Cycling, Ride Reports

The Unknown Race

Last month I rode the second edition of The Unknown Race.

It’s an unusual race in that you don’t know where you’re going until right before you have to go there. The coordinates of CP1 are announced an hour before the 7am start, and when you get to CP1 you’ll find the coordinates of CP2, and so on. All I knew about the race beforehand was that it started in Vienna, finished in Vienna, was about 1000 km, and had 3-5 control points.

On the one hand it was quite daunting to have to plot a route on the spot on a phone, but on the other this meant there was very little to be done in advance. Just turn up and improvise. I had no idea whether we’d be going north into Czechia, southwest into the Alps, southeast into Hungary…

A map of my route in The Unknown Race

So CP1 was announced via WhatsApp at 6am on Thursday morning:

I’d set my alarm for 05:40am, though it hadn’t been necessary – I’d woken up pretty much every hour through the night, frantically checking the phone to see if it was time to go. Always good to start a 1000 km race already sleep deprived. Either way, I was already dressed and ready to go when the message came in. Pasting the coordinates into Komoot I saw that this was up a mountain in the Alps – right where the coldest, wettest weather was expected for the next few days. Cool!

Normally I plot my routes in Komoot on my laptop, in a web browser, where it’s easy to experiment with different routes to find the best compromise of distance and climbing. I like to take my time here (read: months), so doing it on a tiny phone screen under time pressure was out of my comfort zone. I had to remind myself that this was precisely why I’d entered the race in the first place. I hastily plotted a route to CP1 and tried out a few different trajectories from Vienna, then went to clean my teeth, pack everything up one last time, and I was on the bike and heading for the start at Star Bike.

Day 1: To CP1

The first half of the day was fine, by which I mean the weather was good. The race started with a 20 km neutralised group ride out of town – much appreciated, as racing out of a capital city at rush hour would’ve sucked. The going was easy for the first few hours with sun and not too many hills, but the rain started – as we all knew it would – at around midday as we headed into the mountains. I’d optimistically started with my overshoes, winter gloves, and rain jacket all packed away until I needed them, which turned out to be just 5 hours into the race. I wouldn’t take them off again until finishing in Vienna two days later.

The rain had set in and it promptly turned into sleet and then snow as the road climbed up to about 800 m. It was only 2pm and I was already pretty cold – how much worse was it going to get? The mountains around me were getting higher the closer I got to CP1, and for all I knew the route could be taking us up mountains and into snowstorms, and I didn’t have many more layers I could put on.

I was lucky to reach CP1 in slightly better conditions – the weather having dried up a bit. Others weren’t so lucky, but more on that in a bit. I knew I’d been somewhere in the middle of the field earlier in the day, with everyone going fairly fast at the beginning of the race. I knew that my pace was at the limit of what was sustainable to me, and so I let people go if they seemed to be going too fast. No point in chasing anyone – I know my capabilities and I know not to exceed them.

Still, I didn’t like the thought of loads of people being ahead of me. I’d been deliberately avoiding looking at the map, preferring to ride in ignorance. But CP1 was an hour-long climb up a mountain, from which the only return was back the same way. So I knew that I’d be passing whoever was ahead of me in the race. 9 people, as it happened. I didn’t want to know, but there was no avoiding it. Oh well. Having found the CP2 coordinates stuck furtively to the back of a road sign, I went straight back down and passed all the people who were behind me.

I hadn’t bothered plotting a route at the top of the climb, partly because there was no signal there, and partly because I didn’t want to lose my body heat before descending. I knew I had to go back down into the valley, so I figured I could do it while resupplying there in the town of Liezen. I stocked up on raisin rolls, cheese rolls, and a few other goodies (enough to get me through the night and into the following afternoon) and spent 5 minutes or so on Komoot looking for a sensible route to CP2. This turned out to be on a mountain in Slovenia, 300 km to the south, which meant exactly what I had feared: going right through the mountains.

The route that Komoot gave me by default took me west out of Liezen and over Sölkpass, but I tried out a few other options. I found that heading east instead would take me over a lower pass (Hohentauern), and shave off ~600 m of climbing while adding only around 5 km in distance. That would save me around 45 minutes; a no-brainer. And this decision would turn out to be decisive in the outcome of my race.

