My First Ultra!
To be honest, when signing up for the 1030km BikingMan Oman I didn't really know what I was getting myself into. Sure, I’ve done some longer races like Trondheim-Oslo at 540km and the Oslo Markagram which is a 14hr gravel night race through the forests outside of Oslo - but 1000km was a whole new level for me.
What I have done is a few long bike-packing trips, both before and after the term “bike-packing” even existed. I’ve had some real long days on the bike and know how it feels to ride far beyond the limits of enjoyment and into discomfort, what some call suffering.
Having said all that, trying to get one's head around the thought of riding 1030km in a competition event is, well difficult. In addition, training for such a challenge in the middle of winter entails the obvious hurdles, living in the Northern Hemisphere.
"How far could I realistically expect to be able to ride in a day, in February, with fewer training-miles than we would cover in the actual race?"
Fortunately I had a partner for this challenge. My good friend and ex-pro Italian cyclist Cristian Auriemma. Cristian is a strong rider, but also limited to similar day-to-day constraints on his training as myself during the winter months, despite living in the South of Italy - where “winter riding” has a completely different meaning.
We discussed several strategies and scenarios, not necessarily to be competitive but simply to survive and go the distance! Neither of us had a good gauge as to what to expect and what we would be capable of. What seemed reasonable was that we could put approximately 300km behind us per day, allowing us to complete the distance in 3-4 days.
"What would transpire would prove to be beyond anything we could possibly imagine!"
After 2 days in the start village, frantically packing, re-packing, testing, adjusting, adapting and trying to figure out exactly what we needed, what could be left behind and how we would pack the necessary items. We ended up with two somewhat different solutions: I was determined to carry the majority of my gear in an Apidura full-frame bag that would consolidate everything in the main triangle... Whereas Cristian opted for several smaller bags both in front, at the back and on the top-tube.
Next decision was what to bring! There were the “mandatory items” dictated by the race organisers, a list of things deemed absolutely necessary and a long list of “nice-to-have” items that were on the chopping block.
Based on the total distance, I chose to "splurge" and bring 3 pairs of Icon bib-shorts, Katusha´s prime short for long distance riding and their most comfortable option. Two jerseys (one Icon and one Superlight for the hottest days), 2 pairs of socks, the incredibly light and packable Wind Vest. For ultimate protection, I also brought the Light Rain Jacket in case of colder temperatures on the Jabal Shams mountain pass.
"I love the incredibly low weight and pack volume of this jacket"
As I would on all of my bike-packing trips, I of course took a pair of casual shorts, t-shirt and sandals with me, items that would later either be jettisoned or prove unnecessary.
In addition to the aforementioned clothing, there were various tools, spares, cables, battery packs and chargers to keep all of our equipment running through the days. Both of us ran Wahoo Element computers for navigation with phones for back-up, plus lights front and back which all required power and therefor re-charging during the race. Two other critical items made the cut: factor 50+ sunscreen as well as chamois creme - which we would need A LOT of! We also carried as many bars and gels we could squeeze into the remaining nooks and crannies of the bags.
The race started at 03:00 local time and after a solid dinner the evening before and squeezing the last items I had into my Apidura bags, I managed to nab a few hours of valuable sleep. I am blessed with the ability to sleep more or less on demand, a skill that would come in handy on several occasions during the upcoming days. In the build-up to the start, the excitement mounts and nerves play tricks. Cristian hastily scrambled out of the hotel room towards the start only to realise that he had no helmet on his head!
Once started, we rolled into the darkness as a large group with an ominous “1030km to go” showing on my Element. Being old racers the both of us, our objective was clear: stay in the front group as long as possible at whatever cost. The kilometres go by so much easier in the group and despite possibly pushing harder than one would like at certain points, the overall energy savings is worth it. Eventually, night turned to day and we approached the first summit at approximately 1000m after 100kms of undulating terrain and moderate grades.
After picking up speed on the descending slopes that followed, we pulled into the first rest-stop of the day after 5hrs in the saddle and 150kms with the front group that had been whittled down to 15 or so strongest riders. It was at this point that the different strategies became apparent: Cristian and I re-stocked on supplies, took a rest in the shade while downing whatever refreshing beverages we could pillage out of the gas station while other competitors ran in, picked up the bare necessities, filled bottles and took off up the road in mere minutes!
At this point we were already far ahead of even our most optimistic projections. The feared Jabal Shams climb loomed and was an obvious milestone with the summit representing 365km covered, roughly one third of the distance. It was also the location of check-point 1, with hot food served for the riders, beds available and warm shelter.
CP1 was the first time we would see anyone from the organisation since the start and most of the other riders since that pit-stop in the morning.
We had envisioned 3 different scenarios beforehand:
- The cautious one would see us overnight at the base of the climb and tackle it first thing in the morning
- The medium version of us making it to the summit before stopping at CP1
- The most optimistic option which was to summit the climb, get back down and find a place to stay in the town at the base.
As we rolled through Al Hamra, the last village 35km from the summit, at 15:00 it was clear that we were on good pace to follow even our most ambitions plan. We committed to this by caching all but the most essential of our gear at the base to lighten the load for the 1400m of climbing that lay ahead.
As we hit the first ramps of the climb, reality quickly hit that this was going to be a tough couple of hours of climbing. The steep pitches immediately ramped up to 20% and beyond, making it nearly impossible to ride straight up.
"One rule about endurance riding is to stay well clear of “The Red Zone”; that level of effort where your pulse races, breath becomes heavy and legs start to burn. This is a level of effort that can not be sustained over long periods of time and costs dearly afterwards"
Considering we had 650km to go, we were doing everything possible to climb the steep pitches with as little effort as was humanly possible, including “the paperboy”, weaving back and forth over the steepest sections of road.
