Unsupported vs. supported ultra-distance bike races

I recently added a subsection to the page on Other Ultra-Distance Races that contrasts unsupported and supported ultra-distance bike races and includes the reasons why the Ride Far website focuses on self-supported/unsupported races in which support cars and all other forms of organized support are prohibited. I’m interested to hear the views of the readers of this website on this topic, so let me know in the comments if you agree or disagree and why.

This website’s focus on unsupported bike races is mainly due to cars being quite unnecessary in most people’s everyday lives and the world would be a better place if people used them less – we would be healthier, the planet healthier, and cyclists safer. Cars are definitely not needed to assist someone who is riding a bike, even when they’re riding very far.

Considering the distances that unsupported cyclists can ride per day without a vehicle behind them, I cannot see why support vehicles are needed in ultra-distance cycling. The fact that riders with a support vehicle can stay on their bikes for a few hours extra per day (due to not needing to search for supplies, find somewhere to sleep, or do maintenance on their bike) and ride slightly faster due to carrying no extra equipment doesn’t make the racing any better to watch.

The effect that small decisions that are constantly being made by racers in unsupported races (about fueling, rest, navigation, etc.) have on the race outcome is one of the most fascinating aspects of these races. In supported races, the rider’s support team makes most of the decisions and so the differences between racers becomes more physical than mental (even though the mental aspect is still very important). For me, this makes supported races less interesting to follow than unsupported races.

Another reservation about supported races is that the cost of doing them is significantly higher than it is for unsupported races due to the support team and vehicle costs. Supported races are therefore more elitist and less inclusive than unsupported races. In unsupported races, it is possible to compete very competitively on an extremely limited budget (see the pages on Equipment Costs and Race & Training Costs).

Some people may try to argue that having a follow vehicle and support team makes ultra-distance cycling safer. However, as reported in a guide for RAAM support crews, support vehicles have hit their own racers on multiple occasions. In addition, the presence of support vehicles has not prevented two racers from being killed during RAAM and others seriously injured when hit by other vehicles (see RAAM’s Wikipedia page). Finally, having the perceived safety net of a support crew may make racers push their physical and mental limits further, thereby endangering themselves more than they would if the crew wasn’t there. There is therefore no evidence that having a support crew increases a cyclist’s safety.

Having support vehicles does make sense in relatively short, fast-action professional bike races on closed roads. In those situations, the style of racing may be very different without the support vehicles and the sport would probably not be as entertaining or financially viable. It’s only in ultra-distance racing where I see support vehicles as being unnecessary, and so Ride Far focuses on unsupported cycling. Let me know what you think below.

Juliana Buhring, who has competed in most of the major bikepacking races and chose to do RAAM in 2016, shared her thoughts on the differences between the two types of racing in the final two paragraphs of her race report. She says that she prefers unsupported races because she finds them to be more adventurous and prefers the solitude of being on her own. Other people find the loneliness of self-supported races difficult to handle, but for them many races now offer a pairs category.

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