Bikepacking and ultra-riding have arguably become more popular than ever this year. With most conventional racing canceled due to the pandemic, many people had been embarking upon huge rides much like Badlands, and I was no different.
My friend Liam Yates had been mapping out a monster route which would later become known as the Sussex Mystery Tour. 200 arduous kilometers of predominantly off-road trails around Sussex and the South Downs – certainly not one for the faint-hearted, and who’d just been persuaded to ride it? Yours truly.
It was early summer and my alarm sounded just as the sun rose. Little did I know, but I was about to take my first steps down a path I’ll find it difficult to stray from. When Liam presented the idea a week prior to riding it, it didn’t take much persuasion. The naive roadie in me was saying “200 kilometers? You’ve done plenty of races over that distance, how hard can it be? You’ll be done in seven or eight hours no problem”. Upon speaking to him the day before, Liam stated it could take up to 20 hours so we need to start early. I kind of laughed it off and said “Why so early? That’s crazy, we’ll be much quicker!” Anyway, 6am soon came around and off we set with the ride taking us a little over fourteen hours to complete. I considered myself a pretty hardy bike rider, but as we finished, with my body aching in more places than I ever thought possible, suddenly the concept of it taking us 20 hours didn’t seem so crazy after all. Although I was suffering and (often) complaining for most of the ride, I’d look back on it in the coming weeks and think: “Yeah, that was fun let’s do it again.” A seed had been planted and I was left searching for more adventures.
In these coming weeks I’d hear of a bikepacking event known as ‘Badlands’. 700 kilometres of self-supported riding through the deserts and mountains of Andalucía in southern Spain. Originally due to take place in May but due to the pandemic, rescheduled to September. At the start of the year, before the pandemic, Liam had presented me the idea of riding it in May. “Absolutely no chance, you’ve got to be crazy to do that kind of thing!” was my response. However after my recent 200-kilometer ordeal, I had a different mind-set and decided to enter.
With very limited bikepacking experience and up until recently, zero experience riding for long durations off-road; the concept of me finishing the first day of Badlands was looking slim, let alone all 700 kilometers of it, so I was going to need some practice first… Liam and I decided to head down to Dartmoor and traverse the ‘Westcountry Way’ bikepacking route. 187 kilometers of crash and rain filled chaos took us nearly four days to complete. I finished bruised, battered and broken; but had gained some valuable experience.
Regardless of the issues we encountered (plus an impromptu rest-day in a hotel to wait out the rain), our mission across Dartmoor and the Westcountry Way was a success. We had overcome adversities and got to the end – we finished, which ultimately is all I wanted to do at Badlands. A couple of months soon flashed by, and Liam and I were on a flight to Spain.
For the few days preceding the event we stayed at the ski resort in Sierra Nevada. The goal was to get some training in and also take look at the Veleta Pass which summited just above where we were staying. We bumped into an ex-teammate and current ace when it comes to ultra-events, James Hayden. He lent me a few tips for my first event stating, “You need to be fit, but it’s mostly in the head.” Right. So I need to be fit and mentally strong. I guess I’ve got the fit part covered, but mentally strong? We’ll find out I guess…
After packing my bike with everything (I thought) I’d need and then consuming its equivalent weight in food, I was ready and the day of the Badlands had arrived. I’m no stranger to a bike race, and apart from the atmosphere being far more relaxed, the start was similar to what I’m used to with the bunch rolling out through the early-morning streets of Granada behind a police escort. As we head up a climb out of Granada, the lead car pulled over at the side of the road and the event was officially underway; just my body, my bike and more significantly my mind were all I had to cover the distance. No team cars, directors, soigneurs, mechanics… It was all down to me and whatever services I could find en route. The first portion of the event went quite smoothly. Not in the literal sense however, with arguably one the most technical single-tracks coming at roughly ten kilometers in. I’d learned my lesson in Dartmoor however and managed not to crash on any head-sized rocks, which would have been a disaster at this early stage.
