My heart is palpitating and my jaws are clamped shut. I consciously try to loosen their tight grip but it’s no use. For now, at least, my nerves have taken over and they’re making me question this diabolical choice. What if…I can’t do this?
Luckily it’s before dawn, so I can’t see the wall of winding bitumen before me, even though I know it’s there. Countless flashing lights dance up the hill ahead, blinking in and out of view. Another cyclist, who I later ride with, says the lights remind him of a giant Christmas tree stretching toward the heavens. The gradient is so steep that it seems like I’m trying to reach the stars with my pedals. The giant 40-tooth cog I’ve fitted to my rear wheel already seems too small. I start to wonder how far behind I am. Am I last already? We’ve only been cycling for a few hours. What if…I can’t do this?
Growing up, I was never what you’d describe as ‘sporty’. I had what people have often called an idyllic childhood. I was born and lived for the first 12 years of my life on a small island called Efate in the Pacific Ocean. As a kid, I remember passing the tourist souvenir shops on my way home from French school and seeing the slogan ‘The Untouched Paradise’ emblazoned on T-shirts and trinkets. The marketers have changed the phrase now but it still means the same thing. Today, above my desk, I have a memento tea towel of a flaming sunset beyond silhouetted coconut trees and huts which proudly states, “Vanuatu – the way the world should be.”
My memories of living in ‘paradise’ brim with active pursuits of coconut-tree-climbing, snorkelling, swimming, surf-skiing, sailing, kite-flying, cyclone-ducking and bike-riding, but aside from competing in a few children’s triathlons organised by the expat community, I never really did much organised sport. In fact, I was terrible at it. I was always the academic kid outdoing most of my French peers at the École Française, despite being from an English-speaking family, and my marks ironically only suffered because of physical education. My antiquated P.E. teacher ensured that any illusions I may have held about my sporting prowess were quashed the minute he laid eyes on me.
When I moved to Australia to finish my schooling, it was already too late to rouse any sporting passion from within. I was more at home in the classroom than I was on the field.
But here I am, a woman of 35, puffing up what feels like a vertical cliff-face in this single-stage, unsupported bicycle race in the middle of a pandemic in Portugal. I’ve cycled 40km and I’ve still got another 906km to go. In the process, I’ll climb around 12,000m of accumulated elevation. The fastest rider will be way ahead by now and will complete this ultraendurance BikingMan event in under 40 hours. Despite the name, BikingWomen can take part in the race too. Most of the top 10 across the finish line will hardly stop. They’ll eat, drink and sometimes even micro-sleep on the bike in a bid to keep their time off the pedals to a minimum. This is my first race, though, so my main goal is to finish in under the mandatory 120 hours, which seems like a pipedream right now.
My husband, who is an exercise physiologist, is my coach. He’s instructed me to try to stay within Zone 2 for the entirety of the multi-day race. In my case, this means keeping my heart rate under 150 beats per minute. Right now, my cycling computer displays the highest number I’ve ever seen on its screen – 192bpm.
I stop and unclip. Sipping water, I watch other cyclists crawling slowly towards, then past me. “At least you can stop and take a breather,” I think to myself. The mantra I’d settled on months before for these anticipated trying moments was, “At least it’s not childbirth without drugs.” When you’re expelling a baby from your body, as I did 2.5 years ago, you don’t have the luxury of stopping and having a pit stop. The only way out of the pain is through the pain. I remind myself that I’m doing this because I want to, give myself a few mental slaps about the head, and keep pedalling. After all, what else am I going to do – turn around and abseil down the mountain back to the start line in Faro? Maybe I can’t do this but I sure as hell am gonna try.
I round a bend and the fuchsia sun rises majestically over the sparse scrubby landscape. I take very few photos throughout the race but I can’t help but snap a shot of the striking orb to remind myself of this moment – my turning point. Many ‘ultra’ cyclists have mused about the power of the sun. In this instant, I understand what they mean.
