The Mysterious World Of Ultra-Long-Distance Cycle Racing (And Wigs…)

I think that’s what it’s called – Ultra-Long-Distance Cycle Racing – but, if not, I’m happy to be corrected. In fact (not for the first time) I have just checked on Wikipedia and the first line of the entry for ‘Ultra-Distance Cycling‘ reads “The definition of ultra-distance cycling is far more vague than in ultra running” which is perhaps the reason why I hesitate when coming to using the term. It’s worth sticking with Wikipedia for a moment just so we know what we are talking about:

Any bike race longer than a century ride, which is 100 miles (160 km), is sometimes considered to be ultra-distance cycling. However, such events are relatively common, so using a longer distance to define the category is more useful, such as any race that is longer than 200 kilometres (120 mi), 300 kilometres (190 mi) or even a double century, 200 miles (320 km).

Bike races that cover these distances but which are split into stages do not fit most definitions of ultra-distance races – the clock needs to run continuously from start to finish. Even so, extra-long stages within a longer race may be long enough to be an ultra-distance race by themselves. In addition, any team events in which individual cyclists do not complete the full distance are not considered to be ultra-distance.

Wikipedia: Ultra-distance cycling

So, basically, the very long-distance rides you sometimes hear about, often in reverential terms; the Trans Am Bike Race (America west to east), the Tour Divide (American north to south), the Transcontinental Race (Europe west to east) being perhaps the most prominent three examples but there are many more.

Now I hasten to point out that I am writing this not because I plan to surprise you and announce that I have decided to enter one of these mythical rides (sorry to disappoint…) but because yesterday I recorded a fascinating chat with Dr Ian Walker for The Cycling Europe Podcast that will hopefully be published in the next week or so. In fact, I would go so far as saying that it was probably the most fascinating discussion I’ve had so far. Perhaps that was down to this ‘mythical’, ‘mysterious’ status that these rides have in the cycling world. I’ll come back to the interview with Ian in a few moments but delving into the archive, there are a few related posts that are worth examining once again.

Before the races came along, ‘audax‘ cycling was already well established and I first heard about this kind of cycling when I was planning my first long ride to Italy in 2009. Here’s a post about a chap who cycled from Calais to Brindisi (my destination in 2010) in just 12 days:

…and here is the pdf referred to in the post. (It took me five weeks by the way.)

At some point, someone, somewhere (probably America) must have thought that this ‘audax‘ malarky might make a good basis for a race and the ultra-distance races were born.

Emily Chappell wrote a hard-hitting book about being an ultra-long-distance racer in Where There’s A Will back in 2019 and it featured in this post:

It’s a book that pulls no punches and, to be frank, is more likely to scare you aware from the world of ultra-long-distance cycling than anything else. Well, that’s how I felt. Recommended nevertheless.

Emily was a friend of Mike Hall who, in 2017, was killed whilst taking part in a race across Australia. I wrote about that sad event in this post from July of that year:

Mike Hall was not only a competitor in many of the races but also instrumental in organising many of them.

Which brings me back to my interview with Ian Walker yesterday. I stumbled across his name online when doing some research into the Northcape to Tarifa Bike Race. As someone who has cycled from Tarifa to Northcape myself (albeit somewhat more slowly than the people who compete in the race), it was obviously something that was of interest. I had already tried to contact the organisers for an interview but they didn’t seem that keen (which only added to the mysterious nature of these events – what are they hiding???). Last week I thought I’d have another go, hence my Internet wanderings. Ian’s name cropped up in the searches, not because he was associated with the Northcape to Tarifa race but because he had broken the world record for cycling between the two places; he did it in just 16 days. For purposes of comparison, it had taken me over 100 days to cycle in the opposite direction in 2015. Digging a little deeper, I discovered that Ian had only taken up the sport of ultra-long-distance cycling when he was turning 40 and that he was not only quite good but had won one of the more prestigious races, the Northcape 4000 in 2018. He cycled from Lake Garda in northern Italy to the northernmost point of Europe at Northcape in 11 days 10 hours and 43 minutes. It was the following year – 2019 – when he embarked on his world record attempt to cycle to Tarifa, which he succeeded in breaking.

I half expected Ian to be gruff and monosyllabic. In her book, Emily Chappell comes across as-hard-as nails and perhaps that was playing on my mind prior to the interview with Ian. How wrong could I have been! He was charm personified and spoke very engagingly and at length about the world of ultra-distance-cycling. Here he is talking about the Northcape 4000 race that he won in 2019:

And here’s video of him cycling the final day of the race and his arrival at Northcape:

The audio extract above is just 4 mins of what turned out to be more than an hour of discussion. I edited it last night and cut out very little of what Ian said as it was all so interesting. Ian is a lecturer at the University of Bath and he specialises in environmental psychology. This is how he describes what he does on his own website

My research focuses particularly on unconscious and low-awareness causes of everyday behaviour like habitsthe environment around us and unconscious stereotypes. You might be here because of my work on drivers overtaking bicyclists, our study showing how people buying cars are more concerned about looking and feeling good than they are about the environment, or our study on reducing household energy consumption through ‘smart’ value-framed messages. You might even be here because I think electric cars encourage people to keep living in inefficient and harmful ways rather than address real questions about our way of life.

I’ve purposefully left all the links in that paragraph as I’m sure many of you will find his research fascinating. My intention had been to ask him more questions about this aspect of his life but in the end the ultra-long-distance cycling came to the fore and I didn’t want to take up even more of Ian’s time, but here he is talking about a bit of his work that made it into the newspapers and that I remembered reading about at the time. All in the name of research, he donned a wig of long hair and went off cycling. I had just described it as a ‘long, blond wig‘:

The full podcast should be available to stream or download next week which is good news as it means you still have time to catch up the previous episodes including my chat with the new CEO of Cycling UK Sarah Mitchell, American YouTuber Ryan Van Duzer, author and doctor Stephen Fabes, Rob Ainsley, Mark Beaumont, Timmy Mallett… the list isn’t endless, but it’s getting there. More details below:

Where can I listen?

Categories: Adventure, Cycling, Travel

What do you think?