How to ride ultramarathons – part 1: Clothes

It’s summer, the afternoon sun is shining, the temperature is high, and you have already covered 250 km. You will continue to ride for many more hours and a night on the bike awaits you – this is when the ultra-fun begins.

An evening downpour, typical of the Polish climate, is approaching. In a few hours, after midnight, the temperature will drop to just a few degrees and mist will descend. The road, the bike and your clothes will all be wet.

How should you prepare for such weather?

Self supported or not?

If you take part in ultra-distance cycling with checkpoints where you have access to your luggage (in Poland that would be the Ring of a Thousand Lakes, the Bałtyk Bieszczady Tour, and many others), your task is much easier. There is no need to make elaborate plans. You should have dry clothes ready and waiting at each control point. It is even worth changing your shoes if they have got drenched in a downpour.

The situation gets more complicated, however, in self-supported marathons (e.g. the Race Through Poland, PatchRace, and the North-South Marathon). You will only be able to use what you take with you. 

If the race lasts up to 2-3 days, check the weather forecast before starting. In summer, the temperature will usually not drop below 5 or exceed 28°C. You usually can’t avoid rain either. In this guide, we will take you through how to dress for such conditions. We will focus on self-supported races, where travelling light and without bulky luggage is essential:

  • Shorts. You will start in these. Take your most comfortable ones, tried and tested on other routes. When choosing shorts, remember that a good insert is not everything. The insert will provide you with cushioning, but the cut and quality of the seams will protect you against chaffing. If you are going to spend 2-3 days on the route, one pair of comfortable bib shorts will suffice.

  • Leg warmers. At night, when the temperature drops, leg warmers will protect your knees. They take up little space in your luggage – so they are a must.

  • Jersey. Take one which is comfortable. Usually it is not worth going for a very breathable jersey. In addition to the heat on the route, there will also be cool evenings and mornings. It’s great when the jersey both keeps in your body’s warmth and keeps out the cold. For races of up to about 4 days, you’ll only need one.

  • Warm base-layer. You can put it on at night, in high mountains, or when it the temperature has significantly cooled. A base-layer is supposed to breathe, release sweat and stay close to the body.

  • Warm long sleeve jersey. Use one when you use a base-layer. The thermal aspect is important in a long sleeve. The fabric is designed to keep you warm. The better the long sleeve fits you, the less energy you will waste due to air resistance.

  • Windbreaker. Ideally it should have detachable sleeves. It also has to be lightweight and waterproof. It will come in handy when it rains and at night when the temperature drops to several degrees.

  • Sleeves. These are light and will be useful for cooler evenings.

  • Socks. If rain is forecast (especially in the evening), it is worth taking a second pair to change into.

  • Shoe covers. Usually toe covers are enough. They will protect your shoe from rain, increase comfort on a chilly night, and do not take up much space. However, if your legs gets cold, consider full rain-proof shoe covers

  • Cap. For many people, a cap improves comfort when wearing a helmet. It absorbs sweat and protects against sun and rain. It’s worth having one on your head.

  • Gloves. These are not essential in summer, but you will appreciate them on autumn and spring rides when the mercury plummets.

There will be cold during a power nap. Find a place hide from a wind, before a climb if it's possible. Try to sleep in the afternoon or morning, when it's warm.

Your clothes must be dry!

If your base layer is removed in the morning and thrown at the bottom of your bag, it will not be useful in the evening. When removing sweat clothes, attach them to the outside of your bag (if it is not raining). The fabric will dry quickly and will perform well the next time you wear it.

Fancy a nap in the open air? Dress warmer than for a ride. Put on dry clothes which you will later wear to ride. You will get cold if  you sleep at a bus stop at night. Choose a spot just before a hill, one that will allow you to warm up again when you resume your journey. 

During the rain use a vest that protects from the rain keeping you dry.

How should you pack?

For a several-day route in temperatures that will remain above zero Celsius, you should manage to fit everything in a 7-12 litre seat bag.

Usually it’s not worth going overboard with luggage. Remember that when you are tired, you are too exhausted to look for anything in the bag that is superfluous.

The main thing is: Each thing you take must be checked! I know that sounds banal, but chafing shorts a few hundred kilometres from the finish line, or a sweat-soaked jacket, can (at best) put an end to your dream of completing the route.

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