The Freedom To Explore

Meet Lindsay McCrae, champion ultra-distance cyclist

The Scot is amassing an impressive array of podium finishes in some of the world’s toughest round-the-clock bike races

At first glance the data on the Garmin’s screen is eye-catching; at second glance it’s mind-blowing. Distance: 660 miles (1,062km). Total ascent: 30,500ft (9,360m – 500m higher than Mount Everest). Time: 47 hours and 24 minutes.

And then there’s the context – a non-stop ride through Oman where temperatures peaked at 36 degrees and humidity hit 83%.

Welcome to the world of ultra-distance cycling races, events that raise the stakes of monumental mileages by taking place in extreme environments.

Oman is a long way in every respect from the cathedral city of Inverness, home of endurance cyclist Lindsay McCrae, yet the 50-year old Scot finished third at Bikingman Oman.

In a steady progression he has upped the ante of his riding challenges year-on-year, since he started commuting by bike to his job at a water treatment company in 2014. The following year he won the three-day, 350-mile Tour of the Highlands, and he was on the top step of the podium again in 2018 at Revolve24, where he completed a monumental 178 laps of Brands Hatch in 24 hours, having pedalled a total of 433 miles.

Next step? To cycle around the clock twice, non-stop at the gruelling BikingMan Portugal race in 2019. Lindsay rode the 950km course (with 10,000m of ascent) in just over 40 hours to secure second place. And then in Oman, the distance increased substantially and the temperature rose savagely.

“It’s been a natural progression,” he says modestly. “I’ve tried to take on rides that were each a bit longer and a bit more difficult than the last. Objectively I was setting out simply to complete these rides, so to compete has been a surprise.”

So how does he keep on turning the cranks like clockwork through the night and past the pre-dawn witching hour when normal mortals would be eyeing even the roughest curb stone as a comfortable pillow?

There was no misspent youth at all-night raves learning how to cope with sleep deprivation. Nor is he a caffeine junkie, although for a fortnight prior to his ultra endurance races he does stay off coffee in a bid to re-sensitise his body to caffeine.

“In Oman, due to the darkness and remoteness of the area there is very little to stimulate you,” recalls Lindsay. “You are just focusing on the patch of light in front of you from the front light. At one stage I was riding on the TT bars and starting to feel a little tired. Then suddenly, I opened my eyes with a jolt to find that I was on the gravel to the right of the road. I must have had a ‘long blink’. The adrenalin was flowing from the shock, but I thought it might be time to take a ProPlus caffeine pill.”

Sunrise soon came to his rescue, dispelling mental tiredness, but it could not alleviate the physical fatigue building in his muscles. To train for these ultra-endurance events, Lindsay focuses on quality rather than quantity, combining one-to-two-hour evening turbo sessions with weekend rides of about four hours.

“My lightest training week would only be about eight hours in the saddle, and a big week could be up to 15 hours, but I don’t ride mega miles,” he says. “You pass the point of diminishing returns after a four- to five-hour ride. Beyond that you are simply adding to your fatigue not fitness, increasing the time before you can ride again.”

And in races, his tactic is simple – set a metronomically steady pace and maintain it to the finish line. In Oman his power output slipped by only 20 to 30 watts over the course of two full days and nights in the saddle. It’s a strategy that takes discipline and self-confidence, overruling the temptation to chase down rivals who set off too quickly and then grind to a standstill as the needle of their energy tank flickers to empty.

“It’s a long way to go, don’t dig any holes for yourself,” he advises.

Adopting a flexible strategy about when to stop, if he is feeling good he stubbornly keeps on keeping on, fuelled by a predominantly ketose diet that prioritises protein and healthy fats, such as olive oil and avocado. Carbohydrates account for less than a quarter of his nutrition.

“At Revolve24 I pitched up with my favourite energy bars, but after 12 hours I suffered palate fatigue, craving something savoury and with a different texture. So now I carry oat bars for the first 12 hours and after that it’s a question of what’s available,” says Lindsay.

