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“I swim to get on the bike.
It’s the price I pay to ride my bike and run.”
Chris on racing Ironman:
In episode 020 of Bike Tour Adventures, I have the chance to get to know Chris Bennett, a 60 year-old Canadian who settled in New Zealand to escape the Canadian winters. As an engineer working for the World Bank, he has lived and worked in over 34 countries. At one point Chris had 15 bicycles scattered around the world for his training and racing. His wife thought it was better to have a bicycle in every port rather than a girl! After completing an Ironman race on every continent, except Antarctica, he shifted to self-supported ultra-endurance bicycle racing. He was attracted to the ‘purity’ of these races where it is just you and your bike trying to get from point A to B as quickly as possible without outside support. Among his races are the Tour Divide from Canada to Mexico, the Transcontinental across Europe, to Istanbul, and most recently the North Cape – Tarifa from Norway to Spain. Chris trains and fits these races into his demanding job. It is with pleasure that I have the chance to speak to Chris about what it is like to be a Master’s ultra-endurance racer, and how he juggles his sport with work commitments.
In 2011, Chris made his first attempt at the Tour Divide, and ultra-distance cycling event that runs 4400km from Banff, Canada to San Diego, U.S.A. Unfortunately he had to self-disqualify himself because of a severe allergy attack. Little did he know that it would end up taking him another two attempts and two years before he would successfully complete the race in 23 days, coming 27th place overall. These experiences taught him a lot about the type of gear that is necessary to successfully complete an adventure of this magnitude. Chris says there are three types of competitors in these types of events: the minimalists, the not-so-minimalists, and the guys that are prepared for every eventuality. Chris is quite content that he falls into the middle group, as it provides him the luxury of carrying a bivi bag, air mattress, and sleeping bag, as opposed to being the type of guy just sleeping with clothes on and a tarp/bag to keep dry. Carrying about 6kg (13 lbs) of gear still does not leave much room for luxuries.
Chris’ Tour Divide bike is a titanium Motobecane with a carbon fibre front fork, as he feels a race like the Tour Divide does not really require front suspension, as it is more important to keep a easy going pace day-after-day, rather than pushing as hard as you can like in normal mountain biking.
You just ride your bike as much as you can. You accept the first 3 to 4 days of the race are going to be really uncomfortable. But then your body transforms and says, “Oh, ok. This is the new reality.” And if you’ve got a good base, which most of us do, it adapts pretty quickly.
Ultra-distance cycling is different from traditional bike racing in several different ways. The most obvious of these is that in ultra-distance cycling it is an A to B race where the clock never stops. This means long days in the saddle. Another important distinction is that in most ultra-distance cycling races, you race completely unsupported, meaning it is important for you to be prepared for any eventuality. You don’t have the luxury of having a team car to provide you bottle refills, food, and spare parts when things go wrong. Combine this with a daily distance of between 200-500km dependent on individual ability (skill), amount of equipment being carried (weight), and hours spent riding each day (time).
For these road ultra-endurance bicycle races, Chris uses a BMC GF01, a carbon fibre bike specifically designed to withstand the rigour of ultra-endurance races. As each bike is customized to the specific needs of each rider, Chris has added Shimano Ultegra Di2 electronic shifting, as he finds mechanical shifting to be tiresome and hard on the hands after a couple thousand kilometres of riding. He has also added Absolute Black oval chainrings, which alleviate some of the pressure put on the knees when climbing. Some other pieces of advice from Chris are to replace the pedals, tires, rear cassette and chain before every race. I’m not sure if he also changes the brake pads every time, but they are easily fixed, so maybe he just carries some spares. One of the most important pieces of gear on a bike, which will make or break the rider, is the saddle, and Chris says that once you find a saddle that works for you, you should buy a few of them in order to have spares in years to come.
It’s a case of customizing your bike so it works for you. We’re all different, but I think that most of us that do these races will agree that we find little tweaks and things that make our bike far more comfortable and useable.
