Bike packers and ultra distance riders

Ultra-distance Cycling: A Conversation

Allan Shaw and Marcus Nicolson share a Scottish background and a love for ultra-distance cycling.

Marcus is an adventure cyclist based in Glasgow, who has successfully completed Badlands, Dales Divide, the Hungarian Divide, Italy Divide and the Atlas Mountain Race all while pursuing a PhD. Meanwhile, Allan is a bike packer, storyteller and former bike messenger running his own cycling cap business called Gay’s Okay, where he makes LGBTQ-friendly cycling caps to celebrate and encourage more diversity and visibility in the world of cycling.

In this blog conversation, Marcus and Allan catch up on what they have been up to and share their stories of ultra-cycling and long-distance adventure.

Bikepackers and ultra distance riders

First thing's first, catch us up on what you're both doing right now!

Allan Shaw: I’m working full-time at an art gallery over here in Mexico City. I’m planning to head back over to Copenhagen to do some courier work early this year.

Marcus Nicolson: Nice! I’m just trying to finish off my PhD studies here in Glasgow over this winter. It’s really hard to study over the summer months, when I just want to be out riding, so I’m hoping to use the darkness as inspiration to get this done!

How did you get into ultra-cycling?

MN: I used to skateboard a lot and then I gradually got into fixed gear riding when I lived in Finland. From there, I started going on longer tours and I went along to a talk about an ultra-race in Japan and that sounded amazing. A few years later I entered my first race, at Badlands in Spain.

AS: I’ve always been doing a bunch of quite ambitious cycle tours. I would do at least two big tours a year, and always tried to maximize what I could achieve in the limited time I had. Then, I heard about the Silk Road Mountain Race and listened to the podcast. I was super excited to try it. In a way, going to an organised event seemed easier - as someone else had planned the route! It's super appealing as a competitive sport, because it's an opportunity to see super cool places and have interactions you wouldn’t experience outside of the racing context.

Can you tell us more about your race strategy and trackers?

MN: Ultras are all about elapsed time. Once, during the Italy Divide I kept going for something like 40 hours without sleep and managed to catch up with the riders in front. By that point I was going so slow and was mentally so out of it that there was no way I could keep going. It’s definitely a good idea to prioritise a little sleep and rest in your racing plans.

AS: Sometimes it feels like you've been riding alone all day but then you check the tracker and notice that there's actually like three people just an hour ahead of you. And there's someone coming up right behind you too. It's a good reason to pick up the pace! I try not to look at the tracking map for the first few days, but maybe during the third day of a race…it can be that extra motivation when you're feeling low.

I don't really care about competitiveness during the race, because everyone who's out there is doing an amazing job. You know what they're going through. Sometimes dotwatchers tell me I’m about to catch up to another rider in front but usually I don’t really care because it’s someone I’ve hung out with before and I have a lot of respect for. 

How do you train for these events?

AS: Ride consistently, do a lot of climbing! Try and ride some technical trail stuff. I do shorter distances a few times a week, and then try to do at least one long ride a week. I think it's good to work on your core muscles, because you need those on these long races. You do a lot of walking and carrying your bike! If I have time I like to go on a big tour about a month before the race. I’m contemplating trying some of the Baha Divide before I head to Atlas Mountain Race later this year. 

MN: It’s easy to start comparing yourself to other people, like I see people putting in so many base miles on Strava that I could never do. It’s important to train in the way that's right for you and everyone has different limitations in terms of time and other commitments. I try to ride outdoors as much as possible and supplement that with harder gym sessions through the winter.

Any other tips for surviving an ultra?

AS: I'm a big believer in the goldfish mentality. You’ve got to think like a goldfish! A goldfish forgets everything just after it happens to it, and just keeps spinning around the bowl. Everything is so temporary, and you just have to continue and keep on pedalling until the bad moments are gone. 

MN: Wow, that’s great advice. Riding consistently and within your limits is my suggestion. I’ve had a few mechanical failures from sending it too hard down some rocky descents when it’s definitely better to hold back a bit and keep up a better average speed overall. It’s hard to reduce your overall stopped time at rest spots but that comes with experience.

Mountain views on a bike

Can you share your racing plans for the upcoming season?

MN: I’m planning to ride the Seven Serpents gravel race in Slovenia in May, it follows an off-road route around the Croatian coast and islands before finishing in Trieste, Italy. In July I hope to ride a new ultra called the Bright Midnight in Norway. Those are both organised by my friend Bruno so it’s also a good opportunity to catch up with friends.

AS: So far I’m focusing on riding the Atlas Mountain Race in Morocco at the start of February. It’s going to be a night-time start which will make things interesting on the first day of the race! I don’t have any other big race plans but really want to explore around Mexico a bit more while I’m here.

Photography: Mike DeBernardo 

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