The blue arrow is where Komoot wanted me to go. The purple line is where I actually went.

Some people tried to go over Sölkpass, only to discover that it was closed due to heavy snowfall – presumably the same snowfall that made it necessary for the organiser to later cancel CP1 altogether. I didn’t manage to avoid the snow, either, but I was lucky that the route I’d chosen was not so high as to be impassable – although it was getting that way when I crested the pass of Hohentauern.

Snow sets in on the climb up to Hohentauern, after CP1

It’d started raining down in the valley and as I climbed, the sky grew darker and the rain became snow. By time I reached the top it was a full-on snow storm. Climbing in the snow is fine, because you’re generating plenty of heat and going slowly enough that there’s no risk of crashing. But descending is a different matter. I knew that I had two options at the top:

  1. Stop, find shelter, and wait the storm out
  2. Get down the mountain and out of the snow

Option 1 would cost me hours, and who knew how the situation would develop? Option 2 was risky given the conditions, but I knew that I just had to get down below the snow line and then I’d be OK. That would hopefully not take more than about 15 minutes of descending, judging from conditions on the climb. Keeping my body heat for the descent was essential, so I knew that I couldn’t afford to stop to consider these options. I had to make a snap decision, so I kept going over the pass and down the other side.

Conditions became hairy as I started the descent. It was totally dark and the thick snow made for extremely poor visibility. Snow was starting to settle in patches on the road, and I had to be very careful navigating around them on the corners. I punched both of my lights up to full power to get the best view I could. To top it off, ice was starting to form on all of the forward-facing surfaces on both me and the bike – including my glasses.

Having to continuously wipe snow and ice from my glasses while descending in such conditions is not an experience I’m keen to repeat. But after maybe 15 minutes of this, to my great relief, the snow turned into rain, and then stopped altogether as I reached the valley floor. Dry roads, thank goodness.

Meanwhile, back on the other side of the mountain at CP1, shit was getting real. The conditions were just as bad up the mountain at CP1 itself, only the road up there was much narrower, steeper, and rougher than the pass I’d just traversed. It was decided to cancel CP1 to avoid having riders putting themselves in danger in such conditions, and a lot of people ended up taking refuge in Liezen, the town below, crowding out Kebab shops and checking into hotels for shelter, where they had to share the last few available rooms.

The snow setting in on my way up to Hohentauern

Day 2: dry, but I’m still cold

I’m splitting the narrative into days, even though I didn’t actually sleep – it was just one continuous experience. But maybe it makes it easier to read 🤷 I kept going through the night with the moon to keep me company. I could see the outlines of the hills around me, and that they were no longer fully-grown mountains, but otherwise the night went by uneventfully. Night riding is often like that: the many hours that you spend pedalling are reduced to the one or two things that your memory actually retains. I went along a lot of quiet roads that looked like they would carry much more traffic in daytime (and indeed they did), but I don’t remember the specifics.

I didn’t see any other riders on the road before reaching CP2, so I was blissfully ignorant of my position in the field. But CP2 presented the same problem as CP1: another up-and-down job. I started the climb in anticipation of meeting another rider on their way down from the top. It was a long climb, an hour or so, so plenty of time to come to face-to-face with my adversaries. On each turn I expected to see someone rounding the corner up ahead. But there was no one. What did that mean for my position? I reached the top, found the coordinates of CP3, and immediately turned around. Surely I’d meet someone on the way back down, behind me? No, still no one in the 20 minutes it took me to get back down.

The view at CP2: Tolminske Ravne
The view at CP2: Tolminske Ravne
Descending from CP2 into the morning mist
Descending from CP2 into the morning mist

I reached the town at the base of the climb and pondered my circumstances while plotting a route to the top of a mountain/hill somewhere back in Austria. Anyone ahead of me had to have a lead of more than an hour, and I had to be just as far ahead of anyone behind me. Could I possibly be in the lead? Better not find out. Ignorance is bliss.

The quickest route to CP3 seemed, unfortunately, to be directly back the way I’d come, over Predil Pass. I’d have to retrace my steps pedal strokes through about 200 km of the route I’d ridden overnight, so even if I hadn’t seen anyone yet, I certainly would do. But for the next 20 km or so, I’d chosen a smaller rural road on the other side of the valley from the main road I’d come in on, just to see something different. So I still didn’t see anyone for another hour, when I rejoined the main road.

