Roundtable: Mandatory Rest Periods - Part 2

Roundtable: Mandatory Rest Periods - Part 2

1 April, 2023

Welcome to the second part of our roundtable on mandatory rest periods. Incase you missed it, you can find the first part here.

In the first part of the roundtable, our participants shared their opinions on the need to and methods of mandating rest periods at bikepacking races. In this part, we question whose responsibility it is to keep riders and safe and whether riding while sleep deprived is a trainable skill.

3. Is it a rider's responsibility to take their own calculated risks?

Sleep deprivation impairs various human functions, including our reaction times and decision making. How do you respond to the argument that it's a rider's responsibility to take their own calculated risks?

Sofiane: It is a rider’s responsibility to take their own calculated risks. I’m famous for going for very long periods without any sleep but it’s something that I have developed over the years and it’s also something I’m willing to do on certain races and not on others. It’s something I’d rather do off-road, rather than on-road as the fact there are no cars around makes me feel safer.

What I was not aware of is that it’s not just the front runners who deprive themselves of sleep, it’s also some of the mid-pack racers. It’s less of a concern for riders like me or other front runners who have a lot of experience doing this, and know when it’s becoming a problem to be sleep deprived. I don’t believe that organisers don’t have a say in this matter. When I did AMR 2020, I didn’t sleep for 4 days and Nelson said he was on the brink of stopping and telling me to sleep. I knew what I was doing, when I finished the race I was still lucid, I could still talk with people and make calculations. It’s not like everybody has the same needs when it comes to sleep. I for one could not sleep on the first night of a race. I feel like everyone is different and it’s up to an individual to determine what is their strategy is and what are their needs in order to race safely and be aware of their environment at all times.

Wendy: Sleep deprivation is defined by not getting an optimal amount of sleep - it does not have an exact number that can be applied to all, and quality is as important as quantity. During these races, you are exerting yourself physically, and even with the recommended 8 hours of sleep you will still be fatigued as your body does not have time to recover from an effort as intense as one of these races. The body is also incredibly resilient, as has been shown by the thousands of racers who have completed these races.

Ultra races give each person a specified arena to set themselves a challenge, to face adversity, and overcome what is presented to them. Decision making is important in every second of a race, and it is an achievement that is transferred into daily life along with greater self-knowledge and self-confidence, while hopefully leaving some of your ego on the route somewhere. But it comes down to the individual, and only by doing this independently can you access these gifts - not by someone else making the hard decisions for you.

Supported/stage format ultra races exist, as does touring, for those that want to shape their challenge in a different way, and they are equally as valid if it feels right for that individual and what they want to experience.

Carlos: As an organizer we cheer people to find their limits and set challenging events, but people are even more competitive in this sense and fight for their position over their health and capacities. Hence, riders start racing who can sleep less to save time, and this situation generates a vortex of inefficiency and extreme sleep deprivation which is difficult to stop, so we feel responsible to cut this vortex by setting a mandatory stop.

Phil: Sleep deprivation has been quoted to affect cognitive function along the lines of 3/4 pints (although one's ability to ride on 3 or 4 pints is relative…). So while it should be their own responsibility, you’re essentially asking a half cut rider to make decisions about their ability to ride competently while sharing a road with other users. Again, it comes back to the road/off road argument for me. If you have a crash on some singletrack at 3500m in Kyrgyzstan and break a bone, hopefully no one else will die as a result, you might just have a hefty rescue bill to foot.

Brian: I agree that it’s a rider's responsibility to look after their own welfare, but it’s also in the community’s interest to make sure that the topic is discussed, and real-world data is examined.

In my experience of bikepack racing, I’m most sleepy at 9am when riding boring sections of a course, generally after a good night’s sleep. I generally never feel drowsy at night, when riding terrain that is engaging or in adverse conditions as all my senses are on full alert. And riding seriously sleep deprived is patently slower and this grows exponentially as a race gets longer. Apart from a few individuals or a long night pushing to the finish, there’s no strong evidence that riding seriously sleep-deprived is faster.

Crashing while tired is a risk but generally that only affects the rider themselves and has no outside consequences. I can think of a few examples where riders crashed in likely sleep-deprived situations and the ramifications were not worse only because another rider or member of the public provided assistance. However, I think most people would agree that the biggest perceived risk of being sleep deprived is wobbling down a road and being struck by a vehicle. In my opinion, the sleep deprived part of this is the minor issue, and the biggest risk to riders taking part in ultras is being hit by a vehicle where the rider is not at fault. I’m sure I’m not alone in having many near misses.

In my opinion, designing courses which limit riders’ interaction with high speed traffic is the number one responsibility for race directors.

Juanan Barros Badlands 2021

Badlands 2021. Photo credit: Juanan Barros

4. Do you agree that riding sleep deprived is a trainable skill?

What is your opinion on the argument that the skills of riding whilst sleep deprived can be trained and is one piece in an experienced racer’s arsenal?

Sofiane: I agree it’s a skill, although some are more gifted than others and I believe I am. Again, I train hard to be able to master this skill of having the ability to stay focussed and perform without sleep. The way the sport is shaped now means it’s one of the strategies you can implement; you can choose to not sleep for the first night, several nights or the last night. I think it would be detrimental to the sport of ultraracing to implement mandatory rest periods.

