All Points North: Lessons From Ultra Cycling First Timers

In September 2021, three ultra-distance first-timers took on All Points North, a self-routed race between 10 checkpoints in the north of England. All three riders, Mari, Emily and Kitty are fans of ultra-cycling but this was their first attempt at riding a self-supported bikepacking race. Here, Mari, Emily and Kitty share how the experience compared to their expectations and the lessons they learned on the road.

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A cyclist rides away from the camera on a remote mountain road in the north of England

 

All Points North (APN) is the brainchild of Apidura ambassador Angela Walker and Tori Gray, who run A Different Gear – a not-for-profit community bike shop and workshop in Sheffield. As keen cyclists and bikepackers, they combined their knowledge of event planning and love of adventure to organize an event that would give riders the opportunity to try a smaller scale, multi-day endurance cycling challenge.

The race challenges riders to plan their own route to given control points, ride completely self-supported and make their own decisions about how they plan their time, find food, and find places to sleep. Despite offering the same challenges as the hardest bikepacking races, APN is designed to be accessible, and the start line always features a mix of ultra-distance newcomers and veterans. It’s a race that proves that riding 1,000km with plenty of climbing is not for the faint-hearted and simply finishing is a challenge, no matter how experienced you are.

In 2021, the roster included three close friends of Apidura who have long moved amongst the bikepacking and self-supported racing scene, but not yet dipped their toes: Mari Funabashi, Customer Support at Apidura and an experienced triathlete, Emily Robinson, a long-time dotwatcher and keen cyclist, and Kitty Dennis, Managing Editor at Dotwatcher.cc.

Although the ride didn’t quite go to plan, with all three riders having to withdraw, they all learned valuable lessons which they have kindly shared with us.

Mari Funabashi: Embracing The Experience

An experienced triathlete and bikepacker, Mari is no stranger to long-distance sport – although this would be her longest ride to date. Her experience meant she went into APN with a sense of perspective and a defined mental picture of what the challenge would entail, helping to reduce anxiety. However, an unfortunately timed (and stressful!) house move ahead of the race meant life commitments got in the way and she was unable to prepare as thoroughly as she would have liked.

Despite scratching, Mari counts her experience at APN as a win overall – getting to explore a new area of England, taking in the wildlife and getting to feel even more at home in the second country she now calls home.

Mari stands on a grass trail in the woods, facing the camera and standing behind her bike which is covered in bikepacking luggage

“Between work and my other life commitments during those crucial few months before APN, I genuinely had no time for anything else. My route was planned over a dozen lunch periods or so and I focused solely on distance, which I now know to be so much less important than elevation.

The main thing riding APN taught me was that it’s important to know what you can negotiate on, and what is an absolute boundary for you. I’m from the Sonoran Desert, so need lots of layers to stay warm, but I don’t particularly mind being wet and rained on, so I’m happy to ride through bad weather. Knowing the answers to these sorts of questions will keep you informed when making decisions for your race-day route, and will ultimately help you have a more comfortable, fun, and all-around better time.

One of the boundaries I was concerned about ahead of the race was physical safety from other people. As a small Asian woman, sleeping outside in the middle of nowhere is anxiety-inducing at the best of times, but I opted not to use hotels as I wanted to really throw myself into the heart of my first bikepacking event. I’m happy to report that nothing fishy happened and I’m very glad that I opted to bivvy.

My bivvy experience taught me another important lesson that I hadn’t expected. People don’t talk about this enough because it’s a little unsavoury, but I really wish I came across more advice on airing yourself out. You see these photos of experienced ultra-cyclists sleeping, riding, and existing in only one pair of tight bib shorts. This is super unrealistic and any attempts to mimic this will likely end with all sorts of issues in your saddle area.

A rider in the distance heads along a road in the countryside with rolling hills behind them

Deciding to scratch was ultimately the right call and in the end I’m thankful that I was able to realize that. I think the idea that you should never scratch, while inspiring in principle, is not always a healthy way to view these events. There’s no shame in knowing when to say when.

With ultra-endurance racing, where the finish line is multiple sunsets away, it doesn’t matter how fit you are, or how much faith you have in yourself, putting together a puzzle of that many factors over that sort of distance requires a thoroughness of preparation that demands the utmost respect. 

Despite scratching from the event, I really valued my time riding through the Northern countryside. Riding your bike is such a great way to view wildlife and get to know the area around you. As an avid birder, some of my most treasured spots were from the perch of my saddle, and near Ripon early in the morning I was able to observe small flocks of Ptarmigans sat on the stone walls, which was a lifer for me and a very rewarding spot (a ‘lifer’ is a twitching term for the first time you’ve seen that species in the flesh).

