How I went from zero to ultra cyclist in (a little over) 3 months
Updated: Feb 6
In late 2018, I signed up for a self supported ultra cycling race. At the time, I didn’t own a bike, had never owned a road bike, and I had no racing (or road cycling) experience at all. Three months later, in February 2019, I crossed the line at my first ultra cycling race, BikingMan Oman, having completed 1040km/7500m in 104 hours. I then went onto to compete in two further BikingMan races, one successfully and one, not so much. This is how I did it.
In late summer 2018, the universe conspired to set me on a path towards something that I didn’t even know existed at the time: the weird and wonderful world of self-supported ultra cycling. I was in the French Alps for the summer when a friend who had just completed The Transcontinental (TCR), returned. He was skinny and tired, but ecstatic with some serious cycling tan lines, bandying around statements like “it was the hardest, yet best thing I have ever done in my life” and recalling (fondly) tales of packs of dogs and sleeping in playgrounds. I thought he was a bit nuts.
At the time, it didn’t even really register what he had done. For those who don’t know, and as the name suggests, the TCR is a trans-European self-supported cycling race that started in 2013 by ultra cycling legend, the late Mike Hall. It normally takes place every summer and for many, it’s the pinnacle of the ultra cycling race calendar. That year, 2018, the race started in Geraardsbergen, west of Brussels and finished in Meteora, Greece via mandatory checkpoints in Austria, Slovenia, Czech Republic, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. My friend, Chris Thomas (@zemountaingoat) who ultimately finished 20th in this, his very first ultra-racing effort, covered 4000 km and 40-45000 vertical meters. The race is one stage, all self-supported, picking up whatever fuel, sleep, bruises - and stories - you can along the way.
Google maps refuses to even show you a cycling route, because who would be mental enough? Well Chris Thomas was, and I was intrigued.
I had always wanted to do something ‘big’ athletically – a challenge of some sort - but I was never an athlete despite my best efforts to be one. As a kid, I was never fast, I was uncoordinated, I crossed the finish line last in sports days, I rarely score the points in whatever sport I was playing. As an adult, I was the last to complete a WOD at CrossFit, but I tried. Sometimes half heartedly, but I always tried. So I don’t play like I’m some sort of athletic prodigy who went from smoking 4 packs a day to an ultra race in two weeks, my years of trying to be an athlete had actually resulted in me being in pretty good shape. Turns out that if you’re crap at CrossFit, you’ll still build muscle and core strength and get some level of cardio fitness. Before I started training, I could run a trail 10km. It was hard and slow-ish, but I could do it.
With that caveat, back to the story.
With Chris literally floating about the French Alps making up for a serious two-week calorie deficit, one night with a few drinks in, I asked “Hey, do you think I could do something like that?” Without hesitation, he looked at me and said, “Of course you could… if you train.” And with a shake of the hand, I agreed to do the 2019 TCR.
Now if you’ve been paying attention, you would have noticed no mention in the TCR among the races I’ve completed or attempted, I’ll get to that.
Returning back to my home in Dubai in September that year, I was slow off the mark to sort out a bike. I had told close friends my plans and perhaps knowing me well, they didn’t question it and thought it was a cool – if not a little crazy – goal. The race was scheduled to start the summer of 2019. I figured I had time – 10 months - but soon work got busy and my goal fell to the backburner.
Around October, sans bike, I started cycling on a rental bike one day each weekend, doing 50km on the dedicated desert Al Qudra cycle track that's on the outskirts of Dubai. It was hard and I was learning as I went. The first 50k I did was on an empty stomach and I ran out of water. After the second time - 46km - I got sick. One or two more 50km rides and it was then November. At this point, I needed to make some further movement towards my goal. It was at this point that it went from abstract concept to reality.
First, I went in search of a coach. Let’s face it, I had zero idea on what I was doing. After a rather disappointing meeting with one potential coach who gave me the impression he didn’t think I could do it, I scratched that idea and set out to train myself with Chris providing encouragement, insight and info.
