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.
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