Going back up Predil Pass, I saw lots of confused faces as people hurtled past me on their descent to CP2, clearly wondering why someone was going back the other way. The rest of the day was covering the same roads as I’d ridden the night before, but this time in the middle of a Friday. The roads that had been quiet the night before were super busy now and I didn’t have any fun at all for most of the day.

On the bright side, I did manage to take my rain jacket and winter gloves off for just an hour or two. I don’t think it ever got above 10°C for the whole race, and this window of sunshine was the one time I was able to feel anything but freezing cold. It didn’t last, of course, and after an hour or two, with the light fading, I had to switch back into winter mode 🥶

Me enjoying my one moment without a rain jacket

Day 3: the last CP

No one knew in advance how many control points there would be – the manual just stated “between 3 and 5”, and that the route would be around 1000 km, depending on the route taken between CPs.

My route had me arriving at CP3 having done about 890 km, and of course I’d already tried plotting the most direct route from CP3 back to Vienna. That happened to be 170 km (including the finish parcours), putting the total distance at 1060 km, so this was pretty likely to be the last control point of the race. I spent some time (while pedalling, of course) optimising the route back to Vienna, so that I could continue immediately on reaching CP3.

I’d be arriving at CP3 around 9pm, so another 170 km would have me finishing around 4-5am. Still dark, so I’d be able to sleep for a while and then perhaps wake up later in the morning to get some brunch in me. My apartment was already available for self-check-in with a key box, so my bed was ready and waiting. I had it all planned out.

I arrived at the control point with these fantasies of sleep and proper food in just a few short hours running around my head. I spotted a shifty-looking figure suspiciously like Jan-Willem lurking in the dark next to a car. We had a chat about the race, and I went over to the piece of paper stuck on a sign… to find the coordinates of CP4.

Me finding the CP4 coordinates at CP3

I was devastated.

I put on a brave face in front of Jan-Willem as I opened up Komoot, seeing that I’d be heading through Hungary to the shores of a lake some 70 km south of Vienna, and the unexpected detour would add almost 100 km to my route. This was a hard pill to swallow, especially as I was preparing for my second all-nighter in a row, which I knew was going to take all my resolve to get through without stopping.

But there was no point complaining while standing around – it’s more efficient to do that while riding. As was routine by now, I spent a couple of minutes sketching a rough route to CP4 – just enough to know which direction to ride in – and then got back on my bike. I continued to refine the route on the move (while trying not to crash).

How I looked arriving at CP3
How I felt arriving at CP3

Up until this point, the only information I’d had about my position in the race was from how many people I passed (or didn’t pass) on the way up and down the climbs to CP1 and CP2.

I’d formed the idea in my head that I might be in the lead, simply from not having seen anyone else on the CP2 climb, but this was just a fancy. I didn’t really know, and the uncertainty and paranoia that there might be people ahead of me or closing behind me kept me going as fast as I could. Every traffic light I got stuck at had me worried that someone would roll up behind me.

But Jan-Willem had dispelled this inner story-telling of mine in an instant when he’d told me I had a lead of several hours over the next rider back, Lucas Becker. All of a sudden it didn’t seem as important if I stopped for a few minutes to get some Maltesers out of my front bag, or just slowed down a little bit because it was all such hard work. I got a tiny bit complacent.

To be fair to myself, I was already tired and finding it hard to keep my power up. By the early hours of the morning, the second all-nighter in a row was taking its toll. I’d made it through to about 2am before starting to feel dangerously tired. I could feel myself falling asleep on the descents, so decided I needed a quick power nap after all and stopped at a bus shelter. I knocked back a “pre-workout” gel I’d taken for emergencies, which contained 200 mg of caffeine and a cocktail of other chemicals, then set my timer for 7 minutes and sat down on the bench. 7 minutes later, I somehow hadn’t managed to actually fall asleep properly, and decided to give up the attempt.

