Finally, 2020 delivered me an event to remember.
Ultra Bike Pursuit 2020 – Tourmalet Hardcore Loop – 1100km 22,000m. Completed by yours truly in a surprisingly exact 111hr 11 min.
2020, the historic year of the great COVID-19 pandemic, a turning point for the world that shall surely be written about for decades to come.
COVID-19 has impacted the ultra cycling event calendar heavily and meant that the two events I had scheduled for this year have been postponed to 2021. These were Pan Celtic Race in July and Lost Dot’s Trans Pyrenees #2 scheduled for October.
Once these cancellations had been confirmed I set a new plan for a third attempt at a good clean run on the Transatlantic Way ride. This had been moved from the usual early June to early September due to COVID-19.
In late July, however, it became clear that any form of TAW that ran would be very different to the two previous versions I had ridden in 2017 & 2018 and I concluded that this limited 2020 COVID edition was not for me. This was just as well as a few weeks later it became clear that quarantine restriction would make this event impossible for me to attend anyway.
So, one restless evening in late July I set about looking for a new event. Having not ridden a proper ultra since 2018 I was beginning to feel like a fraud and doubting my intent.
A browse through the calendar on Chris White’s excellent RIdeFar website revealed that the Ultra Bike Pursuit was still open for entries and ideally timed and positioned for me to compete, so I signed up to the middle distance Tourmalet Hardcore Loop option never even considering that there might be very few entrants. I only had a week to spare so the full distance option wasn’t a viable choice for me
The Ultra Bike Pursuit series is a new ultra distance pursuit series for 2020 offering a range of challenging itineraries to suit the needs of everyone from the beginner to the elite riders.
A range of different distance challenges all centred around the amazing climbing routes in the marvellous Pyrenees. Glorious, relentlessly challenging routes on quiet, interesting, roads with a phenomenal amount of climbing involved. Not in anyway easy but sure to challenge and delight also!
The event is run by J-Philippe Soulé and his wife Yumi from Velotopo Cycling who provide high quality bespoke cycling tours for discerning clients.
The event was only announced in June and this, combined with the effects of COVID-19, rather stymied participant entrees for this the inaugural edition but none the less myself and two others, Yvonnick Brossier and Pierre Charles lined up at the start on a damp drizzling Sunday morning 6th Sept 2020.
Pierre was targeting the epic and longest distance option so not in theory racing Yvonnick and myself on the middle distance course but in truth we were all in it together and Pierre would be crossing the same finish line as Yvonnick and I, before carrying on, so effectively it was still a three man race/ride
Doubts, setbacks, misgivings
Since my failed attempt to make the start on last year’s Transcontinental #7 I’ve harboured a slight sense of defeat as if maybe this ultra-cycling thing just isn’t for me to be doing anymore.
Months of training and preparation in 2019 had been stymied by life circumstances, maybe this was a sign I should cut back and just ride less; focus on work more?
Added to this, I’ve been nursing some niggling problems with my neck, recurrent saddle sores and a tight ITB pain in my left leg plus other minor niggles. Maybe I’m just too old for this…?
I’ve learnt over the years that thoughts such as these are of little help and tend to perpetuate rather than alleviate the very issue you’re thinking about. Once you’re caught in the cycle of thinking them, though, it takes some effort to re-group into a more positive mindset.
Cycling can really help with improving this negative mindset! Better ride on then.
Due to all of the above, and COVID-19, I had trained less in the months prior to this event than on any of my previous years but, at least, I now had many “miles in my legs” and a deep level of base fitness thanks to all the training I’ve completed since 2016.
After the demise of my TCR campaign I also ended my coaching arrangement with the eminently capable Martin Burrows so that I could reflect an re-group.
This meant I was now fully self-supported in my training and preparation but I also had a very useful three years of training data to refer back to and learn from.
Being my own coach meant I could easily re-schedule my sessions around my increasingly erratic work life that can have me flying across Europe at a day’s notice; which can really hinder structured training plans set by a coach.
