The 12-hour: Time trialling's ultimate test

BikeRadar editor Jeff Jones's epic blog on the Icknield 12

Twelve hours against the clock. Are you kidding?!? That was the reaction I got when people asked me what my next event was.

Riding for 12 hours is a daunting task in itself, but racing for that long is another matter. In my case it was on a time trial bike, although I can see why many choose to ride standard road bikes for this event.

There are eight 12-hour time trials in the UK and unfortunately that number is dwindling each year. There could be as few as six on the calendar next year, mainly due to lack of riders.

It would be a shame because the 12 is cycling's equivalent of an Ironman triathlon, albeit with no marketing machine behind it. If you're a cyclist and want to find out what your body is capable of, then you should definitely do a 12 at least once in your lifetime.

My chosen event was the Icknield RC Luton 12-hour time trial, in its 73rd year this year and sadly, it seems, its last. Organiser Gordon Hart has been in charge of it for 36 years but has found it hard to sustain the numbers of volunteer marshals and helpers required for a relatively small field. There were only 29 on the start sheet this year, 22 of whom finished. Contrast this to two decades ago, when over 100 riders started.

Daunting it may be but it's still possible if you've got the mindset and the right nutrition strategy. Everyone rides for the same amount of time, it's just the distance that varies. You can stop for a break and have a cup of tea if you like – just make sure you get back on and keep riding. At the end of it, you'll have a tremendous sense of achievement (and knackeredness) and you'll impress the hell out of your friends. It's worth it for that.

Training, pacing, fuelling

Training-wise, in the couple of months leading up to it I did three long rides (four, five and six hours) on my TT bike just so I got used to riding in the position and could handle the muscular fatigue. That was on top of my usual shorter distance training and racing, including 100- and 50-mile time trials a few weeks previously.

Pacing and fuelling were even more important. Based on my six-hour ride, I had an idea of what sort of power and heart rate I could sustain for long periods and just stuck to that. Heart rate was easier because it was less jumpy. I went out slightly harder in the first 100 miles than the rest of it, but there was very little in it and I still had enough at the end to go hard on the finishing circuits.

Jeff's friend Charles gets ready to hand up a gel, which he ignored (Photo: Elizabeth Hufton)

I was lucky to secure the services of two helpers: my girlfriend Liz and a racing friend, Charles, who had ridden this event 22 years ago and hasn't done a 12 hour since. I can kinda see where he's coming from.

I only had space for one bottle cage on my bike (I tried a rear mounted one but it wouldn't fit on the Adamo saddle) and I had no pockets, just a small bag of supplies that I mounted to the top tube. That meant I was totally reliant on my helpers keeping me well fuelled with ZipVit carb drink, water, High5 Isogels, Coke, sandwiches and muesli bars.

The promoting club also provided a neutral feed, which was a bit of a lucky dip. I grabbed a polystyrene cup at one stage, thinking it was tea or energy drink, and it turned out to be porridge. It wasn't bad. Plus they were handing up sponges at each feed, and these were greatly appreciated on a 25°C day.

Finally, I don't recommend doing this sort of event with jetlag. I'd returned from a press trip to the US just three days before and averaged four hours of sleep per night. The last night was bad – nerves compounded by jetlag meant that no amount of counting sheep (believe me I tried) could cause me to lose consciousness.

The ride

Assuming the position (Photo: David Jones)

I have to say I felt absolutely awful when I woke up at 4.15am on Sunday. It was a mad rush to eat some breakfast, sort out my food and eight bottles, get to the HQ and get ready, by which time I felt more like a bike rider and less like a zombie. That would change during the course of the day. At least I didn't have to warm up. It was 5.50am when I set off, the last rider to go. I enjoyed the most of the cool, calm conditions early on, because I knew it was forecast to be warm and windy for the rest of the day.

The first 105 miles was on the A1 between Biggleswade and Buckden: three times from Girtford to Buckden and back, and (for me and a couple of others) twice from Girtford to South Biggleswade. It's a beautiful road surface and at that time of morning, thankfully not too busy. But already on the return leg on lap 1, I could feel the wind picking up from the south-west. There was little in the way of shelter and I knew it would be a struggle to hit my first target: 100 miles in four hours without going too hard.

By the second lap the wind was quite strong. And by the third and subsequent shorter laps, it was at tree-bending force. Needless to say, I was glad to get off the dual carriageway and hoped that the more rural circuits were better sheltered. My 100 split was 4:03, nine minutes slower than last year's winner Sean Childs, and he went on to do 277 miles. My target was somewhere between 270-280 so I did some rapid down-revising. It's all about managing expectations.

We had eight miles of lovely tailwind to get to the next circuit, which was based around Wimpole, Royston and Shepreth. 15.4 miles, four laps. Time to relax a bit and take on board some fuel in the form of a muesli bar and more carb drink. I was low on fluid so I hoped my helpers weren't too far away. We headed south for the first stretch and luckily had a bit of shelter for most of it. The wind had reached its 20mph peak and did not ease up for the rest of the day. There was an exposed, uphill section at the end of that leg and I couldn't believe how hard it was. Three more to go, I told myself.

The next two legs were wonderful though – direct tailwind on a fast downhill stretch until we turned left at Shepreth. I took it as easy as I could without losing too much speed. Then we hit a bumpy back road through the villages and I found my helpers near the neutral feed towards the end of the lap. I gratefully grabbed a 500ml bottle of water, poured half of it over myself but then realised it would have to do me for the next lap. Not a good plan.

