Pushing the limits: why long-distance adventure racing is on the rise

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Racing bikes over long distances isn’t new. Early editions of the Tour de France routinely featured stages of 400km+ and randonneuring has been around for well over a century. Indeed, the most famous randonnée (or brevet) of them all, the 1,200km Paris-Brest-Paris, began in 1891 and existed as a race for 60 years before switching to its current non-race format.

And while many long-distance races have died out over the years — like the 560km Bourdeaux-Paris which ended in 1988 after nearly a century — there’s been something of a resurgence in such events in recent years, lead by the likes of the Race Across America (RAAM), the Trans Am Bike Race, the Transcontinental and off-road events like the Tour Divide.

So what’s responsible for the (re)growth of this part of the sport? And what is it that compels people to not just ride hundreds of kilometres per day for weeks on end, but to do so as a race?

Getting into it

It’s only natural that in cycling, as in life, we are influenced by those around us. Joining a new riding group can reveal an entire aspect of the sport you were never aware of. And friendly peer pressure can see friends push one another to places they mightn’t have expected. This is what happened with Jesse Carlsson.

Carlsson is a former BMX age-group world champion who made the switch to mountain biking after injury ended his BMX career. What started as a bit of fun turned into six-hour races, then 24-hour races, and then quickly became even more extreme as he and his riding buddies started to push the limits.

“It’s just the natural progression really,” Carlsson told CyclingTips. “If you start doing longer rides then suddenly you need to stay the night so you start carrying all this stuff with you and you start researching the gear.”

“[The rides] seemed to get longer and longer and no one really said ‘no’ at any point so it just kind of escalates and sooner or later you end up at the [ed. Tour Divide] startline in Banff.”

The Tour Divide is a 4,400km, self-supported mountain bike race that takes riders from Banff, Canada all the way down to Antelope Wells, New Mexico, following the Continental Divide of the Americas. Carlsson raced the 2013 Tour Divide and finished second, completing the route in 15 days and 12 hours (an average of 280km per day).

And then, earlier this year, Carlsson ventured onto paved roads in an attempt to complete the Trans Am, a 6,800km solo, unsupported non-stop race across the USA from west to east. Carlsson didn’t just finish the race; he won it, completing the course in a touch under 19 days (roughly 360km per day).

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While natural progression and peer pressure are big motivators for many people, others are attracted to long-distance racing for the opportunity to push their limits; to step outside their comfort zone. One such rider is Sarah Hammond who, among many others, found herself inspired by Jesse Carlsson’s recent exploits in the US.

In the past two years Hammond has completed no fewer than four ‘Everestings’ — rides in which an individual attempts to climb the equivalent height of Mt. Everest (8,848 metres) in a single ride. The same thing that initially attracted Hammond to Everesting prompted her to sign up for the 2016 Trans Am after following Jesse Carlsson’s exploits.

“It’s always been about doing something that seems absolutely ridiculous,” Hammond said. “When I read [about Everesting] I thought ‘this is f***ed’, but that was what was so appealing about it. It seemed unfathomable that you could climb that distance.”

Earlier this year Swiss rider Alain Rumpf completed the Transcontinental in Europe after signing up on a whim. He’d seen his friend complete last year’s race and when entries opened, he simply decided to enter. For Rumpf, the appeal of riding hundreds of kilometres a day for more than two weeks is linked with the prospect of adventure.

“It’s about going off the beaten path,” Rumpf told CyclingTips. ‘It’s about doing something really special. In today’s world you have less and less time; it’s stressful. So being able to escape from that and being on your own or with friends and having an adventure is something that people are looking for.

“This type of touring provides that. You disconnect from the world, it’s meaningful, it’s authentic.”

The growth of adventure racing

It’s not just that the likes of the Transcontinental and Trans Am are becoming more well known — participation numbers are on the rise as well. In its first year, in 2013, the Transcontinental had 31 riders on the startline. In 2014 it attracted 64 and this year no fewer than 172 set off from Geraardsbergen in Belgium. Over in the US, more riders are signed up for the 2016 Trans Am than attempted either of the first two editions.

And not only are existing events becoming more popular, other similar events are also popping up around the world.

“The people that do these events seem to want to bring that experience to their own part of the world,” Jesse Carlsson explained to CyclingTips. “There have been more of these events going on in New Zealand because I think a bunch of New Zealanders went over and did the Tour Divide before the Aussies started to get over there.”

