At 2am the night before the national 12 I was lying awake, my heart was pumping and I hadn’t slept – I was planning on getting up at 3.30 am for breakfast and to drive to the HQ for 4.30 to make sure I didn’t miss my 5.47 am start time. Sadly I wasn’t awake due to frayed nerves – I was camping near the start because I forgot to book a bed and breakfast and I had chosen a campsite that happened to be located next to an illegal rave!

Having arrived at 7pm the night before, I hastily set up my tent before realising I was woefully under-supplied with straight tent pegs, so I rolled over the bent ones in my car. This didn’t help much, but I felt quite proud of myself ( I always wanted to drive a steam roller and this is as close as I’m likely to get). I then realised I had forgotten to bring a camping stove so I headed into town on foot to get a curry at the local Indian. If you are ever in Fowlmere, and I can’t recommend it, try to avoid the Indian – their dahl seemed to be curry sauce from a chip shop with a vague suggestion that they might have considered putting lentils into it but decided against it due to the credit crunch. I had to compensate for the lack of a decent dinner by eating 3 mini battenbergs and heading for bed.

I gave up on trying to sleep at about 3 am and instead filled up numerous bidons with water, electrolyte drinks, flat cola (not Coca Cola though, they’re morally bankrupt) and anything else I thought I might want to drink. I prepped my feed bags, which I was going to leave around the course, ate some muesli and pancakes, filled my pockets with food, tubes and tools and got going to the HQ.

On arrival, I couldn’t help but notice that most other people had time trial bikes and support crews. Many also had camper vans which would have been an awesome idea and one I’ll think about next time. I went in, gave my bin bags of food to the marshals, who promised to distribute them around the course, and generally faffed about. Having rubbed extra-hot embrocation on my legs, I headed for the toilet – (this is clearly a first timers error but one which isn’t too unusual. I could tell this from the combination of amusement and sympathy on the faces of my fellow competitors as I ran out of the cubicle). I got on my bike and rode to the start. Then I remembered I should have put more air in my tyres.

I was doing over 30mph...

After re-positioning my arm numbers for me, the nice pusher-off wished me luck as he pushed me off. Perhaps unwisely, I had selected some pretty aggressive gearing (53-39 with 11-21 and I didn’t use the 39 all day) [What about the 11?-ed.] and as I went off from the start I pushed it quite hard, settled down into an aero position and looked down at my computer. I was doing over 30 mph, not too smart I thought and, heeding Nigel Job’s wise advice, I settled into a schedule which would see me average 20 mph for the first 100 miles. Then my computer broke. This wasn’t a problem as I could pace myself by heart rate, so I sat at about 140 bpm (70% of max) and got a nice rhythm going. I passed the rider in front as he flatted and shouted out a conciliatory (if smug) “chin up mate". I looked back to see his helper pull up with a new wheel and a push and set him on his way.

Puncture time

Then I got a puncture. Without a helper it was all thumbs and tyre levers until a nice chap pulled up and offered me a pump – we got the new tube in and pumped it up quite quickly as I lamented my 240mile target going down the pipes. I got back on the bike and headed off again. I checked my heart rate once I was back into the rhythm but the monitor had died. Then it started to rain, properly torrentially, roads around the course were flooded, I could barely see, lorries were splashing me and my jelly babies definitely did not appreciate the bath, deciding to form an homogenous blob in protest at the conditions I was keeping them in. At this point on a Sunday most normal people hadn’t even got out of bed.

After this, I chilled out (literally, I was shivering) and just cycled, for quite a while. At one point a car driver honked at me and then wound down its window to ask “What the F%^k are you doing cycling down a dual carriageway at six in the morning?" I’d love to say I came up with a witty response, but I wasn’t too sure exactly what I was doing either so I just ignored him and kept on riding. After an hour I started to eat, alternating between sweet and stodgy, which in my case meant jelly beans/babies (jelly babies not real babies)/ amazin’ raisins in one pocket of my jersey and trek bars/ malt loaf/ pancakes in the other pocket. The 50 mile point came in 2 hours 26; this meant that I was on schedule despite the flat and I think I shocked the time keeper with my exclamation of pleasure. Just before 100 miles I hit my first feed. I hit 100 miles at 4.36 hours and I had only had 1.25 l of drink up to that point. I had just been considering begging some of my fellow competitors for a drink when we finally turned of the first circuit and towards the feed.

