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23-11-2021 | Marcel van Herten & Eveline van der Hek

Long, longer.... ULTRA

The cancellation of entire cycling calendars and events since the outbreak of the corona pandemic has put cycling further and longer in the spotlight. More and more cyclists were looking for new or different goals and challenges. Cycling further, longer and higher even became a hype and the feeds of self-proclaimed ultra cyclists went viral on Strava.

The urge for the extreme

Organizers of gran fondos are adding an ultra fondo to the program more often than not, and even the CycloWorld crew was gripped by the urge to go further than they ever did. But 300 km is just a warm-up ride for a true ultra cyclist. Time for a look at the world of ultra cycling: one of the fastest growing parts of cycling. CycloWorld went to investigate and comes up with a short 4-part series on ultra bikes. Today part 1: The background.

What is ultra cycling?

Different from ultra running (event longer than a marathon) and an ultra triathlon (event longer than a full IronMan), the definition of ultra cycling is a lot less straightforward. According to the World UltraCycling Association website, ultra cycling involves "an event with a minimum length of 200 km or duration of 6 hours that is ridden in one go (single effort)." But often they are events of 300, 500, 1,000 km, 12 or 24 hours longer. Some go into the night, are in many cases self-supported and can be ridden either on road, MTB or gravel bike. A common motto of ultracyclists is therefore "Go long and stay strong!"

Because of the vague definition of ultra cycling, the broad spectrum of events and participants with different interests, several self-contained subdisciplines have emerged over the years. Roughly speaking, we can divide ultra cycling into 3 categories. This always involves an organized event. We will leave aside challenges that cyclists impose on themselves. Of course, this does not mean that this is not ultra cycling.

1. Ultra fondo

The ultra fondo is probably the best known discipline. Simply put, it comes down to a very long (and therefore often extremely tough) gran fondo. Where the border lies between a gran fondo and an ultra fondo is hard to say and it doesn't have to be: an ultra fondo meets the following criteria for a gran fondo that CycloWorld uses. Ultra fondos are included in our calendar as such.

  • There is a time measurement on at least 50% of the course
  • There is a mass start (unless it is an individual time trial)
  • It is a race, and thus are classification(s) and award ceremonies
  • It is an outdoor event (not indoor / virtual)

For ultra fondos, we do have the rule that a ride must be completed within 24 hours. We understand that there can be discussion about this. For some ultra's you can also discuss whether the label gran fondo is justified. For example, both the Alpenbrevet Platin and the Marmotte Ultra fondo have time registration but there's no classification.

Famous examples of ultra fondos are:

  • Tour du Mont Blanc (330 km, 8500m+)
  • Tour de Stations (246 km, 8848m+)
  • Mallorca 312 (312 km, 5000m+)
  • Alpenbrevet Platin (268 km, 7090m+)
  • Race across the Alps (525 km, 14000m+)
  • Styrkeprøven Trondheim-Oslo (568 km, 3627m+)
  • Unbound (320 km gravel, 3200m+)
  • Marmotte Ultrafondo (225 km, 6300m+)

2. Randonneuring

Evolved in the early years of cycling with the goal of going as far as possible. In many countries, randonneuring is often known as Audax (free translation: daring). The principle of this, non-competitive, form of ultra cycling is simple:, complete the ride within the set time limit. Participants who complete the ride receive a certificate, called the Brevet (d'Audax). If you complete a brevet of 200, 300, 400 and 600km in one calendar year you may even call yourself a 'Superrandonneur'. The original rules of randonneren were once established by Henri Desgrange (the founder of the Tour de France) and are now managed by the Audax Club Parisien. It is therefore important to have your completed brevet confirmed by the ACP, called homologation.

The most famous randonnée is Paris-Brest-Paris, which is organized every 4 years. The next edition is scheduled for 2023 and is a whopping 1,200 km long. London-Edinbugh-London is also a well-known name. In our calendar we characterize these rides as 'ultra'.

3. (Un-)Supported ultracycling & bikepacking races

The ultra fondos and the randonneurs rides can be considered as the disciplines within ultra cycling that we can easily categorize. But in addition, there is a multitude of events ranging from individual time trials of 12 or 24 hours on a closed circuit (Rad am Ring), self-supporting bike packing races (GBDURO) to transcontinental races with follow cars. Of the latter, the Race Across America with its 5,000 km is perhaps the most famous. All these events have one thing in common: they involve very long cycling distances and usually a high degree of adventure. Often all kinds of things have to be carried on the bike. Just like randonneur rides, you can find these events in our calendar by filtering on 'ultra'.

Are you up for it?

If you are also someone who is looking for a different or new challenge and an ultra seems to suit you? Check out the calender of CycloWorld. But also read the stories of the men and women of ultra cycling about their drive and experiences. In part 2, we take a closer look at the ultra fondo. In part 3, randonneuring takes center stage in part 4, we look at self-supporting bike packing events.

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