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Late this past Sunday night, cycling journalist (and friend of CyclingTips) Rupert Guinness stepped off his bike in a Sydney car showroom and called an end to one incredible ride. He’d just spent the past 12 days riding on a stationary trainer as part of the Virtual Race Across America (VRAAM), the online version of the legendary ultra-endurance race that, like so many other events, was cancelled in 2020 due to COVID-19.
In those 12 days, the 58-year-old had ridden 3,358.68 virtual kilometres — an average of 280 km a day, on the indoor trainer — netting him eighth place in the event. A couple of days after finishing the ride, Guinness took the time to chat to CyclingTips about the experience and how it helped him prepare for a tilt at the “real” RAAM, in 2021.
CyclingTips: Congratulations on an awesome ride! How have you pulled up?
Rupert Guinness: Look, I’m feeling pretty good, actually. I’m obviously tired. To be honest, I’m really tired [but] I’m very happy with how things panned out. But I think this one certainly dipped into the threshold bucket, put it that way. I feel more fatigued today than I did yesterday. There’s a few little niggles here and there, but nothing long-term or irreparable.
How did this whole thing come about? You were supposed to be doing the RAAM, right?
That’s right. I mean, we were preparing for RAAM and even when COVID rose its head and when RAAM looked like it would join the list of sports events being canceled, I still continued preparing for RAAM because I thought I’d wait until the final word that it was canceled. I would have hated to have gone over [to the USA] and then lamented not having trained for it properly.
So I continued training. And then when it was canceled it was put to me by my mate Anthony Gordon, after he had privately consulted with a couple of the other support crew — I didn’t know he had — ‘What about doing it virtually?’ I laughed at the idea and thought ‘you’re kidding’. But over a couple of rosés I thought ‘well hold on, what if we did?’
I guess Anthony had this vision in his mind of creating an event; one, to provide me with a ride to do to sign off on all the preparation I’ve done and in preparation for next year’s RAAM, and; two, to try and do something which generates some positivity during pretty challenging times for everybody. So I thought ‘Yeah, why not – let’s do this. What else am I going to do?’
Anthony worked on getting partners on board to bring their expertise in and to get the event going. And then the RAAM organisation itself gave its thumbs up to the idea as well. That was kind of important because they didn’t have an event so this at least continued some momentum of interest in RAAM and it also gave their audience a chance to be involved in something that didn’t exist when they cancelled it.
It looked like you had a pretty great setup there in the car dealership?
Yeah, it’s called G Brothers’ Mercedes in Mona Vale in the northern beaches area [of Sydney]. So they offered an area of the showroom for us to use which had a kitchen area and a toilet area and also an outdoor parking area. So that was huge, to have the facility there to do it from.
Mind you, everything we had organised was basically reflective of the preparation that we had for RAAM. So it wasn’t just like it happened overnight — the whole operation was nine months of work and getting all those people and systems in place. So it wasn’t just an off-the-cuff ‘hey let’s just go and do this and grab people to come along’ – it took a lot of time putting that crew together, put it that way.
And you had a campervan in the car park?
Yeah, the campervan was behind me where you saw me riding; it was just behind me. And the idea of doing that was we wanted to create a sort of a RAAM setup so it looked like we were at RAAM. So the support vehicle was there and we had another support vehicle nearby.
I’d have some of my sleeps in the motor home. And little things like getting used to the motor home and how you organise yourself to use the shower inside — they’re all little detail things but I was much better at being ready and showering and changing at the end than I was at the beginning. It just gets you more au fait with the environment of what we’ll have in RAAM next year.
What would an average day look like for you? How many hours were you spending on the bike?
Roughly it was 18 to 20 hours per day. We started off on a 20-hour program then that sort of varied from 20 to 18 hours. I think the key point was to find the ideal sleeping pattern, and the same with nutrition and hydration; to find the right patterns that worked best for me.
So from the sleeping patterns, I think I tried a couple of four-hour blocks which were a little bit long for me early because I’d find I’d be restless and just waste time. The best one for several days was anything from midnight to one o’clock in the morning, I’d start a three-hour block in which I’d probably sleep two and half hours. That would also include my shower.
I’d try and eat before I got off the bike — so I would have started digesting my food — and then get off the bike, go into the motorhome, strip off, have a shower and put my fresh dry kit on that I would ride for the next shift and then go to bed in my kit, and get up after two and a half hours or so and then just try and ride till dawn. I’d be picking away at food and drinks that the support crew would bring me and then usually around 10:30-ish I’d have my first stop for massage.
