From Dot Watcher to Racer: BikingMan Oman 2020
BikingMan Oman, the first of its ultra-distance bikepacking race in the Middle East, challenged riders with big climbs, high temperatures, and scattered resupply options. We reached out to the first female finisher, Elizabeth Dunne, for a reflection on her experience. Find that, plus an excellent gallery of photos here…
Words by Elizabeth Dunne, Photos by BikingMan
I think the best way to start this article is to introduce Bikingman Oman #3. This is a self-supported bike race covering 1,060 kilometers with 9,000 meters of climbing through Oman’s Hajar Mountains, including Jebal Shams. The race includes approximately 45 kilometers of gravel with the remaining distance covered on roads of all varieties. The race can be tackled solo or in pairs and it has a five-day cut off.
I come from a military background and am recently retired after serving 22 years in the British Army (but I am Irish) where I worked as a Physical Training Instructor. Since leaving, I have worked for the Lebanese Army and am now working for the Qatar Armed Forces. My passions are triathlon and road cycling racing.
My introduction to ultra-cycling came on a whim when I entered the Trans Atlantic Way (TAW) in Ireland. My thought behind this was that it would be a great active holiday and an opportunity to see the West of Ireland. I had no information on the event other than what was on the website, I didn’t do any research on hints or tips on the internet or via podcasts, and I was completely oblivious to all the open source publications. My preparations for this revolved mainly around internet shopping, where I spent a small fortune purchasing a set of Apidura bags.
A very long story short, I flew to Ireland from Qatar, just in time to fit my new bags to my bike and got myself to the start line. I very quickly realised I completely underestimated the challenge! I foolishly was relying on my race fitness to get me through. After three days, I had golf balls for achilles tendons, I couldn’t straighten my right knee, and saddle sores brought a whole new meaning to the term sore. So, I had to admit defeat and acknowledge it’s one thing to race 80km at average speeds of 38kph, but ultra-cycling self-supported racing is a completely different discipline.
This disastrous first attempt at ultra-cycling was actually the start of what I hope will be a promising future into the sport. And, hopefully it will inspire others who may not have gotten off to the best of starts to use their experience as an opportunity to learn from previous mistakes.
Over the next two years I became a “dot watcher,” following riders from all over the world take on various challenges whilst I was looking for my own challenge to target. Eventually I settled on BikingMan Oman #3, which was scheduled to start February 22nd, 2020. I entered it six months out, and whilst I continued to road race, I made this my main focus and promised myself I would put the long-distance work in. I quickly settled into training, mainly doing solo rides and carrying the bike bags every weekend. I was determined not to have another “scratch” beside my name.
My preparation included learning what nutrition to take, finding my way around my new Wahoo Roam, basic mechanic skills, and a constant change in my kit list. I also had an opportunity to speak to local rider Julie Melville who completed BikingMan Oman and Taiwan in 2019, who had loads of little tips and lent me bits of handy kit. I will forever be in her depth for the numbing cream tip.
Once I got myself on the start line at 8:00 p.m. on Saturday, February 22nd, it felt very surreal. I was feeling very nervous and out of my depth amongst 80 strangers. I was questioning myself: was I ready, did I have the right bike for the job? I was riding a Specialized S-Works Amira race bike with 28mm road tyres and fitted with Profile Tri-Bars. After numerous changes I dropped my kit to the bare minimum and my total bike weight was 13.5kg. But the big question was, could I get as far as Jebel Shams to CP1 (397 kilometers) in one go?
The first 40km we were with the peloton, where I got to chat with solo riders Sophie and Marianne. Sophie’s boyfriend was also racing, and it was pretty cool for them to experience the same challenge at their own pace and racing strategy. Marianne is an Irish-born Dutch lady and hearing her Irish accent made me feel right at home. She also completed TCR in 2019, so straight away I was an instant fan. I also got chatting to two men who broke into panic when they noticed I had mapping on my Wahoo, as opposed to their blank screens which showed a naked arrow. I broke the unwelcome news to them that they should have uploaded Oman mapping to their computers. I won’t quote what he said, but it lifted my spirits and made me feel a bit more prepared and like I may belong in this group of ultra-cyclists after all.
The first phase of the ride to CP1 went well. We spent about 100km on the Muscat Highway, so we were spoilt for choice in the garage/food department. I made all my food stops quick and did all my eating on the bike. I found myself enjoying riding solo in the dark but at the same time took a lot of comfort when I could see other riders’ lights in the distance. I was never sure how far I could ride before I’d have to take a break, but learned that the answer is 300km, at which point I rewarded myself with a 20min nap on the side of the road.
As I got to 350km it was about 2:00 p.m. and I was thinking maybe I could get to CP 1 and back down the mountain. I was wrong. This year the event organiser decided to treat us to a mandatory 10km of gravel. This specific section can only be described as horrendous. It was rolling, but mainly rolling upwards, and the stones were like rocks. I found myself having to push my bike for about 85% of this gravel section. There, I made a new friend by the name of Adam Saxon who was good company on the uphill slog. The heat was really getting up, and everywhere you looked you could see someone pushing their bike with the odd gravel biker racing past you with that smug look on their face. Fair play to them. Eventually it will end is what I told myself.
