The man speaking is Matti Tahkola. Matti is 22 years old, from Finland, and works full time as an electrician. He’s also a dedicated endurance mountain biker, and is speaking to me after winning the solo category in the ‘Relentless Exposure 24’, a 24-hour mountain bike race run on the famous trails of the Nevis Range in Fort William, Scotland.
It’s the first time Matti has ever raced outside Finland, and only the second 24-hour mountain bike race he’s competed in. He’s won both.
“I really don’t know how it’s possible but it has given me more confidence to keep on doing this,” he says.
You can enter the Relentless 24 as a team of eight, where the workload is split between the group, as a team of four, a pair of riders or alone as a solo rider. Matti entered in the latter category on his full-suspension Cube AMS 100 – and his 29 laps in 23 hours 45 minutes and 36 seconds were enough to beat his nearest competitor by 52 minutes and 42 seconds.
“I’m so new in 24-hour racing that I haven’t fully figured out the ‘why’ of it yet,” he says. “I’m enchanted by the feeling that I get when I race long hours.
I guess the beauty of 24-hour racing for me is the mental battle. It’s not all about the legs, it’s also about the heart and mind. All riders who are willing to do something like this are strong so in the end it comes down to training and who is willing to suffer the most.”
After getting up at 2am to catch the sleeper train from Edinburgh to Fort William, I hazily feel like I might be the one who has suffered the most. My self-pity is soon put into context and barged aside when I remember that I’m only on my way to watch the 24-hour mountain bike race. I tuck my tail between my legs, wait behind some drunk clubbers to get a morning coffee from a 24-hour McDonald’s and then hop on the train up north.
I’m heading up to Fort Bill to meet Frazer Coupland, founder of No Fuss events who organise the 24-hour race. My northerly commute so far has only involved a stumble through some city streets, a crash back on a train seat and pretending a phone alarm which went off at 3am on the people-who-can’t-afford-a-cabin carriage of the sleeper train wasn’t mine.
“We’ve had incidents where participants have been so tired that they actually lose their sight”
I’ve been riding a mountain bike for quite a few years but in my exhaustion the idea of doing it on loop for 24 hours is just as baffling to me as the fact that I somehow managed to set an alarm on my phone for 3am. Peddling a bike up and down technical ascents and drops on a course which rises and falls 1000ft, in the dark, between 1 and 6am, is not overly appealing when the alternative is… well, sleep.
Matti certainly isn’t wrong about the mindset. The race takes place on a late October day in Scotland, which means the sun doesn’t rise till just before 9am and will set before 6pm. Out of the 24 hours of racing, the riders would only be under sunlight for nine hours 24 minutes.
I hitch a lift to Nevis Range base camp with Colin, one of the head marshals for the event, on arrival in Fort William. He’s a man armed with all-weather gear, walkie talkies and years of experience of these sort of events.
He tells me about a previous edition of the Relentless 24 Hour where a rider at the end of a lap warned him that there was another cyclist vomiting halfway through the course.