Introduction to Ultra Distance Cycling
Ultra Distance Cycling covers many different types of races and involves many aspects that involved consideration and decision making. There are two major categories of races, and I will share a bit about each in this article. The first and most popular are timed duration races where racers all race for a set period of time. The second major type of Ultra Distance Race is a point to point race. Two other aspects of ultra distance cycling that I will touch upon include equipment and eating for racing.
In a timed duration race the winner and rank order of the racers is determined by the amount of miles each racer completes during the set duration of that race. Most of these types of races have the competitors go around a course doing the same loops as many times as they can during a specified amount of time. Some of these types of races will have two courses for one race, a long and short course. The race will start with the racers doing the long course and then switch to the short course towards the end of the race. This is done to make determining the final mileage easier, rather than have someone drive around a 20 or 30 mile loop to see where each competitor finished. The most popular time durations are 6 hour, 12 hour and 24 hour races. I primarily focus on 24 hr races. The 24-Hour World Time Trial Championships is a 24 hour two course race. Racers will do an 18-mile loop for the first 22.5 hours then switch to a 5-mile loop for the last 1.5 hours. The winner at the 24-Hour World Time Trial Championships in the past will generally complete between 500 and 560 miles. Most of the timed 24-hour races are non-drafting time trials. I believe that is because the Race Across America (RAAM) requires that you qualify in one of their official qualifying races before you can register for RAAM. The majority of the RAAM qualifier races are mainly 24 hour races that RAAM requires to be non-drafting. To qualify for RAAM male riders must be able to cycle at least 400 miles and females at least 380 miles during the 24 hours. The World Ultra Cycling Association (https://worldultracycling.com/) also keeps track of several records in ultra distance cycling to include 6hr, 12hr and 24hr records for road and track. Currently Christoph Strasser holds the 24 hr track (585 miles) and 24 hr road (556 miles) records. One thing that makes these races very popular is they are fairly accessible to compete in, even for novice racers. Many of the serious riders looking to win will have support crews that make all of their food and hydration and perform all of their bike mechanical issues that the racers will need for the race. The course loop will have a pit which is usually stationed near or right at the spot where the officials will count the laps of the riders. Many riders also enter these races completely unsupported, meaning without any help from a sponsor or support crew. Those racers will stop in the pit and fill their own water bottles and make their own food for the race. One of the most challenging aspects of this type of race is that when the clock starts, it doesn’t stop for anyone or anything until the duration for that race is up. When riders are stopping for food, water, or anything else, the clock is still running and so are the other racers. The top racers will do moving handoffs of their food and water with their crew and sometimes will not stop at all for the entire 24 hrs. In races like The 24 Hour World Time Trial Championships, racers will do almost 30 laps. Considering this, if racer was to even stop for one minute to handoff their food and drinks they would lose half an hour and with the top racers averaging over 20 miles per hour that would put them down 10 miles. The top racers will do everything they can to keep themselves moving on the bike the entire time as much as they can. Other less serious competitors will take dinner and lunch breaks or will end their race early, short of the 24 hr time, if they have meet their goal or don’t want to ride all through the night without sleep.
Point to Point Races
The second major type of Ultra Distance Race is a point to point race. RAAM is the most famous of these, it is the pinnacle race in ultra distance cycling. RAAM takes place every year in June, starting in California and crossing the entire United States to end in Maryland. Racers can do RAAM as solo rider and race the entire 3,000 mile race as the only rider or you can enter RAAM with a relay team.
(Above: Jason Burgess prior to RAAM 2015)
The solo racers have to complete RAAM in less then 12 days for men under 50 years old and 13 days for women and men over 50. Relay teams can be either 2, 4 or 8 person teams. Relay teams only have 10 days to finish RAAM. RAAM and other point to point ultra distance races have an aspect of racing that looped course races don’t have, these races almost always require a support crew. There are unofficial races that do not require support crews and even some where having any support crew is against their rules. But most of the major official races and point to point races The World Ultra Cycling Association keeps records of require a support crew. When a racer is attempting to break a point to point record tracked by the The World Ultra Cycling Association racers are not only required to have a support crew, but also have a WUCA official follow them in one of the support cars to ensure the racer follow all the rules and completes the race or record attempt properly. Being a crew member for a racer in a point to point race like RAAM is an extremely hard job that I cannot over state. Most of the crew members will have little to no sleep for days, just like the racer. When I completed RAAM in 2015 I had all friends and family as my crew members and neither myself or any one on my crew had ever done anything like an ultra distance bike race before. I had arranged a meeting for my crew members to meet and talk with crew members of other racers that had completed RAAM before. All of the people we spoke to said the same thing, that you could not over estimate how much work it is for the crew members and how little sleep they will get during those types of races. After we completed RAAM in 2015 all of my crew members completely agreed with that and were astonished at how hard it was for them. A few of the crew members even told me that crewing for RAAM was the hardest thing they had ever done.
