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James Golding: road to RAAM

Wattbiker James Golding is no stranger to putting in work. His latest adventure took him to the USA, where he took part in Race Across the West in order to qualify for one of the world’s toughest races: Race Across America. We caught up with him to find out how it went, and how he’s preparing for the next challenge. 

Tell us about Race Across the West?

“Race Across the West was kind of a stepping stone for Race Across America (RAAM). From my point of view, it’s a very lavish, very extreme way of qualifying for RAAM but you can’t get any comprehension or understanding of what RAAM is like unless you actually go to America. We talk about training in England or Europe, or training in the mountains in France and Italy, but there’s really no comparison. The scale of everything in America is so much greater, and there’s a real mix of conditions that you’re going through. You can’t experience that anywhere else. 

The first day you go from sea level, which is around 26c, and then within an hour to two hours inland it’s hitting 35-36c and you’re going uphill through the California mountains. Then you drop down the ‘glass elevator’ which is the biggest descent of the whole race, where you drop down to the desert floor. You’re getting there at nighttime, but even in the middle of the night, it’s still 37c. You stay on the desert floor for quite a while, then you’re in Arizona and it’s 50c. It’s very, very extreme compared to anything you can experience in Europe. 

The heat was the hardest part. We were taking on board somewhere in the region of three water bottles an hour.

When you start climbing out of Arizona, you’re just on a normal road. You start to notice you’re feeling a bit weird so you look at your altitude and all of a sudden, you’re sitting at 2,000 metres. But you don’t feel like you’ve done any climbing; you’ve just been on this progressional uphill for the past two or three days. Then you’ve got this temperature that’s dropping drastically and you’re going from wearing the thinnest jersey you can find to jackets, arm warmers and big thick coats on because you’re at such a high altitude. 

It was important to get the crew over there so they could see what it was like. Sleep deprivation was one of the big things, and also where they were going to find food. Food is a major factor in America. In nutritional terms, some of the food is diabolical! McDonald's becomes your friend in America, and the reason for that is consistency. When you go and buy six chicken nuggets in America, you know they’re the same as you’ll buy in France, in London, in Edinburgh, in Birmingham, so the consistency is there. When you’re doing an event like this you don’t really want to be changing too much whilst you’re there.”

How did you cope with the lack of sleep?

“You’re in a routine. You’re in the race and it’s an environment where you’re thinking about what other people are doing and where they are. One of the downsides was that the trackers weren't working so you couldn’t see where the other riders were, so we were riding blind. If we had been able to do that maybe we would have taken a bit more time off. I had too much time off the bike, but probably not as much sleep as I should have had. Some of it was procrastination I suppose, some of it was that next year we’ll have learnt that the RV needs to leave in the morning and go to where we plan to be in the evening and I don’t want to see it throughout the rest of the whole day. There’s this luring temptation that when you see the RV you get off the bike, get a drink and you sit down for five minutes, but actually you’re better off slowing the ride down and trying to maintain movement on the bike and take your rest that way, rather than just stopping.”

How did you feel after finishing?

“It’s difficult because you often don’t think about how you’re feeling until you’re six months down the line. You spend so long training for it and thinking about it that you never put any thought into what it’ll feel like when you’ve finished it. We crossed the finish line at two o'clock in the morning, so there was nobody around, and by that time you’re so tired, all you wanted to do is go to bed. We kept a couple of the very quiet bars in business the next night. There's an element of celebration off the back of it, but ultimately you just want to go home. 

We did really well. We qualified for RAAM. It took three days, fourteen hours, and we slept for about six hours throughout that period. The last day was by far, in a way, the best day. Everything just fell into place. The crew had gelled by that point and everything just clicked in. On that day I did 329 miles in 18 hours, with an average speed of 18mph and over 4,000 metres of climbing. It was good to finish on a high note.

Now we’ve got to start preparing for next year. We’ve come away with third and I’m still not happy. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not ‘I’m not happy’ in a bad way - I’m not disappointed with the crew, anyone who was there or what we did. We learned what we needed to learn and we can implement those changes for next year so we don’t make those mistakes again.”

How did you train for the race?

“I didn’t get to use the Wattbike as much towards the end as I was moving house. I have a Wattbike Atom on the way and I’m really looking forward to that arriving because I really missed it.
What people generally use the Wattbike for is sessions - power sessions, HIIT sessions, for example. I jump on the Wattbike and I get into a rhythm and I sit in the rhythm for as long as I can without getting off it. I don’t necessarily do power output sessions, although I do occasionally if I can’t get out. This year I went through a stage where I had just moved house, I had coughs and colds and I couldn’t get out. I was having to use my rollers and I can’t get proper sessions out of rollers, but with the Wattbike you can sit on it for as long as you can. For next year, I’ll have to work a lot harder on my tri position, so the Wattbike Atom is going to be very much set up in my time trial position and it will be a case of literally sitting on the Wattbike, in that position, doing as much as I can. My hardest challenge this year for training was not having my usual access to my Wattbike!”

How will your training differ for RAAM?

“I think it’ll mostly be a case of doing much longer rides than I was able to get in this year. If you’re doing London to Paris, for example, you might think: ‘I’m doing 300 miles over three days, so I need to be able to ride 300 miles.’ No, you don’t. What you need to be able to do is to ride 40 to 50 miles without stopping, and you need to increase your recovery time. So your overall fitness needs to be good, but at the same time, you need to be able to recover quickly and maintain that 40 to 50 miles. Race Across America is quite similar in some respects, but we’re doing 3,000 miles, and we aim to do that within an eight-day period. So my rides as a whole need to increase in terms of time on the bike, my intensity needs to increase on my shorter rides and my recovery time needs to become better, so if I do take time off the bike, my heart rate continues to drop quickly. 

What advice do you have for people looking to take on a long-distance ride?

We’re far more capable of doing long rides than we sometimes think. We have these mental barriers, whether that's a 60-mile ride or a 100-mile ride. If you’re looking to do rides and increase your mileage, have a really big goal. Make your goal as big as you can possibly make it - almost audacious. Most importantly, be truly honest with yourself regarding where you are now. Secondly, be very logical about the steps you want to take and the timeframe you think it’s going to take you to get to your goal. By putting those in place it becomes much more achievable. 

For example, if you want to do a 150-mile ride and you’re at 50, you want to be working on a 60-mile ride. I don’t just mean doing a 60-mile ride, I mean doing a few weeks where you’re completely comfortable doing that, and then going to a 70, then to an 80, and so on, doing those rides more and more and building them up gradually. Don’t just ride them on your own. Think about doing some sportives because ultimately that’s far easier than doing it on your own, and then doing it on your own becomes easier. Once you’ve got that mileage in your legs don’t be afraid to step back every now and again, and increase the intensity on the shorter rides. 

Be very logical in how you plan your routes. Think about where you’re riding, use petrol stations and village shops so that there is always food and places where you can stop and rest. It’s always easier to do a point to point ride than a loop ride. On a loop ride, there is always a turn that’ll take you home quicker. If you’re not feeling great you’ll find it easier to pop home, but actually what you find is that if you keep going through that tough time and you come out the other end of it you feel quite good. “

All photos by Joolze Dymond Photography

Find out more about James’ incredible story by watching his Wattbikers video or, if you’re feeling inspired,  find out more about training for multiday rides.