Life Lessons from the World’s Most Extreme Cyclists

(As written for Outside Online, Sept. 19, 2017)

Early one August morning in 2013, I joined a small group of cyclists gathered on London Bridge. I could feel the nervous energy as we did a final gear check and said goodbye to family and friends. As the second hand on Big Ben ticked out the final minute, 31 racers lined up at the starting line. At precisely 7 a.m., the bells tolled across the silent city, and we clipped in for an adventure that would end on the Bosphorus in Istanbul, some 2,113 miles away.

Described by writer and broadcaster Jack Thurston as a “daring and thoroughly modern take on how bike racing used to be back in the ‘heroic’ era,” the inaugural Transcontinental Race (TCR) legitimized unsupported ultra road racing and birthed a community of bikepacking “crazies” and their GPS-addicted “dot-watcher” fans. This race would give birth to the Trans Am Bike Race in 2014, which covered 4,300 miles from Astoria to Yorktown and was the subject of the film Inspired to Ride. Over the next few years, the number of bikepacking races exploded, with events all over the world, from Ireland to South Africa to Australia. “By putting the lost virtues of adventure and self-reliance back at the heart of a bike race,” wrote Thurston, “the Transcontinental is a breath of fresh air in the increasingly bland, commercialized world of modern cycle sport.” World cyclist and Tour Divide winner Mike Hall designed the 2013 race to revive the original spirit of the Tour de France, “where a rider can simply pick up a bike, shake hands at the starting line, and race thousands of miles for the pure satisfaction of sport,” as the race bio reads.

This new subculture of ultra racing has redefined what some consider the ultimate tests of physical, mental, and emotional endurance. Anything can (and does) happen, and riders have to be prepared to handle it all. My own experiences—to name just a few—include broken bike parts, punctures and crashes, cracked ribs, frostbite, heatstroke, animal attacks, blizzards, hail storms, mountain and desert crossings, getting lost often, and getting dangerously ill. These races have also given me some of the best experiences of my life and brought me into contact with others who share the same desire for self-discovery and determination to push limits.

They are regular people with regular jobs, but once or twice a year, they race bicycles, covering distances Ţahţā  that double or triple what pro riders in the Tour de France or Giro d’Italia race daily. They do it without the benefit of a support crew, good nutrition plans, a massage, and a comfortable bed. They carry their own gear, fix their own bikes, find their own food and water. There is no prize money or reward, apart from a cold beer and a handshake from fellow riders at the finish line.

How do they do it, and why? To answer this, I chatted with six experienced “crazies” I’ve raced with over the years to find out what makes them tick.

Kristof Allegaert

West Mifflin Age: 42
Job: Middle school teacher
Hometown: Kortrijk, Belgium
Bikes Owned: 10
Races: Three-time winner of the Transcontinental Race; Trans Siberian Race; and Indian Pacific Wheel Race

You’re known as one of the strongest riders in the unsupported ultra racing world. You’ve never lost a race and often come in days ahead of the next rider. Do you have a secret to riding well?
I actually hate competition. The inaugural TCR was my first experience with ultra racing, but to me it was just a ride. I didn’t know what to expect or that I would do so well. For me, it’s less about the competition than it is about pushing myself. I ride my own ride. I listen to my body. I eat when I’m hungry and sleep when I’m tired—usually around two hours a night.

When I start hallucinating, I know it’s time to stop and get some sleep. During the Indy Pac, I was only sleeping about an hour a night, and I started seeing strange animals on the road and hearing strange noises. Everything went into slow motion, and I wondered what was reality.

I dream of healthy food and a good meal on these races, but the reality is that you just eat crap from service stations and it’s all about getting enough calories. I eat a lot of ice cream—ten to 12 bars a day is pretty standard.

What were one or two of your favorite rides?  
Some of my favorite rides have been close to home. One I called “four capitals in three days on two wheels,” where I hit Brussels, Amsterdam, London, and Paris. I decided to do it on a Wednesday and set off that Friday. Another I called the “Monopoly Ride,” a loop of all the cities in Belgium. Instead of collecting houses like on a Monopoly board, I collected a stamp from each city. You don’t have to look far to have an adventure—all you need is a little imagination.

