All Points North was my first ultra endurance cycling event. I’ve been preparing for this for a long time and so it is useful to verify what went well and what didn’t.
First, almost all of my gear performed exceptionally. I find this incredibly satisfying as I spent A LOT of time researching and choosing each individual component. It paid off.
Having handy spares such as elastic bands, zip ties, tape, etc. I would add a needle, a few spare plastic bags, safety pins. Not that I needed those, but I can see how they can become invaluable in some situations and wouldn’t really weigh much.
Di2 gearing was absolutely amazing. Switching gears was absolutely constant, especially on the hills in the Yorkshire Dales. I mean, I changed gears so much I actually checked to see if the battery has gone down (obviously it hadn’t). It was such a breeze and my hands thanked me for it. Also in the aero bars I would often keep going far into an uphill by efficiently reducing the gears. On the flats the other way around.
Low enough gears. I cannot stress this enough. Since my issues with the Achilles tendon I have become a lot more aware of the stress on my body. Having lower gears allowed me to reduce fatigue and keep going (even though slower). As a result:
No Achilles tendon issues. I thought this would be a major stop for me and my bottle-neck. It wasn’t. A month ago I could barely walk or cycle 30km and here I did 600 with almost 9000m of climbing without any issues. The boring, but religious following of my physiotherapist’s prescribed exercises has paid off!
Waterproofs. I’ve ordered a heavier waterproof jacket and a pair of ultra lightweight waterproof trousers. The trousers were for the TCR, but the jacket was a backup for APN in case the weather turned worse – it did. The jacket kept me completely dry and my slow pace meant I didn’t sweat as much. The trousers though were the absolute star. They are paper thin, but kept me dry (or so it felt) throughout. When the rain stopped, I kept them on and they were dry themselves in no time, plus they gave me a bit more warmth.
Mudguards. The week before the race, not being able to see the forecast I put some mudguards, not wanting to end up on the day having to cycle in the rain with no guards. This decision really paid off monumentally. It kept me dry and clean throughout the days of mud and rain. And because of it I could keep going in confidence.
Hydraulic disk brakes. Just amazing, great stopping power, little force necessary and my hands were thankful for it. No going back now.
Dynamo + front and rear lights + USB charger. The dynamo is definitely not necessary for this, but it was great. I had the GPS unit constantly on charge through the USB charger connected to the dynamo. Navigation was sorted. Then, when I felt it was necessary I just pressed the button on the front light and that turned both the front and the rear. It worked great and the light was actually enough for night riding. A brilliant system that just meant I didn’t have to worry or think about it.
Head torch. It added extra light on the fast descends and also was useful off the bike in the darkness. Much better than another light attached to the handlebars.
AAA battery powered rear lights. The rear lights also worked a treat. Fully waterproof, I kept the on a lot of the time and they lasted without issues (state time around 100 hours). One of them was on the saddle bag, so I could just reach, turn it on while moving. Perfect.
Wahoo Elemnt GPS unit. Just works. Honestly, it’s my first ever GPS unit and I have no need for more. The battery lasts, it’s easy to use and I’ve not had any of the horror stories Garmin users seem to report.
Quadlock and a waterproof phone case + external battery. The external battery could be avoided, but I like to have a backup power. I could have done the whole race entirely without charging anything with this setup. The phone being on the bars was also useful, especially when I needed a quick re-route. It was just there and the waterproof case worked well too. It also made it easier when I wanted to take a photo or a video on the move.
Bike bags and gear distribution. I had a saddlebag, frame bag, food pouch between the aero bars and another on the headset. The food pouch proved invaluable, I was constantly accessing small amounts of food that kept me fuelled, same for the one on the headset. The frame bag had all my easily-accessible documents, creams, medical kit, etc. along with gloves and hat. I used everything. The saddle bag was sleeping kit and extra clothes. I particularly liked the saddlebag harness because I could quickly attach layers I had off onto it and then put them back on when needed.
Sleeping kit. My kit consisted of a down jacket, half sleeping bag, sleeping mat, inflatable pillow and a bivy bag. The pillow I never used. The setup was a test for the TCR and was probably a bit too light for the weather/temperature on APN, but it still worked, borderline. I think I would have liked a little warmer setup, but this still got me through and I think would be almost perfect for the TCR. Potentially, I would leave the pillow and go for a lighter bivy bag, not sure. However, I really liked the freedom to have a nap at any point, anywhere which allowed me to just keep going when I wanted, without having to worry “What if?”. As someone that is inexperienced in these events, that was more of an advantage than the disadvantage of the added weight.
