BikingMan Oman

Why ultra-distance cycling?
Aren’t we humans funny? Maybe I am speaking for myself, but I believe what I am about to say is probably true for many people out there. I live in a small town in the south-east of England where I do not have to step too far from my front doorstep to have my most important needs met; there are two or three supermarkets, a health centre, pharmacists, a post office and numerous other amenities within walking distance of my home. I know this, and yet it does not make me content. I have to make my life more interesting, I have to make my life more difficult for myself.

I have come to realise this especially over the last few years or so; no longer happy to drive the 20 miles in to my university campus for lectures, I decided to start riding my bike in. The same then happened when I graduated and got my first job, 3 years and a career change later and now my commute to work is (ashamedly) almost the most important part of the day to me. It is my way of getting a little bit of adventure in to every day.

Bike-touring in Bosnia, trying out a new currency. Save or splurge?
I went on my first proper bike adventure, or tour, in August 2018. This was, and still is, my most favourite trip to date and one that has left me wanderlusting for A-B bike riding ever since. I travelled to Croatia with my team-mate Bethan. From here we rode across the border to Montenegro, and then on in to Bosnia and Herzegovina. We encountered so much in that week, I saw parts of the World that I never thought I would do, or I believe would have done without a bike. We ate wild figs and pomegranates from the side of the road, cursed headwinds, passed through stunning National Parks and had to beg guards to let us cross local border controls when we weren’t technically allowed to.

Back home however I compete on my bike, and so I guess the drive to race is always there. It was this that led me to start pondering how I could combine bike touring and racing. Queue me entering my first ultra-distance cycling event. BikingMan was mentioned to me by a friend. This year the organisation have a race calendar featuring 6 unsupported races across the World: Oman, Corsica, Laos, Peru, Portugal and Taiwan. I was instantly interested. Having a quick look at my own diary and upcoming races I could see that the first in the series, BikingMan Oman would fit in perfectly.

I took a day or so to think about it, and then made my way to the registration page. Sitting on my laptop at home in the comfort of my own bed, I got through the entire process until it came to confirming my entry. At this point I had second thoughts, wondered what I was doing, why I was trying to make life difficult for myself, whether it would be too hard, whether I’d fail and it would be a waste of money and whether I should just go on another bike-packing trip somewhere a little closer to home instead. I’m ashamed to say I pressed the cancel button.

Luckily for me, this attempt at registration had been logged and saved somewhere and I received an email directly from Axel, the race organiser, inquiring as to whether I had had difficulties entering and did I need some help? I felt embarrassed, made up some excuse about not being able to find my payment card at the critical moment and entered the race without further ado.


Preparation
In my head I had thought that I would be fully prepared when it came to lining up for the start of the race, both in terms of equipment and mentally. The reality was somewhat different, but then again I think this is probably the case with almost every situation in life!

Once flights were booked and I’d taken the time off work, number one on my list of priorities was getting a bike sorted for the race. I ride for a UK based women’s team called Bianchi Dama. We are extremely lucky to have the support of Bianchi, the oldest bicycle producer still in existence having been founded in Italy way back in 1885. This is a heritage that I am extremely proud of, and so I was desperate to race on a Bianchi.

My poor Oltre XR3 race bike would have required a fair amount of TLC to be ready for Oman, having had most of its components worn out by a couple of high-mileage race seasons. Its aero tubes also do not make it easy to load on most bike-packing bags. I started looking around for a Bianchi that would be better suited for the job. At the same time, I was discussing the upcoming UK racing calendar with my team manager David Walters. Ultra-distance cycling events are not generally on our radar and so I was reluctant to mention it to him as it was something I personally wanted to do, and separate from the team. I did not want him to feel obliged to help me out in any way. I mentioned it to him all the same and before I knew it Andrew Griffin, head of Bianchi UK was on board. He pledged to provide me with a bicycle and wheels for the event. I did not expect such genuine excitement, generosity and willingness to support me and for this I am incredibly grateful.