Once I reached the feed, I hopped off the bike and the nice people there looked a little surprised as I tore into a bin bag and grabbed more trek bars, drinks and my secret weapon, Mr Kipling’s Fondant Fancies. I headed off for a few laps of the Six Mile Bottom circuit, spurred on by the other riders and the spectators. I was chugging around happily eating cake, but after a while the sweet stuff got sickening and this was when the pancakes and malt loaf were a godsend.

Monster headwind section

After four laps of this circuit we were diverted onto a third circuit which, after a monster headwind section, proceeded to take in laps which went past my campsite from the previous night. I struggled a bit in the headwind in between circuits b and c but I had been told that everyone suffers at some point in a 12 hour, so I stuck at it. Once on circuit b I was still suffering and when I came to my second feed I realised I hadn’t been eating enough but I couldn’t face any more sweet things. At this point I played my joker. I had been predicting this might happen, so in my bag there were some ham rolls. I tore into one of these along with some cola while riding down the A 505 and, sure enough, I was soon flying again, overtaking people who had previously passed me. We completed five laps of this circuit; I spent one lap riding alongside a more experienced tester who used to go to Oxford. On the last lap of circuit C , I stocked up on caffeine, sugar and, bizarrely, rice pudding for the final two hours.

I was feeling good when we left the last circuit and onto the finishing circuit. All day I had been enjoying the climbs, which gave me a good chance to put some time into the dedicated testers. With two hours to go, I ate my last little cake and went onto drinks and sweets for the remainder of the race. The raisins also provided a good palette cleanser at this point. Once I was on the finishing circuit I decided that it was time to unleash the fury. I managed to haul in quite a lot of guys who had passed me 11 hours earlier; I reckon you can only eat energy gels for so long and looking at the state of some people they were under-fuelled and looking pretty ropey. I was in a fair amount of pain, mostly from my ankles, which had been killing me for about six hours and forcing me to engage in the occasional bout of single leg work, but I wanted to squeeze the most out of my legs so I put in a hard final hour, enjoying an entertaining duel with one guy on a Scott plasma whom I passed on every hill only for him to smack past me on the flats. The final 10 minutes seemed like an eternity,even though they were a tiny fraction of the whole race. ( I calculated the fraction of the race I had left just to occupy myself) Having sprinted for the mile marker at the finish, I then fell off my bike into a ditch, whimpered a bit and begged some water off a marshal.

After a substantial length of time spent puffing quite loudly and whimpering quite pathetically, I rode gingerly back to the HQ, wandered around like a zombie for about 30 minutes and then worked out where I was, handed in my number and got my car keys and a cup of tea along with a trek bar and ham roll. I spent a while in the HQ receiving congratulations, looks of surprise and bewilderment and advice for next time.

I then headed back to the campsite, packed up my tent and commenced the long drive home during which I stopped at a service station, ate two meals and a whole pack of crisps (I mean a six pack) as well as the rest of my malt loaf and lots of water.

Next time...

Next time I do the 12 I will get some support, get some sleep and get some wedges in my shoes; my ankles still hurt two days later! I might make an effort to be a bit more prepared than simply bolting some aerobars onto my training bike the day before. I might buy some wheels which are better than the 32 spoke 2 cross Tiagra/ Open Sport ones my mate gave me because he was moving away. I might get a nutrition plan. Who knows, I might even wear a pointy hat. All said and done, I enjoyed it; it was quite a meditative experience, not one I’d repeat right away but I think I could be persuaded into doing it again in a year’s time. The 12 was a great culmination of my year of old school training and doing it without any “numbers" at all made it even more enjoyable. I’m sure if I was busy looking at speeds or heart rates I wouldn’t have been able to concentrate on having fun and cycling fast!