By early afternoon on the first day I was logging more kilometers, temperatures were easily into the mid-thirties and I hadn’t even hit the first desert section yet. It was around this point that my inexperience or mere stupidity started to cause me problems. Firstly, I had to do some rearranging of my bike bags, specifically a titanium Spork, since a zip broke – but more on that later… I’d been riding for about six or seven hours and I’d exhausted all of my water in the heat. I knew a town was coming up with some shops. However it was a Sunday… A Sunday… IN SPAIN! So of course all the shops were shut. I only lived in the country for two years, you’d think I’d have figured that out by now. I couldn’t see anything open, fortunately another rider’s bike was leant up down an alley and located what was probably the only bar in the village. After paying well over the odds for 1500ml of water I was back on my way… sort of. I opened my bike bag to refill my water bladder, and saw what can only be described as a fish tank, with energy bars and tyre levers floating around. Remember that titanium Spork? Well turns out it had pierced my water bladder and my bag had filled with water… obviously. With no drainage hole I decided to cut a hole at the base of the bag using said Spork. The hole was far too big however, and not only did all the water come gushing out, but everything else in the bag. Anyone who saw my bike after the event wondering what all the tape was for – that was my attempt at fixing it.
The Gorafe desert was up next, the first and probably toughest test of the event from my point of view. Entering the desert, I had to ride up essentially a concrete wall. Spain is full of climbs like it and I’d raced up things like it before. But after eight hours of riding on a bikepacking rig, and with temperatures easily into the 40’s, it would have been easier to walk. As I entered the desert itself, a rough gravel road soon turned to single track and eventually, a dried river bed was all I had to follow. I often found myself dismounting to get through sections of deep sand and steep inclines. All this plus the heat were starting to get to me, and as I approached one of the climbs out of the desert I noticed a weird tree by the side of the track. It was in fact a rider – Christian Meier. Either my eyesight is worse than I thought, or I was hallucinating. He was sat under a rock in the shade, and I asked if he was ok. He said “I’m fine, just taking a break from this heat”. Not thinking much of what he just said, I proceeded to carry on and started to climb. I hit my lowest gear straight away had to start walking. I suddenly started to think I should have done the same as Christian. I got to the top after what seemed like an eternity and essentially keeled over under the first bit of shade I saw. After some food, water and a bit of rest I came back pretty quickly and headed out of the desert.
I was greeted by a smooth tarmac section heading into the next town and I don’t think I’ve appreciated a road so much in my life. It was nearly nightfall and I needed to resupply. The town had a bar which when I arrived, looked like it had been, and was in the process of, being ransacked the riders before me. I quickly bought a bocadillo (baguette/sandwich) and a couple of Fanta limóns and headed on my way. Night fell soon after, and the first night shift began. Most of it is still a blur, just the same dust, dirt and ball of light from my torch in front of me. I was climbing for the majority of the night exceeding 2000 meters into the mountains, and the temperature at that point had dropped into single digits. I’d been riding for nearly 20 hours, my back felt like it was broken, my neck felt like it was going to fall off and I’m not even going to talk about my undercarriage. Not to mention, after this long I was fighting to stay awake. I decided I had to stop soon. I found a good area to set up my bivvy and called it a night shortly after.
Three hours after stopping, I was on the move again and day two had begun. I descended down from the mountains being passed by Liam, arriving in a town where I found him in a bakery. I bought a pastry and a baguette for breakfast. Not really sure what I planned to do with a whole, plain baguette, but it’s all fuel I guess. The Tabernas Desert was up next, fortunately, it was early morning, and temperatures were still low passing through. There was one six-foot boulder I had to navigate over next to a sheer cliff drop, but other than that this desert was easy compared to Gorafe. However the relief bought by cooler temperatures here was overshadowed by one thing. As I left the desert and for the next four hours my life, it consisted of a few things. Mostly suffering, but also sand, sand and more sand. Riding was impossible in many parts, and regular hike-a-bikes through sand became normality.
Another endless climb followed by another perfect tarmac descent, and I found myself approaching the coast. Over the crest of a small rise I caught Liam, we stopped for a second, and I decided to charge my phone. I unzipped my pocket, plugged it into my battery and head off down the descent. It wasn’t until seven kilometers later that I noticed that my pocket was still open and my wallet was missing. I was in race mode and convinced myself I didn’t need it… Until about five minutes later when I realised that without money to buy food, I wasn’t going to last the next 100km let alone the remaining 300. So I shot off in the reverse direction, setting several power pb’s in the process, and THANK GOD it was there, lying on the track, just where Liam and I had stopped earlier.
