We have often reported on Dominic Irvine's recent long-distance cycling exploits on this website, and in 'Ultra-distance cycling' he has combined forces with Simon Jobson, a professor in sport and exercise physiology, to give us the benefit of his wisdom. Although the sub-title is 'An expert guide to endurance cycling', I think that is selling the book short as it contains much of relevance to less extreme cycling.
Before Irvine made his successful attempt on the End-to-End record with tandem partner Charlie Mitchell, he had considerable experience of other endurance cycle events – and of failed record attempts (here for example, and here). His practical experience blends well with the academic input from Jobson, whose 'research interests focus on the assessment of cycling performance and the mathematical modelling of cycle training'.
The two worked together on the successful record attempt, and the aim of the book is to 'assimilate the many lessons learned into a single volume to save the reader the pain of having to trawl through vast amounts of content to find the nuggets of knowledge that really will make a difference'. Given the incredible variety of endurance cycling events that we report on, it is clear that there is considerable interest and involvement in such extreme exploits; in fact, a LEJOG attempt barely meets the criteria in such company!
And for the rest of us…
A lot of the considerations for a cyclist undertaking an ultra-distance event (which is defined as an 'endurance performance of at least six hours in duration and 160 km') are exactly the same as for mainstream cyclists – except to a greater degree and/or with different priorities. That is why so much of the book still has relevance to those undertaking shorter events.
Take the chapter on bike fit as an example: it will come as no surprise that comfort is the over-riding priority. The information given is excellent, and the majority of it is applicable to most cyclists; however, while avoiding 'hot foot' is important for all of us, it is much higher up the list of priorities for an endurance cyclist, and there is extensive advice on the cause and cure. If all else fails, a solution 'might be the use of flat pedals...as there is no robust evidence to suggest a degradation in performance'. Remember that we are talking about extreme situations where unbearable discomfort might be the most likely thing to limit your ride.
Food and drink
There is a lot of discussion about diet and hydration, and when you read that for the successful record attempt 'eating normal food was non-negotiable' you would expect to see support for a good regular diet as much as for manufactured sports nutrition. After all, 'if your training nutrition is based on real food, there is a good chance you will be able to maintain an appropriate balance of key nutrients even when you're 1,500 km away from the nearest sports nutrition outlet'.
Amongst the 'hero foods' recommended for everyday sustenance are oats, eggs, milk, Greek yoghurt, sweet potatoes, and beetroot. These are the sorts of food that seem to feature heavily in the diet of many successful athletes, so nothing too radical there. The foods chosen for the successful record attempt included such unexpected delights as chocolate-covered dates and cocktail sausages. And let's hear it for watermelon: 'if there is one food that can always be eaten, it is watermelon...it remains our go-to food when we are unable to eat anything else'.
Not surprisingly, given Irvine's recent activities, the practical advice extends to his experience on a tandem; in fact, there is more tandem-specific information here than you will find in other books. In the case of nutrition there is advice on working together when 'dining', because 'while there is nothing to stop the person on the front opening their own food, why would you when someone else, who is under less pressure, can do it for you?'.
The discussion about choice of kit will be of great interest to everyday cyclists, and often equally relevant – although Irvine has views that won't always please some brands: 'Membrane jackets are in effect like wearing a bin bag with tiny holes in the polythene. As a result, when expending reasonable effort, you end up wet inside the jacket from sweat rather than rain pouring on you.'
I don't think that I have ever seen quite so much space given over to an informative discussion about chamois cream and its application: obviously the endurance rider has more extreme demands than the rest of us, but as we see throughout the book there is something for everyone here.
I was interested to see that in the section on tyre choice there was no mention of tubeless tyres, but when you have to be self-sufficient in the most inhospitable environment the priorities are obviously different.
The book includes a few chapters that may be of interest to normal cyclists, even if we are unlikely to put any of the ideas into practice – whereas for the endurance rider not only will these chapters be very relevant, they contain the sort of information that comparable books rarely cover.
There is a whole chapter on the importance of teamwork, and in particular on choosing the right support crew – even if it is an unsupported event and the team is not actually alongside you. As Mark Beaumont demonstrated so well recently, 'for a sport that seems to solitary, the level of teamwork required is significant...Great teams don't just happen. They require an investment of effort no different to any other aspect of performance'.
