What it's like to race the longest one day event in the world
Cycling Weekly does Red Bull Timelaps
“We’re going to spend 25 hours camping out in a field, alternating cycling quite hard with snatches of sleep, mostly fueled by the sort of dehydrated meals only astronauts eat when nothing else will withstand the atmosphere. Michelle, are you game?”
Red Bull Timelaps is a 25-hour race, with the majority of riders entering into the madness via relay format. The cruelly constructed joke is that with the event coinciding with the great British changing of the clocks, this is the longest one day road race in the world.
Having celebrated a successful road racing season with a fortnight spent competing in a one-woman sleep, eat and drink-athon, followed by a taper period of panic miles, I arrived at Windsor Park feeling hilariously unprepared.
James Bracey was elected team leader, placing Zwift racing fanatic and time trialling supreme Alex Ballinger as the magic 'double points' Power Hour athlete. Guest for the weekend Will Thompson rounded off the team and eventually completed the final shift in a delirium of impressive speed.
If there was an “all the gear, no idea” prize, we topped the podium. A collection of BMC Roadmachines, BMC Timemachines, and my own Look 785 Huez were lined up outside a stealth Overland Life van conversion, with more USB ports than could be of use to a classroom of teenagers sustained by intravenous Instagram.
Once 224 teams and 12 soloists with questionable cognition were registered, it was time to ride – amid driving rain, whilst assorted poorly fixed gazebos spun up into the air and somersaulted across Windsor Park.
Our schedule - beginning at 12pm Saturday and ending 12pm Sunday - had each rider complete four 60 minute stints, plus a two hour finisher. At 11am, someone (as yet unnamed) would have to step up and do an extra hour. We had a signing in sheet and everything, not that anyone used it past 5pm.
Sergeant Bracey suggested a goal of five laps per hour, equating to around 20mph. I laughed. Then I went out and rode five laps in my first hour, equating to 20.3mph – because, well, I can't turn down a challenge as we've already established.
I'd expected to be able to slot into pacelines around the course, but after untangling myself with an unnecessary extra layer and losing my first opportunity, I proceeded to complete the hour mostly solo - sometimes picking off riders on the ramp of Slan's Hill and gentler Break Heart Hill before meeting them again on the flat headwind areas and bemoaning my own inefficiency.
Pacing for the event, six hours but with minimal sleep, was the biggest unknown - and finishing my first hour with a normalised power at 92 per cent of my 225(ish) watt FTP didn't do much to to quell my fears.
Back at the van, I dumped several sodden layers, smashed a protein flapjack, lingered over a hot chocolate made by our amazing helper Laura from UKCE and prepared to go again, convinced that what lay before me was an on-bike reenactment of the tortoise and the hare.
Still, it could have been worse, Alex had already run his first mile of the race following a puncture.
The next three one hour stints would be completed in the dark, though the narrow and consistent park paths meant there was little need to slow down, the only jolt being the plunge into darkness after the greenly illuminated woods with their upward facing floodlights.
To my surprise, the drop-off in actual time was only about 30-60 seconds per lap versus my first shift. My breath wasn't rasping so hard as and I clicked down the gears to spin up the hills rather than attacking them.
Charging into the pits to swap the flashing baton, I stopped the Garmin with a normalised power at a hopefully more sustainable 85 per cent of FTP.
Back at the van, I set my alarm for a 90 minute shut-eye stint which, when broken by the mocking cheer of my alarm, felt strangely more refreshing than expected.
Plunged back into the cold, I following the trail of my own white cloud of breath and noted that at least the rain had slowed to drizzle - the sky was finally almost empty.
Amid short lived chaingangs, and a few laps spent impersonating a derny powered by shouts from the most dedicated race marshals in the history of bike racing, my 11pm and 2am stints passed with a normalised power one watt apart, again at 85 per cent - consistency and I were clearly friends for the night.
Somewhere in the middle of those two turns, Ballinger bashed out seven strong power hour laps - whilst back at basecamp I earworm tagged everyone remaining with "Get Low" by Lil Jon which had been running circles in my mind from the beginning.
I fell asleep for the last time in the dark, vaguely conscious of one of potentially four bodies breathing deeply into a sleeping bag next door. When I woke up for my final two hour stint, a tiny portion of my mind was a little sad that it was almost over.
I immediately hooked onto a fast moving chain, and vowed to stay close as long as possible, managing a few laps before concluding my tunnel vision of sleep deprivation was a crash risk at the speed required in the chicanes.
I wasn't alone long before I heard the familiar voice of eventual women's solo winner, Tamala McGee.
Our mixed team was not troubling the podium. So with Tam dangling between first and second in the overall (having taken an extended nap in the night) I concluded that my final 90 minutes would serve one goal: playing domestique in the pursuit of her win.
My last two hours gave us nine more laps - a lower power again (77% of FTP) but only a smidge slower than that very first stint, albeit in considerably better conditions amid sharp blue skies and dry air.
Finally, I ran a final stretch of the blue carpeted pits to swap the baton onto the wrist of a waiting Alex, and returned to inform Will that he had won the prize of an extra 60 minutes.
We'd made the right selection for that final hour, too - a clearly hyped Thompson train smashed out five fast laps to finish off our race strong.
If the off-season months are an opportunity to try new things, test boundaries and most importantly enjoy time in the saddle, then Red Bull Timelaps certainly provided a playground to do just that.
My greatest concern heading into the event was how to negotiate pacing alongside fatigue, less so from hours and miles, but more from disrupted sleep patterns and a horrifically confused digestive tract. However, in turn my greatest surprise was quite how restorative a 90 minute nap can be.
Next time someone asks me if I'd like to spend 25 hours interspersing riding quite fast with minimal sleep and midnight picnics what will I say? As the sun sets on my first experience, I'm just as confident that the answer will be yes as I was the first time around.
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Michelle Arthurs-Brennan is a traditional journalist by trade, having begun her career working for a local newspaper, where highlights included interviewing a very irate Freddie Star (and an even more irate theatre owner), as well as 'the one about the stolen chickens'.
Previous to joining the Cycling Weekly team, Michelle was Editor at Total Women's Cycling. She joined CW as an 'SEO Analyst', but couldn't keep her nose out of journalism and in the spreadsheets, eventually taking on the role of Tech Editor before her latest appointment as Digital Editor.
Michelle is a road racer who also enjoys track riding and the occasional time trial, though dabbles in off-road riding too (either on a mountain bike, or a 'gravel bike'). She is passionate about supporting grassroots women's racing and founded the women's road race team 1904rt.
Michelle is on maternity leave from July 8 2022, until April 2023.
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