BikingMan Corsica – The UAE Riders

Tomorrow morning, 99 riders will take to the start line of the BikingMan Corsica ultra race. This race will see the cyclists cover 700km and over 13,000m of climbing in a single stage. What does it mean in a single stage? Well quite simply there are no stopping points, once the flag is dropped it is the first rider to get to the end of the 700km. So it is up to the riders to decide how to balance riding, eating and sleeping to maximum effect.

Dubai will be well represented, with 7 of the 99 riders coming from the emirate. As with BikingMan Oman there will be a live tracking website where you will be able to follow the riders as they make their way around the beautiful island of Corsica. In this article I want to introduce you to four of those riders so you can feel a sense of engagement and understanding as you watch that little blue dot move around the map. Who will you be cheering on? Who will be your favourite?

Lets start with the returning athletes from BikingMan Oman.

First up, Nora Ismagilova. Nora’s route into cycling, like many, came through Triathlon. As a runner she began competing in Triathlons as a team and through this started doing it all herself. It’s fair to say that cycling didn’t come easy to her. Some of the key skills can take a long time to develop like drinking from a bottle, cornering and especially descending. However Nora is nothing if not tenacious. She entered Oman out of a desire to go cycling there and no-one would go on a trip with her, so she signed up to do it in one go, solo, as part of a difficult ultra endurance race.

After Oman Nora said she was a little frightened of what she discovered about herself and wasn’t too sure if she actually liked cycling. I asked her why she’d now entered another ultra race:

“It took me sometime to sign up for Corsica. In fact, I signed up on the last day when registration was closing. It took me few weeks to properly recover from BikingMan Oman, not only in my legs but also wrists. Meantime, we had all those videos, race reports, photographs coming our way – continuous reminder about those days. And I was missing the group and atmosphere. So, I decided to try to do Corsica as well. Objective is to meet up with many of the participants from Oman, get inspired by them and their stories, be part of this amazing event”

Nora is very aware of the challenges that Corsica will present. Oman was familiar but Corsica is a different climate, language and culture. The route is very different to Oman with much more climbing and hence much more descending. This won’t be on wide smooth roads but narrow country lanes with rough surfaces, often done at night. She has learned some key lessons from Oman. In her words:

* Plan, but don’t over plan
* Prepare, but don’t over think

“I was really worried about where I will sleep, how not to be cold, how to have enough nutrition with me and etc. Eventually, everything evolved on its own and most of the worries were pointless. When I was signing up for BikingMan Oman – it was such a big step for me. The race seemed so big and challenging. I don’t want to say it was easy, but it was great to overcome those fears and doubts“

For me, Nora has that vital quality needed for this kind of racing, an unwillingness to quit or to give into the fears and doubts even though they are there.

Next, onto Simon Noel.

Simon’s entry into the world of ultra endurance events is one I know well. A night out where a little too much hops and grape led to a decision to enter IronMan South Africa. He woke up with a different kind of hangover. This triggered a massive change in his life, quitting smoking, cutting down drinking, learning to swim and to ride a bike. He did his first triathlon and that was it, he was hooked. Cycling became his preferred sport of the three, it brings a peace, a way to clear the head. He sees it as a great way to explore new areas.

Recovering from Oman was tough for Simon and it took a while to get back into his training groove. His aim has been to get back to the 400-500km a week of volume that he was achieving before Oman. The biggest challenge in his mind will be the changeable weather. Living in the Middle East he is not fond of the cold weather or the rain so I think he’s hoping for a clear 5 days.

I’m interested in why people do this so I asked Simon what attracts him to ultra cycling and what went through the thought process after Oman that led to signing up to BikingMan Corsica:

“I love pushing my limits. I love getting to the point where you want to give up, your body is telling you to stop. But you keep going and 30 minutes or one hour later this difficulty is just a distant memory.

I signed up for Corsica before Oman. But as a matter of fact, while fighting the headwind during Oman’s first day (and realizing this whole ultra cycling thing wasn’t going to be easy), I had some serious second thoughts about Corsica… And now I’ve done it again and signed up for Taiwan before Corsica… :)”

See you again in Taiwan Simon!

Now onto Hasan Itani. Hasan is legendary in the Triathlon community in the UAE having been one of the founding members of Tri Dubai. He’s undertaken some of the most extreme Triathlons in the world in the Norseman and Celtman events and gained those coveted black and blue finishers jerseys, but what made him take that journey and then onto the BikingMan Corsica race?

He first started riding an MTB back in Beirut in the mid-90’s but it wasn’t until he moved to Dubai in 2004 and bought a road bike that he started riding seriously. In 2005 he took up Triathlon and initially cycling was his weakest discipline. It wasn’t until 2010 when he got a properly fitting TT bike and did his first Ironman that he realised how much he actually enjoyed cycling and this soon became his strongest discipline. I asked him what inspires him to ride and this was his answer:

“I appreciate the honesty and purity of riding solo and knowing it’s your own effort and pain that’s moving you forward, plus it puts you in that meditative state where it’s only you, the bike, the wind and the road; the simplicity and peace of it all puts things in perspective. If you have a problem at work or life that you can’t manage to think of a way to positively sort it out after a 6-hour ride, then you know you have a big problem.”

The journey into ultra distance racing started with a chance entry into the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge, a 6 day event including 120km sea kayaking, 150km desert running, 130km mountain biking in addition to scaling Jebel Hafeet by rope on the 6th day. This was a life changing experience and it was not long before he started doing full Ironman races. After 8 official Ironman Races it was time to take on a new challenge and that’s when he took on the Norseman then Celtman events.

He heard about BikingMan Oman from friends and the idea really appealed to him. Sadly he couldn’t make Oman due to personal reasons but he’s been training hard for Corsica. When I asked him about what a successful race looks like for him this was his response:

“I think the best formula for a successful race is preparedness and a positive attitude, even if that means the confidence of feeling prepared. I pray whatever song or thought that gets stuck in my head to be a positive one. I have no stress of time and I cannot really say how much it will take me to finish the race. It’s a long distance, on hilly terrain, on narrow winding country roads and anything can happen, so the best one can do is to prepare for it physically, be as well equipped as possible yet as light as possible due to the extreme climbing requirements. “

I think it’s fair to say that not only will Hasan bring a positive attitude and a preparedness, but also a big smile and the support of the whole of Dubai’s Triathlon community.

Fatma Bazargan. Fatma is gong to be the first Emirati lady to take part in an ultra endurance cycling event. Fatma is relatively new to cycling. She caught the bug through Marcus Smith at InnerFight, but only took up cycling 16 months ago so to take on BikingMan Corsica has been an incredible challenge.

Fatma is a person driven by a goal, having the goal of such an achievement is what has given her the motivation for all those early starts and trips to Jebel Hafeet, Jebel Jais and the hills of Showka to train for the mountains of Corsica. She likes nothing more than long hours in the saddle, but what really appeals is the beauty of Corsica and the chance to take on a geography and a climate far removed from what we find in Dubai.

I asked Fatma about the challenges of Corsica and the things she is most looking forward to. Her response shows much about her strength of character and love of the challenge:

“The only thing that I’m nervous about is the mechanical issue in my bike. Although I have prepared somewhat to address it but I’m just worried that a mechanical problem in my bike might stop me from finishing the race. Other than that I believe if I set my mind to finish the race that would not be an issue. I’m totally looking forward to enjoy this journey most people call it a race but for me it is an exploration journey of how capable I am to endure this 700km with 13,000 elevation and finish it! I love challenges and I want to embrace this one. “

As the first Emirati lady to take on such a challenge I believe she is lighting the way for others to show what can be done and to encourage participation in such tough challenges:

“The only thing that I’m nervous about is the mechanical issue in my bike. Although I have prepared somewhat to address it but I’m just worried that a mechanical problem in my bike might stop me from finishing the race. Other than that I believe if I set my mind to finish the race that would not be an issue. I’m totally looking forward to enjoy this journey most people call it a race but for me it is an exploration journey of how capable I am to endure this 700km with 13,000 elevation and finish it! I love challenges and I want to embrace this one. “

The remaining 2 riders are Abid and Amjad. I will be talking to them this week to understand more about what inspires them to ride and what drives them to do this kind of crazy race.

In the meantime, got to http://www.bikingman.com/en/livetracking we start at 06:30 tomorrow morning when those little blue dots will start their slow journey across the map.

