Every year, about January I start to feel excited at the prospect that in a few months time it’ll be Mayhem. This could be because, being British there is an inherent hopefulness about the weather. A preoccupation that means after a long wet winter the possibility of a dry, dusty all day and all night mountain bike race in the coming summer might be just that, actually dry and actually dusty. Hope springs eternal in the UK where the weather is concerned. It has to because if we’re being honest it’s pretty rare we get dry dusty mountain bike races at all, let alone dry dusty Mountain Mayhem’s.
So, this 24hr point of reference on the longest day each year is important for many reasons but the first is hope. It’s been going over decade. I’ve been going eight years. On numerous occasions I’ve said enough’s enough but without fail come January it begins all over again.
24 Hours of Mountain Mayhem is without wanting to put too fine a point on it, the daddy of euro enduro. A huge festival akin to Glastonbury and although smaller in scale, perhaps more fair comparisons have also been drawn to the legendary 24 Heure Du Mans. Racing, camping, feasting, spectating, cheering, witnessing, gasping, crying, all do their bit to make it feel like the same kind of atmosphere as the French all nighter at La Sarthe. Anyone that’s attended both will tell you, noise aside it’s basically the same thing. Le Mans isn’t like other car races and Mountain Mayhem is equally unique.
All this the brainchild of one Pat Adams. And there really is only one Pat Adams. There’s a lot written about this and Pat’s story of how he decided to start a journey with Red Bull that would end up as arguably the biggest 24hr mountain bike enduro (before the word enduro was the word you used) and a focal point for riders all over the world every June. But rather than break down the Mountain Mayhem tale again, I’ll leave you to bump into that one on the internet and instead jot down a few of my most memorable experiences and observations from nearly a decade of riding a mountain bike round a ten mile course in the English countryside all day and all night, usually in the rain with added mud, often swearing, grimacing or smiling but somehow understanding it will not be your last time.
The hills are alive with the quiet sound of nocturnal mountain bikers.
Truly a surreal feeling, about ten hours in standing waiting for a baton from a team mate staring up at the large hill opposite and seeing lines and lines of mountain bikers zig zagging up the slope on one side at varying rates of slowness and descending the other side of the tape all seeming fast. A kind of stage of lights all dancing to their own tune, flashing and flickering their way up and beaming their way back down. Close enough to make out colours but far enough away to be silent movements. Like standing at Arnage at 3am at the Le Mans 24hr but with the world’s biggest ear plugs installed. And it’s about the same time into proceedings at Le Mans that you usually realise the context and scale of what you are a part of. These machines are not stopping going they’re just keeping on keeping on and it truly is an amazing feat to witness. Hundreds and hundreds of mountain bikers all fighting their own little battles silently into the dark.
If you’re not very good at something then you might as well look good doing it.
There’s a certain air of smugness that comes from riding a cross bike on a mountain bike trail and overtaking someone on four inches of fun while on what is basically a 1970’s racer. It’s kind of a similar feeling having a £5k carbon odyssey overtake you through the arena in a flash of high modulus progression only to have the cheers from the turned heads come back your way because you were a stupid enough aesthete to ride a 21yr old immaculate Fat Chance Yo Eddy through the wind, rain and mud because it just sometimes is about the bike.
When all the cheering’s faded, you’re left with the sound of silence.
Or the eery sound of lungs panting and cogs making revolutions. Once climbing out of the main arena that forms the start, finish and interim fly by mid course and seeing the glow of the results screens and the lasers from the sponsor’s parties fade as though driving north into the nature from a Spanish coastal party town, you realise you’re on your own now for the next hour. Just you, your jelly babies and a hundred other faceless voices breathing and swearing, muttering, chatting and telling you they’re overtaking on the right. It’s weird having conversations with shadows and silhouettes. I’ve invested oxygen talking shallow to make someone feel better and then banked it getting great insight into subjects from people I will never recognise in daylight. It’s quiet and vulnerable and trusting and always seems to work out well.
Find a good stick and keep it somewhere safe.
