Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 June 2019

This is what it takes to become an ultra-cyclist – hallucinations and all

Dubai resident Helle Bachofen von Echt tells us about pushing her body (and mind) to the limit to complete a 1,050-kilometre bike event in Oman

Helle Bachofen von Echt competing in BikingMan Oman. Courtesy BikingMan Ultra
Helle Bachofen von Echt competing in BikingMan Oman. Courtesy BikingMan Ultra

BikingMan challenges are, simply put, enormous. A newer arm of the endurance cycling world, the series of unsupported races was launched in 2016 by French athlete Axel Carion and they take place across the world, from Peru to Laos, Corsica to Taiwan, and right here in the Gulf.

Danish athlete Helle Bachofen von Echt, who lives in Dubai, competed in the gruelling 1,050-kilometre Oman leg of the race, in February. It was the first time Bachofen von Echt competed in an ultra-cycling event. She’d set out to finish the course within 60 hours, and ended up doing it all in 46 hours and 30 minutes, coming second in the women’s race, with a position of 10th overall.

“The BikingMan Oman challenge sort of landed in my lap at a time when I was ready and felt like taking on a new personal challenge,” Bachofen von Echt, a professional cyclist and indoor cycling instructor, tells The National. “I really felt ready to try to test the limits of both my mental and physical capacity. I wanted to use this event to go really far, go to a place within myself where I have never been before, to test how I react and how I cope in the extreme.”

But Bachofen von Echt, who teaches at Power Cycle Dubai, didn’t stop there. After BikingMan Oman, she took on the BikingMan Corsica challenge on April 29, making her way across the 700-kilometre track with 13,000 metres of elevation, completing it in 41 hours and three minutes. This time, she was the fastest woman on the course. “The BikingMan races and events are a fantastic way to enter the world of unsupported bike-packing adventures, where both organisers and fellow ultra-riders offer incredible support and friendship,” she says.

The challenge in Oman was only the second time the competition had come to the Gulf. The first time, 45 athletes took part. In February, there were 67 participants, of which an impressive 60 completed the challenge. The race began in Barka and ended in Muscat, taking riders through Jebel Shams, which has been described as the “Grand Canyon of the Middle East”. “Jebel Shams is a treacherous climb where everyone gets to learn about themselves,” the BikingMan website warns potential participants. “The landscapes there are a rare mix of moon-like mountains and spectacular colours. This place feels like tectonic plates making surface on the Earth.”

The winner in this year’s Oman event, Peruvian cyclist Rodney Soncco, cycled the route in 38 hours and 17 minutes. While Bachofen von Echt took a bit longer, her love of these kinds of endurance races was truly cemented on the tricky track. “I am starting to fall in love with ‘ultra life’ because of the people,” she explains. “I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to connect with incredible people, each with their own captivating stories and fascinating journeys.”

In the final few hours, the hallucinations became strong with everything around me moving. I saw dinosaurs and trolls, but I kept going

Helle Bachofen von Echt

Training for such an event is tough, unsurprisingly. Bachofen von Echt takes us through her daily routine leading up to the race: “I would get up at 5am, start a ride at Al Qudra at 6am, or as the sun comes up, and then ride for four to six hours. However, at the weekends I tended to go to the mountains to train. I would get up between 3am and 4am, then drive to Hatta or Jebel Jais and ride in the mountains for six hours.”

In order to make sure her body recovered between rides, she would only eat clean, home-made, organic food. “I would also go for weekly deep tissue massages and foam rolls, because it is day after day after day. Recovery is a big part of the training,” she says.

'I actually didn't sleep at all'

As the race takes place during both day and night, sleep is a big consideration for riders, too. Bachofen von Echt originally thought she would stop for quick “random” naps during the race either at the side of the road or in bus stops, even though she hadn’t packed any sleeping materials other than a foil survival blanket. The reality was quite different. “I actually didn’t sleep at all,” she says. “I had never taken myself to such sleep deprivation extremes before and I had no idea how my body would cope. I decided to keep riding until my body would give me a sign that it was time to sleep.

“Although extreme exhaustion set in, I always felt in control of both myself and my bike handling skills. I did start to hallucinate ­lightly during the first night, after around 24 hours of riding, and in the final few hours before finishing. The hallucinations became strong with everything around me moving. I also saw dinosaurs and trolls. But I was aware they were hallucinations, so I kept going.”

While such extreme sleep deprivation might be enough to make anyone else surrender thoughts of finishing the event, an innate competitiveness kept Bachofen von Echt going. “During the race I really started getting on a high when I slowly made my way from the middle of the field and into the top 10 overall. Being in this position made me really determined and strong-willed. Another high was also passing male riders on the route. I am quite competitive,” she says with a laugh.

Helle Bachofen von Echt's route in BikingMan Oman. Courtesy BikingMan Ultra
Helle Bachofen von Echt's route in BikingMan Oman. Courtesy BikingMan Ultra

Hallucinating wasn’t the only low point, either. Bachofen von Echt says “there were certainly more lows than highs” on the course. “I was faced with stomach problems in the very beginning,” she says. “Then I had problems with my gear shifting and I was stuck in only one gear for up to 150km. And in the middle of the ride I was in so much pain from saddle sores, I found it excruciating to sit. That lasted for around 200km, which took six to seven hours until I eventually took some rest and did something to cover the sores.”

Fuelling is another important aspect of the race, not only to keep contestants going but also because these are unsupported races. If she were to run out of food on the course, Bachofen von Echt would have had to scour the shops she found along the route. That would waste a lot of time, so she packed a bag full of snacks for the journey, although the contents might seem a little surprising. “As I started the journey, I had eight savoury sandwiches and eight Snickers. They lasted me for more than 24 hours,” she explains. “After that, I fuelled on bread rolls, croissants, cakes, nuts, crisps and many more Snickers from supermarkets and petrol stations. The Snickers are great, because they have a high calorie content and a mix of sugar, fat and protein. I sat down only three times to eat a meal during the entire ride, the rest of the time I fuelled while riding.”

Helle Bachofen von Echt competing in BikingMan Oman. Courtesy BikingMan Ultra
Helle Bachofen von Echt competing in BikingMan Oman. Courtesy BikingMan Ultra

It’s clear that Bachofen von Echt is a determined woman, someone who will not be defeated easily. We spoke to her shortly after she completed the race in Oman and it was already obvious then that she’d caught the ultra-biking bug and was planning to take part in another race. She said at the time: “I learnt a lot about how to organise myself both on and off the bike during my first event. From a racing perspective where I, as a beginner to ultra, wasted too much time, there are certainly some things I can change next time to become more efficient. This is purely looking from a racing perspective though, where every minute counts.

“I really tried not to set any expectations and go with the flow,” she added. “However, as I had trialled my equipment, my bike set-up and my fuelling during training, I did feel quite confident that I had whatever was in my control, under control.”

It took less than three months before Bachofen von Echt took part in her second Biking­Man race, so, when we spoke to her after the Corsica event, we had to ask: would she do a third? “Yes,” she replies ­immediately. “I feel like I must return and change the things I learnt and see if I can become faster and more efficient with experience.”

She’s unstoppable.

Updated: May 30, 2019 02:56 PM

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