Monthly Archives: March 2018

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