It has happened. You’ve signed up for your first ultra. You’ve ridden by bike a lot;
routes of 200 kilometres hold no fear. But what about riding at night? What about
food? And what should you take on your trip?
Every beginner has such doubts. And even experienced riders have made many
mistakes with food or equipment (or rather, the lack of it).
You will not prepare for an ultra in just a few months. Since you’re reading this, I assume you’ve been cycling for quite a while and you’ll be starting in a few months.
The rule is simple: “in order to ride, you have to ride.” I don’t think I will surprise anyone by saying that, without covering a few thousand kilometres a year, there’s no point in showing up at the start. But even having done several thousand kilometres is no guarantee that you’ll complete a long distance.
So how should you prepare? Well, you’ve got to experience conditions similar to those you will encounter on the route. E.g.:
- Riding at night. There are no ultras that don’t involve riding at night. So, it is worth planning a night trip from time to time. I do not mean returning on your bike at 23.00; you’ve got to ride until the morning. Then you will feel how your body reacts to the lack of sleep. You will see what food you are able to eat at night. In addition, you will learn how much water and food you will need to have with you on stretches when you do not pass an open grocery shop for a few hours, and you can only replenish your supplies at gas stations.
- Riding in the cold. At night, in the middle of a downpour, or in the mountains, there will be moments when you will get really cold. It is worth getting used to this while riding in winter. A training machine in a warm room has its advantages, but it is no substitute for real outdoor riding.
- Riding in the mountains. This issue is important for people who live in flat areas. On your first mountain ride you expect tough climbs. But beginners will be surprised by the changeable weather, the wind, the lack of shops, and the much slower pace at which you ride. And the descents! It is definitely worth practicing being confident on the descents, including after dark.
- Riding in a group. Consider whether you want (if the regulations even allow it) to ride in a group. What do I mean? Surely it’s easier in a group, you can talk to someone, someone can help you? Well, theoretically. However, remember that you will also have to adjust to the pace of the group. A large group also means an increased probability of failure or some crisis for one of the cyclists. In addition, tired competitors make mistakes more often, so the risk of a crash or a bump damaging a wheel increases.
- Equipment problems. We are all outsourcing more and more service work to professionals. By riding a lot, you learn to quickly repair the things that break most often. You also gain experience regarding what to do when things break irreparably while on the road.
There's no chance to avoid rain during few days trip
But how do you get physically fit? Should you ride fast or far? Do it in intervals?
If you are just planning your first competition, you will simply want to finish the race, preferably in the first half of the field, and you do not need to follow a special training plan. You just need to find your weakest trait and work on it.
Train using your brain: if you can – go for a ride, cycle to work to save time, use stairs instead of a lift, and if you can’t go out on your bike, then pop out to the gym, pool or go for a jog. If you don’t have time to go out for a long time – do some intensive training; if you have a day off – go out for a long ride. Look for opportunities, not limitations.
However, if you want to scrupulously follow a training plan, consider consulting a professional. A training plan costs 200-300 zloties a month. Just remember that, in addition to the physical exercise set by the trainer, it is worth focusing on the mental preparation described above.
We have already covered the subject of clothing when hitting the road in a separate article. Here we divide the rest of your gear into three categories: for the cyclist, for the bicycle, and electronics.
For the cyclist
- Food and water. First, look at a map and check how often you will have access to a buffet (if there is any) and a grocery store. Remember that at night, and on Sundays, you’ll only have petrol stations. At the start, take enough with you so that you do not have to stop more often than once every 2-3 hours. On long journeys without access to food or water, take more food than seems necessary. What should you eat? You can count how many different kinds of food you need, but you won’t have a choice when on the road – you will have to make do with what is available in a store or at a petrol station. My advice is: eat easily digestible foods and don’t experiment. Eat sweets only when there is no other option, otherwise after a dozen or so hours you won’t be able to look at sugary bars. Find food to break up the taste of sweetness, something like nuts for example. The point is not to fill up on peanuts – it is about having a different taste in your mouth. At petrol stations, it is worth eating a warm sandwich, preferably without mushrooms and with as little fatty meat or cheese as possible. What about gels and protein supplements? Well, it is worth having a small number of them with you in the event of a crisis or on long stretches when you can’t resupply.
- Tissues, preferably wet wipes. You will use them when you go to the toilet… in a place where there is no toilet. Just remember not to litter!
- And staying around the bum, you might need sudokrem or anti-friction cream. If you use such creams, make sure you have them with you. If you have never used them (like me, for example), do not start experimenting when you are far from home or the finish line.
For the bicycle
- Chain oil. Over a few hundred kilometres you will definitely have to use it. It is worth pouring the oil into a smaller bottle.
- Inner tube, pump, tire levers and patches. This needs no explanation. If you ride tubeless, consider taking a repair kit or a small bottle of sealant.
- Tools: hexagonal socket, chain breaker, spoke wrench. Think about what you’ve repaired on your bike recently and make sure you have the tools for it.
Remember to prepare your bike well before you set off. Service it several hundred kilometres before the race to have plenty of time to test the equipment. Replace cables and the chain if they have covered a fair distance already. And, especially before mountainous routes, check the brake pads.
- A phone, preferably set to airplane mode (battery saving). Should there be any problems navigating, your phone will serve as a backup map.
- Powerbank and cables for charging your satnav or telephone. Have them with you if there is a risk that the battery in the phone / satnav will not last the distance.
- GPS navigation. Consider an additional option for charging your navigation if there is a risk that the battery will not last the entire journey.
- Lights. In addition to those mounted on the bike, be sure you take some spare ones. They do not have to be powerful, large lamps; small headlights (CR2032 batteries) will suffice and allow you to get to the nearest town safely. Make sure your lights will last the whole route. Remember that the battery won’t last as long in the cold at night. It’s best to use lights with removable batteries. In the event of rain, protect them from water. Every manufacturer claims their lights are resistant to moisture, but most aren’t.
Find a convenient way to carry your luggage. An under seat bag is a safe choice, but keep things that you plan to use often in the pockets of your shirt, jersey or jacket.
Many riders prefer to attach their luggage to the handlebars, which has its pros and cons. There is no clear answer as to which is better, so try the various options and choose your favourite solution.
It is extremely important that you test every piece of equipment (from the bicycle to the lights) in real-world conditions. Go on at least one night ride with the items you intend to take with you. You will find out the true operating time of the electronics on one battery, make sure that you have comfortable clothes, etc.
Minimalist packaging: big saddle bag plus some staff in pockets.
When riding ultras, especially those long routes, you don’t have to be an outstanding athlete. Instead, you just need to be immune to the cold and sleep deprivation. You also have to be prepared for random problems: a defect, the weather deteriorating, food poisoning, or satnav failure.
The key to success, i.e. completing an ultramarathon, is the ability to overcome a crisis. And those crises will be small or big, but as long as you get up as many times as you fall – it’ll all be fine.