Without a doubt having a pit crew can make a difference for your race ahead. Having one or two helpers can make your life so much easier in what is already a challenging race. It may be called a solo event but having a team behind you can mean the difference in between quiting and placing well. Of course not everyone may be in the position to have helpers and they are the true soloists, but more about them in a bit.
When choosing or convincing people to help you out for what is a fairly tough job, consider your friendship or relationship with them. They have to have a good understanding of what they will be letting themselves in for. They may also have very little sleep which means emotions can be high during the race so you need to be able to get on well and they should be prepared for a grumpy or an emotional and tired wreck when entering the pit at some silly hour in the morning. I'm told that having a partner with you can be both a calming effect on you but also put considerable strain on the relationship! If you can have two helpers then it helps to have one who can cuddle you and one who can kick you back on the course again. Trust me when I say this, you'll go through various feelings as tiredness kicks in. Having someone push you out each lap is great and will keep you going but you'll get very low at some point and just want a more softer touch.
I watched during my race at the crew opposite look after their female rider. They pushed her on and encouraged her out. I watched at about four in the morning as she came in a near broken woman. She was sobbing uncontrollably because she was desperate to sleep and so fatigued. They cuddled her, kept encouraging her, fed her and later I saw her racing around the course still going on. Would she have given up if not for them?
Role Of The Pit Crew
So if you've found someone to help out, what is it you need them for other than emotional support. Really the most important part is to make sure they are getting you fed and watered right during the event and that they are following your race strategies. Cleaning and being ready for any mechanical eventuality.
When you come in for each lap, your crew should be ready to hand you your next bottle of fluids and any food or gels that you will be taking with you on your next lap out. They need to ensure that they get the energy drink or water right in your bottle and that when they take the old bottle off you they observe how much you are taking on per lap and whether it is enough. Although I'll cover Nutrition another time more carefully as an example of my food habits that a pit crew could have been aware of is that I had two different drinks which I labelled A and B. Drink A would be just an electrolyte drink and drink B would be an energy drink. Both drinks were accompanied by different foods and gels. Also when the night set in I had caffeine drinks and gels to keep me going.
If you are running two bikes then you can swap bikes per lap, have your crew clean it up for you and check everything like gears and brakes are sound so when you come back you can swap again. It is therefore quite important to have a crew member who has at least some basic knowledge about bike mechanics and cleaning them right. Really the role of the pit crew is there so you don't have to think, You can concentrate on your race and have everything done for you. It takes a lot of pressure off you as a racer.
Something, else I noticed about not having someone to help me out was that when it came to eating in between laps it took a great deal of time to sort my own food out. In fact I could go as far as to say I lost at least one laps worth in time. That was the difference in finishing 4 places further up the field. It is often hard to know where you are in a race and the crew can check on the timings and so inform you of what place you are in and who or where you nearest compeitiors are.
Below is a nice video of last years winner at the European Solo Champs won by Matt Page. It shows his pit crew in action.
So you couldn't get any helpers or felt that the word Solo really meant just that and you're up for the challenge? Well you are certainly going to be at a slight disadvantage. You will loose time in the pits, eating, cleaning and any other problems that may happen. So the aim here is damage limitation. Your pit area has to be extremely organised. Have your drinks if you can pre prepped and marked with what each one is (I just marked mine A or B). Obviously, the more bottles you own the better. Have food portions all pre arranged. The idea here is that as you come to your pit, you can without much thinking, grab what you need quickly and go.
I did mine in this fashion and it served me well. I had my drink and food planned for each lap even including when I would be introducing caffeine gels and drinks in as well as my eating stops and what I would have ready. I had all my tools at hand too as well as first aid. Basically, make sure everything is easy to find and quick to get to. Don't pile everything up, have it laid out in order or importance. You may feel anal doing it but when you get really tired you'll be grateful to yourself for being organised.
By all means, doing the race on your own is not impossible, it's a tougher challenge and when things go wrong you have to be mentally strong to deal with it. There will be no one there to console you and coming back to an empty pit can be a bit demoralising when its night time its dark and you have no one to talk to about how you feel. Some people get over this by using head phones and music for company. I lit up my tent a bit so when I got back it felt more welcoming. Leave notes for yourself, pictures of loved ones, anything that you think may help is all good. This race will take you through some of your worst times and some of your best. The more aware you are that this will happen and are prepared for it, the better you will cope with it.
