When a friend first approached me to ask if I wanted to join her for a 24-hour race, my brain locked on the word, 24-hour. It sounded intimidating. I love to ride, but wasn’t sure if I was up to such a challenge.
She explained it would be part of an eight-person mixed team she was putting together for an upcoming event, the 24-Heures Vélo. It’s held on the racetrack in France, near the town of Le Mans, known for the famous car race of the same name. The goal was to have fun and do our best. Once I heard that, I was on board.
I had been commuting to work daily and riding on the weekends, so I didn’t think I needed to boost my kilometres to get ready for the big day. The goal was to have fun, right? Anyway, how hard could it be to ride three times in 24 hours? My weekend rides were well over four hours already, so I decided I’d be okay.
I’m not big on camping, and don’t have any equipment of my own, but the other team members had enough to go around. Looking at everyone’s schedules, we determined who could get down there first to claim our camping space.
I rode with a friend, now also a teammate, down to the track. We loaded her car to the gills with our bikes, sleeping bags, a tent, cooking equipment, food reserves, water, a pump, additional gear and spare wheels. We found the others, set up camp, and got to work preparing a schedule.
As a team of eight, four women and four men, everyone would take three one-hour turns. We drew straws to determine the order. Once that was out of the way, we headed over to the track to check out our pit area. Every team gets assigned one to share with another group. They line the pit lane where the exchanges take place. Normally occupied by racing cars, they are generous inside and protected from the elements.
Even though the temperature on the track was even higher than the air, the cinderblock walls hadn’t yet absorbed the scorching heat of France in August, and the air was cool and refreshing. We had enough space to set up all of our stuff and a stationary trainer for warm-ups. There was more than enough space for us and our co-habitants.
Start of the race
In the actual 24-Hours du Mans car race, the drivers line up on the opposite side of the track and have to run and jump in their cars when the starting gun is fired. Because of track tradition, we had to do the same. Our first rider took her place across the track while one of us held her bicycle.
Running in cycling shoes isn’t very graceful, but she made it in one piece, grabbed her bike and was off. Meanwhile, in the background, the stands along the home straight were packed with spectators and team members blowing air horns, ringing cowbells, waving flags and cheering on teammates. You could feel the excitement in the air.
Now to wait the long hours before my turn. I headed back to our campsite, taking a detour along the way to check out the expo village. Got a problem with your bike? Shimano had free mechanics on hand to help. Back at our home base, I settled into our tent and set two timers before my turn, one for eating and a second to get to the track in time for my turn. Sleep was nowhere to be found, so I closed my eyes and rested.
My first turn was at eight in the evening, but I rode in the daylight. As this part of France is close to the next time zone, the sun doesn’t set before ten-thirty or eleven in the summer. I got to the pit and went to the wall, looking for my teammate. We signalled to each other that the next time around we’d make the swap. I probably should have warmed up on the home trainer, but I didn’t.
I took my place in the pit lane and waited. When he arrived, the first thing he did was remove the timing device on his right ankle and pass it to me. This is an important step as any laps completed without it don’t count. I put it on and headed up the pit lane and out onto the track.
Motorized vehicles on TV make every race track look flat, but they aren’t! After exiting the pit lane, which is quite long, a fairly short but sharp climb awaits. A rude welcome to be sure. You become anaerobic quickly, and that warm up would have come in handy, but too bad. I struggled up the hill and carried on for the rest of my hour.
When done, I grabbed something to eat and drink, reset my alarms, and nestled into my tent for some shuteye. I was feeling amped and fresh off the track, but got some rest before my next turn.
Getting up and motivated for my second turn at three in the morning wasn’t so easy. I was groggy and had to force myself to eat something ahead of time. I put on a clean kit. The temperature of the night air was cooler, but your body just wants to sleep at that hour. Lack of daylight meant front and rear lights were required.
As I waited for my teammate in the pit lane, I looked up to admire the star-filled sky. The tone on the track at this hour was very different, almost eerie. Few people are in the stands, and even the riders are silent. The noise of drivetrains dominates as you try to grab a wheel or follow the red lights in front of you. Some are flashing, others are solid. If you’re lucky, you enter the track at the same time as a group close to your level passes by and you can just tuck in for the next hour.
The event was now well underway, which meant fatigue was setting in for many. You could see riders losing attention on the track, especially those brave souls going it solo or as part of a duo. I saw a few crashes. Unfortunately, they come with the territory, so the best you can do is avoid them. Staying alert is critical.
After my second round, I caught a bit of sleep, more like a catnap. Sleep being futile, I wandered over to the track to check out the action. The animated atmosphere was back in full swing as riders could smell the end of the road.
I finished my third round in a bit of a haze, definitely feeling slower and heavier, like I was dragging a piano behind me. Once I had fulfilled my duties, I grabbed one last shower, put on some clean duds, made a hot cup of tea and wandered back over to watch the action.
As the last laps brought the event to a close, everyone was lining the track or was up out of their seats in the stands. You could definitely feel the anticipation and drama in the air. The need for sleep was visible in the eyes of many, but didn’t eclipse the joy and smiles on their faces. Nothing ever seems so difficult once it’s over.
The final tally
Scoring, by category, was calculated on the total distance ridden. Mixed teams of eight required a minimum of three women who rode at least once. Proudly, our team had equal representation, and we all rode the same amount. Most of the team was experienced, but a few were fans of the sport, but just out for the challenge, fun and camaraderie.
In the end, our team dominated our category, winning by over 50 kilometres over the closest team. They called us to the podium, and each received an attractive 24-Heures Vélo Trophy, a winners’ jersey, and a bunch of cool swag you could actually use.
My takeaway from the experience? It was fantastic. I had never thought about riding in a 24-hour event, but I’m glad I did. It was an opportunity to get to know some new people and experience something new in a sport I love.
Winning was a bonus, but the best part of the weekend was the bond that grew between us and the stories we had to tell for years to come. We enjoyed it so much we came back for more the following year.