Can you imagine if at the finish of last year’s Silk Road Mountain Race, where I sprinted with James [Hayden] through the night, we had needed to have stopped for 4 hours? The finish would have been much less spectacular for the dotwatchers. I don’t think it can work. You can’t have these exciting finishes if you implement these mandatory rest periods. It’s an actual skill that today you need to master to be able to perform at the highest level in bikepacking, and if you remove that tool that we have in our arsenal then you will just reshape the sport, and not for the better. I think if you start having rest periods, you’ll bring different people in this sport and probably people who have an ability to push harder on the pedals and rest. I don’t think it will even make the sport safer, the way we can make the sport safer is to have better courses.

Wendy: Any skill, by definition, is trainable. Ask any mother how she trained herself to perform and excel throughout a long period of chronic sleep deprivation; think back to your student years and how you performed on hundreds of nights of alcohol-induced sleep and ask yourself if you were able to train yourself to perform. You are probably living with sleep deprivation today, but you still perform dangerous tasks daily.

Experience is the critical word - you need to learn what your body needs and how it reacts with reduced rest, and it is as valid as knowing how much chamois cream you need, for example.

Then take a look at the moving:stopped time ratios of the podiums of any race over 1000km, and you will see that even the fastest out there do rest because total sleep deprivation is a false economy.

Carlos: It can be trained and improved, in fact, I think this is the main reason why there are more and more people in this discipline. More prepared people with better abilities, but also more people exceeding their limits. It's a good thing, which I think should be motivating, but as I said, respecting the integrity of the people could go against people's health. Setting certain limits, I think works in everyone's favour. It allows equalizing conditions and/or that the extreme use of sleep deprivation can be a card to play. I think 4 hours per day (and not every day), is more than the acceptable minimum, which should hardly affect anyone. If not, it can seem like a chance of winning is more dependent on the ability to stay awake for days with the occasional power-nap and abuses of caffeine, pills or drugs, rather than a rider's skill.

To conclude about why we developed the formula, I’d like to reflect my personal experience what was seen in last year's Transibérica. First of all, is a rule against how I personally used to handle the races. I have been one of those who have best adapted to the conditions of little sleep, with margins of 2.5-4.5h, for many days, resulting in an advantage in TransAm, Transcontinental, or Transibérica.

Even though, I crossed the limits in the past, I was lucky to not have any big consequences. But I fell asleep on the bike and crashed in TransAm (2015, day 15 of 20) and Transcontinental (2017, day 8 of 9). I forced myself not to sleep and kept riding in Three Peaks Bike Race (2021) too and got hallucinations and periods of unconsciousness. However, year after year I realised that was less efficient. People are getting faster and fitter, so “sleeping less will not make you faster”.

Phil: I believe it can be trained and have read of 'forest monks' who meditate while walking for weeks without sleeping or ever lying down. I think efforts from those such as Sofiane must be along similar lines of meditation and mind control - somehow managing to garner the benefits of sleep - recovery, consolidation, processing, all while riding a bike. Which is pretty mind blowing, and I am always in complete awe of those that manage to ride through night after night, because after one sleepless night I'm in bits!

However I think the key word in the question is experienced. There are now hundreds of races and thousands taking part. Most are doing them alongside full time jobs, families etc, often as a once in a lifetime/not so often challenge. It's likely most are just trying to train their body and minds to complete the thing, not to then train themselves in the dark art of sleep deprivation as well! A minority may have the capacity/ time/ will to train this aspect, yet the majority don’t. Yet they’ll still aspire to pull off similar feats without the necessary skills to execute it well.

I also think as the sport grows, so does the likelihood of accidents and fatalities, especially as the limits are being pushed. Race directors have a big burden to bear and I sympathise with them wanting to protect themselves from a feeling of responsibility and potential remorse.

Brian: I’m sure the skills can be trained, but improved equipment also plays a role. Dynamo lighting systems and / or better batteries have changed the game. But observation would suggest there’s a rare few that can successfully ride with little to no sleep AND be fast. Each rider needs to find their own sweet spot in this, so mandating rest periods does take options away from a rider’s playbook.

My other fear is that in an untested sport where commercialism is becoming more prevalent, that performance-enhancing drugs may play a bigger role. If there is one reason to mandate rest periods, then negating the benefits of drug use is the strongest argument in their favour.

Maciek Alice Lemkes GBDURO21

Alice Lemkes post-arrival at the third Checkpoint on GBDURO21. Photo credit: Maciek Tomiczek.

To conclude, while the responsibility to control one’s level of sleep deprivation is a rider’s, a race organiser also carries the lofty responsibility to ensure routes are as safe as possible for riders at all times of day and night. The difference between the risks and consequences of riding off-road and on road is key in a rider’s decision to take risks. Many of our respondents agree that riding on the road when sleep deprived carries more risks with higher consequences to ourselves and our fellow road users.

It’s agreed that riding sleep-deprived is a trainable skill, but whether it’s something that riders should be working towards is debatable. The consensus is that each rider should be aware of the consequences and informed enough to make their own decisions. The conversations around the topic of riding sleep deprived have evolved from recognising those who push the boundaries to questioning whether this celebration is responsible, given the growth of the sport over the past few years and the number of new riders.

There’s no clear cut answer to whether we need mandatory rest periods in the sport, but the inclusion of them will spark newer riders, and perhaps many experienced ones like Carlos, into considering the risks of riding without enough rest. It is our intention with this two part series not to give a finite answer as to whether organisers should mandate rest periods, but instead to spark some discussions amongst the community and empower riders with our experts’ varying opinions so they can make their own decisions.