As an immigrant to the UK, I felt more a part of this country on my London to Scotland bikepacking trip last year than I ever did before. Travelling by bike, you get to meet different people in different corners of the country, eat local specialities, and learn a bit about the history of how this all came to be; you literally feel the landscape through all your senses, taking in the sights, smells, sounds and feel of the land.”

  • Bib Shorts
  • Socks
  • 2x Battery Packs
  • Charging Cables
  • Tool Kit
  • 5x Dehydrated Meals
  • Bivvy
  • Sleeping Bag
  • Sleeping Bag Liner
  • Sleeping Mat
  • Puffer Jacket

Emily Robinson: Learning To Say Yes

Despite years spent as an avid dotwatcher, APN was Emily’s first attempt at an ultra-distance event and a brave move from dotwatcher to rider. Armed with plenty of knowledge from spectating and a sports science degree, it was ultimately the unteachable elements of long-distance riding – conditioning and experience eating on longer rides – that proved to be the biggest challenge.

Despite scratching, Emily is glad to have made the leap from dotwatcher to dot and has come away from APN with a confidence boost to say ‘yes’ to future challenges, knowing that she can put the wealth of knowledge she’s built over the years into practice to accomplish bigger challenges.

Emily rides away from the camera on a quiet rural road, past fields of rape seed

“Having coaching qualifications and a degree in sports science, I knew what training I needed to do and drafted a rough training plan, with longer rides and audaxes on the weekends to increase distance. However, with a lack of accountability and terrible weather, I didn’t stick to it at all. I did find time to focus on my bike skills and tried yoga, rolling and strength training too, but I think I would increase this for injury prevention in future and look into getting a coach.

I was more prepared in terms of my route. I used B Router to decide which order to tackle the checkpoints in, looking for distance and elevation. Once the order was decided, I looked at each section kilometre by kilometre, checking that roads were suitable (not too busy or not too gravelly) and looking for any shortcuts – that didn’t add climbing! I recorded food stops, accommodation, and bike shops on an Excel sheet which I printed off and had in my top tube bag. I went over each section three or four times before I was happy with the route. This time commitment paid off as I knew my route very well and it was beautiful.

I knew I would prefer sleeping indoors and would get better sleep, so didn’t even consider bringing bivvy equipment. I aimed for four hours of sleep per night, which worked well. I had hotels in mind on out and back sections which gave me the option of checking in and cycling a bit longer or calling it early if I needed to.

A rider heads towards the camera on a dark residential street with their headlight lighting up the road ahead

Fuelling did not go well for me, however. I felt extremely nauseous for the first two days and did not eat or drink enough. I also focused on quick stops and eating on the bike but would have benefitted from a sit-down hot meal on day two. For future events, I now know I need to pack a larger variety of sweet and savoury foods into my food pouch to grab handfuls of. I would also plan for one sit-down hot meal a day.

My ride began unravelling when my lower back and knees were becoming intolerably painful. At first, I wasn’t sure if it was ‘normal’ ultra-endurance cycling pain or real pain. I tried to push through as long as I could by breaking the ride down to 10km chunks, which saw me complete another 100km and an extra checkpoint. This was my proudest moment. I’m glad I stopped when I did though, as although my left knee and lower back feel great again, my right knee is now on the edge of an injury, and I think I caught it before it got too bad. I believe this was due to my lack of training and hill-climbing, so hope that next time with much more training my body will be a lot stronger to handle the longer days. My longest previous ride was only 255km and relatively flat.

I also put a lot of pressure on myself for the finishers’ dinner. When I fell behind on days two and three, I found it mentally tough combined with the body pain. Being kind to myself and taking the time pressure off is something I need to work on.

Having been an ultra groupie for a long time, it’s great to say that I attempted one. The sense of community with the volunteers and other riders was amazing. I loved chatting to everyone at the finish and hearing their stories. I still have my place for The Transatlantic Way from pre-Covid so hopefully will do that in 2022. I feel I did a lot of things right and can easily improve further by focusing on training and practising eating on the bike.

The biggest learning experience was that I can actually do it! Going into the ride I had so much doubt about the unknown in my mind, but just starting and giving it a go proved that I can do it. My real takeaway is to just say yes to more things.”

