Hot tea, dry socks, flushing toilets, pancake breakfasts.
Mini gas heaters and egg mayo sandwiches. Thick gloves and toffee-flavoured birthday cake.
A shared gazebo with a friendly, helpful army team (who placed ninth!).
The Rugby World Cup on the TV and boiling water in the warm communal tent.
These, and my brilliant three team mates Elle, Emma & Courtney, are just some of the things that made 25 hours of racing Red Bull Timelaps that little bit more comfortable.
And the things that didn’t make it more comfortable – the battering wind and rain on the first day, the chilling cold and frozen toes in the early hours, the obscene alarm times and aching legs – well, they made it memorable, and gave real substance to the experience. The night time racing, the pit-side banter, the communal feeling of effort, tiredness and togetherness within our team and fellow racers…
They’re the things that made me love the event and realise that actually, I can do endurance cycling events, and yes, they can be heaps of fun!
What is Red Bull Timelaps?
For those not in the know, Red Bull Timelaps is a 25 hour cycling endurance race, taking place over the weekend that the clocks go back (late October) in the UK. Riders take part in teams of four or, if you’re hard enough and you’ve got proven 24hr endurance race experience, you can go solo (!) around the course at the beautiful Great Windsor Park.
So, because of the extra hour, a ‘normal’ 24 hour endurance event becomes a 25 hour one with the extra hour you usually get in bed. And for Timelaps, at 2am, the time when the clocks go back, that becomes POWER HOUR. The rider taking on the Power Hour got to ride a special extra loop of the course, with lights, music and laps that counted for double.
In our team it was Courtney who drew the power straw and did a brilliant four laps (so nearly five!!) within the strict hour time limit.
The rest of the 6.7km circuit is a beautiful, full loop of the park and features a couple of notable climbs with a few other undulations: one short and sharp hill gets the blood and legs pumping, and one long and gradual that grinds you out on the return approach to the race village, aptly named Breakheart Hill.
I’d never done a 24 hour endurance race before so this whole experience was completely new to me. And, I’ll level with you – the idea of swapping the extra hour we’d normally get in bed for cycling as fast as you can around a cold, dark park wasn’t always 100% appealable.
In fact when it comes to bed time there wasn’t much of it at all during those 25 hours for me and my three (awesome) team mates. Instead, Team Worst Pace Scenario snatched what little sleep we could – shall we call them microsleeps? – in between taking turns to do laps around the 6.7km course.
Amongst the microsleeps and uninvited alarms were lots of laughs and lessons learned, about ourselves, about each other, about what not to do next time, what we were really grateful to have brought with us, what we wish we hadn’t left at home, and what it’s really like to take part in your first 24/25 hour cycling endurance race.
Here are 25 lessons I learned during my first 25 hour endurance race, in no particular order:
- Thank the lord for campervans.
- Must get proper heating in said campervan.
- Must also buy warmer sleeping bag for near-freezing nights. It took 4 hours for my toes to thaw out between 5-9am!
- Never underestimate the power of a hot drink. Especially when it’s made for you by one of your team mates as you get back to the pits wet and windswept.
- You can never bring enough food.
- Dry socks, shoes and gloves are life. Next time, bring spares to change into easily.
- If you’re in a team, a shared spreadsheet for packing is a must!
- Bring wellies for the regular muddy race village – pits – campsite stomp.
- It’s OK for your overshoes to never do up because of calfzilla. Muscles innit.
- Make sure your lights (and spares) are fully charged. No one wants to do the long walk home if they fail in the middle of a lap.
- Cycling in shitty weather is bad, yes, but not that bad. It’s actually very doable. Makes you feel like a warrior. Weirdly cleansing.
Thou shalt not die.
- Even when you don’t want to, you can always wake up, get ready and exercise in the ‘morning’.
Much to my surprise, I was able to repeatedly wake up after only minimal sleep, have ‘breakfast’ (energy gel / banana), a coffee, get dressed and out on my bike within 25mins of my alarm going off. That means no excuses to not make my morning workouts now – dammit!
- Never forget your helmet. However snug it feels in the cold dead of night, your wooly hat is not your lid. I did this when heading out for my midnight rideout and got 100m down the course before realising and had to walk back to the pits to pick it up! (I did wonder why the marshals were looking at me funny as I mounted my bike on the line and rode off into the darkness…
- Having a team to ride out the laps with and have moral support, banter and laughs in the pits is great. They also bring things you never thought of, like birthday cake, pancakes, hand warmers, leg warmers, and spare lights. I don’t think I could do it on my own, brutal!
