written by Maja Naumczyk
Since first hearing about The Transcontinental Race a few years back, I have observed ultra-distance cycling with awe and admiration. There is something magical about the idea of traversing a whole continent powered by ones own legs and I knew instantly I wanted to give ultra a go. Being able to cycle really far seemed like the perfect rebellion against not being able to cycle very fast, and I struggle to think of something that would make me feel more powerful and autonomous than knowing my legs can carry me across vast distances and borders. Ultra events vary slightly in length and format; some have set routes while others have riders plot their own path between checkpoints. But mostly they share two key characteristics: 1) once you set off the clock does not stop until you arrive at the finish, 2) you ride self supported, organising and managing your own food, sleep and repairs using publically available services (think shops, hotels and bike shops rather than crashing at your mates, cacheing supplies, or receiving help from strangers - whatever you use should be equally available to all other riders taking part).
Whilst I always had a feeling I would eventually try ultra, I made no solid plans to enter any events, falsly assuming that before I do so I should already be fit enough to ride the event distance. I completed a few multi day trips, and slowly built up the distances I covered during day rides. But then me and cycling had a fall out - it would be a couple of years before I would start cycling regularly again and finally enter my first ultradistance event.
Seeing that cycling could be about fun, community and support is ultimately what got me riding again.
Last winter my love for cycling was rekindled. It had something to do with the purchase of a (very shiny) new bike, but mostly it was discovering a community of folk with a similar attitude to cycling. Before 2021, I was convinced anyone who took bikes seriously or approached it with any kind of ambition did so in the toxic bubble of tight lycra, machismo and expensive kit. Seeing that cycling could be about fun, community and support is ultimately what got me riding again.
One day in December, while scrolling instagram, I saw someone had shared that it is the last day to get entries in for All Points North, an event in the north of England I remember hearing about in previous years. I followed the link to read a bit more about it; The event is organised by two women, Angela and Tori, and riders plot their own route, covering around 1000 hilly kms between 10 checkpoints. The organisers are keen to attract those new to the sport, creating a “rookie” category who would set off 8 hours before the main field, but also mention that the event is oversubscribed and they usually get more applications than there are places.
In the world of ultra, 1000km is relatively short, the June start seemed distant enough that it didn’t seem too real, and the start line in Sheffield would be easily accessible from Glasgow by train. Without giving it much thought, I found myself filling in the application form, convinced I would not get a place. To my surprise, a few days later I received an email telling me my application was successful - I got a rookie spot! For the next four months I spent the majority of my spare time, surplus energy, and disposable income preparing for what would be my biggest challenge yet. And just like that, I went from being a dotwatcher (the name given to those who follow ultra-distance events by watching the “dots” of the participants’ trackers moving across a map) to being a dot!
There’s a bit of an air of mystery around ultra-distance cycling that can make it seem quite intimidating. But after all it is just a bike ride, and I wanted to share what went on behind my moving dot, in the hopes it might help someone else give it a go.
Day 1: Sheffield - Lakes
- 10am: Registration, anxious smiles and faffing. After a week spent stressing, it was reassuring to hear my worries echoing around me. Myself and the other rookies got an 8hr head start on the rest of the riders, and we were all sharing worries about the weather, where we'll sleep, and how long it might take us to get around, and pondering whether we've made the right decision in whether to tackle the route clockwise or anti-clockwise.
- 12pm: We set off and anxieties melt, we spend the early afternoon leapfrogging each other on our way out of sunny Sheffield. Vertical Huddersfield streets have me questioning my routing.
- 6pm: Checkpoint 1, Nic O’pendle, and meeting my first (and only) dotwatcher. Sainsburys in Clitheroe because I was craving something that wasn’t an energy bar. I make a beeline for the pre-cooked lentil sachets and flatbreads that I have been thinking about for the last couple of hours. It is somewhat thrilling to navigate the supermarket in the rushed, clanky shoes of an ultra cyclist, and I am genuinely surprised at how efficiently I do so (this efficiency sadly does not last past day 1). Pavement picnic and then onwards through rolling hills.
