Facts - 224 riders started the race. 16 of them women. 67 riders scratched which equates to 30% of the field. The organisers expressed surprise at this high number of withdrawals given the race was less than a week long. Perhaps they should heed the numbers and re-evaluate the toughness of the course. Of the 16 women 7 withdrew which is close to 44%. That number surprises me because in most endurance events its the women who come best prepared and more often than not are more successful than their male counterparts in completing the event. The winner was some Italian nutter (stated out of admiration) few had made mention of in the pre race talk of likely winners and he did the entire thing in 45 hours at an average speed of slightly less than 17kph. I was looking at his stats and the longest period he stopped riding for was 20 mins. He did that twice. Quite a phenomenal piece of human endurance at every level. Helps somewhat that he only recently turned 30 years old and is an ex-professional road biker
Preparation - You don't do something like this and get away with it without preparing yourself mentally and physically. Nick W-W and I took similar but somewhat slightly different approaches to prepare ourselves physically. Nick W-W enlisted the help of a professional cycling coach who put together a very structured and well thought out training routine that would put Nick into the best possible position come race day. Even to the point he had Nick cycling a specific time at a specific energy output the day before the beginning of the race
I relied on just doing as many miles as possible in order to put my lungs and legs in the best possible position to succeed. That involved countless rides over 100km a time to get the body used to long periods in the saddle, and then there was the small matter of cycling 160km a day for 6 days when I rode from Western Scotland to Eastern England in July. Coupled with that were the countless number of rides I did in the heat and hills that surround our home in Italy.
We both felt ready physically for the ride when the day arrived.
Navigation - This was relatively straight forward. The organisers had a specific route that competitors had to follow. The race director shared the route via what is called a GPX file. You simply download that file onto any number of navigational devices that are available to cyclists these days and then follow the arrows.
Nick W-W was outstandingly detailed in this respect and had gone through the effort to not only download the route ( as I had done) but to also download every km of gradient and terrain. This meant that any given point of time we knew what lay ahead of us. For eg, on any one of the hundreds of climbs Nick would turn to me and say '' We have a xx km climb coming up''. Or '' we have xx km climb coming up then it flattens out for xx km and then downhill for xx km before climbing again for xx km''. His attention to detail took out any guess work and was immense in managing both of our expectations enabling us to temper our energy output according to what lay ahead.
Fuel - In hindsight we got this part wrong. And we suffered as a consequence. Especially on day 2 which cost us a lot of time. Our mistake was to rely on what we believed would be available fuel stops at villages and shops en-route. As we discovered many of the villages that looked large enough on a map to have a shop or store simply didn't. Many of the villages we passed through were shuttered for that particular day. Subsequently we had very few opportunities to re-fuel.
When we did we most definitely didn't take advantage of the situation to the extent that we should have to prepare ourselves for the km's ahead. Much of the ride is very very remote. You can cycle 6-8 hours and not see a soul or pass through any town or village. Sometimes you might find yourself passing through a sizeable town at the wrong time of day. Not a lot of places are open at 2am. Doing it again, (not likely at all) I would carry more solid foods and replenish when I could. Perhaps carry freeze fried food which is very light and simply add water to it.
Water too was precious. I had little hesitation in pulling water from village fountains. Nick was a little more circumspect after his stomach took a dislike to the water from a fountain on the morning of the first day of riding. So for him it was a matter of sourcing bottled water from a shop. In hindsight I'd ensure that every time I filled my water bottle I slipped in a carbohydrate or electrolyte tablet. All very well replenishing your water levels but you also need to replenish all those salts you lose through sweating. And it was a lot of sweating and a lot of salt.
We both carried enough water to get us between filling points. For me it was 3 x 700 ml bottles , a 1.5 litre water bladder which sat in the back of my hydration vest and two soft 400ml bottle in the front of the vest. Water is heavy. That combined weight is almost 4.5 kg. So it was a fine balance between weight and necessity. For example in the first 150 km there was an abundance of water filling possibilities so I didn't utilise all my capacity and simply used the 3 water bottles. Day 2 a different kettle of fish and every water carrying possibility was utilised.