I can also alter my sessions precisely according to how I am feeling and work harder on my fresh days and more gently on my tired days. It is surprisingly easy to over train and set yourself back by doing high intensity interval sessions too frequently and without adequate recovery especially when you’re in your 60s.
Still, this takes discipline as well… “am I feeling genuinely tired or just in a low mood?” a key and frequently asked question and a very good difference to discern honestly.
Bad moods respond very well to cycling but training whilst exhausted isn’t usually so helpful be it endurance training or not.
However, despite my reduced training load I had managed to get my power numbers looking very respectable and over the two weeks running up to the start all my aches and pains were gradually gone as well as my anticipation for the ride grew and my strength and stretching sessions yielded results.
I confess that at the start of the race I was thinking, “well this is a bit silly, just 3 of us…” Turned out this didn’t matter at all.
A murky, drizzly morning greeted us for the start. Organiser Jean-Philippe seemed more openly excited than the three us…
On day one it initially seemed that we might be fairly evenly matched as we completed the first 3km climb Col des Palomieres, just seconds apart. Yvonnick and Pierre paused at the top, I rode on, this was a race, the clock never stops.
The cool damp weather was really quite welcome to me as for the last few months I’ve been riding around the south of France in 30-40c+ heat and getting boiled alive.
As the day past is became clear that Pierre was not really racing but rather just enjoying riding 200km+ a day in the mountains. He’s been riding 200km plus daily, across France for last 2 months before starting this, and he’d ridden to the start from Lyon!
Pierre’s day job has him riding a laden cargo bike around the hills of Lyon. He’d already ridden 45,000km this year before the start of this!
Stomach issues slowed him on day one but as the days past you could see he would get himself a long night’s sleep and then, seemingly effortlessly, start rapidly catching Yvonnick and I up.
Still, at 100km Yvonnick and I were apparently only 10 mins apart.
Bizarrely, my trusty Wahoo Elemnt bike computer, that has barely missed a beat in 3 years, decided that today was the day when it was going to play silly buggers and promptly stopped recording/displaying elevation, grade, temp and power correctly. Fortunately, the mapping was still working fine. No more looking at my power then and gauging my effort that way. That is not a problem at all on something like this but it is still nice to have the power data to analyse after the event and to put numbers to my increasing fatigue.
Yvonnick is local to the area and trains on these hills and mountains regularly. He is most definitely classed as a grimpeur/climber with a weight of 60 something kilos. He flies up these cols, even on a laden bike. He was soon away off into the distance once the next climb arrived.
This was his first ultra bikepacking event and for a short time I thought I could perhaps beat him by using tactics and my experience to ride more efficiently and consistently. I soon dropped this idea and instead resolved to just ride my own ride as fast as I reasonably could but without destroying myself in the way that I had on my previous two Transatlantic Way races. Messing about trying to “beat” people isn’t really why I’m here on this ride with a big field of entrants this may have been different but I resolved to enjoy this ride at a comfortably fast pace and not get distracted by trying out manoeuvre a clearly faster rider or two.
I started weighing 80kg and at 1.88m tall you wouldn’t really class me as having a “grimpeur” type of physique but none the less I enjoy riding in the mountains and winding my way slowly up hills far more than I like speeding around on the flatlands. The push of a climb calls for more focus and I like that.
Enjoyment counts more than speed! Higher weight will favour me on the descents, flats and in headwinds but what with damp weather and random patches of slippery manure dotted about the roads I descended every climb cautiously and slowly. My weight was of little advantage then and just meant more work for my brakes!
Pierre tips the scales at just 54kg so it’s little wonder how he flies up these hills even faster than Yvonnick and barely ever using his 28T sprocket!
Anyone who’s ridden in rural France on a Sunday and Monday will know how difficult it is to find open shops to refuel from. This wasn’t too big an issue on the Sunday and my pre-planned food shopping notes proved most useful but what with all the climbing I was a little loathe to overstock and carry lots of heavy food around that’d make climbing harder.
