Why would you race if you don't want to win?
Ok. Let's be honest: Everybody who signs up for a race would like to win it. But most cyclists are pretty realistic about their possibilities and as the act of winning isn't only a matter of wishing deeply for it (although that's probably a good foundation to start with), it leaves an open question:
Why do it then.
First of all, we need to take closer look at the different styles of long distance amateur races out there, just waiting for you to conquer the podium. There are supported events like Race Across America (RAAM) and without being able to talk about it from first hand experience, I can assure you that the efforts you need to display just to start in these kind of ultras are extremely high. You will need a team full of professionals – mechanics, coaches, nutritionists and someone who is willing to be screamed at or wake you up every time you fall asleep on your bike. For all this you'll need sponsors and probably some good arguments why people should support you in such an endeavour. It's not quite low entry and chances are good, you are in it to win it, once you found a way to make it to the start.
On the other hand there are unsupported bikepacking races, which will require you to carry your own stuff all the way until the finish, buy your own food, fix your own mechanical issues along the way, sometimes even built your own route and decide for yourself, when to rest and when to ride, if you need a doctor or if you're just being a bit moody because you ate that one rice pudding too much.
These races involve a completely self sufficient style of riding and will require more skills than just pushing watts.
One of these races, The Transcontinental Race, was designed by Mike Hall exactly for everyone who wants to race without requiring a whole entourage that would make the Tour de France look like kindergarten. Unfortunately I didn't have the chance to meet Mike, but his vision of unsupported road racing still inspires me and many others until today. Countless unsupported events have been created over the last years, most of them based on the values of the early days of self-supported bikepacking races.
Having a low entry possibility to get yourself into the adventure of competing against other cyclists without the need for sponsors, the best and most expensive kit or three coaches who will yell „you got this allez allez, tiger“ into your ear while you ride up those hills, has changed not only the style of racing, but also the reasons why people choose to sign up for it.
I come from a certain background and so does anyone. The beauty of unsupported races is the variety of different characters, backgrounds and stories. And unlike a „normal“ race, competition is only one factor amongst many others. When I talk to people who rode an unsupported ultra I hear different reasons why they did it and totally different approaches. Some do it for fun, some for the ice-cream, some for adventure, even some for fame or for sponsorship, some for social aspects and some for testing their own limits. Most of the riders do it for a mixture of the stated. But one thing I rarely ever heard was:
because I want to win it.
Certainly, there is such an ambition in not only few, but most of the riders have had enough insight in non supported racing to know the uncontrollable nature of the endeauvour their going to undertake.
Even though people are wondering why you're not racing as a pro with your physique:
that's just one piece of the puzzle.
I asked people what they expected before the start of the Three Peaks Bike Race last year, and all I got was mostly, “well, I see how it goes” and “it would be nice to finish in time”. As a rookie I was even a bit confused by all this hesitation, but after I made my own expierences, I totally understand this attitude. The whole venture shifted my view completely and it was a life-changing experience for countless reasons, of which I will share a
few with you here.
No matter how ambitious you are, there will come a point where you're idea of who you are and what the hell you're actually doing, will be challenged. I'm not talking about self-doubt, although it can sometimes become a part of it. I rarely heard someone in context of self-supported races saying, yeah everything went like planned beforehand and it was basically easy peasy lemon squeesy all along the way. Of course you will get to know your own thoughts up to a painful degree, especially when you're riding solo. Facing all kind of obstacles and sometimes even frightening situations will change you. Further than this, you might even get to a point where you start to take on a different approach concerning your surroundings. The magic happens as soon as you disconnect from you inner bound view (what am I doing, why is this hailstorm happening to me, why does my butt hurt) to a more outbound view. It's probably not something you can actively engage in any form, at least for me it was always something that naturally happened after a few days in the saddle. And even though I also had this mindshift while touring, the strain of an unsupported ultrarace got me to this point faster, more often and as intense as I never experienced it on my bikepacking tours before. I assume this has a lot to do with your mental state while racing, pushing yourself further towards your limits and therefore leaving your comfort zone more often
than you would by just simply setting out for a nice trip.
