21-12-2021 | Marcel van Herten & Eveline van der Hek

Ultra fondo, when a gran fondo is not enough

As long as we can remember, riders have always had the urge to go farther, longer and higher. For a long time, ultra cycling was a niche in the cycling world, but since the outbreak of the corona pandemic, it has become one of the fastest growing disciplines in cycling. It's time to look deeper into the world of ultra cycling. Today part 2 of our 4-part series: The Ultrafondo.

In part 1 we already briefly explained the background of ultra cycling in general and ultra fondos in particular. For part 2, we asked ourselves the question: isn't a gran fondo tough enough? But instead of filling in the question ourselves, we asked two experts by experience. Joost Bakker from Groningen. He rode the Ultrafondo Marmotte Alpes in 2021 and finished as the first Dutchman in fifth place. And to "friend of the show" Michiel Minnaert. Michiel frequently rode a top classification in several major fondos (including 2x wins in La Marmotte , Schleck GF 2021 and Munsterland Giro 2021).

Preparation becomes the main goal

Joost was in training for the Tour du Mont Blanc which has a whopping 338 kilometers and about 8,500m+ and thus leads the rankings CWiX500. The Ultrafondo Marmotte Alpes was a nice last test for him. However, Corona threw a spanner in the works, the Tour du Mont Blanc was cancelled and thus the Ultrafondo Marmotte Alpes became the main goal of 2021.

The ultra version of the Marmotte Granfondo Alpes was organized for the first time last year. The course is almost identical, but has a dessert. Just after the top of Alpe d'Huez you bend down to climb the Col de la Sarenne. You'll then descend it to climb the Alpe again and finish on top.

CW: Isn't a gran fondo tough enough?
Joost: "I wanted to do one of these monster rides. I like a longer, tougher course, but this was a big challenge for me too. Now I have ridden the 'normal' Marmotte before and this time I hoped to enjoy the surroundings more. In addition, I wanted, with the Tour du Mont Blanc in mind, to cross the finish line without being completely wasted."

CW: And, was is a succes?
Joost: "Absolutely! Even before the start I noticed a difference. The atmosphere before the ultra was a lot more relaxed. Until 5 minutes before the start at 5 o'clock we were not even in the starting area. I myself had the impression that the majority of the approximately 500 participants did not participate to ride fast, but to finish. Just like me. Although they rode at a decent pace, I have never climbed the first climb as calmly as I did that day. In hindsight, I think I may have left something out there, because in the second half I picked up quite a few riders. And, although I was empty, I was not broken when I crossed the finish line. This was also reflected in my times, because I cycled up the Alp d'Huez the second time faster than the first. What was also different for me is that I allowed myself a decent pee break. I normally never do that at a gran fondo."

CW: Were there any downsides?
Joost: "What I found unfortunate was that we finished between the other Marmotte riders. I knew that there would be no official classification of the ultra and I'm also not concerned with a result or prizes. I would have liked to have finished on my own though."

CW: Do you recommend it and if so, what do you recommend?
Joost: "If you like a challenge and are an endurance athlete; YES, definitely! I built up my training from four hours to about 75% of the expected duration of the ultra. Because I assumed about 10 hours of cycling, I made a number of rides of 8 hours. If you don't feel like it or don't have the time for it, you should ask yourself if it's for you. In addition, you really have to be able to cope with training with your hands on top of the handlebars. You really need those long, easy workouts. And they do have the disadvantage that you lose your speed. In any case, it took me quite some effort to start training at speed again after the Marmotte ultra."

"You really need those long, quiet training sessions. And they do have the disadvantage that you lose your speed."

CW: And now? Are you thinking about another ultra?
Joost: "I don't think I will include the Mont Blanc Ultra in my planning for 2022. The Marmotte is in my planning, so I'll do the normal distance again. And I haven't looked much further ahead yet."

Minnaert enjoys wear-and-tear battles

Michiel tells us that 2021 was a special year for him. Not only did corona cast its shadow over the fondo program again, but the birth of his baby daughter at the end of October 2020 meant that Michiel had to get used to a new reality. So no ultra in 2021. But with two participations in the Tour des Stations (4th (8:44am) in 2019 and 2nd (8:57am) in 2020), we can call Michiel an experience expert.

CW: What's the big difference with a 'normal' gran fondo?
Michiel: "The main differences are the number of hours, up to 9-10 hours, and the pacing strategy. That you need to eat much more and your body must be able to cope is obvious and can be trained. The same goes for the number of hours, of course. And don't forget that the start is often in the dark. Especially at a flat start, it is extra hectic and costs energy that you will need later. The ultra is a real battle."

CW: What did you notice from the brutal race at the Tour de Stations?
Michiel: "I had a seriously bad moment during both races. The trick is to recover from this bad moment. Fortunately, I managed to do that, mainly because I took the time to eat well and to slow down a bit. But (laughing) I don't know if I would have recovered from a second bad moment."

CW: So tactics and strategy of the race are different?
Michiel: "Yes, it is. In a gran fondo, you see a lot of followers. Riders who ride above their capabilities but can still follow for a long time, because the distance and time are manageable. In an ultra you are really done at some point and if you do not pay attention you are seriously parked somewhere. So most riders choose their own pace and then you quickly see that the field is torn apart. If you ride together then with equals and often all the way to the finish."

"In a gran fondo, you do see a lot of followers. Riders who ride above their capabilities but can still follow for a long time."

CW: What do you think about going further, longer and higher?
Michiel: "Personally, I see it as a challenge. But for me, there has to be an element of competition. I'm not alone in that, organizations respond to that. At the Tour de Stations the ultra has always been the main event. Together with the Tour du Mont Blanc, these are the real ultra's on the calendar for me. Beautiful routes where the ultra is really something special. I hope they don't get carried away with the hype. Like the Marmotte attempt with the ultra, it might even devalue the original event."

CW: And for 2022?
Michiel: "2022 is all about Everesting. And in 3 parts: First, a virtual challenge in Zwift on the Radio Tower in February, then an IRL attempt in the Belgian Ardennes, and concluding on August 6, the Tour de Stations, the Everesting Challenge. Where the total number of hm's is 8,848, the height of Mount Everest." (Editor's note: officially, the Tour de Stations does not count as an Everesting attempt because the elevation is not accumulated on one climb).

When it doesn't get heavy enough for you

If you are also someone who is looking for a different or new challenge and an ultra looks good on you? Then check out the calendar of CycloWorld. Use the CWiX-index to determine whether the fondo is tough enough for you. For the record, the "regular" Marmotte has a CWiX of 100, the Tour du Mont Blanc tops the list with a CWiX of 153.

Read more about ultra cycling?

Part 1 we published before. But look out for the other stories from the men and women of ultra cycling about their drive and experiences. Part 3 focuses on randonneuring, and in Part 4 we'll look at self-sustaining bikepacking events.

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