Round Denmark Bike Race: Part 1 (10/07/22-13/07/22)

I’m going to rewind the clock a bit to provide context for this blog…

After I finished the Transcontinental Race in 2019, I was keen to do another ultra-endurance (or whatever you want to call it) bikepacking race. The question was, which one?

I thought about the things I hadn’t enjoyed with the TCR, and used those answers to help decide. To begin with, I knew I wanted to ride a set route. I hadn’t appreciated the hours spent route-plotting for TCR, especially selecting the fastest roads over those most scenic. I’d also found the high-profile nature of the race a little intimidating, so I wanted to do something slightly more grassroots. The fact that there were ‘dotwatchers’ around the world tracking the TCR and media focus probably helped bring out the best in my riding, but I liked the idea of something slightly more low-key. I think the TCR length (around 4,000km) worked to my strengths, but it took too big a chunk of much of my annual leave – so I wanted to pick a shorter race next.

I can’t remember when, but at some point around this time the Round Denmark Bike Race crossed my radar. It seemed to tick the boxes: so small that it had attracted less than 20 participants in its first 2 editions, and set across a fixed route of around 2,000km.

It appealed for additional reasons, too: 

I’m half Danish, and have been visiting Denmark regularly my whole life. Although I’ve spent plenty of time there, I’ve only really spent my time in Sjaelland. That’s the island where Copenhagen is, where my grandparents live, and where they have their ‘summer house’ in the north. I’ve always wanted to cycle more of Denmark, but have always been attracted to other places that are more ‘wild’, offer me something culturally new, or have mountains to explore. A race seemed like a good way to see the country: it would be straight forward riding (flat and populated), and I wouldn’t feel guilty about blitzing it through a beautiful landscape. Denmark is pretty, but I’m not sure I’d use any superlatives to describe the landscape. 

I applied to race in 2020, and hatched a good plan for the summer. I’d head over for the event, and then go on holiday with my Danish family to the Faroe Islands (to see my grandmother’s side of the family). But then of course, COVID happened, and the race was postponed. The next year, it was postponed again.

It looked like the race was finally going to go ahead in 2022. I’d already planned to quit my job in spring and take a few months off, so I saw no reason not to go ahead with my original plan to race in Denmark. When I say I’m going to do something, I like to follow through with it.

The only difficulty this year would be preparation. I had an active few months of travel planned, but there was no time for any focused training. I figured this was a good opportunity to run an experiment: we all assume that long-distance touring (with at least some decent daily distances) to be great preparation for racing an ultra, but is it sufficient as the only training?

I certainly gained fitness in Spain & Morocco, riding my rigid MTB an average of around 80-100km a day (with some days off) for 5 weeks. I guess that was around 6-7 hours riding a day.

When I embarked on my trip to Ireland and back, I decided to swap bikes and take my Dawes. At this stage I wasn’t certain I’d sign up for the Round Denmark Bike Race, but just in case – this bike would make sense. I’d ride with drop bars (so the geometry would be more similar to my road bike), and ride clipless so that I could start building my calf muscles. I toured Morocco with flat pedals, and I think you need a good balance across the legs to be comfortable doing the huge daily distances. Around British & Ireland I rode an average of 100km for 21 days straight, and began to feel quite confident that I could at least double that without too much difficulty on a lighter setup.

After that tour, Bella and I had the pleasure of a fortnight house sitting gig in the Swiss Alps. I borrowed a road bike that was roughly the right size for me and knocked out 3 big rides over the mountains. The final one was 100km with over 4,000km of climbing. I was cooked by the end, but it gave me confidence that I’d be efficient on the flat! When I got back home, I went on my one and only prep ride on my own road bike: a 300km loop out from London. I felt surprisingly OK at the end. 

The final chapter in my unorthodox preparation was a trek across Corsica on the GR20 with Bella. I’ve scattered a few images from the hike across the first few paragraphs of this blog. It was a stunning hike, which took us 13 days. It was incredibly strenuous, with long sections of scrambling, and as we walked I could feel my entire legs receiving a proper workout. I wondered if this would be building useful muscles for the race. We’d soon find out.

