Suffering in the Desert: Part I

For a few months I’d been toying with the idea of attempting to break the Fastest Known Time (FKT) around the United Arab Emirates on a bicycle. It had been done twice before by local cyclist Roisin Thomas and a group of her friends. The most recent record, set in 2017 stood at 14 hours and 41 minutes moving (averaging just over 31km/h), and 20 hours and 51 minutes elapsed (including stops).

The main problem was that so far I had no bigger motivation to attempt this ride beyond the personal achievement.

Meanwhile, I’d been wrestling with a wave of personal thoughts on how to make my amateur cycling career more purposeful (a whole different conversation) resulting in the conclusion that I, and we as cyclists, can take part in this sport for way more than personal gain, by using it to help others – not just in one specific way but in general; to ride so that someone else might be benefited somehow. That’s when I encountered the Maria Cristina Foundation and saw the chance to partner with her and the organization to help the children of Dhaka, Bangladesh get an education and better their lives, all by riding my bike.
You can see where this is going - I had found a reason to attempt to break the UAE’s biggest endurance record in order to benefit others while challenging myself (and the team’s) physical capabilities.

The plan was to attempt the FKT to raise $700 ($100 for each Emirate), directly for the Foundation. The riders attempting the mission would be myself, Andre, and my teammate Miguel. Several of our friends and family committed to do parts of the ride with us, as well as be in charge of the support we’d need; Bernardo and Joana would be taking turns driving the support car, feeding us and napping, while Jonny would be capturing the suffering on film. We all sat together to plan the route, the stops and the approach.

The total distance of the segment was 467km. We would do 107km to the first stop and then stop every 60-70km until the end for a total of 5 stops. If we stopped for an average of 15 minutes, the record would be reduced dramatically.

UAEFKT Abu Dhabi

Like every good plan, things didn’t go to plan.
Rental car agreements and grocery store stops had us leave late, getting to the start line in Abu Dhabi a little after the 5PM set off time. Never mind, we set up and at 5:30PM the pedals clipped in and the wheels started turning.

It was hot, but we expected that.
We were fit, or so we thought. We felt good, at least at the beginning. We were fed, probably too much. Honestly, I thought we had this in the bag, especially the overall record. We were late, but I didn’t think that would affect us too much.

Ready to go

As we started the journey on the high of feeling good our strategy was then to keep the pace not too high and not too low. It was a great plan until we got hit by a never-ending headwind which took a big piece out of us, leading to our arrival at stop #1 more tired then we had hoped to be by then. Not to worry though, because Filipe, a professional triathlete, was about to join us to give us a push for about 100km in order to get our average speed back on track.
And just like that, after a longer stop than planed, we set off at over 40km/h.

UAEFKT Off we go
UAEFKT sunset.jpg
UAEFKT into the darkness.jpg

Kilometers rolled by as we pushed through the night. The weather wasn’t much of an issue and even though the second push was faster than the first, we weren’t more tired at the second stop than we were at the first. Now we were 180km in, only about an hour behind schedule and on track to break both the moving and the elapsed records.
The most interesting thing? None of us had ever ridden more than 200km in one go before.

We made an effort to stick behind Filipe’s high pace until km 200 where he would leave us. Once he exited we toned the pace down and got ready to face the first of the rides two big hill climbs.

UAEFKT speed.jpg
UAEFKT rest.jpg

The flat kilometers before the start of the climb were the toughest part of the ride for me mentally. I felt OK, I was already on the longest ride of my life, I was tired and about to climb a mountain… My mind was racing in circles as everything worried me… Not enough time. Too tired. Too slow. Not enough food – the last thing I’d eaten was a small bite at kilometer 180, and more than 60km went by until I was able to eat anything else. As the climb started, I entered a “getting-this-over-with” mindset and pushed through the climb, waiting for Miguel and the crew at the third stop.

Past halfway.
The bodies were OK, the stops were taking longer than expected and the average speed was almost a whole kilometer per hour slower than the record. At this point, if we could aim for the elapsed record, it was a very big accomplishment. But even that thought didn’t last too long.

UAEFKT sunrise.jpg
UAEFKT suffering.jpg

A few kilometers after the third stop, almost 300km in, the sun started to rise and we began doing the math. Rolling along a quiet coastal highway we looked at each other; “it’s not gonna happen”.
This is when we knew we weren’t even going to finish the ride. With the sun up we would welcome temperatures around 40 degrees Celcius, making it an impossible environment to ride in. We had a few more team members waiting for us at the fourth stop, so that became our goal: the 200 mile mark, 320km in, 147km from the finish line.
And so we pushed.
The motivation was running very low and that train of thought was taking a toll on our bodies. In those last 20km I didn’t want to be doing the ride anymore, I knew I could do better but mother nature didn’t agree. Cramps came out of the blue, the humidity spiked and I just looked down and pushed until the end, putting my bike on the ground and collapsing in a heap at stop number 5.

UAEFKT smashed.jpg
UAEFKT dead.jpg

A lot of people put a lot of effort into this; time, money, body strain… I felt I had let them down. We were all so confident in the fact that we would pull this off. After all we had the fitness, but ultra-endurance racing is so much more than that, it’s weather, logistics, physics! Sure my body was tired at the end of that ride but as I lay down on that hot piece of concrete I couldn’t believe it was over. Just like that, we had failed.

It took me a few hours to figure out how to come back from this, but of course the answer is to attempt it a second time. Not just that, but to raise the bar as well. We now know what we’re facing, we know what we need: more riders, to help share the load, stops of 30, not 15 minutes, proper nutrition planning, as opposed to eating as much as possible when hungry… That and so much more; a ton of details you don’t have to worry about but that I can’t wait to figure out.

The original plan was solid and the project was well planed but the second time around it needs to be so much better. Now it’s not a ride anymore. Now it’s a complex feat of human, mechanical and meteorological engineering. We’re not trying to “just” beat the record, we’re going to set the bar for a new sport. The concept of “Fastest Know Time” is still a pretty new one. The rules are very much set and the “governing body” is still working to figure out how it all works. This is our opportunity to take the reins in what could be a branch of the sport that stops thinking about the athlete(s) so much and switches the focus to the purpose and backbone behind them.

In the end, the support crew did as much of an effort as the riders because unlike the riders, they didn’t fail. Even if we had of beaten the record, in the end that would have been it for us. The money we raised put shoes on children’s feet, it provided transportation for them to get to school and so much more. That’s the real change this will have and actually still have even though we, the riders, failed.

At the time of this being written, Our goal of $700 has still not been reached, we’re on the last third of the goal and hoping to hit it soon as it is a big part of our evaluation when planning the next step of the project.

Head here if you’d like to help us get there!