© BikingMan/David Styv/Magali Paulin
When Danish endurance athlete Helle Bachofen von Echt signed up for her first ever ultra-distance bike race, she had no idea what her limits were. But it turns out the 40-year-old is well suited to grinding out relentless miles for 47 hours without sleep! Helle was the second woman to finish the non-stop, 1000km, BikingMan Oman event, despite being unable to shift gears for much of the race due to a Di2 failure. Eight weeks later she took the win at BikingMan Corsica, a 700km race with 13,000m of climbing.
From troll and dinosaur hallucinations to suffering horrendous saddle sores, Helle, who lives in Dubai and works as a spinning instructor, shared the highs and lows of her ultra experience with me.
How did your interest in ultracycling come about?
I was first introduced to the idea of BikingMan in 2017, when the founders of the BikingMan ultra series came over to Dubai to do a presentation on the first edition of the Oman  race. However, I had just started my triathlon journey and was signed up for my first ever Ironman 70.3, so the timing wasn’t right. One year later, Axel Carion, founder of BikingMan, contacted me again in advance of the second Oman edition. This time however, the timing was spot on.
The advantage of taking on the second edition [of the race] was the support and experience of the Dubai residents who’d taken part the year before. Signing up for your first ultra can be quite frightening, and my decision to commit was certainly helped by guidance and encouragement from more experienced riders in our community. I knew I could seek help regarding training, preparation, equipment etc.
BikingMan Oman was your first ultracycling event. Did you have any idea of what to expect?
I had an idea of the route, the necessary equipment, weather conditions, how and where to find food, how to organise [battery] charging, and how to use different route planner apps – all information shared by riders who had taken part the year before. However, I had no idea at all about my own personal strengths and weaknesses in the extreme; how I would cope with sleep deprivation, how many hours I would be able to ride in one day, how much sleep I would need, how much effort or power to produce, and how I would potentially cope with mechanical issues (riders are fully self-sufficient and not allowed to seek help from others). I basically went into the unknown, mentally and physically.
Tell us about the challenges you encountered during BikingMan Oman?
I started the race with a completely open mind. Basically, I thought to myself, ‘Okay, just keep riding, and whatever problems occur, deal with them as they come and find a solution when you know what the problem is.’ My first problem arrived after just 30 minutes of riding, when we were charging ahead, road race style, on the first 120km flat-ish section. I had eaten too much breakfast and couldn’t digest the food, which gave me excruciating stomach cramps. Coming from a road race background, I’m well aware of the seemingly devastating effects of getting dropped from a peloton, so I fought [to keep going] for 2 hours on the bike, until I had shivers and cold sweat running my neck; the pain was unbearable and I simply had to stop for the bathroom.
When I got back on the bike, there was not one rider in sight. I was devastated. But with 900km+ still to go, I had to try and talk motivation and positivity into myself.
How did you make your way back to the group?
I managed to settle into a good rhythm and started to catch a few riders. Then, at the 200km mark, my Di2 failed. It basically just stopped shifting. I was stuck in one gear. I knew the battery was fully charged, but I had no idea how to fix the problem. I decided to keep calm and keep pedalling. I basically continued on the reasonably flat terrain, without touching the shifters, for around 150km until I hit Jebel Shams, our only – but monster steep – mountain. I had calculated a few different scenarios and options for the gear issues, one of them being scratching (pulling out) from the race. I prayed and held my breath as I hit the shifters at the bottom of the steep mountain section, and miraculously the chain dropped into the small ring, enabling me to actually climb Jebel Shams.
Although still temperamental, the gears were shifting, not on demand, but at least regularly. My third major problem occurred around 550km in, where I started to get troubled by saddle sores. I rode for around 6-8 hours in excruciating pain, until reaching check point 2. My skin was shredded and my bib shorts had stuck to the flesh. I wanted to cry. I swore I would NEVER do another ultra. In hindsight, I should have stopped long before and looked after my sores, creamed up, found a pharmacy – anything to relieve the pain – but I stubbornly continued in pain.
You ended up being awake for almost 47 hours! What’s it like cycling without sleep for so long?
Yes, almost two days without sleep and non-stop cycling. I can’t really believe that myself, either. As I had no idea what to expect, I had actually prepared well for taking comfortable naps. I carried an inflatable matt (200g) and inflatable pillow (100g). Luckily, a last minute decision was to remove my sleeping bag and only bring a survival blanket. I didn’t know when or how much sleep I would need – I had never tried this before and had not practised sleeping in training either. I basically decided I would let my body give me the signs. And my body never asked for sleep, it turned out.
Did you encounter any mental fatigue or hallucinations from the sleep deprivation?
My mind did start to play games with me with light hallucinations on the first night, where I saw ‘ghost bikes’. But riding into the darkness on the second day, 40+ hours without sleep, the hallucinations became really strong with everything around me moving; trees, bushes, rocks, plastic bags, everything turned into creatures or animals crawling, moving or running around me or besides me. The most bizarre creatures I saw on the road were dinosaurs and trolls. This is probably where many people would stop and sleep, however, I knew they weren’t real. I felt I had control of my bike handling, and as there was almost no traffic on the mountain road and I knew it was a matter of hours before reaching the finish line, I decided to battle through.
