As a former road racer I have always been a fan of big miles on the bike for training. As a cycling coach now (Mind Matters Athlete Coaching) I still endorse the benefits of a solid endurance base that can only be strengthened through extended duration in the saddle. But how far is too far for a day on the bike??
Earlier this year I raced the inaugural ‘Coast to Coast’ gravel grinder race in Michigan, USA (read here) a day of over 345km on gravel roads. This put me pretty deep into the hurt locker and I was adamant that riding those distances was not a great idea for one’s physical condition. On the road bike I had clicked over a few 300km rides and countless 200km days, these rides take up most of the day and depending on the course/speed can take many days to recover properly from. Subsequently, when a friend of mine informed me of an attempt to click over 500km in a single day a few weeks back the logic in my brain was telling me “that is silly stuff” but the cyclist soul in me was yelling “F*%# yeah!”.
The ride was the idea of former domestic road racing legend Steve Aitken from Hobart, Tasmania. The route was planned to take in some of the island state’s most stunning scenery and subsequently some of the state’s most brutal climbs. Starting on the North West coast fishing village of Stanley then South East over the Cradle Mountain wilderness then down into the fertile farming regions around Sheffield before climbing up again onto the Highland Lakes before a 200km final stretch through the Southern Midlands into the Derwent Valley and finishing in the state capital of Hobart 503km later. The idea was to push the limits of the body and the mind for the sake of adventure and for a good cause. The ride was to be a funds and awareness raising venture for a Tasmanian charity named ‘Stay ChatTY’ a suicide prevention and mental health services organisation. Stay ChatTY is named after a young Hobart local named Tyrone who had recently lost his life to suicide. Stay ChatTY now run mental health promotion programs in Tasmanian high schools among other community work to reduce the stigma of mental health and attempt to eradicate suicide in Tasmania. As a former telephone counsellor with Lifeline this was a cause close to my heart and gave the decision to embark on such an expedition that bit more purpose.
A select group of 6 cyclists set their sights on this ride and made up a solid team to share a heavy workload of miles. Instigator Steve was the guiding light and perennial hard man of the squad who was joined by former Team Sky professional Nathan Earle whom is racing for the pro continental team Israel Cycling Academy in 2019. These 2 would be the big engines of the group doing the lions share of work on the front and setting a pace that made completing the distance in a reasonable time possible. Ultra endurance MTB racer Emma Flukes would also join after recently completing the epic Race to the Rock, an ultra endurance race from the bottom of Tasmania to Uluru hence, plenty of miles and experience in Emma’s legs and head. Hobart local Mitchell Hoare would join after completing a similar ride in 2017 covering 485km in a day. Young Mitch Gittus also a Hobart native would join for portions of the ride as he was preparing for some upcoming track races.
The first 100km went by without fault before we lost both Mitch’s leaving 4 of us in the group. By the 120km mark I had surpassed the longest ride I had completed over the past 7months and was already pretty deep into the hurt locker as we climbed up onto the Cradle Mountain alpine area. Being in the hurt bag is one thing but being there and knowing there is still 380km left to ride brings an entirely different element to the mental strategies needed to stay clipped in to the bike. The thoughts of “I won’t make it” started about this point and continued to swirl around in my head for hours to come. A few key points I learnt on this ride about keeps those thoughts as just that- thoughts NOT reality:
- Company: As an athlete and a coach I know how much deeper you can dig when there are others around you. The mere presence of other people can be an incredibly motivating factor and I know on this day was 100% critical to me pushing on to the finish.
- On the wheel!: Nathan Earle and Steve Aitken are HARDENED athletes, these guys did 90% of the ride on the front and with a finishing average of over 28kph with 6100m of elevation gain and a block headwind gives you an idea of how much GRINTA these two were setting, with myself and Emma in 2nd wheel most of the day, these guys could not just set the pace but motivate through the hard yakka they were dumping into the pedals.
- Nutrition/Hydration: As with XCM racing nutrition was crucial to sustaining a sufficient energy level to enable the pedals to keep turning for close to 18hours straight. Being a rider with T1 diabetes this was even more important for myself. I was quite strict with myself to continue the feeding of my engine consistently throughout the ride. There was no real big meals (save for a good dose of hot chips at 2pm) but rather a constant and consistent feeding every 45-60mins with bars, bananas, lollies, chocolate and all kinds of junk that your dentist would not recommend.
- Tolerance of hurt bag: Like I mentioned from about the 120km mark I was pretty busted up, however as with many other races and rides I have done, once deep into the hurt locker the pain rarely gets any worse, from the point of entering the depths of that hurt locker the challenge becomes tolerating the sensation of pain rather than discovering more pain. The hardest part has been done once you are in that hurt locker, from there it is a matter of tolerance and patience with discomfort.
- Purpose: “Those who have a WHY to live can bear almost any HOW” said Austrian psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. This quote I think is very useful for sporting endeavours. Most of those whom are very successful in sport admit to having a very powerful purpose behind their sporting pursuits. In our 500km ride having the added purpose of raising funds and awareness for a very meaningful cause made the motivation to continue tolerating that ‘hurt bag’ strong enough to keep pushing for the entire 503km.
Training Benefits of 17h30min in the saddle
It is very hard for me to think of any physiological benefit for embarking upon and completing such a ride. Unless you were training for 24hour MTB racing or an ultra endurance/trans-continental style race. In fact as far as training for regular XCM or road races such a ride can be detrimental rather than beneficial when considering your physical preparation. However the most important part of training is not physical, it is indeed mental and embarking on such a difficult adventure changes your perspective of what pain or struggle on the bike is. Your pain tolerance threshold gets pushed to a new level that cannot be reached from regular ’40-20’s’ or ‘3 minute efforts’. You will rarely if ever be asked to ride for 503km in a race, so next time I am encountering a struggle in a 2-5hour race I know in the back of my mind that I sat in the hurt bag for over 15 hours so each race is going to be within what I know I can achieve. Self-belief, confidence and motivation are the key ingredients for pushing the limits in a race situation. Completing this ride has helped foster those ingredients. As with most things in cycling the happiness/benefits from this ride are in the retrospection of the ride rather than the actual experience of it.
This ride is something I will never forget and owe a lot to those that helped me along the way. Particularly Steve Aitken whom planned and instigated the whole idea and James Goodsell who selflessly drove the support vehicle behind us for a LONG day behind the wheel. Mitch Gittus and Mitchell Hoare also for their contributions that made a BIG difference when the going got tough.
You can donate to the amazing work of ‘Speak up, Stay ChatTY’ here.
Equipment/ Interesting Statistics:
Bike: Pinarello GAN RS with Shimano Ultegra R8000 gruppo, Shimano Dura Ace C24 wheelset, Maxxis Relix 23c tyres, 53-39 Chainrings, 11-28 cassette.
Kit: Champion System ‘Apex’ range, Swiftwick socks, Shimano S-Phyre R shoe’s, Lazer Z1 lid.
Ride Time: 17hours 29minutes
Training Stress Score (TSS): 693 (Nathan Earle)
Elevation Gain: 6301m
Calories Burnt: 13 731 Kcal
Average Power: 240watts (Nathan Earle)
Average Speed: 28.7km/h
Temperature range: 3 to 30 degrees C.
Guilt from over eating at Christmas: N/A.