I was invited to join a media relay team with Lyn, Scot and Will – nicknamed the Jolly Journos – to ride in my first 24-hour sportive at Le Mans race track in the Sarthe region of France.
The event challenges riders, solo or in relay teams of two, four, six or eight, to cycle non-stop around the Bugatti motorsports track from 3pm on Saturday to 3pm the following day.
The circuit will be familiar to those who follow motorsports. It’s a circuit of 4.2kms that is mostly flat but with a small upwards kick of about 30m just after the start line.
Cycling in this event in August 2015 turned out to be an interesting, rewarding, unusual and somewhat bizarre experience.
The event was mostly good, sometimes bad and often challenging.
Here are 31 things I found out while riding the 24-hour sportive
1) This event is huge. While I had imagined there would be a only a few hundred dedicated and (obviously) obsessive endurance cyclists taking part in a 24-hour sportive, I was amazed to see thousands of riders – and of all abilities – at the Le Mans race circuit.
2) Turning up for the sportive after a week’s cycle touring with only a small bike pack of kit and just one pair of shorts felt carefree and exciting at the start.
3) At 3.45am, having ridden through torrential rain that left me very wet and cold, my lack of kit made me feel miserable and foolish.
4) Preparation is key to improved happiness and a better chance of success. Most riders arrived with dedicated support teams and an impressive array of items including wardrobes of spare dry kit, spare bikes, spare wheels, turbos and rollers for pre-participation warm ups, microwaves, slow cookers, cool boxes, food (hot and cold), drink, water, gels and even a physio and masseur or two.
5) A race that is so intensive and tough quickly creates bonds between team members, even if you have only met them 12 hours prior. Without thinking about it, we offered support and kind words to each other when the sportive began to take its toll.
6) Our team nickname, the Jolly Journos, was mostly appropriate, except for the occasional grumpy muttering under the breath during the early hours of the very wet morning.
7) A race strategy written on a napkin while drinking wine with your new team members the night before the sportive is unlikely to be the best-laid plan. Knowing nothing about the event, nor the rules, didn’t help our plan one tiny bit.
We decided, at first, to cycle for one hour each and then, after dark, for a couple of two-hour stints, so that there would be six hours between each rider in which we could attempt to sleep.
This went to pot as soon as we realised that cycling round and round a 4km track for hours at a time is mentally and physically very draining. In the end we all rode for about six hours each, broken into segments of between 30 minutes and 90 minutes, and spread fairly evenly across the 24 hours.
8) The sportive rules are quickly learned when an official catches you breaking one of them. The race briefing had been in French and so we had no idea that only two riders could be at the track swap over and not three. I had been so keen to support Scot and Lyn that I almost earned us a penalty. I found out later on that it is part of the race agreement to familarise yourself with the rules prior to taking part i the sportive. Oops.
9) The race at Le Mans has a nasty incline. I had imagined the motorsports track to be very flat and with lots of tight bends. In fact, the start of the circuit has a 30m incline that is surprisingly challenging after hours of cycling.
10) The race track in dry conditions and without any wind is a superb place to cycle. At 10pm, on my second one-hour ride, I discovered cycling nirvana when I completed eight laps in just more than one hour at a fabulously fast pace.
With pure joy I swooped around every tight corner, zoomed along flats, joined the back of thrilling high-speed pelotons and even zipped up the incline. I finished that section of the sportive so high I couldn’t sit still for another hour.
11) The race track in wet and windy conditions is a slippery, challenging and a treacherous place to cycle.
12) The race track in a thunderstorm with lightning and thunder in the middle of the night is a very scary place to cycle. It almost made me cry.
13) Sleep deprivation plays havoc with your energy stores and motivation. I hadn’t expected to feel quite so awful while losing one night of sleep. Between 1am and 6am, our team suffered physically and mentally – and the planned two-hour cycling slots were reduced to between 45 minutes and 90 minutes.
14) Surviving through the small hours with only a few lettuce leaves (chicken removed from dodgy chicken salad bought earlier), cold caramel pancakes and a couple of slices of free ginger cake all washed down by Red Bull is a very bad idea indeed. Poor planning and lack of carrying space on our bikes meant that we had few food and drink supplies and Le Mans diner, crepe stall and ice-cream van shut up for business before midnight.
