© BikingMan / David Styv
Despite experiencing horrendous sickness during the 1680km BikingMan Inca Divide ultracycling event in Peru, and not being able to eat for most of the non-stop and unsupported race, Brazilian cyclist Victoria de Sá, was the only female finisher and came across the finish line with husband, Bruno, as the first pair.
Victoria chatted to me about her experience and how she endured temperatures that ranged from below freezing to 30+°c, a lost tracker and an unimaginable 30,000m of climbing, on barely any training.
Tell me about your cycling experience prior to Inca. Did you ride growing up?
When I was little, I used to ride to the park with my dad, but that was just for fun. When I grew up, I was in college and had to work, so there wasn’t much time to be serious about bikes. I would just basically commute. I’ve been commuting for a long time – more than 10 years, I think.
And then I met my now-husband and we started to do these long cycle travels – 3 weeks cycling in Japan; cycling in Patagonia. We had no idea what we were doing, we basically did really tough things without realising. So that was a good solid base for building my cycling personality, maybe.
You also run a cycling group Brazil?
I founded a cycling group in 2017, because here in Brazil it’s a little bit different. You don’t have cycling groups, you have training staff who give you a sheet [of training instructions] with wattage and I was like, ‘I don’t know what ‘watts’ means, I just want to ride and have fun!’ So I just formed this group which is called Fuga Clube de Ciclismo.
Through Fuga, I met some amazing, amazing people. One of them was Fred. He was the first guy I’d ever heard of to Everest (ride enough elevation to match the height of Everest). He chose a really small climb in Sao Paolo, maybe 30 or 50m each time and he did it like 200 times. SO insane.
Since then you’ve Everested on the bike too. What was your first Everest climb like?
My cycling group did the first-ever group Everest in Brazil. It was actually tougher than I’d expected – as usual, because I always think it’s going to be OK, but then it’s really tough! It was really cold that day. It wasn’t a steep climb; maybe a 6% grade for 12km. I went at a nice pace, I put some music on, sang along a little bit. It was a comfortable place to be. But once you went downhill there were some difficult bends, so it was a bit technical, and it was really freezing cold.
Luckily, I had lots of friends around, so they would make food, hot soup and coffee. That’s what got me through: ‘One more climb and I can have a coffee.” I had to climb it 13 times to Everest, but I didn’t think about the 13. It was: ‘let’s do one, and then another’. That makes it feel possible. Once I did half of it, there was no way I wasn’t going to finish this thing.
The second time I did the Everest, I did it in fewer hours and I climbed way more. I did 10,000m in 24 hours, compared to 9000m in 27 hours last year, with a heavier bike. I was like, wow, this thing about training really does make sense! And I was 8kg lighter, which helps. It was in April and it was way warmer, which was really nice.
Once you get through something really hard, you’ll see it’s not that hard the next time.
How did you get into distance cycling?
I was never in a race before – in fact, Inca was my first race. I know this guy, Vinicus Martins, who organises brevets (timed cycling events), which are really difficult. I did a couple of them. The longest one was 400km and it took me 24-hours to do it. I was so tired. I didn’t really overthink what 400km entailed, so I just signed up for it and once I was there, instantly regretted it [laughs]. BikingMan Inca was like that – Vini told me we should do it and I was like, really? And he was like, ‘You guys are into travelling and tough things, so maybe you’re gonna like it.’ I had no idea what I was getting myself into. It was brutal.
How did you train for BikingMan Inca?
I’m not very into training – I’m very lazy, actually, because I really like sleeping. I have really good genetics because I do stuff without ever really preparing. I see people training really hard, but I need to get my eight hours’ of sleep. But I do ride on the weekends – usually, 100km which takes us 4 hours because we stop, eat something, chat a little bit. I’m one of the staff, so I’m leading the ride and have to keep the pace, although it’s not really fast. We usually ride Saturday and Sunday, otherwise, I don’t do anything at all. I just ride with my group.