Most people will find training for events such as these to be one of the more challenging aspects, so it is important for the rider to be willing to put in the miles (km). Chris averages between 15 and 20 hours per week on the bike, doing most of it on an indoor smart trainer connected to Xert, a web-based training program that works differently than many of the current training programs. While most training programs are passive, meaning that you do the workout and create your own training program that works for you, Xert is atypical, in that it constantly keeps track of your metrics and adjusts your training program based on how your performance is each day, recognizing when you are due for a rest, easier ride, or more challenge. Chris found that by training with Xert, he was able to prepare for the Northcape-Tarifa Race in an effective and productive manner. I have personally read that before a major ultra-endurance cycling race, people should get out there for a 2-4 day long-distance ride, but not for actual training and development, but more as a means of testing out gear and seeing what can be cut out from the actual race-day packing list. Chris says he doesn’t do these pre-race training rides. This may be simple due to him having done so many races that he knows what will and won’t work for him.
If you wanna quit the race, find a hotel, go to bed for 24 hours and see how you feel the next day. And so if you are losing your energy and your enthusiasm, just stop and take a rest day and then see how you feel the next day.
One of the final considerations before an ultra-endurance cycling race is to think hard on what type of race you want to participate in, as there are many different kinds out there. From mountain bike events such as the Tour Divide, BC 1000, and the Grenzstein Trophy in Germany to road bike events such as the RAAM, TransAm Bike Race, Transcontinental Bike Race, Northcape-Tarifa and more, there are a multitude of distance events to choose from, something appropriate for every enthusiast out there. Within the realm of road races, there are two options to keep in mind: supported and unsupported. Races such as the TransAm Bike Race, Transcontinental and Northcape-Tarifa Bicycle Adventure are all unsupported races, meaning you have to carry all your own gear and deal with your own problems. Races such as the RAAM and Race Across Europe, allow the riders to work in teams and have support cars, meaning the racers cover much more ground and finish more quickly. Supported races are also much more expensive.
Personally, I’ve decided to try out some ultra-distance cycling adventures for the summer of 2020, having registered for the Transibérica Ultracycling’s Transpyrenees Race, as well as the Northcape 4000, which starts in Northern Italy and goes up to Northcape, Norway. Motivated by the likes of Jonas Deichmann and Chris Berry and my love of challenge and pushing my limits on the bike, I feel it’s time to try something new.
To find out more about Chris, check out his two websites below where you can find a variety of resources regarding training, racing and gear. You can also listen to this interview by pressing the play button at the top of the page or listening to Bike Tour Adventures on your favourite podcast player.
Cheers Chris and thanks for the chat. Keep on pedalling.
Follow Chris on his adventures at:
~ 50 sec Intro to Episode 20 with Chris Bennett
~ 2 min About Chris’ sport history and what got him touring
~ 3m 30s From running to triathlon, triathlon to ironman, ironman to ultra-distance cycling
~ 8 min Training and preparing for ultra-distance cycling events
~ 18 min Why ultra-distance cyclists are usually older, managing work and a racing schedule, and sleeping in cemeteries
~ 23 min How ultra-distance cycling is different from traditional bike racing
~ 27 min What he used to race off-road and on-road ultra-distance events, ultra-distance road bike geometry and Shermer’s neck.
~ 33 min Finding the right bike seat, why he uses electronic shifting, and managing component failure during a race
~ 37 min Bike set-up, types of racers, equipment, nutrition
~ 46 min Preparing for the Northcape-Tarifa ultra-distance cycling race and cost for such an event
~ 52 min What gear he packed for this race and keeping motivated during the event
~ 57 min Music, fuelling the body, being vegetarian
~ 1 hr Challenges, mechanical issues, dealing with wild dogs
~ 1h 8m Best part of ultra-endurance cycling events, worst moments
~ 1h 16m What’s next for Christ Bennett and where to find him