Choice of gloves (short-finger + fleece). Combination, individual, using the phone. The short Grip Grip gloves are great as they have extra padding and I can tell the difference. On the cold nights I put fleece gloves under and they were just borderline ok. The gloves also still let me use the phone which was invaluable during the night.
Cycling through the night. I loved it. I think I enjoyed it so much, I will plan more of these rides. The piece, the silence, being alone on the road and seeing the stars and just knowing that everyone around you are asleep while you’re having the adventure you have been craving.
Lack of sleep. I didn’t really feel the lack of sleep (even though I definitely had more than others). But even after 24 hours of not sleeping I felt fresh and could keep going. I think little naps could keep me moving for more than I expected which could be an advantage once I sort my other strategies and gain some experience.
Legs. They weren’t the bottleneck, which is not what I expected. The training has been paying off. I am far from where I want to be, but I am happy, this was a good test and they didn’t let me down.
Route. My route was great. I loved the little lanes and roads. There were enough food stops, well apart and I knew them, so I used them well. The only iffy party was the gravel section near Kielder Water, but I could argue that that was good training for the Transcontinental.
What didn’t work?
Having enough spare tubes (2-3 at least) or maybe even going tubeless? I had one, but could have definitely used two. Also when tired I made silly mistakes such as not checking the inside of the tyre for leftover sharp objects.
Pain in my feet – possibly from the lack of insoles to support them? Possibly from the stiffer insoles of my shoes and the long hours transferring more vibrations into them than usual? Could it be the shoes, I am not sure.
Pain in my right knee. The outside of my right knee was in a lot of sharp pain. I am still not sure what it was due to, but am planning to experiment with moving the cleats a bit, so that my toes point a little more outward.
Not having good medication for hay fever? Last year I received prescription medication for hay fever. It changed my life – no issues, it was like being cured. This year I got the same, but it didn’t really work on 100%. Still there was relief, but I suffered. It could be that the lack of sleep made it worse, but I definitely need to change the medication for next year.
Food choices, quantity and frequency. I think I should have eaten more often, smaller portions and more varied foods, including more liquids to keep my energy higher. Still, it wasn’t too bad as I never reach a real low.
Not having a towel? This seems trivial, but at the hostel I had to improvise. It was ok, but might prove difficult for multiple days (TCR). A small one could help.
Saddle sores. On the second day the sores started to appear. I am not sure why, I did everything I could to prevent them – keeping clean, shower, changing shorts, chamois cream, etc. My suspicion is that the saddle was too soft and caused too much friction.
Haemorrhoid. This is a bit of a taboo subject in the cycling world (or so Googling for it seems to lead me to believe), but at the end of the day it is the main reason why I scratched at the end of All Points North (even though I didn’t know it at the time). After last week’s experiences I am pretty open to talk about it (in fact I am not sure why it should be a problem in general).
I don’t know why it happened, but from reading different sources the reasons can be many – having too much coffee, too much solid food, stomach problems from the start, but what I hope the main problem was is the saddle. Generally cycling does not cause haemorrhoid formation, but prolonged stress, too much sitting and lack of exercising. I don’t have the problem in every day life, in fact, I don’t remember having it before, so it must be connected somehow to sitting on the saddle for 31 hours. That is why I hope to prevent the problem in the future by getting the right saddle fitted. It is all open-ended, little information, many unknowns, but I am planning to find a solution.
Overall, I felt that gear-wise I was very prepared for the All Points North, at no point did I feel like I can’t handle the situation because of improper equipment. The route was adequate and in fact I enjoyed it’s variety, which proves that some painful lessons were successfully learned through the previous months’ trials and errors.
The thing that probably surprised me the most were my legs and my general fitness. I’ve had previously neck problems on 15 hour rides, but not this time. No lower back problems, no neck issues, but most importantly, my legs carried me the whole distance (and elevation) and had all signs of being able to do more of it. For not meeting my training goals and suffering from an injury, I am really, really happy with that performance for the time I had to prepare.
Finally, no matter how much you prepare, something will go wrong. It is how you handle that which defines the final result. Sometimes you can be lucky and with pushing and persevering it can be overcome. But at other times, doing any of those would be unreasonable and is best to recognise your limits, as difficult as it is – call it a day. No one can tell you what to do when, that is a life skill that you learn for yourself and part of why these challenges can be so useful to see your limits, to humble your expectations and to learn a pragmatic perspective. Analysing what went well and what went wrong helps precisely in that regard.