Not so long ago, riding more than 100 miles (161km) was considered something of an epic for cyclists, and a century still is an endurance milestone for many. However, things have moved on in the deep-rooted and traditional sport of cycling, and many now consider 100 miles little more than a warm-up pre-breakfast ride.
Welcome to the world of ultra cycling, the new benchmark in long-haul cycling, which is gaining pace faster than Slovakian pro rider Peter Sagan on an Alpine descent. Much as with trail running, ultra distance has now become the aspiration of many levels of rider. From World Tour professionals to weekend warriors, many are now going way beyond personal limits that not even the most accomplished of elite cyclists would have considered sane just a decade ago.
It’s not a completely new phenomenon. It would be more accurate to say the spirit of cycling has come full circle with ultra racing. More than a century ago, the pioneering Tour de France riders would race stages of several hundred kilometres each day, compared with the 150-200km now raced. It was also unsupported racing, and they often rode on gravel roads with single-speed roadster bikes weighing in at three or four times the weight of today’s carbon steeds.
The first headline ultra cycling race was the Race Across America (RAAM), which started in 1982. The RAAM is a supported (for most riders) 4,800km road race across the country, which is very much still the accepted doyen of ultra cycling, although it is quite distant from the new breed of ultra races in many aspects.
It was in 2013 that the Trans Continental Race (TCR) was first staged, under the impetus of ultra record breaking British cyclist Mike Hall, who was tragically killed while racing the Indy Pacific ultra race across Australia in 2017. The TCR has spurned a whole new subculture in cycling; bike packing style self supported ultra long distance racing.
The formats of these races are fairly simple. Riders must carry essential gear (including a Spot GPS tracker) and be totally self sufficient for the duration of the event – which in the case of the TCR is 4,000km across Europe. There are a few checkpoints along the way which riders much reach within a given time. Routes are often down to the riders to choose, but are sometimes also fixed, and that’s about it. The first rider to reach the end point is the winner.
Similar events have sprung up all around the world, many based largely on gravel and dirt roads, some mountain bike only, and some on silky smooth roads. Most come with their own rules and regulations. It’s a bold and free sport, quite akin to the early days of mountain biking before it came under the official governance of the Union Cycliste International (UCI), something that in due course could potentially befall ultra racing too.
With its untamed nature, the physical and mental demands required and the reliance on the individual, ultra racing seems to appeal to a whole new breed of cyclists – those who want to go beyond the accepted norm. There is no doubt these races are a serious undertaking. Even the most experienced of cyclists have to think long and hard about taking on an ultra.
The preparation required is immense, and facing such crazy distances without support is daunting. Riders often ride non-stop for days on end, sleeping in hedgerows and shop doorways for a few minutes at a time, such privations being essential if you want to be competitive. Others opt for the odd half a night of rest and a shower in a guest house, with the personal challenge of competing being their overriding goal. The choice is theirs, and as long as they make the checkpoint in time all is good.
Two years ago, French ultra rider Axel Carion launched the Inca Divide race, a 3,500km high-rise ultra race from Quito in Ecuador to Cusco in Peru, and then followed up with a number of shorter and more attainable events during 2018 and 2019 called the Bikingman series. The series has thrived, and has rapidly become a global one too, featuring three races in Asia during 2019 – Oman (March), Laos (May) and Taiwan (November) – each between 700km and 1,050km. They stay true to the ultra spirit of self-reliance but have a high standard of emergency backup.
In comparison with the trans and divide races the Bikingman events may be short, although they are far from easy. Riders usually take anywhere between 36 hours and five days to complete the courses.
The camaraderie between riders and officials is alluring in ultra cycling, and a far cry from regular bike racing and sportives, and for many the mutual suffering can be a life-changing experience.