Feeling even more determined, I decided the next best step was to sign up for a race, 3 in fact. The local Spinneys 92, a 92km race in Dubai taking place that December, BikingMan Oman, the 1040km/7500m race taking place end of February 2019 in neighbouring Oman (perfect ‘practice’ I told myself) and of course, my ultimate goal, The Transcontinental. I was now committed, or so I thought.
My next step was securing a bike which, as the stars aligned, was second-hand and actually purchased for the sole purpose of ultra racing. It fit me perfectly and I managed to mentally block out the fact that it was involved in a serious crash. The previous owner was seriously injured and despite injuries, had thankfully made a full recovery. The bike was unscathed; I decided it was a lucky bike and now it was mine.
My first ride on my own bike was 70km – my first ever in clipped in. The second ride was the Spinneys 92km, which I did without a bike computer. Metrics like speed, distance, heart rate didn’t matter to me but the achievement did. Fresh off of Spinneys success early December (ignoring the fact that I fell off the bike after the race, in front of a large group as I couldn’t unclip), I upped the ante for each ride. 100km, then a Christmas morning 120km ride, a New Years’ climb up Jebel Jais, one of the UAE’s tallest peaks, completing 1300m of climbing along 47Km (give or take).
In early January, things went a little haywire. The date that all Transcontinental applicants were due to hear back, came and passed and I didn’t get an email. Upon follow-up, it seems that in my excitement to finish the long and detailed application process, I hit submit and shut my laptop before it actually submitted. Not long after, work commitments and a cold kept me from the bike for a full 20 days. I had signed up for BikingMan Oman as ‘practice’, and now it was just over a month away and I felt totally unprepared.
My first ride back from the cold, I told myself ‘ do 140km or you’re not doing the race’. So I did it, without bike computer because it wasn’t charged. Welcome to amateur hour. Besides my weekday rides, my next big ride was 200km (again only partly documented due to a dead computer). And ahead of the big show, my last weekend of training saw me ascend Jebel Jais twice (2400m/116km) followed by a 204km ride the next day.
Physical training aside, I sought advice from a bunch of sources and bought what I needed to appear as if I knew what I was doing, apidura bags... check, spare derailleur hanger... check. I studied the set route for the race closely – at least the first half of it. I convinced my local bike shop to give me lessons on changing tyres and other things I needed to be aware of. Chris, my TCR veteran friend was an endless source of encouragement and advice. I attended a talk on the BikingMan race series and met other participants and the the person who would eventually become my coach, Niel Copeland of Turn Cycling, who was an invaluable source of intel and encouragement. I learned that in endurance, to go further, you need to go slower.
It was now late February and after a few shakedown rides, and I was ready for a 1050km race across Oman, or was I? Arriving in Muscat after a long drive, the strategy was to STFU and lay low... very low.
The race briefing was incredibly intimidating; world champs, world-record holders, someone who climbed K2 unassisted and here I was with barely 3 months of cycling in my legs. I kept my head down for fear that I’d be found out. “Kindly step outside ma’am and go back to Dubai because you’re a lunatic who clearly does not belong here.” That didn’t happen, thankfully.
On a short recce ride just before the race briefing, the day before the race was due to start, my tyre literally bust wide open. Ok maybe a bit dramatic but it was ruined in any case. Embarrassed that I wasn’t skilled in changing the tube quickly, Niel, Omar and Jasmijn who were on the ride with me helped me fix the puncture. I then – with Omar and fellow racer Julie in tow - did a mad scramble to drive an hour into Muscat to go to the two bike shops there and find tyres (I did) and drive back with enough time to get some sleep.
