Roundtable: Mandatory Rest Periods - Part 1

Roundtable: Mandatory Rest Periods - Part 1

25 March, 2023

Ultra endurance races are at their core races against the clock, and the clock never stops. They are won by those who strike the perfect balance of optimising average moving speed and rest. We’ve touched on the topic of imposed rest times in a previous roundtable, but with a handful of existing races implementing mandatory rest periods for the first time this year, we believe now is a good time to open up the discussion and delve a little deeper. Sleep deprivation has become widely celebrated and admired in our sport, but at a potential cost.

The TransAtlantic Way was the first race to our knowledge to impose mandatory rest periods at its third edition in 2018 and this decision faced both backlash and support. While organiser Adrian O’Sullivan was asked to participate in this topic his response was “no comment”. Over the past five years, the sport has grown exponentially and in the upcoming season we will see existing races mandating stop periods for the first time, such as all three of TransIberica’s events and All Points North.

As bikepackers garner more racing experience, it’s arguable that they are able to develop the skill of racing sleep deprived, but with increasingly more new and inexperienced racers entering the discipline there’s an increased risk to their health and safety, and ultimately the race and sport's reputation. Bikepacking offers the unique opportunity for amateurs to line up alongside highly experienced racers, creating an environment rife for risk taking and pushing limits, for better or worse.

We’ve put it to five well-known and respected members of our community to discuss whether there’s a place for mandating rest periods in our sport. Sofiane Sehili has developed a reputation for being the best off-road bikepacker and a rider who’s able to push his limits of sleep deprivation further than any other, which has helped him to his back-to-back wins at the Silk Road Mountain Race, Tour Divide and Atlas Mountain Race, to name a few. Carlos Mazon is the organiser at TransIberica with top ten finishes at the AMR 2020, Trans Am Bike Race 2015 and Three Peaks Bike Race 2019, 2021 and 2022. Wendy Ellis is the co-founder of Turning the Cogs; a survey into what the barriers for women in the sport are, and articulate long-time commentator for us here at DotWatcher. She has also lined up at TCR and AMR. Brian Alder is the organiser of Tour Te Waipounamu, a guardian of the sport with finishes at the Tour Divide and Highland Trail 550. Philippa Battye is a member of The Adventure Syndicate who’s committed to making sure she enjoys all events, which is impressive given she rarely finishes outside of the top ten overall. She is the only rider ever to have finished GBDURO twice and has experience of events with varying rest period formats.

Read on to learn more about these members of the sport's opinions on the topic of mandatory rest periods.

1. Do we need mandatory rest periods?

Do you believe bikepacking races need mandatory rest periods, and what impact do these have on ultra-races?

Sofiane Sehili, Tour Divide winner and two-time SRMR winner: I don’t think we need mandatory rest periods, people argue that it would be safer but I don’t think the safety issue is with the fact that people ride bikes when they’re tired. Sadly, there have been some fatal accidents, but tiredness has never clearly been linked to fatal accidents. If you look at road safety, cyclists get killed on the road every day (244 deaths in France only last year) and it’s not because they’re sleep deprived. It’s because of other factors such as speed limits on some roads, lack of infrastructure, drunk driving, and distracted driving. There are a lot of factors when it comes to cyclists being killed on the road and I don’t think cyclists being tired is a major factor when it comes to fatal accidents.

Wendy Ellis, founder of Turning the Cogs: Short answer: no.

The question we should be asking is ‘why are we doing this’? If it is for safety, we need to look at what is really the controllable variable that does cause the greatest negative impact, and address that.

If the decision is then to implement mandated rest periods in a fair and equitable way, that is not possible as we are then assuming that everybody has the same physiological make-up, and that all other variables in the race will be the same, which we know is not the case. It would be the same as mandating that each rider carries a specific amount of calories and water and stop between 12pm and 2pm to eat and drink - each person needs different things. And dehydration will kill you much faster than missing a few hours of sleep, but minimum water carrying is not currently regulated.