And your toughest ride?
My hardest moment was on the second TCR, trying to reach the checkpoint over Stelvio Pass. I’d had a long day with a lot of climbing. The last stretch was so painful, I almost got off my bike and walked to the top.

Another was a 155-mile ride home from Paris. I had a brutal headwind the whole way home, and it was impossible to cycle faster than 12 miles per hour. I was pushing so hard and barely moving. It was one of those fights you can’t win. I ended up arriving five hours later than expected. But it was good physical and mental training.

You’re nicknamed the Terminator. Do you have a weakness?
I forget to drink enough water. I can go up to 124 miles without drinking and put myself in danger of serious dehydration, so I have to consciously remind myself to drink.

What does your training regimen look like?
I try to do some kind of sport for at least an hour a day. I hate limiting myself to just one discipline, so I’ll practice a number of sports, like swimming and yoga. Leading up to a race, all my free time will go into cycling, and I’ll put in the bigger numbers on the weekends, from 15 to 24 hours in the saddle. The last months are about fine-tuning everything.

Do you have an essential piece of kit you never race without?
A wind- and waterproof jacket is essential, because once you catch cold, it’s game over. I also carry a light sleeping mat and bivy bag—nothing too comfortable so I don’t sleep too much.

Do you have advice for people interested in participating in an unsupported ultra race?
You have to love cycling or it’s not worth spending long hours on the bike. Be prepared to suffer a lot, to experience pain, hunger, thirst. Many things will go wrong, from being unable to find food to bad weather conditions. Try turning negative energy into positive. The moment you focus on the things that go wrong, you’ll start going crazy. Just give them a place in your mind, but don’t pay too much attention.

You also have to be okay with solitude. Most people go out cycling with friends and are rarely without company for long stretches of time, so when they are completely alone in an unsupported race for the first time, they suffer more. After three or four days of being alone, your mind starts playing games with you, especially when it’s dark at night, with nothing to look at and no one to talk to. You have to be strong enough to handle those moments of solitude.

Emily Chappell

Age: 35
Job: Freelance writer and speaker
Home Base: Llanidloes, Mid Wales
Bikes Owned: 7
Races: Winner of the Transcon Race; the 24-hour Strathpuffer; Northcoast 500 time trial around Scotland

Do you follow a specific training plan or diet when preparing for a race?
I live very cheaply, pay a low rent, and support myself doing small chunks of work that pay well, so I have bigger chunks of time free to cycle. I rarely go out “on a training ride.” As I’m on the road three weeks out of four and do most of that traveling by bike, the training happens of its own accord. I will do a couple harder rides and then some lower-intensity recovery rides. Since I’m always cycling, I’m never more than a month off race fitness.

Most of what I do or eat is fairly unscientific, but I’ve absorbed a lot speaking with other cyclists. My diet has evolved over the years, and although I don’t follow anything very rigidly, I do go for a higher fat and protein content and try to cut out sugar. Obviously there are periods on the road when I just eat what comes my way.

Why race? Why not just go on long bikepacking rides?
That’s a question I’m always asking myself, as I’m actually very ambivalent about racing. I first entered the Transcontinental Race in 2015 because I have this fairly compulsive need to always look for a tougher challenge. Once I got into the unsupported racing scene, a part of me loved it, and the other part did not enjoy the scrutiny and judgment of strangers watching and commenting online and the tension of direct competition. I love being out there on the road on my own with the one objective being to keep riding. It’s a way of simplifying your life for the period of time you’re in the race. It brings out the best in you. Racing gives you a focus—a faintly arbitrary but definite target—and that focus makes me a better rider.

How do you get through the times that are difficult mentally or physically?
In terms of getting through it mentally, I don’t get bored or lonely. I don’t need to listen to audiobooks or have conversations with myself. Being on the bike is my happy place, so that makes it easier mentally.