- 9pm: Big resupply in Lancaster, conscious that the next chance might be the other side of the lake district tomorrow morning. Despite the unrelenting rain, it's not too cold and the excitement keeps me in high spirits all the way to the foothills of the Lakes. By midnight I can feel myself slowing and the rain is getting less fun. I stop in the first bus shelter on my anxiously made, google street view informed list of eligible bus shelters in the area. It seems perfect: in a sleepy village, away from main roads, tucked away, sheltered, and even with a glass window. 30 mins of faffing around, the whole time worrying the light from my head torch will draw someone’s attention and they’ll come investigate. No such things happen. I sleep for a couple of hours.
Day 2: Lakes - Borders
- 4am: Wake up, get changed, pack up, have a snack, set off. How did that take an hour? The rain is still going and the sunrise is not as rewarding through the clouds as I’d hoped for. I slowly make my way to CP 2, Ulpha. I see a couple of riders who, concerningly, seem to be going in the other direction. I like climbing but I let out a heavy sigh as Wrynose Pass presents itself. A rider dances past effortlessly as I push my bike up the steeper parts.
- 9am: Down to Grassmere, it is still drizzling so I order a hot breakfast in the hopes of finding accommodation for the night as I wait. No luck and I set off into the rain feeling a bit sorry for myself. I post about feeling sorry for myself and the replies instantly lift my mood - what might have drained my phone battery recharged my mental one.
- 3pm: By the time I’m in Carlisle the sun has come out. I stop for a snack and consider my expectations for the day. There is 200km left to the hotel I've had my eye on and some quick maths tells me I could expect to get there around 5am. Upon reflection, I realise I might be asking too much of myself. Whilst massive days on minimum sleep seem like the cornerstone of ultra cycling, I am only a few months into my ultra journey. I remind myself that my primary goal is to finish, regardles of time, and vow to get at least 5 hours sleep. I search again for accommodation options. Miraculously, I find one that wouldnt require a detour and make a call. Yes, theres a vacancy, yes, I can check in late. Bingo - only 130km left till I get to sleep in a real bed.
- 6pm: CP 3, Bewcastle, endless sunny lanes.
Day 3: Borders - North Pennines
- 7:30am: Who am I to deny a “breakfast included” breakfast - the chances of me setting off before 7.30am after a comfy night would be slim anyways.
- 9am: Finally set off after plenty of faffing. Everything now hurts. The knees are creaky and swollen, and I can’t fully bring myself to sit on my saddle. I hope it will go away soon - and it does, after 20 mins I’m having fun again.
- 11am: CP 4, Bamburgh, and a lovely run in with Nikky Ray. Since starting, I haven’t seen many other riders so it feels nice to chat. Nikki's energy is infectious, we part ways and I press on in good spirits.
- 4pm: I promised myself a half way there (530km) picnic in Morpeth. I get frustrated at the amount of time I spend assembling the perfect snacks and start feeling behind again. I set my ambitions on CP 5 before stopping for some sleep, and carry on. Another gorgeous climb at golden hour. Fields full of white flowers that make it look like it’s snowed. No one about but me, rabbits, and sheep. Gorgeous stuff.
- 10pm: Brake rub is getting audibly bad. A fix is a lot of faff, and the piston is bound to get stuck again soon, so I’d decided to ignore it so far but it really needs attention now. I fix it the best I can. In the next village I spot a pub that seems not only open but also lively. As I faff around with my bike a concerned land lady emerges. The whole village is sloshed inside to celebrate the jubilee - they weren’t expecting a visitor. She agrees to refilling my water and letting me use the bathroom, and I awkwardly squeeze through a room full of neons, union jacks, singing, and loud conversation. We are aliens to each other. I get a message from a friend with a song recommendation to get me through the climbs and add it to my playlist. A short phone call with dad. I'm reminded that my friends and family are watching my dot at home and cheering me on and this fills me with so much energy! Before I can tick of CP5 I have to tackle a lot of climbing, taking my past the highest point on my entire route, but I'm feeling good and want to see how far into the night I can ride before I need to stop.