The equipment in an ultra distance cycling race can make or break a racer. The number one reason I have seen racers bail out of an ultra distance cycling race is saddle sores. I myself have raced improperly prepared, causing me to have saddle sores in places that should not be sore to point of bleeding. Having a well fitted bike and the correct saddle are essential. Also having the correctly fitting kit with shorts that have the right chamios pad is essential. I will start this off by saying I believe everyone is different and must find what works for themselves. Sorry to say that will require a lot of time in the seat getting saddle sores and figuring out what does not work. What I have found that does work for me is a hard flatter seat with a thin nose and a wide back part of the seat. The thin nose needs to be thin enough that my legs don’t rub it at all. The back part of the seat needs to be flat and wide for my sit bones to rest on evenly. The chamois pads I prefer are the Aero Tech Designs Race chamois. They are not the thickest or most cushiony pad so that pad with a hard seat will sometimes give me some light bruising in the area of my sit bones, but I find they work very well for reducing rubbing and not causing chaffing. I am willing to put up with some light bruising that will go away a few days after the race in order to not have chaffing that causes me to drop out of a race. I also find I need to cover my pad with body glide wax and a good thick chamois cream like Assos. I try and reapply every 4 to 6 hours during a race and will also have my crew have a few sets of shorts covered with wax and cream during the race, so if I have a longer stop, more than a few seconds, I can just strip the old shorts and jump into a new set. I think this also works well because each set of shorts are just a bit different and can change the main points of rubbing and contact from the older shorts. I prefer regular shorts over bibs because if I want to change a set of shorts two or three times during a race it is much easier to just jump in and out of regular shorts then it is to have to take off your entire kit to include jersey to change a set of bib shorts.
Other equipment you really need that you can change during a race is lights. You need either enough small lights or a really big light that last long enough to get you through an entire night. I find I like to run two smaller lights on my bike with only one of them on at a time. Then when one dies, I will have my crew switch out the dead light with another light. Then they will charge the dead one. I like that system because I know I always have a full light ready to go if the one I have on dies, so I am not left out on the course in the middle of the night with no light. It is a little more work than having one of the larger lights that can last all night but I find those lights to be much heavier and bulky (and not aero dynamic) for my preference.
Having the right bike or bikes and set up is a must for anyone looking to win an ultra distance race. I will go into races with two or three bikes. If I am doing a looped course that is very flat I will try and do the entire race on a time trial (TT) bike so I am not wasting power and losing speed due to bad aero dynamics, but if it’s a point to point race with mountains I make sure I have a good light road bike in addition to the TT bike.
Eating for a Race
The last thing I will go over a bit, but not in-depth, is the right meal plan. There are entire books out there on this subject so I cannot cover everything (I am also not qualified to do so) but I will share some things that I think work for me and some things that do not. First off, and most important, come up with a plan and test it over and over on longer training rides. What your favorite meal is when you are at home off your bike may make you lose your stomach when you are on your bike pushing a race pace for several hours straight. I try to stay away from high sugar items like blocks or gels. Too much sugar in my stomach will make me nauseous. I try and eat something small like an energy bar or drink a meal replacement drink every hour. No one is going to be able to eat and digest enough food to completely fuel their race. My data from my last 24 hr race showed I burned almost 15,000 calories. It would be impossible to eat 15,000 calories worth of food and still be able to move on a bike. I train with the plan, knowing I will ride my races at a calorie deficit while making sure I get enough food to keep me from bonking out of a race.
Jason has been a sponsored Aero Tech Designs athlete since 2014. He competed and finished RAAM in 2015. He finished in 11 days 23 hours. Recently, he won the 2019 Mid Atlantic 24 Hour race which qualified him for the World Championship that will happen later on in 2019.