Cycling Stories

Racing the 2020 BikingMan Oman

March 21, 2020

Racing the 2020 BikingMan Oman

“Ultra bikepacking isn’t a race against others. It’s a race with others, but against yourself.”

Jean-Philippe Soulé

BikingMan Oman was my first Sprint Race, a funny definition for an ultra bikepacking challenge comprising more than 1000km and nearly 10,000 meters of elevation. It’s not a sprint you complete over a few seconds by pushing your bike to speeds over 70kmh.

However, in contrast to ultra-long cross-country or cross-continental races such as the TransAmerica and Transcontinental, bikepacking races like BikingMan Oman are called sprints.

My first bikepacking experience was the 2019 NorthCape-Tarifa that I raced as a pair with my wife. We set the record as the first and only pair to finish the world’s longest race, and although we rode a daily average of 240 km with 2,400m of climbing, it was a different experience than BikingMan Oman.

We carried much more clothing, tools, spares, food, and gear than what one would take on a sprint. And we didn’t ride as quickly either. Although sleep deficiency was the biggest challenge, we slept at least three and a half hours every night. 

BikingMan Oman was different, and as it was my first solo and sprint race, I wasn’t sure what I should carry on my bike. I didn’t know how fast I should ride the first twenty-four hours, or how much I should try to sleep. 

Oman is set at the mouth of the Persian Gulf on the Arabian Peninsula and is bordered by UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. Friendly, hospitable people and stunning desert scenery lure many tourists. I don’t cope well with heat and never thought I’d want to ride through a desert, but friends raved about the BikingMan organization, and I was tempted to try them out. In January, I was out of shape, so registering for BikingMan Oman less than six weeks before the event was the perfect motivator to begin training again.

An ultra bikepacking race is a self-sufficient event where the clock never stops. Sleep is optional. BikingMan Oman allowed five days to cross the finish line. The 1061 km long itinerary featured a ride through the Al-Hajar Mountains with the ascent of Jebel Shams, one of the world’s toughest climbs, followed by a long crossing of the Ash Sharqiyah Desert.

Eighty racers from 20 different countries lined up for a night departure. February offered mild temperatures for the region, but compared to winter in the Pyrenees, the contrast created an instant challenge before I hopped onto my bike. 

A first flat on a tubeless tire I couldn’t patch, plus a broken valve at kilometer 80, stalled me for an hour-and-a-half. I resumed the race in 76th position, more than 50 km behind the leaders. The race had barely begun, and I pushed too hard through the night to attempt a return to the middle of the pack. 

When daylight broke, I stopped to apply sunscreen as soon as I felt warm. Although it was only 10:00 a.m., it was too late: my arms and legs were already sunburnt. The sun was brutal. There wasn’t a trace of wind. Regardless of how much fluid I drank, I became dehydrated less than 15 hours into the race. 

At kilometer 350, the first 10 km gravel section was horrible as I’d decided to ride on 28 mm slick tires to be more efficient on asphalt (which covered over 95% of the course). A wise decision on the road, but one that made the steep and sometimes sandy gravel slopes impossible to ride.

Like many others, I pushed my bike up hills, suffering under the 38C degree heat. Walking provided an opportunity to share a few kilometers of the walk with other cyclists. 

Before reaching the top of the steepest gravel pass, the heat became so unbearable that even walking became a challenge. The gravel descent led to the base of the Jebel Shams climb that had been the stuff of all pre-race conversations. There was no shade anywhere, and before I attacked the monster climb leading to Check Point One, I hoped to find a café, cool off, and refill my water bottles. 

Without a nearby café, I was forced to settle for the first 10-meter-wide band of shade I could find in hours, one kilometer into the climb. When I looked up ahead, I couldn’t help but utter the F word. A steep asphalt wall loomed in front of me, and I couldn’t see the end of it. The friendly filming crew arrived just as I started to lay down in the shade (their timing is always perfect for catching people in misery). The only other time I’d met them was during the middle of the night when a piece a glass tore through my rear tire. They took malicious pleasure filming me as I struggled to mount a tubeless tire with my hands, rim, and tire full of sticky but slippery sealant. It was a mess, and so was I. I’m sure it made for great footage.

After a ten-minute stop, I resumed riding, encouraged by two passing participants. I caught up to them as they walked up sections of the insanely steep five kilometers, which I managed to ride up.

After 380 km of racing, though, when the slopes pitched to over 20%, it was more than I could handle on my heavily loaded bike. Like most participants, I walked up a good part of the mountain. After 22 hours of racing, even walking while pushing the bike was an ordeal. I had reached a state of dehydration and exhaustion I had rarely experienced on my bike. And that’s when the magic happened. 