Finally, after enduring a ruthless 6km gravel section with incredibly steep pitches, the last 3km were asphalt which felt like a dream. The climb topped out at 2000m over sea level and we rolled into CP1 at the low-key Jebel Shams Resort in the last of the daylight on day 1. Not wanting to hang around too long as the temperatures were dropping, we quickly took advantage of the generous buffet laid out for the riders before descending off the mountain in darkness.
After collecting our gear at the base of the climb and making it back to Al Hamra, we looked for a hotel or anywhere we could get some rest for the night. This is where our tactics and my bike-packing experience went awry. Unpacking, organising, finding more food, showering, social media updates all took time and we planned to get at least 5hrs sleep, thinking this was necessary for us to complete the distance and after a somewhat disorganised start in the morning, we were stopped in total for 9 hrs.
To put things in perspective, The eventual winner of the race, Peruvian Rodney Soncco, spent a total of 40mins off his bike during his record breaking 38hr ride.
Once we hit the road in the morning, we must have been last on the road, or very close to it. We didn´t see any of the other competitors for hours as we set about to put the fast, easy kms behind us on the 380km leg to the second check-point.
The day turned out to be a scorcher as we crossed the heart of the Omani desert. Favourable winds made for a high pace, but also offered little relief as the temperatures soared over 40 degrees. For much of the day we rode a massive 6-lane highway cut through the desert, with only the occasional car passing us.
"The scale and purpose of this road was mind-boggling. It was like a never-ending airport runway."
Finally, after averaging 35km/hr all day we made our way through the dune-lined road to the coast of the Gulf of Oman and made the fateful left turn, Northbound which would be our heading for the rest of the trip.
Pulling into CP2 just as the sun set on the desert heat we welcomed the cooler temperatures of the coastal climate. Our high pace had pulled us back into the lead for the team category, but the fastest solo riders were long gone before we arrived. This time we had a more aggressive plan: a 4hr stop, just enough time to eat, have a quick wash and a couple hours of sleep. At this rate we would pull out at 23:00 at benefit from the cooler night temperatures and absence of traffic.
There were rumours that the strong southerly winds we'd had as cross and tail winds during the day were about to turn. A few riders chose to leave CP2 without a break to benefit from the strong tailwind that would push them up the coast. We stuck to our plan and sure enough, by the time we took to the road again, the strong winds had died. We still covered good ground, however, putting 38km behind us during the first hour in the near perfect conditions. Unfortunately, our joy was short-lived; after a somewhat prolonged fuel-stop after 75km we pulled out of the fishing village of Sur into what was to become the theme for the day, a strong northerly wind pushing back on our every pedal stroke towards the finish in Muscat.
In the depths of the second night is when the challenges really started for us. Immediately after leaving Sur we entered the 4 lane highway that would carry us for the next 180km North and straight into the dreaded northernly head-wind. At 03;30, in a dimly lit section of road works a massive square hole had been cut into the paved shoulder we´d been riding.
"In an instant both of us smashed into the hole, the sounds of crunching carbon fibre permeating the otherwise still night"
At first it appeared that incredibly that no damage had been done. Without stopping, we checked the gear over and pushed on into the night. Moments later, however, Cristian reported a punctured rear tire grinding our progress to a halt. We huddled for shelter in the flood-lights behind a closed gas station and repaired the damaged tire in the wee hours of the night.
Once on the road again, progress was slow and the accumulated lack of sleep started to take its toll. Fatigue pushed its way into my head as my conscience pushed back.
"For kms and kms we fought the wind, drowsiness and darkness until continuing on just felt hopeless. For what seemed like hours I was looking for any sort of shelter to pull off and catch a few minutes of sleep"
As the dawn finally started to show the contours of the landscape gliding by on each side, we pulled off the highway and found shelter under a bridge. Without further hesitation, I laid flat out on the concrete, set my phone´s timer for 12 minutes and was instantly asleep.
After this brief re-set, it was like my body was charged and ready to go for the rest of the day. Little did we know that the toughest challenges still lay ahead of us and with the wind still battling against us, every km would be a struggle.
The profile for the final kms looked like a jaw of sharks teeth. Despite still riding on the same 4 lane highway, the road raised up in front of us time and time again until we finally pulled off onto a smaller road with 30kms to go. I remember hearing rumours of a short gravel section and a steep climb in the closing kms. After passing a VERY short gravel section and a SMALL climb I foolishly thought the we had put all of the toughest obstacles behind us. Boy, was I wrong!
The short climb led us into the Wadi road, leading down a canyon formed by a dried up river. Despite a few short sections of rough surface, the dramatic rock walls were a relief from the monotonous head-wind highway riding we´d done for the last 9 hours. After several kms of what was surely the nicest bit of road we´d ridden the whole time, the asphalt abruptly ended and the fact that the short gravel section we passed 30mins ago was definitely NOT the rumoured gravel section and was child’s play compared to the 7kms of rough, loose gravel we now had to contend with.
"Exiting the gravel section, body numb from the fatigue and jarring vibrations, it quickly became apparent that we were not done with the climbs either"
The road on the approach to the the city of Muscat quickly rose and fell in steep grades through the sandy hills on the outskirts of the city. It was not until entering the gates of the city on the water’s edge that we could finally be sure that the last of the difficulties were behind us and we could enjoy the easy ride through the bustling mid-day city landscape.
We rolled across the finish line at 13:59 local time, 58 hours and 59 minutes after we started, two and a half days earlier.
Words and photos by Jeff Webb of Fara Cycling