GBDURO: Inside The Great Self-Sufficiency Experiment

For such a small change in wording, the difference between self-supported and self-sufficient has far-reaching implications for how a race is actually executed. So much so, that only the bravest decided they were cut out for this year’s self-sufficient version of The Racing Collective’s GBDURO. We spoke to the organisers and two podium finishers to get the inside scoop on how it played out.

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For GBDURO, the big news this year was that it was going to be a ‘no fly’ event. But thanks to COVID, this summer became ‘no fly’ for more than just the race participants. So with a decision to make about whether the event could run and, if so, how, the organisers introduced another unprecedented rule: self-sufficiency.

While bikepackers and ultracyclists are used to the idea of being self-supported, being self-sufficient requires them to go a step further. During races like the Transcontinental, riders can stop to buy food, stay in hotels overnight to rest and rely on the kindness of strangers to help them out if something goes wrong on the road.

But being self-sufficient removes these privileges that many ultra-distance riders might take for granted. It means taking all of your food with you from the start, not relying on outside assistance from others, fixing mechanicals without the help of the nearest bike shop and not taking advantage of commercially available shops or buildings. Oh – and taking all of your rubbish with you too.

This year's GBDURO was also a zero-waste race, meaning that riders had to carry all of their non-biodegradable rubbish with them. Here are the spoils from Paul Addy's race fuel

This year's GBDURO was also a zero-waste race, meaning that riders had to carry all of their non-biodegradable rubbish with them. Here are the spoils from Paul Addy's race fuel

Angus Young, one of the organisers and racers at GBDURO explains that “we wanted to make sure we only moved the goalposts once. If the event was to go ahead, it needed to be in the most COVID-compliant format possible. We didn’t want to announce a change to the format only to later cancel the event or have to add in further restrictions.”

Unsurprisingly, not all riders were convinced and two camps quickly formed: “They either saw exactly why we were doing it and were super stoked with the idea, or they really, really couldn’t see the point. There was very little middle ground,” says Angus.

“It really surprised me how many people thought it would be impossible. People trek vast distances carrying all of their supplies through much tougher terrain, like the Arctic, so we knew it could be done.”

Gail Brown, who came third overall and was first-place women's finisher

Gail Brown, who came third overall and was first-place women's finisher

One of the riders who was unphased by the rule change was Gail Brown. Despite a speedy Transcontinental Race finish in 2019, Gail’s background is in trekking and expeditions, so self-sufficiency comes naturally to her. “I felt like the rule change might actually suit me better. I’ve done a fair bit of trekking and expeditions where you carry all your food and find water. My partner also did a crossing of Antarctica, so I’d watched him prepare for that. Where others might have gone ‘no way, I’ve got no experience!’ I said ‘oh, cool, I know about this stuff!”

Despite finishing in third place overall, Gail rode quite conservatively to avoid getting into tricky situations similar to those that derailed others – a smart move when trying to maintain self-sufficiency. “In Snowdonia, I got up onto a ridge and it was cloudy and windy and by the time I came back down I was shivering and cold. I stopped, made a hot drink, changed my shorts, put on loads of layers and didn’t continue until I felt good again. Taking that half hour stopped me scratching or dropping out.”

Riding conservatively didn’t mean Gail wasn’t efficient though – her fueling strategy certainly championed speed over comfort. “I’d prepare one meal and then leave another to hydrate as I cycled so I didn’t have to stop and put the stove on. My original plan was to try and drink it, but the savoury meals were absolutely horrendous runny and cold. The first three days I really struggled, but I needed the energy and as I got hungrier they became more palatable – and I made them less runny.”

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Mar 8, 2020 at 6:12pm PDT

Gail also suffered one of the biggest equipment failures amongst the field early on in the race, managing to keep on track with a healthy serving of glue, tape and zip ties (captured by pro-dotwatcher Emily Chappell, above). Ironically, the failure occurred in the manufacturers’ home city and near two riders who offered to lend their own kit as a replacement. “On the Transcontinental, I’d have just rocked up to their offices and asked for a replacement or accepted the ‘trail magic’ of kit from dotwatchers, but having to deal with it solo was totally different”.

Keeping her Garmin charged was also a struggle – no popping into nearby cafes to use their plug sockets meant that she had to think of some novel ways to keep it running, resorting to impromptu time trials to gain enough battery power to navigate through tricky sections.

“On Great Dun Fell, about to head into a notoriously boggy section, I knew that I needed the map, but only had 2-3 percent battery left and ended up doing laps at the top of the fell. I also had to do laps of the A40, passing a very confused competitor while I racked up extra distance to keep my race on track. It was worth it though and I was so glad I could stay in the race. The only alternative would have been stopping to charge it, which was against the rules.”

Paul's full race setup

Paul's full race setup

Fortunately most of the rest of Gail’s race went to plan, and she admits her struggles were nothing to compared to what some of the other riders experienced. “The closest thing to hell I’ve ever seen was Paul Addy trying to repair a puncture in a cloud of midges in Scotland. He was marching up and down trying to keep moving while pumping his tire up and looked about ready to give up.”

We spoke to Paul and can confirm that fixing a puncture in a cloud of midges was pretty hellish. “I had problems with the valve core and as time accumulates while you fix all the issues, they’re attacking you and swarming. I ended up pumping the tire while walking up and down the track to try to escape them, but I was literally about to throw the wheel into the middle of a field and admit defeat.”

Paul and Gail actually spent a lot of their race in fairly close proximity, but riding to their own schedule. “Every so often Gail would pass and we’d be cheery, wave and have a bit of banter, but I had to make sure that I stuck to my plan and accepted that if she was going faster at that moment I’d be going faster later on.”

The view from Paul's cockpit on one of the few smoother sections of the race

The view from Paul's cockpit on one of the few smoother sections of the race

Indeed, Paul’s entire race mentality was very down to earth, embracing “going back to the basics of just cycling and racing and a shared understanding of the pain and enthusiasm that everyone’s going through – the shared experience. Being vulnerable in the great unknown and discovering the UK from a different light.”

Despite finishing in second place, Paul believes “achievement can be an experience, not necessarily a finish. Having an experience or discovering something about yourself is a great achievement and something to be proud of. It gives you something you can take into the rest of your life”.

Racing GBDURO gave Paul a chance to reconnect with the wilderness and test his limits, something he believes we’re missing in our modern lives. “It’s an absolute must for people to do, to not feel like there’s a corner shop around. As humans, at our most basic we are endurance athletes. Genetically speaking, we’re hunter gatherers and these events give us a chance to reconnect to that, to find our inner caveman.”

Angus tells us it’s unlikely that GBDURO will run as self-sufficient in 2021, but the experiment has proven a success and he’s keen to take some of the lessons learned and apply them to other Racing Collective events. “The completion rate was actually a touch higher than last year – which we expected, given the extra planning and preparation required this year”.

We’re excited to see what else The Racing Collective have up their sleeves and hope that the GBDURO self-sufficiency experiment has a far-reaching impact, encouraging us all to think a little differently about bikepacking and the events we take part in.