"What is good? What is bad?"

As we rode up to a huge German chap on Day 3 of our 'race' we were starving. We had ridden 150km that day, and only eaten 2 bananas so far...

We saw him leaving a village and asked if there was a village shop there. He looked totally glazed so I repeated and asked if there was any good food there. And he gave this amazing slow shrug of his massive shoulders and said in his best 'Arnie' voice "What is good? What is bad?". Which is either unbelievably profound, or just the words of someone totally f*cked.

I was in Portugal, taking part in the inaugural BikingMan Portugal event. BikingMan is a series of ultracycling events held around the world, where your time is the 'gun time' and all stops and sleeps count towards total time (hint: the winners don't sleep much).

They market this event as a 'sprint' as its only 950km long - some events are 4000km! (for more details on the route profile and our preparation, see our recent blog).

Ultra riding is a growing genre, events like the Trans Continental Race have inspired Instagram devotees and have exploded in popularity.

It's a million miles from the world of road racing, skin suits and marginal gains. Here you can lose days, not seconds, with the wrong kit choice. I was keen to give it a bash; but very happy that I was going as a pair with Ashley who was also keen to wet his beak.

Hilariously Ash and I had only ever 'spoken' via email. We had never met face to face and certainly not ridden together. So... nothing like 950km to get to know one another (or massively fall out!).

Both of us had done Iron Man events before and we both agreed the lead up to this was very relaxed in comparison; there is no pressure to eat well the day before to top up the glycogen. We even had beers on the flight out. The shock!

But at the same time we were very conscious there is limited support out there - you are given a GPS tracker on your bike and that's it. There are no feed stops, no neutral support, no team support. You carry everything with you. If it goes wrong, it can go properly wrong.

I slightly terrified Ash by asking him how to navigate by GPS: all my head units have GPS but I only use them to analyse data post-ride. I'd never ever used one to follow a saved route before. Ash did his best to underplay his shock, but you could tell he was thinking who was this clown he had signed up to ride with. As usual I'd dived headlong into the event without a whole load of planning, having to borrow some essential kit from colleagues; lights from Rowan and Apidura bags (which proved to be excellent) from Rob.

Ash, on the other hand, was fantastic at pre-race prep. He had recced the entire route in advance and knew the location of all the petrol stations and supermarkets along the way. I'd done none of this! It was a super competitive advantage because you knew exactly how far to go before the next food and water. His planning and attention to detail made all the difference, and I am very grateful to him for that.

below: the faces of two men who don't know what they've let themselves in for

The winners will basically ride 20 hours at a time and then take short power naps of 20mins in between.

For our first event we were much more cautious and decided that we would get to Control Point 1 and sleep and try to be back on the road for 5am, and repeat...

We wanted to finish by Wednesday evening (and thus sleep in the hotel at race headquarters post-event) but as a back up we had booked our flights for Thursday evening - we were taking no chances.

Faro to Checkpoint 1 (Monday)

The 5am start had a neutralised area for 25km where we followed the Portuguese police (this really is a brilliantly well organised event) and then we turned off the main road and hit the foothills north of Faro.

It was amazing climbing in the dark with just the lights of fellow cyclists around. The climbs were crazy steep though, lots of ramps of 12%+ which sucked when the bike was 18kgs including water. I had been lazy and not changed my gearing and I had a 36 inner chainring with a 30 at the back. The end result was I was climbing at a cadence of 60 at the start; suboptimal when we had 900km to go.

This was literally the first time I had ever ridden a bike loaded with luggage. It felt so sluggish at the start and descending felt sketchy as you would have all this weight over the back end that meant you could not dive into corners like normal. My total riding time over the entire event was 35 hrs; and thus I got plenty of practice and it soon felt normal

As my legs got stronger it got to the stage where I was climbing out of the saddle for large sections - I felt like a slow, heavy version of Contador!

At around 6.45 the sun began to rise and we had majestic views over the mountains (below).

After just 50km we saw a chap at the side of the road and asked if he was okay; he said yes - he had snapped a saddle rail but it was fine because he had some zip ties... only 900 km to go! We later randomly met him again at a petrol station on Day 3, and he went on to finish the event, still zip-tied together. It's amazing how riders start off as total random, but two days later they are brothers in arms. The event had amazing camaraderie in that way - basically it attracts misfits.

After a while (forgive the lack of detail but its all a bit of a blur) we found ourselves following this amazing river that coursed its way north. I love this sort of riding; basically not going hard, not going easy but just tapping out a rhythm. In normal riding thats called junk miles - here it's progress, and progress is the name of the game.

