Ham sandwiches, hot pizza, and a helluva lot of climbing in Spain.

With Rob Britton

Plundering new coasts

Though Badlands has been on his radar for years, Rob Britton didn’t have the space on his race calendar for it until 2023. “It would’ve been too much of an undertaking,” he explained, citing the impossibility of chasing every shining X on the crowded (and ever-increasing) treasure map of gravel events in his home port of North America.

But historically, privateers plunder, always chasing new coasts. Contemporary gravel privateers are no different, and Badlands is a rich prize, so Rob guaranteed his attendance in December by flying the skull and crossbones, making landfall, and burning the ships behind him – or at least the gravel privateer equivalent: he crossed his finger bones and dropped his name in the hat.

“I applied to do it at the end of last year,” he said, shorthanding the application process that is actually anything but guaranteed. “I was accepted in December when they announced their lottery selections. Only 300 riders were chosen from a pool of over 3000 applications!”

More of a theory than a plan

Rob’s lead-up to the race was relatively mellow. Two weeks training at altitude, two weeks to taper, and one final week of heat acclimation in Girona. The race itself is anything but mellow: 500 miles, 52,000ft of climbing, and peaking with the comically high Pico Veleta. That’s a lot of climbing, a lot of miles, and then a lot more climbing.

“I’ve never done a race of this length or style, so I had no idea what to expect, but I feel like you don’t train overly specific for something like this,” said Rob, in his typical understated, deadpan manner, it’s just about miles, climbing, and – maybe most importantly after the legs and lungs are there – getting your head right. “I was just trying to come into it as relaxed and fresh as possible.”

Given the heights and lengths the race travels, it’s no surprise that Rob came into it with something of an anti-plan: “My theory was I would just stay with the front guys for the first 200km and see how things looked after that.”

Chewing, metaphorically

He “more or less” stuck to testing that theory, and, “After 200km, it was just myself and one other guy trading the lead.” Despite his approach’s promising beginning, he had some concerns, feeling uneasy in the belly in the second half of the first day. His solution was typical. “I knew I just had to keep on keeping on and eventually my stomach would deal with it.” And it worked, also typical.

“After that I was sitting pretty, and once I was in the lead, I was in a pretty good space mentally for the rest of the ride. It was actually a fairly smooth race in terms of mental distress.” That’s reflected in how he described his feelings during that first critical day, where his belly protested by his brain said to push through.

“I bit off more than I could chew,” he candidly reported, “but then I got busy chewing!

Chewing, literally

As for actual chewing, Rob takes a specific approach to fueling in ultras, forgoing the high-octane gels and mixes he’d want during a stage or one-day road race in favor of, simply, food.

“I tried to limit the amount of sugar in my bottles, opting more for a simple electrolyte and then sourcing calories from a variety of different more or less solid sources. For something like this, you don’t so much calculate the number of carbohydrates per hour, you just try to make sure you’re continuing a steady drip of fuel and hydration while you’re on the bike – and then smash food whenever you have the opportunity.”

“In Spain that usually looks something like a ham and cheese sandwich from a bar at six in the morning!”

His preference for bulkier food over compact gels warranted a top-tube bag, which he also used for general cargo storage – clothing, etc. – though maybe he didn’t pack enough changes of clothing. The only equipment issues he had were with his bibs, when steady rain led to chaffing in the final 150km.

Everything with a spring, hose, or battery operated according to plan, though. The well-behaved build included a jump down from his usual 50t chainring to a more altitude-friendly 48, and his tire choice moved in the opposite direction, plumping up from 40mm to 45.

Gravel’s greatest trophies

After a too-the-plan (or theory) average speed of 20km/12.4 miles per hour across the 500 miles, Rob secured the win and a fine – albeit unofficial – pair of trophies, presented immediately at the finish line by his wife, who was also acting in an unofficial capacity.

“Crossing the line as the first finisher and being greeted by my wife who was holding a hot pizza and a cold beer was probably the greatest thing I could’ve asked for at that point in time.

September 28, 2023 — First Endurance
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