When you stand on the summit of Mont Ventoux in the morning, after you made it all the way up with heavy bags, without a proper breakfast, without decent sleep and with already enough vertical meters in your legs from the days before, it's kind of impossible not to stand there in awe, suddenly overwhelmed by the simple fact of how small and unimportant we all are compared to the endless infinity of the horizon.
Somehow disconnecting from the egocentric point of view while coming closer to nature, your surroundings, the people you pass, will humble the way you look at this world.
I encountered so many friendly strangers along my last race, people who made me smile with their words, acts and curiosity about what I was up to. In a race you will sometimes get
impatient, when you have to stop for getting groceries for example. It seems to takes ages, long queues, the cashier has a bad day and in front of you is an old lady with a hell lot of small coins to pay with. But after you leave the supermarket she will stand in front of your bike, really curious about your trip, telling you about how she loved to cycle together with her husband, who passed away a few years ago. She will give you some of her just bought chocolate, wish you bon voyage and you will be left feeling a bit silly for being so impatient just a few minutes before. We come to those places, but we don't have any right to expect to be treated differently, just because we are in a race. Still, most people will treat you differently- it may not always be exactly faster, nevertheless they will be more helpful, more curious and even more welcoming than you could ever expect.
However, sometimes they won't, so it's nothing you can take for granted. When it happens it happens and there's a reason why we call it roadmagic. This always stunned me and those small friendly acts of strangers often had such a huge impact on my day. It's those little things becoming so much more relevant as soon as you are able to pay attention to what surrounds you. And I'm pretty sure those details are relevant all the time, but we are often too busy and tied to our own little universes to even notice. At some point I felt utterly saddened about the beauty we destroy every day, because we're not paying attention to all those details around. (And yeah, of course I was completely sleep deprived, hungry and the 40°C also might have had an impact on my thoughts at that point) But after all, this thought was something else than just a sleep deprivation induced hallucination. It will change you long after the race is already history and it will open your mind if you let it happen.
2. Freedom (nah, that one is too obvious.)
I think this one will not need a lot of further explanation. You are your own boss on your own way and there's no one you need to give account to why and where and whatever. You stop when you're tired and you sleep wherever you can find a spot to place your bivy. You can look at the stars (if you're not too tired too keep your eyes open as soon as you get into the horizontal position) and you won't even have to spend a lot of money for accommodation, wait for the receptionist to be available or get involved in endless discussions about why you really need to take your bike to your room and why you get up at three in the morning and no, you don't want breakfast at 9, thanks.
As long as you are okay with sleeping in a bus stop, a bush or behind a church, the world is your home.
You have the most beautiful and best task in the world: Eat, ride, sleep, repeat.
Overcoming hurdles, being confronted with all kind of challenges will change you, because you will eventually find out what you're are capable of - often more than you ever thought would be possible. You won't have to do anything you don't want, although you will have to get your ass up, motivate yourself and decide every single step on your own. You cover distances most people aren't even interested to drive in a car and this will give you a certain feeling of independence and a kind of independence you'd hardly ever archive by anything else.
You will not only choose the comfy stuff, like sitting in a patisserie eating croissants and ride in perfect weather. You will also choose to ride through hailstorms while you are sleep deprived, hungry, aching, sometimes bored, sometimes angry because you decided to sign up for this horrible ordeal and you can't really come up with a good explanation why. But you will continue to make choices based on what you want to archive on the long way, no matter what curveballs life keeps throwing you, which is probably the best definition of will power. As a student of philosophy I can assure you, the free will is still a subject that's uncertain. But if there's anything near freedom of choice in life, this is probably what it feels like. To choose the uncomfortable stuff sometimes, always willing to do it, from time to time
even enjoying it, even though it sucks and therefore never having the impression of being forced into it.