BikingMan Corsica – The Contenders

In less than a week, 92 riders will gather at the Arinella beach in Bastia ready to start the inaugural BikingMan Corsica ultra cycling race. This is the second in a four race series that takes riders all over the world from Oman to Corsica, onto Peru then finishing in Taiwan. At the of the series we will see the crowning of the BikingMan series champions in Male, Female and Team category.

BikingMan Corsica is run over a 700km course with 13,000m of climbing. Riders will have up to 120 hours to make it to the finish line and get that coveted finishers T-Shirt. For many of use the goal is to finish, for us that is winning.  However this is a race, and there will be winners. Whilst the time allowed is 120 hours some of these men and women will be finishing in under 2 days. So let’s look at those people who are likely to be contenders for the win, those dots to watch as the flag is dropped.

The 1st and 2nd overall finishers from BikingMan Oman, Rodney Soncco and Josh Ibbett are both continuing on from the Middle East and taking part in Corsica:

Rodney Soncco, 29, from Urubamba, Peru. Rodney was in full on beast mode in Oman. He rode strong from start to finish and ran an excellent race. The steep, hard climbs seamed to be his forte as I can testify having seen him disappear up the road on Jebel Shams. Anyone who watched the video of him riding the last 40km on a flat tyre to seal the win will understand his drive and focus. Rodney has not been sat idle since Oman. I spoke to him about his preparation and he’s done a lot of specific hill work but also looked at the positives and negatives from his last race and is looking to improve. One of his big positives from Oman was learning how to go without sleep and he’s ready for that in Corsica but also he knows there has to be a focus on eating properly if he’s to do well on such a demanding course. The relentless nature of that course will suit him well in my view and it will be good to see how he responds with greater depth in the field.

Josh Ibbett, 30, from Brighton, UK. Josh’s palmares speak for themselves when it comes to self-supported ultra racing. 1st TCR 2015, 2nd TCR 2014, 1st Italy Divide 2016, Josh knows how to race hard over multiple days on a self supported race. In Oman I think the pace at the start and the ferocity of Jebel Shams caught him off guard but he stuck to his plan, took sleep when he needed it and rode strong through to a second place finish. I think he will learn and adapt from Oman and come to Corsica with a good race strategy for such a short race. He’s been doing a lot of shorter road racing in the period between the two events so I think we’ll see a faster start from Josh this time and then his multi-day endurance will kick in to keep him going strong at the front.

In the ladies, we have Perrine Fages, 37 from Doha, Qatar. this time taking part in the solo category after competing in the pairs last time. Perrine is a hard as nails multi-sport athlete who’s successfully completed a number of Ironman races including the Norseman, regarded as one of the most extreme events out there, winning that rare black finishers t-shirt. Her current focus is on the Arch to Arc so cycling is taking a back seat to swimming as she prepares for swimming the channel. However, Oman seems to have triggered something in her for ultra cycle racing. I spoke to her just after Oman and talked about the race. She said that the last night racing straight through was the best night of her life, overcoming fear and challenge and arriving at an almost spiritual place as she rode through the night. This intensity of focus will almost certainly be there in Corsica. I just hope she’s done enough on the bike recently and can show us what she is capable of.

Let’s move onto the Italians. At this point I can’t help but shout ‘The Italians are coming, the Italians are coming’. Let’s hope they don’t stick a pump in my spokes.

Omar Di Felici, 36 from Rome, Italy is one of the worlds finest ultra endurance athletes. He has done some spectacular rides, set world records and won countless big races. 1st Le Raid Provence Extreme (supported) 2014, 1st Le Raid Provence Extreme (self-supported) 2015, 1st Race Across Italy 2015, 1st Ultracyling Dolomitica, the list goes on. Omar has just finished his latest epic ride travelling the length of Italy racking up over 50,000m of climbing, 2,400km of distance in less than 100 hours. Omar has both the horsepower and the endurance to take a firm grip on this race and not let it go. In my eyes he enters BikingMan Corsica as the strong favourite. The question mark will be on his recovery from this epic ride across Italy.

Michelangelo Pacifico, 34 from Milano, Italy. Michelangelo’s ultra cycling career has been building steadily since he started back in 2013. He completed Paris Brest Paris in 2015 then built his distances and challenges including the Ultracycling Dolomitica, with 600km and 16,000m of climbing it bears comparison with the route in Corsica. Then came Michelangelo’s best achievement to date, 11th place in last years Trans America Bike Race. Self supported across this states covering 7000km and 55,000m of climbing. In his words ‘it was a crazy experience, from which I never truly came back. It did not change me but did help me understand who I am”. Michelangelo is using Corsica as part of his training programme for his ultimate goal this year – the Inca Divide.

Roberto Di Osti 33 from Follina, Italy.  Roberto’s journey starts ten years ago, working as a commercial agent covering 60,000km a year by car he readily admits his hobby was smoking. That was before he took up cycling, initially on mountain bikes but progressing to road and then in 2014 he discovered ultra cycling, taking part in, what seems like a right of passage for Italian ultra-cyclists, the Ultracycling Dolomitica. In 2015 having competed in a number of Italian supported ultra distance races he was crowned Italian champion in his category. Corsica is a key stepping stone on his path towards this years Race Across France. However Roberto is backing himself to do well, he’s already booked is ferry home on the 1st and has to be back at work on the 2nd. He said his second biggest challenge of the race is then staying awake and being functional at work on the 2nd.

Ivy Furlan, 32 from Valla, Italy. Another Italian with a lot of experience in mountainous gran fondo and ultra endurance races. Ivy came first in the pairs category in last years Ultracycling Dolomitica in a time that saw the pair finish just a handful of seconds behind the supported solo winner. Given the profile of the course in Corsica I expect Ivy’s experience in the mountains to shine through and for her to be a strong challenger to the rest of the field.

The rest of the Europeans

Loic Leonardi, 25 and Anthony Durani, 28 from Corsica, France. Local knowledge can count for a lot and whilst the route for BikingMan Corsica is a mandatory one with no options for short cuts I’m sure that Loic and Anthony’s knowledge of the island will prove a vital advantage. Not knowing where the next food or water stop is can be a big source of stress. Both are experienced ultra trail runners with Loic having clocked up 5 appearances in the Marathon Des Sables. That kind of experience will really help the pairing ride strong. Training together both on foot and on the bike will bring understanding of each others strengths and weaknesses but riding as a pairing can bring it’s own challenges. In Oman it was the singles who made all the front running. Could Loic and Anthony be the ones to change that and be setting the pace at the front?

Monica Aguilera, 44 from Barcelona, Spain. Monica has an astonishing record across multiple disciplines of adventure and ultra trail racing. The 2010 Marathon Des Sables winner clearly knows a thing or two about pushing the boundaries of ultra sport. Combine this with a number of orienteering based events where she has placed highly if not won then the navigation part should present no problems. I don’t think a lack of self supported road racing experience will hold Monica back and I expect a strong showing that will challenge the best in the field.

Michael Knudsen, 30 from Copenhagen, Denmark. Michael came into ultra cycling through Ironman. Having raced numerous Ironman races around the world he decided a few years ago to take Ultra cycling seriously. Boy, did he dive in at the deep end. Michael took part in the Trans Siberian Express race last year and whilst he didn’t complete the 9000km 15 stage race, this was a valuable learning curve in his development as an ultra racer.  Originally down to do BikingMan Oman, illness forced Michael to pull out to focus on recovery. I spoke to him recently and he’s now back on track with his fitness and preparation for another go at the Trans Siberian Express later on this year. BikingMan Corsica is a stepping stone on the journey to TSE and will be a good marker of his progress. He’s not training specifically for this as an A race but I fully expect him to be competitive and to be fast from the gun.

Mikael Flockhart, 37 from Stockholm, Sweden. The dark horse of the race, this ex XCM Elite athlete has competed in the European Champs 3 times and the World champs twice (UCI Mountainbike Marathon World Champs) before injuries got in the way and kept him off the bike for a few years. He’s new to ultra cycling and is actually using himself as a part of a research study initiated at the Swedish School of Sports & Health Sciences where he is currently doing his PhD. Let’s see if this kind of racing will wake up the competitive racer within him….

