The open road stretches out in front of you. Its winding path is set to take you on an adventure that you will remember for a lifetime. This is no sportive, no one-day ride but an epic journey over multiple days that will see you stretch yourself both physically and mentally. This test, for most who undertake an ultra-endurance race, will have been months, maybe even years, in the making. But before you even reach the starting line, preparation will be key to getting those pedals turning on what will be one of the biggest rides of your life.
For those who have never experienced something like this before – including this writer – the internet is full of tips that you must learn before you start. Some of these are good, others not so good. Here, we will delve into the most valuable pieces of information you need to know before taking on your first ultra-endurance race.
Unlike a sportive or a gran fondo, a race of this ilk is unsupported and everything you do throughout the race is down to you. No one else. So, with that in mind, here are some of the best things to know before taking the plunge.
As cliché as it may be, for a race where you are on your own for days on end, knowing what you have to do in spontaneous situations is vital to being successful and safe. Making sure you have the distance in your legs is one way to make sure you can complete the race and also enjoy it. But alas, it’s not that simple.
Josh Ibbett, a veteran of the Transcontinental, told Apidura: “I think the biggest mistake people make when training for ultra-endurance rides is to only do really long rides, all of the time. Yes, you need to do some but by doing loads of really long, slow rides, you’ll just become good at riding slowly for a long time! In order to be more efficient over a long distance, you need to get used to riding fast too, so your endurance pace will feel easier.”
This is imperative to making sure you are as effective and efficient as you can be on the bike. But another part of Ibbett’s comments was making sure you are comfortable with the position that you will be riding in. Without this, many problems – saddle sores, numbness, muscular pain – can begin and when you are pushing your body to the limit, it’s crucial that you get it right.
Alongside preparation, it’s risky to try something new during your race, as it is an unknown quantity that you don’t need during what will be an arduous journey. One such similar story comes from Mark Beaumont. Whilst training for his incredible around-the-world attempt – where he would circumnavigate the globe in 79 days – he decided to try a beetroot juice suggested by his physio on the first day of his Ride Around Britain. Not long after, he would throw it back up and that was the last he had of that beetroot juice.
Whether it is trying new shorts, food, drink or equipment, do it in an environment that you can control and one where you are comfortable. Doing this in a race is incredibly risky and can lead to you not finishing after months of prep.
For those longer ultra-endurance rides that require you to plot your own route, like the Transcontinental or Race Across America (RAAM), it’s important to have the mental ability to think on the fly. For most of us, using apps like Komoot or Strava will allow you to plot your own routes to follow to the letter. Sometimes, though, this can go wrong and it happens to a lot of us. For me, a closed road on a Czech lane led me down a muddy, leafy lane where I ended up crashing very slowly on a narrow path. The moral of this story is closures and differentiating routes are par for the course. It is important to have contingency plans in place and enough mental aptitude to deal with any setbacks. In the long run, a 30-minute delay on a wrong turn or a closed road is not the end of the world but can feel like it after 20 hours in the saddle. Remaining calm and strong is vital to making sure that this doesn’t ruin your ride.
If you’ve ever ridden a race before – or even headed out on a group ride – going quicker than you realistically can due to the fact you are in a fast group can lead to big trouble down the line. In an ultra-endurance race, understanding your strategy and riding into the race is key to completing the distance. That is why starting below the threshold and building up throughout the race is beneficial to making the most of the fitness you have achieved throughout your training. There is also the chance that you will be picking off riders, overtaking them as you get stronger throughout the race. This will give you an extra motivational boost as you grind your way through the event.
There is that old line that ultra-endurance riders will confess to when they take part in a race, which goes along the lines of: “When I am racing, nothing else really matters…”
This tunnel of focus is understandable. You switch off from the rest of the world, away from the distractions of modern life, and get sucked into the race. That, for most bike riders, is an enviable experience. But for those on the bike, you are plugged in, with every decision affecting your final position and your time.
But it’s important that you look up from the handlebars from time to time and check out what’s around you. Although it is a race, this adventure is just that: an adventure. So, make sure to enjoy it, immerse yourself within your environment and be at one with the road. For most who are not gunning for victory, it’s more important to enjoy those moments because those are the things that will stick with you, not the place you finish in.