This is the best definition of freedom I can come up with, and trust me, I read a lot about it.
While some of us are riding solo and call it a hobby to spend days without talking to anyone except ourselves and supermarket cashiers, the feeling of being part of a community is one thing that makes racing so special. Unlike the usual connotation of competition implies, taking part in an unsupported ultrarace will give you the chance to compete, while still sharing wonderful memories with other riders. It will leave you with more friends, beautiful moments and the feeling of being part of a community rather than just going home with the fact that you were a number in front of another number on a long and anonymous list of even more faceless numbers. It may sound strange, but meeting other riders along the way often isn't a bad thing (although it sometimes means that you're being overtaken), but in fact can be the reason why you want to continuously come back again and again to ride such events. There are no categories. You are a woman? You are a man? You are neither or both, fine, we all compete in one category and diversity has never looked that damn good. Don't get me wrong, there are still obvious differences and privileges or social disadvantages. They are visible in a bikepacking race just like anywhere else. However, at the end of the day we all just share the beauty and the horror of riding a bike far and long, we drink a beer together after we arrived at the finish while we're having conversations we would probably never have in an every day setting.
4. Challenge the meaning of achievement and change society
Woah, you might say, now she's going a bit far. Indeed, that's actually intended when going on an ultra. But seriously, what if a bikepacking race would be a small blueprint of society, and it'd be upon us to make the best. But isn't is just insane to forget about all the other achievements, stories and limits, that had been made, experienced and exceeded? Sometimes my writer's heart is bleeding silent tears for all the great stories that no one will ever hear about, because the rider who experienced them was not fast enough. And sometimes I wonder why we continue to make the same mistakes, why do we so often copy and paste our social norm into everything that could be a chance for change?
Why are we so attached to the idea, that winning by being the fastest is everything it could ever possibly be about?
Everyone who has done something daring like riding a bike this far, knows that it's about more than just pedaling real hard. I don't want to sound like a Hippie, but to me the logic of our usual approach on achievement can't really be hold accountable for ultracycling. By
overcoming your own limits you become a winner, because winning is just a relative term and depends not only on outbound factors, when it comes to adventure. In fact it's actually a very vage concept when you're having a closer look at it. Nonetheless, it's certainly the aspect of competing which plays a major role when it comes to pushing yourself a bit further above what you'd normally do when touring. One amazing factor that makes racing so fascinating, is that we're able to compete against others and this will give us the frame to estimate our own abilities on a broader scale. The other riders become tools to evaluate your own position in this whole chapter, yet, being the fastest is only one amongst many categories if you think about it without just applying the typical templates. If you're riding solo it comes to the point, where it's hard to compare what you do to the reality of others. You are the only one who was there in that exact moment and even though you were hunting other riders really close you never know what it was like for them. Maybe the person in front of you didn't sleep all night and couldn't find an open shop to buy food yet. A mountain pass feels a lot harder when you add or subtract certain aspects. For this person it might have been a breaking point, close to scratching, whereas you had an awesome day riding up a beautiful alpine road. It's the very personal boundaries we overcome and after all, you will race against yourself or against time, rather then against others. Opening up for the whole variety of different perspectives is the core of the word diversity and it should be lived in more ways than just making sure we have the right hashtags placed under our neatly arranged social media posts.
We tend to adapt our social norms into everything we do, which is natural, so it's no surprise we are likely to end up with the very same values in a bike race, as it is not happening in a completely different universe. However, that it comes naturally doesn't mean that we have no choice to change it.
We can shape it, we can form it, we can make it better or worse, it's completely up to us, the ones who ride and share our thoughts about it.
After all it comes down to this:
It's not a thing, that will live on it's own;
it's every single person who votes for or against something,
every single act of solidarity,
every border built or pulled down,
every voice heard or muted.
That's why every single rider is not only part of it, every single rider is an essential part of it.
We are in charge.
Because the people who race are the people who build the spirit.