Ultracycling: Epic bikepacking against the clock

950km of riding, 10,000m of climbing, against the clock (with a 5 day/120 hour time limit)...

Ultracycling is not for the faint-hearted, but it's an amazing challenge.

From 23rd to 27th September the BikingMan series hits Portugal, and Bespoke founder Barry is taking part.

The BikingMan races are well organised, competitive events, complete with GPS tracking for each rider, but once you're on the route you're unsupported - riders must carry everything they're likely to need for the duration (and they are free to rest as little, and wherever, they can in the search for the fastest time).

below: the race route - see an interactive version at ridewithgps.com/routes/30298083

Barry and his riding companion Ash will be bringing us a post-race report, but in the meantime here's a look at the event, and their preparation:

The BikingMan ultracycling races are unassisted (without external assistance). This is the ultimate endurance challenge for athletes that are ready to cycle unassisted in all kinds of terrain and weather conditions.

The 2019/20 season is composed of 6 races and brings together some of the most demanding climatic and topographic conditions on the planet. From the desert of Oman, to the stunning mountains of Corsica, the jungle of Laos, the high altitude of the Peruvian Andes, the extreme south-west of Portugal and mountainous Taiwan...

The BikingMan Rules:

  • No support cars
  • Self-supported race Fueling, resting, repairing
  • Race progress validated at mandatory checkpoints
  • Drafting and riding in packs are forbidden
  • GPS tracking system of every athlete
  • External assistance forbidden
  • SOLO or PAIR rider from race start to the finish line

Barry's pre-ride thoughts

Ashley and I had talked about doing these style of events for 6 months. He called my bluff by entering it himself, and saying we could always swap into a pair. Gauntlet thrown...

I think we both thought being a pair was a nice intro into this scary world. Likewise Portugal is an "easy" intro (relative term!) into Ultracycling, compared to Bikingman Oman, Peru etc.

But who calls 950 km a sprint?!? Bikingman are not messing about - they categorise their events as either "Sprint" (actually meaning an epic) or a "Divide" (meaning something even more challenging).

If you go as a pair with your childhood friend or brother it's easy to be honest with each other. Ashley and I have never ridden together, so we'll be learning on the road. He has done some recce and equipment checks. I have done nothing...

When we first started talking it was clear 3 legs of 350 km and we sleep each night at a hotel in checkpoints. But we've one day to go before departure for Portugal and Ash is now saying if we bring double lights we can ride through the night... Can we be the first pair?
Amazing how the nerves and adrenaline rush in the lead up to the event can change your perspective!

It's definitely easier being a pair, riding as a shared adventure. But at the same time having a ride compantion also brings pressure not to let your mate down by poor performance or mechanical issues. So it's a double-edged sword, but on balance I'm glad to have a riding partner.

below: Ash's OPEN set up in test configuration

Ash's kit list

Here's Ash's list of what he's likely to take (although this is subject to refinements right up to departure!). This is very much a "trying to think of everything" list...

We'll revisit it post-event and see what was the most useful, what (if anything) he could have done without, and how it performed:

  • I'm running Zipp Vuka 110 aerobars with additional bar end shifters to allow for easy shifting no matter what position I'm in (you don't want to have to change hand positions just to shift) and using Di2's Syncro Shift to make shifting decisions easier when fatigued.
  • An ISM PN 3.1 provides good support and comfort.
  • A selection of Apidura bags (4.5l frame bag, 7l saddle bag, 1l nutrition bag on top tube) provide storage for everything I need to carry. (look out for Apidura coming soon to Bespoke)
  • 2 pairs of bib shorts (in case one pair pisses me off)
  • Base layer (I wear this in hot as well as cold conditions, to wick moisture away as well as insulate)
  • Mitts
  • 1 or 2 pairs socks
  • 1 pair of regular (non-cycling) underwear to sleep in
  • 1, maybe 2, cycling tops
  • I'm using Look Keo cleats / pedals because personally I prefer my road shoes to my off road ones for comfort. But most riders use SPD touring cleats which have the wider contact area than normal MTB cleats. SPD are obviously better for walking around hotels and supermarkets etc. Personal choice!
  • Waterproof jacket
  • Gilet (maybe - this won't be needed during the day, but could be handy for riding at night)
  • Glasses
  • Cap
  • Helmet
  • Sun cream
  • Lip balm
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste
  • Chamois cream (decanted into a small container)
  • 3x750ml water bottles
  • Garmin 1030
  • Front light - This is one of the toughest questions. We need enough output to see on often unlit country roads for several hours at night. The ideal is to run a dynamo dynamo hub, as most battery lights won't take a charge whilst in use.
  • I will also take a cheap Moon spare light which has front and back illumination (clips under the drops so points both backwards and forwards simultaneously) and will use it as a day time running light, plus Garmin Radar on the back which also functions as rear light.
  • I am actually thinking of running bar end Cateye lights too which are quite cool and I think may reduce close passes because they make you appear wider.
  • A USB rechargeable Powerbank (mine is 20k capacity). I also have a USB adapter so I can run 3 or 4 devices off the power bank at once, but this is a luxury.
  • USB cables so I can charge my lights and Garmin and phone.
  • Trekz titanium headphones - so I can hear music but also cars (music really helps me when things are tough!)
  • Fast charge plug to charge powerbank in a few hours from mains - although hopefully that won't be necessary.
  • Spares: 1 or 2 x 25-32 tubes with removable cores; Co2 if we can get it locally before setting off as it can be good for getting tubeless tyres seated properly back on a rim; tube repair kit; dynaplugs for tubeless; scissors; small multi tool; tyre levers; valve core remover; spare cores; valve extenders.
  • A few strips of Duct tape.
  • Assorted Zip ties (together with Duct tape can fix just about anything, at least temporarily).
  • Pump.
  • 50ml chain lube and small rag.
  • Di2 charger.
  • Foil emergency blanket.
  • 2 sets of AAA batteries (mandatory for the BikingMan GPS tracker - one set to run it and one spare).
  • Reflective tape.
  • Cash / cards.
  • Jelly babies as nutrition for first day!
  • Emergency carbs / caffeine to stash in bottom of bag.
  • TyreWiz tyre pressure monitors - I'm using these because although they're not aero they've saved me a bunch of headache when I had punctures and was able to monitor it all easily without stopping. It really is all about keeping moving and not faffing about...
  • Spare mech hanger and chain links.
  • Bespoke musette - folds down small when empty and gives capacity to carry extra stuff in emergencies (e.g. food at night, if shops are closed).