It has been an incredibly sad couple of weeks since I last posted. Mike Hall, perhaps the greatest endurance cyclist in the world, was killed while riding in the Indian Pacific Wheel Race across Australia. He will be remembered as a humble and passionate man who loved what he did, gave openly to others, often dominating some of the toughest endurance races in the world. In the early hours of the morning, nearing the end of the race, he was in collision with a car, ending his life. It is not the place of this blog to speculate on causes, but just to remember this quiet man for what he had made himself into, an awesome competitor. We are all Inspired to Ride by your effort, passion and determination. Rest in peace Mike. You will be sorely missed.
Just over a week later, Mark Beaumont, of The Man who cycled the World/Americas fame, set off for a warm up ride around the UK coast, prior to attempting to ride around the world in eighty days. Inspired by Jules Verne’s book of the same name, he believes this is a realistic possibility. His ride around the coast, a journey I spent four months on, will take him 16 days for 3500 miles! That’s 240 miles a day, a figure that is hard to believe. I should add that his ride is supported. To achieve those sort of mileages Mark need to refuel and recuperate as best as he is able using the full support of sports scientists and a van. He will concentrate entirely on the riding.
For those of us riding around 50/60 miles a day when touring, this feels like an impossible task. Perhaps it is, 80 days of 240 miles will be some attainment. But don’t be too overawed, there is method in the madness, for that is surely what it appears to be on the surface. I tour at 10mph on average and Mark is riding at 15mph on average. His bike weighs half of my trike and I carry all my camping equipment (20-25kgs maybe). I’m not making any comparison here, other than the fact that it’s important to know that records like this attempt are accomplished by spending ever-longer periods of time on the bike. Mark will need to ride for 16 hours a day to achieve his mileage, and that is a huge amount of time pedalling.
Physiologically, there is no reason why this isn’t possible. Marks training and everything he has done in his life to date all help his chances. Muscles will keep on working almost indefinitely if they are fuelled correctly, hydrated correctly and get enough rest/ sleep. Of course, the risk of injury, sores or stress related problems are enormous, hence the back-up team to help ease the load and keep his engine and mind running.
At the speeds these athletes are riding, they are mostly burning fats. This is because even lean people have massive reserves of calories stored as fat that they can access if they choose fat over carbohydrates. To do this you need available glycogen, because fats only burn in a furnace with glycogen. You are also limited to effort as once you go past 50-60% of your maximum effort you automatically engage your carbohydrate system which burns for around two hours unless constantly fuelled. Elite endurance athletes exploit these two systems to the absolute limit.
Now I cycle about 5/6 hours a day maximum on bumpy lanes, tracks and trails. Occasionally I ride 8/9 hours. If I rode for 16 hours, all things being equal, I would cover 160 miles. On smooth roads with a road bike that may well easily increase to 180 miles or perhaps a little more. Given my age and the weight I’m pushing, that isn’t bad. Whether I could do it or not is another question and one I think the answer to is obvious, certainly at the moment given my current health.
I lost interest in racing around years ago. I’m very happy doing what I do, the way I choose to do it. I just wanted to help in understanding how these things are even on people’s radar. I’m as fascinated now by sports science as I was when I studied it. To go back to my cycling. The distance I ride and the time I spend on the road are governed by my health. I need to maintain my mental wellbeing and to do that I ned plenty of respite from pedalling for recovery, including being sociable. I try, as I have often stated, to be off my bike by 4pm, giving me plenty of time to dawdle along and take in whatever I come across during the day with a known recovery period afterwards. This is diametrically opposed to what athletes like Mark Beaumont and Sean Conway are doing. Their battle is in their heads mostly, and they revel in it, riding long, long hours.
There is no doubt that your own personal approach (particularly mentally) is the biggest factor when doing endurance tasks. Notice I didn’t say Ultra. By giving it another, extra name, it can push it out of reach mentally for most of us. Calling it endurance, which it is, links it to what we already do and understand, making bridging the gap easier. It is just of a higher level, with a higher understanding of how to go about it. Of course, there are still those who are more gifted than others at getting this right and they are the ones that stand out in endurance races. Pushing the boundaries of what is possible will lead to accidents, some of which are preventable, but it is human nature to search out the limits and try to move beyond them.
It’s easy to feel you are rubbish at cycling because you don’t perform as other athletes do and you constantly see posts on social media from people who seem to be riding hundreds of kilometres a day. If you are not well, it is wrong to expect to perform at an extremely high level? Cut yourself a break and ignore the idiots who have said things like “is that all” when I tell them how far I cycle each day. Being happy with your ability and being realistic you are able to achieve is the biggest single step toward achieving it. It also helps you in coming to terms with your own illness. Ride because you enjoy it. Don’t get entangled in high performance goals unless that is your desire and purpose and you are fully able to enter that arena.
In our lives today, we are constantly bombarded with images of super-fit, rugged looking people doing incredible things. There is another way you can choose, should you want to. Riding for leisure, health and enjoyment, is fine. Riding to take in the scenery and soak up the atmosphere of the place you are in is fine too. You can still admire those at the extreme limits of what is humanly possible, but don’t exclude yourself from a wonderful pastime because of what you perceive as your ability.
Those who excel at endurance riding do so because they know themselves incredibly well. They have taken many years getting to understand the reactions they are likely to have to certain events: ways of riding, weather, eating, drinking, resting, pedalling cadence and much more. You too can understand your own ability. It takes little more than getting out and listening to your body and mind. Leave the electronics at home, maybe with the exception of a simple cycle computer which is initially a great motivator as you can see your improvements easily. Go out and listen to what you are being told. In that way, you will start to truly understand what you can and cannot do. At some later date you can learn how to trick your mind into keeping going, but initially, especially if you are unwell, keep well within your limits and enjoy it.
I don’t feel less proud then Mark Beaumont will be because it took me four months to ride the UK coast. His challenge is quite different to mine and my own experience was the limit of my capabilities at that time. In fact, the way I chose to ride the UK coast was the only way I could have done it, given my poor mental health and cycling experience at that time. Should I choose to do it again, I’m sure many things would change as a result of all the riding that has taken place since 2011. The secret is enjoyment. Keep enjoying it and you will keep doing it. It’s as simple as that.
Until next time……