The Art of Solo 24 hour MTB racing with Matt Ackland

We caught up with Matt Ackland to talk about the bonkers discipline of solo 24 hour MTB racing. We covered it all from training, to food, being a single speeder, and learning to get it right after races go wrong

Matt Ackland is a well-known name in the South Australian MTB scene; heavily involved in the Adelaide MTB club and forging out a reputation for tearing up races on his signature single speed Niners. April 2019 saw him take top honours at BikeSA’s Dirty Weekend so we caught up with him to talk about the bonkers discipline of the solo 24 MTB race, how to prepare, how to execute your race, and where the 24 hour MTB scene is going.

Before kick-off, big thanks to the talented photographers who let us use their shots. The killer cover photo is by Sam from @SBDynamics and the body article photos are from Kane @kaneophoto. Give them a follow on all platforms because they do a great job covering these events.

The first question that springs to mind when talking to a veteran of 24 hour solo single speed MTB racing; why solo 24 and why single speed?

I just enjoy it! My first 24 experience was in a team of 4 in Forrest, Victoria. We drove over and we’re just regular punters. My claim to fame was getting us un-lapped by Jason English (7x World 24 hour MTB champion) at about 3am. There was a local guy Tom Cree who was racing solo. I hung out in his pits for a while and I was watching him suffer and love it. He had a Niner hardtail frame and at 2am he said “My gears are f*****. F**** this I’m going to single speed!” So he ripped everything off his bike, converted to single speed and finished. Watching a 24 unfold from a team was really cool and I wanted to do it someday. I started doing longer races and found I was better at them than shorter races.

After I’d won four Dirty Weekend 12 hours, the 24 hour was the next step.

Matt Ackland Dirty Weekend2.jpg

What does the lead-in to a solo 24 look like for you? How do you train?

Everybody approaches these differently. Some people do bulk hours and bulk kilometers. Craig Gordon used to wake up at 2am and do an eight-hour ride before work every day. I just don’t have that time to dedicate to training. I try and make commutes my training. My commute is 17km with 500 vertical metres. Most of that climbing is on a 2.5km climb that’s a 23 minute effort. It caps out at 25% gradient. In the lead-up I’ll try and do a thousand metres per day as part of my commute, then on a weekend I’ll try and do a 3,000 vertical metre and 100km ride.

Closer to a 24 I’ll start adding in loops where I give tracks and climbs multiple goes. The last few years I’ve maintained about 4,000 vertical metres per week. I also don’t count kilometers, I count climbing.

What about the technical preparation? How does a single speeder get ready?

My regular ratio is a 32 tooth chainring with a single 18 tooth cog at the back, and I switch to an easier 32-20 for 24 hour races.

32-18 is my go-to ratio even for shorter XC racing. You can spin that at 25 kph without maxing your heart rate too much. If you can average 20 kph you’re doing pretty well at most events. If you’re on a single speed and freewheeling at the same time geared riders are then you’re no worse off. It’s on very slight climbs or descents where single speeders get smashed.

Single Speed Niner.jpg

If I can do big climbing days while training on my hard ratio [32x18] then ramp it down before a race and switch to my 24 hour ratio [32x20] it feels more effortless. If I stuck at the lower 24 hour ratio I’d adjust to it and make myself weaker. Keeping my ratio high up to the 24 means I can step it down and it feels easier.

Matt’s very candid about the times when his 24s have gone wrong, so naturally we covered some of his unsuccessful races. How have 24s gone wrong?

2014 was my first 24 hour nationals. I was pretty fit and I was doing well. I’d won the Otway Odyssey single speed and I’d beaten Brett Belchambers (multiple world champion and legendary single speed racer) at the Capital Punishment 100km race. For the first 6 hours I was lapping with the elite leaders. It was 38 degrees, super humid, and I tanked. I got to 8pm and I had to go to bed. It turned out I was making up time each lap because the leaders were stopping to drink an extra bottle of water. I was just thinking “I’m doing really well!” but I sent myself into dehydration and meltdown. That taught me that I might have had the legs but there’s a lot to learn about 24s.

2017 was my most disappointing 24 ever. My wife was there, one of my sponsors had driven over too. I went too hard too early, I was underdone, my head wasn’t in it. By 6 am I had to sit down for an hour to get my shit together. In that time I lost a whole lap and a half. I’d lost maybe 2 hours in the space of 3 hours and from third to fifth in single speed. My lack of preparation killed me.

Matt Ackland Dirty Weekend.jpg

Where do the improvements come nowadays given how experienced you are? And what does the perfect race look like?