The next lap was hell. I was nearly out of water by the end of the first leg and started to feel dizzy. This did not bode well as I was only five hours in. I nursed myself around, swallowing a gel to keep me going until I got to my helpers again. I made sure I got 800ml of carb drink and a packet of ham and tomato sandwiches that Liz had made. They were awesome. It was a nice change to have something salty and I made short work of them. That was enough to put me back on track for the next two laps and I started to think I could finish.

Strangely, I was enjoying the direct headwind sections because I could see some healthy looking numbers on the power meter and had no trouble pushing 53x17 and bigger. That made me less guilty about relaxing in the tailwinds. I was also passing riders at regular intervals, each time giving them a small shout of encouragement if I could manage it.

Regularly getting out of the saddle helped (Photo: David Jones)

The fourth set of circuits was based on a 12-mile loop around Wimpole and Guilden Morden. Five miles of uphill headwind before we turned left with a few more small climbs and descents to Guilden Morden. The crosswind was nasty but it didn't last too long, then it was tailwind for most of the rest of the lap. I was again low on fuel because my helpers were towards the end of the lap and started to feel dizzy. I got some tea and a sponge from the neutral feed, ate another gel and just survived until I found Liz and Charles. More carb drink, a request for chocolate on the next lap and I was off again.

I enjoyed this circuit the most, probably because I was averaging 23mph around it and finally saw 200 miles come up with 8:22 on the clock. That number was significant, as it was 20 miles further than I'd ever ridden in a day before, but it meant my 270-280 mile target was very much on the cards. 'Sir' Ian Cammish, a past winner of this event and a British time trialling legend, was marshalling on one of the corners and gave me a good shout on my last lap.

I didn't enjoy the headwind return to Biggleswade for the 10-mile finishing circuits. At all. Nor did most of the people I passed. It was payback time for the eight tailwind aided miles we'd done earlier in the day, with a few more miles tacked on. The climb over the A1 was a small-ring slog and even the descent to the start of the circuit at Langford was hard.

When I reached mile zero of the circuit I knew, based on the start sheet, that I'd covered 236.26 miles. I had 10:02 on the clock so I had to average a bit over 22mph to get to 280. Game on! The circuit was anything but fast: two villages with narrow streets, speed humps, a tricky turn onto a narrow bridge and yet another exposed head/crosswind section. Oh for some trees or at least a hedge along there.

On the finishing circuit (Photo: Elizabeth Hufton)

I hit the first lap hard, thinking now would be a good time to wind it up. I made it two-thirds of the way round but then sagged quite badly. I eased off as I didn't want to suffer like this for another hour-and-a-half, finishing in a shade over 27 minutes. What kept me going was my pre-order for some Coke. I got to the end of the lap, saw it in Liz's outstretched hand but missed it, my first bottle miss of the day. I yelled in frustration as I really really needed it.

Luckily they cut across the circuit to meet me halfway and I had another shot at it. This time I slowed, grabbed the bottle and ... disaster! The lid came off and most of the precious fluid poured out. Argh! I stopped for the first time, Charles picked it up and gave me what was left. I wanted more but I had to get going. 27'26 for the second lap, then a fuller bottle at the end.

The Coke did the trick. I felt much better for the third lap and got my time down to 26'28. I swallowed yet another gel, grabbed another sponge and mopped myself down for the last time and nailed it for the fourth lap. 26'09! That's more like it. I worked out that I needed to get to the 4.1-mile time check on lap five to make sure of passing 280 miles. I just hoped I wouldn't have to ride to the next time check at 5.7 miles, as that was all headwind.

I felt a genuine lump of emotion in my throat as I hurtled along with the tailwind towards the end of lap four. I knew the 12 hours was up soon and I would achieve something pretty special. The distance I'd covered was mind boggling, not to mention that I'd been on the bike for that long with only one brief halt. Yes, I needed the loo quite badly.

I passed the timekeepers at mile zero with 12 minutes left. 4.1 miles, doable. Once more past the HQ at the rugby club, left down the small road, over the narrow bridge (no cars this time, thankfully), bash my way into a short headwind section, sharp right into the final bit of tailwind, left – watch for cars – that's three miles done with three-and-a-half minutes to go.

Now, fight my way into the wind up towards the roundabout at G&M growers where I know the 4.1 mile check is, turn left, what happened to 4.1 miles? It's gone! No, it was just further than I thought. I see the two men there and keep riding, not even close to sprinting. I get there at 11:59 on my clock and ask them if I should stop. They say yes and I need no further convincing.

Oh what a relief!

Liz and Charles worked out where I would finish and are right there. It's so good to see them and hug them and thank them for a sterling job during the day. Realistically, things could not have gone any smoother and I'm glad I had both of them to help.

We drove back to the HQ and got the unofficial confirmation that I'd done 280.7 miles, later updated to 280.74 miles. Yes! It was also enough to win by 23.4 miles from Tom Glandfield (Lewes Wanderers), with Tim Davies from the promoting club a couple of miles behind, all three of us doing our first – and probably not our last – 12-hour time trial.

Done it! (Photo: Elizabeth Hufton)

Aftermath

The next day my legs and knees are in bits. I've never ached this much after a race before. Amazingly, the rest of me is okay – just a bit of soreness in my shoulders. Oh, and a headache. Two days and a lot of food later and my legs are back to merely tired and I have no more knee pain. I think I might take it easy for the rest of the week. There's BikeRadar Live to look forward to after all.

None of the aches and tiredness can take away from the sense of achievement I now have for finishing a 12-hour time trial. I guarantee it's worth every moment of suffering. Go on – you know you want to!

For more on time trialling in the UK, visit cyclingtimetrials.org.uk.

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