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How to take your first steps into the increasingly popular world of long-distance cycling
Darkness had well and truly arrived by the time I'd made it to the last gravel section in BikingMan Oman. By now, I'd been riding for 43 hours straight and fatigue was taking over. As my front light dimly illuminated the track ahead, I saw two aliens climb off the side of the road and come towards me. It was soon obvious that my mind was playing tricks on me and the movement of bushes at the side of the road were the aliens in question. For 10 seconds though, aliens really did exist in my world.
Ultra-cycling isn’t for the faint-hearted, then, but ultra-distance races are fast gaining popularity across the globe. The major races, such as the Transcontinental, a 3,700km race across Europe, are becoming so popular that there is now a lottery system to get in.
Events such as the BikingMan world ultra-racing series – a series of five global “sprint” distance races that start from 700km long – provide an attractive mix of exploration and adventure along with a level of pre- and post-race support that are ideal for those wanting to take the plunge into this crazy world.
What is an ultra-race?
Ultra-racing can be any distance from 500km up to 5,000km and beyond. They are often self-supported, with no following vehicles, and riders can only rely on what is commercially available to everyone. These races are run in a single stage, so it's up to the riders how long to ride, how long to sleep and how often to stop for food and water. Once the flag drops at the start, it is the first person to the finish line that is the winner. Outright speed is given up for more time on the bike moving yourself forwards. The fatigue, sense of camaraderie and downright difficulty lead to an incredibly rewarding experience with massive emotional highs, as well as long, dark moments of the soul.
The physical training
You have to be able to ride your bike for long periods each day. In the shorter races of 1,000km or less, the winning time can be under 48 hours. The key is to maximise the development of your aerobic engine, enabling your body to rely on fat as its primary energy source. Four to six hours of riding, keeping your heart rate nice and steady, will maximise your physical adaptation and get you ready for the saddle time. It's easy to think that you need to do 12-plus hours every weekend, but this will actually cause your body to break down and require too much recovery. Mix in some interval sessions once or twice a week to lift your overall speed. When you’re within six weeks of race day, build in a couple of really long rides (12-plus hours), to make sure you know how your body will react and to get used to managing your food, navigation and equipment charging.
Equipment is one area where you may not have everything you need. Your choice of what to take will depend a lot on the length of the race and your strategy. Are you going to race flat out for 48 hours without sleep or take your time over 10 days? Having a sleeping bag or bivy bag in case of emergency can (literally) be a lifesaver. Think about your cycling clothing: its fit, warmth and sun protection. Do you need something waterproof for your particular race? Reflective clothing is also a necessity because you’ll be on public roads and often riding in the dark. Brands such as Mektrax Cycling, which I use for all my races, have prominent reflective panels to help you be seen at night.
Lighting and navigation devices need charging on the road. Power banks and charging plugs are cheap and reliable these days, and with a decent power bank in your bag, you'll be able to ride for two days without needing to find a socket.
Finally, you'll need somewhere to carry all this kit. Bikepacking bags from brands such as Apidura are as popular as they are light, waterproof and more aerodynamic than a traditional pannier.
The most important aspect is mental preparation. Those with the best plan, and the ability to execute it, win races. The top riders will know exactly how much sleep and food they need, and have the mental strength to push through even when their body tells them to rest. This can be practiced. Think about this when you are doing your long endurance rides. Breaking down a ride into two- or three-hour blocks, with a clear process for each block in terms of food and drink, helps you cope with the sheer enormity of the task ahead and also ensures you stay on top of your feeding and ride management.
With the right dedication and mindset, taking on an ultra-race is something that can be achieved by most, but seeking advice will also aid you. This could mean engaging a coach who has extensive experience riding in these races and coaching others to success, and/or seeking out those who have done the race to ask for their knowledge and advice. At the end of the day, everyone is running their own race, for their own reasons, but you can take valuable bits of information from your fellow racers.
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