Victory with the course record at Sebring 24h Cycling Race

Sebring 12/24h Cycling Race is always a kind of prelude to the season. A 24h race in February might not seem OK to someone with a “normal” cycling seasons, with mostly base training during the winter months and so a bit too early to be thinking of  brilliant result for a 24h race. Nontheless, I’ve been thinking about this race for a couple of years now and finally made the choice to do it in 2014. The broken shoulder messed up my participation and I was on the eve of canceling, when Irma intervened and told me to go and take advantage of perfect spring weather in Florida to train for the rest of season (I haven’t been riding my bike other than on indoor trainer for more than 2 months). So, I went, got to know how to ride on the road again, did a lot of miles and won the short version of the race - 12h with a quite descent result. Promised myself and Mark Andrews (the organizer) that I will be back for the big one.

A year later, hmm, how should I put it? I was in trouble again, fortunately this time I broke my collarbone in November, which gave me a lot more time to prepare for 24h. Thanks also to my coaching client and friend Scott Ragsdale, who lets me “torture” him on all sorts of training camps, my training base was better than ever before at this time of ear. Even with just some intensity training on indoor trainer, I was bold enough to think and promise to fight for the course record, which has been held for 10 years by Chris McDonald. It was set at 502 miles and anybody who has tried ultra-cycling will tell you it is as hard as hell to go over 500miles in a 24h race. Promising it in February, still far away from my really good racing speed was an optimistic thing to do, but I was feeling good, so be it. Plus, as usually, the competition was supposed to be fierce with last year’s champion Chris Hopkinson from UK joining the party, together with 2nd placed in 2014 Damon Taaffe and the guy who probably worried me the most Scott Luikart, American who has ridden 500miles in a 24h race more than a few times. With a great course, perfect organization and more than enough capable competitors, what better way to make a claim on a new course record. Everyone was expecting it, a few of us were even brave enough to say it out loud. But how would it pan out, I had no idea…

I flew to Florida 9 days before the race and joined fellow randonneurs from South Florida at their 300KM brevet. A great event, perfect company for riding fast with Kurt Searvogel and Anthony Parsells leading the way, the 350km we’ve done on that day was a sure way to kick start my training week before the race. In a week before the 24h I got some nice riding in, in all 1.200km and I was thinking to myself - if it goes according to plan, I will be at over 2.000km in those 9 days. Of course, I tuned it down before the race, it was a race after all and I was there to try to go for 500 miles. On Thursday Irma joined me to help me win the race and on Friday we got together with some old friends and met some new ones on a pre-event social ride. We talked a bit, did a middle loop of the race pretty slowly, all in all it was a fun day in the saddle. There was still registration to do and around 10PM we were off to sleep as Saturday’s start is an early one - at 6.30AM.

It was known that the nights will be very cold and we planned according to that. I dressed up pretty light, as I didn’t want to have to stop to undress. In the evening one stop has been planned for dressing up for the cold night. The start was very fast as always, this time it was made more complicated by the fact, that the solo RAAM qualifier riders weren’t supposed to draft, but the drafting group was big and kind of in the way for the first miles. Coming out of the city, the situation was more clear with a big group ahead and as the RAAM-ers behind one by one. My plan was to keep the group in sight as long as I can, but they were too fast for me and I lost them quite a few miles before turnaround. Still, I kept a good tempo and no one of my competitors were close behind. After the turning point, I kept looking who would be the first behind me and to no surprise it was Scott a couple of minutes behind. I was minding my own tempo, plus eating and drinking and the racetrack came faster than I imagined. I needed 4h 20min for the first 100 miles, which is pretty descent for a solo ride. The winds were a bit less strong than in 2014, but still made cycling a little less pleasant than I like it to be.

On the middle loops, my times were under 31 minutes for quite some time, surely a lot longer than in my 2014 12h race. The first problems have arisen with my feet hurting so much that I had to take my shoes off a couple of times, thus extending my lap times to over 33minutes. Besides that I was still going strong and I finished the 12h with 271miles, which is quite a few more than in 2014. But, this time I had another 12h to go! The bad news was that Scott was as persistent as they come - my lead after 12h was only 4 miles, or if you like, one puncture could change the order quite quickly. A stop around 7PM was as professional as always, I was ready for the night’s cold in less than 5 minutes. Did I mention Irma until now? No? That means that she did her job perfectly, as always. bottles were at my hands on time, as well as gels when I needed them. All I needed to do was pedal, pedal, pedal… :P

I have to say that riding around the racetrack in the dark of night was pretty scary with the light I put on. I decided for a lighter one, that I use at races where the follow car is always behind me. In the dark of Sebring it was like riding blind. Twice I was about to crash out as I have ridden off the track. If I wanted to finish this thing of, I had to change the light. So, I told Irma to prepare the MagicShine with a big battery, I stopped the next lap and in a minute or so I was back on track, this time being able to go as fast as I could.

I guess it was around 10PM that I hit a big crisis, my legs were beginning to tire and Scott was not looking like he is about to give up. I was still on the schedule for 500miles, even if I would only do average of 19mph for the least 10h, but I was beginning to see it won’t be enough for a victory this time around. It was time to chose, do I want it bad enough or not? Fortunately there were some other fast guys on the loop like Taaffe, Tasgaard and Newsholme, that helped me decide. Passing me in my time of misery, I just couldn’t let them leave me behind in dust. So, I picked up the tempo, followed them in a proper distance and after a couple of laps I was back again My legs started responding again and I could overtake them and continue my fast laps, between 10 and 11 minutes. I didn’t take long and Scott was in my visor. My first plan was just to follow him until the night is over, but he seemed kind of slow and I could pass him and ride away.

I was on a role now and when I get like that, it is quite a pleasure to ride. I guess you can take that comment with a bit of reserve, as it it a 24h race we are talking about and pretty much everything hurts by that time in the race. With the work I was putting in, the night wasn’t that cold after all. I managed to pass Scott a couple more times and an hour before the finish I could start thinking about how many laps more to do. I was kind of inclined to go slow(er) to the finish, but Irma would have nothing of it - I was supposed to go hard until the end. What else could I do than listen to the boss? ;) I managed to keep making under 11min laps until the end, only the last one took a bit longer as I stopped for peeing for the first time during the race. I rolled over the finish line with 3min and 21sec to spare, into Irma’s hug and the record books. The new Sebring 24h record is set at 521,7miles!

Only 0.275mile behind the current 24h UMCA Road World Record held by my friend Jure Robic. Pretty close, don’t you think? It is nice to know that I was able to do that so early in the season. Curious how far I can go when I lift my fitness to the next level? I guess we will have to wait and see…

The official results:

1st Marko Baloh (Slovenija) 521,8 miles
2nd Scott Luikart (ZDA) 502,4 miles
3rd Anders Tesgaard (Danska) 483,2 miles

Sebring, Florida,
February 15th, 2015

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