Finally we have one more athlete coming from the Southern Hemisphere;

Alexandra Velasco, 39 from Quito, Ecuador. Alexa comes to BikingMan Corsica from an Adventure racing background, 3-4 day multi-discipline events where mental strength is as important as physical strength. It’s this mental toughness that Alexa feels will be key going into Corsica. I spoke with Alexa a week ago and she talked about the battle to overcome the prejudice in Ecuador against solo female’s undertaking this kind of challenge but if you can have the inner strength to do that then this gives you the self believe to be strong in Corsica. Whilst this will be her first ultra cycling event, Alexa has been training hard, building the miles. With most of that training happening between 2500 and 3000m she could be really strong when she arrives at sea level. Most definitely, Alexa is one to watch out for and for me really embodies the spirit of adventure that BikingMan is looking to capture.

And what about my race?

Niel Copeland, 43 from Dubai, UAE. I’m totally new to the Ultra racing game having taken part in my first ultra race in Oman. However I fell in love with this format of bike racing. I had no expectations going into Oman other than as a cycling coach I get a lot of miles in so thought that I’d cope physically but wanted to see how I matched up agains the others and how I coped with the fatigue. To come away with 5th place having taken 2 hotel stops and 7 hours of sleep showed me how I can ride more competitively. As you can see from the people listed above, the field is really strong. This is a continuation of my learning experience in ultra racing as I build towards Inca Divide and BikingMan Taiwan. I’ve been working hard on a very specific training programme since Oman, and I’ve worked at the operational side of the racing so I’m excited to put that into practice and see how I do.

Having said all this and run through who I think will be operating at the sharp end for the first 2 days in Corsica, what the BikingMan organisation have done is create an event that makes Ultra Cycling really accessible. That means we have many people taking part who’ve never done this before. So who will do well who has not been mentioned here. Look out for 4-5 new faces to be challenging for those top 5 positions and making their mark on the series. The training has been done, the miles logged, it’s now down to who has the strength, the discipline the pace and the hunger to go and win BikingMan Corsica.

BikingMan Oman – Day Three

Total Distance: 207km

Total Climbing: 1,261m

Total Riding Time: 7h 30m

No alarm clock was needed this morning. A combination of throbbing legs, adrenaline coursing through my veins and nagging thoughts about riders overtaking me, meant I was wide away at 12:50am. I’d got two hours sleep but now it was time to go. The equivalent of the Coast to Coast ride in the UAE remained. My head had been completely recalibrated in terms of what was a long ride, this seemed like nothing this morning.

The night porter gave me a very strange look as I dropped my key with him and wheeled my bike out of the door. He must have wondered why I’d checked into a hotel for just 2 hours of sleep.

My knees were now beyond painful and the saddle sore had burst as I put on my shorts. Pedalling down the road I gingerly lowered myself into the saddle and prepared for the last 8 hours of riding. The first half an hour involved winding my way through the backstreets of Sur, making my way towards the motorway to Muscat. It was eerily quiet.

The long flat roads of yesterday were gone, today rolling hills and sharp climbs were on the menu. As I settled into the first long climb out of Sur I checked the tracker to see how things had changed overnight. Not much was the answer. Rodney, Josh, Paul, Jason and Juliana were way ahead by some 3-5 hours. Raffique was showing as 30km behind me but the time stamp of that position was at 11pm so 3 hours ago. The unknown was Carl, his tracker still not working.

The street lamps ticked by in a hypnotic rhythm. My world became 10 minutes of seated riding, lift out of the saddle, 3 minutes of standing, back on the saddle, find some comfort, 10 minutes again. Repeat. I’d set off from Sur with just two oat bars and two bottles of water. So far every service station was closed and I was getting a little nervous.

Once I again I felt this was the essence of this kind of racing. Alone in the dark at 3am, the gentle noise of the tyres against the road. Not really thinking about anything but in a heightened state of mindfulness. The pain didn’t seem to matter, just the turning of the pedals.

My phone pings, bringing me round from my trance, it was Carl texting the group with his location, nice of him given that his tracker wasn’t working. Damn! He was 4km ahead of me. How did that happen? The race suddenly reappeared in my consciousness. The thing is, with 150km still to go you can’t just put the power down to catch up. It would have to be a long slow patient game, but this was for 6th place.

Then, 20km later, looming out of the darkness was a bike and a body on the side of the road. It was Carl, fast asleep,bike propped up, him lying on top of the concrete barrier, arms crossed over. Yes, in my head I danced a little jig. 6th place! But the mind doesn’t always work so well when this tired. As I freewheeled past Carl the noise brought him sharply to consciousness. Our eyes crossed as I sped down the road, my last sight of him was him leaping off the concrete and getting back on his bike.

Not time to panic and put the hammer down. Still 140km to go. Take it easy. My legs were tiring and still no sign of food. It didn’t take long for Carl to catch up with me so we rode side by side, both getting anxious for food.

At times Carl would pull away, then I would claw it back. A service station appeared, open, but on the other side of the road. Neither of us wanted to stop and cross over the other side and waste precious minutes. Dawn came, grey. Finally we came to a cafe that was open. A truce was called and we both pulled in for much needed food. I’d been riding for 135km and nearly 5 hours on those 2 oat bars and 2 bottles of water. I was hungry and dehydrated. Honey and cheese pancakes were devoured in a flash. It was then we noticed another bike at the cafe. It was Jason’s. Where was he? He appeared is if from out of nowhere. His face looked hollow, eyes a little blank. 5 punctures and pushing hard for 48 hours had taken it’s toll. Leaving a tube behind we rolled out. 70km remained and now it was a sprint finish for 5th place. We had both done far better than we had ever imagined but both knew we would be fighting for that 5th spot, and this is a race!

However I did have a plan. What I really loved about this race was how it could be tackled in a number of different ways. Some just rode the recommended route as fast as they could, others, myself included, studied the map in detail and had found a number of ways of cutting out a few km here and there.

It was pretty clear that Carl and I were both heading straight down the motorway into Muscat rather than the rather more hilly recommended route. My studying of the route had shown a way of cutting a corner by diving off the motorway as that road swung out wide then rejoining having saved maybe 500m to 1km. This was to be my chance of out foxing him and gaining enough time to give me a chance. I would still rejoin the motorway with 30km to go to the finish and have to push as hard as I could take.

Pulling out of the cafe I feigned extreme fatigue and that Carl was too strong for me to go at that pace. I settled in about 100-200m behind him and waited. I held this position for the next hour and a quarter as we ticked off the km to the critical junction.

Here it was. I closed up a near as I dare, hoping not to alert Carl until I was gone. Right turn and then hit it. Full gas for 10 minutes as I flew down the narrow roads, gently climbing up and descending, flat out through roundabouts. Here came the motorway slip road. I came onto it head down and hard on the pedals. I stole a glance over my shoulder. I had about 800m advantage over Carl with 30km to the finish. 2 1/2 days of riding had come down to an hour. Time to get into time trial mode. Houses flew past as I started to reflect on the journey I’d been on. 3am Sunday now seemed like a lifetime ago. The aches and pains of nearly 40 hours in the saddle eased away as I dared to dream of a 5th place finish.

I knew that Carl had issues with his Garmin and would have to stop to check his back up navigation. I’d been charging my Garmin ready and loaded up the route through Muscat. The traffic increased as I started weaving in and out at the roundabouts. Rush hour in Muscat was busy. I stole another glance over my shoulder. No sign of Carl. Up the last draggy climb on the motorway, pushing threshold for ten minutes, how I have no idea. Then a long fast descent with three lanes of traffic, hugging the hard shoulder to stay out of trouble. Heart rate rising as a broken down car forced me into the first lane of the motorway. Then before I knew it the harbour was in front of me. Just 2 more minutes and there was the finish line. Jumping over the central barrier and onto the other side of the road and down to the finish. Emotion draining out of me as I realised this great adventure was now over.

Carl came in 2 minutes later, shaking my hand and explaining how he could not stop laughing when I reappeared 800m in front of him. We talked of a race that exceeded all expectations.

It has taken quite a while to process what went on in those 54 hours of racing. A lot of highs and lows. A realisation that I was much closer to the top then I thought. That finishing quicker does not equal riding faster. To witness some of these guys and girls race was incredible. To see one of the girls I coach cross the finish line in third place in the ladies category was possibly more emotional than my own finish.

