It’s an hour before dawn and I have a dilemma: I can continue down this gravel track, defying leaden eyelids and risking a crash – or stop for 10 minutes
I am 72 hours into BikingMan Oman, a “bikepacking” race on a mandatory 1,040km route.
I have climbed 7,200m, ridden out a sandstorm, and now the finish line is tantalisingly close…
It’s a new domain of extreme sport, recently in from the hardcore fringe.
It is unassisted long‑distance cycling, off-road and on, often with routes between checkpoints individually planned – and it uses all the modern tech as well as a range of
innovative, streamlined kit (the “packing” bit of the name), strapped to handlebars, top tube and beneath your saddle.
The Transcontinental Race covers approximately 4,000km, zigzagging across Europe via mountainous terrain.
BikingMan Oman is one of a series: Corsica, Laos, Portugal, Peru and Taiwan, mostly between 700km and 1,150km long, with five days to finish.
The narrow tyres on my old steel steed would never survive the gravel sections (about five per cent of the course), so I borrow a bike from J Laverack,
a young company building frames with titanium, which is good over the distance – “copes well with road-buzz”, they say.
I festoon it with bikepacking bags into which I stuff the mandatory kit – survival gear, reflective clothing, pump and a power bank.
The fastest riders, out for perhaps 48 hours, hardly sleep and carry the absolute minimum, but I’m aware I could be on the road for three days and nights
and will have to sleep out, so I take a silk liner and a warm jacket.
Now it’s about putting in the miles to get the body bike-ready.
The riders assemble one Saturday in February at the Al Nahda Resort west of Muscat, for registration and equipment checks.
All goes quiet in the evening as we try to snatch some sleep before the start.
Breakfast is groggy at 1am, but a palpable buzz has built by 2.30.
And at 3am we are off, riding into the night, escorted by the police.
The author with his J Laverack titanium bike | Image: David Styv
It is the only time we ride in a peloton – drafting is not permitted – so we link up and chat.
We are 75 riders from 24 countries, the oldest 70 and youngest 25, nearly 15 per cent women.
I fall in with Cat, in a pair with George, and Danny Green, one of several Transcontinental veterans, who’s gunning for a top-10 place.
Eventually we lapse into companionable silence, mind on the challenge ahead.
At 50km, as coastal flatlands crumple into foothills, the flashing lights pull aside and the leaders hare off.
Omani roads are unexpectedly good; mostly we ride a hard shoulder and I find myself rolling at 35kph in the night without fear of a pothole.
At dawn, 75km in, thundering peaks reveal themselves to our left: the Hajar Mountains.
We hit rush hour in the town of Rustaq.
Drivers toot and children shout and wave from school buses.
At 10am I stop quickly to buy water and a snack – because this is self-supported racing, it’s quite legitimate.
Emerging onto a plain south of the Hajar, we turn southeast for another 100km, on a highway.
We confirm our position and track other competitors on our mobiles; some even book hotels online as they ride.
One rider has a WhatsApp group of supporters encouraging him.
He thumbs texts while leaning on his aerobars.
BikingMan Oman has just two checkpoints, which offer food and a space to bed down.
The first, after 335km, is near the top of Jebel Shams – a 1,200m ascent considered one of the world’s most fearsome climbs.
I ride when I can, but frequently have to dismount and labour uphill on foot.
Eventually, I reach a gravel section; still the climb continues.
The juddering of the unpaved road shakes loose the bracket on my headlight.
I might have the fuel to sustain me and the kit to survive, but now I need masking tape and a new front light.
After three hours’ sleep at the checkpoint, and a glorious descent into the golden light of dawn, I find them in a hardware shop.
If morale dived on the climb, today it soars.
Rock outcrops, tinged with mineral colour – mint, russet and vermilion – stand jagged against a cloudless sky.
It’s also legitimate to eat in restaurants, so when I spot a parked bike, I stop: it belongs to Stefano, an Italian living in the UK.
We order chicken and rice and fizzy drinks.
In the afternoon, the mountains subside into sand and a warm tailwind builds.
At 48 hours, I reach the Arabian Sea and, at 750km, the second checkpoint.