Most things that go wrong can be sorted out by just keeping on pedaling. It is a bit like having a newborn baby. There’s only ever a couple of things that could be wrong: Am I hungry? Am I tired? Am I thirsty? Do I need to go to the toilet? I quickly figured out there are certain times of day that I do better. I can ride all night and morning and feel great. Come late afternoon, my pace slows and I start to hurt. Because I am aware of the time of day when I feel like this, I can be more gentle on myself or more stern, but I just keep pedaling and find a way to get through it.

What would you tell women who are interested in joining the world of ultra racing?
It’s much easier than you think, and you’re capable of much more than you think. Every time I’ve done it, I’ve surprised myself with how much I could do. When speaking with women, 90 percent of their questions and concerns tend to be around the risk and safety elements. People have been told the races are really risky, so everyone believes that it’s a big issue, but in reality it’s just 0.5 percent of the race.

Steffen Streich

Age: 48
Job: Motel manager, tour organizer
Hometown: East Berlin
Home Base: Lesbos, Greece
Bikes Owned: 6
Races: Paris Brest Paris; Transcontinental Race; TransAfrika; Trans Am Bike Race; Indian Pacific Wheel Race

How do you balance training with the rest of your life?
I cycle 15 kilometers to and from work. During lunch/siesta hours, when others drive home, I go out on the bike for a couple more hours. I have been cycling my whole life, so my muscle memory is good, and I can get into form pretty quickly for races. In all, I average around 300 kilometers of riding throughout the week, and then on my day off I’ll do a longer ride of up to 186 miles.

How do you deal with long hours on the bike?
I take it an hour at a time, enjoy the scenery, pay attention to my body, stay busy with taking care of myself, finding food and water, a place to sleep. You can’t think about the long term or you’ll never finish. There will be bad days when you suffer and you’re not riding well. I just keep moving and don’t let those low times stop me. You will experience the full spectrum of emotions throughout the race, and your mood can change from one minute to the next.

For example, one of the last days in the Indian Pacific Wheel race, the weather had turned dark, wet, windy, and cold. I was feeling pretty miserable when I came upon a roadhouse and decided to stop and eat something in order to have the energy to face it all. By the time I came out, the weather had changed completely and so had my mood. So it is important to keep positive and find a way to manage each challenge. It’s all in the head anyway.

What draws you to ultra racing?
I love it. I race to challenge myself. I learn the most about myself out on the road. You can be a normal person and live a normal life, but for two weeks you get to live the extraordinary. You can be a hero. You suffer. You ride. Then, when you come back to ordinary life, you become mentally stronger and tougher in handling the day-to-day problems because you know you can face any difficulties and surpass them.

What would you tell someone who is just getting into ultra racing?
Don’t be afraid. Just go. Don’t think too hard on all the “maybes” or it will stop you from enjoying the experience. You can’t let circumstances paralyze you or you’ll never move. It is the same in every day life.

Jackie Bernardi

Age: 37
Home Base: Melbourne, Australia
Bikes Owned: 6
Job: Community corrections officer and part-time rock climbing guide
Races: Indian Pacific Wheel Race; first woman in the Tour Divide

What’s your morning ritual?
Coffee, stretch, cuddle the dog, ride to work.

Do you have a favorite post-ride fuel?
A shake with banana, yogurt, protein, and nuts.

How do you fit training into your life?
Strategically! I commute 30 minutes each way to work, so I tend to go the “long way” on training mornings and do longer rides on the weekend. I have a coach, Jenni King, and she helps make sure my training time is well utilized.

How did you get into ultra cycling?
I heard about the Tour Divide and was mesmerized. Bikepacking racing seemed very much like the interface between riding bikes and big-wall rock climbing. You have to be prepared, not carry much, move fast and light, multitask, plan, do logistics. I’m a gear freak and an exercise freak, so I fell in love with everything about bikepacking.

Why do you race?
Just before the IPWR, I was exhausted from training, planning, writing cue sheets, and I groaned about it to one of my friends. He hugged me and said, “You do it because you want to grow.” I need adventure in my life. If I’m not riding long distances, then I’m climbing. I love being outside, getting into nature, and seeing what is truly possible. The mind is so powerful, and these events allow us to push ourselves to our very limit.

