Heat exhaustion to sleep deprivation, ultra bike racing with Angus Young

Over the last couple of months we have been catching up with people across the cycling, adventure and Ultra Bike Racing industry. The idea is to share insight and inspiration with you during these tough and uncertain times and ultimately raise the level of excitement for riding bikes, enjoying the outdoors and making the most of life post lockdown. We couldn’t help but admire Angus Young’s ‘do it all’ spirit at Further last year. The mental fortitude and resilience he showed has stuck with us ever since. Read on to see what an athlete familiar with the pain and isolation of an ultra bike race gets up to in lockdown.

Ultra Bike Racing

Where are you based for lockdown and how long is the queue at your local supermarket?

Just before lockdown started I was lucky enough to escape my 1 bedroom basement flat in Reading and move in with my girlfriend’s family down near Pulborough, just off the South Downs. I’m not sure how well I would have coped being cooped up in the city centre. Here I am free to explore the outdoors with little risk of bumping into anyone.

How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your riding plans for this year? What events have been cancelled, postponed or just going ahead as planned?

I did have a full season planned that was due to start back in April with a 1200km race linking up all of the famous sectors of the cobbled classics in France, Belgium and the Netherlands.  But this was not to be. If everything were to be going ahead as planned I would have been taking a train up to Scotland next week to race the HT550, one of the UK’s most iconic ultra races. Again this will have to wait until next year. 

Looking ahead the next thing on the calendar would be GBDURO which is still set to go ahead on the planned date but things are flexible and it may all change. After riding GBDURO my original plan was to spend a week in Italy bikepacking with my girlfriend before racing the 20k Ultratrail from Turin. This would in theory leave me enough time to cycle over to the Pyrenees to race Further again. 

Everything lined up so well but now I feel that I am going to be lucky to get any ultra bike racing under my belt this season at all.

We’ve heard about your participation in the lockdown inspired World in One Day challenge. How did that go and how many pairs of bibs did you get through?

If you would have told me a year ago that I would ride 240 miles on a turbo I’d have thought that you were mad. But there I was at 4am setting off with 79 other riders hoping to cover the distance required to cycle round the world.

The one thing that I was most anxious about was that I would suffer from boredom, this wasn’t the case at all! We were in one big Zoom chat so the hours passed by very quickly. Listening to people’s stories and hearing about all of the amazing stuff people had done kept the hours ticking by. 

The ride actually only took 12 hours as you go a bit quicker on a turbo. This was split into three 4 hour blocks between which I would have around 20 mins to smash down a sandwich and change into a new pair of knicks.

Tell us how you got into ultra bike racing because anyone skimming through your social media accounts will see you have a strong background in triathlon.

Growing up as a runner I was drawn to the longest races I could do. Starting off with track races like the 800m and 1500m which seem like an endurance event when you are 12 and then moving into XC racing. 

Two days after my 18th birthday I ran the Edinburgh marathon. I was never especially good but I noticed that the longer the event the better I would place in the field. This led me to start ultra-running and I started doing fairly well with a handful of top 5 finishes in 50 mile races. Concurrently, I also began to train triathlon as a way to keep things fresh. By mixing your running with cycling and swimming you can keep your overall training load high whilst lowering the risk of injury. I trained hard for triathlon and completed a few Ironman races and also represented GB in shorter races.

Whilst training triathlon I always enjoyed the bike training more than the other disciplines maybe because you just get to cover more ground than you do running and the load on your body isn’t as much so you can easily spend a whole day on your bike and be back to training the next day. Doing that with running would leave you hobbling for a week.

I began to use my bike as a way to explore new places and see the world, with cycle tours taking me across Europe, Central Asia and Mongolia. It was only a matter of time before I was going to start competing in ultra bike racing events. I made my debut at GBDURO in 2019 and was hooked!

Last year you had a couple of big results in ultra bike races. 2nd place at GBDURO behind pro cyclist Lachlan Morton and then another 2nd place at Further, this time finishing behind ex-world time trial champion Emma Pooley. How do you feel about those results now, have they sunk in yet and are you looking for revenge this year?

