Dominic (pictured above) recently became the first ever unsupported finisher of the "Race Across the Dolomites" ultra-distance race. To achieve that feat he not only had to deal with the toughness of the event itself but he also had to overcome extreme weather conditions, making the training and planning beforehand absolutely vital. Here he talks us through that process...
I pulled over by a bus shelter, it was 3am, I’d been shaking so violently with the cold that I could barely control the bike as I descended from the top of the col 2200m above sea level to the valley floor. Summer had changed to autumn earlier than expected and the heavy rain that was soaking me dumped 10cm of snow on those further back in the race. I was taking part in what must rank as one of the most challenging ultracycling events in the European calendar - Ultracycling Dolomitica
. A non-stop 606km ride, including in excess of 16,000m of climbing over 16 of the steepest Dolomite passes. Welcome to the world of ultra distance cycle racing.
Riding through the night.
You could be forgiven for thinking it’s all about being fit enough. And yes, you do need to be in good enough shape to survive riding a bike non-stop for days at a time, but actually it’s so much more than that.
If you race solo and unsupported as I was doing in Ultracycling Dolomitica, the reliability of your kit is paramount. Whilst the supported riders can rely on a van full of spares from their support team, carrying lots of stuff when unsupported makes racing impossible. Hours then are spent testing kit in all conditions to find the right combination.
Rather than look at individual pieces of equipment, it’s more useful to think about all the kit as a complete system. For example, the ubiquitous Garmin bike computer is a handy tool for navigation, but its battery life is limited to about 10 hours of real world use - Ultracycling Dolomitica took me a shade over 36 hours, so the device would need to be recharged at least twice during the race as being in the middle of nowhere in the dark, cold and rain with no idea where to go is a surefire way of getting into trouble.
It’s also important to have a plan B. Nothing is 100% reliable and this means for some bits of kit, a back up plan is required. For navigation purposes, mobile phones make a great backup, but when using the GPS functionality the battery life is rubbish. Battery powered lights are a trade off between brightness, battery life and weight. Very bright long-lasting lights require huge battery packs. Dim lights make high speed descending a risky business. What then to do?
Dominic's bike for the 606km challenge
One solution is to run a dynamo for the lights. The lights can be used all the time if necessary and there’s no worry about batteries running out. A piggy back adaptor allows a power feed to an adaptor that allows the right current to be selected to charge a mobile phone or a bike computer. But there is a price to pay, and that’s the impact on speed. It’s not much, but it’s still a few watts of power that is going into charging devices rather than propelling the bike along the road. Over hundreds of miles that adds up.
The higher risk strategy is to take a big battery back up that will charge everything once the inbuilt batteries have run flat. The downside is if the weather turns bad and you need to run lights longer than anticipated, you could use up all your available power before the end of the race. Whatever the solution you choose, it needs to work in the pouring rain. When something needs to be charged the weather is what it is.
This total system thinking also applies to other items. A gilet is one of the most useful pieces of kit for keeping warm on a descent after a long climb, and a good waterproof is essential for the rain. But carrying both just adds more weight to the bike. A better solution is to use the waterproof for descents as well and this means it needs to be light enough to be usable as a windbreak on descents and good enough to keep heavy rain at bay.
Whatever clothing solution you choose, it is quite probable that the weather will change and wet kit needs to be stashed back into the saddle bag and still be usable in its wet state should the bad weather return later in the race.
(photos courtesy of ultracyclingdolomitica.com)
Ultra Distance cycling is as much about finding and testing the right kit as it is about getting fit enough to take on the challenge. Each person will find the solution that works best for them. But even with the best laid plans, things can still go wrong.
In Ultracycling Dolomitica, I made a judgement about the right kit to take and the weather was far worse than anticipated, hence finding myself in the bus shelter.
It’s then about mental toughness and the ability to plan and adapt on the hoof. A handful of sweets later and sheltered from the weather I began to feel more human. I looked at the map and realised it was just a few miles to the valley floor and then another big climb to warm things up.
It is this combination of training, planning and reacting that makes Ultra Distance Cycling like a game of chess and immensely rewarding when you get it right.