Carlsson himself wants to bring the spirit of events like the Tour Divide and Trans Am to his corner of the globe. He’s in the process of setting up Race to the Rock, an event planned for September 2016 that will see competitors race from Adelaide to Uluru, covering several iconic red desert tracks in Central Australia.

“I was reflecting on ‘what would I want people to see if they were going to have this adventure in Australia?’ And I thought ‘well, I’d want them to see the real Australia – what most of Australia is’,” Carlsson said.

“Australia is mostly arid, barren and harsh and personally I wanted to ride some of these remote desert tracks and I thought let’s put a route together that covers a mixture of stuff and somewhere iconic.”

Central Australia has no shortage of vast, imposing landscapes for the long-distance cyclist to find adventure within. (Image: Scott Mitchell for Thereabouts)

So why are more and more riders turning to events such as these? What compels people to race thousands of kilometres through inhospitable terrain, mostly alone, for no prize money?

The reasons are many and varied but as Alain Rumpf explains, one explanation is that many people seem to be getting bored with ‘traditional’ bike racing — one of the regular entry points for more extreme races like the Race Across America and Tour Divide.

“I still watch pro racing and I love it and I have a huge admiration for all the riders but I think it’s less and less appealing,” said Rumpf, who, until 2014, worked for the UCI’s Global Cycling Promotions, the organisation behind the now defunct Tour of Beijing. “It’s more predictable, it’s formatted. Bike touring or ultralight touring and racing is the opposite. Nothing is predictable. You have so many things to take into account — it’s a real adventure.”

Jesse Carlsson agrees, suggesting that the idea of racing across an entire continent offers a far greater reward than a simple MTB race.

“If you place 33rd in a six-hour race having ridden round and round in circles, you go home and think ‘well that was good fun’,” he said. “But if you finish 33rd in a race where you’ve ridden all the way across America, you’ve had an amazing adventure, you’ve had all those interactions with people that you have while touring … and learnt about small-town America, who cares where you placed because you had an amazing adventure. The race is an excuse to get there.”

The growth of the adventure racing scene also seems to be due to a combination of technological advances, a certain amount of spill-over from the ultralight hiking movement, and a shifting sense of what is fashionable in the world of cycling.

Image: Alain Rumpf
Image: Alain Rumpf

“It is now possible to add some really lightweight bags to your normal carbon road bike and go for an adventure,” Alain Rumpf told CyclingTips. “Before, bike touring meant having a special bike with racks, with panniers. It was an investment. Plus it was not really cool.”

“If you were a roadie you would have the smallest saddlebag possible and that was it. Now people find it cool to do some self-supported, multi-day trips. So that part is becoming more and more popular.”

Social media and the web

The increasing popularity of bikepacking and adventure racing also seems due, in no small part, to the rise of social media. The likes of Instagram, Facebook and Strava all make it easier than ever to follow a rider’s adventures from afar. Sarah Hammond puts this down to voyeurism and vicarious living.

“Even in the short time that my name’s gone on the roster for [the 2016 Trans Am] … I’m getting bombarded by people I don’t know,” Hammond said. “People like to watch people hurt themselves. When you see people doing things that seem so beyond what you think you’re capable of, people like to tune in to that stuff. It’s inspiring.”

Jesse Carlsson agrees.

“Anything that’s on the fringes has accelerated through social media,” Carlsson said. “It just accelerates the process of people finding out what’s possible and suddenly that becomes the norm.”

And thanks to social media, the definition of ‘normal’ is changing faster than ever before.

“You look more broadly than just cycling and there’s a desire to go longer and longer, for whatever reason,” Carlsson said. “Back when I was a youngster the ultimate feat of endurance was to run a marathon. Now it seems running a marathon is a bit passe — to impress your mates you need to do at least an ironman triathlon.

“Things have escalated; people are looking for more and more stuff to do.”

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But it could be argued that social media’s influence in this space isn’t entirely positive. Sure, a carefully curated stream of Instagram posts might make a long adventure race look appealing, but things are rarely so rosy when you’re riding across a continent on your own, battling the elements, the terrain, and yourself.

