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Twenty Four Hours Later
With Bradley Wiggins securing Olympic gold in the men's time trial on the roads around Hampton Court, we look to a time trial of a slightly different kind. On Sunday 22nd July, Ultan Coyle rode 488.993 miles in the Mersey Roads 24 Hour National Time Trial. This was the winning distance and Ultan, who you may have seen riding other escapades for Rapha, is now the new National 24 hour TT champion. The man from Dundalk has been working with Rapha for over five years, creating print work, graphics and kit designs, and also taking endurance riding to new levels of speed and distance. We wanted to find out what drove him to slave it out on the road for an entire day.
Interview by James Fairbank | Photos by Wig Worland
How did you get into long-distance riding?
[Rapha product designer] Graeme Raeburn was the first at Rapha to give 'the 24' a go. I remember hearing his distance and being completely unable to comprehend the effort and being very much in awe. The following year he printed off an application form for me and I think all I had to do was sign it. That was that.
You choose to ride on feel alone without even a computer on your bike. Is there a reason for this?
I'd love to know what speed I was doing at times but more often I wouldn't. I used one last year for navigation purposes during an overnight 400k Audax. I suffered in the latter stages and all I had were these digits telling me I was useless. I swore I would never again use one. If you think about it, I think your body always knows what’s what. From time to time, my head and body aren't on the same wavelength and I think it'll take years to fully tune it.
Food and fuel: I know you avoid using standard sports nutrition products and choose to develop your own recipes? What are they and why is this?
I've being experimenting a lot this year, but never stopped or settled on any solid recipe. I could eat dried figs all day and quite often do, but under duress they're a cumbersome chew and I end up coughing up lumps 10 minutes down the road. So I chopped them down, mixed them with almond butter, coconut oil, tahini, barley malt, maple syrup and ground almonds to bind it.
Quantities worked to give a storable consistency. This is still a work in progress. I also made coconut rice-pudding bars alongside savoury ones similar to those used by Garmin Sharp. But, as I learned before, bananas become the most desirable food because they're so plain and simple. I’ve tried to make something as simple as a banana in terms of flavour and makeup, leaning towards food light in colour and flavour. I did use sport foods, which accounted for about 30% of my intake. I try and reduce that further but it’s always handy to have a plan b.
In one of the pictures I noticed a chip shop with neon lights. Did the smell of fish and chips or other distractions wind you up at any point?
Passing pubs is always interesting. Looking in and dreaming I was guiltlessly sitting there slurping pints. I don't use a watch so they also act as a great marker of time; from early birds to evening frizzle, last man standing to curtains closed. Each phase was evident as I passed the Lion Inn just north of Telford. The closed curtains indicating I was getting closer to the end than the beginning.
Fish and chips never entered my head fortunately, though as Sunday ramps up a lot of crews strike up the barbecues. The smells were great but made me more envious of their relaxed and stationary consumption rather than the food. Nestling in their deck chair munching a sausage sandwich as I went past, bent over trying to inhale a rice cake at 20mph.
What were the most mentally challenging moments?
The desire for bicycle disintegration is probably as low or as mental as it got. Hoping the bike might miraculously disappear from under me and I be exonerated from pedalling it.
Can you describe the value/ help of having your brothers and friends there?
Getting the brothers in on the act was probably my best piece of organisation. Oisín was the designated runner and food manager. We've worked together before in kitchens and never needed too much dialogue to get the job done right. Finn was the numbers man and driver and made sure everyone was in the right place. When we're all together we just rip the piss so that was a great settler heading up to the event.
Saint Basia [girlfriend] and Brother G [Graeme Raeburn] had the invaluable experience of being there before. Bas was in charge of keeping the boys going and making sure they rested and fed when possible. G has ridden and crewed twice before so knowing he was on hand was reassuring.
How long does it take to recover from a 24 hour TT, mentally and physically?
I'm nearly there now and have nothing on the horizon to test me physically so I won't know for a while when that side comes back. Mentally I'd say that’s nearly there too but I just came home to Ireland which is by the sea and in the country so why wouldn't I be recovering well!
I know your training consists of 400km nighttime rides down to the South Coast, how else do you prepare physically and what goes through your mind on these excursions?
I didn't do as much long stuff as last year but tried to make more of what I did count and pushed bigger gears. I got a turbo trainer earlier this year. I felt I was betraying myself as I was always against them, saying cycling should be done outside and shouldn't be some kind of stationary mechanical torture. I soon accepted it though as a means to get quicker, the pain it caused me could only be beneficial.
With no computer and no training partners the closer I got to the event the more I questioned myself, ‘how the hell do you know how you're going?’
I think this comes back again to just knowing and developing that self-awareness. Actually, saying all that, I used to look down at my cassette to see where I was, that’s a good indicator. It feels good cresting a hill in the middle of the block. If it doesn't hurt, it’s not hard enough.
Given your design and art background do you feel that the solitude of these long rides aids the creative process or is it largely divorced from your riding?
Sometimes I'd love to leave the head at home, but getting away from the computer screen can be holiday enough. The phone is always with me, but always off. I hate it buzzing in my pocket and feeling compelled to answer. It can more often than not wait. On the bike, my work can slip into the fore and I find I can blow all the fluff from many an idea until I’m left with the crux of it. It’s no surprise cycling has spawned so many writers, as all that time can serve as a great sandblaster to your thoughts, it’s hard to avoid becoming philosophical about the world on a bike.
When I think about it now I've actually always favoured cycling in solitude. Max Leonard put it to me one night, “cycling is a socially acceptable form of being on your own" and that certainly struck a chord. Around the age of 10 I'd get a quid off the auld fella and take off on the bike. I’d ride this loop around Dundalk. Half way round I'd stop at a filling station to buy a can of Club Lemon and a chocolate bar and sit on the forecourt re-fuelling. Very little has changed.
Who are your cycling heroes?
Ole Ritter, a beautiful looking rider. Watch him in Stars and Watercarriers. I think everyone assumes I love Sean Kelly, and I guess I do. He represents a rural Ireland modesty and I like that. I love the character of Anquetil and his approach, a wolf in sheep’s clothing type of rider.
Can you explain the appeal of the 24? The atmosphere and characters are particularly memorable to me, as is the sense of community. What drew you back for a third time?
I have never raced and until recently that was a constant source of regret. I think finding the 24 has satisfied that itch now, and also probably made me pour more into it. The event is special because of its loyal following and support. At the presentation this year a couple's 50 year wedding anniversary was celebrated, the couple having met marshalling the event so many years ago. I think the event is steeped in similar stories. George 'McNasty' Berwick has ridden the event something like 50 times. Now his sight has deteriorated so much he can't ride solo anymore, so he does it on the back on a tandem. Everybody supports everybody else, you’re never really on your own.
Any other long distance aims? RAAM solo? Will you be defending your crown next year?
RAAM, No. It did cross my mind before but I'm not ready for that yet. Just go further and faster for now. I'd like to sharpen up at different distances - a respectable 100m TT is on the list. A 12hr, although the thought of it scares me as there is less hours to hide in, but I’ll have to try it. There is a shed load of things to do to improve so I'm going to put some to practice over the winter and see what I can do next year. There are plenty of years left for this game yet.