Lessons in endurance cycling

There are no shortcuts or hacks when it comes to ultra endurance cycling. Just you, your machine, and the road. So. Much. Road. So what did I learn from my Indian Pacific Wheel Race simulation?

Words & Images - James Raison


I have been a ball of fear and anxiety for the past couple of months. I was playing with Japanese robo-toilets over Christmas/New Year, then covering the Tour Down Under for 10 days, and not really training. Finally, FINALLY, over the Straya Day long weekend I ran a full race simulation. Now I feel better. Still scared, but a lot better. Here’s what I learned riding 950 kms in 3 days through some of South Australia’s most boring roads. Here's what I learned.

THE BIKE MAKES SENSE

Believe it or not, riding bikes is the easy part. You’re turning pedals, bum-on-seat, making forward progress. It makes sense. Ultra-endurance is just riding bikes… a lot.

The hard part is off the bike. Planning and obsessing about your body and your gear in the lead-up is awful. So many questions, uncertainties, and doubts fog your mind. What if a spoke blows out? What if a kangaroo wipes me out? What if it I run out of water? How many cyclists have been hit by asteroids?

Get on the bike and these fears are lost to the zen of pedal strokes. It’s riding bikes. I love riding bikes. I’m pretty good at it too. Yes, bad mechanicals could end my ride, or some sort of disaster could wipe me out. That’s true of every ride I’ve ever done. Just get on the bike, it’ll be fine.

THE MORNINGS ARE THE WORST

It’s 4am and your alarm goes off. You have over 300 km in the legs from yesterday and you have to get up and put more than 300 km through them today. Tomorrow as well. Ugh....

These were the worst times. Sitting in dark hotel rooms scoffing whatever atrocious food you scrounged before going to bed. All your muscles have gone cold, tightened up, and every pain you went to bed with has gotten worse. Your bike is sitting across the room expectantly, waiting for you to get on.

This is the worst you’ll feel for the day. You’ll feel it every day too.

EAT. EVERY. THING.

My diet on endurance rides is what you’d expect from an entire party of 8 year-olds given free rein to choose whatever they want. It’s pretty gross when I look back at it.

People ask if I’ll be eating energy gels, or bars, or whatever. No, I won’t. I’ll be eating the high-energy crap can be sourced from roadhouses, service stations, fast food joints, and regional supermarkets. It isn’t healthy either. I need energy and lots of it. Have you ever seen someone eat 4 hash browns, a McFlurry, a toasted sandwich, and a coffee for breakfast? I did it. It was awesome.

I did try and balance out the garbage with dried fruits and nuts. Generally I need salts, sugars, and fats in mega quantities. I also need to carry it. So the smaller the better. Standard fare is choccolate bars, dried dates, nuts, Subway sandwiches, sugary drinks, chips, ice-cream, flavoured milks, and bakery goods. It’s partially awesome, partially sickening. As soon as I got home I ploughed into fruit and veg. 

BEWARE THE FAFF

Time wasting is one of your biggest enemies with endurance cycling. Wake up in the morning and realise you couldn’t be arsed packing your saddle bag and re-attaching it to the bike. That’ll push back your departure time. Get a delicious frozen Coke from a service station. That’s going to take 10 minutes longer to get down than a can of Coke. 

Look at your phone. DON’T LOOK AT YOUR PHONE. It’s the biggest and most pointless time vortex. Sure, let the crucial people know where you are and how you’re going. Maybe do the occasional social update. But don’t scroll through Instagram because you’re on a break. Don’t start commenting on pointless things. You could be doing something useful like putting on sunscreen or doing some gear management. Even better, you could be moving.

Towards the end of the day you’ll get sick of being on your bike. Suddenly you’re remembering all the faff. Yes, you could be an hour further up the road. The pain could be over for the day. It isn’t though because you were wasting time. That is incredibly frustrating.

 There are some great moments

There are some great moments

THE LAST KILOMETERS GO ON FOREVER

So you’re 270 km in, and your stop is at 300 km. Easy! No Worries! Basically there! Except you aren’t. That’s at least an hour away, depending on your pace. A 30 km ride is not long. A 30 km segment of a 300+ km day feels like an eternity. You're the most tired, most sore, and most looking forward to stopping.

You know what makes this even worse? Inconsistent signage. You’ll pass highway signs in this order:

  1. Tailem Bend 30 km
  2. Tailem Bend 33 km
  3. Tailem Bend 30 km
  4. Tailem Bend 25 km
  5. Tailem Bend 25 km.

“F%#CK YOU HIGHWAY SIGNS! TAILEM BEND IS NOT MOVING, I AM! YOU ARE JUST WRONG! AND I HATE YOU! I HATE WHO PUT YOU THERE? HOW HARD IS IT TO MEASURE THE DISTANCE TO F*&KING TAILEM BEND?”

Don’t trust the signs. They will only disappoint you.

FLICK THE ENDURANCE SWITCH

There’s a weird rhythm to endurance riding. I always ride with a heart rate to gauge effort. After the first day you hit the endurance zone. Your heart rate is lower, your speed is usually slightly lower, and you can't really lift either. Hitting a climb usually means an increase in effort. In endurance mode, it stays much the same. It’s like you’re power limited.

On day 3 I had to climb the tough Sedan Hill. There’s double-digit gradients, my bike was fully loaded, it was 38 degrees and windy. My average heartrate for the climb was only 138 bpm. That’s way lower than normal, and not much higher than my 122 bpm average for the day. Endurance is a completely different style. Slower, more chilled, and with fewer variations in effort. 

IT'S MAGIC

There's just something special about this type of riding. You are stripped down to the fundamentals: eat, drink, sleep, move. You'll hurt, suffer, and spend hours in the dark recesses of your mind but you'll come out. You'll feel goddam awesome when you do.

Got any questions about endurance riding? Chuck it in the comments below.