So I had that three-hour block in the night to sleep. I also allowed myself anything from two to three hours during the day. I may stop for half an hour on the massage table, and sleep at the same time. I may have a 10-minute power nap on a mattress, which was near where my bike was. On some days, I allowed myself to have a one-hour sleep in the afternoon at three or four o’clock before the evening shift started.
And this helped break the day down too, rather than thinking of the whole long longevity of it all. So it did vary along the way, depending how I felt as well.
The ride took place on the FulGaz platform. How did that work? Were there specific rides you had to do? Or could you just choose whatever rides you wanted to make up the distance?
The rides would come up [on the app] from one to 214, and they’re in a set sequence that you have to follow. So that way you’ve got the semblance of a course that’s unfolding before you.
Each time you would complete a ride you’d have to upload the ride as you do with Strava and it would go onto FulGaz where all the data, including the kilometres, would be put onto your name and then your accrued kilometres would just add up. And then you’d go back to the menu and the next ride would always have a green marking around it. So you knew where you had to go back to. So you’d just press ‘start’ and do it again.
I remember at the beginning thinking ‘Gee, at one point this will be the last one I have to press start on. I’m looking forward to that moment.’ And you just chip away at it and before you know it you’re into the 20s, 50s and 100s and then getting to the high hundreds and [by then] you’re getting to the end.
You ended up covering around 3,300 km. How did that compare to what you were expecting?
Obviously when I started I thought it’d be great to do 4,500 km [ed. the length of RAAM] and then in the end I did 3,358.68 km. I think after the first five or six days I started to think ‘This is a lot harder than what I thought.’ Then we heard, general consensus, that the course was harder than what they had estimated. And you could see that ‘Hold on, there’s a possibility that no one’s going to finish the 4,500.’
At the start they said everybody who finishes 4,500 km will automatically qualify for the RAAM. It was estimated the course was 30% harder than real RAAM because there was 20,000 metres more climbing in VRAAM than there was in RAAM. And there was very little descending because a lot of those individual rides were like straight up a mountain and then you finish the ride at the top and you go to the next one and it’s another mountain. So it was like a number of mountain time trials.
So around about that time when they started saying they were going to review the qualifying mark, obviously by then you realised that Oh, it’s not just me thinking ‘shit, this is harder than I thought. It’s generally agreed.’ So then I sort of figured I didn’t know how many [FulGaz segments I would complete] because this is the first time a virtual Race Across America has been held.
The unknown was a stimulus for me. You could think the unknown could be a scary thing but I was keeping a very open mind. When they set this new [qualifying] mark, my focus was on getting past that mark first — 3,248 km. Anything on top of that was a bonus. [ed. Only one rider completed the full distance: Japanese rider Hirokazu Suzuki, who rode (virtually) all 4,539.80 km from the west coast of the USA to the east.]
It seemed like you had a nice little battle at times with broadcaster and former Giro d’Italia stage winner Dave McKenzie at certain points along the way?
Yeah, that was interesting. We were real close to each other and chopping and changing the lead. I think that sort of helped me get the best out of myself. It was nice to have that and I think Macca did a great job. I hope he’s happy with what he did [ed. McKenzie covered 3,005 km]. It was great to have somebody like him in there. It kept me honest. There was a point there, I thought, ‘oh god, this [battle] could go all the way to the finish like this.’ I wasn’t looking forward to that.
That said, I felt like I was getting stronger towards the end of the event, which kind of surprised me, [but] which is probably reflective of the program I was given by my coach, which was aimed at being stronger at the end of RAAM.
I think the whole thing reaffirmed to me how important the planning is for RAAM. My program started basically in September last year and I was pretty strict in keeping to it. And it just increased. It was a challenging program, but it was achievable. It wasn’t something that the average person like myself can’t do, but you have to commit to it.
During VRAAM I didn’t have any alcohol. That was the longest stretch without booze for as long as I can remember. That was my number one achievement I guess. Twelve days without booze. But I still enjoyed wine preparing for it, and training.
You made it past the revised RAAM qualification mark on the final day, right?
Yeah, I went past it on Sunday I think about lunchtime. I got kind of excited and there was a block where I was doing, 385 to 425 watts or something and then I went past that mark and I thought ‘Hold on, there’s another 10 hours to go. I better ease up here.’
How did this experience compare to your rides in the Indian Pacific Wheel Race and the Revolve 24-hour races?