  • Spare Bib Shorts
  • Gilet
  • Arm Warmers
  • Leg Warmers
  • Gloves
  • Socks
  • Overshoes
  • Puffer Jacket
  • Running Shorts
  • 3x USB Plugs (1 Double)
  • 3x mini USB Cables
  • Exposure Light Charging Cable
  • Headphones
  • Sunglasses
  • Hand Sanitiser
  • Face Mask
  • iPhone cable
  • 2x Battery Packs

Kitty Dennis: Learning From The Past & Focusing On The Future

Kitty is an experienced rider with plenty of camping and bikepacking experience – although APN was her first long-distance self-supported bikepacking race. Her methodical approach set her up well and it was lack of time to put that knowledge to use leading up to the event, rather than lack of experience that ultimately led to her scratch.

Despite scratching, Kitty was glad to come away having experienced another style of event. She was making plans for the next event almost before she got home, and we’re excited to watch her dot when everything comes together for her next time.

Kitty rides down a wet street, toward the camera with her lights on

“I am a strong believer in being prepared for any eventuality. This tends to mean I lean towards overpacking: popping in some water purifying tablets or a small pair of brake pads just in case. However, doing an ultra through relatively populated areas, there is no need to pack snacks for the duration of the race. I had bars coming out of my ears but really needed to take gels and hydration tabs to keep my electrolytes balanced and then make sure I had a solid refuelling plan. I had noted down stops and shops but tended to blow past them as my snack pouches were still overflowing.

I was keenly aware that other riders had tested their routes prior to the event or at least meticulously gone through different variations checking distance and elevation and finding the best rest spots. I’m normally a keen planner, but you have to be realistic about balancing life and planning for an event. I would have loved to dedicate a weekend to route recceing or even a few evenings purely to check out segments or ride profiles.

Someone on the start line summed it up really well – because you can’t see anyone else’s route, you convince yourself you’ve made the right choice. But as soon as you check the dots on the first night, you see a whole new perspective on that same map that you’ve been staring at for hours on end. This is something that can only really come from experiencing your first self-routed ultra-race.

Training is another area where life commitments mean you have to be realistic about what you can fit in. I kept up my usual weekly training schedule, but the volume wasn’t there and I ended up a little surprised that I was still going after 250km on day one! The best training plan is the one you do, so sticking to something realistic and allowing myself to adapt as bumps in the road appear is my priority for future events.

As a result of not being able to test my route as thoroughly as I would have liked, I found myself in such a haze of fatigue and an adrenaline crash that I passed out in my chamois on the first night and found my ride beginning to unwind. It was the beginning of the end for my epidermis and pushing on while using Sudocrem as chamois cream, while not allowing any time for my skin to heal, ultimately led to my scratch.

The one thing that provided some respite was a second set of shorts – a must, in my opinion. In future, I’d also take some lightweight shorts to sleep in to make sure my chamois could dry and my skin could heal. For now, I’m focusing on exploring chamois, saddle and bike fit combinations to find out what works best for me over longer rides so that when the next event comes around, I’m not second-guessing my equipment.

A view of Honister pass shot through gaps in a slate sculpture at the top of the pass

After that first night, I was in really low spirits and could feel the scratch buzzing in my ears as I rode through the last bit of the Forest of Bowland. I thought that Silverdale would be my first and last checkpoint. However, I stopped on the A6 and chugged a coffee and I was a new rider. After the caffeine hit and the buzz of getting into the Lake District, I felt indestructible. Honister Pass was a bump in the road that I gladly took for the amazing views and satisfaction of ticking off another checkpoint.

This is why I was so disappointed to have to make the decision about continuing. My head was in the ride and I was keen to finish, even if it was going to be a late one. I adjusted my plan (no plan survives first contact anyway) and I went to just keep churning out the miles. Sadly, after sleeping again, my saddle sores continued to get worse I got to Dent station and knew I’d have to call an end to the ride.

It’s easy to focus on what went wrong and what you would like to do differently in future, but I think I have learnt so much from this experience that I’m so happy I did it this way. I’ve made as many mistakes in the play book as I could possibly make so that next time I will feel more confident and that little bit more prepared. I wrote down all my errors and planned what I’d do differently for my next challenge. I really hope this fire in my belly keeps burning because achieving so much under my own steam is what makes biking such a unique and fulfilling experience for me.”

  • Sleeping Mat
  • Sleeping Bag
  • Bivvy Bag
  • Inflatable Pillow
  • Long Finger Gloves
  • Albion Afterburner
  • Arm Warmers
  • First Aid Kit
  • Portable Charger
  • Cables
  • Wallet
  • Gilet
  • Gore-Tex Jacket
  • Chamois cream
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