I treated myself to a pizza at around 19:30 on Sunday and bought a pack of cheese, a pack of ham and some snickers bars. Cheese for supper, ham for breakfast…high calories and more nutrients than sugary junk.
Refuelled I settled in for the night shift and rode steadily on over the relentless climbs. I don’t recall the names and it’s hard to identify them from the map or tracker but they are relentless and exhausting in a good way, this is what I’d signed up for after all, no complaining!
I love night riding and train outside right through the winter, dynamo lights really make this extra convenient. I have a turbo trainer but just looking at it makes me feel sad 🤣.
Night riding moves you into a different zone where your immediate world is reduced to the narrow parameters of the world illuminated by your lamps. The world is quieter yet the wildlife and your senses are louder.
Forests are full of unusual noises, animals cross your path unexpectedly, the stars and moon are extra intense on clear nights, in the mountains and away from towns. The little traffic there is announces its arrival nice and early through the increasing light approaching.
Yes, night riding has its perks, though the wildlife can startle you and makes for slower progress on descents. The last thing you want to do is crash into an animal in the middle of the night! I saw deer, fox, sheep, goats, cows, dogs, and other scurrying little unknown species. I felt privileged to be sharing their world and none of them caused me any bother.
A key intention of mine when riding these multi day trips is to avoid the use of hotels or B&B accommodations. I ride these things for the adventure and escape from the usual comforts. Respected ultra cyclist Mike Sheldrake shares this approach and once said “..check into a hotel and you’re checking out of the adventure…” My sentiments entirely!
I was damp through from the rain and sweat on Sunday night but still warm. I carry a good quality, breathable Gore-Tex bivi bag that lets me dry out as I sleep, it’s really not that unpleasant.
My plan for this hugely strenuous event was simple, ride till about midnight and stop for 5 hours. ½ hour to setup camp and have supper, 4 hours sleep, ½ hour to get going again. Previously I’ve targeted 3 hour sleeps on these events but with the extreme challenge of the riding on this I knew I needed longer to recover between days or I’d just fade out and self destruct. Endless climbing forces you to ride harder and fatigue deeper.
Self-care, is critical to maintaining pace and wellbeing on these things, especially when in your 60s. Destroy yourself on the last day if necessary; not before! I’d learnt this lesson the hard way, twice, in Ireland.
What’s it like then?
Rather than tire you with a rambling account of each passing day let me attempt to convey the essential of my experience of riding these large distances and big climbs day after day.
When reading media accounts of this type of escapade you’ll frequently see words like, determined, suffering, fortitude, battle, fight as if the challenge of the relentless ride is a fight against something, a battle of wills, something to conquer. Perhaps, for some, not for me.
I’m doing this because I feel inspired to it, motivated, driven from within, to keep on carrying on. I’m led along the journey by an inner desire just to keep going and the process nurtures rather than diminishes me, it’s not a fight or a battle against anything. It’s embrace of everything from elation to pain and fatigue. Gravity slows progress but the push of gravity evokes an opposite force from me, it’s not a fight, it’s an exchange, a reciprocal arrangement.
I may feel very tired and have aches and pains but it’s never really suffering, rather I’m enjoying exploring the edges of my limits and moving with the ebb and flow of the unfolding ride, landscape, mind and body.
Pretentious as it may sound, I approach ultra cycling with something akin to how I envisage the mindset of a Star Wars Jedi might be. Flow, rather than push, engage with the elements, draw upon the strength of my surroundings, ride with, never against.
Suffering for me is being forced to do something against my will and I’m really very bad at complying to that.
The majestic beauty of the Pyrenees nutures me as I ride. My days start in the darkness before dawn and I’ll often find myself riding between the stirring forms of sleeping cows on the road, animals that, in contrast to me, display a complete absence of haste unless frightened.
Having inadvertently frightened a lone cow earlier in the race to the degree that it leapt down an impossibly steep bank sending disturbing, crashing, sounds through the woods, as it found its way to safety, I resolved to be most considerate to these residents of the hills. My rush into their realm should never impact on their sedate calm.