Carlos Mazon, TransIberica organiser and racer: Yes, after 5 years organizing races, I have seen participants who exceeded their limits and put themselves at risk. The health of the athlete must be a priority, and the creation of the formula was not a coincidence, it was due to a personal experience and observing riders throughout the years. You can learn more about TransIberica's new formula for calculating rest periods here.

It will definitely have a positive impact, which is going to be tested in the following seasons, as the main goal is to maintain the spirit of ultra cycling while improving safety measurements.

Philippa Battye, GBDURO two-time veteran: I think there would be 3 good reasons for mandatory rest:

  1. Safety to the public.
  2. Reducing need for rescue by the public.
  3. Safety of the individual.

Safety to the public applies most to races involving other road users. For off-road races it’s less of an issue - in these you take your life and limbs into your own hands!

Reason no. 2 is often as a result of poor choices before the race even starts, such as packing light to force yourself to keep riding/not sleep. The theory being if you don’t have warm kit to enable you to lie down you won’t. However, while not often directly linked to sleep deprivation, I’ve known of a few riders who have ended up hypothermic or with other physical ailments, crashing etc and needing to be rescued by strangers. This doesn't tend to be reported in such a way that attributes them to sleep deprivation but I often think it’s all linked. So coverage is skewed to applaud when it goes well, but less so when it has disastrous consequences for a riders race/health, even though that, and poor kit choices, are sometimes the root cause.

The impact on races would be they are safer, obviously. But yes more ‘rulesie’, staid, boring? The ability to know one's body and mind, and how to manage and self-regulate is a real skill, and it potentially removes a layer of racing which gives many an edge over their competitors. However, it’s not a regulated sport, and there are so many races to choose from. I’ve no doubt the Jedi sleep masters will still be able to find races that play to their strengths and can avoid the ones that don’t.

Brian Alder, Tour Te Waipounamu organiser and racer: I think mandatory rest periods have a place, but not in every event.

For short events where the average time is less than say 36 hours and a fastest time is under 24 hours it’s not necessary to mandate rest periods. For long events, say longer than five or six days, where everyone will have to sleep at some point, I think they are also not necessary (e.g. Tour Divide, SRMR etc). And in more technically difficult events where the majority of the course is off-road, the experience of the participants is greater either by design or pre-selection, I think mandatory rest periods are not necessary. (e.g. HT550, TTW).

Where I think they do play a role is in mid-length events and/or in events that attract a number of novices. Firstly, having a mandatory rest period should encourage riders to carry some sort of sleep system, which increases the level of safety for the rider in case of a mishap or weather event. Secondly, they force riders to understand and learn the whole gamut of skills required in bikepack racing. And thirdly, based on my experience, events with mandatory rest periods have more camaraderie amongst riders (you often end up camping with others) and this adds to the overall experience and the community. I think they make the whole experience more enjoyable, and so participants are more likely to stay engaged with the sport.

Lennard Hammerstein asleep on ferry Charlotte Gamus

A rider sleeps on the ferry crossing from mainland Italy to Sicily at Two Volcano Sprint 2022. Photo credit: Charlotte Gamus.

2. How can rest periods be mandated?

Mandatory rest periods can be created in a variety of ways, some explicit and some not. What do you believe to be the most effective methods for mandating or encouraging rest periods? Does this vary between different types of races?

Sofiane: If I was a race organiser and I was to mandate rest periods, it would be to tell people they have to have on their tracker 4 consecutive hours stationary every 24 hours, be that resting or eating. If we are trying to limit sleep deprivation, forcing people to stop at night for a minimum of 4 consecutive hours would be the most obvious and effective way to do it.

Wendy: Because I am not sure mandatory rest periods are a good idea, and can actually be done in an equitable fashion, I struggle to think of a way that it can be implemented while keeping the essence of an unsupported ultra in tact.

It could be considered that GBDURO is an example of an unsupported ultra cycling race that has built-in stop periods for those that make it to the stage end before the mass start of the next stage.

