In short, this increasingly popular type of cycling is riding for very long distances day after day. This is either in a race format, or just a very long ride — with or without support from the event organisers. There is no strict definition of what makes “ultra distance cycling” ultra. But think upwards of 1,000km, and you are in about the right zone. To some, this is hammer-down, full-on racing. To others it’s glorified cycle touring.
Ultra distance cycling requires you carry quite a lot of gear with you. Sleeping stuff, some extra clothing perhaps a few creature comforts (phone/bike computer charger!) and tools are essential. Most of the time you will have to fend for yourself. Indeed this is one of the attractions of this type of event. This can range from being curled up on the roadside wrapped in a foil blanket, to proper camping. It helps, therefore to have bikepacking bags, and a bike which can deal with some extra kilos.
The types of ultra distance cycling events seem to vary greatly. These range from full-on races like the Race Across America (RAAM): an organised race across the USA. To more sedate events such as the 500km Tuscany Trail. It is important to know whether the event is supported (help when you need it from the organisation) or unsupported (you are really on your own). There are more and more unsupported ultra-distance events springing up in Europe. Northcape-Tarifa claims to be the longest self-supported race in Europe. Its longest version (there are shorter options) being 7,368km long. It runs from Northcape (Nordkapp) in Norway, to Tarifa in southern Spain.
Road or mountainbikes?
Well, a bit of both, is the short answer. Ultra distance road riding involves super lightweight packing and basically hardship until you reach your destination. But there is also a bike-packing variant to this past-time, which is basically long-distance touring on amazing (sometimes rough) routes. You get a route, and off you go. At first glance, the Ultratrail 20k appears to be one of the latter. But we may be horribly wrong. It certainly looks like a beautifully tough event, passing as it does through the Italian, French and Swiss Alps.
Paris-Brest-Paris is an old event which has been revitalised for modern cycling enthusiasts. It is 1,230km and has to be completed within 90 hours. This event is officially an Audax and is organised by the Audax Club Parisien. An audax is an organised long-distance bicycle ride. But is it ultra distance? Well, we are not entirely sure: but there’s a nice video teaser about the event.
You can’t just decide you’re off on an ultra-distance event. You have to be superfit, and able to look after yourself and your bike. Being ready for just about anything, and being able to handle/fix it on your own is part of the challenge. Apparently, one of the challenges of ultra distance cycling is to avoid falling asleep while riding your bike. Whether you call yourself a randonneur, an audax rider, a bikepacker or an ultra-distance racer one this is clear: you will need a will and body of iron to complete these extreme cycling challenges. Ride on!