The Hare and the Tortoises

By Mel Nicholls

Sebring is a small town in mid Florida. It’s surrounded by countryside; miles of orange groves and cows. It’s heart is Sebring raceway, the location of Bike Sebring 24, an ultra-endurance non-stop cycle race.

February 2022, two years in the making, me, my handbike and my crewman Andy were heading to America, ready to deliver Project Ultra US – my first official ultra-cycling race, and an attempt to break the 24 hour female handcycle world record.

Mel Nicholls

Our lead up to this race was one of ice storms, a warm-up race of sub zero temperatures, frozen bikes, 4am pep talks and hot water bottle fired laps. Admittedly, it wasn’t the introduction to 24 hour racing, or our first stop in Texas that we had envisaged – I have never had to race in ski trousers before – but it was an incredible experience for my world record attempt in Florida two weeks later.

By race number 2, we had travelled west to east, I had cycled in ever-changing states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, Texas and Florida.

Endless traffic-free trails, cycling into the setting sun along the Mississippi River in New Orleans, miles of sunshine state riding the Withlacoochee State Rail Trail, at 74km in a single straight line, the longest paved rail-trail in Florida, I met not one but eleven wild tortoises along the Florida Trail, and can they move when they want to. I met cyclists of every age, every bike and every one a story to share. Soul fuel cycling and ultra-race inspiration.

Nerves at level 10 as I sat on the start line of Sebring raceway just before 6am enclosed by a wet blanket of thick fog and the darkest moonlost sky. I knew much of what was to come over the next 24 hours – the soreness, the thousand mile stare, the rollercoaster of emotions, the nausea, the hallucinations. I had visited some dark places racing my first 24 just two weeks previously in Texas and I was about to take a fast-track ticket right back there.

After three track laps putting down the power to keep with the pack, my heart rate at max, my muscles in spasm and my brain telling me I should still be in bed, racers hit the roads for the first hundred mile loop. I started to relax into the race, I found my cadence and a steady power, now to keep it for the next 24 hours.

Andy was my in-ear comms, waiting at the 50 mile turnaround with drink refills and any instruction passed from the road. A system of zero faff breaks of electronics charging, evidence documenting, athlete fuelling, shoulder taping and ice delivery.

Mel Nicholls

 

During the day the roads far reaching of Sebring stretched north through its never-changing landscape. Evidence required for a world record attempt include photographs of notable locations. With the exception of a number of Trump flags adorning roadside farmsteads, one orange grove looks rather like the next and the next, and without a ZIP code emblazoned on their rump, the hundreds of cows weren’t much help either. Aside from the scenery, my fellow ultra racers kept the best company, on one occasion putting in a cheeky sprint just to catch a racer who’s bike and jersey were covered in unicorns.

The 12 hours of darkness returned us to the track. I mentally feared the 3.8 mile loops through the night, but found strangely mindful and comforting. There was little chat on the course through these witching hours, but my own thoughts, trying to comprehend why there was a giant Bugs Bunny ahead of me, and in my more sane moments a rendition of Eye of the Tiger as I passed through the pits and support team HQ, had me find another gear that only grew stronger.

Like the hare, some racers had by now stopped. For some it was the ‘cold’ Florida night, some the wind, mechanicals, fuelling, pacing. From the start I had been the only handcyclist, and I was not stopping until the race clock hit 24:00.

Utterly broken, sunrise brought tears of elation, of achievement, of relief and of a slight sadness it was all over. I saved my last sprint for the finish line.

As the sun rose from the horizon behind me; a burning amber, I lay like the tortoise on his back, on the cold track unable to move. My thousand mile stare at the new dawn.

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