The gel managed to keep me lucid for the rest of the night, and with the sun up and CP4 dealt with it was just a matter of keeping the legs turning until reaching Vienna. I was running on fumes and these last few hours were agonising. On day one I’d been pushing about 200 watts for most of the day, but by this point even 150 felt ambitious. Even though I knew I’d been in the lead, I still hadn’t looked at the map at all for the whole race. My only data point was that at 9pm last night I had a lead of a few hours, but things can change. I was conjuring up images of Lucas gaining on me, which was enough to keep me pedalling as hard as I could (which wasn’t very hard at all).

But it was OK in the end. Fast forward a few hours and I was limping along on the finishing parcours, arriving just in time to get soaked in a heavy rain shower. I arrived at Star Bike at 9am and that was that. I was utterly exhausted, but I’d won.

The aftermath

This was my first “real” race win. I’d finished first in Bikepacking Around Norway 3 years earlier, but that had felt different because (a) only 8 people had started and (b) it didn’t have “race” in its name.

This event definitely was a race, and the competition this time was stiff. I’ve ridden big-ticket races like the TCR, and done pretty well, but actually winning a race was a new experience for me. At the finishers’ party on Sunday, people kept saying how amazing my performance was, but I had a hard time accepting it. Going so fast, with no sleep in such terrible conditions, how did I do it!? To me bad weather isn’t really relevant; if anything it’s extra motivation to get to the finish faster. My inner critic was telling me there was so much I could (should?) have done better… Stopping less, not making routing mistakes, not stopping for a (failed) power nap, not keeping the pressure up for the last few hours…

I struggled to make space for this new feeling of accomplishment that was detached from my usual metrics of success (power output, stopping time, etc.). In a normal training ride, no matter how strong my performance, it’s never really good enough, so having a result as simple as “you won” was a new experience for me.

My relating my experiences at the finishers' party of The Unknown Race
And the pastry I plan to eat to celebrate my win will be roughly this long
Image credit:


My biggest learning (or re-learning) from this race was that I perform at my best when I don’t know where I am in the field. After CP3, where Jan-Willem had told me I had a lead of several hours over Lucas, my motivation dropped. I knew that there was no one on my heels and so it didn’t matter if I slowed down a bit, stopped here and there to fiddle with my clothes, eat something off the bike, fix my hair, or whatever.

Knowing there’s someone just behind me (or just ahead) can still be good motivation, but it can also compromise pacing or decision-making, so that sometimes I don’t stop when it would actually be sensible, or I perhaps let my power output drift up just above what’s sustainable.

But mood management in ultra racing is a delicate business, and while a small gap can be the pressure you need to push harder and perform at your best (with all the caveats), it can go the other way too. A big gap, in either direction, can make you (or me, at least) complacent or resigned. You might give up trying to catch the person ahead of you, or just get lazy if you think your pursuer is too far back to pose a threat. (Actually, lazy is not the right word. Ultra-racing is hard, and when you’re tired, cold, and hurting everywhere, you need great discipline to keep yourself on the limit.)

When I don’t know where my competition is, my imagination fills the gaps. I convince myself that there’s someone just up or down the road, and that every minute counts. A few hours before reaching CP3 on day 2, I’d decided beyond reasonable doubt that there must be someone on my tail, and that I had to keep going as fast as I could. I knew I’d need extra caffeine to get me through the night and decided to divert to a petrol station to pick up a bottle of pre-mixed chilled coffee. Only they didn’t have any. I went straight back out to my bike and immediately got stuck at a traffic light. I raged at the wasted time, expecting to see someone right behind me. The whole episode had only taken a couple of minutes, but such is the pressure that I put on myself that it felt like it could be the difference between winning or not. In the end I needn’t’ve worried so much, but if I hadn’t, well, I wouldn’t’ve performed so strongly.

My kit


This was the bit I was fretting most about beforehand. Indeed, the only thing I could fret about, given that I didn’t know the route. The weather could’ve been good enough for knee warmers, midseason gloves, and no rain jacket if we’d gone in the other direction toward Slovakia, so it wasn’t obvious what would be the right choice. Given that it could (and indeed did) turn out to be very cold indeed, I decided the only sensible thing was to layer up in a modular fashion so that I could adjust as needed. For example, short sleeve jersey and arm warmers, rather than winter jersey; knee warmers and leg warmers rather than winter tights, etc. But I ended up wishing I’d just worn full-on winter gear.