Thoughts now turn to other races like this. BikingMan Corsica, Peru and Taiwan and then who knows.

I think I’ve caught the bug.

BikingMan Oman – Day Two

Total Distance: 381km

Total Climbing: 929m

Total riding time: 14:17

Knock knock knock….. Knock knock knock.

Somehow the insistent knocking woke me from a deep, deep sleep. Go away I shouted at the imagined concierge, wondering why they would want to wake me just as I had gone to bed.

Knock knock knock.

What the… I looked at my phone. 03:50. How was it nearly 4am already. I got out of bed and went to the door. It was Carl. He was supposed to have left but he’d locked himself out of the room whilst putting bags onto his bike. At this point I could have throttled him there in the hallway. Then realisation dawned. It was time to get ready and go cycling. Carl grabbed his last things and set off down the hallway. He would have a good 30 minutes on me. I walked back to the bed. OH THAT HURTS. Legs like wooden planks sent shivers of fatigue and soreness rocketing up to the brain. So this is what it feels like to get up the morning after your longest ride ever, it hurts, your legs are so stiff you can barely bend over to pick your clothes off the floor. I got dressed as quickly as I could, thankful that I’d decided to bring the spare pair of cycling shorts. Whilst nothing was terminal there was definitely the signs of extreme chaffing going on. More Sudocrem was applied.

It was dark as I made my way outside the hotel at 4:43am. Time to get the legs turning I slowly headed down the back road to Izki. It was pitch black with no street lights to show the way. I just had the gentle thrum of the tyres to keep me company.

Checking the tracking app that morning in the hotel room was another stark reminder of how quickly things can change in a race like this. Overnight I’d been in 3rd place. I figured the worse case scenario was seventh and that was highly unlikely as surely everyone else had stopped. Not only had Bastian, Jason, Rodney and Josh not stopped but also Juliana, Paul and Jaques had descended Jebel Shams in the dark and kept on riding. I can’t imagine the guts it needs to descend Jebel Shams in the dark. With Carl having left 40 minutes ahead of me I was now down in 9th place behind Rafique and Carl and with Jaques hot on my heals. They were the only ones who had descended over night so the rest were due to make a dawn start from the hotel at the top of the mountain which gave me at least a 5 hour gap to them. The thing is you don’t just start putting the hammer down and chasing. There were still 600km to go. Getting the pace right is so important.

Once at Izki I came off the pitch black back road and onto the main road I had driven down with my wife, Laura, not 3 weeks earlier. It showed the value of recon as the recommended route deviated round a back road, the same distance but 200m more of climbing whereas I now had a flat run all the way to the coast some 240km away.

I think this was actually the part I was looking forward to the most. Not because it was great riding or mountains everywhere but because it was today that I felt I would find the real ultra endurance experience. Mile after mile of road, nothing to distract or disturb from the rhythm of the pedals and the tyres and the road. This was the essence of the challenge. How do you mentally cope with the enormity of it all. I briefly reached for my headphones but then put them back. I would leave them packed away all day. I wanted to feel that experience undiluted by the distraction of music.

Time and distance start to lose their traditional sense. 90 minutes passes in a flash and it’s time to stop for some food. It’s 06:15 and a garage is the only thing open. I have coffee and ice cream because I can. I’m now heading out away from all sign of civilisation with just the occasional car passing by. Sun pokes it’s head above the haze and I’m once again amazed by the beauty of the place. Minutes turn to hours as the sun reaches into the sky and the heat starts to crank up. This is what I was hoping for. Heat takes time to acclimatise to. Living in Dubai a few of us were used to the scorching heat. I hoped that others would slow in the relentless heat.

Sunrise near Izki

The route today was going to be straight forward until within about 20km of the coast when I knew that another potential shortcut could play to my advantage. The organisers had put it on the gravel route but I knew that this one was all tarmac and would shave 15km off the distance. Still 150km to go to that point.

The day before I’d started to do a few Facebook Live video’s from on the road. The response from back home in both Dubai and the UK had been amazing so every couple of hours or at the major stops I would get online and provide a few updates. Getting connected back to the people watching your little blue dot was such a rush. All my friends were not only watching me but also everyone else and giving me a stream of updates on how I was doing compared to the other riders. It felt like we were really creating a spectacle, albeit slower than a 5 day test match!

I passed Carl asleep on the side of the road. That was short lived as after another food stop I got back on my bike has he flashed past. I chased him down and passed him and counted down the miles to the next check point. At this point I reckoned I was in 8th place with Rafiqque about 30 minutes up the road from me and Juliana a further 2 hours ahead. 2 hours seemed like a lifetime away but 30 minutes might shrink when the short cut to the coast was taken.

Checkpoint 2 was at the Oriental Nights guesthouse. Rolling through the driveway there was no one there. Was I really in the right place? I started to become convinced I’d gone wrong. Or was it the heat. It was now 13:30 and the mercury had crept over 30 degrees. Luckily Dolle came out of the entrance to welcome me. A tired kind of autopilot kicked in. Out with the charging plug and battery. Everything on to charge. Get the signature on my survival map to say I’d passed the checkpoint. Eat food, lots of it. Then eat some more food. Carl came in as I was wolfing down my second portion. We both looked somewhat cooked under the sun. Position on the road felt important so I rushed my food and got back on the bike first. The heat was relentless.

More straight road all the way down towards the coast. I’d love to be able to say I thought long and hard about the problems of the day or my role in the universe. I found I didn’t really think at all. It’s almost like an extended mindfulness session. You focus on the sights and sounds around you, the turning of the pedals.

The best coffee in Oman

My next target was the cafe that Laura and I had stopped at a few weeks earlier. This guy makes the best coffee in Oman. Not really hard when everywhere sells instant with sweet milk but this coffee was really good. A sharp kick of caffeine to wake you up and send you down the road. Then the news came in the next time I checked the tracker and Facebook. Bastian, the current leader, had been disqualified from the race for drafting a car containing his mum and sister. This was a shock to the system. Even if he had only been drafting for a few minutes due to extreme fatigue as he’d stated it felt like he was going against the rules having the car there in the first place. Every other ride had travelled across the world by themselves, arrived in Muscat with just them and their bike, ready to take on a personal challenge. To have your family there even if along side and not drafting seems to go against the ethos of the event. Where for him the long dark nights battling only his own loneliness.

Crunch time was upon me. I was at the left turn for the last major shortcut I could take. It was approaching 15:00. From the tracker it looked like I would be able to overtake Raffique and come out somewhere behind Juliana. I was just hoping for a little tail wind as it had gradually been shifting round in front of me.

Heading to the coast

Again I got the sense of elation I had on the first day. Taking positive choices about the route gave me a sense of being in control of my race, playing it with my mind as well as my legs. Plus it was stunning scenery as I rode through sand dunes and small villages on the way to the sea. I hit the coast around 5pm. It’s the humidity you feel first. The moisture starts dripping from your arms and your bike as the heat seems to rise. 20km further on and I arrived at the final electronic checkpoint. Time to have some food and exchange a bit of banter with the local kids. They seem fascinated by my dishevelled state. I think I looked awful by now but was too tired to care. With stiff legs and swollen knees I was really struggling.

The next two hours up the coast were ones I’d like to forget but will live long in the memory. Darkness falls quickly in this part of the world and soon it was like I was riding through a sensory deprivation tank, my mental fatigue amplifying my thoughts. I had considered riding through the night straight to the finish but didn’t think I had the mental strength to carry on. The lights at the turn at Turtle Beach took an age to reach me. Turning left it was as if my legs had finally said enough is enough. I almost crawled into a cafe feeling dead and defeated. I accepted that riding through the night was not an option in my current state so ordered some food and then got onto booking.com to find a hotel for the night in Sur, the next big town up the road. With a burger, chips and coke swiftly consumed I checked the tracker for one last time before heading off again. Raffique was literally just round the corner. I politely told the cafe owner that his next customer would be here in five minutes and set off into the night.