Sleep deprivation during a ride is something that most of us will not have to endure, but it is going to play a part in most ultra-distance events – and the build-up to them. Some people can deal with it better than others, but ultimately 'sleep deprivation is profoundly unhealthy and dangerous. There are so many negatives it is difficult to find anything to recommend it'. The book gives lots of advice on how to mitigate the effects, especially during a race – and if you have a support crew it is relevant to them as well.
I was not surprised to see a whole chapter devoted to 'developing an ultra-distance mindset': as anyone who has undertaken such an event will confirm, 'ultra-distance cycling is as much about mental toughness as it is about fitness'. In particular, you have to learn to overcome the inevitable obstacles: in reports of such events we are always reading about injuries, broken bikes, border controls, navigation errors, road conditions, and many more challenges.
Even sponsorship and PR have a chapter, which is another good example of practical advice that will be of some interest to many, but will be essential reading for only a few. Most events have a cost, but often the more extreme the event the greater the overall cost of preparation, let along participation, so the need to find extra support increases in importance. The main challenge seems to be to offer value for money to a sponsor without compromising your performance in the very event where you need to do well enough to justify the support.
Something that is notably absent is any training schedule, because any generic 'one-size fits all' programme would be wasted here: for ultra-distance cycling your training needs to be tailored to suit your event, your abilities, and your time – and if you don't have the skills yourself you will be using the services of a coach if you are taking the preparation seriously.
My biggest complaint about the book is that there are many fine photographs, but most seem to have little relevance to the topics under discussion. Even more frustrating is that few of the images have any caption or information about them, yet there are some inspirational pictures of stunning locations that make you want to find out more – if only you knew where they were.
I am not expecting to undertake any ultra-distance event, but I still found much of interest in these pages – and it has given me a greater appreciation of the level of preparation (and the sacrifices made) by those who do participate.
A great source of practical advice for all cyclists, not just for ultra-distance practitioners
road.cc test report
Make and model: Ultra-Distance Cycling - An Expert Guide to Endurance Cycling
Size tested: n/a
Tell us what the product is for, and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about it?
This expert guide to competitive ultra-distance cycling is all riders need to cycle a very long way, fast.
Ultra-distance events are among some of the greatest challenges a cyclist can face, with riders spending hundreds of miles in the saddle over a 24-hour period, battling the elements and overcoming both physical and mental hardships.
What was once elite is now commonplace, and today thousands of dedicated riders cycle up to and over 100 miles on ultra-distance rides every week. To add to this, the increasing profile of major events such as Race Across of America (RAAM), Race Across the Alps (RATA) and Ultracycling Dolomitica means that many more riders are being drawn to the challenge of 'non-stop' endurance cycling.
Ultra-Distance Cycling is the first mainstream book to offer practical, authoritative guidance to cyclists looking to step-up to long-distance endurance events, as well as expert advice to established competitors seeking a competitive advantage.
Written by a leading sports scientist and a record-breaking ultra-distance cyclist, this unique book is both science and experience based, offering practical and performance-enhancing insights on a wide range of areas. These include physical training and mental preparation, guidance on your support network, advice on PR and sponsorship, as well as all-important sections on equipment, nutrition and the major ultra-distance cycling events.
This definitive manual provides riders with everything they need to ride longer and faster, and to excel at ultra-distance cycling events.
Tell us some more about the technical aspects of the product?
Title: Ultra-distance cycling
Author: Simon Jobson and Dominic Irvine
Date: April 2017
Quite expensive for a paperback at full price, although Bloomsbury books are often on offer – and there is an e-Book option.
Tell us what you particularly liked about the product
Clear and accessible writing, backed by science.
Tell us what you particularly disliked about the product
Un-related (but good) pictures.
Did you enjoy using the product? Yes
Would you consider buying the product? Yes
Would you recommend the product to a friend? Yes
Use this box to explain your score
Full of good, relevant, applicable tips and advice.
About the tester
I usually ride: My best bike is:
I've been riding for: Over 20 years I ride: Every day I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: commuting, touring, club rides, sportives, general fitness riding