After the trek we took the ferry to Italy for a friend’s wedding, and spent 4 days drinking far too much, before flying back to the UK. I packed up my bike and went straight to Copenhagen, hoping that I could get the alcohol out of my system rapidly because the race was starting the next weekend. 

I always knew the field would be small, but when I arrived at the race briefing the day before the event, there were only 4 other riders there. 3 of them would be competing in the new ‘gravel’ edition. 4-3… well, that equals – just me!? Turns out the others that were due to start the conventional ‘road’ edition with me had dropped out, so I would be racing against absolutely no one.

I wasn’t sure quite what to make of the news. I can’t pretend the idea of winning a race against a small and less competitive field had some appeal, but what was the point in doing a race against no-one? It makes a victory completely redundant, and I felt a little miffed by the change in circumstances.

I went to bed wondering how to approach the ride. Should I drop my pace and treat it as another tour? Or, should I race against the only other thing I could: the course record? The latter seemed more rewarding, the only problem was that the chap who set it in 2019 had been unbelievably quick, with a finish time of 5d 14hr. That’s an average of around 340km per day.

We set off the following morning at 8am. It was 300km to the first ferry at Tars, and the last sailing of the day was at 10.15pm. I decided to give it my all and try to catch that crossing. If I made it, and felt OK the next morning – I’d try and take the course record. If I missed it and had to wait for the morning ferry, I’d drop my pace and enter ‘touring’ mode.

It was a straightforward ride south, and the wind was just at an angle that would be helpful. I’ve cycled some of this stretch before, when I rode up to Copenhagen (and back down) from Germany at the beginning of my round-the-world. It was pleasant riding in the sunshine, with plenty of lycra-clad groups of Danes sharing the road with me. I wondered if there’d be quite so many cyclists out and about if the Tour de France hadn’t literally just passed through.

After cycling across the bridge-connected islands of Falster and Lolland, I caught the ferry with relative ease. Light was starting to fade as I pedalled on board, ordered some dinner, and tried to get some shut-eye during the 45 minute crossing.

I had too much energy to sleep, so I rolled out from Spodsbjerg on Langeland island and headed into the dark, hoping to get an extra hour of cycling in before calling it a day. Heading west, the wind was now against me so I probably wouldn’t manage much more than that.

I didn’t know it just yet, but Churches would become a staple feature of my race around Denmark. I frequently passed them, and they almost always had a water tap (for watering plants/flowers on graves) and a separate toilet block that was open 24/7. The Danes need to opt out of a tax that goes towards the state Church – so the grounds are always immaculate and well looked after.

I popped into a village church somewhere on the island of Tåsinge, to refill my water shortly after midnight, and used the toilet while I was there. The toilets often had low energy lights on permanently, but this one had a switch light. It was spotless and clean. I wondered what the chances were of someone using a church toilet between 1-5am on a Monday morning. Almost zero, I concluded, before wheeling my bike inside and rolling out my sleeping matt.

Day 1 – 320km – 12 hours – 1,211 ascending (komoot part 1 & Part 2)

I felt groggy when my alarm went off at 4.30am, but I could see through the window that it was already light. I stood up and took one step to the toilet, one more step to the sink to brush my teeth, before refilling my bottle and heading out into the day.

I crossed the bridge onto Fyn, and eased my legs into the day. They hurt, but it was discomfort I recognise from back-to-back big days. With this type of riding, familiarity and experience is so important. I remembered the way my legs begged me to stop every morning on the TCR, but how the pain would ease us as the muscles stretched. I had some niggles that came and went throughout the race, but although they worried me at times, they only ever flared up for a short while.

Later that day I had a familiar sensation that I don’t think I’ve experienced since the TCR: hot foot! A horrible feeling, where your soles start to burn, as if you were standing on hot coals. Your feet swell on long rides, causing pressure inside and against your shoes. Pedal surfaces concentrate pressure on the ball of the foot, and the pain results when nerves are squeezed. 

Fyn was hillier than what I’d ridden so far, tedious little climbs in places, but also much prettier. Rolling fields of grain ready for harvest glistened in the morning sun. The weather was beautiful, mid 20s with a nice breeze. Just a pity that the wind was blowing into my face.