It’s funny how making the decision to stay in a hotel then lifts a weight from your shoulders and the focus can return to the pedals. Having now eaten I was rejuvenated, reborn, and I found power from somewhere. This was now a delight again as the long flat roads through the desert and coast had given way to rolling terrain on the clifftops. Before long the lights of Sur blinked in the distance. I was just on the verge of changing my plan and pushing on through the night when my front light started indicating low battery. I knew my spare battery pack was empty so I had no more than 1 hour of light left. No where near enough to get me through to the finish. Maybe the mental tiredness was still there as I readily accepted the need to stop again, have a few hours of sleep and recharge all my lights. Checking into the hotel I looked at my messages, just one from Sarah urging me to get up early and finish before 9am as she had an important meeting and she wouldn’t be able to concentrate until I’d finished. I still couldn’t quite grasp how much people had been sucked into this race even though they were not pedalling. I fell fast asleep the minute my head hit the pillow.

BikingMan Oman – Day One

Total Distance: 376km

Total Climb: 4111m

Total riding time: 16:19

The alarm goes off and I wearily open my eyes. Across the room I can see the other riders in various states of getting ready. Some are still asleep, some are pushing their bikes across the floor to head for breakfast. It’s 1am and in 2 hours time the flag will drop on the inaugural BikingMan Oman race.

Team Turn Cycling ready to go

BikingMan is the brainchild of Axel Carion on Andreas Fabricius. Following a successful attempt on the world record for cycling the length of South America they decided to bring their passion for adventure cycling and racing to a self supported ultra endurance race series. The key word is adventure, they have chosen some amazing locations around the world and not the most obvious ones. The format of this race is 1000km self supported around Oman including the fearsome climb of Jebel Shams but also a bit of every kind of terrain from the high mountains to desert to the coast. 60 riders were in the room that night. Some had aims to win, some to see how far they could push without sleep, some just to make it to the finish within the 5 day time cut.

I had two objectives. It was a really high quality field with some of the best ultra endurance riders in the world on the start line. This was my first ever ultra endurance race so it was a great opportunity to test myself, how close could I get to the front runners. More importantly it was a chance to see if I enjoyed it. The thought of cycling for over 12 hours worried me, how would I cope physically and mentally. In my day job I run a cycle coaching company in the UAE so the physical readiness was there but there was still that question mark over the ability to ride so long each day and sacrifice sleep.

In the previous two days there had been a lot of nerves around the riders, bikes had issues, lights were missing, everyone was looking at how much stuff everyone else was carrying. Am I carrying too much, am I planning on sleeping too much. Some were going to ride straight through. Are they crazy? A day was lost to packing and then repacking, each time deciding something else could be left behind.

Now all those decisions were done. We were all lined up in the dark waiting to start. Then we are off.

Waiting for the start

It’s a very strange sensation getting on your bike and realising that you will be pretty much riding for nearly 3 days solid. Your instinct is to not let anyone get away and try to sit in with the front but then you realise that its a long race and relax. That first hour was a microcosm of the ups and downs I would experience throughout the race. The high as four of us took the option to go down the service road and suddenly had two minutes on the rest of the riders. Thoughts going round my head, wow this is great, soon turn to despair as the riders on the main road make the most of the 1 hour waiving of the no drafting rule. After 35km and an issue with my reflective bands getting wrapped around my wheel I was languishing near the back probably 15 minutes down on the leaders. I could hear the surprise in Renette’s voice as I over took her and mustered as cheery a hello as I was capable of.

Then the sun came up and Oman revealed itself in all it’s glory. Sunlight glanced off distant mountains as we raced through undulating roads. You would crest a rise and a splash of green would hit you as you came upon a wadi complete with date trees and a collection of houses.

Sunrise over the mountains of Oman

By now I was 4 hours into the race and was really settling into the rhythm. Pacing is so important especially when it’s something beyond anything you have done before. I’d done my research and done numerous test rides so knew that I was targeting between 140 and 150 watts. Really slow compared to your regular ride round Al Qudra but as my plan was to get up and down Jebel Shams that day I knew that there would be the need to push much harder once the steep climbing started.

As the km ticked by the wind started to build. This would be one of the defining features of the day and probably had more impact than the climbing. I was facing 140km of headwind, others had more as the different routing options came into play. This is one of the key elements of the race. You have to pass through four checkpoints and other than that the route is up to you. The layout of the road system and the selection of the checkpoints ensured that a minimum distance of 964km was required but the organisers had provided a recommended route of 1050. The recommended route minimised rough dirt roads and limited the gravel to a 12 km section up and down Jebel Shams. I’d done my research though and felt that one of the major short cut options on day one would save me 2-3 hours. This was no easy short cut, 90km of winding back roads with an additional 400m of climbing and a 10km section of very challenging dirt road. However I’d come prepared with 38mm gravel tyres and years of mountain biking experience.

The turn off came after 180km. I’d been riding for 7 hours and with the battling into the headwind it had been a tough slog. My legs were already feeling tired and doubt was beginning to creep in about how far I could go today. Still, I knew that not many would take the short cut and was really excited to see how that would unfold. Turning left at the round about at Ad Dariz I headed into the back roads.

This was to be my defining point in the race and led to one of the most exhilarating 10 hours of riding I’ve ever done. As the headwind eased off to a cross wind and the speed picked up I turned on my data and checked the tracker to see where everyone else was. WOW. I was the first person down the shortcut (actually Carl was, unfortunately his tracker was not working throughout the entire race so never appeared on the website). What had happened to all those ahead of me who I thought would take the shortcut. The game was now on. Messages from friends dot watching came flooding in. It was still early but looking at where the other riders were this could catapult me way up the leader board.

At the left turn just before Bat the wind continued to work in my favour. I was now rolling along at 35km/h, my mind full of excitement at being in the race. And the scenery was stunning. I was now in the heart of the mountains on quiet country lanes with no-one but myself for company. The km flew past, wind shifted around the mountains going from tail to cross to headwind and back again. I stuck to my pacing and kept on motoring. A short climb and I was at the gravel section of the shortcut. Here we go!

Amazing scenery on the approach to the gravel shortcut

100m into the gravel and it was like holding onto a jackhammer! I came to a stop and let some pressure out of the tyres. That was better. I was now alone on a dirt road in the high mountains. The gravel tyres were amazing and the high I was experiencing kept getting better. This was everything I had hoped for and more. I came to the top of the dirt road at about 14:45. The wind earlier in the day had caused delays to my plans but then it had impacted everyone. More messages from friends who were now glued to my little blue dot. It looked like I was going to come out of the shortcut in 3rd place. Just the short matter of the descent to come. What a descent, fast, loose and flowing. The bike floated over the ruts and rocks, angled over and drifting through the corners, I was transported back to my youth of riding fully rigid mountain bikes through the Peak District. Mentally I felt so alive and alert and focussed.

Gravel!

Coming out onto the main road in Al Minthar I was now back on the recommended route. A quick stop at a mosque and as I was filling my bottles Rodney rode past. I was now in fifth place on the road and ahead of some top racers. That could all change with the ascent of Jebel Shams.

Jebel Shams is without a doubt the hardest climb I’ve ever done. 22km in length and gaining 1500m of altitude, the high level numbers are just half the story. The first 6km on the tarmac go at an average of 14%, painful at the best of times but with bike and kit weighing 14kg and 260km in my legs this would hurt, a lot! Following a recon trip where Renette and I had already climbed it, I’d dropped my gearing to 34/34. This definitely helped as I got out of the saddle and made my way up the vertiginous slope all the while stealing glances over my shoulder to see if other riders were catching up.

Once over the first section there is a rolling tarmac section with some steep ups and steep downs, then after about 10km you come to the end of the tarmac and the start of the dirt road. The sun was beginning to set low in the sky and the dark clouds gave a real sense of atmosphere to the scene. With temperatures dropping I pushed hard through the gravel section and started to gain time on Rodney. Gravel then gives way to tarmac and the last 5km to the Jebel Shams resort and the site of the manned checkpoint. I came into the carpark at around 5pm. Still with an hour of daylight left I’d achieved my main goal of the day, make it to the top with enough time to get back down the gravel descent before dark.

The clouds come in as I approach the dirt section on the climb to Jebel Shams

I’d made it to the top in 5th place. Now it was time to refuel as I’d not eaten enough that day. The hotel had laid on a buffet so I started wolfing down pasta and coke as fast as I could whilst getting all my batteries out and recharging. This is where it’s so important to be focussed. When you stop for an extending break you need to be really efficient with getting lights, gamins and phones charging. Keeping everything on is a real challenge, especially as I was not running a dynamo hub and so was totally reliant on a battery pack. About ten minutes after arriving Josh came in through the door closely followed by Rafiqque. These would be the last people to make it to the top of Shams and still be able to descend in the daylight. The wind had wrecked havoc across the course and put a lot of people behind where they had hoped to be. It turns out the main route with it’s long slog down a motorway had been a long slog into a cross headwind.