It seems horribly smug, but of all the kit people seem to prepare and carry on a one hour lap of the West English countryside at 3am the only thing they’ll probably actually need is a six inch stick of a sturdy natural build and easy storage shape. They really ought to tell them as they line up to start thinking about it, but I suppose that would weed out the numbers a little. After a couple of laps when you see the right stick you’ll know which of nature’s designs are best for unclogging v brakes or four bar linkages or triples. Grab, use, guard.
Gorillas in the smoke machine mist.
One year turning a corner into a woodland section unveiled a scene I still re-live sometimes on domestic night rides. Smoke machines, lasers and a DJ set playing amazing tech house all made me want to stop and party. How did the sound not carry around a dense wood? It was like something out of The Lord of the Rings but at 120bpm was fairly mystical. Then came the gorilla. Having a gorilla jump out of a bush and chase you through single track to beats and lasers at bedtime became the stuff of local legend. A few others experienced it. Though not many, enough to validate but not corrupt such myth. Odd and a little scary, it became the stuff of wonder.
First or last, everything else is just treading water.
“Hurry up, you’re the last in the race.” “No I’m not, he is.”. Standing behind an oak tree, looking back at the broom wagon talking to my friend I realised a hundred yards in is probably no place to stop for a pee in a mountain bike race.
Finding a wife in a hedge, in the dark in the middle of a meltdown.
“Hello Gussie, need a jelly baby?” – How did she find me up here, how did she know it was me? How did she distinguish between silent weaving lights. How long has she waited for me? How many people has she handed jelly babies to? I don’t care, I love her and jelly babies. She is my family.
It’s not really cheating if you did it by accident, it’s an accident.
One year of particularly bad weather in 2008, at around 2am I packed it in and cut out half way round what had become a trudgery of misery on foot. Realising my tent was within spitting distance of the next corner, I turned in and clipped out. Over. Last one. Never again. Until 8am. Sun, blue sky, a clearing trail, my dry shoes and I thought we might give it another go so I worked out where I bailed mid lap and re-joined the race, all be it 6hrs later and in a fresh clean outfit. Although it wasn’t where I came off about five miles in, it was about three hundred yards from the finish line. Which explained why the father and son spectator combo gave me such a disapproving shake of the head, folded armed mutter and glare when I caught their eye as I cut under the tape in fresh white get up clearly having just got up and had breakfast.
Bears do shit in the woods. They also ride 1987 Cannondales and swear.
Did a man in a bear suit riding a Cannondale SM700 just tell you to **** *** you ****? Yup. He’s old school. He was berating my modern bike. We think he was in special forces. He likes dressing up.
A whole box of energy gel later and still not dead.
One year a team mate did 24hrs on a mixture of 48 energy gels and a lot of drum and bass music. And he didn’t die so I made him tell the manufacturer as no doubt they don’t actually know what happens to you if you eat a whole box in one sitting and presumably it’s good to know you don’t actually die.
Junk food allowance.
I only eat chips when on holiday. Holiday chips. This rule extends to Ikea, so I allow the consideration it is a holiday destination and it stretches to Mountain Mayhem, that is a kind of forward operating base of a campsite and therefore has it’s own rules and currency, that of racing chips.
Heckling is the new racing.
It really might be following the discovery of not only a megaphone but it’s ability to single out and reach a sole rider on the hill opposite and get him or her to wave back at you over a mile away. Cue twenty two hours of inspirational one liners now the stuff of legend and almost an aspirational right of passage through what would otherwise be just another section of switchbacks through the trees. The more finely tuned the comment, the better you’re doing.
Mayhem has written so many of the experiences and memories that make up my mountain biking patchwork quilt. Mountain biking and I go back a long way further than this race but somehow it has forged it’s way into my soul and that of those I love to the extent that it feels like it’s been part of the family forever somehow. And so it is that as the leaves fall and the evenings draw in we near the time that the conversations start up again. Team of ten? Mixed? Solo? Heckling only this time? Maybe a bit of everything? The February entry deadline usually tells all. And even then, come June plans and teams will no doubt change. Now all we need is no rain through May and we’re sorted. Perhaps we should run one in northern Spain? Now theres an idea.