You are newer to ultra racing. What’s something you have learned?
Expectations are dangerous. If you find yourself saying “should”—I should be there by now, I should be moving faster than this—then you have expectations. Expectations are an energy leak. Focus instead on the tasks that make you faster, not general overwhelming feelings of inadequacy. Be efficient, thorough, and logical. Be kind to yourself. You are where you are, and it is what it is.

Matthijs Ligt

Age: 44
Job: IT project manager
Home Base: Amersfoort, Netherlands
Bikes Owned: 3
Races: Transcontinental Race; Indian Pacific Wheel Race

What has been your most challenging race?
TCR 3 was the toughest. I had a bad start, with serious stomach and health problems. Things improved by the second half of the race, and because I wanted to get into the top 25, I had to ride hard to recover from where I was in the back. I rode the last 400 miles from Serbia to Istanbul in one stretch. I had already been pushing hard for a few days, so it was difficult to sustain the pace and stay awake during the night. I started hallucinating. My eyes couldn’t stabilize on the bumpy roads, and my vision was shaking like someone running with a video camera. It was crazy.

Do you follow a specific diet?
I try to eat healthy, but I don’t follow a specific diet. During a race, I have to eat whatever I can get from service stations along the road, so I try not to restrict my diet too much. The one essential thing I carry with me during a race are electrolytes. If I happen on the rare fruit stand, I will stop no matter what.

The Netherlands are very flat. How do you train for the hills and mountains?
We have the wind, what we like to call the “Dutch mountains.” I also use an indoor trainer some evenings.

How do you prepare leading up to a race?
I rarely ride the distances I do in races, because it requires a different state of mind. I think a lot of people train high-intensity in a short period of time before a race, but taking enough time to rest and recover is essential. Everyone knows how to train hard, but it’s important to know how to rest. I will get back on the bike a few days before a race to build muscle tension.

What does endurance racing mean to you?
Endurance racing gives me both a physical and mental challenge and also a sense of freedom. It’s stepping out of life with its usual rhythm and routine and getting back to the basics. The sports I have chosen throughout my life were connected to what was mentally and physically challenging and appealing to me. Unsupported ultra racing combines being able to see so much of the world and its beauty while challenging myself with a goal. The combination fits me as a person.

Sarah Hammond

Age: 37
Job: Spinning instructor, Rapha employee, catering cook at Paella Pan
Home Base: Melbourne, Australia
Bikes Owned: 7
Races: Trans Am Bike Race; Race to the Rock; Indian Pacific Wheel Race

How do you train and work three jobs?
It has never been easy. Leading up to races, I commit one day a week to long miles, and the rest is mainly condensed sessions of strength, endurance, and speed. Apart from that, I ride everywhere: to work, to dinners with friends. I believe the bike is the only way to travel, and I haven’t owned a car in over 15 years. Never underestimate the daily junk kilometers—they add up.

What’s your go-to road food?
Peanut butter sandwiches are a must when it’s a long day trip. Racing makes it tough to be picky, but staples are flavored milk, hash browns, orange juice, toasted sandwiches, and rice.

You’ve completed and made the podium in three big races in a year. What have you learned during this short but impressive entrance into the world of ultra racing?
Despite the physical pain and mental strength required, it can be really enjoyable. The races are long as hell. My clothes stay unwashed, and I get smellier each day. I sleep in the dirt each night and get eaten by insects. I consume bad food regularly. But these are all small trade-offs for seeing new parts of the world or even my home country, sleeping under the stars, discovering new wildlife, seeing numerous incredible sunrises and sunsets. That makes it all worthwhile.

I take each race one day at a time. Circumstances are so unpredictable at the best of times, so everything has to be managed on a smaller level. Set daily goals or mileage so it doesn’t feel like you’re taking on the whole race at one time.

Riding long days comes with the need for music. I make playlists, because different moods need different tunes.

Got some tips for the newbies?
Invest in good pieces of clothing. Weather is unpredictable, and you can be battling extreme heat one day and then snow-capped mountain climbs the next. Good clothing can double as sleeping gear, eliminating extra weight on the bike. Do all the research you can, but don’t be afraid to ask experienced racers for advice.