It’s a question I’ve been getting a lot lately. Closely followed by ‘are you insane?’ and not to mention my personal favourite ‘Idiot.’
See, later this month (June 14th to be exact) I along with approximately 120 other nutters will be lining up for what is often referred to as the toughest bicycle race in the world – now there is some debate on that but it’s up there – the 4418 km Tour Divide Mountain Bike Race from Banff, Canada to Antelope Wells on the US/Mexican border.
Mostly off-road, the route roughly follows the continental divide in North America on a collection of 4wd tracks, gravel roads, the odd bit of singletrack and of course some obligatory paved road. During the course of the race I will effectively climb the equivalent of sea to summit Everest 7 times. There are a few rules but mostly riders must be self sufficient – so carry what you need and buy stuff along the way – but its effectively one biiiiiiiiiiig stage. Stop when you want. In fact ‘Eat, Sleep, Ride’ is the un-official motto for the race!
Oh and I’m riding a rigid singlespeed.
So back to that original ‘why?’.
I got back into mountain biking after a long absence about 10 years ago. I was very overweight and desperately unfit and it seemed like a good way to lose some kilos and have some fun all at the same time.
I hadn’t been riding that long when I read a copy of Mountain Biking Australia lurking at some roadside café while I was on a 4wd trip which had a great story of this thing called the ‘Mont 24hr Race’. Wow – I was hooked! Before long I had corralled / conned a group of mates and despite never having been anywhere near something that looked like a bike race we found ourselves on the start line ready to go.
Of course, in true 24 Hour virgin fashion our team of 6 was a team of 4 by the start… one guy injured himself on his first lap, another threw up and had a little tantrum and refused to ride any more… you get the picture! But we must have done something right as we were back the next year… and the next. Never near the front but participating and enjoying the pitched battles we were having for 390th place!
Anyway, after one too many arguments over who’s turn it was to get up at 3am I decided to give 24hr solo racing a try. Again, an eye opening experience – the ability of the mind to get the body to do stupid things is nothing short of amazing. So far I’ve done about half a dozen solo 24hrs and for the most part, really enjoy this style of racing.
But lately, I had begun to find that the challenge just wasn’t there in a 24 hr race – again I wasn’t winning (my best is a 7th at a Scott 24hr) but I know I can ride for 24 hours now… so what’s the next challenge?
I’d done a couple of stage races but one of my favourite events was something called the Mawson Marathon – a 360km non-stop point to point race along the Mawson trail in South Australia. This had all the mental toughness and endurance aspects I love about 24hr racing combined with a healthy amount of planning and best of all – no riding in circles!
After the first year I was all set to line up for the second running of the event only to have it cancelled less than 2 weeks out. Anyone who gets into training for an event knows just how frustrating this can be. All that effort and all that form going to waste! As an alternative I decided that I’d try a little multi-day ride going from Glenbrook – Blackheath then along the 6ft Track to Jenolan Caves, across to Wombeyan Caves and then on to Mittagong.
This was one of those ‘ah-ha’ moments. Whilst the actual quality of the trails certainly isn’t the groomed singletrack you get used to at an XC endurance event the sheer variety of the terrain as well as a chance to be part of the landscape is almost indescribable. With a 6:30am departure from Blackheath I made it through rain and a howling headwind to get to Wombeyan Caves at about 7pm – close to 190km or so.
The next morning with an early start (so early it took me 3 hours to notice my knicks were inside-out) and yet more rain I got to Mittagong cold, wet and tired but pretty happy! I was well and truly hooked. That was in June 2011 and is when I mark the beginning of preparing for this adventure.
Since then I’ve often pondered about that ‘why’ – after all, ultra-racing is dangerous (as I’ve discovered a couple of times)… you’re continually looking for that balance point between too much weight and too little gear and if you get it wrong then, well… there are consequences! I could say that it’s just a natural extension of endurance racing – after all if you’re bored with riding around a track then doing an ultra has a similar amount of fitness required without the repetitive nature of track based racing.
Of course that’s not really it either.
Ultimately I think ultra racing and events like the Tour Divide have a spiritual dimension that offers something different to the standard mountain biking experience – or perhaps more similar to the where it all began? Sure it’s physically hard and the planning is almost as demanding as the training (I’m coming off an all-nighter putting together cue sheets!) but even for those trying to set race records it is as much about the experience as it is about how fast you can complete the course.
Finally, and I think this is important, each ultra race is an Adventure. A chance to get out and connect with something that’s a little more primal than sitting in an office working through the latest iteration of that PowerPoint deck. Not saying that going out and doing an ultra should be on everyone’s list but in our (over) connected society its all to easy to stay well within our comfort zone and surely a chance to explore the edges can’t be a bad thing?
Eat. Sleep. Ride. That’s what I’ll be doing for the next few weeks.