I was kitted out with a beautiful Impulso Allroad from Bianchi, and some swanky Ursus TC37 Miura carbon disc wheels from FLI Distribution. Our team kit, which we had had 3D body scans to create and personally tailor to us, was delivered to me ahead of schedule too. I received a Wahoo Elemnt Bolt for desert navigation and Apidura very kindly provided me with their new Race Series bags. My handlebar bag, aka the lunchbox, was very well stocked with bars and sachets of electrolyte drink thanks to Rawvelo.

With some last minute input from my friends at MB Cyclery, we attached some tri-bars to my bike, a decision that I would later come to be very grateful for. I also have them to thank for averting a pre-travel panic attack; I tried removing my rear mech to get my bike in the box and managed to undo the wrong screw. An unknown washer fell out which led to me carrying a partially-disassembled bicycle in an open bike box down Haslemere High Street like an injured animal.

In terms of route planning and planning how I would actually race the race, I did not do a huge amount. This was I think both a good and a bad thing. The routes were provided to us by the race organiser and so I didn’t worry too much about these until the start line when I realised that Wahoos do not come with Oman maps downloaded as standard. I would like to add that they are very easily downloaded though, if you have the foresight to realise you may need them (unlike me). You cannot get street views of Oman with Google Maps and so I had a fairly limited idea of what the roads would look like there, images were built up looking at photographs from the previous year and some Google photo spheres.

My only real plan was to get to each of the 2 check-points, probably towards the end of each day, and then to eat and sleep there for 4 hours. I do not know why I chose 4 hours, it was a number I picked, I guess because it’s half of the recommended 8 hours?! I knew that the race was going to involve some sleep deprivation, but I didn’t realise quite how much until I got there.



Lead up to the race
I arrived at the Al Nahda Resort, the race HQ and starting point, on Saturday at around 10am. The race was due to start at 3am the following morning. I instantly wished that I had arrived earlier. People were walking around with fully assembled bicycles, and some looked like they were just returning from a ride. I felt flustered because my bike was currently still in a box, I was desperate for breakfast and I had not slept on the flight so was concerned about how tired I would be for the start in not many hour’s time!


Fortunately I had no issues putting my bike together, made it just in time to catch the end of breakfast and got to race sign on with 5 minutes to spare. To be honest though it would be a bit mean for them to turn me away having travelled over 4000 miles to get there! We had a briefing later on in the afternoon after which I had an early dinner, made some last minute changes to my bike set up and packing, and then went straight to bed. It seemed a shame going to sleep so early when the Al Nahda Resort was actually pretty flash and my room was beautiful (I had a bath approximately the size of my bathroom at home) but it has taught me my lesson for next time: turn up earlier!

Pre-race dinner in the Al Nahda Resort


Start to check-point 1
1:30am breakfast time; a new PB in terms of early starts for me! I had set my alarm for 1am, so pulled some kit on and headed straight down to the hotel canteen. I must admit, normally I don’t understand what people mean when they say that they “cannot stomach” breakfast in the morning; I never seem to have issues stomaching any food, but this morning it did seem wrong eating when I should most definitely still have been asleep. I ate something anyway (see never any real issues eating!) and then headed straight back to my room to grab my things for hotel check-out and to get to the start line.

It was at this point that I realised I had not downloaded Oman maps for my Wahoo and so the route showed up on screen as a line with no further detail regarding nearby roads etc. Not to worry, the route to checkpoint 1 was not set to go through any overly-complicated towns as far as I knew and so I decided to channel my inner calm. Heather from ub.cool, the adventure company set to follow my journey across Oman was with me at the start line thank goodness; despite there being no pressure on me to perform at this race I still had all the same nerves that I do before, for instance, one of the National Road Series races my team targets in the UK.

We set off at 3am and were accompanied by Omani police and a couple of Harley Davidson motorbikes for, what was meant to be the first 20km. I have since learned that the police did not pull off the front of the race after this time and so we actually rode together for a lot longer than this. All I knew was that I desperately needed to stop for a wee but was too scared to lose the group and so stuck in as long as I possibly could (lessons from road racing!).

My first stop came at a Shell petrol station about 100 and something kilometres in. I had run out of water but also thought it sensible to buy some snacks rather than use up my limited resources. I bought a packaged croissant and some biscuits; a sign of things to come as I learned that there are seemingly no savoury items available in Omani petrol stations!

