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Riding the Bikingman Ultra, Portugal
Posted by Jon Hicken on
I’d been waiting for this one for ages. Since the last race in Oman, a lot has happened with the Covid pandemic and its consequences. So I wasn’t sure if the race in Portugal was going to go ahead or not until the last minute. Obviously, a lot of stuff had to be adapted, like the race village that was now a few kilometers away from the city centre instead of taking place on the main square like last year. But this is the lesser evil and the most important thing is for the race to take place.
So here we are on our way to Portugal with Elodie and our 2 month old baby Lou. Obviously travelling with a baby, two suitcases, the pram, the maxi cosi and the bike is an adventure in itself. But we make it to Faro and enjoy the weekend before the race. After the check-in and briefing, I’m ready for the final preparations on the setup, like the choice of food, clothing and lights. I don't really have a goal in terms of ranking, but the aim is to beat my 54 hour mark of last year, and ideally to finish under 48 hours, in order to reach the 20 km/h average speed.
On Monday morning, I’m ready to battle on the Portugese roads. I am obviously a bit nervous, as always, that I get to the start line. But I chat to people and it relaxes me. I just love this mix of enthusiasm and excitement. Due to the new covid rules, we all start separately, leaving the starting box every 10 seconds instead of the usual neutralised start during the first hour. But again, the most important thing is that we can ride, no matter what. The first few kilometers are easy though, it’s flat and we all ride at a very quiet pace, allowing me to chat with a few other riders before reaching the first climb of the day. And I remembered this one well from last year with my totally unadapted gear ratio! But this year, I learnt from my mistakes and adapted my setup to these short and steep climbs.
I tackle the first one along with Clément Mahé, thinking I would quickly get dropped. But Clément is not in a hurry and decides to adopt a very calm rhythm, which might be too high a pace for me. But I feel good and keep going, before finally getting dropped by Clément after ten minutes. After an hour, we find ourselves riding with a few other riders, some of them are good climbers and I again fear I’m riding above my level. But the good atmosphere, laughs and music make for some really nice moments. In the group, we also have Stéphane, a French leg amputee athlete. We are amazed by his courage to take part in such an ultra race, especially knowing he has never ridden more than 150 km in one day. But what surprises me the most is the amazing speed he was able to hold for such a long time. Because the day has dawned and we are still a group of six riders, evolving through the craggy terrain of Algarve towards the Spanish border.
A few hours later, the route heads to the North and we are now facing a headwind. Our group is now composed of only three riders and I start to struggle to follow my two companions of the day, Fabian and Dieter. A quick stop at a pastry shop to refill our water bottles and we are back on the road. But I get dropped, stick back to the group, again and again. The speed is too high for me, but it doesn’t matter, the race is still very long. Dieter has finally dropped Fabian and me, and we ride together, chatting about life choices and future plans. These sharing moments are probably the best ones during ultra races. Around noon, the Bikingman media car reaches us as we are in the exact same place as I was last year with Leo during the first day! So I swapped my crazy Brazilian mate in sandals for a no less crazy Swiss singer with whom I’m also having a very good time.
At certain points, I imagine I won’t be able to ride like this till the end and will have to stop somewhere to eat, sleep or anything that could help. But as always, as long as I’m able to ride and that the speed is acceptable, I keep going. It eventually gets a bit better by the end of the afternoon and I’m a couple hours away from CP1. In the meantime, I find Fabian again and we ride a few dozen kilometers together.