Equipment - As important as our physical preparation was making sure we could trust our bikes to get us to the finish line. Probably the single most important part after the bike were the tyres. Here Nick W-W had done an outstanding job of researching the choice of tyres we should use. His determination in this aspect was a massive reason we got to the end of the ride with zero punctures between us. We tested a set on the very wet North-South Downs Race and not content with the success of our tyres on that ride Nick sought a few other options before we finally settled on a set that were identical to the winner of last years Badlands Race.
Between us we carried every conceivable tool and device you can to cover all contingencies. Aside from changing one set of brake pads (mine) and a liberal use of chain oil we didn't need to do anything to the bikes. Here attention to detail is important. The chain lube I used was wholly inappropriate for the conditions having bought along a bottle of ''wet lube''. This meant a lot of the dust stuck to the mechanics. No great drama because I periodically cleaned them with water and then re-oiled them, but a dry graphite type lube would've been far more appropriate. It is the small detail.
Our lighting systems worked well. However we had planned to be able to re-charge equipment in any number of cafes or restaurants that we stopped in. It became apparent on day 2 that the lack of cafes and restaurants meant re-charging points might cause a problem so we simply eeked out the battery usage as best we could. We both had external batteries which we used to charge our navigation and lighting equipment. I had a dynamo on my front wheel which supposedly could re-charge anything. However it would seem that the ampage on the cord I was using was not high enough and subsequently my dynamo only worked at about 50% effectiveness.
Otherwise our bikes were magnificent. MASON makes a great bike for this type of adventure. Bullet proof would be an apt description.
Gear - Almost as important as the equipment was our gear. In the photo's you will see my bike has 4 bags. The soft bag at the front of the handle bars contained my wet and cold weather gear. Rain jacket, gilet, arm and leg warmers and a fresh change of cycling shorts and jersey. Just behind the handlebars is a small rectangular bag that held my external batteries and a spare pair of reading and sunglasses. Under the main frame you can see a long elongated bag. On one side of that all my mechanical repair equipment sat which amongst other gear included a spare inner tube, spanners, chain repair gear, chain oil, cable ties, spare spokes, etc etc. . On the other was medical kit and all my food and energy gels and creams (sun and chamois) and wet wipes. Under the saddle is the biggest bag. Inside of that was sleeping gear. Bivy bag, air mattress, puffer jacket, thermals, and other assorted light weight clothing. It was the heaviest bag with the air mattress the single heaviest piece of gear I had to carry.
What I would I carry or do differently next time - Not a lot to be fair. I didn't use the gilet or rain jacket or leg/arm warmers but given they weigh next to nothing and it was reassuring to know I had them. The difference between me and the leaders is they know they are only out on the road for 48-60 hours. They're riding non stop so sleeping material for them isn't a necessity.
To put that into perspective we spent more time off the bike than the winner took to do the entire race. Given he doesn't stop to sleep there is no need for him to carry much more than mechanical repair gear and water.
We both agreed that one thing we'd change if we were doing this ride again would be the gearing on our bikes, ie: the range of gears. There were times where we were pushing our bikes up slopes that others were riding. We both had a front chainring with 38 teeth. On the back a cassette with a range of 10-42 (10 teeth up to 42 teeth, the latter being the easiest to ride in). We'd keep the rear cassette but have perhaps 36 or 34 on the front.
Thoughts and feedback to organisers - I am not entirely sure why they chose the first week of September to run a race across Western Europes only desert. Ostensibly you are still in summer and the heat played a big part in destroying the hopes of many, Especially on day 2. There was a whatsapp chat group for the entire field of riders and at one point a group that was way ahead of us recorded 51 degrees (130 F) in the desert and were warning people to avoid it during the day and instead try crossing it at night. My strong suggestion to the organisers would be October or early November. There must be a reason they hold it in September and I'd be curious to know why.
The race touts itself as being the ''hardest off road race in Europe''. Many times it felt like they were trying to justify that claim. There were periods where for no discernible reason the route took us off a fairly difficult piece of road onto a more challenging track. Sometimes for a mere 200-00 meters before it rejoined the road or track we had previously been on. There was one section in the last 70 km where we were riding up a main road to a village when suddenly we were detoured off it, onto a smaller and steeper road for 300 meters before we rejoined the road we had just left. On another occasion as we were cycling into Almeria along a very straight piece of tarmac road we came to a massive roundabout. Our destination lay straight ahead, however they detoured us right, 100 meters up to the gates of the University of Almeria, back to the roundabout and then straight on again.
Then there was the multiple kms of beach riding heading into Almeria. Pointless really. I can understand perhaps 1 km to make it challenging but given there were other roads nearby that would've served the purpose I felt the beach riding was simply a chest beating exercise by the organisers that this was indeed the toughest off road race in Europe.
Starting the race on a Sunday. Didn't make sense at all. Given a lot of amenities are closed that day it made provisioning very difficult. Furthermore given a lot of shops in Spain are closed on Monday it made the first two days more difficult than needed to be. As for the shops that were open. Well, by the time we got to many of them they had been cleared of stock. I am not sure if the organisers did this, but common sense says you would hope they called the main villages en-route (particularly in the first 2/3rds of the race) and said
'' You're going to have 300 riders come through your village on these particular days. Stock up on drink and food, charge them a premium because they will pay it and live off those earnings for the next month or two. ''
It certainly didn't feel as though many had heard of the race or knew what was about to hit them.
The isolation and terrain were very very challenging. There were long periods where you were in the middle of nowhere with neither a soul to be seen or establishment of any type. As a solo rider this would be extremely challenging especially if things went awry. As Nick commented to me at one point it would be interesting know what would happen if you were at the back of the field and you fell off your bike or suffered some other misfortune with no one behind you to help.
We found ourselves riding a rock strewn track beside a cliff at midnight in a howling gale. Several times the wind pushed us sideways and we made the point of hugging the right hand shoulder of the track closest to the uphill section to avoid being pushed by the wind towards the edge of the track beyond which was a 200-300ft drop into the ocean.
I wondered out aloud a few times if the organiser of the event, or the route planner had actually ridden every section of the ride. I seriously doubted it when we found ourselves been detoured up a non existent track on a river bed in the last 100 km. It was overgrown, strewn with large rocks and dead trees and was impassable. My suspicion is that they have simply looked at map of that section and decreed that as there is an old river bed there then it must be passable. It wasn't
and we skirted around the edge of it before rejoining the official route where it was possible.
Routing us through private land was another interesting concept. At one point we had to pick our bikes up and lift them over a heavy link chain in order to progress further down the track. About 3 km later we came to a similar chain and had to repeat the lifting exercise. Clearly we had just crossed someones private property.
All in all my personal view is the organisers aren't that far away from a fatality and a massive legal suit. I am not up to speed with Spanish personal liability law but I get the feeling that the indemnity form they make you sign would provide them with zero protection if a half decent lawyer got their hands on it.
I can understand a desire to live up to the self professed billing of ''toughest off road race'' but you don't want to make it so hard that people either get injured, decide to do it never again, or come away dissuading friends from doing it. Commercially that just doesn't make sense.
Companionship and thanks - I couldn't have asked for a better riding companion for this race than the man that is Nick W-W. His meticulous planning was instrumental in our success. He brought a certain degree of structure that was very necessary. On day 1 we reached agreement we'd ride the hills at our own pace. There were times when he was stronger (usually in the morning) and likewise times when I was (late afternoon). The heat affected us in different ways as did the water and provisioning. Nick's riding program had obviously put him in good stead for hill climbing and there were numerous sections where despite the slowness of the grind up the slope he would resolutely refuse to get off the bike and push. I was a little more pragmatic. Riding through sand is something I found relatively straight forward whereas for Nick it was far more challenging. Nick's research into the tyres was outstanding and given their importance to our success in finishing well worth all the time and money he put into finding the right choice. We didn't suffer a single puncture in 750km of cycling. There were riders out there that suffered 7 or more, including Alistar Brownlee (dual Olympic gold medallist in the triathlon) who despite having all the very best sponsor gear suffered a double puncture at one stage and whose battles with his tyres cost him about 7 hours in time.
Perhaps not surprisingly we didn't spend a lot of time chatting. There was that idea in my head pre race that we'd spend countless hours riding side by side chewing the fat and working through the problems of life. The terrain prevented that. You were either holding on for dear life as you descended , concentrating on getting to the crest of a hill and preserving as much energy as possible, or simply riding the flats and thinking about self survival. Most of our conversation was done when we were stopped and eating. Even then it was minimal.
So to Nick W-W I say thanks for everything he brought to the race and to our success in achieving what we did.
His determination, focus, structure, dry sense of humour, and companionship were immense. The man is an immense human being.
I was immensely privileged to have him as a riding companion.
Thank-you Nick. Thank-you.
To everyone else who sent messages of support or followed me during the race I also say thank you. Your interest in my journey was very touching and I was moved to read that so many people were doing the ride in spirit with me. It meant a lot. A hell of a lot.
Finally, to my wife and partner in life, Kathryn S-R. I cannot say thank you enough from the bottom of my heart in regards to the support and thought she gave to me not only during the race but also prior to the ride and many months of training she had to put up with. By the time we pushed off at the start Kathryn was almost invested as deeply as us in the race and she got as irritable as I did on day 2 with the organisers for the lack of provisioning opportunities and also later in the race with some of the terrain. I know my self survival mode prevented me from communicating as frequently and effectively as I did and her understanding was instrumental in allowing me to focus on the task ahead. She was always there in spirit and that presence in itself made some of the more challenging sections and periods of the ride less so.
So to her goes a MASSIVE thanks for absolutely everything. I rode the race physically with Nick but I knew I was also riding it spiritually and emotionally with Kathryn. Knowing that made the task more achievable.
P.s. The ride took its toll for sure. I lost 4.0 kg by race end. That's close to 5% of my body weight. We got back to Granada on Friday and on Saturday I had a tour of the Alhambra Palace booked for 9.30 am. It is a fairly steep 1-2 km from the centre of town to the front gate which I did at pace after a very light breakfast. The previous day towards the end of the race my body's ''reserve'' light had come on warning me that my fuel/energy was near an end. I chose to ignore it to my own peril. Mid tour of the palace I found myself leaning up against a 700 year old pillar to prevent myself from collapsing onto the ornate tiled floor. The guide took me to a seat and asked if I needed the Red Cross. Determined that 5 mins rest was all I needed I declined the offer. 10 mins later I almost fainted again and cut short my tour. Getting to the exit was a struggle and despite the hotel only being 1.5 km downhill from the palace I caught a taxi back to spend the next 5-6 hours on my hotel bed rehydrating and attempting to eat as much food as possible.
It wasn't total doom and gloom though. Before I left the palace I decided to rest on a bench in one of the many ornate gardens and call Kathryn to let her know of my state and that the next call she got might be from the Granada Red Cross. As I sat there talking to her a bird decided to defecate on my head and couldn't have planted it more squarely on my crown if they had tried.
All that for this .....
The other side that really matters.....Finisher !
700 year old pillars. Always a good friend to have when you are about to faint.
Back to London on the Sunday and in the 4 days since the end of the ride it seems the body has an appetite that is insatiable. I have spent most of the time either eating, drinking, or sleeping and attempting to get the body back to a normality that disappeared about 4 hours after we started riding.
Then comes the fun bit. Stripping the bike, cleaning, and putting it back together.
Followed by ......