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Lap after lap at the 24 hours of Zolder

 Classic situation – You get off your bike and say to yourself: I think, I’ll never do this again. And this is what happened last year after I’ve rode my last lap of the 24 hours on the race track of Zolder/Belgium. Yes, a lot can happen in one year and then happened what should happen: Also in 2018 I was standing at the starting line of the 4 km lap and even felt some anticipation with a view to the forthcoming 24 hours.

But let’s start from the beginning. Unlike last year, Christian, who wants to ride the 24 hours Solo by himself, my mother as the world’s best supporter and I arrived on Saturday morning/race day. The starting signal sounds only at 3 pm so we prefered to sleep in our domestic beds and started the trip to Zolder after a strengthening breakfast at home.

Fortunately we were allowed to join the camp of our friends of the Milc Cycling Team. I was looking forward to meet Pascal again, who wanted to support me also in this year on the track! After the Briefing, we started our preparations fort he coming hours on the track: Sorting clothes, arrange bottles, powders and food. At least we tried to make it as easy as possible for my mum, because she had to support me AND Christian – I was a bit sorry for her when we told her all of our special wishes and extra orders when, how much, how often, little bit from this with a little bit of that. But I was sure she would manage it :-)

Everything was prepared 3 hours before the start and it was time to put up my feet and relax, to enjoy a portion of milk rice and to mentally prepare ourselves for the 4 km lap. Our plan for this year was to ride non-stop through the night from the beginning – Normally we decided to take a short break before the start of the night at maybe 10 pm, but because of training reasons I want to go through it with a high average pace. I remembered my ride last year when I had to fight against fatigue and performance issues. It seems that the track is nearly flat but it’s still peppered with 3 slight ascents and these ones will get harder and harder after riding them every 6 minutes. In contrast to last year and my 12 hour race here in 2016, we would ride the track in clockwise direction, which meant, that I didn’t even knew how hard these ascents would be in the other direction. But I was sure, time would show us fast than we would like.

So we started on time at 2:50 pm for the warm-up lap behind the pace car, to check out the track, the curves and the ascents. Especially at the beginning it’s really rough in the big and really fast group and it’s nice to know, where I would have to ride for the best position. After the participants, who qualified themselves for the pole position (also Christian was riding there) we were allowed to follow 3 minutes after them. The race is on! Because the food zones were directly in a descent and the speed would be very high while crossing, we decided to manage the handover of drinks and food via feeding bags, which are also used in the pro races, because I didn’t dare to grab bottles at a speed of 50 km/h or more!

As planned, Pascal and I stayed in the fast group as long as possible although the speed was really high. I was able to place myself well, tried to stay in the first rows of the group to reduce any potential risk of crashes and my legs felt really good! The only thing I worried about was my stomach. It was protesting, rumbling and bloated and I wasn‘t almost able to drink, much less to eat. After 150 km we had an average speed above 40 km/h and I worried that I would be punished for the sparse food and drink intake. Again and again I forced myself to take a swig out of my bottles but there was definitely no thought of eating.

After 150 km we decided to leave the fast group. The speed was much too high to keep it up for the coming 21 hours that we had to face. Also to avoid more stress for my stomach because of the effort, Pascal and I joined a more easy group and started into the night. Fortunately my stomach calmed down from 9 pm and I could start eating my white bread sandwiches to supply my body with some energy. I prefered them with meat and cheese, my stomach felt more comfortable with it instead of the sweet things like Nutella, honey etc. Surprisingly my legs had their best time during the night. I felt great, no signs of fatigue or something else, and also the temperature was really pleasant. After getting some thin arm warmers at the beginning of the night, I only needed a light wind jacket (more to keep back and neck warm) and some knee warmers (also more to avoid pains in them). Pascal had a  great idea and mounted a small music box under his saddle and so our disco express was rolling deeper into the night.

But slowly but surely I suffered because of the very short lap and the monotony. The battery of the music box was empty, the sky got only slightly brighter and after every lap I saw this clock above the finish line which said, we had still over 10 hours to go. At that time before 5 am we rode nearly 500 km with an average speed of nearly 36 km/h and I urgently needed something to keep myself motivated. Fortunately the sun started to rise, the first sun rays fell through the trees on the road in front of us and finally it was time for our short break in the camp at 6 am. My mum, who was sitting hard as iron, shaking and freezing on her chair next to the track during the damn whole night and waited for some orders (yes, sometimes I wondered if I would need something else so it’s not that boring for her :-) ), already prepared some hot semolina with protein powder. It was blessing to get out of the cycling shoes and to move the toes but in general I felt no physical problems – No aching legs, no aching back, knee was good, only my butt said thank you for the monotonous sitting position.  

I wrapped myself into a warming blanket, sat down at the table in the camp and actually dozed off several times. That’s when the body comes to rest and the night takes its toll. That was my sign to get up (whereby I could even finish the race, the second woman was already more than 100 laps behind me) and also my mum and Christian, who had to cancel his race by the beginning of the night because of knee pain, pushed me back on the bike. I just ordered a hot vegetable bouillon for the next lap and started alone direction track. Pascal started already a few minutes before me, because he was on the 3rd place of his category and for sure wanted to defend it! For my part I had still problems to keep myself motivated, so I needed a new aim. I wanted to crack the 700 km, what meant to ride 200 km during the next 9 hours.

Easier said than done. Time seemed to stand still lap after lap, the backward-counting clock above the finish line didn’t make it better and so I was just strolling over the course. From time to time I found a group to ride with, sometimes was also possible to go with the big and still really fast group of the team riders but after almost beeing involved in a crash I decided, that riding on my own or smaller groups would be the safer choice. At around 10 am I sat down next to my mum at the track (needed someone to talk to :-) ), watched the crossing riders and tried to motivate myself for the last 100 km. After I started feeling cold in the strong breeze, I got back on the bike for the kilometers. Also during this race: Sometimes it’s always over and at some point I saw the magic 700 on my cycling computer. Now nothing kept me on the track for another lap – Into the camp, take a warming shower, jump into fresh clothes and relax. Shortly before 3 pm, I returned on the track for a very last lap to enjoy the feeling of crossing the finish line! 

And finally the clock was at 00:00, together with Christian I was rolling over the finish line and yes, I was quite happy that it was done. Nevertheless I could look back on strong kilometers, 706,5 km and 3.163 m+ in total. The average speed suffered a bit because of my demotivated time during the last hours, but at least it was at 33,4 km/h after 24 hours. All in all it was a great mental training for the upcoming events like the 24 hours of Zolder or the 1000 km race of the Tortour. And again I must say, that a great support during races like this is absolutely invaluable – Thousand Kisses to my mum, I am deeply impressed by her perserverance. Riding 24 hours is different to sitting 24 hours at the track, preparing sandwiches, filling bottles and prepering breaks – Such a support is priceless! Also special thanks to Pascal, who gave me best possible protection from the wind during and was my partner in crime for nearly 15 hours in a row and also kisses to Christian, who helped my mum and encouraged me after he had to cancel his own race. You guys are great and I am looking forward to the coming events with all of you! :-)

Mary Wilke