After three hours it did end, and Jebel Shams started. I looked up at the mountain ahead, got sick, then climbed back on my bike (after making my apologies to the local man who had to witness it). I knew the riding wasn’t going to last too long before I’d be off again, so I just left my cleat covers on. Somewhere over the gravel section I damaged my shoes, making it very difficult to unclip. I spent the next few hours mainly pushing the bike, cursing race organizer Axel, and asking myself is this really a bike race? I had my eye on the prize, the bed I had booked, and would definitely be using CP1. The last five kilometers of the climb were rideable, so in my head it felt good and it was back to being a bike race, and no longer a mountain trek.
When I arrived at CP1, I was told I was the leading solo lady. I didn’t really care, I just wanted to shower and get a few hours’ sleep. Five hours later, at 3:30 a.m., I was back on the bike rolling down the mountain. This was the most exhilarating experience ever. Normally I’m very cautious on steep descents, so I purposely attacked this in the dark so I wouldn’t be put off by the steepness. It worked a treat! My plan was to keep going all the way to CP2, so another 398km shift to put in. The winds in Oman can really affect your progress, and for this section it was mainly a headwind, but thankfully it wasn’t too strong and I had my tri-bars to get well tucked in to. This is when my goals were beginning to change from completing BikingMan to winning it. This section of the race ran from west to east across the country with plenty of camels and donkeys to keep you entertained on the way.
At CP2, I got to bed about three hours before the second lady, Marianne. Now was the time I had to get a bit tactical and I decided I’d sleep for one more hour after she got in to bed so I could get a good four hours of rest and then be ready to tackle the last 267km. If I was going to lose this race, it would be due to riding slower, not sleeping longer. I had a sense of renewed energy but also renewed saddle sores, so I decided to try wearing two pairs of shorts (my luxury item was a second pair of shorts). This got me off to a good start and I settled into a steady rhythm with the goal of reaching SUR (88km) where I’d treat myself to a McDonalds breakfast. The wind was on my back for most of this route, which meant an early arrival and a closed McDonalds. Arghhhhh. Instead, I settled for a plain egg wrap at a local café and bought a spare one to carry for an emergency.
The next 100km handrailed the sea and the roads were very quiet with plenty of hills, so music was a must. This was my first time using my earphones, as previous roads were fairly busy and I wanted to be 100% alert. The toughest part of the day was the soaring temperature, plus my sickness/vomiting was returning on and off and I had the constant worry of being chased down by Marianne, who had left CP2 shortly after me. Randomly, there was a fire station in the middle of nowhere and the staff there were very generous, not only offering me water but also a bed if I wanted a nap. Tempting as that was, I took up the water offer and enjoyed 10mins out of the sun before hitting the road again. My new motivation was knowing the finish line was near and my boyfriend was waiting for me. Incidentally, he had to finish his own holiday a day early because I was going to finish a day earlier than I thought.
As I headed into the last 20km, I hit the last gravel section. This was strangely very enjoyable; I guess I picked up some skills from the first day. The road brought us through mountainous gorges and there was a family of baby camels roaming around the area. It was flat, easy riding and I chose to slow down slightly and enjoy what would be my last hour. Just a couple of steep hills to take you to the finish line at the Shangri La. It was coming up to 7:00 p.m. and very surreal to think three days earlier I was setting off on this 1,068km journey full of panic and self-doubt.
As I rounded the corner, I could see the red carpet and the finishing banner. My boyfriend was the first person I could see, but he hung back from everyone as I received the famous hug from Axel, and Neil Copeland was straight in with his Facebook Live antics. I was probably a bit delirious and I just went through the motions. About four men had finished within the previous hour, so it was great to just give them all a hug and a knowing look acknowledging the challenge we had all just endured. There’s a feeling you get from these events that you can really only experience firsthand. Throughout the event, the “race angels” and media staff work tirelessly to make it the success it is and portray the stories through their various media outlets, they definitely deserve the name “angels.”
For me, coming from a TAW scratch to the BikingMan Oman #3 Ladies Solo Winner, completing it in 2 Days, 22 Hours, 47 Minutes, I couldn’t have been more surprised and happier. I now look forward to picking the next adventure, and I fully recommend BikingMan events to fellow riders.
About Elizabeth Dunne
At the age of 18, Elizabeth Dunne left her home to join the British Army with hopes of becoming a Physical Training Instructor. As a member of the Corps Triathlon Team, Elizabeth competed in numerous Ironman events across Europe, and has also organized larger hiking and paddling expeditions. Currently, Elizabeth is a Captain in the Qatar Armed Forces, and is excited to immerse herself into Qatar’s active cycling community.
A huge congratulations goes out to all of the participants at this year’s BikingMan Oman event. Special thanks to Elizabeth Dunne for sharing her experience as the first female finisher. BikingMan Corsica is the next event in the series, with a grand depart on April 27th, 2020. Learn more here.