It’s 19.59 when I reach CP1 in 11th position, which is only a few minutes faster than last year and not fast enough for me. It’s cold, I dress up properly as I don’t want to relive what I experienced last year. But what worries me the most is the fact that I don’t feel very good, I have a stomach ache and struggle to eat. And I know I’ll have to eat properly if I want to go on. I just get the impression I always reach CP1 in a very bad shape and that history repeats itself over and over again. So I try to eat the sandwiches I made before the start but I barely eat one small piece. I’m not attracted by the cookies on the table of the checkpoint either. I finally eat 3 fries from someone's burger. Fabian just arrived and he is telling me he’s going to have a proper dinner nearby and a few hours of sleep. While I’m not interested in sleeping, I must say I’m hesitating for the burger. I really need warm salty food, but after careful consideration, I decide to continue riding and leave the CP1 after a one hour break. Indeed, I remember from last year a gas station in Evora that is open all night and that might offer the food I need. And if this is not the case, I’ll always have a plan B, which is the McDonald’s!
This part from CP1 to Evora is very peaceful and I now feel better, as I always do after CP1s. There were not a lot of cars today, but after 9PM, there are absolutely no cars anymore on these roads. This part of the course is pretty flat and smooth and it’s a real pleasure riding into the darkness of the night. And more or less at the same place as last year, I’m caught by the media car. We exchange a few words, laugh a bit and they leave me after a couple of minutes to chase the front riders. It’s not late yet, but their presence is always reassuring on ultra races due to the long hours spent on the saddle not talking to anyone.
It’s about 11PM when I make it to Evora, and the good surprise is that the gas station is open as expected. I can now refill my water bottles and pack two extra Aquarius. I’m now looking for salty food and am hoping for salami or chips. But what I find exceeds all my expectations: pizza. After devouring a first slice, I ask for a second one so good it seems to me. I just feel so good I’m now ready to tackle the night with a very good mindset.
It’s at this moment that Dieter arrives at the gas station. I thought he was way ahead because he had gone so fast after he dropped me this morning. But he explains to me that he was tired and had to stop for a power nap on the side of the road. We then decide to ride together after the gas station, each at his own pace. We cross the city of Alcacer do Sal, which is beautiful with all the light illuminating it. Around 3 AM, I feel pretty good and Dieter doesn’t seem to be able to hold my pace. At a certain moment, I notice he’s far behind but keep going. I had a great time chatting with him but it’s a race after all.
The rest of the morning goes well and I’m way ahead on last year’s timing and slightly in advance on the schedule to ride the whole course in less than 48 hours. I’m now approaching CP2 and the extreme steep climbs along the beach don’t cause me so much trouble as last year, thanks to my bigger cassette. It’s 10 AM and the sun is now hitting hard and I’m forced to make a last stop to put on sunscreen.
I’m now a few kilometers away from CP2 and I know I’ll have to ride on a very short but unpleasant gravel section, the famous organizer’s surprise. As I don’t want to damage my front lights, I decide to store them in my frame bag. Eating, checking my phone, pulling out a USB cable to load my GPS… All these actions are constantly done on the bike and are, most of the time, not an issue. But this time, I don’t pay enough attention to this road that seems very smooth and don’t notice the huge hole in the asphalt. I am catapulted into the air and fall violently back onto the road. Before trying to understand what happened, my first reflex is to check the condition of my bike. This incredible bike, which is not at its first crash, has absolutely nothing, not even a scratch. But I can't say the same about myself. I'm starting to shake and don't feel well at all. I have blood on my left knee and it looks like I have a pretty bad scratch. I then decide to sit on the side of the road as an English couple stops their car next to me. We check the damage together as I also have a badly grazed shoulder. The man, who is a bicycle mechanic, takes the opportunity to check the general condition of the bike, including the transmission, but it is indeed nothing. As for the lady, she cleans my wounds and makes sure I'm OK.
It is only when I get up, after about ten minutes, that I realise that I have more than a graze on my shoulder. I feel a pain and I have the impression that I am less free in the movement of my shoulder. I am enraged! I have been waiting and preparing for this race for months, I have just ridden 670 kilometres without a single minute of sleep and I might have to scratch. Just the thought of not being able to finish the race drives me crazy. It hurts but I will at least ride to CP2 to see how I am doing. Of course, the gravel section, which I hadn't found very fun last year, is now turning into a real nightmare! But this one passed quickly and I reach CP2 at around 1PM, in 6th position.