Tell me about the start of BikingMan Inca?
The first day was insane. We really needed to make it to checkpoint one which was 328km away. The first 100km was really hard, it was flat, all the men were setting the rhythm and they were stronger than we were. I had cramp for the first time in ten years because I was pushing so hard as I didn’t want to lose the peloton.
I was like, ‘fuck, my legs hurt today. But tomorrow is going to be another day, so maybe something else will hurt.’ And it was my back, my legs, my stomach – something new every day. But it was something I could cope with because I knew it wouldn’t last forever.
You suffered from terrible sickness during the race. How did you get through that and keep riding?
I was really sick during Inca – I think I threw-up 30 times in 24 hours. I was like, what should I do? I just couldn’t stand throwing up anymore. I was really desperate. And then I called my mum. She’s really not into cycling at all, but she was like, ‘why don’t you just go a little bit further and see what happens?’ And I was like, yeah, that makes sense. And then the next day, I didn’t throw up, I just had diarrhoea. I had been throwing up every half an hour the day before, so I felt like ‘this day is hard but not the worst’.
You couldn’t eat – how did you manage to keep riding?
I felt really horrible. Bruno helped me, he went to the pharmacy and bought me some drugs. That helped a lot. I called my nutritionist, saying I’m vomiting and can’t eat, what can I do? He said to mix sugar and water – the easiest thing your body can take in. So I was basically feeding myself with sugar and water and a little bit of whey protein. That’s how I managed to stay in the race really, because I couldn’t eat anything. So I was weak but I still managed to get some energy from somewhere.
Was it all insanely hard or were there any good moments?
[Laughs] It was great! A friend of mine says, ‘It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun’ so Inca was basically that. It was fun but really hard at the same time. But to be in nature like that is really amazing. You have deserts, you have stones, you have rivers, winds, you have forests, you have grass – all the elements are there and you really experience them. Seeing the children, seeing the really simple way of life where people have 2 mules, 3 sheep, 2 pigs, and their day is just getting up with them, seeing them eating, bringing them home. It’s a really nice feeling to experience that.
Plus, you’re almost at the equatorial line, so it should be really hot, but you’re so high that you have snow – that’s amazing! At one point you’re almost at 5000m altitude and yet you’re still in a valley seeing everything around you even higher, you’re like, ‘No way!’
Tell me about some of the tough descents which took hours to complete?
We were at the highest point at 5000m, at Pastoruri, and then you go down this really sandy descent with a lot of big stones, and it’s dark so you can’t really see. We were really tired, it was the second to last day and this descent took maybe 2 hours. The day was awful because it was raining and very cold, around -2. The Garmin route wasn’t exactly the route that we were doing so we were really concerned whether we were on the right path, so it was stressful. And I also lost my tracker which fell off without us noticing because the terrain was so tough.
We couldn’t see where the tracker was because we had no signal – we were in the middle of nowhere, halfway down the climb. I just didn’t have the strength to cycle back up to look for it in the dark. Bruno had his tracker and we were a couple so we chose to go on. And thank god we didn’t go back for it because it was almost at the top! A Peruvian guy found it and the organisers went to go and get it and the guy decided to sell it for about £10!
Amazingly, you powered on another 70km after that?
When we got down to the bottom of the descent we met Stuart, who was the first South African to do the race and used to be a pro. He’s really fast but he’s also really easy-going too. He wanted to go to checkpoint 3 which was 70km away, but it was already 9pm. I was like, I didn’t know what to do because I was very cold and tired. And then Bruno looked at me to say, let’s do it. So it was a team time trial. It took us less than 2 hours to get there. It was truly awesome. After 1200km, after being sick, negotiating this horrible descent, we still had the energy to do 35km an hour. The human bodies are amazing things. I really love this kind of experience because it gets you to extreme things that you didn’t know you could.
You experienced -2°c cold but it also got very hot at times?
Yeah, it was crazy, I think it was the most extreme temperature range I’ve ever seen in my life. It was raining and I was at the top of a 5000m mountain experiencing -2°c, then the next day we were at sea level, so basically you go from 5000m to zero. The weather changed completely and we had really, really hot sun. It was basically the desert – no trees at all and a horrible, horrible headwind. It was so windy we could only ride at 12kph. It was really, really hard and dangerous; we had bridges to cross, but the wind was so strong that I would be taken away by it. It was actually really dangerous. So I was like, ‘I’m descending and I’m still getting fu*ked!’ I was really pissed off.
Did you have the right kit for all the different weather conditions?
Because we travelled a lot on vacation, we did have a lot of experience with weather. When we were in Argentina in January, we went to Patagonia and had awful rain and wind. We almost froze for real. Once we got to our campsite, I had to stay by the fire for 40 minutes to stop my whole body shaking. It was pretty awful. After that, I knew we had to buy some very technical equipment. It was expensive but definitely worth it. So yes, I was really happy with the clothes we had. We were ready for the conditions, but once you get wet there’s only so much rain your clothes can protect you from.
How did you feel about the heavy rain forcing you to stop on the second to last day?
It was a really hard decision to stop because we’d already lost a whole day because of my sickness and were a little bit tight on our schedule. We felt hopeless. We had no signal [where we were], so there was no way of finding out when the rain would stop. A local guy told us that once it starts, it usually lasts the whole day, so I was like, ‘Waah, the race is over’ and I decided I was just going to eat fried fish from the restaurant.
Then the rain stopped and I was like, let’s do this! The end of the day was beautiful. It was cloudy but the rays from the sun were coming through and one went straight into the lake at the top of the climb. We experienced something really unique there. Even if you’re in a really bad situation, you can still find something unique, you know?
Remarkably, you ordered a new bike last-minute before Inca and never got to try it before racing!
Yeah, that was insane. We had Specialized Sequoias, which are awesome bikes that we’ve done a lot of trips on. For Peru, we were [packing] very light, so I only had one kit with me: one bib, one jersey, one base layer, that’s it, nothing else. Just leggings, my pyjama and everyday clothing, so we didn’t need a lot of space. One week before, we just started questioning whether to get a faster, lighter bike. Bruno is a Specialized dealer so he has a shop. He actually is a bike fitter – really handy! I think that’s the reason why we took a risk and ordered the Specialized Diverge.
The bikes arrived on Friday and we left on Saturday. It’s a carbon bike and we put carbon wheels on it which was kind of risky because you have a lot of dirt [during the Inca]. But I weighed 48kg so I didn’t think it would be a problem for the carbon wheels. And it was great, especially for the first fast day, otherwise, I don’t know I would have made it like we did.
Did you get any saddle sores?
No, I didn’t have any sores with my bibs, which was great [and thanks to the bike fit]. There were two girls who had to give up because of sores. I was really worried about that because once you get sores, you’re basically fu*ked – it’s not like stomach ache which can fade away. I didn’t get any knee or back pain either.
Would you change anything if you did BikingMan Inca again?
I wouldn’t eat the chicken neck [laughs]. I think it was that and high altitude that made me sick. I’d never been to high altitude before so you never know how it’s going to affect you. But I ate some parts of the chicken that I’m really not used to. And maybe I’d go with some bigger tyres as we had much more dirt than we were expecting.
Have you got any advice for riders taking on the Inca?
Go light, do a bike fit, don’t eat chicken neck. And really enjoy the people and the culture in Inca. If you’re able to really appreciate being there in the present, it will fade away quickly.
Any more ultra plans?
Rumour has it that BikingMan is coming to Brazil. Almost half of the race was Brazil, so it does make sense. We have lots of cool tracks around so that would be great, and if they come, I’m going to do it solo.
You can follow Victoria on social media via www.instagram.com/vickydesa.