After 150km we stopped for water and food. This was my first taste of the insanity of the "pit stop". You basically run into a convenience store/small supermarket and grab as much simple carbs and sugars as you can find and wolf it down and put the rest in your pocket or your saddle bag.

We bought 10 rolls and a jar of Nutella and basically threw the Nutella into a plastic bag and it managed to coat the rolls. Sounds disgusting, but was amazing after 6hrs riding.

There were other people who were far more sensible and would stop for a proper lunch; that's definitely a more pleasurable and civilised approach.

It had started off cool but by 2pm it was seriously hot and Ash was suffering in the heat and a lack of electrolytes - his shorts were covered in salt from sweat and we were not replacing them. His pace dropped alarmingly and we stopped at 200km for a 20min reset.

He improved and off we went again; but by 250km he was not feeling so good again so we dropped the pace and slightly limped into CP1 at 330km. We were ultra-riding virgins and had learnt our first lesson - it's not how fast you go, but rather how slow you don't go...

On Day 2 and 3 we were much better about making sure salt intake was up and he was fine after that.

Despite all our shenanigans over the second half of the route we made it to CP1 in 6th and 7th place overall. We got our cards stamped and then asked where the hotel was - everyone thought we needed to use the bathroom and be off again but we explained we had booked a night there. They were all surprised as all the 'fast people' were pushing on through the night. Its the first time I have ever done 330km, 5000m climbing, 12 hours riding and been accused of taking the soft option!

Ash had done heroically well to get to CP1 in his state; and it had clearly taken a lot out of him. As soon as we went into the room he crashed out on the bed, kit and shoes on, just drained from the heat and dehydration. He said if I wanted to crack on on my own I could do so; but that was never going to happen - we had started, and we would finish, our adventure together.

I am not amazing at signs of affection or encouragement; and seem to practice the 'sergeant major' approach of tough love. So at the time I didn't tell Ash how well he did; but it was deeply impressive, as he had to cycle 130km when properly shagged.

We ordered room service and got a burger and chips. The salt and 'stodge' was our first square meal in 12 hours and made a huge difference. We had burned 7000 calories on the road and probably ate 2000 max. So a massive hole.

Given we wanted to maximise our recovery time we decided to "sleep in" and set the alarm for 4.30. I did not sleep that well; but simply getting out of cycling kit and having a shower made a massive difference. The only bit of clothing I had brought for the 950 km was a single pair of pants to sleep in. So getting up and putting on sweaty clothing at 4.30 was a real treat...

We also showed our inexperience in these sorts of events; it took an age to get ready but we left at 5.15. We had no breakfast but wolfed down a banana and 3 Red Bulls - breakfast of champions!

below: Team Bespoke racing the team from the Omani Army (who went on to win the pairs category)

Mandatory Equipment:

  • GPS tracker (provided by the organizer if the participant doesn't bring his own GPS SPOT Gen 3 tracker)
  • 1 set of spare batteries AAA (not provided)
  • Helmet
  • Gloves
  • 1 jacket or jersey with light rain resistance, ideally with hood, to withstand bad weather in the mountains
  • Cycling apparel with high visibility reflective ribbons OR a reflective vest (such as 3M reflector vest)
  • 3M reflective tape positioned at least on 2 positions in the back AND 2 positions in the front of the bicycle
  • Bicycle lights in working condition (the light with "flashing" function only is considered insufficient. The participant must make sure that he has permanent "illuminating" lights at the front AND at the back of the bike and not only external flashing lights)
  • Bicycle pump (mandatory even for riders choosing a Tubeless tyre without inner tube)
  • 1 inner tube repair kit (patch + glue + tire remover)
  • 1 inner tube
  • Mobile phone + charger + a charging device (external battery or a dynamo hub)
  • 1 survival blanket
  • Sunglasses with UV protection
  • Bidons with a minimum water reserve capacity of 1.5 litres
  • Passport + a paper copy of the passport

Highly recommended equipment:

  • 1 mirror fixed on the helmet of the rider or the handlebar of the bike
  • Bivy equipment (a bivy or sleeping bag)
  • Swiss army knife or multi function tool
  • The equivalent of 40 euros in cash
  • Credit card
  • Compass or telephone equipped with a compass function
  • Sunscreen, vaseline, chamois cream
  • 1 universal adapter for power outlets in Portugal
  • Chain oil
  • 4 replacement spokes
  • Spoke key or multifunction tool for tightening the spokes of the wheels
  • 1 spare pair of brake pads (mechanical braking) or 1 pair of brake pads (for disc braking)
  • 1 autonomous energy production system (dynamo hub type)
  • Water purification tablets
  • Paracetamol
  • Anti-inflammatory cream and/or tablets

above: I was riding this S-Works Roubaix team, which performed impeccably

Checkpoint 1 to Checkpoint 2 (Tuesday)

The stage from CP1 to CP2 was the long one at 360km but less climbing at "only" 3600m elevation and the first 30km were a net downhill so we made cracking progress blasting through in the dark.

