“Do you fancy doing a 24 hour race in Italy?” Just sounded like a better experience than “are you doing the crit on Tuesday night? looks like it might rain”. Not that I had to choose between one or the other, but I personally needed something a bit more exotic to inspire me to keep cycling/training through the depths of the British winter. The Castelli 24 Ore (hour) race in Feltre, Italy; on the edge of the Dolomites national park, is a criterium race run on a 1.9km circuit in the centre of the city. The race runs for 24 hours and can be ridden either solo or as part of a team (8 – 12 people).
The course runs anticlockwise around the high walls of the historic city centre, with a short climb that seems to get a little bigger every lap. A fast sweeping descent with sharp left hand bend at the bottom aims to string out the field before an almighty sprint along the back straight brings the group back together (or not if you haven’t got the legs). Next comes the cobbles, a couple missing, unnervingly off camber on the corner and with a few metal manhole covers to catch out the unwary. A short cobbled rise requires another strong kick before completing the lap and heading back up the ascent, or into the pits to handover to another rider.
I had been invited by a friend to join their team for the event, the Las Vegas Institute of Sport, a team of 11 who’s aim was to do better than they did the previous year and hopefully win the fastest foreign team prize. The team had entered in 2015 to raise money for charity as a bit of fun, and discovered that they were actually doing better than they expected, so had come back to see what they could do if they were not handing over cups of beer to their riders as they flew past up the hill (not much beer remained in the drinking vessel – so drunk cycling was not an issue).
Whilst the reality of the experience could be summed up by giving this article a title of “24 hours of bib shorts and porta-loos”, lets be honest, any 24 hour race is going to be uncomfortable; sweaty kit, lack of sleep and overused toilet facilities are a given in this situation. The question is, is it all worth it?…
I’m assigned to the first group, 3 riders who are all staying in the same hotel. We’ll race from 21:00 until midnight before getting a few hours sleep and taking over again in the morning. I watch as our first rider puts in some opening laps and signals to the next rider to head down to the pit ready to change over. I watch the rider change to see how it works and take my place in the pits. I’m not really warmed up, but my heart rate is surprisingly high. Nerves are certainly playing their part in getting me ready for the effort ahead. Too late to back out, my leg bouncing on the pedal. I get a signal from my passing team mate, two more laps then change. Less than three minutes later, coming in next lap. I’m watching the riders in the fading light, looking for my team mate coming in. We’ve dropped off the main group by just a little and it’s too early in the race for there to be any other groups. Just one fast group and some dropped riders. It’ll be hard on the legs for me, but the lack of riders around me will give me chance to gain my confidence in the more technical corners. “GO VEGAS!” Comes the cry and I’m away up the first hill. From my nervous resting heart rate to almost maximum in 30 seconds, I’m off and giving my all. We’re aiming to do 15-20 minute sessions then change, so whilst we’re not riding for the full 24 hours, we are averaging around 38-43km/h (23-27mph) for these short sessions, more than fast enough to make 20 minutes feel like a long time.
Past the cheering at our gazebo and onwards to the sweeping descent. Brake, turn in, all the weight on the outside pedal and sprint down the straight. Way ahead of me I see the flashing lights of a few fragmented rides, as I draw close to them they have black race numbers, (riding solo for the full 24 hours) their endurance pace is no help to me. I pass a red numbered rider and he jumps on my back wheel. A few laps later and the rider is still there, I’m flicking my elbow to invite him to take the front, but it gets no response. This is going to be hard!
My second session is faster, this time the change over drops me onto the back of a small group and I’m able to sit in and take a bit more rest when required. Trying to hold my nerve in the bunch racing through the tighter corners. “Do not touch the brakes!” I tell myself so as not to slip backwards through the riders.
One more session and I’m done for the night. Walking past the main Castelli tent with the beer still flowing, the music still pumping and the crowds still present. I could definitely stick around for a few more hours and take in this atmosphere with a drink or two, but sleep is probably a better idea right now.
Sleep didn’t come easily. Thoughts of racing still filled my head, and prevented any deep sleep. The morning shift began at 8:00 for us, and the more broken up field would hopefully bring more opportunities for cooperating with riders/groups than it had at the beginning of the race. The format offers a master class in criterium racing, if you get dropped by a group eventually another faster one will catch you up in another session so you can try and not make the same mistakes again. Attacked the front of the race on the climb? Oops! You’ll pay for that in the next sprint. Got on the wrong side of a group split in a sprint? Try again! I definitely learnt a lot from this event.
The fastest group at the head of the race caught my smaller group; we all jumped on. The racing was fast, close and hard. Shouting when required, constant observation and little taps to let riders know you’re tucked between them and the barriers. Sprinting hard from the tight corner along the back straight, holding onto the wheel in front for dear life. Legs burning, heart rate ridiculous, breathing maxxed out, and just inches off the riders around you, all whilst pushing 55-60km/h fighting for a good line into the cobbles. The slower solo riders come back through the pack at an alarming rate as the bunch swarms past. I think I’ve got the hang of it now, I can hang on to the fast group, pushing when they do, and resting when they do. I couldn’t do it all day mind, but I’m confident I can sit in the fast group for my shift and switch the next rider from my team right into the same group. I’m absolutely loving it. Each charge into the cobbles bringing more confidence to hit them faster again next lap.
At 11:00 my group’s shift is over but we’re here for the duration. The organisers kindly provided our team with press passes, which meant free food and drink at the main Castelli tent. The remaining members of our team slowly arrive from their short sleep to offer support and take their turn in the race. The race is halted briefly as a short but torrential rain storm makes things a little dangerous, and instructions are clearly communicated over the PA and text message. A quick restart and the riders resume their shifts. There is no real plan for the final two hours, and the team starts to pull together even though we’re all pretty tired. One last effort for the team before starting on the beers!
So was it all worth it? Yes, the event is fantastic. Properly organised, fast and challenging racing, great atmosphere and great experience. Fast but technical circuit (very “interesting” when wet), and well prepared with flood lighting and crowd management. Would I do it again? Well yeah, but I’d recommend staying a little longer to make the travelling worth while, a week in the Dolomites would be the ideal way to finish off the trip. Though the racing is fast, the time you’ll ride for will not completely destroy your legs, so there should be plenty left for the mountains should they tempt you. Alternatively a bit of sight seeing with the other half is another way to make the most of it.
Whilst the overall standings were not under any threat from the Las Vegas Institute of Sport team, a second place in the fastest foreign team category (other categories are fastest bar, bike shop, and company teams) gives some conciliation, annoyingly close at only 7 laps short of the winners! At 21st place in the overall standings (100 teams total), we’re pretty happy with the result. We were never in a position to attack any of the leading teams, most of us were happy if we managed to stay in contact with the faster groups for our shifts. Good fun, great people, great experience. GO VEGAS!