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 JansenI'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 was feeling relatively fit, and the idea of 'one last ultra' started to worm its way into my brain. Utrecht Ultra was perfect – I'd recently surrendered to Amsterdam road bike culture and acquired a very lightly used CAAD12, and as an added bonus I could 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. UU was the first ultra I signed up for where I wanted to be a little more ambitious with my goals. This time I also wanted to finish with a competitive time.
Once I'd worked out my route between parcours, I calculated exactly when I wanted to get to each checkpoint. I knew an area I could improve on was efficiency, so I planned in as little stop time as possible. Once I had everything figured out, I printed my plan out, laminated it and put it in my jersey pocket. Creating a detailed plan was also an attempt to tune out what was going on around me. 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 wanted 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 refreshed my weather app multiple times a day, and with each refresh the forecast seemed to get worse and worse, so at some point I stopped looking. When race day finally arrived, an already soggy group of racers gathered in the carpark of De Kromme Haring brewery for a 6pm start. As the race was starting in the evening, my plan was to ride through the night, aiming to reach CP1 by 12:30 the next day. As we left the car park I was near the front of the pack, but over the first few kilometres I watched what felt like 50% of the field overtake me and disappear into the distance. It was hard not to become disheartened by this, but the laminated timesheet in my pocket was in charge.
Photo by Ruben Platte
The fixed route down through the Netherlands was a nice mix of quiet rural roads and twisty bike paths through the forest. After a heavy downpour early in the race, it stayed dry enough through the night, with large gaps between showers to dry off and stay warm. As part of my planning I'd marked all the water fountains along the route, and as I had plenty of food in my stem bags I had no reason to stop all night. After many many hours in the dark, the sun finally crept up around 6 as I made my way into Germany, and onto the first free section of the route.
Photo by Ruben Platte
By the time I reached the first parcours in Eifel it was raining hard and the heavy wind pushed me around the road. As I weaved around the Urft river I was reminded of the previous August when I'd leisurely bikepacked along this route in the sunshine. Now I was back, soaked through, freezing cold and pushing 30 hours without sleep – not exactly a glow-up.
The previous year
CP1 was a small weather-beaten gazebo by the side of the road and although the volunteers looked just as cold as me, they were in good spirits and it was nice to see some friendly faces. I arrived at 12:38 and the race director Ruben let me know that I was the first woman to the checkpoint and 10th overall. 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 jumped back onto my bike and into the shitty weather.
Photo by Floris Jansen
Weaving in and out of Germany and Belgium, it continued to rain heavily throughout the day and by the time I reached the checkpoint I was pretty cooked. CP2 was at a campsite in Luxembourg, roughly 490km into the race. I got there in just over 24hrs, which was an hour earlier than planned and in 6th place overall. My original plan was to push on for another 15km to a hotel, but I couldn't find the resolve to continue in the rain. I checked the forecast – it was going to rain for a few more hours and then stop for the remainder of the night, it made sense to sleep now. As I only had a bivy with me and didn't feel like getting rained on, I spent far too long filling out the required paperwork to book a 'safari tent' at the campsite. I quickly had a shower and then set my alarm for 3 hours later. The first thing I did when I woke up was check the tracker. Ariana had overtaken me whilst I slept and was a good 40km ahead. Hoping that she would also need to stop and sleep at some point, I quickly got ready to leave.
By 11pm I was back on the road and feeling good, getting some sleep had been the reset I needed and I was reminded what a difference sleeping in an actual bed makes on a race. I put some music on and enjoyed the totally empty mountain roads as I made my way up down and around the Luxembourg parcours in the dark. Looking back, this was my favourite part of the race.
CP3 was situated at Le Coffee Ride Cafe near the start of the Ardennes parcours and I got there an hour earlier than planned, and unfortunately an hour before the cafe opened. As dreams of coffee and croissants evaporated, a volunteer met me outside and stamped my brevet card. Apparently I had overtaken Ariana, but I was only 20 or so minutes ahead – I had no time to lose. Struggling up the next few climbs, I cursed the gearing on my road bike – I knew I should have gone for the 34T cassette.
It was on the tough Ardennes parcours that I started to notice some pretty serious pain in my left knee. Trying not to fixate on it, I reminded myself that aches and pains will come and go on a ride this long. As I left the parcours the sun came out and I tentatively removed my raincoat for the first time.
The final section of the route started on the Dutch border and was a 230km straight shot to the finish line. My plan until this point was to ride the remaining kilometres in one go – I had just about enough food, if my knee would just cooperate I could do it. I took an ibuprofen and waited for it to take effect whilst putting out as little power as possible. After waiting the required hour and feeling no better, I stopped to weigh up my options and stretch. I knew I would have to take it easy, and would probably get overtaken by a few people in the process, but I didn't want to scratch. Stepping off my bike for the first time in a few hours, I could barely walk – my left leg had completely seized up and with each step I felt pain right up my left leg and into my lower back. I got back on the bike and started switching between standing and sitting. For a few kilometres this helped loosen things up and bring some pain relief, but pretty quickly the magic wore off. By the time I reached Maastricht I was in a lot of pain and knew I couldn't continue. I checked the tracker a final time, I was still winning the women's race and fifth overall. It seemed crazy to scratch now, couldn't I just push through for 10+ hours and deal with the consequences later?
I'm really glad that the more rational side of my brain overtook my ego in that moment and I made the correct call to scratch from the race. I sat on the floor of the train station completely gutted, going back and forth in my mind about whether I'd made the right decision. I knew for sure that I had when it was finally time to get the train and I couldn'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. Unfortunately doing a race on a basically brand new bike is always going to be a risk, and I now know what I need to change for next time – Utrecht Ultra turned out to be another opportunity to learn stuff, not win stuff.
Despite the less than ideal August weather, Utrecht Ultra was a really well organised and fun event. It was great to see so many women at the start line, and to see so many people at the finish line party who'd battled days of heavy rain to get there.
Thanks to Ruben for organising a local and accessible event, hopefully this will be the first of many Utrecht Ultras.