Race Across France - A beginner's guide to Ultra-Cycling
Ultra-cycling is a state of mind. You do not need strong legs (to an extent) to ride thousands of kilometres; what you need is a very strong head.
Back in May last year, a friend of mine sent me an application form by Heroïn Bikes who were looking for a male and a female cyclist to ride on one of their bikes the Race Across France, an unsupported 8 days race over 2600km with around 40000m of climbing across the Alps. The race covered the most famous French cols and climbs, including Ventoux, Huez, Lautaret, Galibier, Saisies, Iseran, Cormet de Roselend etc. At that time I had been cycling for just two years and my biggest distances had been three Audax: Les Cinglés (three ascents of Mont Ventoux), one 200 km Audax, and one 300 km Audax, including the last 100km of my own. I was rubbish at changing a flat and had no clue about Bike Packing. I was scared, but it was too good an opportunity to pass. I sent my file, I interviewed, and somehow I got in!
Once I was admitted to ride I had less than two months to prepare, train, and set up the bike; even less than two months actually as I was getting married in the middle of it all while working full time! This pre-race time was an adventure in itself – I received excellent advice from Colin Ross (thank you!) and thanks to the great support and open mindedness of my other half I got to the start line in not too bad a shape.
It is a truth universally acknowledged: if you can keep cycling uphill while vomiting and falling asleep on your bike with a raw skin butt and paralysed neck and fingers, you can deal with pretty much anything life throws at you.
I will not get into the details of the full race here but some of you at the club know already that it did not go as planned. I am just going to list here the issues I encountered but which made the overall experience actually transformative for me. First off, we had a big windstorm (80-100km/h gusts of wind) on top of Ventoux which strongly delayed the climbing putting me behind schedule. Then my bike, which I had only finally got back from Walthamstow cycle two days before (still angry J), started to break down: shifters became useless and I had to climb on hard gears the likes of Alpes d’Huez and Galibier before finally finding a bike mechanic who was able to (partly) fix the issue. After that, a few hours before the cut off time to get out of the Alps, I succumbed to a bad food poisoning, with fever and vomiting, likely due to the water from Alpine fountains which became non-drinkable due to the drought and strong heat. That forced me to stop for some rest, and then to ride with fever at 2am in order to make it to the cut-off point on time. Later down the road, my Di2 ran out of battery so more time was wasted. Then on the last day, my Garmin died and in my half delirious state I ended up riding backward and adding kilometres to my trip.
To conclude, Race Across France was a hell of a ride! But all the issues I faced are also what made it so much better and absolutely worth it. It does sound cliché, but riding an ultra will change you and make you a stronger and more self-confident person in all the areas of your life. You will be able to face difficulties and take risks like never before, and your mind will be all in all stronger and more positive. It is a truth universally acknowledged: if you can keep cycling uphill while vomiting and falling asleep on your bike with a raw skin butt and paralysed neck and fingers, you can deal with pretty much anything life throws at you.
My race plan: I had a full race plan prepared for Race Across France using my Strava times, which told me how much time I had a day to rest, sleep, eat, climb, etc. I am happy to share it with anyone who will do the race. It ended up being useless, but it did help me know the overall road by heart, understand where I was and how I was doing.
My preparation: I had less than two months to prepare for the race. I had done a couple of longish rides and Audax, the longest one being 300k around London. I was also in relatively good shape having done crits in the spring which I prepped with using Zwift’s Crit crusher programme. Training had 3 key elements: gaining self-confidence about riding alone and at night, testing my equipment, and doing as many kilometres a week as possible, especially when very tired, or hungry, or stressed (working in Investment Banking at a time where Brexit kept moving dates was perfect for that!). To prepare, I therefore started to ride a longer route to cycle to work every morning, making sure to barely eat and to carry a bag on my back as heavy as possible: I picked a 80km course, covering some good climbs (hill repeats on Alexandra Palace), and also covering some sections of busy A roads to build confidence around fast cars and trucks. On the weekend, I rode in the Surrey Hills or alone to Grantham and back: 400km. For these I used my various bags set up on the bike and all the clothes and bits I thought I would use for the RAF. That taught me to deal with mechanical issues and to ride at night. After I got 4 flats in a row taking sometimes more than half an hour to deal with them, changing a flats became easy. I learnt to fix punctures with wrappers, not to be afraid to ask for help, and that riding at night is actually really nice (except for the few drunks). Two more things I did to prepare: l’Etape du Tour with all my equipment (good test of climbing with the extra weight), and a mechanic class at London Bike Kitchen: I learnt to change spokes, fix chains, fix brakes, index gears (mechanical ones though, so useless with Di2).
