How far is too far?

by Leon Newton

When Scott asked me to write something for the club about riding a long way, though honored, I didn’t know what to write. I decided that it would be beneficial to me if I spent some time postulating on the definition of ultra-distance cycling. Aware that reflecting on a few of my previous rides and sharing my thoughts on the subject will only add to many people’s confusion – including my own – I hope that my words on the topic prove insightful and possibly even inspiring to others.

Ultra has become quite the buzzword of late. In the running world, the definition is easy – anything over a marathon, 26.2 miles (42.7 km) – in cycling however, the term is less easily defined. Popular definitions include over 100 miles, over 24 hours, over 200 km, multi-day, and continual clock…. These all have their caveats and objectors, so I like to go with ‘cycling a long way, efficiently’. It’s my opinion that ultra isn’t specifically about distance or time, it’s my opinion that ultra is a mentality. Ultra is more about pushing your limits, and traveling through landscapes quickly, smoothly, and efficiently. This definition has the benefit of making things a lot more personal. The time it takes to stop at a shop will be different for everyone, and so too are daily average paces and distances, so long as you are not reading the lost and founds bulletin on a village notice board and the ride doesn’t take in a vineyard tour (a quick sample is acceptable), then it’s unlikely you are touring; if you are pushing your limits, it’s probably ultra-cycling.

I’m not convinced that ultra-cycling must be racing either, Ultra-distance and ultra-endurance are things in themselves.  Audax cycling is a fine example – randonneuring is not racing (it’s taking the scenic route), but for those riding at the front, efficiently trying to complete in the shortest possible time, they are likely leading the ride due to having an ultra mentality. In short, ultra may well be about how you are doing something and not what you are actually doing. The idea is usefully illustrated by the following photo; on the left is an ultra ice cream with a dual-use spoon, and on the right is a much longer touring tub.

Now that I have offered a slightly ambiguous and long-winded definition, I would like to revisit some of my rides and consider whether or not I would define them as ultra. Before I do, a background into my cycling may be useful.

Like many, I learned to ride as a child and before long, the freedom afforded to me through cycling became a mainstay of my existence. Then, like now, I reveled in simply messing about on bikes. I rode my mountain bike daily, building jumps in the woods, gunning down stair sets, and just messed about, chatting with friends. BMX followed and I became pretty serious. I started to explore the country by train, riding new cities and wastelands with new people. At the time, pro riders would have free coasters, letting them ride backward smoothly. Never designed for the stresses of street riding, the cost of smashing rear hubs made these the reserve of rich kids, or sponsored riders. My solution was to set my bike up with two front wheels and no chain. I could ride backward indefinitely and the setup encouraged a smooth style. This was at the detriment to my transport, cue a fixed wheel road bike!! Still young and image-conscious, fixie riding was simply cool. I was non-excepting of gears and believed that brakes were for wimps (the foolishness of youth). Aside from feeling suitably rebellious, fixed-gear cycling demonstrated to me how efficiently I could travel on a bike. I cycled less as I matured, becoming besotted with the automotive world. I never stopped riding, always having bikes, but until COVID-19 arrived, I certainly didn’t ride daily. Government advice during lock down, however, encouraged daily exercise and within a week I was a daily cyclist once more, my old fixie returning as my key to freedom.

This daily cycling reignited my passion and it quickly evolved. I had finally matured enough to give gears and brakes a try and found the increased efficiency they provided astonishing. I built up my weekly mileage and started wearing cycling-specific clothing. I also started sharing my adventures on social media (aka @RibbleAdventures ) and was attracting the support of some brands. Brooks England were first providing saddles and bar tape befitting of ever increasingly epic rides.  I have always enjoyed travel, exploration, and wild camping, and I was ready for a proper big ride.

My first multi-day, long-distance ride was a LeJOG. Extending the route to take in some epic climbing and call on friends saw me spending 11 days traveling 12000 miles up the length of GB. Long days in the saddle were broken by long lunches and sleeping in bushes. The ride seemed pretty ultra to me at the time but there was no urgency about my approach. One highlight of the trip was eating a 4-course seafood-themed lunch at the rather posh Loch Lomond Yacht Club. While the staff laundered my socks and I killed more time finishing a good bottle of wine – it was a hot day and this probably wasn’t ultra-cycling.

I learned a lot on that ride about pacing and fueling daily efforts but I was far from efficient. Ultra-distance races are not often won by actions on the saddle. Usually, it is how smoothly a rider performs the act of living that makes the overall difference. I went fast on parts of this ride, dropping a local club up Bealach-Ne-Ba is a stellar example of pressing on during a long ride, and it was also the first time long-distance cycling tried to teach me a lesson I still won’t learn. Dropping a club ride felt good but the act preceded a 50-mile bonk due to Sunday opening hours. I’ve repeated this mistake many times since.