Did you use any strategies to help you stay awake and keep going?
It was mostly the desire to do well that kept me awake and kept me going. It was also the fact that I was second female, always less than an hour behind race leader, Jasmijn Muller. In ultracycling, an hour is very close. I kept an eye on Jasmijn. She never stopped. So I didn’t either. That kept me awake. Jasmijn kept me awake. But I was also willing and eager to explore my own personal capabilities. I was actually really curious to test my own limits and I was willing to go far. The hours in darkness in Oman are long – almost 12 hours of darkness. And the mountain sections were pitch black. I had made some epic music playlists to keep me fresh through the night; I was singing out loud on the empty, dark roads. I was also continuously sipping water with caffeinated electrolytes, to help me stay awake.
Had you done any training to prepare for the sleep deprivation?
I had never practised any sleeping on my training rides. Most of my rides lasted 6-7 hours, with a couple of longer rides of 10-12 hours. My longest ever ride in training was 240km/12 hours. I had no idea what to expect in terms of sleep deprivation or when or for how long to nap. I just had to go with the flow and wait for signs.
Before your first BikingMan Ultra in Oman, what was a typical week of training like?
Because I work as an indoor cycling instructor, admittedly most of my training sessions are short and hard interval-based 45 minute ‘spinning sessions’. But at the weekends, I would usually do two days of riding back-to-back, each block or day lasting 6-7 hours of steady riding. This was also my chance to practice fuelling and equipment. And I would do at least one of the two days in the mountains, either rolling hills or continuous climbing up and down the same mountain until reaching 3,500-5,000m elevation. I would also still participate in local road races to keep ‘sharp’.
During your BikingMan Oman experience you said ‘never again’, but then you entered BikingMan Corsica and came first woman! What made you go back for more?
Well. Although I never believed ultra riders before I started my own journey, it really is addictive, from several aspects. Whether it is the travel experience, the exploring of new countries and areas, the feeling of being a part of nature, the personal mental and physical challenge or even the people in ultracycling, it’s easy to get hooked!
Personally, I am an either-or type. All in or nothing at all. I did say ‘never again’ because I spoke in times of pain. But of course, after sleeping and healing, the pain is forgotten and the incredibly positive experiences are remembered. I’m also the type of character who can’t stop until I have reached my limits. If I know I have more to give, more to learn, more to explore, then I also have to come back for more.
What was your ultracycling experience in Corsica like and how did it compare to Oman?
Those were two very different experiences with different difficulties. Oman was mainly flat terrain, with hundreds of kilometres of straight roads and a warm climate. Corsica was pretty much only narrow, bendy mountain roads and a cold climate.
In Oman I was riding a gravel bike – because we also had gravel sections – with aero bars for a comfortable, relaxing position on the long, flat straights. I had lots of different music playlists to keep me entertained and I was able to eat and fiddle with my phone while riding, as not much concentration was required. My body temperature was also always comfortable. One huge problem with being in the same position, though, was the saddle sores.
Corsica was very different. I rode my road bike with climbing gearing. The entire course required full concentration as the roads were always changing and bike handling was required constantly. It was very hard at night too; I could never take my eyes off the road, or at any time during the course, in fact. It was either ascending or descending too, no flat sections. Most of the time I was cold – night time was 5°c and even descending in daytime from the mountain peaks it was as little as 7°c degrees. It takes a lot of energy for the body to stay warm. And I found it very difficult and energy draining to even handle my phone (tracking, communicating, way finding, social media etc) while riding. In the final few hours of the race, I was literally crying out loud; every single muscle, bone, brain cell, old injury hurt. This was from always being tense on the course, being cold and having very little shock absorption through my stiff road bike frame and racing wheels. Everything hurt.
Did you learn anything in Oman that made you change your approach to Corsica?
Actually, I felt during Oman that I had found quite a successful way of organising myself practically, and went on to use a pretty similar approach to Corsica. I did find some new challenges in terms of correct clothing and energy expenditure, and certainly there were aspects that I had not foreseen and didn’t get right in Corsica. But this is all part of the experience, and I am certain that I will learn something new in every single race.
One of my main priorities in Corsica was to cut down on ‘time waste’, so basically work on becoming more efficient during breaks, fuel stops etc. One of the key elements to ultracycling is to keep cycling, keep moving forward, and spend as much time as possible on the bike. But it’s also a fine balance to learn when and how much rest is required. I believe that in Corsica one of the reasons I placed first female was that, although I was suffering, I was moving forward slowly. I always kept moving; whereas the other female riders took longer rest periods and also chose to sleep.
What kind of training did you do in preparation?