My Bike: I had a Heroin Bike which is a lovely racing bike, but I received the bike late and could only adapt it for the race at the last minute – with bad consequences which I won’t list here but almost cost me the race and made me miss many hours of sleep on the road… The thing you should ask yourself before an ultra is what kind of route you will encounter. For the RAF, I had to account for a lot of climbing but also some long flat sections, so a big cassette on a light carbon bike would be fine. The race being on nice roads (with the exception of the descent post Alpes d’Huez) meant no need to worry about gravel and potholes. Recommendation: good wheels, lots of spokes, light frame, big cassette, 28 cc tyres for comfort and reduce chances of flats. For the gears I would choose mechanical ones: you can easily fix it yourself and there is no need to recharge the battery – both issues I faced with Di2.
Equipment: For my bags, I went for Roswheel as, being filmed almost 24/7, I wanted the bike to look good and I like their style. I had: one saddle bag, one top tube bag, one bar tube, one pocket type bag on the handle bar. Additionally, I bought a mini water bottle holder from Decathlon and a tool box which was hanging under the frame. For the lights, in retrospect, I think a dynamo can be a really good option. But having only a few weeks to prepare and not willing to break the bank on a bike I would not eventually keep, I opted for batteries. It worked fine for me. I had Catseye lights for the back and front. For the front I had an 800 lumen one, with removable USB chargeable battery. I bought an extra battery and a battery charger for it. I also had a non-rechargeable battery powered one which I used on intermittent mode for extra visibility. It also saved me when one time my other light died (both batteries). I had the same set up for the back. I had a massive battery pack that could charge several items at once and a mini one for my Garmin.
Your body: Doing an ultra like the RAF will destroy you. If you are a bike delivery person riding over 1000km a week, you will be fine. If you do a normal amount of riding, you will experience big discomforts. But don’t let it stop you. On day 2, I felt mostly muscle fatigue and then big pain in my injured knee, but that all went away relatively fast. The real issues were: neck pain, cyclist palsy (after the race I could not hold a pen and did not get feelings back in my fingers for months), saddle sores, excessive bloating, and belly pain. If like me you had some injuries in the past, they will somehow come back screaming in the first days – just be prepared! For the hands, have good aero bars to rest them. For the neck, stretch regularly and massage the area. For the saddle sores: pick a really good saddle you are used to ride with, use new bib shorts every day, do a good soapy wash every time you see public toilets (believe me, it sounds weird, but a clean butt will save you), and buy large double skin plasters to use for the last days. For the belly pain and bloating, I am yet to find solutions. Ideally you would only drink your food, but very hard to do if unsupported. Worth mentioning as well that you will absolutely stink even after showers and that if you are like me, you will bloat from everywhere and will look like the Michelin man.
Doping: My personal experience would be to have a little doping pharmacy with you: double skin plasters (as mentioned), paracetamol (not Ibuprofen unless you want to destroy your stomach), Salt tabs, possibly Imodium or some charcoal tabs for the bloat.
Guidance system: For the RAF the route will be given to you. You will be able to upload all TCX files for all routes between each check points ahead of the race. Once you have used a route, I would recommend removing it from your device to avoid bugs. I had a Garmin Edge 1000. It worked perfect except for the very last day were it kept losing the GPS signal and reduced me to cry like a baby after I somehow went back on my own trace… I must stress I was very tired and slightly delirious.
Getting there and back: I would recommend having someone coming with you at the start so they can get your bike box back and provide you with light chat and fun before the race. On the finish line, you will need someone to drive you home or to a hotel. You will be in no state to drive yourself or jump on a train. All the pains will somehow bubble up and you will just want to sleep for two days.
France – where to sleep, where to eat, etc.: One thing to remember about France: you will rarely find places opened after 20:00 or on Sunday. So if you find a place that sells food stop and get something. You might not get the chance again. For sleeping, I was allowed to pre-book hotels but it ended up being useless because I got delayed and missed most bookings. I ended up not sleeping at all or sleeping on roadside, and booking hotels at the last minute. Some hotels are weird about the bike and weird about you leaving in the middle of the night. Make sure you pay them ahead. Download Booking.com on your phone and book hotels with it, and also make use of Warm Shower (bikepacking website).
Your support team: RAF is unsupported, but you do have the right to meet people along the way. For me, it meant my dad came to surprise me when I left the Alps to try and stop me from riding and to try to force me to stop to sleep…. Not the kind of support you need! My husband however was amazing and you need to get yourself similar help. Someone you can call when you are losing it and who will tell you off for trying to quit and tell you “you got this”! Family handing you some McDonalds or meeting you in hotels is also possible and that is a very heart-warming feeling on the road. And of course, social media: receiving messages from club members, friends and strangers will hold you accountable and also cheer you up. So I encourage you to use them!