That morning at 3am, on about 4 hours sleep, I lined up at the start with 74 other cyclists. The time-limit was 120 hours and I had a rough idea on what I wanted to achieve each day. Importantly, lined up at the start, I had no expectations but I knew I would do everything in my power to finish, even if it meant crawling over the finish line. I decided to view the race as four big days of training, without the worry of work or life. It was just riding my bike a very long distance each and every day.
As the race started, and we started to ride our bikes, my bike computer starting flashing red. I thought, just roll with it, using my long held life strategy of blocking out and ignoring things I don’t like. Outside of my two trips to Jebel Jais, it was my first real time riding on an actual road and my first time using navigation and here I was about 60km in thinking “yeah, I’m doing this, I AM ULTRA CYCLING.” I had 970km to go but I was excited at what lay ahead.
For me, the race was the easiest part of the process. It was the moment I had worked hard towards, the time to take in the entire experience, to feel it all, the good and bad, exciting and mundane. It was all new and it was all thrilling.
The Race: BikingMan Oman
For the purposes of this account and to avoid writing a novella, I won’t go into too much detail about the race other than the daily highlights and lowlights with strava segments linked below.
Hit play above to see the race in real-time
Lowlights: At about 70km in, I came upon a fellow cyclist who had fallen off their bike. I later walked across the road in one town because I was too afraid of cycling in a busy traffic situation. Not really the behaviour of an ultra cyclist but it was what it was.
Highlights: EVERYTHING, the feeling of actually doing this thing, the landscape of Oman, riding with fellow racer Melwyn who I met along the way, reaching further than I had ever had on two wheels in one day - 306km, the two burgers I had in Bahla and a soft bed for the night.
Lowlights: Jebel Shams (if you know, you know), the ascend, the descend, all of it. Long story short but as not to mess up my cleats, I walked in sock feet most of the mountain, including 7km of gravel. Lowlight part two was running out of battery on my backlight at night, 8km out of Nizwa.
Highlights: Reaching Checkpoint 1, bursting into tears at Checkpoint 1, eating at Checkpoint 1, finally descending off Jebel Shams (there was cheering and whooping), Melywn cycling behind me 8km backwards to ensure I got safely to a hotel.
Lowlights: Headwind. A call from organisers to ask if I’d seen Melwyn who was on the missing list.
Highlights: Chatting with locals, riding across the desert and reaching Bidiyah toursm camp and sleeping in what looked like a shipping container.
Lowlights: Hearing a persistent tick on my bike. Reaching a second gravel section and getting a flat. Aborting mission for the night.
Highlights: Getting waves from a busload of schoolchildren before reaching CP2, crying at the busload of children being so nice, CP2 and the food at CP2. Turning up the music to block out the tick of my bike, the beautiful coastal ride through Sur, and a lot of tailwind. It was also the day I met Ryan and Lander who were documenting the race. They were quite literally a light in my darkness and I will be forever grateful.
Day 5 - 36km - The Finish in Muscat
Lowlights: Feeling extremely emotionally fragile the entire morning, gravel, the chain coming off my bike, walking up one of the last hills.
Highlight: The FINISH, complete with a bucket of fried chicken.
For what it’s worth, the takeaways
So that’s my story about how I went from zero to Ultra Cyclist and if I were to summarise, the key takeaways for anyone thinking about entering an ultra cycling race are as follows:
Commit: Commit mentally and fully. Don’t let (small) things like not having a bike hold you back from at least setting the goal. Set a hard goal, pay the race inscription and you’ll be surprised at how fast the rest falls into place.
Only take qualified advice: Funny thing is that when you tell people what you’re doing, everyone is an expert. You should be doing this, or that, or “oh you haven’t’ done that yet?”. Advice is fine and you'll need it, but only take it from qualified sources i.e. people who have done what you are setting out to do and people who know you well. They’re the ones who actually know. There are tons of groups and forums on Facebook, more and more first-hand accounts like this one and for the most part, ultra cyclists tend to be a friendly and welcoming bunch. Just remember however that theoretical knowledge doesn’t make an expert, experience does and you’ll learn from experienced ultra-cyclists, there are many ways to succeed.
