Danish Ultra Cycling Championships – Helnæs24 2019

Mads Frank Ultra Cycling Helnæs24

In the past weekend the crew and I competed at the Danish Ultra Cycling Championships – Helnæs24 2019. The race was one of my big targets for the year. I knew that my early 2019 preparation would be lacking consistency duo to the opening of Frank Institute of Sports at our new location in Odense in October 2018. I had gone into 2019 with a completely different approach to the season. Shorter and faster races were on the menu compared to the longer world cups which we have been competing in earlier.

I had done tons of testing on the 34,02 km course in the weeks leading up to the race – everything from wheels, bikefit position, tires and even socks vs. shoe covers. The testing had thought me that wind and rain would be the biggest challenge when it came to reaching our goals.

The goals

Talking about goals the crew and I had lined up three different goals before going into Helnæs24. After a very hard time with injuries after Race around Austria 2017 and Race around Denmark 2018 I had been through a really frustrating period without any real results showing our true potential in ultra cycling. The triple Mt. Ventoux Challenge in July 2018 had showed good promise. BUT there’s a huge difference between 150 km of climbing and real long distance racing. This being realty gave me the motivation towards our primary goal of making the team and my body work efficiently throughout the 24 hours.

Our second target was winning the championships and putting Danish Ultra Cycling Champion on the palmarès. I knew the goal would be possible even though strong and experienced riders were at the start line. Our third and final goal was setting a new Scandinavian 24-hour record. The current record had been set at the World Championships in 2015 by Peter Sandholt. 799,5 km in 24 hours would demand quite a significant improvement of my personal best of 735 km from 2016.

Fail to plan or plan to fail

Our plan was inspired by ultra cycling legend Christoph Strasser. Going fast in the start where the freshness is still there and then settling into all-time endurance pace as the fatigue sets in.

The missing support car

Fast forward to the final preparation to the race I was oddly relaxed in the final 24 hours leading up to the race. Weeks of testing and training in rain and wind had turned 180 degrees over night. On race morning the temperature was higher than at any point in the 4 weeks leading up to the race. Wind was non-exciting (or as close to as it gets in Denmark). Perfect conditions for record attempts but also weather for heavier guys with more power for the flat sections.

10 minutes before arriving to Ebberup my dad called me from our support car. “Hi Mads, we won’t make it to the start line”. I thought he was joking. All food, clothes, extra wheels, reserve-bike, helmets etc. were in that car. A huge traffic accident with a truck spilling oil all over the highway had blocked the road causing the trapped cars to hold still including our support car.

In Ebberup with half of the crew I quickly went to the race office. I explained the situation and told that I could start using my own bike, my girlfriends helmet and jersey and if they would allow it a new tracking device. During the next 40 minutes I had the possibly highest heart rate during the whole race. 20 minutes before race start the organisation decided to postpone the start as more riders were trapped in that same accident.

Dance like a butterfly & sting like a bee

Ready at the line all RAAM-qualify riders were sent of at 11 AM. The start was fast and known favorites were at the front from the very start pushing a fast pace (I had around 39 km/h avg. after 1 hour). I focused on staying aero, low and not spend too much energy while still within site of the leading rider of Helnæs24.

On the third lap I caught up with the leading rider. Just when I passed him he asked me to slow down. I slowed down just slightly. He explained that he had been stung by a bee. I offered him antihistamine which we had in our support car. Regrettably he said that he had to abandon the race. So sad for him as it’s never funny to quit a race. I continued only focusing on our own plan. Chasing that Scandinavian record.

Chasing records

With one of the big rivals out of the competition and all other threats behind us I started settling into endurance pace focusing on position, hydration and nutrition. Heart rate was on target, power output a tiny bit higher than planned and the speed higher than in any of my tests. First time off the bike was after 7 hours 30 minutes to put on lights and night clothing. At this point avg. speed was just around 36 km/h. A lot faster than what we needed for the record. Our closest competitor was more than 1 hour of riding behind us. Maybe the record was actually within reach at Helnæs24.

Win(d) is everything

I fought on and started feeling a bit of fatigue from riding in the aero position after 12 hours. A quick pie-stop combined with neck massage (a tradition between crewchef Morten and I) helped a lot. Average speed was still in front of schedule and the rest of the riders a long way behind us. Increasing wind rolling in from the South was a big threat though. Our speed was falling as the darkness consumed the riders and the chase of small red lights started.

