Bucket List Ride: Le Mans 24 hour

 

Every August thousands of people swap petrol for pedal power in a 24-hour endurance test on France's most famous car racing track. Lynette Eyb takes on the challenge…

The concept itself is pretty straightforward: ride as many laps of the Le Mans Bugatti circuit as possible from 3pm Saturday until 3pm Sunday.

I was taking on the challenge as part of a four-man team and we’d nailed our strategy on the back of a pink napkin over a few glasses of red wine the night before.

The plan was simple. Each team member would do an hour’s ride from 3pm to 10pm, then two-hour rides through the night. After a few bottles of Bordeaux it felt like a stroke of genius, with the idea being to each get six hours sleep, before returning to hourly stints at 7am on Sunday until the clock struck finish time at 3pm...

We were a motley crew. Will, who’d just returned from almost two years cycle touring in the Americas; Scott, a cycling journalist; Fiona, a triathlete from Scotland and me, a weekend rider and school-run bike mum. What could go wrong?

The competition
As we rolled up to the venue we noticed the Red Bull Racing van pulling up next to us, vibrating with music and packed with bikes, massage tables and a colour-coordinated support crew. My team had cycled to the track and come equipped with a few gels and enough spare change to keep the coffee and crepe lady in business. 

As we jostled to register, the temperature started to rise and rise, and when the French flag fell at 3pm to set the first riders on their way, it was already 35 degrees on the track. Simply standing trackside felt draining. As national anthems rang out, the sun ate into our energy levels – and that was before we’d even hit the tarmac.

Scott had nominated himself as our first rider and when the starter horn sounded he sprinted across the track to jump on his bike. He set off with a sea of brightly coloured riders, who quickly formed a fast-paced peloton. He was high on adrenaline when he returned to the pits for changeover. 

We were sharing our pit with a solo female solo rider and all-round general bad ass, Elene Novikova. The fact that she was taking this 24-hour feat on as a solo mission is incredible and she was awe-inspiring to watch.

Her strategy was pretty simple (even simpler than ours): she’d ride and ride and ride, before coming in, pulling up a chair and closing her eyes for 25 or 30 minutes. Then, as quickly as she arrived, she’d head back out. It was a remarkable feat of endurance.

I was second after Scott and my first ride out was at a decent pace. The peloton whizzed by, enveloping and then overtaking me, shielding me momentarily from the headwind.

We’d studied the track profile the night before and felt comfortable that there was just one tiny climb out of the home straight, up and under the famous Dunlop sign. As the monotonous laps came and went, this trifling incline felt tougher and tougher.

Night-riders
As evening fell, we’d each completed two one-hour stints. According to the plan. Scot would ride from 11pm to 1am so that we could start our six hour sleeps.

Except... Mother Nature had a plan. From energy sapping heat machine, she switched to torrential storm, complete with booming thunder and cracking lightning. 

By 4am, there was practically no visibility on the track and that beautiful, smooth tarmac had become a 4185-metre-long ice rink. Our race plan went out the window and our two-hour slots were slashed to shorter 45-minute rides as the ice-cold rain cut through our Lycra to our skin. Our plans to catch shuteye in our tents had been cancelled out by the storm. But still the race went on. 

When the rain eventually cleared, it mattered less and less how far we were riding, or how fast; it was all about seeing the dawn.

As I rolled into the pit lane that one last time, an enormous sense of relief washed over me – relief that it was over, that I’d made it.

I was physically and mentally exhausted. I’d eaten my fill of crepes, feasted at the all-night diner, sucked on gels and consumed more coffee than I’d even consumed before (or since). I was desperate for sleep, but when the bell for the final lap rang out on the stroke of 3pm, it brought with it renewed energy to cheer Fiona home.

Would I do it again?
For 24 solid hours, pedals had replaced petrol on France’s most famous race track. We’d finished 331rd out of 435 teams and 109th in the four-person category. We’d ridden 156 laps or 652.70km in 24 hours, while Elena Novikova had ridden ridden further on her own than we had as a team - 160 laps or 669.44km. 

Bonkers yet brilliant, we toasted our achievements with a round of beer and then slunk off to our hotel rooms. Almost 16 hours later, I woke up refreshed and (almost) ready to do it all again.

Lynette Eyb runs Freewheeling France  – an independent website with advice and inspiration for cycling in France

Find out more about 24 Heures Velo (
26-27 August 2017) here

 
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