After this first stop I was out on my own and the nature of the roads in Oman became apparent to me. Up until that point I had been concentrating on riding with people and had not paid particular attention to my surroundings. The road that I found myself on was a large 2 lane dual carriageway with a wide shoulder. It was flat and the tarmac was perfectly smooth, ideal for riding long distances but at the same time, the sort of road that mentally I find tough. I wasn’t finding it particularly tough at that moment though, and the next 200km passed relatively easily. I had one minor incident when my Wahoo ran out of battery but I easily remedied this by plugging it into my massive 26,800mAh power bank (when it came to shopping for this, I thought, the bigger the better).

Passing through the town of Bahla provided a welcome break from the long straight highways. I stopped at a “Sale of Fruit and Vegetables” shop and bought myself a banana and some water. The literal translation and description of the shops in Oman is something I became particularly fond of; you know exactly what you are getting. There was nothing in this shop other than fruit and vegetables (and luckily some liquid supplies too).

Minor issue number 2 then became apparent: I had never considered wild weeing would be an issue but then in the desert there are not many things to hide behind. Eventually I spotted a single bush that I thought perhaps would offer me enough shelter and was not too much of a hike off the road. I laid my bike down gently and proceeded to make my way around to the back of the bush. I was a little tired and wobbly on my feet at this point and I must have veered into the bush slightly. Next thing I knew I was attached by numerous small thorns that were sticking in to the skin on my arms and into my brand new kit! I managed to extract myself, painfully, but this was to unfortunately become the pattern of such toilet breaks. I’m still picking out bits of bush from my arm 1 week on.

Down but not out, I proceeded onwards out of Bahla and towards Jebel Shams. Jebel Shams is the highest mountain in the Hajar range of northeast Oman and as such, was a source of anxiety. I was finding the run in to the mountain enjoyable though, I had some tunes on my headphones and was enjoying dodging the goats that would intermittently run across the road. The road itself was smaller too and had a more rural feel. Looking at my Wahoo and seeing that I had 25km left until checkpoint 1, I started to feel a little concerned. The road was still flat and I knew I had a lot of ascent left to go. That could only mean one thing.

As if on queue, the first hairpins raised their heads. As I got round the first few, more sprung up, seemingly steeper than the ones before. I was very grateful for my 11-34 cassette at this point but even with that, my legs were burning. I cannot remember the last time I had to stop on a climb but Jebel Shams made up for all those times in the past. I honestly had no option but to stop and take a break, or fall off my bike.

I passed an Omani man at one point who appeared to be inspecting the wreckage of a car that had gone off the side of the road. He waved at me and actually ran (with difficulty) alongside me for a small distance. Thanks to him, I managed to make it up the last of the steep section and arrived at a small plateau where there was some water available. Here I met a couple of mountain bikers who coincidentally worked for Apidura and had heard about my participation in Oman, small world!

The start of the gravel section of Jebel Shams.

I pressed onwards; there were some small sections of downhill on the road before the surface then switched to gravel. I don’t consider myself particularly adept at riding on gravel, but I actually found this easier to ride than the steeper tarmac of the earlier slopes. I passed a couple of riders, one of whom was riding a recumbent bicycle. Massive kudos. I mentioned something about the wonderful view and he agreed; anything to take our minds off the task at hand. I always think its a shame that when your legs hurt you almost lose the ability to appreciate what is around you. I try to fight this as much as I possibly can.

I eventually made it to the top of Jebel Shams feeling a little worse for wear. I had had a near bonk about 2km from the checkpoint where I had had to inhale a few Percy Pigs (thanks Mum!) but was very happy to have been the first woman to reach the summit. I had my checkpoint card stamped and went straight to the restaurant to get some hot food. As I helped myself to dinner I became aware that Jasmijn, who arrived soon after me, was eating incredibly fast. No sooner had she finished, she was headed straight back out to her bicycle. When Helle arrived, the same thing happened.


First woman to the top of Jebel Shams! Having my 
survival map stamped by the wonderful Barbara!
I didn’t know what to do; I was tired and it had always been my plan to rest at the checkpoint before proceeding onwards. The sun was fading, and having seen Jebel Shams on the way up, I was concerned about descending it in the dark. In the end I decided to take a few hours rest, I believed that the others would need to rest at some point too and so it would even out. I was shown to a cosy Arabic tent, where I showered, put my lights on charge and laid down for a few hours sleep.