This may sound a little crazy, but I actually didn’t prepare much for Corsica. It was only 8 weeks after I completed Oman, so I already had many miles in my body. I also did an ‘Everesting’ ride 4 weeks before Corsica (climbing 9,000m in 24 hours). I was pretty confident that if I could climb 9,000m, I would also be able to do 13,000m of elevation [during the race]. Plus, the final 3 weeks before Corsica, I had a very big workload of indoor cycling classes, so I didn’t even have either the time or energy to ride my bike outside. Although you may think all those indoor cycling classes were part of my preparation, they also had a negative impact on my mental and physical wellbeing. By the end of the 3 weeks, and only days before travelling to Corsica, I was so exhausted that I nearly cancelled the ultra race.
Isn’t it fascinating how everything can change in the space of only days, and as I jumped on the bike in Corsica, this incredible mental and physical focus and a huge amount of willpower and stamina just suddenly reappeared? This is one of the reasons I find this ultra journey so unbelievably fascinating. We humans have no idea what we are capable of until we’re faced with these extreme situations. I love learning and discovering these strengths about myself. It is extremely rewarding.
What did you eat during BikingMan Corsica and how often did you stop to refuel?
During both my first two ultra races, I learnt that I need a good balance between sweet and savoury and that variety is the key too. I fuel mainly on real food, so savoury homemade sandwiches which I carry on the bike, and for sweet I eat a lot of Snickers bars as they’re high in calories and very satisfying. I try to look after myself in terms of hydration and muscle fatigue prevention and regularly take hydration tablets, salts, magnesium and calcium.
I try to eat as much as possible on the bike while riding, but realistically I stop every 4-6 hours to re-fuel on water and at the same time nibble on some food or run into a shop to re-stock on snacks. I eat only hot meals when I stop at the checkpoints. I had 3 hot meals in Corsica over the 41 hours.
I imagine being self-sufficient with your fuelling is another logistical challenge?
It is very important to know the terrain of the course and know in advance the availability of shops on the route. For example, in Corsica, as I rode through the night, there were no shops open from 9pm-9am. I had to be fully self-sufficient in terms of fuelling. I found only one water fountain all night and it was 3-5°C. My Snickers bars were hard as rocks and didn’t provide me with any energy or satisfaction. It was a very hard night, and admittedly I didn’t get the fuelling right and completely bonked on a mountain climb in the early morning hours. I had to get off my bike in the middle of the climb as I wasn’t even moving forward.
What was your biggest challenge during BikingMan Corsica?
Definitely dealing with the cold. I definitely underestimated how much energy it takes for the body to keep warm. I simply didn’t have the right cold weather clothing. And just being faced with constant discomfort is hard and draining.
How do you approach a non-stop 1000km event? Do you have any strategies that keep you going when you haven’t slept for 40+ hours or have painful saddle sores?
You are absolutely spot on, it becomes pretty much only a mental game at that point. For me personally, I have already decided beforehand that I’m there to push my personal boundaries, to learn about my limits, to give all of myself; this keeps me going. My own personal drive is my motivation. I’m also competitive and in my first two ultra races, I’ve raced at the front of the female field. This also keeps me super-motivated to keep going; the possibility to win or place high.
What are your cycling plans for the rest of the year?
Well, I’m planning on completing another two BikingMan Sprint ultra races, and potentially race for a series win, as I’m currently leading the 2019 World Series. The last two races of the 2019 series are BikingMan Portugal in September and BikingMan Taiwan in November. Let’s see if I can make it happen.
What are your favourite items of kit for ultra-distance cycling?
It’s actually pretty standard what is either required or necessary to carry during these ultracycling races. I have been very lucky to receive incredible support and guidance from more experienced ultra riders in my local community, and I have been even more fortunate to be able to borrow all equipment before deciding if Ultras are something I want to get into more seriously and, as a result, either invest in my own equipment or even apply for sponsorships. I don’t have a favourite piece of kit yet; I am still learning. But I’m pretty sure I will at the end of the year, after completing four very different ultra races in my first year of ultraracing.
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
I’m not sponsored by anyone. I haven’t been seeking sponsorships either. I’m still very new to ultracycling, but I must admit I have surprised myself with how well I cope in this discipline. My aim is to get a good solid year of experience by racing four ultras in 2019 and learn as much as possible, not only about the sport, but also about my own strengths and weaknesses.
Going forward and beyond from 2019, I have to decide if this is something I want to put more time and energy into and set higher goals and bigger challenges. If this is the case, then I doubt I can do this without sponsors. I am very open such to opportunities and I would love to contribute to making this sport more visible and attractive for female riders. I have a very good relationship with BikingMan founder, Axel Carion, and his team and we are working together to spread more awareness about ultracycling events and invite women to become curious about ultracycling.
One of our fellow male ultracyclists – who is also a mountaineer, adventurer, world record holder and public speaker – has followed my races and he believes I have the ability to become a world class ultra rider. Now this is something that really excites me! But this is a huge project and certainly something that requires a well-established support network.
For more information about the BikingMan series of ultracycling events visit www.bikingman.com.