“I think what happens is people see these amazing shots and there’s that very romantic view of heading out on your bike and going for an adventure. When you’re racing these things, the reality can be very different,” Carlsson said. “You’re out there slogging it out through the mud in the middle of nowhere in the freezing cold — that’s why these races have such a high attrition rate.

“Not only are they tough but I think people’s expectations are very different from the reality.”

The challenge of adventure racing

So what is the reality of racing an event like the Trans Am? The physical challenge is the most obvious aspect — the need to cover huge distances every day, in all weather conditions, often over inhospitable terrain.

While Jesse Carlsson went on to win this year’s Trans Am he didn’t do so without significant physical difficulties. A knee injury and back injury took their toll, as too did a bout of gastro which left Carlsson unable to keep food down for three days.

“I think that ended up causing me to burn through a lot of muscle so it put me in a bad place,” said Carlsson who, by his own admission, is still recovering from his effort at the Trans Am, some four months later.

But for Alain Rumpf, the experience of riding this year’s Transcontinental showed him that physical fitness is only one part of the equation.

“Some of the feedback I’ve got is ‘woah this is huge – it’s a huge physical performance. I will never be able to do it’,” Rumpf said. “To do this kind of race you obviously need to be fit, so you need to train, but it’s a lot about being able to ride on your own, to look after yourself, to navigate and actually the speeds aren’t that critical.”

Ahead of her attempt at next year’s Trans Am, Sarah Hammond has a similar perspective.

“For me the actual physical side of it will be quite secondary to working out how I’m going to manage weather or, god forbid, animals,” Hammond said. “For me it’s having that mental strength and being completely out of my element.”

Putting your body through the rigours of the daily riding is challenge enough but coping with the mind-numbing monotony of riding all day, every day is another challenge entirely. How you handle being alone for weeks on end, often in difficult situations, is also an important factor.

And then there’s the weather. Riders in the Trans Am face the full gamut of climatic conditions, from freezing temperatures in the Rocky Mountains to strong winds on the vast plains, to the very real threat of tornadoes.

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The financial burden adds another layer of complexity. While the entry fee for Trans Am is just $40 — to cover the cost of a GPS tracker — there are many other costs that make attempting the race an extremely costly exercise.

After this year’s Trans Am, American rider Felix Wong estimated his costs at more than US$4,000, comprised largely of lodging, food and repairs/parts for his bike. For Sarah Hammond, who has to factor in the cost of a flight from Australia to the US and back, the outlay is likely to be closer to $5,000.

And as far as adventure races go, the Trans Am is reasonably cheap. The more-famous Race Across America, with its accommodation, support crews and support vehicles, routinely costs north of US$10,000, despite being nearly 2,000km shorter than the Trans Am.

The next adventure …

For riders that find themselves racing the Trans Am and similar events as a natural progression, it’s only normal to complete such a ride and be looking for something even bigger.

While Jesse Carlsson’s immediate focus is on completing his recovery from the Trans Am, and then building towards Race to the Rock, he has half an eye on the biggest cycling journey of them all.

“The next thing beyond me is to have a go at an around-the-world ride,” Carlsson said. “There’s an around-the-world race they do which has a great tagline: ‘want a bigger race? Find a bigger planet’.

“That would be the natural end point. I’d need to find something else to do after that!”

Alain Rumpf, by contrast, doesn’t feel the same desire to continue pushing the limits. He welcomed a new baby into his life less than a week ago and he has a bike holiday company due to launch any day — neither of which provide the ideal backdrop for a second tilt at the Transcontinental or a similar challenge.

“I really feel that I have ticked the box,” Rumpf said. “I made it to the finish — and only half of the starters made to the finish –and I made it in fairly good condition so I don’t really want to go back and do better because it’s a huge personal investment. I think if I had to quit the race then certainly I would want to go back and finish.

“Maybe something else [is next]. Touring, but with a family?”

For Sarah Hammond, the journey is only just beginning. She’s got seven months until she takes to the Trans Am startline — seven months to prepare her equipment, the route she’ll take, and her body.

“My fuel tank is getting better,” Hammond said. “I’m getting through 250km with fuel still in the tank when I get home. A year ago I’d be like ‘I need a few days off.’”

There’ll be no time for a few days off when the 2016 Trans Am begins.

Further reading:

CyclingTips would like to thank Jesse Carlsson, Sarah Hammond and Alain Rumpf for their time.

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