In Oman he would stop at petrol stations, buy two ice lollies, and dunk one into his water bottle for flavour, carbs and cooling.

The final piece in Lindsay’s podium-mounting jigsaw is his comfort on the bike. A featherweight racer may look appealing with 10,000m of ascent standing between the startline and chequered flag, but a concrete-stiff frame that shakes your bones and rattles your fillings is a poisonous partner for endurance riding. Conceding a kilo in weight in return for a frame that is stiff in all the right places yet compliant enough to smoothe and soothe road vibrations has proved a masterstroke for the Scot.

“The right bike and fit is vital in endurance cycling: comfort is king!” he says.

His victory at Revolve24, for example, was due to matching his closest rival for speed yet stopping fewer times for shorter breaks. In Oman, the bike contended brilliantly with the mix of Tarmac and gravel, surefootedly climbing gradients as steep as 20% (although the bike could do nothing about the searing 34-degree heat.) The meticulous bike fit, precision build and magic carpet ride of his titanium J.Laverack J.ACK allowed him to roll on through the day and night without an ache or pain, and have done ever since.

This sustained comfort was put to the severest test this summer when Lindsay competed in the Virtual Race Across America, covering 2,204 miles and climbing 51,800 metres (175,000 feet) without leaving his garage. With his bike clamped to a turbo trainer, two fans keeping him cool, and an endless supply of high energy foods (cakes, donuts, ice cream and rice pots), Lindsay settled into a brutal regime, cycling for 21 hours per day for 12 consecutive days. He stopped only for an hour’s sleep at midnight and a two-hour shower and sleep at 10am, before resuming his virtual ride from California to Maryland.

“It was mapped out to be the same distance and elevation as the original course, but about four days in I realised they had not taken into account any downhills,” says Lindsay. “So we would climb for an hour and a half, ride on the flat and then climb again. In real life there would be a free-wheeling descent after the climbs.”

The indoors VRAAM was already considered to be 20% tougher than the real thing, and discussions between competitors estimated that the lack of downhills made it another 30% more challenging, says Lindsay.

“It was just pedal, pedal, pedal.”

Torching 500kcal per hour (110,000kcal in total) and gritting his teeth through an agonising saddle sore (there’s precious little movement side to side or out of the saddle on a turbo), Lindsay reached the finish line in fifth place, racing the final miles to keep a professionally-sponsored mountain biker behind him, with the multi-world record setting endurance cyclist Chris Hopkinson one place further back.

Lindsay’s monumental effort raised £3,000 for charities close to his heart, and underlined a change in life philosophy.

“We’re only here once, so I’m trying to say ‘yes’ to things more than ‘no’.”

A further ‘yes’ saw Lindsay compete in the 24-hour Virtual World Time Trial Championships, held indoors due to the pandemic. The occasional connection glitches tested his mental resilience, but Lindsay still covered an awe-inspiring 466.2 miles to secure fifth place overall and second in his age group.

“Possibly the first time a Laverack has podiumed in a TT race,” suggests Lindsay.

And as lockdown restrictions have lifted he and his J.ACK have been back outside in the environment where the titanium bike excels, including the mountainous 90-mile Bealach Mor sportive that goes up the longest road climb in the UK, Bealach na Ba, rising from sea level to 2,054ft (626m) in just six miles 10km. As a sportive, the event is not a race, but just in case you were wondering, Lindsay and his J.ACK finished in second place!

Lindsay McCrae Palmarés

YEAREVENTDISTANCE/TIMEPOSITION
2015Tour of Highlands 3 day350 miles1st Place
2018Revolve 24178 laps (433 miles) of brands hatch in 24 hours 1st Place
2019Bikingman Portugal590.3 miles in 40 hours2nd Place
2020Bikingman Oman660 miles in 47.5 hrs 3rd Place
2020Revolve 24 Virtual Race393.3 miles2nd Place
2020Virtual Race Across America2,204 miles in 12 days5th Place
2021Virtual World Time Trial Championships466.2 miles in 24 hours5th Place (2nd in age group)

btt