It’s my second day and I’ve been turning the cranks for a few hours, having started long before daybreak. I awake at 3:00am to a breakfast prepared especially for me by my excellent hotel in Moura, approximately 240km from the start line. After a delay due to a second flat tyre, I roll out of town a couple of hours later. The first few hours of darkness feel like riding through thick, wet cement.
Yesterday I managed my longest distance ever and I want to try to do that again, and again, and again. I put the mammoth task to one side of my mind and think about my legs going up and down mechanically, willing my trusty Canyon bicycle, ‘Sparrow’, forward. Again I sense my mind fill with negative thoughts – “Do you really think you can do this?” A male competitor on the start line, moments before we set off, had quipped, “I’m told this is your first race. You start with the hard stuff, don’t you?” Like the rolling hills I’m incessantly riding up and down, my confidence rises and dips in waves. Yesterday afternoon, I crossed red-earth plains dotted with eucalyptus trees and kept expecting a kangaroo to jump out in front of me. I felt content and at one with ‘Sparrow’ as my mind wandered to my teenage years spent helping my late father on his outback farm. Later, at the hotel, though, I slept fretfully and doubted my ability to pull this off. Perhaps I really had bitten off more than I could chew.
But then I find the sun. It warms my skin and shines in my eyes. As it rises, my confidence follows its ascent and I finally start to believe, really believe, that I can do this. It’s at about this time that my heart rate stops reaching the high peaks of the first morning, even when I’m really pushing hard, a trend that continues for the rest of the race and one that I wasn’t expecting. It certainly made all the heart rate zone training I had been doing seem a little pointless. Perhaps, though, I’ve finally got my mind and body on the same page and both can work together to get this done.
Further ahead, I come across Enrique. He seems overdressed in layers of clothes compared to my short-sleeved jersey and shorts, but he explains he’s just slept by a dam for an hour before sunrise. Each of the 66 riders carries a GPS tracker. A website shows our dots moving along the set course. Last night when I checked, I was coming 50th. Enrique was coming last. While I and other riders slept, he had made an impressive comeback and passed a dozen or so of us. But his bicycle computer has stopped working, so he’s unable to follow the route. We ride together for almost 48 hours and part ways on our last morning once he’s sorted his technology issues.
Although I have entered the race as a solo participant – there is also a pair category – I am glad to have Enrique’s company. Our pace is quite similar. Sometimes we ride side by side and chat; other times, we are single file (being careful not to ride too close together as drafting is prohibited) and stay lost in our thoughts or in our headphones. Sometimes I feel frustrated that he keeps wanting to stop for more food, or coffee, or food and coffee, but really I’m grateful because my tendency is to keep pushing, and not eating is not an option. I give him the opportunity to continue the race; he convinces me to ride through the last night and swap a good sleep in a hotel bed for power naps in bus stops, which I wouldn’t otherwise have done alone for this first endeavour. While solo riders in ultra-endurance races are expected to be completely self-sufficient, the organiser has also said we are to help fellow riders out. I reason that our riding together is OK because it’s in keeping with the spirit of sportsman – and woman –ship.
We make it to Check Point 2 in under 62 hours. It’s now my third day on the road and I’ve ridden 690km. ‘Only’ another 256km to go. My mum is volunteering there. In this new pandemic world, we have been avoiding physical contact, but we can’t help a lingering hug. As she fills our water bottles, I shift from focusing on merely finishing to potentially being the first solo woman across the line. Only three solo females and three in pairs entered the race; in part, this is a product of the pandemic but it’s sadly not the whole story. I’ll save this important topic for another time, though.
The only way I can beat Nadia, who is about 80km ahead of me, is if she sleeps and I don’t. I decide to give it my all and ride non-stop to the finish line. Of course, Nadia checks the tracker and decides to keep cycling too. She goes on to beat me by six hours. I am thrilled for her and, despite being quite a competitive person, I am surprisingly not disappointed that I can’t close the gap. Having a female competitor ahead and getting the opportunity to savour the racing aspect of this very individual sport – often described as being a race against oneself – only encourages me to think about strategy for next time. And, yes, there will be a next time.