The stage was pretty uneventful to start with; quite a dull series of roads to be honest. But it was a lot cooler, and we were managing our food better so it was very much a case of no news is good news. We had started off conservatively as we wanted to make sure Ash had fully recovered. After 50km we realised he had, and as hoped it was nothing more serious than getting electrolytes wrong in the heat of Day 1. Once we addressed that we had no problems on the remaining 2 days; and we worked together great as a team.

Eventually we hit the coast and then had a cracking ride down to Sagres, right at the tip of the Iberian penisula (and the most south-westerly point of continental Europe). There were some cracking roads around the cliffs, it reminded me of riding in Cornwall; lots of sketchy descents to a bay and then a savage climb up again.

By this stage we were flying; and would average 30km/h for the entire 360km stage.

But the last 20km had a real sting in the day as we left the paved roads and went on a 8km gravel section; we were both on 28mm GP5000 tubeless tyres and I was paranoid I would get a puncture (and plenty of people did). But our bikes were flawless (thanks again Bence!)

What was uncool was the various roaming dogs that chased us off their territory - at this stage I was calling the organisers every name under the sun. But I remember very clearly saying to myself I had signed up to suffer and was I finally happy I got what I wanted?

Eventually the torture ended and we returned to smooth roads and blasted into Sagres.

We arrived at Checkpoint 2 at 7pm; making this our second 14-hour day in a row. The process of getting our route cards stamped was the same as CP1; they asked if we were riding on straight away and we said no and checked into our lovely hotel. Apparently it had glorious views of the cliffs, and an amazing outdoor pool. I saw none of this...

Top priority was a shower and washing our cycling kit (even I draw the line at riding for 3 days in a row with same unwashed bibs). We ordered room service and I had two omelettes and a cheeseburger. It took me all of 5 mins to eat everything. I am still slightly traumatised by what I did to my stomach over those three days; was literally the case of feast or famine.

By now I was getting quite competitive - there is a thing called 'dot watching'. Basically you have a GPS on your bike and it's updated every 10 mins - and you can see everyone on the map of Portugal. I was getting WhatsApp messages from my wife, who had told her sister in the USA, who had posted it to Facebook. It was amazing - thanks everyone so much for the support!

above: our route profile sheet, stamped at each checkpoint

We were in bed by 10pm but I could not sleep; it's impossible to go from fully-on to switched-off immediately - I had a mixture of caffeine, adrenaline and cortisol racing through my body. I could feel the vein in the side of my head pulsing at 100 bpm as I tried to sleep; I knew that's not a normal "resting" heart rate! And I had just eaten 3000 calories in 5 mins and my stomach was in shock. So I woke up at midnight and never went back to bed again. If I had been on my own I would have just gotten up and started riding then - but we had agreed as a pair to start at 5am.

Ironically Ash didn't sleep amazingly well either and he heard me constantly rustling around, but daren't say a word to hint he was awake in case that gave me encouragement to start early!

So I lay in bed and 'dot watched' on my phone. Despite going into this event with no expectations I was now in race mode and we were ranked 3rd in the pairs category and the two guys ahead of us were from the Omani army and they started at 1am.

Eventually, like a kid at Christmas, it was time to get up. By day 3 we were slick and on the road in a timely manner. It was 5am and the race was on. Faro and the finish line awaits...

above: the joys of a 5am start!

Checkpoint 3 to Finish (Wednesday)

Today was only 260km, but around 4000m climbing.

The first 50km were marked as flat and we hoped to make good time before the climbs slowed us down. That plan soon went out the window just 200m after leaving the hotel. Because Sagres is right on the coast, and at the extreme south-western tip of continental Europe (next landfall would be America) it gets windy!

So we had a block headwind to start; and my dreams of a super fast start turned into a 15km/h trudge. It eventually got better and soon we were climbing; it was absolutely stunning here -loads of rolling green hills - it reminded me of the Basque Country and Girona.

After 55km we reached the top of the first big climb of the day which was Monchique

It was really cold here and we stopped at a BP garage and saw 3 other riders there (including the chap who had snapped his saddle early in Day 1). Everyone was in good spirits; we had made it this far and nothing was going to stop us now...