Checkpoint 1 to checkpoint 2
I awoke about 3 hours later. Concerned about how far the two ladies in front of me would have got, I pulled my kit back on, popped my lights in their brackets and headed out. I bumped into another woman called Perrine at this point. It was midnight and she too was just about to head down Jebel Shams. I had a bit of a faff trying to load the next route on to my Wahoo and eventually settled for using my phone for navigation.

As soon as I hit the gravel section of Jebel Shams, I knew I was going to have to walk sections of it. What had been difficult in the light became even trickier in the dark. It was impossible to see which route to take amongst the rocks, and so the going was slow. I caught up with Perrine who’s chain had got jammed behind her chainring. Once it was freed, I passed her and I didn’t see her again until the end of the race. I was upset to learn that she had come off quite soon after I’d left her and broken her collarbone. Heal soon Perrine!

It was a relief to get back on to the tarmac and the rest of the descent passed relatively smoothly apart from a quick pit stop to put more clothes on. Oman does get cold sometimes! Navigating my way through the small town of Birkat al Mawz was interesting given I was finding my way round by my phone, which was strapped precariously to my tri-bars with the BikingMan wristband that we had been given in our welcome packs. The screen kept on auto-locking every 30 seconds too which did not help matters. And then I needed a wee again.

Anyway, I continued to ride and thankfully managed to stick to the route. I was actually really enjoying passing through sleeping towns and the fact that many of Oman’s roads are well lit by street lights meant that I could keep my own lights on low power and not feel that my view of the tarmac was impaired at all. The only issue was that I really wanted some form of breakfast and there really was nothing open. After 6 hours of riding, I came upon an open service station and bought coffee and, finally something savoury, a pre-packaged cheese croissant! Fuelled up, I continued and soon turned on to a road west of Izki that wound its way between mountains. I was greeted by the most wonderful sunset as I made my way through the valley.


Cheese croissant mmmmm

About 175km in, I turned left onto what I didn’t know at the time was a 60km stretch of desert road. In hindsight I probably should have read my race manual and studied the route a little better. If I had I’m sure I would have made sure I had 2 full bottles of water but as it was, I had half a bottle left. It became apparent quite early on that there was nowhere to buy any provisions along this route, and so I settled down for what was going to be a long and thirsty stretch of road. There is something magical about deserts for me; the scarcity of life is so different to anything I see back home and that is what I think makes them interesting. There were scattered bushes along the length of the road and at one point, I came across a family of camels. All the drivers passed them slowly with their warning lights on which confused me a little as the camels seemed to be quite a distance from the road and minding their own business. I decided to give them a wide berth anyway. 30km down, I consumed one of my emergency gels in the hope that what little liquid was in it would make me feel less thirsty. Unfortunately the opposite happened, lesson learnt.Eventually I neared the end of the desert road. I spotted what looked like a bus shelter on the side with what looked like a water butt balanced on top. There was some sort of piping system and a tap. There was also a sign in arabic which I could most certainly not read, but which I took to mean “drinking water”. I filled my bottles and added a sachet of my Rawvelo electrolyte powder. I know not water purification as such but my thinking was it would cover up the taste if the water was bad and surely that’s basically the same thing as purification?!


Water stop. Hoping the sign says drinking water in Arabic.

Feeling weary but better, I joined the main number 23 road which I was to stay on for nearly 130km. There was some pretty comprehensive road works going on along this stretch and the going was a little hairy.

I stopped in a small supermarket to buy some form of lunch and sat myself down on the floor beside my bike to consume my purchases. There was a man sat on a chair outside the shop who appeared to be removing the husks from some corn. He immediately sprung up and offered me his chair. He absolutely insisted when I declined, making sure I knew that me sitting on the floor was not an option. He then sat down next to me and continued his work. Kindness in Omani people was something that I was lucky enough to experience throughout my trip. I was alarmed at first when drivers would hoot at me, but they would then draw alongside me and offer me a banana or a bottle of water. I became less worried quite quickly.

