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Preparing For and Completing Ultra Cycling Events

The Western Challenge start

Fresh from completing The Western Challenge 525km a few days ago, I decided to put down a few notes on my preparation and how the event went.

The Western Challenge is categorized as an ultra event as it has routes of 200km or more available. While similar to audax-type events, there are a few differences

  • Ultra events do not allow groups or drafting off other participants.
  • While there are generous time limits in ultra events, most participants will try for a good time.
  • Ultra events usually have live tracking apps where family and friends can keep an eye on where participants are on the route.
  • Audax events also have time limits. However, they are not about racing, and an event can also be referred to as a ‘Randonnée’ which translates to ‘ramble or ‘long journey’.  The routes are there to be enjoyed and everyone gets the same kudos.
  • Group cycling is allowed in audax events so participants can help each other.
  • Ultra events usually have a bigger support infrastructure which is why the entry fee is much higher when compared to an Audax event.
  • Ultra events normally follow tarmac roads while audax events can be a mix of tarmac and some gravel.

No matter what long-distance ultra or audax event you choose, you must put some time into your planning and preparation.

Training & Preparation

One simple goal for preparing for your first long-distance event is to aim to get comfortable at half the distance. Let’s say you are preparing for a 200km event. You should be comfortable completing a 100km cycle so long as the route includes a few hills. Most ultra and audax events will have a fair amount of climbing so you need to know your climbing pace. The same applies to the bigger events, if you can get around a 200km route in reasonable shape then you should have no problem taking on a 400km event.

Normally you do not need to do any specific training so long as your normal Sunday cycle includes a few hills. Hill climbing is important so you can work out what is a comfortable pace for you. I try to include around 1000m of climbing for every 100km of cycling in my own training.

Completing a long-distance event is as much a mental challenge as it is a physical challenge. Embrace the challenge and don’t fear the challenge. I follow many people on Strava and you can almost spot the ones that will struggle badly or not even show up at the start line. Anyone complaining about bad luck or other challenges won’t go into an event in a good place. You have to accept that everyone will have challenges and you should enjoy the build-up to an event just as much as the event itself.

Equipment

You really need to have a good bike fit for long-distance cycling. Seek professional advice and make sure you have the correct setup. Any issues with bad fit will be amplified on longer cycles. Saddle choice is important but everyone is different and so it is impossible to recommend just one. Don’t skimp on a saddle and give yourself time to get used to it.

Ultra bike setup

When it comes to bike choices, it does depend on the event. Typically ultra events are best handled with a road or a TT bike if you really want to attack the source. For audax events, a road or gravel/touring bike is the norm as the emphasis is on enjoying the event with a bit of comfort. No matter what bike you choose, make sure you have good gearing to go with the climbing.

In the days leading up to an event, go through your equipment lists and double-check everything. Make sure you pack multiple tubes, check that your pump is working and your multi-tool has the elements needed for your bike of choice. Check bike tyres for any cuts and replace gear/brake cables if needed. Long-distance cycling will bring you to remote areas so you need to make sure your equipment is in tip-top shape.

Cycle clothing is super important. Adopt a layered approach, if there is the potential for cold conditions then have at least two extra layers. I got caught out on an ultra event recently where night temperatures dropped a lot and I was really cold for a number of hours.

For daytime cycling, make sure you pack a small container of sunscreen. Spending many hours out in the daylight increases the risk of sunburn. When this happens, not only is it uncomfortable and dangerous in the long term but it can also pull on your body’s resources as it tries to deal with the damage.

When cycling at night you need to make sure you have good lights. Bring two front and two back. Recently I purchased a hub dynamo for the long audax events. There is a small loss of power through the hub but you will not notice and it gets rid of range anxiety. One thing to watch is that if you do use a hub dynamo for your primary lighting, you do need to pack a small battery light should you break down and need additional light.

Night Cycling

Nutrition

As with finding a comfortable saddle, nutrition is a personal thing. Some people can eat anything and others have very sensitive stomachs. Elite cyclists will often take a very scientific approach with measured quantities of core nutrients such as carbohydrates.

I fall into the camp of I can pretty much eat anything but I still take a measured approach to my food intake. For ultra events, you need to be eating small amounts often and couple that with lots of fluid intake. Choose food items such as brioche rolls with jam and mix in fruit like bananas. I like bringing cans of coke for some sugar and fluid top-ups.

For audax events, you can stop off at shops and restaurants as there is more of a social occasion to it.  I have even stopped off for fish and chips during an audax event. The main thing is you never let yourself get really hungry as this is difficult to recover from.

Participation

Make sure you start the event with a positive mindset. Enjoy the event, and break it down into pieces. Maybe get through each 50km segment and see what the next brings. Don’t fear the long distance, you will get through it and all participants are in the same boat.

You have to accept that there will be highs and lows and this will apply to all participants. Again, break things down into sections like 50km segments. If you are suffering just get to the next one and have a short break. Passing through towns or very scenic areas can be a great distraction and can help you get through the low points. Make sure you celebrate getting past the halfway point, a positive mindset will get you home.

On the 400km or more routes, you will need to cycle through the night. Falling asleep is rarely a problem but if you find yourself starting to nod off, take a short break. Better to be rested than a sleeping hazard on the road. Keeping warm is crucial so make sure you pack extra layers.

Never lose focus on hydrating and eating. On really hot days you can top up your electrolyte intake with supplements such as Dioralyte. I always pack a few sachets for the long solo spins.

Make sure you don’t forget to relish the last 25km or so as you are within touching distance of the finish line and about to complete an epic event. Have some family and friends at the finish line if you can. It can be just as much of an occasion for them as it is for you.

Wild Mayo Ultra 650 Finish Line