There’s another wonderful calm anticipation as dawn approaches. The sky lightens and the tightness in my muscles eases in parallel with the breaking of the new day. Once more, the glory of my surroundings come progressively more sharply into view. Mists swirl and melt across the peaks and valleys. The low light of the rising sun casts long shadows across the day, traffic increases, human noises grow louder. Yes! Another day is upon me, all is very well.
Savour it all, nothing to be done except ride, eat, sleep, free from the myriad demands of my typical working days. Life stripped back to basics.
I’m convinced we humans are meant to be active. A largely sedantary existence eating and sleeping in no way compares to the satisfaction and rewards of a physically active one. It doesn’t have to be cycling, any activity will satisfy. We evolved as active hunter gatherers and we still need active lifestyles now to truly thrive.
On day two, the Monday of this ride, I was feeling ever more deeply depleted having missed any breakfast opportunities and then taken so long to ride up Port de Pailheres that I then missed the shops that had been open until 15:00.
I think this was the hardest day of the ride for me, I can cope on no food and run on fat burning at low riding intensities but the steepness of the col on my laden bike was not allowing a slow cruise. 200w+ was often needed just for me to keep motion forward and at times I walked to save my legs. On a fresh, rested, strong day I might comfortably ride up at 250w+ but this was not one of those days. Even then, I remained, relatively happy enough, slow but content, I was tired, so what?
It’s bizarre how paring things back to the basics of simply maintaining forward motion can be so satisfying.
Passing through fatigue can empower rather than diminish; the lows contrast to make the highs more special. There’s a clarity of intent that inspires me forward, it’s not a force of will power but rather a quiet yet resilient inner focus that somehow propels me forward. Accessing this subtly powerful sensation ever more coherently is surely a key part of the attraction of ultra cycling for me.
Arriving at the summit of Col de Pailheres to be greeted by the grinning Jean-Philippe had me feeling fully alive and fresh again now that the resistance of the incline had past. The relentlessnes of the climb immediately forgotten and the next almost eagerly anticipated.
I find myself riding in waves, from the calm trough to the push upwards, the fresh triumph of the summit and the recuperating speed and flow descending into the trough again before the next climb.
I find it’s never a hardship unless I resist this flow of the landscape and curse the climbs or yearn for the flats. Hardship results from resisting what is. You can’t change the route, you can’t change the topography or weather but you can always change your attitude. Ultra-cycling can teach you some formidable life skills if you’ll allow it.
I plan one proper meal a day on these rides, a big un before the evening shift usually and on this ride, pizza was the readiest option. Pizza vans are present by the roadside in more or less every town and serve up calorie dense food swiftly whilst allowing you to keep a close guard on your bike. Mine were all “grande” in size and chosen based on what I surmised might be the highest calorie content!
Dusk closing in is another magical time of day as the light changes, the world calms once more, and nocturnal wildlife stirs into action. Slowly the world winds down and closes in to the narrow limits of your artificial lighting. The whirr of the bike’s, tyres and drivetrain becomes louder and your peripheral senses sharpen to help guide you through the darkness.
Most people have retired to the cosy warmth of homes and bars yet you ride on rebelliously into the increasing calm of the night drawn by this relentless urge just to keep moving.
I feel a primal quality to these rides as if I might be a hunter from an ancient time pursuing food to sustain my kin, the intention is sharp, laser clear, ride, just ride no other option is present.
Then, by surprise, the call to rest arrives suddenly, I’m hit by fatigue and the imperative to bed down and so yet another phase commences. Where to set my bivouac tonight?
This is an exciting time, the promise of rest combined with the thrill of the hunt. I target secluded covered locations in towns and villages with some nearby street lighting that makes setting and striking camp easier. The ultimate spots are open fronted barns or here, in the Pyrenees, a mountain refuge hut would be superb but I only passed these in daylight hours.
This hunt for shelter provides a renewed freshness from the deep fatigue the day has provided. Zoom my map out and look for the distance to the next village, every village has a spot, what will tonight’s be like? It’s always the new, the unknown, that invigorates and draws you onward.