Block out the noise: Related to the above, there’ll be a lot of people who will believe you won’t be able to do it (especially if you're a new cyclist) or think that it’s stupid, or dangerous or any combo of the above. Many will say this because they don’t believe that they can do it, and they’re right. Being completely ignorant to road cycling and cycling culture was an advantage for me. I had no preconceived notions of what should be possible, I only knew what was possible for me. Block out the noise, including the tick on your bike… if you can’t find the source.
Focus: Like any goal you have, if you intently and intentionally focus on it, you will achieve it eventually. With focus, things that don’t matter or aid you achieving your goal, will fall away. In training, I stopped drinking, I ate better, I trained HARD. I set firmer boundaries on my time to ensure that I had the space to achieve what I wanted to. I visualized the race; I visualized the finish. I was so focused that nothing would have or could have stopped me.
Break it down: Training and prep is literally a list of things to do. Write that list and start ticking it off. During the race, don't view it in its entirety, it's literally what's in front of you: how far you're going that hour, that morning, that day, that night. Make your training and race manageable by focusing on the here and now.
Don’t worry: Having competed in three and finished two races now, I can hand on heart tell you that worry is useless. This is not to say that things don’t happen, they absolutely do, but they’re never ever the things that you worry about happening. In my last race in Taiwan, I spent the better part of one entire day worrying about two dogs someone had mentioned were at a certain juncture on the race. When I arrived there, what did I see... two dogs walking away in the distance. I spent a whole day feeling sick with worry for no reason.
Fitness is only one part: It’s understood that you need a certain level of fitness to finish one of these races. What’s less understood is that you often need to ride slower to go further, you need to understand when you need to eat, what resources are on the way, how far can you/or should you go without sleeping. Are you mentally prepared? Do you have a grasp of mechanics? Do you have the right equipment and set up for you? This is a race of self-management and those who manage their emotions, anxiety, fatigue, mood and eating well, succeed.
Ride your own race: Self supported ultra-cycling races will test your limits and you’ll often hear that this is a race against yourself (along with being an eating contest), and both are true. More often than not, the majority of your competitors on these races have massive respect for one another – the fastest to the slowest - and appreciate all of the planning and effort it takes to even get to the start line. For me viewing the races in this way means a better race and better result. That’s not to say that you won’t find yourself without competition, it’s always there even at the back of the pack but not judging yourself or your result against others is what truly makes these races special.
Enjoy the ride: Ahead of Oman, Niel said to me, don’t forget to enjoy the race, and I didn’t forget. I loved it all. Even the experiences that seemed bad at the time (walking on gravel in socks) had their value. The sights, sounds, views, experiences (good, bad, scary) and the people you meet are all outside the realm of our daily lives I loved every race I did, some only in retrospect (my last unsuccessful race). The finish was often a bittersweet moment as it closed a chapter of training, hard work and fun that I thoroughly enjoyed. Don’t forget to savour all the moments, the training, the pre-race and during it because you’ll miss them once their gone.
There you have it, a long-winded tale of part how-to guide, part-reportage and part-race report rolled into one. Beyond BikingMan Oman which, I ultimately finished in 104 hours, I completed BikingMan Corsica (730km/13,000m in 88 hours) – race report here - and had my first DNF in BikingMan Taiwan, scratching at 855km/15000m in 75 hours. That is a story for another day.
As for the future, watch this space.
Further Reading & Resources
Jasmijn Muller's BikingMan Oman 2019: What happens when a world champ goes out of her comfort zone and into the world of self supported ultra-cycling.
Ella Bothmann-Balow's 2020 BikingMan Portugal: An eloquent report of Ella's first ultra race, BikingMan Portugal 2020 which took place this past summer.
Turn Cycling - The ultra-cyclist's coach of choice, Niel Copeland
BikingMan Oman Gallery