- 12am: The climbing is magical. I feel like I’ve found my rhythm on the steep inclines of Chapel Fell. Or it might just be the energy drink? I enjoy the still, dark silence, and save the playlist for when I really need it. Sweet spot gradients and smooth tarmac on the climb up to Cow Green reservoir (CP 5) have me arriving with a big grin on my face. Chilly on the descent, eyelids getting heavy. Curious about the thermal properties of an emergency bivvy bag, I put on a jacket, inflate my mat and get in. After 15 mins I wake up shivering and decide more sleep is needed. Out comes the sleeping bag and I’m out cold for 3 hours.
Day 4: North Pennines - North York Moors
- 5am: Set off from my “crisp packet hotel”. Force down a cold sausage roll from Gregg’s back in Morpeth. Everything in Barnard castle is still shut, so I need to make do with the snacks I have. Lovely empty misty climb.
- 9am: Crackpot “shortcut” - I figured if I could do it in the middle of the night in the snow (during TransEngland back in April) I can do it now. But first a sit down break to eat my very bougie combo of crackers, cream cheese, olives and pepper. The stomach wants what the stomach wants. The snack stop does not fill me with energy and I give into a power nap. Faint sound of voices in the background, but wake up to just sheep staring at me. Convinced I’ve caught them speaking human. Once back on the termac near the top, I’m overtaken by a couple in their 60s on a loaded tandem. Godspeed to them.
- 12pm: CP 6, Semer Water. Then over Kidstones pass and onto familiar roads from my time living in Leeds, thinking about what snacks I’ll have at Threshfield services.
- 5pm: CP 7, Skyreholme, then up Greenhow hill. I thought the familiarity will help, but in reality I was cursing the Yorkshire Dales. A new, unfamiliar sharp pain in left achilles has me worried.
- 6pm: Stop for a hot meal in Pately Bridge. Waitress asks, have I come far? “Yes”. I realise I haven’t really spoken to anyone in 3 days. Heart sinks as I check the weather forecast the next part of my route; the rainclouds seem caught on the North York Moors and giving it their best. I set off and immediately start crying. Thinking about the rain, the pain in my leg, not finishing, finishing. Thinking about how 3 years earlier I stopped in Pately Bridge on some of my first long solo rides (95km lol) and how far I've come since then. Thinking about my invisible peloton of folk who have ridden with me, inspired me, supported me, and cheered me on makes me cry even more. I don’t think I’m sad, just tired. I’m a Pisces on her period, of course I’m crying, I make myself chukle between the sobs. After an hour or two the tears run out.
- 11pm: CP 8, Byland Abbey. Desperate to find some shelter from the rain to plug in my dying lights and check my phone for upcoming towns that might have bus shelters to nap in (touchscreens are useless in rain). Shelter appears in the form of a small bridge near the eerie Ampleforth college, where I stand faffing and shivering for too long. Onwards to Kirkbymoorside, if there’s no bus shelters at least there seems to be a petrol station as a back up. Tired eyes and flood beam headlamp (not ideal for cycling!) means I don’t spot any shelters and reluctantly set up crisp packet hotel in the petrol station forecourt. I get in in all my dry(ish) layers, shivering, and emerge 2 hours later, still shivering.
Day 5: North York Moors - Sheffield
- 4:30am: Set off ready to tackle the last big climb. It is still raining. It is not the first and biggest part of climb that hurts, but the seemingly endless ups and downs en route to Goathland station, CP 9.
- 8am: CP 9, snack stop, and drying gloves under a hand dryer.
- 11am: The noises my bike is making once more become concerning. Another sticky piston, an overdue pad change, faff. Minus one short steep hill, flat roads and tailwind to CP 10. Headphones charging so I entertain myself with no hands practice and brushing my teeth.
- 2:30pm: Final checkpoint, Hornsea Mere and resupply.
- 4pm: Eyelids start getting heavy, glorious 3 min nap in the sun. Decide to finally look into adjusting my pedals, as unclipping has been a bit stiff pretty much from the start. The only reasons I think I’m finally doing this 100km from the finish is a) I want to delay it all ending b) I don’t want to embarrass myself by toppling upon arrival.
- 5:30pm: Final hill and all that remains is the climb into Sheffield.
- 8pm: Brain doesn’t know what to do with itself. Last night I felt as though I was fighting for survival, now I’m pootling by the canal into a perfectly pleasant sunset, stuck in a limbo of an adventure that seems over, but isn’t really.
- 9:30pm: I realise that a combination of climbing and city junctions mean that my eta (which slipped from 10 to 10:30 to 11) is still quite ambitious. Determined to make it before HQ wraps up for the night, the achilles pain lifts and the legs are going at speeds I didn’t know possible after 1000km.
- 11:10pm: I’m back! Event organiser Angela and her friend have kindly stayed behind to welcome me back and I don’t want to keep them but I find myself giving a scattered account of the main events of the last few days to someone who I feel might understand. Me and my boyfriend plod back to the hotel where I cry in the shower because I can’t seem to be able to wash myself but actually I think my brain was just falling asleep. I want to stay awake long enough to appreciate the crisp sheets and perfectly placed telly but I know I’d drift off just as quickly and deeply if I was sleeping at a bus stop or by side of the road or in a petrol station forecourt. What a waste of clubcard points on the hotel.
A month after finishing All Points North, I still find myself re-living and processing the experience. It is without a doubt the most badass thing I’ve ever done. I achieved my goal of finishing, and despite missing out on my quiet ambition of doing so within 100 hours I’m incredibly proud to be one of the 33 riders (out of 77) to make it all the way round the 10 check points in some pretty tough conditions. So what have I learnt?
Firstly, similarly to other long (but much shorter) rides I’ve completed, the elation of finishing is not clear cut and obvious. Me from a few months ago would be in disbelief that I’ve actually done it, but me who’s just arrived was thinking about all the time I spent faffing and all the things I could have done differently to arrive sooner. In a way it makes sense that objectives change once you achieve them; once I proved to myself that I CAN do it, my ambitions shifted to doing it faster.
Initially I wasn’t going to plan to do more of these events anytime soon, but I’m definitely feeling an itch to enter more. Partly to see if I can ride more ambitiously, but also because (somewhat concerningly) I really enjoyed the whole experience. Daily life pales in comparison to tackling hills, and rain, and sleep deprivation and it still feels absurd to me now that I’m expected to return to my routine and my mon-fri office job after what felt like a really significant experience.
Those five days spent almost entirely outdoors showed me what I already knew in the back of my head: the outdoors is perfectly survivable and waiting to be explored. Despite the route not being super remote, and making good use of bits of human infrastructure for shelter, the experience was an important reminder of the simplicity of our basic needs and how we can take them for granted.
Having this permission to act without social norms is incredibly liberating.
Ultra-distance events make you focus on meeting those key needs in whatever way is feasible and convenient at the time, stuffing your face with lentils outside of a supermarket or sleeping at a petrol station forecourt. Having this permission to act without social norms is incredibly liberating. Traversing the landscape, feeding, finding shelter and sleeping as needed, in the same way a feral animal would; there was something so freeing about stripping away the surplus needs and worries of daily life. But there is also so much privilege in experiencing the world in this way by choice, while finding food and shelter are the everyday worries of so many living in this country.
It has also been a lesson in stoicism. I have never navigated train cancellations as calmly as I did on my return from the finish line in Sheffield. Okay maybe it was partly tiredness, but knowing what I can achieve and withstand has definitely given me a lot of confidence in tackling other challenges, and calmness when things go wrong or get uncomfortable.
Most importantly the last few months have really shown me the value of having goals to work towards, and a community that supports you to achieve them. After struggling with depression for most of last year, being able to focus on preparing for APN has given me direction, and motivated me to get out on my bike so much more than I would have otherwise. Exercise and fresh air (especially when combined with the excellent company of folk from Glasgow Pedal Collective), and having an exciting adventure to look forward to has done absolute wonders for my mental health. I’m so glad I gave ultra a go!