Following my LeJOG I joined NWVCC, I guess I had to accept that I was a serious cyclist by this point. Despite being a bit of a lone cyclist – useful as finding someone willing to spend 40 hours at my side is unlikely – I have found the club welcoming, and the chats on pub rides are often knowledgeable and inspiring. There is no way I would have attempted a 5-mile T.T. if it were not for the inspiration of my peers within the Velo, an alien diversity to my cycling. Not ultra in any way yet those 12 minutes felt harder than many 12-hour rides.

In the same year, I was working towards an AAA-SR and learning the art of cycling painlessly through the night. A super ranndonneur (or SR) is a series of 200, 300, 400 & 600 km rides during a single Audax season, the preceding AAA recognises that all the rides are hilly. Completing such a challenge opens your eyes to the diversity of where we live and for many is the start of night riding.

For my 600 I built a route across England and back – a C2C2C if you will –  between West Kirby and Mablethorpe. I forget the official time cut for the ride but I set myself the target of 39 hours. 39h and 1 min after leaving the lake in West Kirby I returned, gassed, sore, and ruined from setting strava PR’s across Cheshire with 300 miles in my legs; yet, triumphant in completing what I feel to be a true ultra-distance ride. The constant pressure of a ticking clock necessitated the relentless consideration of efficiency, thinking about when to push on and where to just keep moving, never sure of the likelihood of success. The ride honed my sleep-deprived decision-making skills, largely thanks to the sounding board of my successful ultra-running spouse, Felicity. I had hemorrhaging time during the early hours of the morning. Inexperienced, I had allowed myself to become frustrated by my body’s inability to put out any effort in the small hours; something I now accept, confident that moving is better to progress than stopping. Following sunrise, it was only with Felicity’s help that I was able to keep my effort constant across the spine of the UK. Despite knowing the quality of her advice, it is hard to employ constant effort. Doing so makes climbing feel slow and there is no recovery when descending. Going down hill, you are are often out of the saddle to keep at the effort constant. If the power target is well set then recovery shouldn’t be needed, and riding for many hours need not be arduous. After all, with sunrise comes the magic.

This was all in 2021. For 2022 my sights were set on the Pan Celtic Race (PCR), undoubtedly an Ultra race, and something I needed to prepare for. When I signed up I was happily riding round the clock, confidently fueling from petrol stations and swift when I came to integrating myself with a hedgerow for a few hours sleep. My efficiency off the bike was what needed improvement. I had previously received a round of applause from bystanders in Barmouth, during a 24h circumnavigation of the top third of wales. They had watched a swift stop to re-fuel, re-lubricate and re-focus but I knew myself that there were many time savers I had yet to perfect. With PCR being a nonstop race from South to North Wales, taking the scenic route around the border of Ireland, it seemed fitting to use the Racing Collective’s Trans UK series as preparation; racing across England, then Wales, and finally Scotland. I improved many skills on these rides, notably puncture repairs on trans Scotland, where I bent both wheels, fixed tubeless, punctured again, and converted them to tubes, before doing a patch later, mostly at night in remote Scottish glens.

Aside from the obvious mechanical skills, there were lessons on that ride in dealing with adversity and re-planning. It was stinking hot and ferries imposed a strict time limit on the section of the ride that crossed the Isle of Mull; the location of a very remote checkpoint. I had intended to bivi before the first ferry, but due to time loss, the ride became a 36-hour effort, and a tough one at that. The trans series is wonderful: a grassroots, short-distance, ultra competition.  

It is only with the completion of PCR that I feel qualified to discuss ultra endurance with any kind of confidence. The race was my first truly gargantuan effort and I am pleased with how it went. I prepared my kit for the race fastidiously, agonising over mass vs comfort vs reliability for everything, and Isadore Apparels’ offer of support was gratefully accepted the week before leaving. It’s not usual to change something so fundamental in the lead-up to a big race but having experience with some of their stuff I had confidence in this decision.

Unsure if I could even finish the ride, I did not have much of a plan going into the race. I would make it to CP2 where I could assess my progress and define some goals. I have learned that making a plan only means writing down what is not going to happen anyway. Instead, I was confident that I could make good decisions, so long as I took stock of the situation I was in beforehand. At CP2, around 900 miles of fast-paced touring had taken me roughly 4 days and I concluded that 3 more 200-mile days were possible before an evening ferry from Dublin. I rode these days as easy as I could, reserving as much energy as possible for a 55-mile time trial from Holyhead to the finish. With only two permitted ferries each day, the race was split into TT heats. I was pleased to be the second finisher in my TT and 13th overall. Ahead of me was a young lad who I had now raced against across  – or around –  England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. The ability to put out this effort confirmed the personal success in how I had conducted myself over the reseeding 7d,16h, and 53m, part of a clan of nearly 150 riders in a race with an attrition rate of around 50%.

I still have a lot to learn and much to improve on but I can confidently say that Ultra Endurance cycling and racing is a special thing to me. I look forward to many more rides with the Velo and my future in the sport.

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