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'An experience I genuinely loved' 1,000km of punishing headwind and heat at BikingMan Oman

In-depth
28 Mar 2018
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Words Marcus Leach Photography BikingMan

As the hands ticked slowly towards the hour mark a hush descended over the cyclists gathered at the start, a final moment of contemplation for what lay ahead. At precisely 3am, two car horns blared simultaneously to mark the start of the inaugural BikingMan Oman ultra race.

In that moment, as I intuitively began to turn my pedals, all of my doubts and fears faded as a wave of calm washed over me. This was the release I had been craving for some time.

Two months after finishing La Vuelta a Espana, and in doing so completing all three of cycling’s Grand Tours in the same year, riding one day ahead of the professionals, I was lost.

As far as cycling was concerned I had no sense of direction, nothing to focus my efforts on. Simply going out to ride for the sake of riding is not in my nature.

I thrive on having a goal, a challenge to overcome. To me, cycling is many things but above all else it's a means of exploring the potential of my body and mind. I struggle during the transitional phase between goals.

The question of 'what next' had floated around my mind for some time with not even a hint of an answer. That was until a chance meeting at a business event in Austria opened my eyes to a new world: ultra cycling.

I began to read stories of people riding hundreds of kilometres every day, sleeping in bus shelters and surviving as best they could in a bid to win races that covered staggering distances.

Instantly I knew that this was the challenge I had been looking for, even if Oman didn’t seem like the obvious place to enter into this exciting new world.

Situated on the south eastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula Oman has, over recent years, slowly risen to prominence in the cycling world, so much so that it’s rapidly becoming a popular destination for cyclists keen to widen their horizons past Europe.

Blessed with breath-taking landscapes, pristine tar roads (as well as a healthy amount of gravel tracks), magnificent mountains and any number of friendly locals happy to offer a warm welcome it’s easy to see just why it’s growing in appeal.

As the event drew closer the voice in my head started to get louder. It’s funny how that little voice can quickly begin to erode confidence built up over many months of training and hard work, leaving me questioning my ability to even pedal, never mind complete a thousand kilometres in three days.

The official time limit was five days although I had my sights set on finishing in under 72 hours, a somewhat ambitious target given I had no previous experience of ultra racing, or indeed unsupported riding.

I reasoned that whilst daunting, 350km a day for three days straight was feasible.

I was in bed at 8pm the night before the race, yet by the time my alarm went six hours later I hadn’t slept at all, hardly ideal preparations for a race that would involve a high degree of sleep deprivation.

Breaking the ride down

It’s a weird feeling setting off on a ride knowing that in two days time you’ll still be going, but, as I learnt, the biggest challenge when covering such vast distances is conquering the mountains of the mind.

It may sound cliched but the only way to get through such an epic undertaking is to break it down into smaller sections, focusing only on the next fifty kilometres, sometimes even less.

The first hundred kilometres, ridden under a constant orange glare from omnipresent street lights, passed without much thought, the initial pockets of riders thinning out as each settled into their own rhythm.

Slowly the adrenaline and initial excitement began to fade, in its place an acute realisation as to the magnitude of what lay ahead.

The ebb and flow of emotions would be something I'd become accustomed to, my mood swinging one way and another on a regular basis, the simplest of occurrences being the catalyst.

As a cyclist there are few things as demoralising as riding into a headwind, more so when you realise that the road doesn’t deviate in direction for close to a hundred kilometres, and even then it only does so to take you into the mountains and towards the beast that is Jebel Shams.

Yet, despite battling the elements for four hours, I headed for the Hajar mountains buoyed by the news that I was in the top 10.

The race may have been unsupported on the road, but I had a virtual support crew in the shape of my wife and a few cycling friends at home who were relating information to me as they monitored events unfolding via a series of blue dots on the live GPS tracker system.

Punishing climb

From the outset I knew that Jebel Shams would be a tough climb but it wasn’t until I was on the lower slopes that I appreciated just how punishing it would be.