This is my fourth sunrise since I started the race. I’m cold, rain-soaked and tired. I leave behind mountainous scenery dotted with quaint Portuguese villages. I’m sad I don’t see it properly, though, as it’s blanketed in night sky and fog. I vow, for what seems the millionth time during this journey, to return one day. I won’t, however, miss the unrestrained country dogs that rage at our back wheels. On the bright side, the adrenaline coursing through our veins as we out-ride them (luckily they only attack on downhill sections) only serves to get us closer to the finish line in Faro.
Enrique and I are hungry. This last section is very rural, and finding bars or restaurants has proved difficult. Serendipitously, our last food stop together is located in the tiny parish of Santa Clara-a-Velha, which shares a name with my daughter. We both understand that we need to finish this race alone, so we part ways with full bellies.
Later, I’m riding up what seems like an endless rollercoaster of hills and valleys. I round a bend and see yet another 15+% gradient. It’s a never-ending farmers’ road with patch upon patch of repaired and crumbling bitumen. Even so close to the finish line, the end still feels a million miles away. “It’s not childbirth without drugs. It’s not childbirth without drugs.” Exhausted, I pause and check my phone. In Australia, my sister is watching my dot claw its way up this lush yet unforgiving landscape and rallies people to send texts from around the world. Other riders who have long finished provide encouraging messages. My husband sends a video of my 2-year-old saying, “Go, Mama!” My mum tells me she’s waiting at the end – with a Big Mac burger. In that moment, I understand what Emily Chappell, a renowned ultra-endurance racer and writer, meant by her invisible peloton: a crowd of people, unseen but ever-present, willing me along the jagged red line of the route. I tear up and let my emotions flow. How lucky I am to be doing something I love in this uncertain world. How fortunate I am to be alive and healthy and riding my bike.
40km from the end and I am yelling out loud to myself but really to the race organiser: “This is actually never-ending. I will forever be on this bicycle, like Sisyphus rolling his rock up a hill for eternity.” I can taste the burger in my parched mouth, I can feel the cold Coca-Cola flowing down my throat. “Just keep pedalling.” It’s one thing to view elevation on a map, it’s quite another to experience it in real life. After 900km in the saddle (I didn’t get saddle sores, in case you’re wondering – thanks, Brooks!), a tiny incline becomes a colossal peak. Unlike long mountain passes, the relentless up and down of this course means you constantly feel like you’re going up for no reason, because you’ll just have to go up all over again after the next dip. I trick my mind into believing that I’m really going up to do down rather than down to go up. I think of my future self and the tiny percentage of my life that this is taking up, and how what I’m feeling now will be eclipsed by the sense of accomplishment I’ll have when this is all over.
I approach the roundabout metres from the athletics track start line – which is also the finish line – and cycle through open gates to the end. People cheer me as I enter. I dismount, lean my bike against a railing and take off my shoes. I’m given a finisher’s T-shirt and a medal. I’m interviewed about my race. My mum embraces me and is more outwardly emotional than me – I’ve been warned this often happens at the end. I’m emptied of emotion but I’m not emotionless. I devour the first McDonald’s Big Mac burger and Coke I’ve had in over a decade and they’re glorious. Sitting down, I call my husband and child.
And just like that, it’s over. In a smidge under 84 hours, I’m the 46th cyclist out of 66 (six people withdrew) to complete the route comprising a sizable chunk of Portugal. I’m proud of the organisers and my fellow competitors. I’m proud of my family and my invisible peloton. I’m proud of female strength and women. But most of all, I’m proud of myself for not letting the naysayers – or my own head – hold me back from that start line. It might seem obvious now, but it took me almost 1,000km to realise that the question isn’t really “What if…I can’t do this?” but actually “What if I can?”