Professional road cyclists: What they’d need to race The Transcontinental Race…
Much discussion and intrigue has been had recently about some top professional road cyclists racing ‘alternative’ races, in particular ultra endurance. I’ve done quite a few road races, time trials and ultra endurance races, so perhaps I’m well placed to comment. I cut my teeth road racing and went on to deliver back to back wins in The Transcontinental Race, a 4,000km ultra endurance race. I’m writing this with that comparison in mind.
I’d love nothing more than to see top road cyclists on the start lines of ultra endurance races, both women and men, because we race as equals. I am driven to compete, to do so against the ‘world’s best’ at my favourite game would be amazing! My emphasis is on the word ‘race,’ not just ride, but I’ll come back to that. Fitness just wouldn’t be an issue for professional road racers. So let’s dismiss that for starters, it’s not a qualification they lack in any way. I can’t say the same for other physiology. Think of a specialist track sprinter to a road sprinter, there’s not only a technical chasm between the trades but also between body shape. The right body to sprint with success on the track won’t necessarily deliver on the road. The distance for the effort tells the story: several laps on the track vs. 150km+ on the road. The demands of ultra distance cycling will be very different for these road racers, especially in the back to basics unsupported events.
As Lachlan Morton, professional with team Education First and perhaps the likely person to race these events, humbly commented on a recent and highly interesting Cycling Podcast interview: “I’m wary of the fact I’ve never done one [an ultra endurance race] so don’t want to jump in the deep end. I have a lot of respect for the athletes who do them and don’t expect I can jump in to a week long ultra and just be fine”.
Weight: The definition of a professional cyclist generally conjures the image of a skeleton on wheels, fat is considered a proverbial weight around the neck and muscle unnecessary. In ultra endurance racing, fat is a fuel and a very important one. In the Transcontinental, I can burn 14,000 calories on the first day. As much as I try, it’s not possible to meet that while riding, so I incur serious calorie debt. Over 9 days I will burn over 120,000 calories and lose 5-7kg, around 10% of my total mass. That means I must start with fat to burn. When I was a road racer, I weighed 69kg. Now shaped as an ultra endurance racer I’m 73kg, a significant difference. If a World Tour rider wanted to race ultra distance competitively, they’d need to put on weight, fat for fuel. It’s possible. Christian Bale put on dramatic weight in 2017 to play Dick Cheney in Backseat . As he said at the time: “I’ve been eating a lot of pies.” Not that a professional road racer would ever binge on pies!
Strength: Sitting on a bicycle for 6 hours a day is one thing, even if for 3 weeks on end, as in a Grand Tour. Yes, Wout Poels, one of the thinnest cyclists, can do handstands and has reasonable upper body strength. However, both core and upper body strength is essential to sustain 18 hours pedalling a day, for 9 days plus in a row. In my first Transcontinental Race in 2015 I ended with a DNF against my name, though I had led for half the distance. I suffered from neck problems because I lacked the necessary strength and just wasn’t conditioned to the long days. That’s why strength is a more serious challenge. While a few kilograms of fat can be put on in a week or two before a race by eating plenty of pies, the increased muscle mass needed takes months to build.
Recovery: Recovery is the third and biggest challenge. After racing hard for 9 days, it takes me a couple of months to fully recover. That’s time off the bike, or at least certainly not racing. Yes, I have heard of ultra racers getting back into training sooner but they will be carrying significant mental and physical fatigue forward with them. To really compete in an ultra endurance event would be a season ender for a top road cyclist. There is no way they could soon get back to a high level, especially to deliver the high power efforts that are needed to get through a road race. The potential for physical damage to the body would be enough to scare most off. In 2016 I finished the final 400km with what was later confirmed as a partial tear in my hamstring. In 2017 I blew my achilles. Many racers will finish with one issue or another, as you’d imagine covering 4,000km in 9 days isn’t easy on the body. And if you’re really giving it all, you’ll push till your body gives out somewhere.
Mental: My last challenge is one inside the head. Sitting on a bicycle and pedalling for 18 hours a day is not a simple mental task. While it requires no real brains, it absolutely does demand endless tenacity and resilience. I have no doubt there are top road racers out there with that mental fortitude because training for over 900 hours a year, every year, is enough to build some serious pain tolerance. Another aspect is the mental discipline of being self-supported; finding food, water, shelter. It can be lonely and difficult. It’s just not for everyone and should not be underestimated. Being able to think rationally and logically after 7 days on 3 hours sleep isn’t simple. It’s easy to make mistakes and lose time. I’d know, having circled Ljubljana once for 2 hours because I couldn’t decide what to eat!
All this means that a shorter ultra race, such as the exciting new TransPyrenean Race, scheduled for October 2019 and from the organisers of the Transcontinental, would be more realistic and a nice entry point without too much to lose, or weight to gain! I’d love nothing more than to go wheel to wheel (discs brakes please) with a top road rider. However, I believe that without total commitment, a big ask as they’d be giving up their career in its current form, we’re unlikely to see one race a long ultra endurance event. Understandably, they might just ‘ride’, and yes the publicity would be nice, but ultra endurance cycle racing is about spirit, not likes.
As Mike Hall, ultra racing legend and Transcontinental Race founder said:
‘It is actually a race, so if it’s a relaxed cycle tour you want, this might not be for you. Places are limited on the race so spare a thought for those who might want to be in a race and be competitive.’