With 45km left, I turned left off the number 23 road. At this point, the road headed directly for the coast and checkpoint 2. I thought it safe to take my phone from its makeshift wristband mount on my tri-bars and put it in my back pocket. There was a tailwind towards the coast and although tired, I felt relieved that my next hot meal was less than 2 hours away. I rode through a small village where there were some kids playing on the street. One of them had a bike and upon spotting me, immediately drew up alongside and challenged me to a race! We sprinted through the village until he asked me “where you go?”. When I told him I was riding 20km to the coast he pulled up and I waved goodbye.

Unfortunately there was one turning that I needed to make, and unfortunately I missed it. Thank goodness for live trackers though, and for my family and friends who were back home watching my progress. My phone suddenly had a disco in my pocket: my boyfriend was calling me, my mother was texting me, I had a Facebook message from one of my friends! I realised my mistake and turned back. Having a tailwind towards the coast did mean having a headwind when I doubled back on myself, but my spirits were raised when I passed through the village and was challenged to race number 2 and then again when I saw the most beautiful sunset as I made my way between the sand dunes that flanked the correct road to the coast.

I reached checkpoint 2 in darkness. I knew at this point that the two women in front of me, Jasmijn and Helle had reached the checkpoint and proceeded on, again without stopping. I knew that there was no way that I would catch them now and so decided to stick to my plan of getting some rest. I ate, showered and was offered a bed by one of the checkpoint volunteers, the incredibly kind and ever generous Renette. Thank you!


Checkpoint 2 to finish

This time, I allowed myself 4 hours sleep. I awoke, grabbed a quick coffee from the guest house kitchen and got ready to leave. Another rider, a man called Tim, was also preparing to leave and suggested we ride together. I was disappointed that we passed the initial stretch of road after the checkpoint under cover of darkness, as it is a Nature Reserve for turtles and something that I would love to have been able to see but the kilometres did tick by a lot more easily with Tim’s company.

Just outside of Sur Tim spotted his friend in a Coffee Shop. It was unusual to see a shop open so early in the morning (it must have been only 3am) and so I decided to stop with him. This was my first venture into such an establishment. There are many of these so called “Coffee Shops” in Oman but I had previously been put off by them seeming to be a catch-all term for any sort of eatery. Some of them had photos of coffee on them, others had hamburgers or kebabs which wasn’t really what I was after. Anyway this Coffee Shop served chocolate cereal, fried octopus, soft drinks, fruit and coffee. I opted for 2 bananas and a coffee. Despite the coffee being Nescafe instant with what seemed quite a lot of added sugar, I was very happy for the caffeine. So far in the race I had been struggling to get hold of my stimulant of choice in any form!

All three of us left the Coffee Shop together and proceeded to pass through the large town of Sur. There was a strong headwind blowing along the coast, one which not let up for pretty much the entirety of the day. Tim’s friend dropped off pretty quickly, apparently he was struggling with the lack of sleep, and as we left Sur, Tim pulled off to stop in a petrol station. I continued down headwind highway alone, stopping briefly outside the small town of Tiwi to take a photo of another glorious sunrise and to discuss with my friends at ub.cool where I could get some breakfast from.

Distracted momentarily from thinking about breakfast.


Tim eventually caught me up when I stopped for a wild wee behind the concrete walls of a bridge. We battled the headwind together for another 10km. At this point, there was a petrol station marked on our maps that apparently was the last one for quite a while. When we pulled up outside, I can safely say that I have never been so glad to see a petrol station. We piled in and I bought myself a packet of crisps (not my standard breakfast but the need for something savoury was becoming desperate at this point) and another coffee.

Not wanting to get too comfortable, I set off before the others. On our maps, the remaining kilometres until the finish line appeared to have some horribly steep climbs. My legs weren’t feeling in best shape and so I was a little apprehensive. Luckily though, I think there must have been a mistake in the printed elevation profiles and I found the climbing through the Hajar mountains to be relatively gentle.