14) The smell of reheated meat-based pasta and all manner of seemingly delicious and nutritious foods that all the other teams were preparing was so good. Sadly, none of these treats were ours and it all seemed so bloody unfair.
15) The support of the spectators through day and night who shouted: “Allez, allez Madame,” as I rounded the top corner of the hill provided an incredible boost to my flagging leg muscles.
16) Pacing yourself is almost impossible when most other riders are giving it their all. We knew that we were complete novices in this event, and that we stood no chance of impressing anyone, yet there was still something that drove us each to try to race as fast as we could every time we set out on the track.
17) For some reason, we were the only mixed gender team in the four-man relay category. It seems that the only mixed teams were in the six and eight-person categories. All other fours were men or women only.
18) For some other reason (yet another one) we decided to try to beat another relay team even though we had no idea who they were nor really cared what our overall pacing was.
19) It’s hugely exciting – and sometimes scary and dangerous – to have the huge “swarming” pelotons of semi-professional and serious French club “wasps” (riders) zoom past and around you as you push out your hour’s plod around the Le Mans track.
20) I am the Queen of Blag. If ever there was any doubt about this it was proven at Le Mans 24 Hour Sportive when I managed, without speaking much French, to obtain a full set of dry cycling kit from a neighbouring team. Thanks to the very generous Claude, of Bordeaux club Cycles Laurent Merignac, I ended up with bib shorts, jersey, waterproof jacket, gloves, socks and even lights for my bike spokes.
21) I have rarely felt a greater sense of happiness than when I took off my drenched and smelly bike kit and pulled on the dry blagged kit.
22) And I have rarely seen such an incredulous face as when Scot awoke from a brief kip to find me gleefully prancing around in my set of entirely blagged dry clothing.
23) 10 minutes is the maximum possible time for sleep on a concrete floor when the only nod to comfort are a borrowed (damp) sleeping bag and a wafer thin sleeping mat.
24) Sunrise is an incredible mood booster. Despite almost no sleep and almost 100 miles of hard cycling, our team suddenly came back to life with smiles and jokey silliness.
25) The first large coffee of the day could not have tasted better.
26) Unknown to me, my dad was tracking our progress on-line back home. With six hours to go he excitedly emailed to tell me we had risen up the rankings from 131st to 108th. It made me feel proud.
27) The mix of riders was fascinating. There were riders who ignored me, others who passed me so quickly they probably didn’t even register me and those who took me under their wing and let me draft them for five laps in a row. Thank you to one rider, Bruno, in team 678 who helped me by letting me draft him to race round a lap far faster than I ever imagined feasible.
28) While the 24-hour sportive is tough as part of a team of four, it is uncomprehendingly challenging for the riders who completed it solo. We watched with increasing awe and empathy as the eventual female winner, Elena Novikova, of Ukraine, rode 160 laps and covered 669km (415 miles).
Sebastien Berthlet, winner of men’s solo in 2009 and 2014, triumphed again in 2015. He rode 832kms (517 miles) in 199 laps. As a team we rode 156 laps and came home 109th in the four men team Prestige category.
29) Our team’s fastest lap was 7 minutes 19 seconds. The women’s fastest lap was a superb 5 minutes 52 seconds.
30) It didn’t matter that we were one of the slowest teams. During my final 45 minutes of the 24-hour sportive – and our team’s final leg – I still gave it my all. My head said exhausted, my legs squealed in pain and my arms and shoulders ached after almost six hours spent riding on my drop handlebars, yet I wanted to put in my last best effort. As the bell went for the final lap and the riders on the track raced ever faster I simply couldn’t stop myself joining them.
31) I’m not sure I will do this sportive again. It was an interesting, crazy and memorable experience and I would recommend it if you fancy doing something different and at the famous Le Mans race track. However, riding round and round all day and all night on one short track was a bit dull. I like sportives to take me to different places and the lack of sleep stayed with me for days afterwards.
Find out more about entering the 24 hour Le Mans Velo sportive.