Now it was time to push on. I was so excited about the descent. Bastian and Carl had already left about half an hour earlier. Jason and Rodney about two minutes ahead of me. Once on the gravel descent I just let the bike run. Rodney let out some Spanish swear words as I flew past him on the outside of a bend and continued to hunt down Jason. Past Jason and there I was, 3rd place on the road, in the near dark descending Jebel Shams at speed. This was turning into a perfect day.

Now thoughts turn to sleep and food. This is the most interesting question for me. How much do you rest and how much do you ride. With coming up for 320km of riding and over 4000m of climbing I felt that rest was now key. Pulling into Al Hamra for a quick feed I’d already made the decision to push on the next 50km to Nizwa and then get a hotel for the night. A good 4-5 hours of sleep and a shower would set me up well for the next day and my working assumption was that no one would be daft enough to descend Jebel Shams in the dark so I would be good for no worst than 7th place over night.

In Al Hamra I bumped into Carl, also on a high after taking the short cut and being in second place at Jebel Shams. He had similar thoughts to me so after a quick look on booking.com we rode side by side to Nizwa. Arriving at the hotel we were in 2nd and 3rd place on the road. I’d covered 376km with 4111m of ascent in 16 hours of climbing time and 18:30 hours of elapsed time, my longest ever ride by 12km and 4 hours. After a shower and food I took my weary legs to bed, set the alarm for 4am and passed out into a deep, deep slumber.

My bike and full kit in the hotel after my longest ever day on a bike

Sat by the pool at the Al Nahda resort. What am I doing here!!

For once I can’t blame Ian and Simon, normally they are the ones that convince me to take on the really big challenging bike races. Grand Raid 2008, Haute Route 2014, that level of challenge. No, this time it’s definitely Renette’s fault.

It’s Saturday lunchtime in late February and I’m sat by the pool at the Al Nahda resort near Muscat in Oman. In less then 15 hours time I will be setting off with 60 others on the inaugural BikingMan Oman race. BikingMan Oman is a 1000km self-supported race. Once the flag drops we have 120 hours to get to the finish line. It’s down to each individual rider how they balance the requirement of cycling, eating and sleeping to ensure they get to the finish line as quickly as possible. We are here with some of the worlds best at this. What am I doing here?

Time for some of the backstory. My wife and I live in Dubai where I run a cycle coaching business, Turn Cycling. So I’m always looking at the events that are going on in the region with interest. About 4 months ago a number of us noted an interesting ad appearing in our Facebook newsfeeds. A self supported long distance race around Oman. This immediately got me interested but for various reasons marked it as one day.

Then in the run up to Christmas, one of my athletes – Renette, talked to me and said I must do it and that she was going to do it. Next thing I know I’m clicking on the payment button and here I am! I’ll go into more details on both the physical training, the equipment preparation and the mental and strategy preparation. Needless to say, for an event like this, your physical capability is not the only key requirement.

So that’s why I’m at the hotel. I’ve not felt excitement and nervousness like this for a long time. I think you only get it when you take on the biggest of challenges. The ones where you really don’t know what the outcome might be. You can prepare as much as you like but you still have that element of doubt, you don’t know what might happen once the starting gun sounds. Well, I’ll find out shortly.

Stage 7 – Dignes les Bains to Vence

This was it. The final stage. Just 127 km to make it to Vence and the end of the real racing. There was still the ride down to Nice but that would be done in convoy and as a victory parade.

My body just had to get me through this last day. Cumulative fatigue has been showing on all of us. My eyes were looking so sunken and weighed down with bags. I'd been finding it really difficult to sleep through the night. The fluid intake meant I was up 2-3 times each night and every time I did my knees creaked and caused me a lot of pain. At least this morning we had some good news. A 7:30am start meant we could stay in bed a little longer. I was looking forward to the ride. I wanted to make sure I gave it everything and improved on my position from the previous day. At the same time I couldn't wait for the emotion of finishing, getting my finishers medal and seeing my wife down on the finish line in Nice.

After yesterdays stage to Mont Ventoux I really wanted to try and give it everything up the first climb to stay in touch with a group of people I knew I should be able to keep up with. It now felt like a familiar routine. The flag dropped and we all rolled slowly out of Dignes. A 3km convoy allowed us to warm ourselves up and get the legs turning. By now the pain in the knees was a constant reminder of the physiological stress of this race. Across the timing mat and the normal acceleration of pace. I tried to stay above 220 watts. This was a strong pace for me but I did want to see if I could do it and then keep going strong at the end. The Col de Corebin was a really pretty climb. You could tell you were in the Southern alps now. I tried to take it all in and make the most of the last 5 hours on the bike.

I crested the climb not too far back from some of the riders I'd been much further back on this week. It felt like I had given it a good shot. Unfortunately the descent was neutralised. Whilst I'm not quite as quick at descending as Ian and Simon I wasn't far behind and descents were certainly sections where I made up places. Even so, this was a cracking descent. Really enjoyable. Sharp hairpin bends, tight narrow road and stunning views out into the valley. Out onto the main road we gently rode down the remainder of the neutralised section in a big group. Across the timing mat and back into race mode. A few people stopped just before but quite a few pressed on so I sprinted hard to join the back of the group and the speed leapt up. No rolling pace line here, just a few brave souls putting in a turn and towing the rest of us along. I was tucked in about 30 people back focussing on staying calm and recovering before the next climb, the Col de Leques.

The peloton didn't last long once we hit the climb. I settled into it and tried to maintain the pace of the previous climb. Fatigue was a problem and I felt pushing that hard for a second time and so early in the day would give me trouble later so I knocked off 10 watts and carried on. Half way up Laurence caught me up. I pushed to stay with him not wanting to drop further back. Even on the last day the urge to race is there for everyone. In fact we all saw it as a last chance to do well and pushed harder. Roll on Nice and a dip in the med! We came over the climb together, grabbed a quick feed and carried on.

Another fantastic descent brought us out at the bottom of the lake at Castillon. It was now getting really hot. The next climb was like going up in a furness. Not a difficult climb but so hot and still trying to push on. Laurence pushed on ahead, I felt like there was nothing in the tank. We were now off the main road and on a quite mountain road. A few km from the top Tim came alongside. Another quirk of the Haute Route. I'd not met either Tim or Laurence before but we'd shared the same flight out of London together. Now here we were sharing climbs on the last day of the Haute Route. Tim urged me to get on his wheel. He was having a good day and we set a fast pace up the remainder of the climb. At the feed station at the top of the climb we caught up with Laurence who'd suffered late into the climb. With the heat we were having to stop at every station now. Water bottles were not lasting long.

On the descent we were flying down but then coming into one of the hairpin bends we saw security guys waving at us to slow down. An ambulance was treating a rider prone in the middle of the road. It was a guy that we had spoken to in the bike check line in Geneva 7 days ago. An american guy, probably in his late 50's riding an amazing screw together titanium travel bike. Turns out he'd come off and fractured his leg. It's devastating when you hear about things like this. We're like one big team and you want everyone to make it to the end. To come so close is gutting.

That slowed us down for a while on the descent. Off the bottom of the descent and it was time to form up a line again. It was a long tab into the Col de Blaine, probably the hardest climb of the day. It was becoming so difficult to stay in the group. We were now 10 people. A couple of us dropped off whilst trying to eat and the chase back on was frantic and leg busting. But you have to do everything you can to stay in the group otherwise you lose so much time.

Onto the Col de Blaine, the climbs were coming thick and fast, it was what made the day so tough. This was short but steep and with the temperature still rising I found it a real struggle. By now it was down to Laurence and me taking it in turns to pace each other up. It didn't take long to get up but then a bonus. The descent was neutralised so as we rolled across the timing mat at the top we could stop for a nice break. The feed station was full of broken people. Peter was there looking like he was having a really tough day in the office. A lot of people were.

