Words by James Henderson for www.howtospendit.ft.com – October 11, 2019
It’s an hour before dawn and I have a dilemma: I can continue down this gravel track, defying leaden eyelids and risking a crash – or stop for 10 minutes to sleep, at the roadside. I am 72 hours into BikingMan Oman, a “bikepacking” race on a mandatory 1,040km route. I have climbed 7,200m, ridden out a sandstorm, and now the finish line is tantalisingly close…
Bikepacking? It’s a new domain of extreme sport, recently in from the hardcore fringe. It is unassisted long‑distance cycling, off-road and on, often with routes between checkpoints individually planned – and it uses all the modern tech as well as a range of innovative, streamlined kit (the “packing” bit of the name), strapped to handlebars, top tube and beneath your saddle.
They are run over excruciatingly long distances. The Transcontinental Race covers approximately 4,000km, zigzagging across Europe via mountainous terrain. There are also trans-America races. BikingMan Oman is one of a series: Corsica, Laos, Portugal, Peru and Taiwan, mostly between 700km and 1,150km long, with five days to finish.
You need the right bicycle. The narrow tyres on my old steel steed would never survive the gravel sections (about five per cent of the course), so I borrow a bike from J Laverack, a young company building frames with titanium, which is good over the distance – “copes well with road-buzz”, they say. I festoon it with bikepacking bags into which I stuff the mandatory kit – survival gear, reflective clothing, pump and a power bank. The fastest riders, out for perhaps 48 hours, hardly sleep and carry the absolute minimum, but I’m aware I could be on the road for three days and nights and will have to sleep out, so I take a silk liner and a warm jacket. Now it’s about putting in the miles to get the body bike-ready.
The riders assemble one Saturday in February at the Al Nahda Resort west of Muscat, for registration and equipment checks. All goes quiet in the evening as we try to snatch some sleep before the start. Breakfast is groggy at 1am, but a palpable buzz has built by 2.30. And at 3am we are off, riding into the night, escorted by the police.
James Henderson with his J Laverack titanium bike. Image: David Styv
It is the only time we ride in a peloton – drafting is not permitted – so we link up and chat. We are 75 riders from 24 countries, the oldest 70 and youngest 25, nearly 15 per cent women. There are champions and record breakers – Jasmijn Muller regularly wins 24-hour races, while Jonas Deichmann has held a trans-European record (and is still unbeaten for Eurasia, South America and pan‑America). I fall in with Cat, in a pair with George, and Danny Green, one of several Transcontinental veterans, who’s gunning for a top-10 place. Eventually we lapse into companionable silence, mind on the challenge ahead.
At 50km, as coastal flatlands crumple into foothills, the flashing lights pull aside and the leaders hare off. Omani roads are unexpectedly good; mostly we ride a hard shoulder and I find myself rolling at 35kph in the night without fear of a pothole.
At dawn, 75km in, thundering peaks reveal themselves to our left: the Hajar Mountains. Oman is vast and barren but majestic. We hit rush hour in the town of Rustaq. Drivers toot and children shout and wave from school buses. We weave south among foothills for 100km. At 10am I stop quickly to buy water and a snack – because this is self-supported racing, it’s quite legitimate. Emerging onto a plain south of the Hajar, we turn southeast for another 100km, on a highway. I plough through the afternoon heat.
There are no course markers on bikepacking races. Instead, we use GPS. We confirm our position and track other competitors on our mobiles; some even book hotels online as they ride. One rider has a WhatsApp group of supporters encouraging him. He thumbs texts while leaning on his aerobars.
BikingMan Oman has just two checkpoints, which offer food and a space to bed down. The first, after 335km, is near the top of Jebel Shams – a 1,200m ascent considered one of the world’s most fearsome climbs. I reach it at dusk.
Ahead, tiny rear lights meander into the heights. I ride when I can, but frequently have to dismount and labour uphill on foot. Eventually, I reach a gravel section; still the climb continues. The juddering of the unpaved road shakes loose the bracket on my headlight. I might have the fuel to sustain me and the kit to survive, but now I need masking tape and a new front light. After three hours’ sleep at the checkpoint, and a glorious descent into the golden light of dawn, I find them in a hardware shop.
If morale dived on the climb, today it soars. We track the southern edge of Jebel Shams and Jebel Akhdar – massive slabs of rock uplifted and dumped oddly at 45 degrees – and then we strike southeast, into desert. Rock outcrops, tinged with mineral colour – mint, russet and vermilion – stand jagged against a cloudless sky.
James has equipped his J.ACK with an ÆRA AR Dynamo Disc Fork for integrated dynamo light cable routing
It’s also legitimate to eat in restaurants, so when I spot a parked bike, I stop: it belongs to Stefano, an Italian living in the UK. We order chicken and rice and fizzy drinks. Soon Chris, a Dubai financier, arrives.
In the afternoon, the mountains subside into sand and a warm tailwind builds. It is fantastic, sailing along at 40kph. At 48 hours, I reach the Arabian Sea and, at 750km, the second checkpoint. I collapse for three more hours.
Departing at dawn, I am penalised for the previous day’s pleasure with a headwind. I am reduced to 12kph. A staff member drives alongside, checks all’s OK, then parts with a wave: “The wind’ll change…”
It does. It strengthens, and I am down to 8kph. Sand snakes across the tarmac, whipping up into a sandstorm, lashing me in the face and pinging dissonantly on my spokes. It gets everywhere, and even manages to split my lip. It occurs to me that other riders will have finished. Turns out the favourite, Peruvian Rodney Soncco, won the race in just 38 hours 17 minutes. Eleven made it within 48. Jasmijn Muller, first woman, took 45 hours 37. Where others stopped for an hour or so, she did not sleep at all.
My mind starts to free‑associate as I ride by the town of Sur. Thinking “Big Sur”, I conclude I am in California. Latin American names populate my brain. The wind abates and we run along the coast for five hours. I feel I am constantly, if gradually, climbing, but at every turn the sea is resolutely there, just 60m below…
Stefano is in sight ahead. It’s hard not to be caught up in the competition – to target another rider and try to pass them – but it’s probably not a good strategy. You have no idea if they are fresh – they might just have taken on food and had a nap. You might push yourself over the edge trying to catch them. Success is running your own race. Later I talk to Niel Copeland, a cycling coach living in Dubai, who finished eighth in 45hrs 35mins.
“The leading racers don’t necessarily cycle significantly faster than the rest, but their whole strategy centres around maximising riding time. Food and sleep are meticulously planned from beginning to end. There’s also a mindset, the ability to retreat into a bubble where the only thing that matters is turning the pedals.”
I described bikepacking races as “excruciatingly long” (though at 1,040km, BikingMan Oman is, for bikepacking races, considered a “sprint”) and, going into the third night, my hands, feet and backside are cramped and battered. But there are 100km to go. The course turns inland, climbing every hill. Now the hallucinations appear: shape and shadow take life at the roadside, monsters lurk behind bushes.
At 4am comes my dilemma. I sleep, sitting, and wake when I roll sideways and strike the ground. But the power nap has reset my brain. Two hours on, floating above a pretty cove, flashing past royal palaces, battling morning traffic, I make it into Muscat and the finish line… where it is oddly quiet. No milling crowds or high-fiving support crews. It’s a feature of these races that the end is low-key. A couple of members of staff congratulate me, as does Stefano. Then 15 minutes later Julie, an Australian, arrives. It’s a personal journey for us all and, despite feeling dead behind the eyes, I sense that an addiction has begun.