My plan from the outset was not to sleep, so I didn’t bring any sleeping gear at all. I figured that I’d be able to take a power nap if necessary, and a down jacket should be enough to keep me warm for 10 minutes.


I try to maximise my food carrying capacity, and a musette is my go-to piece of kit here. I like it because:

  • It’s easy to stuff food into it without arranging it carefully
  • It doubles as a shopping bag
  • You can swing it round to the front to access while riding
  • It can sit on top of already-full jersey pockets
  • It doesn’t cover your back as much as a backpack or vest does, so it keeps you cooler (admittedly not much of an advantage on this ride)
  • The Apidura one I use packs down into a bag not much bigger than a golf ball

On the bike itself, I used a Restrap Race frame bag and top tube bag, 4.2 and 2 litres respectively. These were mostly filled with food, too, giving me enough total capacity for almost a day on the bike before needing a resupply.


I had to bring my work phone with me on this race. My personal phone is on its last legs and struggles to get data reception pretty much anywhere outside of Germany, as I discovered when I arrived in Austria. Normally it wouldn’t be a big deal, but on a race like this… So I brought my work phone, switched on the mobile hotspot, and kept it sitting in my frame bag the whole time. Whenever I needed to plot or adjust a route, I WiFi-tethered my personal phone to it. Stupid, but it worked.

But the real star of this show was my new Igaro C1 light. I’ve been hunting for a reliable dynamo-powered USB charging solution for ages, and this is so far the best I’ve found. It’s controlled by an app over Bluetooth and can be pre-configured to behave how you want it to while you’re on the bike. It has two USB-C outputs, which I use to charge my bike computer, phone, Di2 battery, and battery pack. It can deliver up to 6-7 W of power at 30 km/h, which is quite a bit. Almost too much for racing, in fact, so it’s good that you can configure it to provide less power if you want to. The configuration options are a bit bewildering, though, and it takes a while to figure out how to dial the light in – particularly as you can only test it out while actually riding.

The light itself is very bright and has a good beam pattern for road use. But the most impressive thing for me was the support I got when I (perhaps foolishly) applied a firmware update the day before the race, which broke the USB charging function. I sent an email off in a bit of a panic, thinking I’d just wrecked my race plan, but within an hour or two they’d sent me a firmware update that reverted the issue, and I was back in business. Really excellent service.

Full kit list


  • Phone
  • Second phone (because my normal one was having internet issues)
  • Igaro C1 front light
  • SON rear light
  • SON28 dynamo hub
  • Wahoo BOLT V2
  • Di2 charger
  • Battery pack
  • 2 x USB-C cables
  • Exposure lights (Strada & TraceR)
  • Earphones (didn’t use)


  • Apidura packable musette
  • 3 750 ml bottles (just water)
  • Restrap Race aero bar bag
  • Restrap Race frame bag
  • Restrap Race top tube bag

Bits & bobs

  • Folding toothbrush, floss, toothpaste – had to bring this with me as I needed to use it on the morning of the race, after I’d already dropped my bags off at a lock-up
  • Antihistamines
  • Sun cream & SPF lip balm
  • Emergency bivy
  • Reflective strap
  • Photochromic sunglasses
  • Wallet
  • Tissues
  • Chammy cream (forgot to use it 🤦)

Tools & spares:

  • Dynaplugs
  • 2 spare tubes
  • Multitool
  • Spare chainlink
  • Silca Synergetic lube
  • Tyre levers
  • Patch kit
  • Tyre boot kit


  • Arm warmers
  • Cargo bib shorts
  • Leg warmers
  • Down jacket (used once, but not really needed)
  • Shakedry jacket (essential)
  • Winter gloves (essential)
  • Midseason gloves
  • Buff
  • Head band
  • Cap
  • Overshoes
  • Gilet
  • Woollen baselayer (never took it off; thank goodness I brought it – thanks, Miranda 💜)

Things I meant to bring but forgot

  • Zip-lock bags
  • Electrical tape
  • Cable ties

My route

You can find it on Komoot here:

And on Strava here:

Other perspectives on the race


3 thoughts on “The Unknown Race

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *