As my first ultra distance race, how did I find it, and would I recommend it to someone in similar situation?
(Note – the course changes every year, so some factors might change in following years.)
Firstly, unequivocally it was an amazing, staggeringly beautiful course and the parcours (obligatory bits of the course) were genius – they took us on roads we might not have found or chosen by ourselves but they were stunning, awe inspiring, challenging and felt like they were possibly some of the best routes in the Pyrenees. And other than most of the border towns (which were hell holes, but well placed to remind us how privileged we were to be riding on the other roads the rest of the time) there were very few unpleasant roads or drivers.
So massive thank you to the organisers, Lost Dot, for finding and sharing these gems with us (and whilst the parcours will change in future years, I doubt their passion for finding the best bits of roads will).
Secondly it was bloody hard. But that added to the reward, you really earned your views and memories.
As well as the constant ups and downs (around 5000m of climbing/ descending a day), there were some more technically demanding bits. On day 1, one of the obligatory gravel sections was cancelled because it was too unrideable, I was disappointed at the time, but hearing from people who did it, I’m think I’m relieved! That day still had a long gravel downhill which I absolutely loved and put a massive grin on my face. It wasn’t too technical but it was a good reminder that I wasn’t here for a road race.
The gravel ascent into Andorra was something else. It was about 2 ½ hours of off road climbing without any let up. I timed it perfectly so that after a good few hours in the pitch black, dawn was just breaking as the track got more technical, changing from gravel to small rocks. As the sun slowly rose, we could pick out more and more of our surroundings, and it was staggering beautiful. I was so glad I hadn’t chosen to cross it in complete darkness the night before. It wasn’t overly technical but you definitely needed to focus on line choice, which wasn’t always easy when you’re already in your bottom gear and struggling to keep turning the pedals. As I got to the top I felt it was getting harder (or maybe my legs/ brain were getting more tired) so sometimes I got off for a short stretch rather than risk a sidewall puncture. But other than a few short stretches, I was really pleased I managed to ride almost the whole thing.
The only section that really exceeded my riding abilities/ sense of humour was the turnaround point at Cap de Creus, where 60-70kph gusts from all directions greeted us as we neared the lighthouse that was check point 3. My weight/ riding skills were no match for this wind, and at one point I was blown literally from one side of the road to the other, and off into the ditch at the side, my bike landing on top of me (thanks to the car who drove past and gave me the thumbs up). Again, it was a beautiful and dramatic landscape but I had very little time to appreciate it, with everything focussed on trying to hold onto the bike and anticipate the oncoming gusts.
The time of year also meant that whilst we didn’t have the searing summer temperatures of summer races such as the TCR, we did have temperatures ranging from 36 degrees down to 3 degrees, so you had to be ready for everything (and in my case, more costume changes than Beyonce every hour).
It also meant over 12 hours of darkness every day, meaning a good few hours riding in the pitch black at the beginning and end of every day, which doesn’t help when you’re already sleepy or cold.
For a first-time rider, one of the things that made it a lot easier, was that a lot of the route was pre-set through the parcours and check points, so there was (relatively) less work to do before we went in terms of route planning. I enjoy route planning (sort of) and I still spent hours and hours looking over the bits that we did have to plan, but I’m quite glad there wasn’t too much to do, and it took some of the pressure off of worrying if I’d chosen the ‘right’ route. I heard about a fair few people taking roads that took them a bit more off road than they’d have liked, but planning with a combination of Ridewithgps and Google Street View kept me on track.
It also meant that you were never far from another rider, and for me that really helped. Most days you’d be riding along in the pitch black, feeling like you were the only person for miles around, and then you’d see a red light flashing in the distance. Or as you rode through a town, you’d subconsciously be spotting the bikes, overladen with luggage, leaned up against a wall.
After a few days you got to know the people riding around you who you’d regularly bump into and ride along with for a bit until your plans or routes or speed diverged. And for me this really helped, you knew it was self-supported, and you certainly wouldn’t expect someone to share a route or wait if you got a puncture, but I loved that before long I’d see a friendly face and someone who completely got the range of emotions I was experiencing.
And whilst the fact that it was only 1 week meant that all the climbing and descending was concentrated into every day, however hard it got, the end was always in sight. And of course, you didn’t have to finish in GC, you could choose to take a more leisurely pace if you wanted (in fact two determined riders finished the week after the race finished).
And for me with my GCSE French and ok-Spanish (but no way my brain could distinguish between them after crossing the border for the 7th time – the general rule was whichever language I’m speaking, it should be the other one) I knew I’d always be able to get by.
On the less ideal side of things, the range of temperatures, 12 hours of darkness a day, and (according to others who had done similar races) less accommodation options, maybe made it trickier as a first race.
Overall, it put me right at my limit, physically and especially psychologically, but it was always just about doable, and I don’t think there was any time I thought I wouldn’t make it to the end (although see the big caveat on riding together!). If you’re up for a challenge, and take the planning and training seriously, then yes, I would definitely recommend it.
See also my: