Journals

This is TransEngland: inside Joe Reilly’s ultra-racing debut

Joe Reilly recounts his first ever ultra-racing event, the TransEngland

BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. My Garmin screams at me for taking a wrong turn. BEEP. BEEP. BEEP it continues, sounding like a Darlek with hay fever. I circle around, lost in a myriad of red brick terraces, unable to see the path that my GPS wishes to send me down. If I switched the screen on said bike computer, it would tell me that it is 8:30 pm, I was in the depths of a seaside town and that it was -1 degree Celsius. This is not the usual bike race. 

There is a new kid on the block, one that has a wider audience, one that is more inclusive, one that isn’t constrained by tradition – and it’s called ultra-racing

20 minutes ago, I opened my 2022 season on the pier at Morecambe, in direct contrast to 12 months ago. Then, I was riding for a French road team, on the start line in a small Alsatian town. It was 22 degrees and I had 120 tanned, ambitious Frenchmen around me. Over the ensuing 130km of 20-minute climbs and thunderstorms, I was brutalised. Each racer seemed to personally take it in turns to kick my head in, like a personal vendetta against my country’s decision over Brexit. It wasn’t pretty. But it was conventional bike racing, and I loved it. 

Photo: Studio Velo

Now, things are a little different. For 2022, I decided to stray from the well-trodden path of convention and take up something new. I’d been road racing for the past 5 years and it seemed like I’d be doing the same races, with the same teams year after year. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I’ve chosen to do something else. Enter: ultra-racing. 

Ultra-racing is the sleek, elegant lion in the long grass, waiting to pounce on the prey of conventional road racing

To some, bike-packing and ultra-racing are an inconvenience. A clichéd, hipster cycling that people only do to escape the competitive realms of serious, cut-throat racing. And they have a point, but I disagree. Ultra-racing is the sleek, elegant lion in the long grass, waiting to pounce on the prey of conventional road racing. 

The DVD rental company Blockbuster decided at a board level not to investigate a new subscription strategy that a company called Netflix was trialling, instead resting on its laurels and unwilling to change. Netflix is now worth $44bn, and Blockbuster is bankrupt. 

Although dramatic, the analogy is not lost. There is a new kid on the block, one that has a wider audience, one that is more inclusive, one that isn’t constrained by tradition – and it’s called ultra-racing. Gravel, road, mountain bike, it can be whatever you want it to be. It is all things to all people.

Photo: Joe Reilly

This brings me back to my aggressive beeping of my Garmin. I’ve since cleared the junction and am back on the road with only my bike computer telling me where to go, and my front light showing where that is. The race in which I’m competing is called the TransEngland, it starts from Morecambe and ends in Scarborough. To the geographically challenged among us, that’s a coast to coast through the Yorkshire Dales. The rules are that it must be self-supported (no outside help) and you must pass through five checkpoints, but it is up to you to decide how you get to them. You could take the shorter route off-road and ride a gravel bike, or you could go for the longer, faster option and go on a road bike, but have to tackle sections of gravel. It’s a multi-varied, multi-disciplined, multi-surfaced event. 

The first few hours were the hardest, an endless stream of questions presented themselves as the kilometres ticked away

I’ve opted for the road bike option, confident that any extra road sections I need to cover I can do speedily over the proceeding 11 hours. And so it proved as I took lefts and rights, ups and downs, making my way to the first checkpoint. The first few hours were the hardest, an endless stream of questions presented themselves as the kilometres ticked away. “Why am I here? What is the point? Why don’t I just race criteriums! They’re in the daytime for goodness sake, and they’re 90% shorter”. On and on went the internal monologue, spiralling ever further down to negativity. What didn’t help my case was an anomaly that isn’t found as often in my native land of Scotland: English pubs. For each hamlet, village and town I passed I could there look into the windows which had their lights on. Without fail, each pub would have warm lighting, soft furnishings and a fire. It was a warm embrace that I had to shrug off, still with 250km left to go. 

One and a half hours in I stop at a Co-op. Everywhere closes past 11 pm, meaning this was my last chance to grab some food and water. I do sometimes stop when training, so I’m not unaccustomed to double-takes and confused glances as I clip-clop around in spandex. Yet this time the perturbed looks on the Yorkshire men’s faces were justified. It was almost 11 o’clock; by-gum lad, what are yee doing out t-cycling? 

Photo: Studio Velo

Having packed a box of pasta into my frame bag and slammed a Red Bull, I was back on the road, heading to the first checkpoint. It was now that my front derailleur decided to stop working. Having spent some 15 minutes across two stops trying to fix it, I realised that the housing to one of the screws had broken. No one’s fault, this was my race bike last year and I’ve ridden it all through winter. Wear-and-tear is expected, just not 200km from the finish line. Oh well, who needs access to the big ring anyway I told myself, deciding to aero-tuck the descents and use the big-ring sections of the route as recovery instead. 

