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Two Peas in a Pod: A Look at Pairs Racing

Two Peas in a Pod: A Look at Pairs Racing

6 January, 2022

Kitty Dennis

By: Kitty Dennis

After the incredible insights we gained from our first pairs feature, we decided to take a deeper dive into some more compelling duos. We've kept the questions the same but asked some riders from further afield about how they've found their racing experience.

Pair one is Simone Ernst and Denise Morf. This powerhouse couple from Switzerland were the third pair across the line at Dead Ends and Cake, a race with more pairs than solo riders in 2021. They regularly compete and train in endurance sports together, when they're not running their coffee business: Vertical Coffee

Pair two are Chas Christiansen and Nico Deportago-Cabrera, coming from the unusual sub-group of ultracyclists: bike messengers. Nico and Chas hail from America and decided their first foray into ultra-cycling would be better together! They took on the Transcontinental Race coming 2nd pair in 2018. When they're at their usual haunts, Chas and Nico can often be found shredding on fixed gear bikes at an alleycat.

Pair three is Richard Gate and his son Sam Gate. Richard is in a unique position of racing as a pair with different partners. He spoke to us about his time with Sam at Transiberica, where they won 1st pair and also their NotAPN 2020 ride. However, Richard has also hit the startline with a club mate, Neil, at All Points North and explored this with us.

Featured Picture Chas and Nico at TCR by @samisauri

1. What is your relationship outside of ultra-racing?

Simone - We’ve been in a relationship for 22 years now, started our own business in coffee roasting 12 years ago, got married 9 years ago and have been training and competing together in endurance sports ever since we met.

Chas - Nico and I have been friends for years, we both came up as bike messengers. I worked in San Francisco and Nico worked in Chicago, and we met racing alleycats (unsanctioned street races). We started to travel together to attend messenger championships around the world, and have been solid friends for over a decade.

Richard - I raced with my son Sam, who at 24 is 30 yrs younger, and Neil, a club mate who is a similar age to myself.

Pictured - Richard and Sam by Transiberica Club

2. What made you decide to ultra-race as a pair?

Simone - After we met back in 2000, we started out competing in marathons, usually running them together as it just was more fun and we could encourage each other along the way. This led to doing Ultramarathons and Ironman Triathlons. I guess if it had not been for the swimming and no drafting policy of long distance triathlons, we probably would have done these together as well… We stopped competing in triathlons some time ago but what has kind of stuck from those days is our shared passion for cycling - the longer the better. So with all that in mind, it just seemed natural to also race an ultra as a pair. We just recently had the discussion about whether one of us would prefer doing an ultra-race alone but both came to the conclusion that for us, doing it together has more positives than being on our own.

Chas - Honestly we had no idea what we were doing, so it just seemed safer to do it together. We were offered a last minute spot in TCR from a race sponsor, and neither of us had ever done an ultra race before. So we were under a tight timeline and it made sense to split the routing responsibilities and also have someone to bounce gear ideas off of. Also we had been traveling the world together racing for years, and ultra races like the TCR were so similar to Alleycat races that we were literally like "this is just one big Alleycat race across Europe, how hard can it be?" Famous last words for sure.

Richard - With Sam it was for the Father and Son shared experience. We think at the time in 2020 when we had hoped to start the Transcontinental it would have been the first such pairing in ultra racing and certainly has yet to happen in TCR history. Crossing a continent self supported is quite daunting and a pairs entry was attractive for both of us. We also wanted to see how competitive we could be in the pairs category. With Neil it was definitely a chance to see if a pair could compete at the pointy end against solo riders in AllPointsNorth.

Picture by @tronasphotos of Denise and Simone

3. How did you find the race as a pair? What were the positives of racing together and were there any negatives?

Simone - The best thing about racing and riding together is definitely having good company, someone to talk to and sharing all the funny and sometimes weird moments along the way. And also having someone to keep you on track when morale might start to slip and you might start thinking of quitting or just going through a bad patch (which will always be the case sooner or later when you do long stuff). A negative side of racing together will for sure be the timing of each other's ‚lows. There are times when one of us feels great and wants to push on and the other just needs a quick break to get herself together again. So same as in the bigger picture of a relationship, you need to look after each other and sometimes compromise your own ambitions to make it work for both. As we do not race to win but rather to have a cool adventure together, we do not really care about losing time this way. I guess some people believe racing as a pair should be faster than solo as you can draft behind each other, split luggage, thus travel faster and lighter. I’m not quite sure whether this is true for us, I think we quite often end up chatting while riding next to each other and looking around a lot which slows us down rather than speeding us up. But then again, that’s why we do the whole thing, so that’s OK for us.

