Despite early morning ablutions, both Simon and I had an emergency 'evacuation' seconds before the start when we both dived into a still sleeping and unsuspecting local hotel. As Simon reached the gents before I did, I had to suffer the ignominy of leaving a most vile and putrid nasal breakfast for the very attractive female biker who was waiting impatiently when I finally vacated the ladies. Still, I would have no need for emergency improvisation with arm warmers on this ride.
Speaking of arm warmers, none of us needed anything remotely warm at the starting line this year. After last year's torrential downpour, this year's event was preceded by a week of blistering sunshine and on the day temperatures reached 34°C. This, as it turned out, was to be a deciding factor in the MadMilers scorecard. Andy and I both opted for 3 litre Camelbacks whilst Simon carried a mere 1.5 litres in bottles.
For some reason (excellent placing in the 2000 event, perhaps?) I was placed in an earlier start bucket than either Simon or Andy, and clicked into my new SPDs just after 8:00 a.m. I bobbed out of the town of Kirchzarten to the sounds of cheering spectators and settled down on my spanking new Specialized Enduro Expert for the first 12km and 800m vertical hill. The Enduro Expert is a 250mm travel full suspension, so is neither an ideal cross-country nor climbing machine, but I had played with the rear shock set-up before the ride settling for a stiff but long travel option. Full suspension is an altogether different ride (indeed a different technique), as you really need to stay seated the whole time. This has one notable consequence - you get a sorer arse than a hardtail assuming that the trail is smooth. Another point of note is that I have a 130mm Z1 fork on the front, which came delivered with a lock-out function - you rotate a small lever on the crown and the fork blocks into 80mm travel mode. Unfortunately, this ECC function failed on my very first test ride and has to go back to Marzocchi to be fixed, so I rode the marathon with what looks like the front end of a motorbike welded to my frame. Collecting bemused looks from the SID-riding fascists around me, I plodded (bobbed?) slowly up the first climb, concerned by stiffening hamstrings, a sore bum and that uneasy feeling that I always seem to get with early morning bike rides. It occurred to me then that a 5 hour marathon was perhaps not the best time to test a new bike, with a new geometry, suspension (x2), saddle, shoes, pedals and a new riding style.
The quarter-meter of travel came into its own on the first downhill, though, a simple gravelled road where the gravel had been cleared into a 9 inch wide racing line. I was able to sit down for the descent, and braking was effortless (and late) with the new Hayes disc brakes. Riding a long-travel fully on easy roads is an effortless, smooth and stable ride - like riding a hovercraft or the biking equivalent of cruising in the Starship Enterprise. This certainly beat last year when I had a jammed front brake and wobbled nervously down the first hill. I can't say it was easy for everyone, though - I noticed several skidmarks disappearing into the forest on corners.
Riding into the first feed-stop in Titisee, I was surprised that my Camelback was nearly empty and I stopped to refill. Just afterwards, I met Simon on the road out of Titisee and we rode the next 30 minutes together, coasting around the beautiful Titisee lake and up the second climb. Half-way up, he stopped for a pee and I continued up to the top of the 450m climb and again refuelled and refilled. There was no sign of Simon, so assuming he had ridden straight through the food stop, I chased after him. About half-way down the second downhill, there was the aftermath of a nasty crash, where my guess is that two riders had collided trying to overtake in the gravel. Unfortunately, they chose to do this on the only bend on the course which had a large woodpile behind a blind corner. As I floated by on warp drive, paramedics were stretchering one very sorry-looking ex-biker away whilst the other sat looking bemused at the large area of absent skin on his legs.
The third hill is a real grind. Another 400m of climbing, it drags straight up a never-ending slog of a gravel road. I had the benefit of experience, though, and knew that this was just a question of perseverance. The top of the hill leads to the only real cross-country section which rocks and rolls though open fields before the final drinks stop and a fun and technical switchback. The downhill was effortlessly easy compared to last year, although that was most likely due to the weather and course conditions rather than the new bike set-up.
The last little bastard of a climb runs up an asphalt road, which this year was an open furnace in the direct sunlight. After 20 minutes of sweating like a fat bird doing aerobics in a PCV jump-suit (Hoyle's sensitivity IS rubbing off), I crested the final hill and hovercrafted down into the finish at Kirchzarten. I crossed the line after 4' 24 minutes, five minutes quicker than last year, and promptly downed about 2 litres of water to add to the 9 litres I drank during the race. An extremely weary and wrinkled looking Simon appeared about ten minutes later. He made a bee-line for the drinks stop and after necking several gallons, managed to speak for the first time. He had drunk about two litres in the entire race (whereas I had emptied my Camelback 3 times), and was as dehydrated as a fossilised dog turd. As we waited for Andy, he stooped over his bike mumbling "I'm going to puke" every couple of minutes. Andy appeared looking relatively fresh and content in 4' 50, but thereafter was somewhat disappointed in the time gap.
My improved time doesn't prove that the Specialized is quicker than a hardtail - I had a lot more training and a much drier course this year. It does show, though, that it also can't be too much slower. It will take some time to get used to the different set-up, but this is mainly the new geometry and a bouncy back end, not the long travel or the extra weight. Disc brakes are a huge bonus, and not just in the wet as advertised: they have much better stopping power and require far less forearm effort. Full suspension is the way to go, perhaps not for hard-core cross-country enthusiasts, but for general pissing around it's definitely a winner. I haven't got anywhere close to finding out what the optimum suspension set-up is or what the bike's (and my) limits are, but as an aside, Jens rode it for two minutes of downhilling and promptly went home to buy a Giant Xtc downhilling machine with even more travel. I'll reserve judgement on the Z1 fork until I know how the repair/replacement works out.