Biking for Books

Monday, 27 July 2015.

Biking for Books – 24 hour cycling for charity

By Paul Moraal


Midlife crisis? Perhaps.

But if so, then it is a rather innocuous version I'ld think. This year, in which I turned 50, I was looking for some athletic challenge – partially because I enjoy them, and partially perhaps to prove to myself that I am not yet getting old.

For cyclists there are real challenging events: Paris-Brest-Paris or the Race Across America. But these seemed a bit much, the sheer distance of the event, as well as the time it would take, both to prepare properly and to do the actual race. I decided that a 24 hour race would be the right format – at least you know beforehand how long it will take you :-).

Two questions arise right away (if we ignore the most obvious question of "Why?", which people somehow insist on asking.) Where do you go for a 24 cycling challenge, and how do you prepare for such a thing?

Relevant information at this point: the only bike I would consider using for long distances (anything beyond 200km) is a recumbent bike – Challenge Fujin SL. Fairly lightweight at 13kg, and yet sturdy enough for long rides with complete camping gear. In 2010 I used this same bike for a trip to Nordkapp – immensely enjoyable!


Allright, let's talk about the Why after all:

Even though the challenge was reason enough for me, I wanted to make more out of it and attach some meaning to the whole endeavour beyond my personal satisfaction. I decided to turn it into a charity ride. In our local church, a Dutch-Ugandan couple had recently started an educational foundation (www.ugandakitgumschoolfoundation.com/en/), with which they set up and support a school in the northern Ugandan town of Kitgum. It is a great project run by fabulous people, which I wholeheartedly support, and thus I had no qualms asking all my friends, relatives, colleagues, neighbours and complete strangers to support. We hoped to raise €3000 with this so that all the school books for next year's 155 pupils could be purchased.

OK, so now the question of "Where?".

I live in the south of the Netherlands, and there are two 24hr events within a few hours driving: At the Nürburgring in Germany and in LeMans in France. Neither one, however, allows recumbent bicycles. Fortunately, there is Melfar24! Recumbents welcome .

Allright, next question: How do you prepare for a 24 hour race?

To be honest, I have no clue how to do it properly or effectively. But I can tell you what I did.

First of all, I ride my bike to work throughout the year, regardless of weather. While my actual commuting distance is a meager 5km, I actually always make a detour and end up cycling about 20km one way, and through un-Dutch hilly terrain on top of that.

Based on this training exercise alone, I felt enough courage to sign up for a 400km "brevet randonneur" – a long distance cycling tour, in September 2014, from Maastricht (NL) to Charlesville-Mezière (F) and back, cutting through the beautiful scenery and nasty hills of the Belgian Ardennes. I started cautiously, at 7pm, kept a steady pace all through the night, and finished in about 20 hours. No speed record, but it gave me confidence that a 24 hour cycling event is perfectly doable. For the remainder of 2014 I continued my daily commute to work, and added just a few 80km or 100km rides on a weekend now and then.

Early March was again the start of the "Brevet Randonneur" season, and I signed up for the 200km and 300km in March and a 400km tour towards the end of April. All three of these ran again through the Belgian Ardennes, and I completed them without any physical discomfort in 8hrs, 12.5hrs and 18 hrs respectively. Finally another 150km, a couple of 100km rides and that was the extent of my training. Ready to go! Based on the above I figured I should be able to cover at least 500km, and was hoping for something closer to 600km.

The Big Day! Saturday, June 6th 2015, starting at 10.00 am.

paul-138

The weather was fair, no rain in the forecast and temperatures around 20C during the day, down to 12C at night. There was a bit of a breeze though, which gave us quite a headwind on the exposed stretches of the day loop.

Melfar24 was perfectly organized:

Clear route markings on the roads, excellent catering at the central post in Strib, a team of bike mechanics continuously checking whether anyone was in need of help, etc.

The route to be cycled was organized as follows:

From the start at 10am, we were on a 56km round course through the lovely and hilly scenery of Fynn. Until 8pm exactly, you could start this round course anew.

From 8pm onwards, the riders were directed toward the night course: a 15km course, mostly along the bay, mostly flat, and lit by street lanterns. Finally, from 9am on Sunday, the riders were directed into a 3km finish loop for the last of the 24 hours. Only completed rounds were counted toward the total distance, and you don't want to be caught halfway a 56km loop when the 24hour clock strikes!

So, off we went at 10am.

In my youthful (...) optimism I started off on a pretty high speed – too fast perhaps? The first 56km went by at an average speed of 32kph. The following rounds were a bit slower, but still surprisingly fast, considering my performances thus far. What struck me also was the fact that on the long 6% incline towards the metropolis of Baaring, other cyclists didn't pass me in the massive numbers I expected. My recumbent bike weighs about 13,5kg, heavier than most road racing bikes.

However, the riders that seemed quite close in my mirror at the foot of the hill oftentimes turned smaller and smaller as the climb went on. Was I benefiting from a lot of training in the hills around my home turf? Of were they just sparing themselves for the later bit of the 24 hours? I imagine the latter. Anyway, after somewhat less than 12 hours I had covered 325km, felt quite content with that, and already counted on beating my 600km stretch goal.

However..., when night fell, tiredness set in.

The cycling speed was still OK, but it became more and more tempting every round to take a break, get off the bike, drink a bit, walk around or sit. Do anything but cycling.

Clearly, when you take break, you are not cycling – the clock ticks, but the wheels don't spin. With that, the average speeds just drops and drops. Furthermore, I found it increasingly difficult to eat – just didn't sense even the slightest appetite, and had to force myself to eat something now and then.

Thus I struggled through the night.

The company of some 200 fellow crazy-cyclists, and especially the support from onlookers and the support staff in the catering tent kept me going though.

And then... at 4:30 am, after 458km, minor disaster struck!

No clue what exactly happened, but all of a sudden I heard a tremendous rattling of my chain underneath me; still no clue exactly what happened, however the chain got stuck in the derailleur and all I could do was walk the final 100m.

Luckily, this happened very close to the start-finish location, so I didn't have to walk far. And I had had the foresight of bringing a second bike, just in case. This one was a normal road bike, not a recumbent, and with it, I completed the last 5 ½ hours.

In the end I covered a total of 560km, and with about 10-15 minutes left on the clock I decided this was enough and I quit (it took me less than a day to regret that I had "dropped out" early...). 24 hours cycling was finished and I thought by myself, great I've done this, can strike it off my to-do list, no need to repeat. But then, just a few days later it started to itch already – why not come back and try again? By now I'm already looking forward to Melfar24 in 2016! That may also give me the chance to see whether one can cover a longer distance by keeping a more constant speed. In this first 24hour race, I covered the first 280km in 10 hours, but needed 14 hours for the second 280km.

Surely this is not optimal, or is it?

Finally, what was in it for the UKEF charity?

Well, in the final end we raised about €5600, nearly double the originally targeted amount. A fantastic result, and all in all a rather successful midlife crisis! You should try one too!!

Paul Moraal, Vaals, The Netherlands (paul(at)moraal.com)

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