My 4 bivi spots on this ride were great, bar the one by a supermarket between a coke machine and a 24hr coin op laundrette. It served its purpose well enough but was a bit loud. It’s amazing how many people rock up after midnight, music blaring, in search of a soft drink! I soon forgot them and slept.
The last day called for a final ride up Col de Tourmalet before a long descent to the finish. Whilst seeking food before the final climb I met the inspiring Pierre Charles who’d seemingly effortlessly caught up with me after a good long sleep and late start earlier in the day. “We’ll ride Tourmalet together” he graciously suggested, sounds good I thought until I followed along, I needed 220w to keep up with a relaxed Peirre, riding one handed and chatting on the phone. Phone call ended, I then needed 250w+ to stay on his wheel. Well, that wasn’t sustainable and I let him disappear off into the distance.
He was probably making 12-14kkph+ to my 7kph, he must have reached the summit an hour or more ahead of me! A sobering idea and I immediately resolved to lose more weight from my body and bike in the future.
Pierre Charles is not you’re average cyclist by any stretch and he has continued to ride 200km plus rides daily since completing this event and at the time of writing this post he has climbed almost 90,000m in the month of September alone and close to 50,000km in 2020. I feel quite privileged to have ridden with him for a bit! Very chilled and humble guy as well.
Part way up the climb Jean-Phillipe arrived to see where I was, Pierre the gentleman was apparently waiting on top for me so that we could ride into the finish together. Delightful though this idea was I said “no, please tell him to ride on, he’ll freeze up there” I really was an hour or more behind him! Happily, he did as suggested!
After what seemed like the longest descent I’ve ever made and a map reading error, I arrived at the finish around 11pm to be greeted by, winner, Yvonnick and delighted organiser Jean-Phillipe.
What is really rather bizarre about all this is I apparently took precisely 111hr 11min to complete this ride. You can’t make stuff like that up 🤣
The official results:
#2020 (Sept 6 – 17) – FINAL REPORT
results provided by
Ultra Bike Pursuit Pyrenees
Jean-Philippe lost money running this inaugural event with so few entrants this year but remains committed to running it again in 2021. Numbers will have to increase if it is to be a viable event in years hence. I think the Ultra Bike Pursuit series deserves to grow and prosper as one of the finest options and toughest challenges on the ultra cycling calendar.
Consider these benefits:
- Fixed routes created by an expert local that provide the most interesting riding whilst linking the very finest climbs and scenery on the best roads.
- Fixed routes demand considerably less time from you in preparation.
- A fixed route provides greater safety. (If your dot disappears off the map then finding you is far easier as your route is known)
- Fixed routes provide equal racing as you’re all on the same course.
- Start and finish at the same point. Easy logistics for luggage and bike box storage and pickup.
- Mandatory rest periods ensure greater safety and protect you from the possible wayward decisions of a fatigued mind.
- Distance options to cater for a range of fitness and experience levels yet all operate within the camaraderie and encouragement and inspiration of the elite riders.
- The full Ultra Pursuit course is a staggeringly challenging ride to complete. Worlds toughest? Well, I doubt there’d ever be a consensus agreement on what that is but it has to be up there amongst them. One of the most beautiful? Well, that’s is unquestionaly correct.
- Superb event coverage for dot watchers and family. Jean-Philippe is an accomplished author and this shows in the excellence of his event blog and media engagement.
- Maprogress tracking. One of the very finest tracking apps for your friends and family to follow you on and dissect the details of your ride.
What’s not to like?
My days that were, quite relaxed riding by ultra cycling standards!
Day 1 – 251.06km 4,875m 13:57:26 Moving
Day 2 – 251.49km 4,272m 15:06:31 Moving
Day 3 – 235.29km 4,104m 13:57:55 Moving
Day 4 – 171.00km 4,250m 13:09:43 Moving (Slow day, long stop at a bike shop to charge stuff and replace a light)
Day 5 – 201.89km 4,521m 13:24.17 Moving