I retraced my steps and shortly hit the beach section before Almeria, more deep sand was a common theme here and 30 flat kilometers took me close to three hours. I arrived in town much later than expected, but found a bar still open, buying another bocadillo and Fanta limón. As I cruised through the deserted streets of Almeria by night, I had one final respite before what in my opinion was the toughest climb of the event. It was around 15km at 5%. Not something I’d usually grimace at, but I was exhausted, my back pain was worse than ever and the surface was some of the worse I’d experienced on the route. Rocks ranging from kiwi to watermelon sizes lay before me, and on 38mm tyres I wasn’t getting over them in a hurry. I walked most of the climb and it took me three hours, it was starting to drizzle and was quite windy, I felt the worst I had all race and needed to sleep. Once at the top I found a small clearing, set up my bivvy, got in and passed out.
I had pressed snooze on my alarm and managed to oversleep for an hour, but after a few hours rest I felt much better. After a revitalising 20 kilometers of tarmac in the dark, I hit another monster climb which took an age to conquer. As I climbed overlooking the ‘sea of plastic’, a massive field of greenhouses visible from space, I was running low on food. I hadn’t bought much in Almeria due to the shops being shut and all I had for a fair few hours was a pack of Oreos. I descended the other side knowing a big town was coming up to resupply; and arrived broken from a long bumpy descent, and with a pretty major sugar bonk. I looked around noticing everything was shut. I checked my clock, 11am, Tuesday… Why’s everything shut? I’d been dreaming of a Lidl pizza slice for so long only to find it was also shut. An ex-teammate still living in Spain would later text me after the event congratulating me, “Nice ride man, hope you didn’t crack with the national holiday closing the shops.” I should have expected a national holiday, and yes, I had cracked hard… At the BP garage which was the only place I could see open. I bought more Fantas, several packs of doughnuts and a few waffles to last me. I was concerned about food mainly because the next 100km we uphill, literally. With few places likely to have food (if anything) I needed to stock up here.
I began my ride upwards, riding through the foothills mostly consisting of almond and fig plantations. I got a bit too close to a few trees at one point and a pack of farm dogs came after me, but otherwise a pleasant ride into the mountains. I stopped in the final village before the Veleta Pass, Trevélez, one of the highest municipalities in Spain at nearly 1500m. I bought another bocadillo and yet more Fanta, filled up with water and began the climb. I had over 40km of riding in front of me, all of which was uphill to 3000m. I decided to have some more sleep before tackling the main body of the climb in the first Refugio at roughly 2000m. I had an hours rest, and it’s all I could afford if I was going to crack 72 hours for the event, plus I had riders gaining on me fast fighting for a top five finish like me. I pressed on up the climb’s endless moon-like landscape in the pitch black. Once I reached the top it was nearly into the minus temperatures, but fortunately the descent was tarmac and I could quickly reach the warmth of a lower elevation… or so I thought. I’d hit a pothole at the top of the descent, and of the whole route managed to puncture on a simple tarmac section.
Covered in tyre sealant I finished the descent and hit the final climb of the event, it was dwarfed by the Veleta Pass on the race profile so I’d forgotten it existed. A simple eight-kilometre climb had me on my knees by the top, but that was it, I had finished the last climb and it was all downhill to the finish. I spent the final few kilometres gingerly riding the decent, because turns out, pumping your tyres up at 3000m doesn’t leave you with much pressure at sea level. The finish line wasn’t quite what I’m used to; simply a flag by the side of the road, but that didn’t matter, I’d reached the finish. I crossed the line in 71 hours and 31 minutes, enough to claim fourth place. Including my lost wallet detour, I’d ridden 742 kilometres, and climbed over 15,000 meters. I was broken. Physically, mentally, metaphorically, every sense of the word.
If anyone asks me “what’s your favorite part from Badlands”, not just Badlands but most races I’ve done, I usually reply with “finishing”. Sort of a joke, but the sense of relief and accomplishment after completing something like that overshadows all the suffering along the route. For 90 percent of the time I’d be cursing myself, my bike or the route; but once I’d crossed that line, I could rest easy, look back and think about how epic it all was and appreciate each aspect of the event.
That was my version of Badlands, hope you enjoyed the journey as much as I did and watch this space for more of the same soon…
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