It’s almost impossible to prepare for a 500 km bike ride. You may study the course, get all your gear dialed, look at the weather, train as hard as long as you can, there is absolutely nothing that can prepare you to give your all for 20h straight with (almost) no stop on the way. Here’s my journey through the GBC 500, a grueling bikepacking self supported race on almost all gravel roads.
The season was almost canceled, I just finished the Raid Pierre Harvey 2020 (link to video) and I had to set a goal to look up too. I was desperately scrolling the internet to find something when someone tagged me in a post from Endurance Aventure, a 500km bike ride almost all on gravel. The concept was simple, ride the entire course in less than 7 days. I thought, wow, that’s great but I’m not really into ‘’ultra’’ races, I don’t wanna bring a tent and all, so I’ll skip it, maybe later. It turns out, it sticks in my mind and I had the idea of doing it in a single push (which apparently I wasn’t the only one attempting this feat).
So this challenge kept on turning inside my head, I thought about which light I was gonna use, which tires are best, how fast I can do it and all those types of questions. I quickly reached out to some friends and partners in order to get some sweet gear and nutrition products for the 500km journey. With all those scientific (not) calculus I was able to fit all my gear and food in a frame bag and all my clothing and tools/spare in a bar bag, I could also fit some stuff in my jersey. I also made the estimation that I could ride this well within 24hrs, approximately 19-20 hours. Since I didn’t know what to expect in terms of terrain I was a bit sceptical on my estimation but I was going to try it anyways. Let’s not forget this is a 500km gravel ride with 7000m of elevation.
The day of the race arrived, got my heavy bike rolling and went for it from the get go. Since the stars were done in individual time trials format, so I had a couple of riders to catch up. After only an hour I was already at the front of the race, I was coming first in all aid stations where the race organisers were always surprised to see me coming that early. I was flying! I had an average speed of 29kph after 200km. I had some great legs, I was eating well, a couple nut bars, a protein bar every couple hours to keep my stomach full and an occasional fruit bar to keep the sugar level high.
I had planned to stop for dinner at the 5th checkpoint which was at km 260… but it turns out I had made a mistake. It was 30km later. This is where it all went wrong. When I arrived at the checkpoint, my bottles were empty, my stomach was also empty and my mind was starting to feel weak. I had a smoked meat (that was what was on the menu for all racers) with… 4 pepsi’s. Yes, you read this right, I was so deep in a hole that my only way to get out of it was to drink sugary pop. I dig myself a bigger hole. What happened here is that pepsi is too harsh on your stomach and is way too sugary for any type of nutrient absorption. So I was basically putting gas in my belly without getting the ‘’benefits’’ from the sugar.
I jumped back on the bike, made a couple gravel sections with some really bad GI issues and the I arrived at the last village before nighttime. At that point I knew I had to get something to eat and drink because I was going on a stretch of almost 200km without any supplies. So I grab what everybody would choose: An ice cream sandwich, a red bull, some chips and a water bottle. I ate everything and went back on the bike, after pedaling in the darkness for a couple hours, I wasn’t able to eat anything. Even though I knew I needed to eat, I couldn’t get anything inside me. I know it is a common thing for ultra runners, but for a cyclist, it is a pretty rare thing to happen. So I rode for the remaining 200km without eating. You can almost predict what will happen. I dug a hole so deep I was barely able to pedal for the last 50km. I was dizzy, sleepy and I felt like it was the first time I was pedaling my bike. I ended up being caught by the second rider on the road. I was not able to match his speed and he made quite a big gap on me.
He ended up with a 30 min gap over me. We were on the fire side, at the finish line where our crew were waiting, we sat there for a couple minutes talking how tough the course was and how freaking dark it can get at night, what we saw on the road and what made him faster than me. After all we both got beaten by a rider that left 3 hours after us, a certain Bruno Langlois, who would have thought.
Retrospectively, no more 500km ride in a single push and no more pepsi during a ride. I’ll keep it nice and easy on the stomach by choosing food I know and that I’ve trained with, even though the temptation is hard during ultra events, keep your head up and stick to what you know works best.