By this point Ash and I were Pros at petrol station stops; one would source the junk sugar and pay for everything, the other would be getting the water and filling the 5 bottles we had between us. As soon as we were out the shop it was on the bike and off again.

below: lunch "on the go" becomes a way of life

After a lovely descent we started climbing again. It was at this stage two local road riders climbed past us and motioned for us to join them - now it's totally banned to draft anyone that's not your pair, but there's nothing to stop you riding alongside for a bit and sharing the experience...

So I decided to join them and it was a genuinely surreal experience with me climbing with my 18kg bike and aerobars and we smashed past the local club cyclists doing 290 watts up the climb - I hadn't seen those power numbers since the first 90 mins of Day 1 - over 700km ago. My legs felt amazing; I literally could not believe how strong they were.

This was at the 100km mark; by 130km the wheels had properly come off and I was dying. The change in one hour was dramatic (and traumatic). The lack of food was killing me. We had a Red Bull at 135km but the next supermarket was at 180km so that was the target...

At 160km we saw a small restaurant at the side of the road but we had arrived at rush hour and they simply did not want to know - I tried to buy a bit of bread from them but she "had to ask the chef" - so I stormed out in a black mood. Low blood sugar was making me very irrational.

It was around here that the German dude told me "What is good? What is bad?". I thought "F*ck me he has gone" - but to be honest he probably thought the same of me...

Eventually we hit the 180km mark and this mythical supermarket appeared and we bought 12 rolls, some cheese and 4 donuts. We sat in the shady part of the car park in between two cars and wolfed down what food we could. Who said this was not glamorous!

As we ate we had a look at the map and saw that another rider was just 6km behind us and the German dude was 5km ahead up the road. the aim was now to catch him and not be caught in turn...

The last 80km had one big climb and then the last 30km was downhill. It was getting really hot and we knew we just had to crack the climb and the stage was basically done. I was worried it was going to be as steep as the climbing on Day 1; but the reality was it was 4-5% for 14km and it was actually a piece of piss by that stage. Your body's perception for what is hard just changes.

No food for 50km, never mind. 15km climb, never mind. Broken saddle after 5% of the entire route, never mind - it's a good job I have zip ties.

They market these events as life-changing; that may be slight hyperbole (or maybe not). But they 100% change your perception of riding.

The decent into Faro was pretty uneventful except we got lost coming in through the back streets; I cant imagine how the guys did it who had not slept...

Then came the finish line with the big Red Bull sign and it was an amazing anticlimax; you do an Ironman and they treat you like you have made the first moon landing. At this event they shake your hand, give you a medal and tell you to get a shower and grab a beer.

And to be honest that's the way it should be - we aren't doing this for glory; it's to push yourself and to have a proper look inside yourself when you are shagged and want to stop and call an Uber.

below: we did it! receiving our medals at the finish

We went back to our hotel and had a shower and that's when the tiredness hit; doing any simple task took an age (in fact even after a night's sleep it took me almost 2 hours to pack my bike in a box - I would just stare at it and not quite remember what I needed to do next, or put an Allen key on the ground and then take 15 mins to try and find it).

As we left the hotel for the airport I spent 10 mins trying to find the case for my phone; hunted everywhere - and only at the end did I realise it was in fact already on my phone... the body does strange things to the mind!

On the Wednesday night, post-finish, we went out for dinner with the guys who had also finished; and it was super cool to share battle stories. Guys who cycled up the mountains in the dark and could hear wild boar rustling in the woods next to them (that would have freaked me out).

We were also all on a group WhatsApp chat and getting updates from the 'slower' chaps was funny as they would mix humour and rage. But everyone looked after each other; a chap posted a picture of him stopping by a bridge at night to sleep, and within 1 min someone had posted to not stay there but go 200m up the road where there was a bus stop he could sleep in. (In Ultra-riding, a bus stop beats a bridge). One woman later told me that she slept in a bar and next thing she knew there was a band playing live music and she had a cracking headache and had to leave.

Ironically when we first started on Day one we saw those rural bus stops and Ash joked "Baz there's your hotel". And the reality is the leaders just sleep in a field if they have to; a bus stop is unrivalled luxury; the Ritz of endurance riding rest stops. People have been known to sleep in public toilets - that's a level of pain I dont want to visit...

Our total gun time from start to finish was 59 hours and 45 minutes; which broke the 60 hours we thought would be our "A" target to hit. To be honest anything with a Wednesday finish was a success; we had booked a late flight on Thursday in case we needed 4 days. So to do 950km in 2.5 days was really cool.