Last year was epic. I had such a good time at both of those races and wouldn’t have changed much about my approach to them. GBDURO was a bit of a shock finishing so high up the rankings as it was my first event. I was however still a very long way off Lachlan’s pace; he is a formidable athlete.

Heading over to Further I was quietly confident but very nervous as there were a lot of well established ultra racers on the start list compared to GBDURO. My plan was to start hard and not sleep. The second part was successful however the hard start got to me and after 5 or 6 hours I was suffering from mild heat exhaustion. 

Chucking my guts halfway up a mountain meant I lost my lead by quite a bit but powered on through the night. For the rest of the race it was cat and mouse with myself and Emma. She was a much faster cyclist than me, especially up the hills, yet I was able to ride through the night without sleeping. When Emma overtook me mid-morning on the final day I knew that there was little I could do but powered on regardless and came in just under three hours behind her. A well deserved win on her part and I was very happy with second place.

These results were much better than I was expecting going into the season and they’ve really helped establish myself in the ultra bike racing scene. This year the plan is to return to both of those races and see how I can improve. The startlists for both are so stacked so I will have to really outdo myself if I want to win.

What are your thoughts on pro riders racing the ‘alternative calendar’? Is it fair for the rest of the field to be racing in the same category as a World Tour pro or does that make the racing more exciting?

I think that it’s a great thing. Having them there draws a lot of attention to what is essentially a niche sport which is only a good thing in my opinion. I feel the races like Further that have no categories at all and put men, women, pros and novices on the same start line are the way to go. 

How does life as a chemistry teacher fit in with racing ultra events? How do you get the training in and most importantly what is the mental shift required to go from traversing the Pyrenees in Further, sleep deprived and knackered, to talking covalent bonds in the classroom?

Being a teacher isn’t too dissimilar to ultra bike racing. Both require a lot of determination as well as the ability to go long periods of time on reduced amounts of sleep. One of the clear advantages to teaching is the longer holidays which does mean that I can fit in a fair few races. However, as I can’t choose when I take holiday there are some races that I simply won’t be able to do. Such as the Tour Divide which is slap bang in the middle of exam season.

Over the winter I have to rely a lot more on my turbo trainer in order to get the hours in. I found that doing an hour or two each evening and then long rides at the weekends gives me consistent improvements. I also could up my training load by running to school and back instead of cycling the 7km. Essentially if need to I can always find more time to train somewhere or somehow.

We would love to know more about winter triathlon. What got you into it and if you had to choose one discipline from it which would it be?

Winter triathlon is another great niche sport that I spend my off season training for. It consists of a run then a mountain bike followed by a cross country ski, all of which is on snow. I got into cross country skiing whilst part of the army reserves and spent a month or so out in Europe each year training and racing in biathlon and pure cross country.

I heard about winter tri and got in touch with the team manager and due to my race results in both triathlon and skiing I was given a spot on the British Age group team. racing as an age-grouper I got bronze at the world championships in my first year and then won the European champs the following year. 

This winter I was asked to compete in the Elite field which was a big step up for me. Putting on GB kit and racing against the top people in the world is something special. 

Due to school commitments this year and coronavirus stopping me travelling to a race in China I was only able to compete in one race this year which was the ETU European Champs in Romania. When the race started I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to keep the pace with the pro athletes on the run and the bike. However, when it came to the ski I began to quickly slip through the places. Living in the UK it’s almost impossible to train for skiing. In an ideal world I would love to live somewhere snowy in the winter where I could incorporate cross country skiing into my normal training plan. 

What advice would you have for anyone thinking of getting into long distance bikepacking/touring or entering their first ultra race or adventure race?

Just give it a go. Use whatever bike you currently have, strap some dry bags to it using inner tubes, pick a route or event that’s suitable to that bike and just do it. If you enjoy it, then you can shell out all of your money on a fancy bike and equipment. 

What would be your dream race to enter and where in the world that you haven’t ridden would you like to go?

I suppose that I have always been drawn to the Great Divide Mountain bike route. It is probably the most iconic route out there and I would love to go away and race it. However, the Tour Divide, which is the ultra race following the route, starts in mid June so there is a very slim chance that I’ll be able to enter. One day, I’d like to take a year out of work and do all of the awesome routes. Maybe include them in a ride around the world but who knows.

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