competition · cycling

Ultra-distance cycling: I’m in awe but I’m not tempted

My friend Dave just finished Devil’s Week with the Ontario Randonneurs. 

Here’s a brief description of the event:

The series starts on Saturday, June 7th with the Burnstown Cafe 200 The route will introduce the randonneurs to the Lanark Highlands, but then return to Kanata along the Ontario side of the Ottawa River with fine views of Quebec from the Carp Hills.

Sunday, June 8th will be the Vennachar 300. The route start with a relatively flat ride to Arnprior at the junction of the Madawaska and Ottawa Rivers. The route then climbs through the Calabogie Highlands reaching it’s highest point along Buckshot Lake Road. From there the route slowly descends to the final control at Balderson. From Balderson to the finish is a flat ride.

Monday, June 9th, a REST day.

Tuesday, June 10th will be the Westport 400. The route will be west into the Lanark Highlands and then south to skirt Frontenac Provincial Park before returning to the flat lands of the Ottawa Valley.

Wednesday, June 11th will be a REST day.

Thursday, June 12th, we will start the Bancroft 600 starts along the Rideau Canal cruise routes passing south of Big Rideau Lake before returning to the hills at Jones Falls. From then on the route will be steady upand down through the granite hills of the Canadian Shield to the overnight in Bancroft for some well earned sleep. The pedal back to Ottawa on Friday, June 13th will take us out of the hills and back to the valley to officially complete DEVIL’S WEEK.

Yes, you read that right: 200 km, 300 km, rest, 400 km, rest, 600 km. The last day featuring a steady diet of up and down hills over the Canadian shield. In a week.

It makes my Friends for Life Bike Rally Challenge, which is the same distance as Dave’s last day, only we do it over many more days, look like a walk in the park with cupcakes. By the way, I’m still shy of my fundraising goal. Hint!

Oh, and he does it on a fixed gear bike. (Just one gear, no coasting.)

And the last day was rainy, with thunder showers, lightning, and those hills. Did I mention the last day was 600 km?

He’s a powerful rider, tough, strong, steady, and resilient. I had the pleasure the other night of riding behind him. I like that.

And then recently I read about this woman: “Toronto’s Vaune Davis came to sport late in life and found she had the perfect skill for ultra-distance cycling: the ability to endure suffering.” Read her story here, Race Across the West: Toronto ultracyclist, 54, overcomes arthritis, starts 1,400-km desert trek.

Vaune Davis is about to embark on a 1,400-kilometre bike race across four U.S. states, with more than 40,000 feet of mountains to climb. The Toronto woman will be eating from a bowl Velcroed to her handlebars and essentially ride day and night for up to 92 hours.

That’s the equivalent of getting on her bike in the GTA, pointing east and not getting off until Prince Edward Island while climbing Mount Everest 1 ½ times along the way.

Davis is the only woman in the solo field of the 2014 Race Across the West and, at age 54, if she makes it within the time limit she’ll be the oldest woman ever to conquer the gruelling event.

But ask her what makes her anxious about the Race Across the West and the answer is a surprising one: the boredom of the desert.

So I’m in awe. But I’m not tempted. I’ve ridden 160 km before, a few times in fact. Later in July I’m going to do a 200 km with Dave and my bike rally friend David. I’ve even got a membership with the Ontario Randonneurs for the event. But beyond 200 km? I don’t think it’s me.

Here’s two thoughts about all of this:

First, while I’m keen for a pluralist ethos of bike riding–repeat after me, “we’re all cyclists”!–some of what we do attracts me more than other bits. I like social riding and I like racing. I like going fast and I can be happy riding at a more sedate pace too. I like short rides on weekdays and long rides on holidays. But I also really like sleep. And I’m not so keen–given my vision problems, see The four eyed athlete–on riding much after dark, or much before light. It tells me something that my first worry about Dave’s 600 km ride and Vaune Davis’ 1400 km race is sleep. How much? When? I’m a solid 8 hours a night person, more when I’m riding lots. I took comfort in reading that Tour de France cyclists average 10 hours a night when training, 2 hours of sleep for every hour racing during the Tour. Truth be told though pure endurance sports have never really spoken to me whether it’s the Ironman or ultra marathons.We all have different tastes. I may not be good at it but I like speed and strategy. Most of all though, I like sleep!

Second, I’m in awe of their stamina and endurance but it makes me realize that for each of us there is someone doing something beyond the range of our abilities that makes us go “wow.” There are university staff people and neighbourhood friends who think my 7.5 km bike commute is long.  But I also work with some bike commuters. They’re not fussed by my distance from home but when I tell them about my weekend rides, they look at me like I look at Dave. Riding 100 km is unbelievable to them. It’s almost always the case that your fast ride, is someone else’s warm up. Likewise, your long ride could be another person’s quick spin.

Maybe that could change. I do remember the first time I rode 40 km and how impressed I was. I laughed once riding back into the city with a group because landmarks that now seem like “home” used mark my outer boundaries of the city.

How about you? What’s your longest distance run/ride? What’s the longest distance you aspire to?

Image: Two lane desert highway, Nevada

5 thoughts on “Ultra-distance cycling: I’m in awe but I’m not tempted

  1. My junk hurts just reading about that stage race. Yeow.

    I’m super into ultra distance racing, mainly because at long distances it becomes as much of a mental challenge as a physical one, but I also see why people would rather not. And even though I’m into them, I don’t see myself doing more than one ultra distance event a year, just because they consume so much of your life and your body’s functions.

    Some of the events I dream about are pretty long, like Ultraman Florida and the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc and the Desert Rats stage race in southern Utah and the 10K Flowers Sea Swim in the Cayman Islands. I’d love to do all of these some day.

  2. Ultra distance has intrigued me ever since I was a kid and Cindy Nicholas swam across Lake Ontario (32 miles). But I’m not sure I would enjoy it and definitely not on the bike. My longest rides so far were my first two outings with you, Sam! Each about 55 k and that still seems on the long side to me though I want to be totally comfortable with 60-70 this summer.

  3. I have a friend who introduced me to the concept of randonneuring or ultra-distance cycling. I was and am fascinated. I think this is something I can do… I discovered in my first year riding that I have a talent for moderate distances at least – it seems to take me 30km or so just to warm up properly – and I have only actually hit my limit once, on a very steep and cold century ride six years ago. (I still didn’t quit. Not that I had a choice, because the car was 80km away at that point, but I am pretty proud of that. I sniveled and cried and stopped to put on more layers and had a snack and then I got back on the damn bike and I kept going).

    I am a stubborn, introverted, ferociously independent person and a big part of why I started cycling in the first place was to get some time to myself 🙂

  4. This puts my London to Paris 24-hour race to shame! But I will say that I enjoyed a lot about that race, and a lot surprised me about that enjoyment. My strongest memory: the zen feeling that came over us at night, as we passed through the quiet towns in Northern France along the route. I noticed my heart rate dropping even as our speed stayed put around 15mph; in the middle of the night, my HR was about 30bpm lower than normal. Our friend Paras, a surgeon and also on the ride, said it looked like I was adapting quickly to the conditions, which was great.

    I hear you about sleep, Sam. The zen night part was balanced for me against the incredible fatigue of riding all night. If there was a solid 8-10 hours on the cards I think I could do 200+km a day for a few days in a row. That’s my limit right now, though – at least with a lot of hills in the mix. Flatter land, well, we’ll see when I get home to Toronto!

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