Just one more climb remained though. A short descent led us to a long section of flat leading across a plateau and into another long descent. This one would take us all the way to the bottom of the col de Vence. Just at the top of the descent a French guy came past, shouting out, “I know this descent, follow me”. This was brilliant. The guy clearly did know the descent as he picked the apex on each bend, braking just enough to get round the corner. We flew down the mountainside and on our right, amazing views across the Alpes Maritime. We'd left everyone else behind. The sun was beating down. There was not a cloud in the sky. I began to think back across the whole week. Geneva seemed like a lifetime ago.

My guide pulled ahead the minute we started to go up hill. Well I say uphill. It was more of a long gradual drag into a head wind. This was some kind of cruel torture. I had 14km to go, the wind was blowing hard in my face and the road looked like it was going downhill. Only the snails pace I was going at gave the game away. 5 long kilometres passed slowly. I could see a guy about 400m ahead of me but we were going at the same pace so there was no way I could catch him and share the workload.

Then two guys came past, going faster than me but not so fast that I couldn't get onto the back and try to sit there as long as I could. The pace was hard and I just hoped that they wouldn't wave me through for a turn otherwise I'd blow up completely. We caught the guy who'd been dangling in front of me as the pace continued. It was getting so hard to stay on. Then another stroke of luck. I was waved through for my turn just as the road started descending. This was 4km of descent into the final 2km of up to the finish line.

We all knew we were close and had to finish in style. We got quicker and quicker as we got closer to the finish line. The road started ramping up but not too steep so we kept flying along in our paceline of four. Round a right hand bend in the road and up further ramp then we saw what we'd all been looking for, the flamme rouge, well the 1km to go marker anyway. I thought I'd repay the efforts from the guys earlier and went to the front to put in a big effort to the line. It seemed like they'd given everything already as I quickly got a gap. So I pressed on, pushing out as much power as I could. 400m to go and I thought I'd gone too soon. The pain in the legs was horrible. Then there it was. The final timing mat. Leave everything on the road. I got out of the saddle and wrung the last drops of power out of my legs, raised my arms, then collapsed across the finish line. I'd made it. I thanked my companions from the last 9km as they came across the line and then set off down the descent to Vence itself, where a cold beer was going to get demolished.

The descent down was another beautiful fast sweeping one, but with one difference. This time I could see the sea! It also gave more time to reflect on the week. Well more of a reflection of the last ten months. That's another part of what makes this event so special. You can't just turn up and ride. You need to put in a lot of training. Winter evenings on the turbo trainer. The 6am starts to commute to work. The weekends given up to cycling. There's one person for me that's made all of this possible and that's my wife. I've been so lucky as she has been so supportive and understanding of me taking part. She's never questioned the time devoted to training, nor the money spent on kit. And she was waiting down in Nice. Time to get a wriggle on and go see her.

Stage 6 – Dignes Les Bains – Mont Ventoux

Mont Ventoux. The name alone is enough to strike fear and respect into the hearts of cyclists all over the world. It dominates the surrounding landscape, invading the horizon whenever you approach it. It's difficulties are numerous. First there is the height gain, over 1600m vertical from Bedoin. Then there is the really hard section up through the woods. 12km where the gradient rarely drops below 10%, the overhanging trees creating an oppressive oven like atmosphere in the heat of the day. There are no regular hairpin bends to break up the monotony, just the gentle curving backwards and forwards. Arriving at Chalet Reynard you come out into the moonscape, the exposed rock and earth magnifying the heat and exposing you to the brutal winds that blow through this lone peak. Then the final challenge as the last few bends rear up steeply and mean you have to give your all to get round and over the finish line. This really is one of the most difficult climbs you can do on a bike and one of the most rewarding.

All three of us have previous with the mountain. 5 years ago we did the Etape du Tour from Montelimar to Mont Ventoux. I'd gone okay up the mountain but my time of 2 hours 20 minutes would not be good enough today. Ian had put in a great impression of Caspar the ghost and put in a similar time. Simon had done a good ascent but earlier on this year he had done the Cingles du Mont Ventoux, climbing the mountain from all three sides in a single day. He knew every inch of the climb and that was playing on his mind.

But first we had to get there. 120km of rolling roads and shorter climbs to bring us into the foot of the mountain. By now we knew what was going to happen. We'd cross the timing mat and all hell would break lose as everyone tried to stay with the front group and get a fast ride. I'd decided to start at the front of the second group and try and jump across to the first peloton and try and sit with Ian and Simon as long as I could.

Lining up in Digne there was an air of excitement in the peloton. I think everyone had been looking forward to this stage. The count down finished and off we went. After a couple of kms I had the opportunity to jump the motorbikes and make my way to join Ian and Simon. It was great, finally, to be cycling with them. Then we crossed the timing mat and it all got interesting. I'd not been up in the first peloton before. Wow. This was different level. We were on a tight back road. The pace was incredibly high. 40 – 45 km/h. After every little climb or corner you had to put down about 400 – 500 watts to get back into the pace line. This really felt like racing hard. It was awesome. Coming into a narrow bridge I managed to avoid a crash as people hit the bridge and ran into the back of each other.

Soon however it started to climb. This was going to be about a 2o minute climb up onto the first plateau. Now my early morning lack of power showed again and I just could not stay with the lead gruup. I don't know if it was that I wasn't pushing myself hard enough knowing what was to come, or if my knees just couldn't take the stress as by know the pain in my patella tendon was getting really bad. Over the top of the climb I'd slipped back quite a bit but was still able to get into a big group of people as we set a fast paceline. The first feed station flew by, completely ignored by everyone. Spots of rain made the road greasy but still we rattled along, each taking our turn to do a short stint on the front. At this pace it only took an hour to get to the next feedstation. Here we all stopped to refill and refuel. A lack of organisation meant we all then carried on at different times. I suddenly found myself alone with a group of about 8 people about 300m ahead of me on the road. Decision time, do I put in a masssive dig and close them down to draft through to the bottom of the col de notre dame des abeilles or do I accept that would take too much out of me and continue solo. No way I was going to do this alone. 10 minutes later of burying myself I got onto the back of the group. That was so tough. It took ten further minutes of sitting on the back of the group to recover. I just hoped this hadn't taken too much out of me.

We were in a smaller group now which made it much easier to organise. Most of the guys were from S-Aero club plus a Zimbabwean and his English wife. This is the bit I really enjoy about the Haute Route. We all have a story to tell of why we are here, what we think, what we hope to achieve. The sense of shared adventure is there for everyone. Chatting to the Zimbabwean and his wife we reflected on the standard of riding, which was exceptionally high. There are very few who are out of their depth and anyone finishing in the top 300 would be smashing it in their local sportives. This really does feel like the pinnacle of amateur cycling sportives.

Notre Dame des Abeilles came, we took it easy, not wanting to go too deep too early. Judging by the times later on that day this is where I lost a lot of time. I should have gone harder here but it was hot and I knew there was a massive amount of climbing to come.

The descent down from the top was amazing. We took a different way down to the last time I was here. Tight, narrow and twisty. Just the kind of descent I love. I flew past about 15 people on the descent. Then a right turn, a few kms of gentle slope and across the timing mat. Mont Ventoux started here.

Soon the left turn came and we were onto the climb proper. It's really difficult pacing yourself for this amount of climbing. If you go off at threshold you will blow up before the top. I set myelf a target of trying to stay just about 200 watts and see how I felt come the end. I actually started to really enjoy it. Yes it hurt but the pace was good, I caught and passed quite a lot of people, some with the Haute Route race numbers on. Although it was hot it was not oppressively hot. Jersey wide open I was dripping in sweat but I wasn't over heating and wasn't running out of water. The peddles kept on turning over. It's a mental challenge more than anything, a climb like Ventoux. You have to set yourself for 1.5 – 2 hours of just going up.

On and on the peddles turned. The km slowly ticked down. I was counting down to the feed station at Chalet Reynard where I'd quickly refill with water and drink some coke. 4km to go, 3km to go. I passed a few more Haute Routers. Then I was out of the forest and at Chalet Reynard. A quick stop and off again. I was feeling really good now I knew I only had 6 km to go. I could see the observatory at the top urging me onwards and I put on a burst and settled into a high pace. This bit is where I'd completely cracked last time but it felt like that was not going to happen now. I retook a couple of guys who'd overtaken me earlier. 2km later they passed me again. A proper seesaw battle.