Chas - Luckily for Nico and I we took to racing pairs together quite nicely. We already had a history together and we already knew we traveled well together (a must for any pair of racers). We had a similar level of fitness and motivation which is super important. Nico was much better at long flats and short climbs, being as he is from the Midwest. I excelled at setting the pace up longer climbs as I'm from the West Coast. We both valued sleep, but also were down to hit the bivy for 5 hours and then wake up well before dawn to get rolling. I think a big thing that made it good for us was also our shared acknowledgement and acceptance that we would be sleeping in some very cutty spots, you have to have a partner that's okay sleeping in a bus stop if you plan on doing that. There were so many supremely positive moments to count, one of the best parts of racing as a pair is sharing all of the great things you experience on an Ultra. And of course there were some negative moments, but we quickly figured out that for us, any issue we had was usually solved by a can of Coke and a candy bar.

Richard - There is definitely an added element of stress in a pair. Many decisions that might be made subconsciously as a solo rider require discussion or debate. But sharing an experience is a great positive.

In Transiberica with Sam it was a developing race. In the first few days I was stronger and whilst Sam endured, felt he couldn’t contribute greatly. But the longer the race went on, Sam became stronger, especially on the hills. He was a constant source of information from social media and rode to the rescue finding places to stay overnight. Generally we were very compatible in mindset as a pair and efficient both on and off the road. Nutritional habits being probably the most different between us. Having a race partner added a great deal to the general enjoyment, and of course the shared memories afterwards!

With Neil it was super strong riding and drafting through the first night and into the next day. We should probably have had a dry run under “race conditions “ to refine the strategy and efficiency when stopped, including finding the checkpoint clues. Ultimately it was bad luck from an old recurring injury that prevented us finishing and we held a strong position before we retired.

Pictured - Richard and Sam courtesy of Transiberica_Club

4. How has racing as a pair changed your relationship?

Simone - Having been together for quite a long time and evolving within endurance sports together from the beginning, the highs and lows of long distance racing has been a part of our relationship from the beginning. We surely got to know each other very well early on and learnt to take care of each other and adjust to the other person's needs. Racing together and going on long adventures has also brought many great and also bonding memories. It’s great to have some laughs over past undertakings and mega-fails!

Chas - Racing as a pair has strengthened our already strong bond as friends and given us years worth of stories to laugh and reminisce about. For me personally I have a huge amount of trust in Nico after racing with him so many times. I know how he will respond to situations and I know I can always rely on him. It's funny but now we work together in the bike industry and we have some many inside jokes, strategies, and techniques that we created while racing that we use everyday.

Richard - Sam and I are entered in TCRNo8 so I think that demonstrates we are keen for more adventures together! Sam’s experience over the 10 day Transiberica race is invaluable for a future event be it pairs or solo and the pairs win is a great boost in confidence. Aside from Father and Son however, I’m unlikely to race as a pair if I’m wishing to be competitive. The risks outweigh the benefits in my experience.

Pictured - Simone and Denise by @or_solala

5. What piece of advice would you give any aspiring ultra-racers who want to compete in a pair?

Simone - I think it’s super important that you know each other well and feel really comfortable to be in very uncomfortable situations and go through real lows together. To be able to show real emotional weakness or fear and also cope with the other person’s personal way of coping with extraordinary situations. If you don’t know each other super well already, I would recommend going on an adventure that leaves the comfort zone behind beforehand. This way, you will quickly find out how you feel about showing weakness, fear, doubts, emotions etc. and also how to cope with this from the other person.

Chas - Some of the best advice I can give is find someone who you have already gotten into a fight with and came out still friends. There will be the highest of highs and also the lowest of lows when racing as a pair, and you get to share all of that with your partner. So finding someone you can disagree with, get hangry, maybe even yell at, then apologize, talk through it and move on is crucial. One more practical note, go on some tours with your partner before you race together. Not just long rides, but multiple overnight trips.

The one single thing that most pairs fight about (confirmed by asking almost every pair we have ever raced against) is getting ready to go at the same pace. One person packs up quickly and is ready to hit the road fast, the other takes longer, is more chill, and always has "one more thing" to pack up. SO one person is impatient and standing around waiting, and the other feels rushed and gets resentful. This usually happens at the start of the day, so it can really get things rolling on the wrong foot. So find someone who gets ready at the same pace as you (Nico and I are mostly in sync) or have a strategy to deal with it, maybe you can roll out separate then link up later, maybe the slow one agrees to wake up earlier? Whatever you figure out, this is the one thing that could split up even the chillest pair of racers!

Richard - Charge your di2! (Sam forgot on our #notAPN attempt!) Seriously, practice riding together under stress, with a stretching goal. Whether that is high mileage target, bad weather, no place to stay etc etc. If you work well as a pair under pressure, the chances are you are a good match and the experience will benefit you both. You will know how to react to your partner, anticipate issues and highlight any concerns to be addressed. Alternatively riding as a pair can simply be a fantastic opportunity to have an extreme adventure where riding solo might be too far outside the comfort zone. Lastly, look at the route before hand so you know what might be coming up! (It was quite a late decision from Sam to enter Transiberica!)

Pictured - Chas and Nico

Thank you to our contributors for their wise words and taking the time to share their experiences. Whether you love riding as a pair or are more of a solitary soul there is definitely a charm to having an unforgettable adventure with those that you're close to.

If you have any experiences of riding as a pair that you'd like to share, please email info@dotwatcher.cc