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Riding the Bikingman Ultra, Oman
Posted by Jon Hicken on
Here we go! My 2020 season is about to start with the BikingMan race in Oman and for the first time, the race starts in the evening and not the usual 5AM. This means we have to stay awake for 12 hours more than usual. On the other hand, it allowed me to rest more and recover from the flights of the previous two days. As far as my setup goes, I’ve returned to my Canyon Inflite, allowing me to carry all my new Restrap bags. It may seem a bit much, but they are not full and will allow me to store all my food and water along the way.
The race starts on Saturday 22 February at the Shangri-La resort hotel, a beautiful place to kick off the adventure, located 20 km from Muscat, the capital of Oman. The pack of riders has to remain compact till we have crossed the city, with the race proper beginning once we've left the city behind.
As always during BikingMan races, the atmosphere is very relaxed and it allows me to chat with people I know and meet the ones I don't. There are 80 of us crazy enough to take part in this race across a desert.
40km in, the race officially starts with a short but steep climb. The race route doesn't offer the most elevation gain, but the few climbs we do face are brutal. And the downhills are fun and scary at the same time - I have never been so fast on a bike!
For the first few hours we are on highways with a few cars passing by and honking to support us. Omani people probably don’t understand what we are doing and think we are crazy, but there's no mistaking their enthusiasm! The road is flat and we cruise at a good speed, not far from each other as I can see the lights of a couple of riders in front and behind me.
A little later in the night, we leave the highway and head to the mountains via pleasant and quiet roads. When the sun comes up, I’m joined by Jean-Paul, a French rider I met on a BikingMan race in Portugal last year and we chat about the issues he is facing. His electronic shifting is already giving up and he will have to cover the 850 remaining kilometres with only one gear. But he won’t give up and that’s what those races are all about.
The sun is starting to hit me hard when I see the shape of the mountains appearing. It’s 9AM and after a quiet start, I’m slowly making my way close to the Top 10. So far, so good and the pack is still relatively close to each other. But the fast and easy part is now over as we tackle the first real climb of the day, taking us to the first pass of the day before getting at the bottom of the Jebel Shams. Very close to two other riders, I already feel it’s going to be difficult and at this point, I have no idea that this is just the beginning of the struggle. Indeed, the sun is hitting me harder and harder and the steep gravel sections are not helping.
But it’s when I’m at the bottom of the Jebel Shams that things get complicated. At that moment, I know there are only 22 km to the top and that CP1 (the first checkpoint of the race) is located there, at about 2000 metres above sea level. After a few hundred metres I'm already struggling. I knew this climb would be steep and I thought I was prepared, but I did not expect it to be this hard. I’m quickly forced to get off the bike and push as I already feel weak.
And after a few kilometres, I can already see the leaders coming downhill, back from CP1 which is obviously not helping at that moment. And as the kilometres go by, I feel worse and worse. At one point, I’m forced to walk away from the road as I’m feeling so sick. But I get back on my bike and keep going. I’m midway to the top and about to start the gravel section of the climb and I’m at a low point. Tourists in their cars see me struggling and regularly offer me water as I’m melting under the heavy sun. A few kilometres further, the media car comes to meet me and I’m at my lowest. I can barely talk to the cameraman while I keep pushing the bike on the gravel section as the nightmare keeps going.
From my previous experiences of ultra races, I know that climbs like these are just a matter of patience. Five kilometers from CP1, I’m back on the asphalt and the slope is smoother, I give everything to reach the top and the nightmare is over. I arrive at CP1 at the end ot the afternoon and I’m completely exhausted. I’ve had the chance to ride in Peru and Taiwan where the climbs can be up 100 km long and compared to these, the Jebel Shams can look pretty short, but it’s without a doubt the hardest climb I have ever done on a bike.
When I start the downhill, my body seems to have forgotten all the pain I went through during the climb and my energy seems to be back. On the gravel section, I’m very careful to avoid punctures but I’m trying not to lose too much time. At that moment, even though I’m 100% in race mode, I just have to stop to take pictures of this amazing scenery! I take a few seconds to enjoy it but no more.
Two hours after leaving the Jebel Shams, I make a quick stop to eat and refuel before the second night of the race. My bags full of supplies, I am ready to tackle more than 300 km of flat highway road through the desert. My pace is actually good, I am a bit faster than my direct opponents and I don’t push myself too much.
As it’s the second night, many riders decide to stop for a quick nap, which is fair enough, as we’ve now been awake for more than 36 hours. But my strategy has been obvious from the beginning, I don’t want to sleep at all. Thanks to this strategy, I overtake the other riders one by one and take advantage of the absence of headwind in this desert section.
At 4AM, I’m getting really tired and am fighting against sleep deprivation. I almost fall asleep on the bike several times but manage not to stop. I am then joined by Clément Mahé and we spend the next five hours riding side by side, talking about cycling and each other's lives, keeping a very good pace. And this is also what BikingMan is all about, adventure, meeting people and having fun. Approaching CP2, short climbs and headwind force me to let Clément go as he’s got a better pace than me.
Arriving at CP2, I have the same strategy as 400 km earlier, I get a stamp from the organisation as fast as possible, give a short interview, don’t linger too long and quickly get back on the saddle. After a very consistent night with very short breaks, I’m now in 7th position with a good margin on the guy behind me. After struggling so much the previous day, little did I know I would make such a comeback and be in the Top 10. But I’m not satisfied yet, I need more.
The finish line is 265 km ahead and I’m now starting a final sprint. But with such a good level of riders, everyone has a good pace and it’s hard to close the gap. I chase the rider in front of me for hours until I finally see him. I remain at a stable distance for one hour and finally decide to attack when I feel very good in a long climb. I immediately create a gap and, I don’t know it yet, but I won’t see anyone else before the finish line.
Hallucinations are also hitting me now and I see crazy stuff along the road. I’m now entering the Shangri-La resort from where we all left on Saturday evening and I finally cross the finish line in 6th position after 50 hours and 9 minutes of continuous effort. The two main objectives have been achieved, finishing in the Top 10 and covering the 1062 km without a single minute of sleep! And aside from the suffering in the Jebel Shams climb, I had a lot of fun throughout the whole race as I always do when I’m on my bike. What a race, what an adventure, what a start to the 2020 season!
- Guillaume Chamont
Photography credit: David Saintyves (BikingMAN team)