The sunset disappeared behind the mountains and left an orange beam of light that faded slowly into a darker red sky. The golden mountain disappeared, only to reveal its black contour against the crimson sky. At the same moment, two neighboring mosques began to call prayers. 

I suddenly realized I was in Oman on an incredible adventure. Most of my pain faded as I stopped for photos. I resumed my walk with others, and we cheered each other up the mountain. Although the brochure had promised the 10 kilometers of steep gravel and loose sand section would be a relief from the steepest pitches of asphalt, it wasn’t. I walked my bike up all the steep gravel sections, but luckily by then, it was already evening, and I no longer suffered from the scorching sun. 

I reached Checkpoint One set on top of the climb after 24h03’ of racing, I had covered 401km with 4872m of elevation gain, and moved back up to the 39th position. I planned to eat quickly and continue as far as I could into the night, but I felt exhausted and was in no shape to safely descend the steep gravel section. I resumed riding at 4 a.m. after 4 hours of sleep, which made the night descent enjoyable. 

The main mountain climb behind me, I still had to cross the longest desert section. I pushed hard on the pedals to cover as much distance as I could before having to cope with the burning heat. 

In the morning, I welcomed the strong headwind that accompanied the sunrise and would last the entire day to Checkpoint 2. My legs felt surprisingly good.  The headwind became my friend, for I knew it would affect everyone, and despite making our progression difficult, it also cooled me down. I am more prone to cramps and dehydration than most people, and the wind worked in my favor. I pushed to cover the 398km between the two checkpoints in 18h35’ and reached Checkpoint 2 in 17th position.

I set my alarm for 40 minutes of sleep, but after resting for 2 minutes, I couldn’t. I didn’t understand how a four-hour rest was sufficient to recover from the dehydration and exhaustion of the previous 24 hours, but I didn’t feel tired. I was on an adrenaline and endorphin high; my legs felt great and begged me to ride. A group of three was less than 10km behind me, and another group of five another few kilometers behind. Determined not to be passed, I resumed cycling without sleep and made this into a single 671 km stage to the end.

The cool night temperatures were perfect, and I pushed into the night as much as I could, for I wanted to reach the finish without burning for another day. 

I crossed the finish line in 65h55’ in 12th position, and I felt a great sense of accomplishment for being one of two over 50-year-olds among solo racers. This feeling was boosted by warm cheers from volunteers and early finishers. Many rested on mattresses and pillows set around the finish line: a brilliant setup by the organization. 

It’s difficult to describe how many emotions we experience during an event like this one. From the lowest moments and most profound levels of pain to the highs, it’s almost like squeezing a full year of adventure and human encounters into a three-day timeframe.

Jebel Shams was the toughest climb I had ever ridden, and it made even the mighty Angliru seem easy. It was grueling to climb it after 380km and while dehydrated, but it was also the most scenic part of the route and by far the highlight of my race. It’s an epic and bucket-list climb.

BikingMan Oman was a beautiful adventure, and it was superbly organized. The well-written information package, the flawless registration, the excellent pre-race presentation, and the welcomes at CP 1 and CP2 were fantastic.

At the finish, mattresses allowed us to catch up on war stories or sleep as soon as we got off our bikes. Axel Carion, the masterful and malicious mind behind the full BikingMan series, as well as his staff and volunteer team, created an unforgettable experience. 

The best-organized race wouldn’t be much without its participants, and that’s another benefit of these types of events: we meet more wonderful people in a few-day period than anywhere else. 

We only live once, and it’s on these quests for personal challenges and human encounters that I feel most alive. I suffered, I dug deep, I pushed my limits without hitting them, and I loved all of it. This was my first BikingMan, and I’m already planning the next one. 

Jean-Philippe Soulé is a French native who previously raced track and worked as a USA Cycling coach, and currently guides cycling tours in the mountains of France, Spain, and Italy. He’s also the multiple award-winning author of the travel adventure book “Dancing with Death,” and creator of the new Ultra Bike Pursuit series.
One Comment
  1. JC

    Un numéro 74... bien défendu par ce récit, livrant un air pur que les hauts savoyards ne pourraient renier. En ces temps figés, ce texte de pure générosité est une oasis de plus, après celle de Clémence, pour nos déserts urbains. Merci pour cette offrande et pour sa qualité : offrir un peu d’enchantement recale nos GPS pour ne pas abandonner sa piste...

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