The darkness

For most riders riding at night is a challenge in 24-hour-races like Helnæs24. Fatigue setting in, boredom and no-where to look but forward makes it a mental game. Add extra wind and the challenge is even bigger. Around 1 AM I started feeling it. The boredom. Over the next 5-6 hours the crew decided to give me 3 breaks which were not planned. Pie-breaks and coffee made it a lot better but the pace during these 5-6 hours were simply too slow. An increasing wind from the South, like an invincible enemy coming out of the darkness, was pushing me backwards.

I started realizing that we wouldn’t reach the 799,5 km in 2019. What’s the point in riding around in the dark of Helnæs when you know you’re not going to beat any record? That is the risk when you set out to beat a record. When you put the bar high and tell the world that you’re going for something big. With big goals comes big reward…or big disappointment.

The importance of a crew

In ultra cycling there will always be something going wrong. Mistakes, faults, problems or challenges. It’s a question about how you handle these that decide the outcome of the race. Having a plan A, B, C, D etc. is key. For me the crew is the reason to keep pushing. I can’t give up or let them down with all the effort they put into supporting me. That thought was my motivation yet again during the night.

We might not reach our goal of a Scandinavian record but we had plenty of goals to fight for. The victory, the title as Danish champions, the efficiency of my body and the crew, a personal best on 24 hour. I had no trouble finding the motivation at Helnæs24. It is like that for most cases. You just have to look for it. It will be there. As the sun rose over Helnæs so did our speed…maybe it wasn’t all over for that Scandinavian record anyway.

The final laps of Helnæs24

With 4 hours remaining it was clear that the record was not to be beaten this time around in Helnæs24. Crewchef Morten and the rest of my team had helped me raise my spirit and we were actually riding just below the planned pace but the night had been too tough on me. I remember riding into the small final laps telling the guys in the support car that now it was all about making it a personal best and securing the title. During the night we had lapped the rider in second place so the victory should be safe as long as we continued with our planned pace.

When starting the final laps crewchef Morten was shouting from the side of the road: “Come on Mads, 7 laps left.” In my head I was thinking: “7 laps…you have got to be joking! I have just finished 21 laps on a 34 km circuit and now you’re shouting 7 laps!” I knew that the final lap with its many corners and small hills stretched over 7,5 km of tarmac would be tough after 22 hours in the saddle.

The after race

Quite symbolic for the whole race I did not manage to get the 7th lap. After 23 hours and 51 minutes I crossed the finish line after 759,5 km including 6 small laps. The body had worked as we wanted it to. The crew had been performing like one smooth running machine. The equipment had been perfect. We did improve our personal 24 hour-record with 3,5 %. The victory was ours.

We missed the Scandinavian record by 40 km or as my analytical brain would put it: “We spend 17 minutes off the bike and did go 8% too hard in the first 6 hours causing me to drop my power output during the mental hard night of Helnæs24. This combined with an increasing wind during an essential part of the race caused us to lose the record with 5 %.”

Now a few days after the race I’m actually happy about the result. The things we did worked. My preparation in training and testing worked. My crew is stronger and more efficient than ever. After analyzing every little mistake I am even more confident than before. There is so much more potential to build on and that is what drives me. The lust to push the boundaries. As I told Peter Sandholt right after crossing the line. I did not beat his record this time around but I sure will in the future.

Recovery & getting back to work

So how is my recovery and training going now 5 days after the championships at Helnæs24. Well, I started my recovery process right after crossing the line. Food, fluids, micro and macro nutrient. I got in a good nap of 5 hours after arriving back home before a solid dinner. Nothing tastes better after a race than salad, vegetables and proper homemade cooking (huge thanks to my girlfriend). A good 10 hour sleep after worked it wonders with me being only slightly sore Monday where I was back at Frank Institute of Sports for a bikefit, checking up on our coached athletes, talks with partners and sponsors and a lot of different tasks which have been put aside leading up to the race.

Tuesday I did my first ride after Helnæs24. Just 20min of easy riding and some stretching as well as a massage and some treatment by Thomas our manual therapeut at Frank Institute of Sports. Caroline, my girlfriend (who by the way won the 6 hour race on Helnæs) was in charge of our group ride from the institute so I only had to focus on the desk work and coaching.

Wednesday and Thursday I’ve been back in the gym for strength work and on the bike for some real training. I managed catching a group of 8 from the local bike club riding the echelon so the power is definitely back.

In the coming week the preparation will start towards our next big goal. The world championships are in sight. The very best ultra cyclists and their teams gather in the desert of Borrego Springs, California. I know we can improve on our current level…and why not aim for beating that Scandinavian record and bringing home a medal to Denmark. Yeah, you heard that right. Big goals…big reward…