Most people enjoy a gentle bike ride around their local park, some like to challenge themselves with steep inclines or rough terrain, but not many choose to cycle across entire continents. Not many people are like Kristof Allegaert, though.
As an ultra-distance cyclist, Allegaert is used to finishing races thousands of miles from where he started. As well as being a three-time champion of the Transcontinental Race, a ride that covers more than 3,000km across Europe, the Belgian also cycled the length of Russia when he took part in the Trans-Siberian Extreme, and has completed the 5,500km journey from Fremantle to Sydney.
Ultra-distance events are single-stage rides, meaning it’s up to each individual cyclist to decide how they break up the huge undertaking ahead of them. Once the clock starts, it doesn’t stop until they cross the finish line. For Allegaert, this often means going without food, drink or sleep for long periods. As he readily admits, races often become a test of who can endure the most suffering.
With riders pushing themselves to the limit and having to share roads with motor vehicles, there have been a number of safety concerns surrounding ultra-distance events. These came to a head last year, when British cyclist Mike Hall was killed in a collision with a car during the Indian Pacific Wheel Race. Not only did Allegaert lose a great rival and friend that day, but the cycling community lost a true legend of the sport.
I love seeing the landscapes that I’m riding through, so the moment I can’t look around is the moment to pull over for sleep
Business Destinations spoke with Allegaert about how he juggles the stress of ultra-distance cycling with his job as a schoolteacher, and what motivates him to keep getting back on the bike.
What sparked your interest in ultra-distance cycling?
The simple love of riding my bike. It’s also interesting to see how things change during a ride, even if it’s just something subtle relating to the landscape or architecture. Of course, challenging yourself and finding your boundaries is also appealing. Watching the sun come up, seeing daily life start to emerge and then viewing it all in reverse as day turns to night is a memorable experience.
Do you get to experience much of the countries that you cycle through, or are you too focused on the race?
I love seeing the landscapes that I’m riding through, so the moment I can’t look around is the moment to pull over for sleep. I never get bored of looking at the natural world around me, but it would also be great to stop somewhere during a race, find a bench or a bar, and just spend some time with the locals, but there is simply no time for such pleasures.
How much training is required to become an ultra-distance cyclist?
To get to the level of an ultra-distance cyclist takes some years. Riding very hard for one day is not that difficult. But day after day with an empty stomach, not enough drink and suffering from sleep deprivation is a completely different situation.
Personally, I started with rides of 20km, which became 50, and then I started wondering if I could do 100. After this, 500 or 600km distances started to become normal.
Is it challenging to juggle your cycling commitments with your job as a schoolteacher?
It may seem strange to hear, but it’s actually perfect this way. The two worlds are so different but I have to be very focused in both. Ultimately, the motivation that I have in one part of my life drives me to keep going in the other.
With a single ride taking days to complete, and with no stages to break it up, how do you stay motivated?
This is the most difficult part of the whole sport. The moment you lose your mental motivation, it’s game over. In ultra-distance cycling, 33 percent is hardware, including your bike, luggage and clothes, 33 percent is your experience and skill level, and 34 percent is mental.
When cycling, many things will go wrong or turn out differently to the plan you had in mind. It’s essential that you always take each ride day by day, but with one eye on the whole picture. Cut the big cake into smaller parts and you will find it much easier to finish.
What is the overriding feeling when you’ve completed a ride of thousands of kilometres?
There are no more feelings. Emotions are gone because you’re so tired that you just want to lie down. It can also be quite difficult to switch off. After I finished my first Transcontinental Race, I was at our hotel breakfast buffet and I was eating quickly, not even sitting down, trying not to lose any time.
It was only when my wife reminded me that the race was over that I was able to take things slowly again and enjoy them. On the other hand, even if you have been riding your bike for the past six months, the day after a race you still want to go for a gentle ride somewhere because you are already missing your friend.
Where would you say your most memorable ride has been?
It’s very difficult to choose, but arriving in Australia last year and seeing the Sydney Opera House appear around the corner was a special moment. When I arrived, there was literally nobody else present and it was very emotional for me. Over the years I have had so many feel-good moments. Sometimes, just talking with a stranger after three days can be heaven. Long rides can help you appreciate the little things.
Have you had any difficult moments during a ride, particularly those that are self-supported?
When I’m taking part in a race, it’s like a switch goes off in my mind that makes me very focused. I return to the basics of what I’m doing: riding, eating and sleeping. However, one of the most difficult aspects is actually remembering to travel in the right direction. In the morning, riders are often tired and aching and many of them actually make this mistake.
In light of the death of fellow cyclist Mike Hall last year, and the subsequent cancellation of the Indian Pacific Wheel Race, do you have any safety concerns regarding ultra-distance competitions?
For a self-supported ride, safety is a very personal thing. Ultimately, you are responsible for yourself so you have to make sure that you don’t push yourself too far. Also, make sure you’re clearly visible at all times, rest when you need to and listen to your body. If your body says ‘no more’, then there’s no arguing with it.
Some people want a sleeping rule in ultra-distance cycling, but if you respect your body then there’s no reason to introduce something like this. Everyone is different and some days you’ll be able to ride for many hours and others you’ll want to sleep twice a day. This is the reason why I don’t believe in such rules.
Are there any places in the world where you still have ambitions to cycle?
I have already cycled more than 500,000km and exploring the world is always a great pleasure. The best adventure or ride is always the one coming next, but I do have ambitions to cycle in Japan, across the Sahara, in Iceland and many other places too.
Some of my friends think I’m crazy, because I start telling them about plans for my next adventure when my current ride is not even finished!