Why We Race

Jo Burt, a multi-discipline cyclist and veteran of the Transcontinental Race, separates the difference between long-distance touring, and long-distance racing. In doing so, he discovers what it is about riding ‘with purpose’ that we find so appealing.

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A man in a bikepacking race through a road surrounded by mountains


Racing is thick in the DNA of cycling, from friends sprinting for a local town sign on a social ride, to the pro pelotonit’s an ingrained part of life on two wheels. There’s an intrinsic satisfaction to be gained from racing, and yet there are so many benefits to be had in not racing too – especially when it comes to long-distance rides on the world’s finest roads and trails. So why is it that self-inflicted discomfort, un-championed achievements, and not taking the time to enjoy the view, can be so appealing? 

Incredulously long bike races that gallop across countries, continents or the whole globe have traditionally been the reserve of a select (let’s not say unhinged) few, but that’s changed recently with a whole new collection of more attainable events that have tempted everyday cyclists towards ultra-distance racing. There is also a rich history of long-distance events that aren’t necessarily races’ that feed into this; audax and randonée events being notable examples. So, the definition of “racing” in this context might have to be stretched to mean traveling between two points as fast as possible, or within a designated time.  

Let’s call it riding with purpose.  

Adding to this party of objective-led travelers are plenty of cyclists that don’t need to join in anything organised, and prefer to do a stupid long ride of their own volition; from here to all the way over there, with urgency, for some reason – or for no reason at all.

geoffroy dussault tcr

tcr mechanical issue

Riding with purpose is distinctly different to cycle touring, for while the concept of extended travel on a bike loaded with all your stuff might be similar, in execution it is the antithesis. Cycle tourers favor meandering routes and taking time to admire the view, whilst racing is all about the quicker way and stopping only when entirely necessary.  

The former – we can all agree – sounds very pleasant, so why choose the latter? Ask those smitten by this style of riding why they do it and you’ll get all kinds of musings, but personal challenge will be a common theme. Some push themselves to their limits to see how fast and far they can go, but many are simply exploring where those limits might actually lie, and for these people every mile becomes a small victory. For others, the journey to get to the start line is a triumph in itself. Poke a little deeper and you’ll get enough material for a psychology paper. 

The desire to do these ultra-rides is entirely self-motivated. There are no prizes for winning and they largely fly under the radar, so beyond a small ripple of family and friends, few people ever know about the great achievements being made within them. It’s all quite clandestine; the start is often somewhere inconsequential, as will be the finish, with no tape to cross nor any fanfare. If it’s a ride you’ve devised yourself it’s probably from your front door to someone else’s front door. This is a large part of the appeal, and attracts the person who enjoys the humble determination that it’s synonymous with. Simply the doing and completion are enough of a reward.

transatlantic way bivi

There is also seduction in the selfish simplicity of this travel. The day requires you merely to ride, eat, ride, eat, ride, ride, eat, ride, maybe sleep, and then repeat. All that you carry on your bike is all that you need with no excess, no fluff, maybe just one item considered a luxury, like a toothbrush. Pleasure develops in making headway where speed is useful but metronomic efficiency is more important, at all times. This perpetual motion and fluidity of progression requires, and nurtures, a certain mindfulness. Stops for supplies are concise, grab-and-go affairs, ten-minute sit downs are planned and relished eagerly, and anything that can be done on the move, is. Getting it right is incredibly satisfying, and frittering time becomes a nuisance.  

This rushing along could be argued as the best way to see nothing except your own front wheel, but it is just a different way of experiencing things. For whilst you might not be stopping to be a tourist or admire the scenery, you nonetheless see a lot. There is a sense of getting under the gritty skin of a place, where snatched memories of life on the road take the place of photographs.

emily chappell tcr

It is a tough way to ride a bike, because it is racing. Riders willingly accept the adversity of constantly pedaling towards a goal, relying on what’s available en route, the navigational errors, the grabbed sleep, mechanical issues, body breakdowns, and the need-a-hug moments. They acknowledge both climb and descent, rain and sun, success and failure, with equal courtesy.  

The “Why” can and will be questioned many times during a race, because at any given moment you can… just… stop. Beyond nurturing the self-motivated, self-supported, self-effacing, self-disciplined, self-determined inner-voice of self-belief, you realise that it’s all rather pointless. But that’s “Why” you do it.