I’m a long way off being perfect but I’m doing better. The last two I’ve been happy how I’ve pulled them off. I’ve been a bit more sensible. I took advice on what guys like Scott Nicholas (2015 24 hour single speed world champ) have done. Scott told me it’s all about who can do the most consistent laps. It’s not about who’s leading early, it’s about racing for 24 hours. If you don’t finish it doesn’t matter how fast you are. I had to slow myself right down and get to finishing happily.

That happened at 2016 nationals. Kevin Pullen (2018 Age group Australian national champion and top 10 World Champs finisher) couldn’t race so he was in the pits for me. Having an experienced solo 24 rider making sure I did everything right… I ended up 4th in single speed and 4th in my age group which was pretty awesome but I knew I had a lot still to work on.

Nothing’s more important than eating in the first 6 hours. I start getting sick of food and you don’t eat as well late in the race. You need to make sure your nutrition in the lead-up and the early part of the race is right. Recently I switched to more solid food and less gels. That helped a lot with how my body responds and my recovery. My next challenge is trying to find a delivery method for that real food that’s faster to eat. Stopping for 5 minutes every 3 hours to eat something is a lot of time. My best moving time for a 24 is 23.5 hours. Is there somewhere I can crack into that half hour? At some courses half an hour is a lap. That’s a huge amount to make up on someone. I’ve worked out what my body wants to do.

Getting involved with junior dirt skill kids program taught me to recognise a lot of bad habits I’d self-taught. Reading the book on how to teach kids showed me a lot of what I was doing wrong or not doing at all. I started watching a lot of what other riders were doing. I’d flick through Facebook photo galleries and look at people’s lines and body positions. I’d see myself and think “Man, I’m half way down the berm! I haven’t got my elbows out! I’m too far forward!” I’ve been working on that sort of stuff. I’ve been changing my cockpit, getting a lot further back on descents. Any time you’re descending is free energy so being as efficient as you can is really key. That’s been a big difference because I’ve always been good at climbing. I did used to lose time on people during descents and it’s just a technique issue.

Matt Ackland Dirty Weekend3.jpg

One of the topics I most wanted to talk about was the state of the 24 hour scene in Australia. It’s seen some big events drop off the calendar and the remaining ones seem to be struggling to draw in people. How does the scene look to you in 2019?

There’s still a dedicated group of people who love it and are interested in it. Marathon MTB racing in Australia generally has dropped off. There used to be 100 km marathons with 1,500 riders that would sell out. Nowadays I don’t think the Otway Odyssey comes close to selling out. Capital Punishment died, the Scott 24 hour died… These were events that used to get 2,000 people. I don’t know where people’s interest has gone. It doesn’t seem like mass participation has moved to other ultra-endurance disciplines. Maybe it’s enduro? People still seem to love destroying themselves on gravel rides too. A lot of that crew would also enjoy 24 hour racing.

Unfortunately event promoters don’t seem to be seeing value in 24 hour events. There’s a few high-level national and regional championships. It’s a hard discipline to market to people because you either want to do it or you don’t.

Matt Ackland Solo 24 MTB.jpg

So, what would you do to encourage people to try a solo 24?

You just have to give it a go! It’s the most mentally and physically challenging thing but there’s so many rewarding times. You’ll be out in a forest by yourself or with someone else and something amazing will happen.

I found Purdie Long on the far part of the Dirty Weekend course at a weird time of the morning. She’d had a stack and messed up her bar light. I was 10 minutes down on Kev (Kevin Pullen) but I stopped for 5 minutes to help her out. My priority was to help another rider out because that’s how it is when you’re part of the community that does these races. Or maybe you’re catching someone at 3 in the morning and you want to pass but you also want to just talk to them!

There’s riding a 24 and there’s racing a 24. I’ve truly raced a 24 maybe three times. You need to decide which of those things you’re going to do. Are you there to challenge yourself and see how far you can go or are you racing? Riding it is a cool way to find things out about yourself. You can send yourself to dark spaces in your head but come out the other side and realise you’re a stronger person.

I was naturally drawn to it because I was doing it in teams. I admired the people I saw riding almost as fast as the teams, but solo. Some people only have one or two 24s in them. I think Brett Belchambers finished on 24 of them. You need to have a reason to ride a 24 and once that reason is gone it’s hard to get the motivation.

You need to build an event and get a lot of people there to see how cool it is. Some of the smaller 24s don’t have the charms and atmosphere to show people how great participating in these events can be. It’s not about the bells and whistles of screens and massive event villages, it’s all about the camaraderie and atmosphere. The sport’s got a lot to give, it’s just getting people in there to see it.