Gravel!
At 230km in, the route diverted us off the main road back in to Muscat and took us down to the small village of Al Hajar. Here I replenished my water supplies for the last time before what I had heard was quite a difficult gravel stretch of road. It started off easy enough; there were intermittent areas of gravel with intervening smooth tarmac. Soon enough though, the tarmac disappeared and the road was made up entirely of sharp rocks and lots of dust. My hands were quite painful at this point in the race, and having to hold on so tight over the gravel was almost unbearable at times, especially as I couldn’t switch it up and use the tri-bars on such a rough surface. The other issue was oncoming drivers who would kick up a dust storm and make it impossible for me to see the road ahead! Looking back at photographs that were taken of me passing along this stretch of road, I am amazed at the beauty of the mountains that spring up on either side of the road, however at the time I was so focused on trying to find the path of least resistance that I am ashamed to say I barely noticed my surroundings.

Once I had cleared the gravel section it was full speed ahead to Muscat! There were some steep inclines on the run in to the city, more akin to ski slopes than roads, but so buoyed was I by the relief that I was going to make the finish line they didn’t bother me too much. I passed through Old Muscat, past Al Alam Palace and the National Museum, all the way to the finish at Muscat Lighthouse.


Finish
Finishing the race was a relief. That is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the race itself, but more because the fear of failure was weighing down on me from the moment I signed up. This was my first ultra-distance cycling event and, although I knew that I could cover miles on a daily basis back home, I did not know whether I was capable of covering such a large distance in such a short period of time.

Although I completed the race in less than 3 days, I feel like I learnt a lot in the time that I spent riding. I have learnt that I am capable of more than I think that I am and that I can depend on myself. I knew that much of being able to ride large distances is down to mindset, however I never appreciated quite how true this is. I came up with a number of strategies to make the race more manageable and these ranged from not looking at the distance that I had covered (so that I wouldn’t know how much I had left), listening to music and promising myself stops or something to look forward to, for example a bottle of water with an electrolyte sachet added to make things more interesting!


Lessons to be learnt
I would be lying if I said I was satisfied with how my race went. I am disappointed that I was so far behind the two women how placed 1st and 2nd. I believe much of this is related to how I approached the race in the first place, and in particular how much I slept during it.

I have spoken to other competitors since the finish and it seems that many people who placed well considered the race to be an 1,050km time trial. In my head, it was 3 long rides with a period of rest in between each. Having said how important mindset is when it comes to ultra-distance cycling, next time I need to make sure that I consider the race how I intend to race it.

Sleep deprivation training was not something that I ever really did in the lead up to the race; I routinely ride in to work at 5 o’clock in the morning but this is after a full night’s sleep. I think next time I will aim to do some long rides where I have only power naps and see how I fare. I believe I came in to the race relatively sleep deprived already too, so I would like to make sure I am as well rested as I can be before attempting another event.

I realised that over the course of the race I also consumed much less caffeine than I would do at home. I suspect this, coupled with the sleep deprivation may have contributed to my feeling tired. Indeed I did experience a number of times when I almost fell asleep on my bike. I’ve found I have these microsleeps at work sometimes too when I haven’t had a coffee for a while! I’m not one for being dependent on any substance, but I think in the case of caffeine, it can be used safely to aid performance and to help in the short term. Consuming non-caffeinated drinks during training and then caffeinated ones when racing is another strategy I have been considering trying, both when racing in the UK and in any other ultra-distance events I may do in the future.

Generally though, I think that I have much to work on in terms of the stops I make. I think I need to consider when I make these stops and for how long for. Speaking to others, it sounds like stops are difficult to plan for as you never know how your body will react during a particular race but the key is making them short and efficient. This is something that I believe needs to be learnt through racing, and through trial and error.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget my race through Oman, I’m proud that I made it and placed 3rd woman and 21st overall. I got to see a country that I never thought I would do and I met and surrounded myself with like-minded people. The fact that I made mistakes is not all that terrible either, in fact they just mean that come next race I’ll have things to work on. And there will be a next race, just watch this space!

Comments

  1. Magnifique récit! Bravo pour l'écriture et pour la performance!

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  2. Awesome account, I enjoyed reading that. Well done!

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  3. Georgie you are such an inspiration to me ! Amazing results and hope to see you on many many more ultra endurance races xxx

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  4. Incredible journey . . . and so well written. Good on ya!

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