A buzz. “James created Red Bull Timelaps”. Another buzz. “James added you”. The final buzz. “So we want to do this”.
The opening line of an ominously titled Whatsapp group. No question mark, no choice, just a foregone conclusion. We’d all committed long before entries had opened. James and Sion, both amateur triathletes, Paolo, a man who discarded his stabilisers just over a year ago, and myself, a man named many things on a bike, aero never ever being one of them. Guillemette, our tenacious Luxemburger, 2x Ironwoman & Directeur Sportif, was there to keep the team on the straight and narrow.
The squad. Job done.
The format is gloriously simplistic, unashamedly psychopathic. How many laps of Windsor Great Park can your team of four do in a day? The choice to hold the race on the weekend that British Summer Time ends means that you in fact race for 25hrs, foolishly forfeiting your extra hour in bed. Instead, that mysterious hour (an utter confusion of the pre-smart phone era) is spent desperately trying to stay on the wheel of pro cyclist Alex Dowsett, the previous hour world record holder, during the event’s Power Hour. In this witching hour, bleary eyed riders peel off into a shorter flatter unlit course where laps count for double.
Race briefing (Joel Millard)
After the 10am safety briefing, recalling a gruesome but avoidable crash that postponed the inaugural event for two hours last year, 200 racers made their final preparations and congregated for a midday mass start. The first hour or two of riding was aggressive. It also highlighted how your team’s logistics and communication can make or break your race. Within the first thirty minutes, I witnessed a disastrous transition.
The leadout rider from an invitation-only London based race team came hurtling down the tri-style transition course to his pit. Shouting the team name, resembling a quivering child in a theme park, he promptly collapsed, his team nowhere to be seen. Then vomited in his tent. The next rider eventually trotted over in the awkward cleat-scuttling fashion. “Mate, what happened? You said you’d be out there for 2 hours?!” He responded with more vomit. This was it, the race was firmly on and taking no prisoners. Within the first two laps, a 50 strong lead group had formed, led by a world tour rider, having already lapped the lanterne rouge.
The flag drop.
As the hours passed, and riders pitted passing their baton, the field strung out. Depending on when you exited the pit lane, you either found yourself conveniently nestled in a working peloton or hung out to dry in no man’s land. Did you sit up and wait to be caught by the incoming tide of bunch riders, or try to catch the group in front? Was there even a group in front? Or would you just end up riding solo for lap after lap until you’d had enough. Such was the unknown nature of the race. No race radio, no tracking devices. Just grit, tactics and chance. And that lingering and unmistakably saccharine smell of Red Bull, previously only associated with a student union bar or a 5am tube carriage of builders.
James leading the bunch (credit Red Bull)
Teams clearly opted for different strategies. Longer turns and fewer transitions, risking endurance fatigue but saving time by not switching. Or fewer laps per turn, but wasting time each change, and less rest between stints. The most effective strategy was clearly the one employed by the eventual winners (and title holders) VeloElite. By entering two teams of comparable riders into two different categories, with pits next to each other, they ensured their riders never rode a lap alone. Coordinating transitions and turns, they regained the lead after Dowsett’s first stint (160k in 4 hours) and never lost it. Some call the two-up tactic ‘cheating’, others simply wished they’d thought of it themselves. Either way, I have no doubt the organisers will get a lot of requests next year to be positioned next to a specific team.
When the darkness set in, compulsory bike lights lit the course and the racers continued to slog themselves round the course. Conditions weren’t particularly favourable; they were down-right miserable. In fact, it was the coldest October weekend in decades, merging cruelly with 40kmph winds and horizontal rain. In spite of all this, the atmosphere was infectiously high spirited. Teams willing each other on, offering food and drinks, mechanical support, tips and advice. In erecting our over-sized gazebo (greeted smugly by a man – “We told you 3m x 3m, you were warned!”), the woefully unprepared yet persistently optimistic team of riders from Surrey Uni adjacent let us expand our HQ into their pen in return for shelter. And boy did they need it. I think they might have the flu now.
“You were warned!”
As the night dragged on lap times slowed, stints got longer, pits emptied and the music died. The Power Hour came and went, with the top teams securing the 8 important laps. Order then swiftly resumed. As you might expect at a Red Bull event, flat whites with frothy ferns on were conspicuous by their absence. We were warned about this too, and actually heeded this advice, opting for a camping stove, cafetiere and some fairly shit arabica.
What is fashion at 3am but an 80’s jacket and rice pudding (Joel Millard)
Sunrise. A welcome break from the wintery gloom. Spirits lifted, lap times leapt; the end was in sight. 15 hours in, teams were tussling for certain positions, but heroic jumps in standing were unlikely unless a mechanical struck. With a few hours to go, the VeloElite juniors had staged a coup, attacking up the main climb (Break Heart Hill), punishing their older counterparts, riding away to victory. The finish line wasn’t midday, rather your last completed lap before the hour. The pace ramped up, climaxing with teams sprinting for their respective positions minutes before midday.
Mid and post-race emotions (Joel Millard)
I was hoping to claim we were the highest ranked team that didn’t drink a single Red Bull. Sion scuppered our chances of that consolation prize just before his last effort, taking our team home. It clearly worked though as he clung on to Dowsett for several laps before surging across the line to tie for 5th place – an endurance MTB race team with whom we’d been table jockeying for hours. Our timing chips crossed the line to the same 1/1000th of a second. (Although they’re still claiming they snuck it. But as CyclingShakira once sung – “The chips don’t lie…”)
And then it was done. 855km ridden in 25hrs. 1 hour of sleep, kilos of congealed pasta, several sweet potatoes, never enough coffee, feet that haven’t yet warmed up and a hacking cough that may never disappear. To many it would be their epitome of hell. Indeed, as we were packing up the van, I vowed never to do it again.
Homeward bound (Joel Millard)
And yet, as I write, I’m already planning for next year. An event defined by its difficulty, made by its competitors. Chapeau Red Bull. You outdid yourselves.
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