The accident didn't waste that much time, but I still don't know if I will be able to go through with it. It's difficult to handle my bike when I'm at a standstill and shifting gears is not painless. At the moment I'm still ahead of schedule but I don't have to waste any more time. I decide not to linger too long at the checkpoint and leave after only 20 minutes of stopping and swallowing a few cookies.
So I leave on a good rhythm, totally motivated and decide to finish the race, whatever happens. I even manage to catch up with Urbain, the French rider in front of me, which motivates me even more. And to my surprise, whereas he had more than an hour advantage at the end of the morning, I see him in front of me at the end of the afternoon. And it's a real cat and mouse game that begins. Nevertheless, I now have a major problem. Indeed, because of a bad management of the recharging of my front light, my external battery is empty and I can no longer recharge my GPS which doesn't have enough battery to get me to Faro. I am therefore forced to cut off the guidance and use my phone until the end of the route, which doesn't make my job any easier, especially with my shoulder pain and the very poor road conditions.
Urbain and I have been very close to each other for several hours now and I decide to make one last stop before dark to get the water and food I need. At least at that point I think this is my last stop. So I set out again to hunt for Urbain when it is now dark. He is much older than me, but his speed is impressive and his experience is a big help at this moment of the race. We are now a few dozen metres away from each other, and this has been going on for almost half an hour. He tries to destabilise me by making an attack, but I reply immediately. And so on and so forth. While I have a few seconds of advance in a downhill on a very bad road, my front light literally breaks on a bump and I find myself in complete darkness, forced to brake urgently and pray not to encounter any obstacle. By the time my second lamp is installed, Urbain comes up to me and asks me if I have a problem. It's almost midnight and I explain the situation to him and the GPS problems I'm encountering. He then suggests that we ride together to the finish so that we don't take any risks together, which I immediately accept with pleasure.
We still have about 100 kilometres to go to Faro but I have no more water. Once again a small problem of unknown origin forced me to drink more water than expected and therefore to find water in the only big city still open at this late hour. But here I am, finally recharged with water and ready to make it to the finish without a hitch. The end of the course is again quite steep and the last climb before coming back down to Faro seems to me long and tough with its small climbs and descents that never end. And the hallucinations hit harder and harder! The highlight is when I see Mount Rushmore along the way. But we finally reach the famous 600 m of altitude that marks the beginning of the descent to the finish line. Although there are still 50 kilometres to go and it is quite cold, they are very quiet and it is in a good mood that we reach the athletics track that hosts the race village.
It is 3:14 in the morning when I finally cross the finish line in 6th position, after a bit more than 46 hours of non-stop riding. Bikingman Portugal is clearly not the most difficult race on paper, but it is a tough one in reality. And as I always say at the end of each race - this one was one of the most difficult. But this one was very special because of all the problems I had. I’m happy for many reasons. Happy because once again I’m a finisher of an ultra race, the fifth one now. Happy because I was able to reach the finish line, despite the pain and the lack of sleep. Happy to have reached the objective I had set myself, that is to cover the 950 km in less than 48 hours. But I didn't have to go and draw the energy and motivation from deep inside me, as giving up seemed totally inconceivable to me. Happy because I did what I like, which is riding my bike while travelling and competing. Happy because I can’t wait to be on the start line of an ultra race again!
Of course, right after crossing the finish line, I wasn’t able to move my shoulder and covering the 3 kilometers to go back to the hotel was way harder than the last 300 kilometers since my fall! The next morning, the pain was so intense, I decided to go to the hospital and after further scanners and ultrasounds in Belgium, I can say I was pretty stubborn to finish this race. Indeed, I have an acromio-clavicular sprain in addition to a broken collarbone!
- Guillaume Chamont
Photography credit: David Saintyves (BikingMAN team)