Breaking Badlands: an introduction to ultra-endurance racing

Martijn van Strien and long time riding partner Mike Vlietstra are no strangers to long-distance bike packing. Alongside others, the two have toured extensively, whether on tarmac or, as is more often the case, exploring the dirt roads across Europe and beyond. Many of you will be very familiar with Martijn’s exploits through his careful documentation and eminently watchable videos he publishes via his YouTube channel.

But Martijn had an itch to scratch; he had never participated in a ‘proper’ unsupported ultra-endurance race. One where the start and finish are dictated, along with the route and where the onus is on getting to the finish as fast as possible.

Gaining entry into the 2021 edition of Transiberica’s Badlands race was just the start, though. It would be a journey into the unknown from a mental and physical point of view but also with regards to working out what equipment would be best suited to the demands that potentially pedalling for days on end can put on it.   

Tailfin caught up with Martijn to learn a little more about his experiences, what he learnt at his first event and what tips he has for anyone wanting to take on such a challenge.

Tailfin: Can you tell us a little about the race for those amongst us who haven’t heard of Badlands?

Martijn: Badlands is probably the first unsupported ultra-endurance gravel race I heard mention of. It’s a 750km route through the south of Spain that leads through the only official desert in Europe, a few other desert-like barren areas and across the Sierra Nevada mountain range. I believe about 200 people started, and just about half of them finished the route, which kind of speaks to how challenging it was.

This was your first attempt at an ultra-endurance gravel race. How did it go for you?

Because this was our first ever attempt at an ultra-endurance race, we really didn’t know what to expect. We’ve done multi-day adventures before, also on challenging terrain, but going fast was never a goal then. I think it took us about two days to adjust to this and get into the spirit of ‘racing’ while you’re never really pushing as we’re used to in the shorted crit style races that got us hooked to cycling a couple of years ago. So I think the first two days, the challenges were mainly mental, trying to get to grips with what we were doing, and after that, it became just a matter of pushing on while we were physically pretty knackered. We learned so much about ourselves, each other (Mike & I rode as a pair) and what cycling means to us that it’s an experience that I’m really grateful for.

Fernwee at Badlands
What were the most challenging aspects of the race?

This year I think it was all about the heat and dehydration. After 150km, the route led into the Gorafe Desert and with temperatures over 45 degrees & very few spots for refilling your bottles, I think that caused problems for many riders.

What will you remember forever from the race?

It’s funny how all memories from this event are all mashed up together, it’s hard to remember what happened on which day, and you immediately forget how hard it was. I think there are many moments that I’ll remember forever, but maybe my best memory is of the first night. When we pushed on after almost scratching out of the race due to heatstroke, and riding through the dark Gorafe desert with the light of other riders flickering in the distance was pretty magical.

Can you take us through your bike setup?

We have almost identical bikes, an aluminium Focus Atlas, a perfect bike for bikepacking with lots of mountain points for bottles and bags. We both ran 50mm Panaracer Gravelking SK tires with inserts that I feel were perfect for this terrain, and the inserts let us run it with low pressure without worrying about flats in more technical descents. Our drivetrain was Shimano GRX 600 with 11-42 cassette in the rear; Mike rode with a 2x chainring upfront; I had a single (oval) 36t chainring that worked for me even though some of the steeper climbs were hard on my knees. Oh, and we both had a SON dynamo hub in our front wheel, which we had custom-made and that powered our main front light & charged our power banks for cameras, phones & additional lights.

Fernwee at Badlands
What did you pack to take on Badlands, and where did you store it?

Mike & I jokingly called our bikes the campervans of ultra cycling when we arrived at the registration the day before the race. We took sooo much stuff that I’d leave behind next time because, in hindsight, I feel we kind of packed for a bikepacking adventure, not a race.

We each had a Diamond Rack by Allygn Components on the front with a drybag that contained everything we needed for sleeping, so a jacket, sleeping pad & sleeping bag. Then I had a full-frame bag that housed a spare hydration bladder, all my electronics (cameras, power banks & some random tubes & spares). Our Tailfins in the rear housed mainly a lot of food (lots of bags of Maurten energy products), some clothing in case it got cold, toiletries and anything we bought on-the-go in shops, like cans of soda and sandwiches.

Ride through the night, rest where you can. Racing Badlands was not an easy experience.
What was your most valuable piece of equipment/kit?

I think there are a few things I couldn’t be without if I were to race Badlands again:

  1. The Tailfin AeroPack in the back for its rock-solid main storage space.
  2. The wide tires with inserts for peace of mind.
  3. The merino-wool Maap jersey that was not only comfortable in the extreme heat but also proved to be ideal when it got a little bit colder riding through the night.
Fernwee at Badlands
Was there anything you packed that you didn’t end up using?

I think we used everything we brought, but there’s still a lot that I’d leave home next time. I’d leave all my cold weather clothes at home, all my sleeping kit plus about half of the food we brought. This would make us rely more on local supplies and a lot more lightweight and hopefully fast!

Did you do any specific training to prepare for the race?

Nope, not really; we just ride a lot, around 15.000km a year. With all the amazing rides and adventures we do, I feel just riding is the best preparation you can have for an event like this.

Is there anything you would do differently next time?

I think it’d be easier next time to get into the racing mentality right at the start. That will hopefully allow me to get into a more ‘all or nothing’’ state of mind, where I can push hard to either finish fast or maybe not finish at all, haha!

Views like these are what makes Badlands a must-do event.
What would be your top tips for any rider feeling a little inspired and wanting to try an ultra-distance event?

Get to know your bike inside out before you start & find a friend to do it with. I think for the first time, it’s so good to have someone with you for the mental lows. I don’t think I’d have finished if Mike wasn’t there this time.

What’s next for you?

We’re getting ready for a few more of these ultra-distance races & our own multi-day adventures in 2022. The first one on our calendar is the Race around Rwanda, which starts at the end of January. So right now that’s what we’re currently preparing our bikes for. Let’s hope we’ll be able to make it there regardless of the latest Covid developments…

If you are inspired to have a go at Badlands yourself you can find out more about the Transiberica Badlands event here

Go grab a hot drink and click below to watch the whole experience as captured by Martijn and Michael.

To find out more about events such as Badlands, Tailfin athletes, keep up with Tailfin’s latest product releases plus handy features about bike packing and living with your Tailfin system why not sign up to our regular monthly newsletter?

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