With gradients reaching close to 25% for prolonged stretches it was all I could do to keep the bike moving, zig-zagging across the road in a desperate bid to ease the pain in my already weary legs, oblivious to the sheer beauty around me.

It felt like someone had shoved a vacuum cleaner down my throat and turned it on max. I fought for every breathe, desperate to inject life into muscles that were beyond any level of fatigue I had previously experienced.

Simultaneously I had to fight the demons in my mind which grew louder with every excruciating pedal stroke.

Any hope of reaching the summit in daylight was abandoned as darkness descended and enveloped the mountains, pierced only by the lights of weary cyclists grovelling their way upwards.

My initial plan, hatched when I was full of optimism, had been to head back down and reach the four hundred kilometre mark before bivouacking for the night.

By the time I dragged myself into the first manned check-point, after twenty-two kilometres of torturous hell, all I could think of was food and sleep.

After gorging on rice and vegetables I had little problem falling into a deep restorative slumber.

Renewed optimism

Refreshed, and with a renewed sense of optimism, I was finally able to appreciate the sheer beauty of the mountains as I descended Jebel Shams at day break, their beauty accentuated by the early morning light.

The following 300 kilometres, whilst not hugely demanding in terms of terrain, were testing nonetheless due to the intense heat and frustration of two punctures that annoyingly slowed my progress.

Nevertheless I knew that once I reached the second manned checkpoint there'd be only four hundred kilometres to the finish. Reaching there in daylight became my sole focus.

Another feast of rice and vegetables awaited, only this time there was no thought of sleep. I was mentally preparing to head into the night and break the back of the final leg that led to the finish in Muscat.

As darkness descended my lack of ultra-racing experience showed - I forgot to charge my lights during the day so had no option but to find somewhere to sleep for a few hours whilst they charged.

Four hours later and I was on the road again and headed for the coast.

The kindness of strangers

Fatigued and hungry, having ridden the first three hours without a proper breakfast, I was delighted to come across a coffee shop in a sleepy fishing village serving chai, dhal and paratha.

I must have looked like a mad man as I inhaled eight parathas, three portions of dhal and five cups of chai. The look of amazement on the proprietor’s face grew when I showed him the map of how far I had cycled and still had to go, prompting him to wrap three more parathas in foil as a gift to send me on my way with.

This act of generosity at a time when I was emotional and tired did wonders to lift my spirits.

During the kilometres that followed, I resolved to finish the race that evening no matter what, even if it meant riding until the early hours of the following day.

By doing so I had a chance of finishing in under three days. With a renewed focus I settled in to long stretches of riding on my tri bars, ticking off the kilometres one after another.

I actually felt like I was getting stronger as the day wore on, my body having adapted to continuously riding day after day, yet the closer to Muscat I got the slower the remaining distance seemed to come down.

I battled to stay focused.

And then there it was, the finish line in the distance. Suddenly I wanted to slow down because crossing the line would mark the end of an experience that I had genuinely loved, despite all of the physical and mental suffering on the bike.

It had challenged me in ways that I never imagined, forced me to confront my demons and revealed parts of my mind I’d never explored before.

Knowing I would finish comfortably inside my original goal I slowed down to enjoy those final moments riding through Muscat at night, listening to the sounds of the city and taking a moment comprehend what I had achieved.

BikingMan Oman 2019

Final details of the 2019 event are being confirmed but places will open at the start of May 2018, and the ride will be a similar time of year, end of February.

Registration is already open for riders to express their interest here: bikingman.com/fr

BikingMan Oman: Marcus's ride stats

Total distance: 1052km  
Total time: 63 hours 58 minutes  
Riding time: 49 hours 37 minutes  
Punctures: Three  
Bike used: Specialized Diverge Expert Carbon  
Competitors: 45  
Finishing position: 11th overall, 10th male  
Cost of entry: €499