My Garmin continued to send me left and right, up and down as I made my way to the second checkpoint. By this time, I had accepted my fate and agreed that no matter what, I was riding through to the finish. Never has anyone anticipated a trip to Scarborough more. 

There is a mental checklist in ultra-racing that you should go through every few hours: 1) Look good. 2) Feel good. 3) Look good. 4) Safety. I made my way through the checklist and I was indeed feeling good and was certainly safe, but I had no way to validate my claims of looking good. And so, on a 10-minute climb, I asked the company that I was in. The cows in the fields to my right don’t speak English so were no use, and when I asked the dry-stone dyke to my left, it just looked back, all stoney-faced. 

I stop at a stream to fill my bottle up, tired and apathetic to the fact this could make me ill. I gulped down that deer poo infested water and not only survived – but thrived

On I went, tackling checkpoint after checkpoint, by now it was -3 degrees and snowing, each kilometre whizzing past in darkness yet seemingly taking hours. Up more hills, down more descents, back lane after back lane, I pedalled. Willing the ever-dark clouds to turn to grey, to signal the start of sunrise. I stop at a stream to fill my bottle up, tired and apathetic to the fact this could make me ill. I gulped down that deer poo-infested water and not only survived – but thrived. 

Photo: Studio Velo

By 5 am, the clouds obeyed and slowly but surely, it started getting light. It wasn’t a gradual process, but one that came in jolts. Suddenly, it was grey, suddenly I didn’t need my light so much, suddenly the clouds in the east were pink. The jolting could have been due to my lack of attention caused by the delirium of physical exertion over a long period. Studies conclude that if you stay awake for more than 19 hours at a time, you have the same cognitive efficiency as someone legally drunk. I had just ticked over 20 hours and was having an alcohol-free whale of a time.

No tricks, no surprises, just smooth, flat tarmac all the way home please, Mr Organiser. We can all dream. 

The final two checkpoints were deliberately difficult, placed in locations that you couldn’t get to without having to go off-road. The GPS instructed me to go left off the road I was on. That can’t be right, I thought. I stopped and checked. I tried following it, but no, this is a quad track with three inches of mud. I go back and re-check. No, it must be right, as that’s the only way to the checkpoint. I try again, down this muddy lane, through a gate. I’m now on a rocky bridleway, cautiously making my way down, once again careful not to puncture. I go through a gate and I’m now making my way down a field. At last, the checkpoint of Levisham Train Station beckons. But I turn my head, oh boy, the climb out of the station was brutal. I set off, undeterred by yet more gradients north of 20%. By now I don’t care, I just want to finish. No tricks, no surprises, just smooth, flat tarmac all the way home please, Mr Organiser. We can all dream. 

It was at that moment, zigzagging up this hill that cramp struck. In both glutes. BANG. I cry out, making the sound that a sheep makes when it realises the origins of a kebab. I soldier on. More climbs, more off-road. By now, I’m in Dalby Forest riding along snow-covered tracks, all I can hear is the ice cracking beneath. Please don’t crash, please don’t crash, please don’t crash. The route takes me off the left down a mountain bike trail. Hardly ideal terrain. The steed in which I’m riding is a flagship road bike from Cannondale, designed and wind tunnel tested to be as aerodynamic as possible. And here is me, charging headfirst down muddy trails designed for mountain bikes, having already conquered bridleways and farmers’ fields. Remind me again why my front derailleur broke? 

Another hour passes and I’m now approaching Scarborough. Finally, John Adams was right, the end is nigh. Onto the pier and I’ve got no more riding to do. None, nada, zilch. I post my last time-stamped photo for validation and that’s it. Finito.

I’ve won races in the past, crossing the line with hands in the air, the feeling of joy and jubilation to the soundtrack of encouraging spectators. The only soundtrack here is the seagulls that surround me

Talk about anti-climactic. I’ve won races in the past, crossing the line with hands in the air, the feeling of joy and jubilation to the soundtrack of encouraging spectators. The only soundtrack here is the seagulls that surround me. Although I’m fairly confident that one nodded their head towards me as if to say “well done mate, that was a great ride”. Or perhaps I was just really tired. 

Photo: Joe Reilly

Soon I was in the arms of my lovely wife and race support Emily, who was on collection service. I was whisked to her hotel room for a shower and nap, and then out for breakfast. As we sat down at the café table, my eyes were drawn to the menu. The first option contained four rashers of bacon, two sausages, two eggs, two slices of toast, beans, mushrooms and two tomatoes. As I read each item an angelic choir sang louder and louder. 

There is a saying that you shouldn’t eat anything you’re not willing to burn off in exercise, which is fair enough, and I’d just burnt 9363kcals. So, “Waiter, do you see the ‘Ultimate Breakfast’? Well… I’ll take 10 of them, please”.