Ian then Simon came flying past down the hill shouting words of encouragement spurring me on. It later turned out that Simon had gone so deep trying to keep pace with Ian in the final kilometres that the medics had put him on oxygen!

As you get to the final km it ramps up to 10 – 11%. You pass Tom Simpson's memorial. So many of the british guys were stopping on the way back down to lay something down. The guys who had over taken me were 50m ahead. That was my target. I wanted to cross the line first. I upped the pace. We got to 30m before the final bend when I put in my effort. Mustering everything left I sprinted round them and up the final steap ramp to the line. Crossing the line and punching the air in delight I was overwhelmed with emotion. This is what this mountain does to you.

The view from the top is amazing. A glass of coke, a selfie and a deep breath of air and a feeling of elation. You feel like you are on top of the world.

A quick word about the family battle between Ian and Simon. They set a blistering pace up the mountain with an ascent time nearly 25 minutes quicker than mine. Simon just couldn't hold on in the last km and Ian crossed the line first. The gap? Exactly 48 seconds. The difference between them at the beginning of the day. They were now neck and neck again. Nothing could separate them. It would all come down to the last stage.

Stage 5 – Bourg D’Oisans to Digne Les Bains

The joy of the time trial the day before is that we actually did get to rest for a bit. An afternoon of lazing around in the sun, eating and enjoying a couple of beers made us feel like were on holiday. Albeit not a holiday in most peoples definition of the word. After a couple of hours downtime it was soon back to the routine with the briefing for the next day.

When I first looked at this stage on the road book I thought it would be a fairly easy if long day due to the distance (189km). It did look like it would be stunning scenery as we made the transition from the Alps to Provence, through some of my old stomping ground just south of Grenoble. The evening briefing soon changed that view. 2900m of climbing crammed into the first 100km of the race followed by a fast run in to Dignes in very hot conditions. The climbing included the Col D'Ornon straight after the start which would be difficult with no time to warm up. Then after 30km we hit the Col de Parquetout. 7km at 10% with the first 1.5km actually being fairly gentle. It made for a horrible proposition. Then if you find yourself alone for the 60km of flat you could lose a load of time and have to do a lot of work just to get to the finish line. The organisers said it was a day for the sprinters. To me it looked like a day to fear. The weather did seem to be set fair although we were moving further south and losing a lot of height so it would be hot. Staying hydrated would be key.

The distance meant an early start in the morning. It was actually still dark when we set off down the mountain to Bourg D'Oisans. I'll never get bored of that descent. It was even better this time. Swooping down in the semi-darkness with the suns light hiding behind the mountains. Beautiful. The weather forecast meant we could also dispense with overshoes and jackets. It promised to be a good day on the bike.

The neutral roll out only lasted for 2.5km then we were into the Col D'Ornon. We'd all assumed it would be a bit of a gentle start given the distance. How wrong were we! Across the timing mat and bang! Everything is wound up to 11. You've got the choice of going deep so early in the day or holding back and feeling like you are pedaling backwards. I tried to keep on pushing hard but a combination of my knees starting to feel incredibly painful and the knowledge that this was just the first of four climbs held me back a little bit. Mind you I was still averaging over 200 watts as I churned my way up the mountain. I think this has been one of the most difficult things to come to terms with, the fact that it is frantic right from the start. It's partly to do with the fact that we are all racing but I think it's also to do with the standard of rider. There's very few who haven't trained long and hard for this and very few that aren't wanting to give it their all every day.

However there are really good sides to this. We are all in it together and we all spend a lot of time cycling with each other. You very quickly know the people who go at your pace and start to collect on the climbs. I bumped into Francois again and was chatting with him for a while. Fellow haute routers chatting in the peloton.

The descent off the Ornon was fast, furious and bloody freezing. It was down to about 5 degrees on the descent and I wasn't wearing much in the way of warm clothing. Still, when it's not raining and you can really nail it, you don't worry about the cold too much. It wasn't a neutralised descent so I could make up some places here. I counted them off in my head to make me feel a little better 🙂

Then onto the Parquetout. This was horrible. Continuously steep at between 10% and 13% it wound it's way through the woods. The shade was a relief in that it kept the temperature down but the mossy growth over some of the road made you worry for grip. Everyone got into their own personal world of hurt. The chat stopped completely as we ground out the climb metre by metre. In my head I was both cursing the route director and complementing him. He'd taken this supposed easier stage and turned it into a brute. There are clearly no easy days on the Haute Route. Every one will have you plumbing the depths of your commitment to keep on going.

Crossing the timing mat was a relief. A quick refuel and off down the descent. From here on in things did promise to get a bit easier in terms of gradient. I found myself alone during the first half of the Col de Festre. This was so tough, with no wheel to follow it felt as though the wind was straight in my face. It's funny that despite there being 450 cyclists in a 10km stretch of road you feel like you are the only one out there. We also all commented on the fact that no matter where you are on the course you always feel like you are are the back. You only focus on what's in front of you so think there is no one behind you. Anyway, soon a group came by and I managed to hang on to it's coat tails and ride it up to the top of the Festre. This can be some of the hardest cycling. You know the advantage you get from being in the group on the flatter sections so you bury yourself to stay on during the steeper parts.

Then, half way down the descent of the Festre, it all changed. Suddenly I'm in a group of 6 and we've formed a chain gang going down a main road at a ridiculous speed. Taking turns on the front and riding 6 inches from each other's wheels we were flying down the mountain at speeds touching 70km/h. This was amazing. The further down the descent we went the more riders we collected. Moving onto the approaches of the Col D'Espreaux we were still rolling though our turns and keeping the speed above 40km/h. Now I could have given the course director a big hug. This was awesome. We all felt like tour pro's on a break away and it felt good. We knew there was a neutralised section at the top so gave it everything to stick together and help each other up the climb as fast as we could. This is where you feel like a proper cyclist. You've trained hard for 10 months and now you are getting pay back. 15 people in a peloton spinning up a climb in provence with the sun baking down. The grins wide across our faces as we crossed the timing mat, into the feed station and the neutralised section. That was one of the best 90 minutes I'd ever had on the bike.

Things did not stop there. By the time we'd reached the flat on the bottom of the descent with about 60km to go we were in a group of about 50 people. I'd worried about being by myself for this bit and losing a massive amount of time. I needn't have worried. Soon a british guy with a beard who looked like he shoudl have been riding a single speed started to take charge of the situation and organised us into a rolling pace line. For those of us who don't do club rides this was the first time we'd ever done this. The idea is straight forward. There is a line of you on the right and a line on the left. The right line is the faster line. When you are at the front you keep the pace constant and then the second you are ahead of the front person on the left line you pull over in front of him and knock a few RPM off. This means you start conserving energy as you drift backwards in the line. Meanwhile the person who was behind you on the fast line keeps the same constant speed until he/she is ahead of you and pulls over in front of you and starts falling back. The drift back down the line can take a good couple of minutes. When you realise you are at the end you move back to the right and join the faster line. As you are still protected by riders ahead of you it is an easy peddle as you start moving back up the line and towards the front. Then the guy in front of you peals off to the left and you are back on the front, not changing cadence or speed but increasing your power to overcome the increased wind drag. We carried this on for nearly an hour and a half, averaging 40km/h. The sensation of effortless speed was amazing.

As the finishing line grew nearer the nerves in the peloton increased and the organisation broke down. People jumped off the front whilst others chased down. It felt like everyone wanted to get the small advantage to be across the line first. I felt strong so got involved at the head of the group, helping to bridge gaps and chase down those trying to break. I kept a close eye on the Garmin so I'd know when the finish was coming up, carefully positioning myself in 3rd wheel. Then there it was, about 400m away. Trying to use an element of surprise I jumped immediately and sprinted clear of the peloton. It worked and I was free, rolling across the timing mat a second or two ahead of the rest of the group I was in. Okay so it was only good for 163rd on the day but it felt brilliant.

Sadly my moment of glory didn't last too long. We had a 6km roll into town along a cycle path. This was not timed as the felt it would be dangerous to be racing along a cycle path. They weren't wrong. I was merrily bimbling down the path with one hand off the bars, admiring the scenery when I hit a large lump in the path. I went crashing down on my left hand side and gave myself a nasty dose of road rash. Fortunately the bike was fine and it was just my skin and pride that had taken a battering. Such is the life of a pro cyclist.