Utrecht Ultra

The first edition of Utrecht Ultra took place in August 2023 and was an on-road 1000km / 9000m route that started in Utrecht before joining up 3 hilly parcours in Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium. Although the start, finish and parcours followed a set route, it was up to each rider to find their own way between these points.

The women’s field at the startline. Photo by Floris Jansen

I've ridden my bike a fair bit this year. After a couple of early in the season ultras and a summer of consistent riding I’m feeling fitter than perhaps ever, and the idea of 'one last ultra' starts to worm its way into my brain. Utrecht Ultra is the perfect candidate – I’ve recently surrendered to Amsterdam road bike culture and acquired a very lightly used CAAD12, and as an added bonus I can get to the start line for less than a tenner, and in less than an hour.

As a relative newbie to ultra racing, my aim has always been to get to the finish and learn as much as possible along the way. For this race I’m feeling more ambitious – I also want to finish with a competitive time.

Once I’m relatively happy with my route, I calculate exactly when I want to get to each checkpoint. I know an area I can improve on is efficiency, so I plan in as little stop time as possible. Once I have everything figured out, I print my plan out, laminated it and put it in my jersey pocket. Creating a detailed plan is also an attempt to tune out the noise. At Atlas Mountain Race earlier in the year I got swept up in the excitement at the start and pushed too hard, too soon. This time I want to focus on my own race, and not let the people around me influence my pace.

In the week leading up to the race I refresh my weather app multiple times a day, and with each refresh the forecast seems to get worse and worse, so I stop looking. When race day finally arrives, an already soggy group of racers gather in the carpark of De Kromme Haring brewery for a 6pm start. My plan is to ride through the night, aiming to reach CP1 by 12:30 tomorrow. As we leave the car park I’m near the front of the pack, but over the first few kilometres I watch what feels like 50% of the field overtake me and disappear into the distance. It’s hard not to become disheartened by this, but the laminated timesheet in my pocket is in charge.

Photo by Ruben Platte

The fixed route down through the Netherlands is a nice mix of quiet rural roads and twisty bike paths through the forest. After a heavy downpour early in the race, it stays dry enough through the night, with large gaps between showers to dry off and stay warm. I’ve marked all the water fountains along the route, and as I have plenty of food in my stem bags I have no reason to stop all night. After many many hours in the dark, the sun finally creeps up around 6 as I make my way into Germany, and onto the first free section of the route.

Photo by Ruben Platte

By the time I reach the first parcours in Eifel it’s raining hard and the heavy wind pushes me around the road. As I weave around the Urft river I’m reminded of the previous August when I'd leisurely bikepacked along this route in the sunshine. Now I’m back, soaked through, freezing cold and pushing 30 hours without sleep.

CP1 is a small weather-beaten gazebo by the side of the road. The volunteers look just as cold as me but they’re in good spirits and it’s nice to see some friendly faces. I arrive at 12:38, just 8 minutes behind schedule, and the race director Ruben lets me know that I’m the first woman to the checkpoint and 10th overall. This puzzles me, I hadn't overtaken many people in the night and I was so certain I was mid-pack. With the idea creeping into my brain that I could actually win the women’s race, I jump back onto my bike and into the shitty weather.

Photo by Floris Jansen

Weaving in and out of Germany and Belgium, it continues to rain heavily throughout the day and by the time I reach the checkpoint I’m cooked. CP2 is at a campsite in Luxembourg, roughly 490km into the race. I get there in just over 24hrs, which is an hour earlier than planned. I’m now in 6th place overall. My original plan was to push on for another 15km to a hotel, but I can’t find the resolve to continue in the rain. I check the forecast – it’s going to rain for a few more hours and then stop for the remainder of the night, it makes sense to sleep now. As I only have a bivy with me and don’t feel like getting rained on, I spend far too long filling out the required paperwork to book a 'safari tent' at the campsite. I quickly have a shower and then set my alarm for a 3 hour sleep.

Waking up, the first thing I do is check the tracker. Ariana has overtaken me and is a good 40km ahead. Banking on the fact that she will also need to stop and sleep at some point, I quickly get ready to leave.

By 11pm I’m back on the road and feeling good, getting some sleep has been the reset I needed and I’m reminded what a difference sleeping in an actual bed makes on a race. I put some music on and enjoy the totally empty mountain roads as I make my way up down and around the Luxembourg parcours in the dark.

CP3 is situated at Le Coffee Ride Cafe near the start of the Ardennes parcours and I get there an hour earlier than planned, and unfortunately an hour before the cafe opens. As dreams of coffee and croissants evaporate, a volunteer meets me outside and stamps my brevet card. Apparently I’ve overtaken Ariana, but I’m only 20 or so minutes ahead – I have no time to lose. I struggle up the next few climbs and curse the gearing on my road bike – I should have gone for the 34T cassette.

On these tough climbs I start to notice some pretty serious pain in my left knee. Trying not to fixate on it, I remind myself that aches and pains will come and go on a ride this long. As I leave the parcours the sun comes out and I tentatively remove my raincoat for the first time.

The final section of the route starts on the Dutch border and is a 230km straight shot to the finish line. I have just about enough food and water to do this in one go, if only my knee would cooperate. I take an ibuprofen and wait for it to take effect whilst putting out as little power as possible. After waiting the required hour and feeling no better, I stop to weigh up my options and stretch. I know I’ll have to take it easy, and will probably get overtaken by a few people in the process, but I don’t want to scratch. Stepping off my bike for the first time in a few hours, I can barely walk – my left leg has completely seized up and with each step I feel pain right up my left leg and into my lower back. I get back on the bike and start switching between standing and sitting. For a few kilometres this helps loosen things up and bring some pain relief, but pretty quickly the magic wears off. By the time I reach Maastricht, I’m in more pain than I’ve ever experienced on the bike and I know I can’t continue. I check the tracker a final time, I’m still winning the women's race and fifth overall. It’s absolutely gutting to scratch now.

I sit on the floor of the train station going back and forth in my mind about whether I’ve made the right decision. I know for sure that I have when it’s finally time to get the train and I can’t even get up off the floor.

No single race is worth risking months off the bike with injury, and now that I've processed scratching and finished giving myself a hard time about it – I'm proud of what I achieved and proud that I listened to my body when it was time to stop. I always go into an ultra ready to learn a bunch and this time I learnt to scratch – a lesson every ultra racer has to learn at some point.