Get Into Ultra-Distance Cycling

The realm of ultra-distance cycling and racing sees amateur riders alongside seasoned veterans, both on- and off-road, each with their own unique goals—some aiming for victory, others merely seeking to cross the finish line. As the popularity of ultra-distance events continues to soar, we delve into the essentials of entering the world of ultra-distance racing and guide you in selecting the ideal event to kickstart your journey.

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In recent years, the landscape of ultra-distance cycling races has witnessed a significant surge in popularity. Established events such as The Transcontinental stand alongside unique interpretations of the format, like the fixed-route gravel style of Badlands or the challenging mountainous terrain of the Silk Road Mountain Race. Each of these events brings forward narratives of adversity, triumph, and the profound realization of one’s capabilities. It’s these compelling stories that continue to inspire new riders to step up to the starting line of ultra-distance races.

What is Ultra-Distance Cycling: An Overview

The concept of ultra-distance cycling is commonly defined as an event spanning a distance of 200km or more. While this distance is often linked to sportive-style, single-day events, the reality is that, for many enthusiasts, ultra-distance races extend beyond just hours, measuring their duration in days. In iconic events like The Transcontinental Race, the fastest finishers in 2023 spent around eight days in the saddle, while the riders just making the time cut-off came in at over 15 days.

Ultra-distance cycling races manifest in various forms, combining different approaches that primarily hinge on the route itself and the level of support riders are permitted to have. This diversity adds depth to the tapestry of a typical ultra-distance cycling race, making each event unique in its own right.

Ultra-Distance Cycling Routes: Fixed vs. Free

In the expansive realm of ultra-distance cycling races, two distinct approaches – fixed route and free route—offer diverse experiences for riders. Fixed route races, being the most prevalent in the ultra-distance calendar, are particularly accessible for new riders. In these events, participants are given a GPX track of the route and their task is to navigate the course without deviation.

By contrast, free-route races, exemplified by the renowned Transcontinental Race, demand that riders chart their own course between specified checkpoints. Key features include mandatory parcour sections, usually preceding a checkpoint. Certain roads and routes may be off-limits to ensure participant safety, adding to the navigation challenge. For valuable insights and best practices on planning a free route for ultra-distance racing, explore our dedicated guide to Route Planning for Ultra-Distance Events.

Given the need to craft and potentially adjust their own route during the race, riders new to this style of racing often gravitate towards fixed route races to give them one less thing to think about.

A cyclist looking at a map route on their phone

Self-Supported vs. Supported

In the world of ultra-distance events, two contrasting approaches, self-supported and supported, offer distinct challenges and experiences for riders.

Self-supported Races
The most prevalent type of ultra-distance event is the self-supported race, meaning that riders must not seek outside assistance. Here, riders embrace self-sufficiency, carrying all essential equipment, food and supplies from the outset. With no feed stations or support crews, self-supported racers depend entirely on their own resources. They grapple with mechanical issues, navigate intricate routes and seek out re-supply with differing levels of success.

Supported races
On the other end of the spectrum are supported events, exemplified by races like the Race Across America, spanning 4,800km from the West Coast to the East Coast of America. In these events, riders benefit from a dedicated crew on the road, managing various logistics and enabling the cyclist to focus solely on turning the pedals. This team-based approach marks a departure from the self-supported race, introducing an additional layer of competition

Ultra-Distance Racing vs. Bikepacking: Different Approaches

Ultra-distance racing and bikepacking may seem like interchangeable terms, however the fundamental approaches are quite different. In ultra-distance cycling races, riders strive to pare down their equipment to the bare essentials, discarding creature comforts commonly found on leisurely bikepacking trips. Cooking gear becomes obsolete, making room for lightweight, minimal essentials.

We’ve delved into the contrasting approaches of racers and bikepackers, illuminating their choices in what goes into their packs through our Kitgrids. These comprehensive guides show everything riders pack, ranging from a comfortable overnighter complete with a tent and camping apparatus to an ultra-minimalist approach tailored for challenges like Badlands in Spain. These guides offer invaluable insights into the differences between packing for bikepacking adventures and preparing for your inaugural ultra-distance race.

Choosing your first Ultra-Distance Cycling Race

The ever-expanding ultra-distance cycling race calendar presents a rich array of events, spanning various distances, styles and terrains. When contemplating your first race, a key approach involves aligning the style of riding you are most familiar with—whether road, gravel, or MTB—as the primary filter. This initial consideration should closely align with your experience level, especially when it comes to familiarity with the terrain. An avid gravel rider accustomed to shorter distances and less challenging terrain may find the landscapes of races like the Atlas Mountain Race to be well beyond their comfort zone. Similarly, a road-focused ultra-distance cycling race might mean navigating things like mountain passes, where prior experience is invaluable.

To streamline your decision-making process, we’ve curated a selection of our favourite races and crafted an interactive calendar, serving as a helpful tool to guide you in discovering your next ultra-distance cycling race.

Cyclist carrying soda bottles in a supermarket

Cyclist facing a shelf of soda bottles in a supermarket

The Journey to the Start Line

With your first race chosen, it’s time to plan your approach to training, balancing the need to become comfortable with riding longer distances on back-to-back days, whilst developing essential skills like packing, maintenance and nutrition. There is no one-size fits all approach when it comes to preparation, with many established riders having significant differences in how they approach getting prepared for their races.

One of the most appealing aspects of the ultra-distance cycling race scene is the community behind it. Friendly, welcoming and willing to share tips and tricks, the community is an invaluable source of knowledge for both rookies and experienced riders alike. From social media accounts, to WhatsApp groups, forums or apps like Discord, there is much to be gained from seeking out the advice of seasoned ultra-distance riders to help you arrive at the start line feeling prepared to take on whatever challenges come your way.