Lessons from a First-Time Ultra-Cyclist

Lessons from a First-Time Ultra-Cyclist

In early July, Julbo USA’s sports marketing manager, Tyler Cohen, along with his wife, Rachel, participated in Memory Bike Adventure, a 720-kilometer self-supported ultra-distance bike race in northern Italy. The duo rode for five days and nights, linking together historic sites along the Italian Front of World War I, ultimately finishing (third and fourth to last!) among fewer than 30 individuals who completed the race.

Tyler shares what he learned during his first ultra-cycling race.

words by Tyler Cohen


MEMORY BIKE ADVENTURE WAS BOTH incredibly rewarding and wildly more challenging that I expected. On paper, riding a bike over 450 miles with 66,000 feet of climbing in one go seems ambitious but not unreasonable to an experienced cyclist. In reality, doing so amid sweltering heat and humidity, with unexpected and violent thunderstorms, in a foreign country and on loose, gravel grades that regularly pitch above 22-percent proved to be at the farthest limits of my ability. Not to mention we rode loaded mountain bikes on minimal sleep.

THE VERY NATURE OF AN ULTRA-DISTANCE BIKE RACE like Memory Bike—or the Tour Divide, Silk Road Mountain Race or Unbound XL—means you start when they say go, finish when you’re done, sleep where and when you want and carry what you need. Though these events are hundreds of miles long and last multiple days (or weeks, in some cases) they aren’t stage races, and the only support you can receive—like food or shelter—must be carried or commercially available along the route.

In other words, restocking at grocery store and gas station is fair game. A support crew providing meals and mechanical assistance is not.

ALONG WITH ABOUT 50 RIDERS from all around the world, Rachel and I departed Bassano del Grappa, Italy, on a Tuesday evening at 7 p.m. as one of four two-person teams. We wouldn’t reach the finish in Asiago until the following Sunday around noon, completing the event in 113 hours, seven hours within the time cutoff and among new friends from Italy, France, the UK and beyond.

For five days and five nights, we pedaled along military roads and hiked through trenches where Italians fought Austrians during World War I. We slept outside through a lightning storm brighter, longer and louder than the most patriotic Fourth of July fireworks display. We collectively cried at least a half-dozen times and decided to quit once. I ate 13 bags of Haribo candy. We found our limit again and again, and we rebounded.

TO PROVIDE A DISTRACTION FROM THE HEAT and relentless climbing, I re-listened to the audiobook of Matthew McConaughey’s Greenlights. A handful of messages from the memoir echoed as mantras during the ride.

Here's what I learned.

Lesson #1


RACING AN ULTRA INVOLVES so much more than pedaling a bike. You must manage nutrition, hydration and sleep; you need to deal with mechanicals, unexpected weather and issues with technology like lights and bike computers; and you have to constantly consider how these factors affect pacing, energy levels, risk and more.

Issues and unexpected challenges occur during any adventure. One that’s 113 hours long requires constant problem solving. Considering whether an obstacle requires you to “persist, pivot, or concede” can help prioritize the severity of a problem and determine its solution.

Nickel-sized blisters on both heels? Persist: Fresh socks, clean feet, Duct tape, go. Not going to meet your goal time? Pivot: Pause, recalibrate, form a new goal and keep moving. Black-as-night thunderstorm quickly approaching an exposed ridge? Concede: Pull out the bivvy and find shelter. Persist, pivot, or concede.

Lesson #2


MEMORY BIKE HAD PLENTY OF SHADOWS AND LIGHT, and it felt like we spent much of the first three and a half days in the shadows—one terribly cold, sleepless night spent atop a mountain; two days with severe weather that considerably slowed our progress; unexpectedly steep and loose road surfaces. But once we recalibrated our goal to simply finish within the time cutoff—rather than a day and a half earlier—the shadows began to withdraw.

We rode faster and reached towns earlier than expected. We stopped to enjoy coffee and take photos. We encouraged and received encouragement from other riders. The last day and a half were the brightest of the race—fun in their own right and amplified by their contrast against the darkness of the first few days.

Lesson #3


WINNING, LOSING OR EVEN FINISHING OUTSIDE THE TIME CUT would have had little impact on the quality of this experience—Memory Bike would have been sufficiently hard and equally fulfilling whether the race took three days or seven. Simply getting to the starting line, however, felt like a celebration of six months of training and preparation that went into preparing for this race, not to mention the spirit required to try something new, hard and far beyond my comfort zone.

Even had we scratched (ultra-terminology for DNF), I think this experience still would have felt fulfilling for those same reasons: Preparing for, accepting the challenge and showing up can be as rewarding as standing upon a podium.

Lesson #4


ONE MAJOR KEY TO SUCCESS IN AN ULTRA is to simply keep moving. Stopped time is generally wasted time unless it has a specific purpose that will keep you moving: restocking food and water, sleeping, fixing a mechanical. Therefore stopping to contemplate a decision or rehashing a choice over and over again in your head is wasted time and wasted energy. Making a decision and committing to it will keep you moving.

But take note of the first word: sometimes.

On our third night, knowing we wouldn't make the final checkpoint the following day by the timecut and fully depleted of sleep, we decided to quit, and we committed fast to that choice. We slept past our 4 a.m. alarm the following morning. Once we had cell service, we called friends asking for a pickup in the next town. Atop the next mountain, we spent an hour taking photos and wandering through caves and trenches, later enjoying a pastry and cappuccino at the mountain-top Refugio Archille Papa.

Then, after a long descent (photo above), our choice to quit just didn't feel right—I wasn't ready to be done riding, and I could tell by the cadence of Rachel's pedal-stroke that she wasn't either.

We arrived at the third and final checkpoint believing we were an hour late, only to find we were an hour within the cutoff. We ate and restocked food. We helped another rider fix his derailleur. We wordlessly decided to reverse our choice before quietly confirming with one another that we wanted to continue. Then we carried on to the finish.

Julbo Density

What We Wore

We rode almost around the clock wearing the Density with the REACTIV 1-3 Light Amplifier Lens. In spite of extremely humid conditions, particularly at night, fogging and poor clarity were never issues.

Expore The Density

Translucent Grey / Blue
REACTIV 1-3 Light Amplifier

Translucent Black / Copper
REACTIV 0-3 High Contrast

Crystal / Pink / Blue
Spectron 3