Pit Set Up
How pits can be set up for the race can be varied but on the whole there is a similar theme amongst the more professional teams. I only had a tent that had good storage space, it worked ok but for a better set up I'd recommend the following.
Arrive at your race as early as is allowed, ideally before the day. Drive up, park and have a good look around to find a good area to pitch your equipment. Good area include good access to the race track, and good areas to any amenities such as toilets, food areas, mechanics tent etc. Make sure the ground is fairly level and not potholed or rutted so you aren't going to be tripping up.
Get yourself a Gazebo. If possible one with closed sides so that it can be kept warm. The reason mainly is for your pit crew. It gives them a sheltered area to be in that isn't the tent. Tents are ok but unless you have a really big tent you can't stand up in them which means cleaning, doing mechanicals or prepping food and kit has to be done crouched down. Have some chairs for them to sit down in. The typical folding camping chairs are ideal as they are quite comfortable. Make it homely if you can with spare blankets to keep them warm as they will be sitting around for the majority of the time you are out racing and can get cold. I've even seen some use coal burners and other various forms of heaters to keep them warm. Obviously, a tent that is equipped for sleeping, like sleeping bag and inflatable mattress will make the whole experience for them ideal but is good back up should you have to sleep for any reason. Set the gazebo as close to the track side as you can. It allows you to stop right by your equipment.
Talking of stopping, I placed a bike stand right outside my tent which was useful to keep my bike upright as I pitted so I didn't have to put it into the mud.
Get a table or two to put you gear on. Have it inside your gazebo or tent. It helps when laying out your food. The fold up tables are ideal. I didn't have one and regretted it. Mainly because when I was sorting my bottles I had to kneel on the floor and even with a mat on the floor I could feel the cold dampness chilling my tired knees. Not ideal, it also just made sorting stuff feel more sluggish.
Keep all your stuff under shelter. This is where having a gazebo with sides comes in, as it stops rain coming in wetting all you kit.
On the tables put all you food in the right order. Drink, food for racing laps and food for longer pit stops. Have your lights ready charged including back up lights and helmet lights. Tools for repairing you bike should be near a work stand (something else that is handy to own!) Make sure you've got your tool box sorted so things are easy to find. Any spares should be kept separate so you aren't spending ages to find them. Check and double check before you leave home that you have brought all your tools! Basics should include, Allen keys, chain tool, cable cutters, pedal spanner, brake bleeding kit, spoke key, tire levers, chain oil, Track pump. And anything else you may own. Don't panic if your tool kit is lacking in many things as there is often mechanical support at hand.
First Aid kit. Ok hopefully you won't need anything too drastic and there are always ambulance crews on hand for serious accidents but I made up a kit more for race discomforts. Painkillers are your friend. Ibuprofen and paracetamol can be both taken at the same time or staggered to help ease pain just remember to follow dosing instructions. I often get really bad headaches from long rides brought on by stress in my neck in my shoulders so they are a real help for events like this. Heat rubs, deep freeze spray are good for any little niggles as well as heat pads for lower and upper back pain. Anything like that is good when you are suffering. Tube grips (Joint supports) are worth packing to help with sore knees, elbows and ankles. Have all of this on your tables and within easy grasp.
Lastly have all your clothing ready. Really here, you'll probably just want to have warmer clothing at the ready everything else is just a bonus and just in case.
Here is a copied list of the list I made prior to my race. I've made some amendments to it for the things I wish I'd brought with me!
Gazebo Folding Chairs Money
Tent Two Tables Phone
Sleeping bag Heat or cooking stoves Umbrella
Inflatable Mattress Blankets Cups and bowls
MP3 player Shower Gel Tooth Brush and Paste
Lights Helmet and bike Patches
Saddlebag Multi Tool
Pump Heat Rate Monitor
CO2 Canisters and refill
Energy Bars Electrolyte Drink x one tube Water 2L x6
Cereal Bars x12 Electrolyte Drink Caffeine x one tube
Energy Gels Caffeine x6 Jelly Babies x 2 large packs
Energy Gels x6 Mixed Nuts
Bottles x6 Malt Loaf x2
Energy Drink x 6 Chocolate
Shorts x3 Tights Helmet
Jerseys x3 Socks x2 Race shoes
Base Layers Waterproof Socks Glasses
Arm Warmers Gloves Buff
Knee Warmers Warm gloves Waterproof
Walking trousers Socks x4
Walking Boots Jumpers