I would argue that this format actually favours the faster riders, as they are able to go fast thanks to their training/experience and have proportionally higher rest time vs riding time. I do like this format for other reasons (social, camaraderie, connection to local communities etc), but don’t believe it makes the race more equitable, or safer because of it.

Carlos: They must be explicit, although we believe that they must be open in terms of management and/or strategic capacity. Yes, in short races, lack of rest doesn’t have the same heavy effects as multi-day events, where sleep deprivation and fatigue are accumulated, this could cause deeper damage. So, this formula only applies to a certain type of riders who take sleep deprivation into non-healthy extremes.

Dan-s photo daf-s gbduro21 1

A rider rests at the first Checkpoint in Mid-Wales on GBDURO21. Photo credit: Dan King.

Philippa: There are 3 ways that I’ve experienced as a racer: mandatory rest in a 24 hour period (TAW), clock stops at CPs (GBDURO) and curfews (Further Pyrenees). The GBDURO format was in part to try and encourage rest, in actual fact it creates a stage race where riders push themselves harder during each stage. Further Pyrenees encourages more than rest, it encourages leisurely meals, ample sleep and taking in beautiful trails and landscapes at optimum times of the day. It's overkill from a safety perspective but makes for a bloody lovely race, all calculated by Camille, I believe. However the Further format does make it harder for women who want to be competitive as it tends to result in a final day sprint which favours men’s physiology.

One way to encourage rest rather than mandate is to promote the appeal of 'slow and sustainable' racing. It seems some of the 'pros' are doing it in certain races, still riding hard but resting more too when not their 'target' races I guess. There's a lot to be said for finishing a race stronger than when you started - it's tough on the mind and body, the affects of which can linger, and I know racers who months after have questioned whether it's really worth it. I try to remember that however important it feels to ride through the final night to claw back a few places on the leader board, no one else will notice, let alone care. No doubt one will have a life affirming experience, a fleeting moment of glory, but it just might not be as enjoyable. Forgive me for coining a cheesey phrase... but races, and life, has got to be about the journey hasn't it? And while beers at the finish is a strong incentive to get to the destination... no ones stopping us from having a beer along the way ;-)

Brian: Events that require riders to use external transport (e.g. ferries) create natural breaks in the course and inevitably create rest periods of varying lengths, so that’s one way to build them in. Having a set amount of time each 24 hours that you must be stationary (4 or 6 hours) is more common and used in several events in New Zealand. Running events in stages (GBDURO) is the third commonly used method. Although not mandatory stops, in the Tour Te Waipounamu there are a number of sections of the course that traverse private land, where no camping/ sleeping is allowed. This forces riders to make a call as to whether they are confident if they can push through sections of 3-5 hours, and this becomes quite tactical about if and where they sleep.

Every event has a style, and all elements contribute that style. In my opinion it’s up to each race director to consider what style of event they are creating, what type of experience they are designing and which part of the field they are focussing on with their event. Too often we focus on how the fastest 5% of the field ride an event, rather than the mid pack who often make up 80% of finishers. By and large, most mid-pack riders sleep every night and much longer than any mandatory stops, so mandating rest periods generally only affects the fastest riders. I much prefer designing a course that encourages natural rest stops, but I see the role that mandatory rest periods play, especially in events which are trying to attract novice riders.

Rupert Hartley PCR 2019 sleeping bike in terminal

A rider gets some shut eye ahead of their ferry journey on the Pan Celtic Race in 2019. Photo credit: Rupert Hartley.

To conclude, our respondents reached no consensus on whether they believe bikepacking races need to mandate rest and the best method to do this. Their differing opinions based on varying experiences and perspectives give an insight into how nuanced and complex this issue is, especially given the amount of optimal sleep is individual.

We love to see these opposing opinions on meaty topics in the sport, and we promise there are more differing viewpoints in part 2, which will be released next week. The second part discusses the responsibility of taking calculated risks and whether sleep deprivation is a trainable skill.