by Meaghan Hackinen
I pulled into the pit area of the 24 Hours World Time Trial Championships for the last time at 3:55 p.m. Since 5 p.m. the previous day, I’d maintained a pace just shy of 31 km/hr, pedalling through the moonlight and as temperatures soared to 35 C in the desert heat. My crew—who also happened to be my parents—swapped out my water bottles, shoved another banana into my jersey pocket, and asked how I was feeling. Before I could complain that my swollen feet were killing me, a guy in a baseball cap interrupted our huddle. I recognized him as Max Lippe, crew member for American racer Evan Deutsch.
“You’re only 10 minutes behind the lead,” he said, his face lit up with excitement. “Go, go!”
I knew I couldn’t catch her this late in the race, but somehow, that was irrelevant—all that mattered now was that I left every scrap of energy out in the desert. That’s how, in final hour of a gruelling 24-hour time trial, I ended up sprinting to the finish.
The 6-12-24 World Time Trial Championships
On Oct. 26-27, 2018, over 200 ultra-endurance cyclists from 16 countries gathered in Borrego Springs, California to compete in the 6-12-24 Hour World Time Trial Championships. Borrego Springs, a friendly retiree community just 140 km inland from San Diego, offers quiet roads, warm nighttime temperatures and the surrounding beauty of Anza-Borrego State Park—making it a perfect location to host the annual time trials.
The course features a 29-km loop with 105-m of elevation gain as riders pass through the famous Galleta Meadows sculpture garden. For the final 1.5 hours, riders move to a fast 7.7-km finishing loop. The non-drafting event provides an end-of-season opportunity for elite and novice riders alike to test their mettle, catch up with friends, and enjoy the warmth of the desert. It’s also a RAAM qualifier—which is one of the reasons why I was there.
What makes a person want to do a 24-hour time trial? For me, it was a desire to find out what I was made of—a need to test my limits. I had already logged plenty of dawn-til-dusk touring days, but it wasn’t until I moved from Vancouver to Saskatoon, and took up randonneuring as a means to explore the vast expanse of surrounding prairie, that I was truly bitten by the ultra-distance bug. Through randonneuring, I’d learned how, with lighter gear and shorter breaks, I could accomplish distances upwards of 400 km in a single day. While I loved the relaxed pace and easy comradery of brevets, but I also began to wonder: how far could I go? A time trial might hold the answer.
In early 2018, I did some research and discovered that the closest on-road 24-hour time trial was the World Time Trial Championships in Borrego Springs, California. I paid my registration fee, then layered up in long johns and wool socks for another sub-zero training ride.
I spent the summer cycling in Europe, first pedalling 7,400 unsupported kilometres from the Arctic Circle to the most southern point in Spain as part of the North-Cape Tarifa Adventure, and then in the Black Forest, Germany. I also had the opportunity to ride with my friend and coach, Brian Welsh, in Montreux, Switzerland. Together, we set out a training plan and outlined my race goals, printed below in order of execution:
1. Ride consistently
2. Qualify for RAAM (595 km)
3. Break 400 miles (643 km)
I felt confident that if I could achieve the first, the other two would naturally follow. I had already built a solid base and now was my chance to dial it in with more specific training. It would be a gamble with the weather to return to Saskatoon—snow could arrive any time after Labour Day—so I didn’t.
On Sept. 5th, I flew to San Diego, California. Southern California is a fantastic training ground, blessed with perfect weather and Taco Tuesdays, and also a general population that is inspiringly athletic: everyone and their dog had done an Ironman (or two) and I became adept at picking out veteran RAAM racers from their chiselled calves.
During these weeks I also sorted out logistical details: I convinced my parents—who were vacationing in neighbouring Palm Springs—to crew for me. I’d never done a supported event before and they didn’t know a thing about ultra-racing, but they loved me, and I hoped that was enough. On Oct. 25th, the morning before the race, we packed my Cannondale Synapse into their Prius and drove to Borrego Springs.
I was in the second wave of 24-hour racers, set to start at 5:01 p.m., one minute after first-wave favourites like Christoph Strasser and Marko Baloh. As the first wave hit the pavement, my parents fiddled to pin my bib number, which I had accidentally placed upside down. The race official shouted “Go!” as my mother pricked the final safety pin into my jersey, and I rolled out feeling more like a clueless ultra-newbie than ever.
Luckily, I quickly found my groove. As racers spread out on the course, I settled comfortably into the aero bars and found a rhythm with my legs. My game plan was to establish a pace that I could sustain. If I rode consistently (Goal #1), and could avoid bonking or heat stroke, I was confident that I would do well. After a reconnaissance ride a few weeks prior and a group ride the day before, I had familiarity with the course, which would give me an advantage: I knew when I could crank it up a notch, and when to ease off. As the sun fell behind the San Ysidro Mountains, I savoured the extended twilight, letting my start-line mishap slip to the wayside.