Ah, it certainly is up on another level. But that’s maybe reflective of my lack of experience with Indy Pac when I first did it. But I think the experience of Indy Pac one and two and my Revolves — I think they all helped in knowing my thresholds and ability to manage myself through highs and lows and the sleep issues. They’re all a part of the building blocks of what my performance was this time. So it was all a learning experience and this will help me for RAAM next year immensely because you’re always learning new things about yourself.
When I did my first Indy Pac, when I look back on that, I realise how little I was prepared for it, even though I thought I was well-prepared. But that’s part of the adventure of it all. That’s what I love about ultra-endurance riding. You’re never 100% sure of anything, you know?
My biggest problem [during the VRAAM] was when my Tacx smart trainer blew up on the first Saturday at about three in the morning. And that kind of pissed me off because then I didn’t have a smart trainer for a bit. We had some backups and then my support crew, the ones who were on stand-by, they said ‘ok, we’ve got to stop for minute. Use this stop to catch up on some sleep and we’ll fix it. We’ll wake you up.’ So that’s where you had to have faith in your crew so I didn’t have to stress about a mechanical.
But again, I think this was up another level for me. Because obviously the people who go for the win at Indy Pac they’re going at it at a level that I wasn’t at at Indy Pac. For me personally, this was up another level because I was going in to race VRAAM not to ride VRAAM. I was riding Indy Pac to finish. And if I was going to do RAAM, I was going there to race.
It’s the mentality. This was my first experience really to go and race an ultra-endurance event 12 days. And I know when I go to RAAM, I’m going to have to go there to race it. So this is a prime opportunity. The fact that we had a cut-off mark to make [12 days] heightened that. Also, it was a good example of in RAAM, where you have cut-off marks which you have to reach to avoid elimination, it was a good test to simulate if my crew said ‘Rupe, you’ve got so many hours to make the cut off, we’re gonna have to really dig deep here.’ That mentality helped me prepare for that.
Physically, it sounds like you got through it fine?
Yeah, I finished strong. I had a couple little niggles. I started with a corn on my right little toe, which is still really sore — I had to cut a hole in my cycling shoes so there wouldn’t be pressure on it. I’ve got the usual hot-feet syndrome. My left knee got a little bit sore towards the end so I had to tape it up for the last few hours. But that was just precautionary — it’s fine now. The muscles get really sore because you’re on that stationary bike. They’re still sore if I touch them now, the muscles above the knee cap.
The worst thing I’ve got is the pinky and the next finger [on my left hand] are basically numb which I think is metacarpal syndrome, from being on the handlebars. I can’t straighten my pinky — if I put a glove on, I have to direct the pinky through the glove. And that’s quite sore. At night time when I’m in bed it gets really pretty painful. So that’s probably the main thing.
And I’ve got to see a dentist because just before VRAAM a filling in part of a tooth came out and with all the eating of food [during VRAAM] it’s probably not the best thing to be eating with a hole in your teeth.
With the hand thing I’m probably going to see a doctor tomorrow — it may require a bit of a surgical process to release the nerves.
Anything else you’d like to share about the ride?
The other thing is we were doing it for mental health awareness — that was the overriding cause. Not for one charity, but general awareness. The organisers wanted to create a positive initiative during these times and mental health awareness was the message we were trying to put out there.
The VRAAM also really drove home to me the importance of a really good support crew. Like I said, our support crew we’d selected and worked with for a long time but this was very much a dry run for them. The fact that they got me through to a point where my weight loss was pretty low and when I said I felt stronger at the end than I did at the beginning, that’s really reflective of how they were able to not just feed me and put me to sleep, they could read more body.
They knew when I was fatigued before I knew it. Or they would just be able to act when they needed to act, before I even knew they needed to act. And you really have to have a support crew that works, like a Formula 1 team crew. There’s no way you could get the best out of yourself without that sort of cohesion. It may be an individual event, but definitely you need that crew there. I wouldn’t have done it without them.
Total distance covered: 3,358.68 km
Average distance per day: 279.9 km
FulGaz rides completed: 173
Total sleep: 60 hours
Average sleep per day: 5 hours
Total calories burned: 84,271
Weight lost: 2.9 kg
Rupert’s support crew
Crew chief: Anthony Gordon
Logistics chief: Kent Williams
Medical manager: Troy Peters
Chief physiotherapist: Orla Cunningham
Head performance coach: Tony Kiss
Social media manager: Sally Heginbotham
Media chief: Peter Cunningham
Nutritional advisor: Brett Davidson
Chef/kit chief: Libby Bennett (Rupert’s wife)
IT/comms chief: David Fell