Standort: / Meldung: "The Darkest Hour Is Just Before The Dawn"

Chris Cummins

Letters from a shrinking globe: around the day in 80 worlds.

4. 8. 2016 - 12:02

The Darkest Hour Is Just Before The Dawn

Rad Am Ring: A 24 hour cycling race on the iconic Nürburgring

It’s 3.30am on a Sunday morning on the iconic Nürburgring race track and I’m on the my fifth lap of the 24 hour team endurance cycling event Rad am Ring; this time in pitch darkness.

My head is tucked down close to my handle bars of my racing bike, gripping the drops. Through the orange tint of my glasses, I watch a cluster of half a dozen red lights plunge down and sweep around a right hand-bend through the forest.

At the apex of the corner, the lights cluster close together, and then spread out again as the cyclists speed into the straight. It looks like the night time dance of fire flies.

Racing at night

Rad Am Ring

Trying to stay in touch, I choose my own line by the white and red painted curb, glowing under the glare of the powerful front light that I’ve clipped onto the front.

Adrenaline is surging through my veins; my speed is now topping 80 km per hour. Holger Kremers, from the organising team, has told me to expect to reach 100 km which seems like lightning on the thin hard tyres of a road bike.

But, ignoring all instinct, I choose not to brake. Other racers are coming at speed behind me, I don’t want to be clipped from behind and, since this is a track build for car racing, there is smooth tarmac and plenty of width to arch out into the curves.

So I swallow my fear and embrace the speed, even ducking down my head further to reduce my wind drag and try and catch those twinkling red lights ahead as we head towards a stretch of climbing.

“It’s great to have such a nice surface to ride on and no cars in the way”, pants Phil from England, as we ride up the next incline. “It’s hard going but it’s such an iconic track to ride on. All my motor sport friends back home are really jealous.”

The racing line

Rad Am Ring

The Nürburgring, which snakes through the wooded hills of western Germany, has always been place for pushing your boundaries.

There is poignancy riding this historic track almost exactly 40 years since Austria’s great racing driver Niki Lauda suffered his career changing crash. The day before his car burst into flames after a crash, Lauda had warned that the changing cambers and steep gradients made parts of the course too dangerous for the new speeds of 1970s Formula One.

Lauda’s contemporary, Jackie Stewart famously called the Nürburgring “the Green Hell.” It's a stretch of sporting history.

The beautiful countryside

Rad Am Ring

I’m glad, however, that cyclists are now helping rewrite the story of the financially troubled Ring. I don’t want to offend motor racing fans – I loved the film Rush and its incarnation of the cavalier glamour of the 70s heyday. But for me the last glamour of Formula One died with Ayton Senna, it seems fitting that cycling is re-enlivening this dinosaur of a course. Less petrol, less Bernie Ecclestone, more pedaling.

This is what I am up to

Rad Am Ring

Indeed the Nürburgring seems made for testing the full range of cycling attributes. A full lap stretching out over 25 kilometres and involving 550 vertical metres of climbing, it’s a stiff challenge for your lungs as well as your nerves. Uphill gradients of up to 18 percent take you, with little respite, to more sweeping speed sections. There’s barely a flat metre to be found and a fierce wind sweeps over the Eiffel Mountains.

A Dog's Life

That’s why we are here, says my team mate Aaron from Vorarlberg who is sharing the work load: “We can test ourselves and see how far we can push ourselves.” It is possible, if you are bonkers, to ride all 24 hours as an individual, but it makes more sense to form a duo or team of four. We’ve taken the relatively soft option of the four-rider team, representing the Viennese mechanics of Radambulanz (although a last minute cancellation has reduced us to a trio). That means for 24 hours I live a dog’s life. Exercise, food, sleep.

We have set up tents by the track side for quick change overs and as soon as my lap is over – with, for us, lap-times ranging somewhere from between 50 minutes and an hour as the race progresses – I’m wolfing down pasta from a camp stove and crawling into my tent for an hours nap. And then it is the same routine again, cycling shoes back on, helmet tightened, swig of coffee and then off again.

Race race race

Rad Am Ring

Feeling the Speed

Phil had worried that the nights might feel "lonely" or even "eerie" in the dark in the forest, but in fact I enjoy the midnight ride the most. There is a constant string of red-lights ahead and white lights beaming from behind but the atmosphere among the riders has dropped a notch in terms of ambition and been raised a notch in terms of a conviviality – here we all, all together in the woods, riding our bikes. We're fellow cyclists, not competitors.

And anyone who has experienced skiing by lamp-light will understand that the less you see, the more you feel the speed and the wide with all other senses.

The Finishing Straight

It's now lap 6. My lights are on but I can make out individual trees as dawn approaches. And I'm still feeling OK. I’ve always struggled with eating enough in bike races, usually fading away towards the end both physically and psychologically. But after a feed and a sleep, I launch myself into each new lap with a motivation with which I surprise even myself.

As the clock ticks forwards, each lap seems different and special. At dawn the medieval castle that sits inside the track rises in the milky early light. A couple of hours later the sweeping landscape is bathed in glorious light, tufting pale green meadows and deep green forests.

Drafting Like a Parasite

If you want to sustain your effort over 24 hours Holger Kremers advises riders to cycle at their own rhythm. It is important not to go into the red trying to match the pace of cyclists who are naturally quicker. I heed his advice, trying to find a speed that feels comfortable for me when I am alone but also drafting like a parasite on the rear wheel of strong riders if I find them on the windy flat section.

Almost finished

Rad Am Ring

The Adventure, The Speed, The Cameraderie

That, and the periods of rest and food seem to make a big difference. Twenty hours in I’m still enjoying the race, exhilarated by the whir and hum of hundreds of wheels and the challenge of trying to keep my lap times constant, the motivation of not letting down my teammates, while knowing some more pasta is bubbling away on that trusty campfire.

I feel a love of cycling as powerful as any I’ve experienced – the adventure, the speed, the camaraderie.

A castle

Rad Am Ring

By my 8th and final lap, it feels like this is all I have ever done in my life. But there is still a rush of relief as I negotiate the final speed corner without incident and more relief when I reach the top of the highest climb. Soon after I negotiate the last of the cambered corners I can see the crenellations of the medieval castle, the Nürburg that gave the track its name, and I realize with one last uphill dragging effort I will have reached the finish line.

The Ali G style lenses in my cycling glasses make it seem the castle is bathed in pink light. I push hard down on the pedals and bury myself one last time.

At the final changeover, I collapse in a heap, half-expecting to be surrounded by cheering fans, or bathed, this being a cradle of Formula One, in a champagne shower. Instead the tents are being dismantled around me, sleeping bags stuffed away, camp kitchens washed up and packed.

The end

Luzia Heller

There’s little glamour for amateur cyclists, we have a long drive home and therefore not even time for a celebratory beer. But there’s that quiet satisfaction – we came, we rode, we faced our inner demons and ended up smiling. That’s what cycling is about.