A lap-by-lap recap of a 24-hour race isn’t overwhelmingly exciting, so I’ll fast forward: after 12 hours in the saddle, I’d managed to keep my laps between 55 and 59 minutes. I felt strong, and aside from a painful side stitch that plagued me around midnight, I experienced only minor aches or pains, and enjoyed listening to the playful coyote yips in the cool, quiet night. I’d maintained a carb-heavy diet with whole yams, potatoes, dates, bananas, brownies, as well as peanut butter & jam sandwiches.
At 7:00 a.m., I took my last off-bike pitstop. After beelining for the Porta Potty, I tore off my jersey so that my mother could spray me down with sunscreen while I savoured a couple of sips of black coffee. As a crew, we got off to a rocky start, but by daybreak we actually looked like we had our stuff together. I think it was during the following lap that I passed American cycling legend, Seana Hogan, and began to wonder what place I was in. I had been steadily overtaking riders through the night but wasn’t certain if I was actually moving up in the rankings or playing leapfrog. At 10:00 a.m., I stopped for my first ice sock and asked my crew how I was doing.
“Fine,” my mother said, slapping more sunscreen on my face. “You’re doing fine. Now get back out there.”
She texted me twenty minutes later: “Doing fantastic!! 10th overall. Everyone says to back off a little and hold something until 3:00 p.m. Relax.”
I grinned until my cheeks hurt: 10th out of a field of 87 riders—including men, women, and teams—was far better than expected. The combination of carbohydrates, caffeine, and Gatorade seemed to be doing the trick. I considered slowing but opted to maintain pace in case my power dropped in the afternoon heat.
By noon, I was drinking two litres of liquid an hour and stopping every lap for a fresh ice sock. My parents were joined in the support pit by Mary, our contagiously energetic 84-year old Borrego Springs host, friends from San Diego, as well as the entire crew for Evan Deutsch (who had scratched after a dynamite first half due to corneal edema). Their boisterous cheering buoyed my spirits, lap after lap.
Around 2:00 p.m., I hit the 400-mile mark. I’d long surpassed my goal of qualifying for RAAM, and I realized that I was on track to break the women’s solo course record of 697 km. Despite the heat, I felt energetic, propelled by a combination of discovery and disbelief. The only issue, aside from my feet, so swollen they were practically bursting from my cleats, was that I’d stopped eating—with the single exception of bananas. Once I’d demolished the half dozen that I’d brought, my crew had been forced to scavenge more from various support teams.
I went into the short course with just over an hour on the clock and the knowledge that the lead female rider, American Jennifer Orr, was only ten minutes ahead of me. The fact that my parents had not thought to tell me that I was chasing down the lead didn’t surprise me: I had entered the event to find out what I was capable of, unrelated to anyone else. That being said, it did seem like the kind of thing you might want to mention to your racer.
I had previously calculated that I could knock off four short laps within an hour. Suddenly, I knew that I would have to try for five. My heart sank—did I really have the stamina to carry on like this? And then the adrenaline surged: I was about to find out. I tucked into the aero bars and hammered out one lap at 35 km’hr, then another. My breath rattled in my chest and my quads felt as though they would explode any minute, but I was having a blast. In those five laps of the short course I cut Orr’s lead from 10 to just 3.5 minutes.
My last-ditch sprint paid off: I smashed the course record and finished strong, placing seventh overall and second in the women’s solo division with 733.8 km, mere minutes behind Orr, who completed the same mileage. I’d also like to think that maybe, by putting the pressure on Orr, she finished a little stronger as well. Seana Hogan also had a record-breaking ride, taking third in the women’s solo division.
Overall, Austrian racer Christoph Strasser finished first in the men’s solo division with an astonishing 913 km, crushing his own previous course record. Other Canadian participants in the 24-hour division included Shawn Vangassen (376.5 km) and Johnny Burrell (260.7 km).
Another notable Canuck is James McNaughton: he took the win in the 12-Hour Men’s Solo division, breaking the previous course record and racking up 459.6 km. McNaughton, from Mississauga, is a returning racer with previous podium finishes in the 6-hour category.
Though it’s tempting to hop in the mental time machine and imagine what I could have done differently to make up those three-and-a-half minutes and snag the world title, I’ve watched enough Sci Fi to know that time travel is a risky undertaking. Instead, I’m going to celebrate how I accomplished what I set out to, and take away lessons about working with a crew, digging deep, and finding strength within.
Meaghan Hackinen is a writer and ultra-endurance cyclist from Vancouver. Her two-wheeled adventures have taken her from Haida Gwaii to Mexico’s high plateaus, across Canada and the United States, and from North Cape to Tarifa along some of Europe’s highest paved roads. She is a 2017 Trans Am Bike Race finisher and a 2018 Age Group winner (30-39) in the 24 Hour World Time Trial Championships. Meaghan has an MFA in writing from the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, where she currently resides.