After the previous day’s roadie-gang, there was now a remarkable number of bike tourists out and about. I’ve honestly never seen so many cycle-tourers in one day, which was heartwarming to see. Denmark has a rich bike touring history, but this surprised me. I suspect many were from places like Germany and Norway, but I’m basing that on very little as I didn’t have time to stop to talk to anyone.

It felt pleasantly touristy in places. I stopped at one roadside snack place – these places in Denmark often sell ice cream, and fast food (of the hotdog variety). I had a ‘French hotdog’, which is not even vaguely French. Ultracycling was a good excuse to scoff all my favourite Danish childhood foods, without thinking twice about the extortionate cost.

A father and son sat beside me, and as I was getting up to leave the kid leant up to his dad and whispered something. The father replied loud enough so that I could hear, ‘no – he’s not in the Tour de France’!

I crossed over to Jutland – the largest chunk of Denmark and the part of the country that is connected to the rest of Europe by a land border – and began heading south. Before long I started noticing chalk graffiti on the roads, and realised that I was now on the very same sections of the early Tour de France stages that the peloton had passed just a week ago.

I stopped to adjust my lights as it got dark, around 11pm. In the distance, a huge firework display was filling the sky. On the road beside me, a little hedgehog scuttered into the safety of the long grass between tarmac and crop field.

A short while later I reached the town of Sønderborg, where the route went on a loop around town. It looked quite charming, although eerily quiet at around midnight. Music slowly grew in volume, and I suspected I was nearing the source of the fireworks. It was the last day of Sønderborg’s Ringriderfesten – a huge annual equestrian festival, with tilting at the ring and other weird horse-pursuits. I was there on Monday, the final day of the festival, and there were lots of drunk men in suits stumbling home. The festival concludes with a large men’s lunch, so I suspect there were a few sore heads at work the next morning.

It was time to start looking for somewhere to sleep. Denmark has an amazing shelter network, of primitive huts where you can sleep for free. They are usually closed on three sides with one side open, so you are semi-outside but with protection against the elements. Not totally unlike the Scottish bothy network, but the Danish shelters are far more in number and much easier to access. 

Many are literally in towns and villages, like the one I was aiming for tonight. The only snag in this concept is that the Danes love their shelters (especially post-pandemic) and that they all seem to take holiday at the same time, so they are often full. Sometimes you can book them in advance, but otherwise you just have to turn up and hope for the best. When I reached my target for the night, around 1am, I could clearly see that there were already people sleeping in the shelter (and others camping beside it).

I didn’t bring a bivvy bag with me, and although there was no rain forecast, I wanted to avoid the morning dew so I hoped to have some shelter above my head. There was a playground across a field from the shelter, with a covered picnic area, so I slipped in there and made my bed for the night.

Day 2 – 310km – 13 hours – 1,904 ascending

It was a boring slog west along the German border, with large industrial areas and fields that all looked the same. A nasty westerly wind meant slow progress towards the West Coast. By mid-morning I’d reached the sea again, and turned north, following a cycle path on a dyke. 

The wind was blasting now, a seemingly constant element in Denmark. It was heading in its usual direction from the west, but ever so slightly from the south. Just enough that it helped me on the way and I made quick progress.

There were some really beautiful sections here, along EuroVelo 12 (North Sea Cycle Route) – which I actually followed much of when I began my RTW by riding from England to Denmark in 2015. At times the cycle path meandered through dunes, and although the track was sandy – it was a fun change to monotonous tarmac.

Around 100km of the 1,900km route was gravel. (For the 3 riders taking part in the inaugural gravel edition, there was about 600km to contend with). This meant I had a good 20km to deal with everyday on average – not insignificant. Although most of it was rideable, at one point the route took me along a ‘road’ so sandy that you couldn’t even have ridden on it with an MTB.

When I finally reached Thyborøn, I’d comfortably missed the last ferry of the day, but that was OK – I’d get my 4-5 hours kip and catch the first crossing of the day. That night I found a vacant shelter at the edge of town in an old WWII bunker. It wasn’t an ‘official’ one, and when I entered I realised why it was probably empty – the bunker stank of urine, was covered in litter (including toilet paper) and walls lined with graffiti. I thought it was perfect.

Day 3 – 335km – 15.5 hours – 611 ascending

I wrote too much, as usual – so let’s wrap this one up halfway and continue this in part 2…

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