Our actual riding time was 35 hours which is very quick; apparently the WhatsApp boards were commenting on 'who were these two new guys who smashed the day riding bits and then took these epic night rests!'. We ended up finishing 18th and 19th overall; and as the 3rd pair. The two Omani teams beat us by 3 hours; which is one hour less than the four hour head start we gave them (can you see I am getting increasingly competitive?!)

At dinner we heard of the guys who did it quicker than us - and they slept very little. The winner did it in a quite scandalous 40 hours; that means if he went as fast as us he only had 5 hours of stopping over the full 950km; and that's to get food, water, eat, drink, toilet stops and power naps. It beggars belief...

below: I got this after Day 1 riding, It said I needed 70 hours recovery time - no chance of that.....

Over dinner the other guys told me of the previous events they had done, and it was clear it's a really small, close-knit community. They asked if I would do more of these; and the answer is an unequivocal Yes!

I absolutely loved it; it's simply riding your bike (slowly) for hours at a time, and eating literally anything you wanted to. I was like a pig in shit. The first one was a learning curve with a big safety net. For the next one, I'd like to take a few more risks, sleep less and push my boundaries a bit further.

I think we could easily shave off 10+ hours by stopping less overnight (we stopped for 20 hours in hotels!). That would get you sub 50 hours, which gets you in with the big boys...

And then there is kit selection; some guys had big saddle bags like mine but others looked like they were off for a mere 'long club ride'. On good weather courses you can afford to go properly lean, and shaving 5kg off your laden bike weight must make a massive difference over 35 hours of riding.

That's one approach; the other is you take the full 5 days to finish, which is 200km a day, and you pick a nice hotel every night and you have a proper dinner, a proper breakfast and then stop for a sit down lunch. You would likely have a better trip, enjoy the views more and get to see an amazing country and great routes with the safety of a GPS and a semblance of support at HQ. All for €250!! So it's not necessarily about beasting yourself - it can also be more of a holiday.

I genuinely loved the whole thing; even writing this two days later and I am struggling slightly to be in big crowds; I miss the simplicity of getting up and riding.

On Thursday I looked at the news for the first time in 3 days and got caught up (again) in the whole Brexit shitshow; it was all very tedious...

I also have separation anxiety from Ash; since Saturday afternoon when we met at Gatwick we have not been more than 10 metres apart for 5 days! If I did that with my wife she would want a divorce...

Bike and kit update

This was absolutely flawless; the S-Works Roubaix Team was perfect for it; the front and rear suspension did the best they could to take the shock off my ageing body and the aggressive geometry (for an endurance bike) meant I was in an efficient position to achieve a good pace.

Dura-Ace Di2 didn't miss a gear or drop a chain - predictably 100% reliable, and the Conti GP 5000 tyres didn't even get a cut in them (Iet alone a puncture).

I might take less kit on my next event, but the bike and components were all totally spot on.

Medical update

My IT bands feel like they are 12 inches shorter than they should be; but apart from that the legs feel good. I have not weighed myself, but I have lost a lot of weight; I can see ribs that I haven't said 'hello' to since my Uni days! No sore throat; in fact I don't even feel that tired now. However my undercarriage can only be described a a crime scene - sitting still in an airplane seat for 3 hours was the hardest part of the entire week. And without being too uncouth, not eating fibre for three days will have its repercussions...

I'm riding Haute Route Ventoux next week; so this will either give me a massive boost, or dig me an epic hole. Only one way to find out!

Epilogue

Our flight from Faro was due to leave at 8pm, but was delayed by 3 hours. I was with Ash as his "plus one" and we were in the exec lounge at Faro - and the state of the BA passengers when they realised they would be 3 hours late was a sight to behold...

Modern life is very safe, comfortable and sanitised. We have no idea of what discomfort really is. And sitting an extra 3 hours in an executive lounge with complimentary food and drink is not it...

Ash said that the 3 days had completely changed his view on what a big ride really is. His usual 100km on a Sunday now looks like a joke. In Portugal we would look at the clock and see its 11am and realised we had been riding for 6 hours... and weren't half way yet

And we had it easy; there were loads of riders doing this solo taking 4-5 days and I guarantee you they pushed themselves far harder than I did. Every single person who finished is a star in my eyes.

I can't recommend these sorts of events highly enough; Zwift and Peleton may be sexy right now but they aren't why I fell in love with cycling. These sorts of events, rough and ready with a bunch of fellow misfits are a wonderful riposte to that.

Before this trip I had only briefly visited Portugal; now I feel I have seen masses of it. Everything is better by bike!


  • Tempted to try an ultracycling event yourself? We can wholeheartedly recommend the awesome BikingMan experience. Check out their website for details of other events in the series.

below: first place finisher Romain Wartel (with a time of 40 hours 12 minutes!)