Writing up my @redbull #timelaps blog & living for the bants ?? #ukcyclechat #redbulltimelaps #thisgirlcan pic.twitter.com/wJRWC3cdMX
— T e s s A g n e w (@FitBits_) November 19, 2019
- Having the army cycling team next to you is very handy for shared gazebos, maintenance advice, good chat, and to get a good glimpse of the other end of the competitor spectrum – the ones who take it seriously.Precision timings, warming up on a turbo, ready and waiting to go when team mates come in from their laps. Something tells me they’ve done this before…
- On that note, however seriously you’re taking it at Red Bull Timelaps, remember: timing is EVERYTHING. If you think you’re gonna be late back after doing that next lap, don’t do it, as it throws everything else out.We started going out at one-hour or 90min intervals, giving us three to four and a half hours of rest each between rides.Sounds like it would work but actually, I don’t think it’s enough, as by the time you’ve got in, changed, eaten, gone to the loo etc, you’ve eaten into your rest time, and in the early hours, that’s important sleep time.Plus, don’t dither on the return to the pits for changeover… I didn’t realise the lap time doesn’t end when you dismount the bike to run to the pits to the next rider, it only clicks over when the next rider is out!
- Having a turbo set up so you can warm up before going out for your laps is highly recommended. Racing from cold is actually pretty hard work…
- Cycling on your own as hoards of pelotons overtake you is harrrrd AF. One day you will be able to catch and stay with said pelotons. Note to self: Must do some power training this winter.
- Night time laps are weirdly more fun and feel a bit ‘easier’ than daytime ones… is this because you can’t see anything apart from what’s immediately in front of you?
- For the love of God bring your own coffee. Weak, watery filter coffee at the food stalls doesn’t touch the sides at 3am.
- Be sure to spend disproportionate amount of time looking out for photographers so you can look miserable when they eventually shoot you.
- It is not the done thing to stop in the middle of a race to take a photo of the pretty forest lights. The official photographer will do a better job anyway:
- Make sure you’re kitted out for the weather and cold nights. That means *at least* two pairs of long tights, preferably three or four.
Don’t do what I did, and realise you only have one pair of four-year-old, holey 3/4 length padded tights, so you have to wear shorts and running tights over the top.
My lovely teammate Courtney kindly lent me her leg warmers which were great (first time using them, who knew!), but these were soaked after one ride out in the rain so I had to ride with double waistband digging into me for most of the time.
- Say thank you to the amazing event marshals as they cheer and clap you through. Legend has it if you say thank you to them hard enough they’ll keep cheering louder every time they see you, even if they’re freezing their bits off.
- One for the bloggers: you see any photographers roaming the pits or race village be sure to corner them to have awesome team shots done like this:
What to pack for Red Bull Timelaps
So what do you need to take on your first cycling endurance race? A spreadsheet, that’s what.
You might think it’s a bit overkill but getting prepared for a 24 or 25 hour endurance race takes up a lot of brain space, and planning time. The last thing you want is to not have enough spare dry clothes, warm gloves or food / other comforts when cycling for so long. There were so many times I thanked my past self for bringing everything I did, even though some of it didn’t get used.
Our team spreadsheet was so helpful to organise kit and tick off things we could share use of (camping stoves, tent, etc.)
Here’s what was on my list:
- Van / tent
- Sleeping bag
- Camping chair
- Picnic blanket
Bike & kit
- Bike & helmet (obvs)
- Cycling kit – 2x base layers / 2x thermal cycling jerseys, 2x short sleeved jerseys, 2x cycling shorts, 1x tights, SO MANY PAIRS of socks
- 2x waterproof riding jackets
- 1x cycling cap (this was a gamechanger in all the rain!)
- Puncture repair kit
- Multitool, tyre levers, mini pump, track pump, 2x tubes
- 2x bottles – one for water, one for tools on bike
- Cycling shoes & overshoes
- 2x front lights & chargers
- 2x back lights
- Warm bed socks
- Waterproof coat for when not riding
- Wooly hat
- Fluffy, warm unicorn onesie (obvs).
- Phone charger & power bank
- Foam roller
- Tea, coffee
- Food to make a hot meal with on the stove
- Bread & peanut butter
- Energy gels & bars
TEAM WORST PACE SCENARIO TOTALS:
- Total ride time: 24:49:26
- Total distance: 437km
- Laps: 70
- Power laps: 4 (so nearly 5!)
- Fastest lap: 14:32
- Punctures: 1
- Failed lights: 3
- Sleep hours: not enough but we’re over it…
- Pre-ride faff levels: infinite
- Rugby World Cup Semi Finals won: one
- Medals won: four!
Final thoughts on my first 25 hour endurance race at Red Bull Timelaps: Absolutely loved it. It’s a brilliant event, so well organised and lots of fun with everything you need on site (flushing loos, warm communal tent, hot water, mechanics, food and drink and wonderful marshals).
As for whether I’ll be back? Definitely! See you there?
Want to read more about this ace race?
Catch up on my teammate Elle’s blog here (with a lap-by-lap view from the inside), and visit the Red Bull website for more on Red Bull Timelaps.