recovery, and that you should save your strongest rider for the power hour at 2am, when a smaller course opened up and laps counted for double during the magical extra hour when the clocks turn back.
As the time approached midday and the first riders were to set off we sent Kris (from the men’s team) and Caz (from the women’s team) out first to get the standings off to a good start. Not one to dilly dally, Kris immediately got into the front group featuring the likes of pro cyclist Alex Dowsett and other elite racers and racked up a formidable number of laps, securing the NLTCBMBC men 13th place in the standings, while Caz briefly secured us first place in the female team standings, before some of the strong teams like Team Specialized Wmn started laying down some fast lap times and edged quickly into the lead.
This was the fun part of the race. The sun was out. Everyone was still feeling fresh and energised. Being last in the line up, I spent the first hours swanning around the pits and chatting to fellow racers, roaring encouragement to teammates and friends as they passed on the course and checking the big TVs as the leaderboards constantly refreshed. The transitions were highly entertaining, watching cyclists attempting to run along a lumpy felt walkway in cleats whilst wrestling the relay armband off their skinny arms is a sight (mercifully) rare to see.
My first hour was trouble-free. We’d been supplied with some cold weather essentials by Altura especially for the weekend, including cosy thermal jerseys and gloves, so I was comfortable and warm despite the headwind on the exposed parts of the undulating 6.5km course, and I surprised myself by bagging our team’s fastest lap after jumping in with a speedy group. During these early, dry hours things looked so positive. Our first four stints had earned us a comfortable fifth place in the female rankings and the men’s team were punching in the top 20. But it’s a twenty five hour race, not a four hour race, and anything can happen.
Red Bull Timelaps Tip: Create a post-ride routine so you don’t have to think too hard after each stint. Prepare a change of clothing to get out of wet or sweaty kit as soon as you get off the course, and have what you need to rehydrate and refuel close to hand.
Our second set of rides went without a hitch and I was lucky to follow some fast wheels again for most of my laps, keeping pressure on the female team sitting in fourth, the Dirty Wknd Femme Fatales, who I hoped we’d catch at some point. But when the rain began to fall and the winter sun faded, our exuberant mood started to fade with it. I sensed mild hysteria spread throughout the camp, as fatigue from the repeated full gas efforts started to take their toll and cracks began to show. In our team, Lina and Jo had been unable to join any groups on their last stints and were feeling disappointed with their lap times, while Caz had been unlucky enough to catch the worst of the rain, and with no hot shower to jump into or warm space to raise her body temperature she couldn’t recover properly. During her third ride on the now dark and relentlessly undulating course she started to suffer badly, and returned having got caught in icy rain again and was now on the verge of hypothermia, unable to get warm and too nauseous to eat.
To give her and everyone a bit more time to recover I decided I’d do some extra laps on my third go. I was buoyed by my previous good performance and hoped my fantastic wheelsucking abilities (honestly, it’s my only skill) would keep the momentum up. During the second lap, I tried to jump onto the wheel of a faster rider but he distanced me. I furiously shifted down, trying to close the gap. Nearly at my last gear, I nudged the shifter paddle to the left, and it kept going. And going. Until it was sticking out of my bars at a freakish angle like a broken bone. And wouldn’t go back. CLUNK. I was in my very highest gear. And I was now at the bottom of a climb.
I rarely panic but this was a moment of sheer, unadulterated alarm. As if cycling through treacle I grappled up the hill, frantically poking the malfunctioning shifter, trying to keep my legs moving and simultaneously process how big a disaster this was and what this meant for the race. Then I remembered that I had little ring, so thankfully was able to gear down and cross-chain my way slowly through the course. On the first flat section I grabbed my phone from my pocket.
It should not be sticking out like that...
“My right shifter has broken and I can’t change gear – I’m coming off and someone needs to cover me!!” I howled down the phone at Caz. To the credit of her and the team, Lina was ready to take over within minutes of my return. I sprinted to the mechanics stand. He immediately declared it unfixable, the metal of the lever itself had sheared away. His solution was to use the rings on the front as my only two gears. My heart sank. The course was too lumpy to survive in a fast group with such limited gearing, I’d only be able to manage slow and painful solo laps. My chances of being competitive had disappeared quicker than you could say “Should have used eTap”.
Red Bull Timelaps Tip: Take a spare team bike that fits all your riders if you can. You never know when you might need it.
I ran back to the pits with the bad news. We had a team meeting and reviewed the not-so-cheerful facts: my bike was unusable and Caz was too sick to ride. At this point, Jo and Lina showed amazing determination and grit in wanting to continue as long as they could and decided to ride on until the power hour was over. Beyond that we knew it was impossible for two riders to do the final 10 hours back to back, so decided to grab some decent kip through the wee hours and make a new plan in the morning. At 1am I curled up in my sleeping bag, awash with guilt about letting the team down.
BEEP. I woke up at 7am feeling…well, rested isn’t exactly the word but less drained than before, and immediately realised that I had to ride again, even if only with two gears. Checking the female team standings we’d slipped from 5th to 17th overnight but still weren’t dead last, so if we continued riding we could limit our loss. I then received a generous message from Canyon, who had seen the Instagram post about my mechanical, and offered to lend me a bike from the Canyon stand. Lifesavers!
A bike tiny enough for me to ride. Thank you Canyon.
Now with three riders on fully functioning bikes we jumped straight back into it and did our best for the final hours. We knew we wouldn’t get back to where we were before but it felt important to finish the race with a bang. Doing one last session and totally emptying myself made it feel like it hadn’t all been in vain, and running up to Lina to hang the finishers medal around her neck when the race finished at noon made me realise that although everything didn’t work out for us, I was so proud to have ridden with these women and dealt with the challenges together. Their strength and determination was inspiring. Having said that, we certainly have unfinished business now and will be back at Red Bull Timelaps next year to tackle this ridiculous race again, hopefully this time with better preparation and better luck.
Red Bull Timelaps Tip: It’s all about having fun with your team. Stick together and support each other and you’ll have a positive experience no matter what.