“It definitely feels like you’re alone in the world, because it doesn’t look like anything we know. It feels very remote and lonely. It’s also a little harsh and dangerous. You’re in a wilderness and you’re always ready because you know that if something happens, you’re screwed.”
Badlands are a type of dry land where softer rocks and clay-rich soils have been heavily eroded. They are characterized by steep slopes, minimal vegetation and dry air. Geological forms such as ravines and ravines are common in badlands. In Spain, the badlands are found in the Gorafe and Tabernas deserts in Almeria. They can be threatening and dangerous places for cyclists.
Martijn van Strien (known to many of his online followers as Fernwee) is someone who has never been afraid to venture into the unknown and push himself to the limit. That’s why he and two friends entered the ‘Badlands’, an ultra race of 750 km with 15,000 m of elevation gain, through some of the most remote and challenging terrain in Europe. The event borders the impressive forests of the Serra de Huétor, the deserts of Gorafe and Tabernas, the wild coasts of Cap de Gata and the steep climbs of the Alpujarra. It also culminates the highest paved road in Europe, Pico Veleta. Van Strien first completed the event in 2021 and did it bigger and better again this year.
“It was the three of us trying to get the best out of ourselves and figure out how we respond to something like this,” Van Strien says. “It’s the most interesting thing to put yourself in a situation that you can’t really prepare for or you can imagine what it’s going to be like.
“For all of us, it is the ultimate adventure. We’ve all raced on the road before, either fixed gear or regular road racing, so we’ve had that kind of competitive spirit,” he says. “The only way to get that competition and still be super adventurous where you really you don’t know where you’re going to be tonight or tomorrow, or what’s going to happen, it’s in this kind of racing. So it’s a perfect fit.”
For many, just finishing this brutal route in harsh, hot conditions is an achievement in itself, but Van Strien entered the race this year with higher ambitions. I wanted to finish in the top 10 and I believed it was possible. “In my mind, I thought the only way, or the best way, to achieve this result was to not sleep at all during the event. I forced myself not to sleep without wearing sleeping stuff. Which ended up It’s the worst decision I could have made.”
Decisions and calculations about kit choice, feeding strategies and sleep times are a crucial part of any rider’s preparation for an ultra event like the Badlands. A driver can be the strongest person in the race, but if they are sleep-deprived and low on energy, it will ruin their chances of a result.
“You plan ahead. You have to figure out where you can get water because there were stretches of almost 100 kilometers where you couldn’t get water,” explains Van Strien. “On a normal trip, that doesn’t sound too bad, but 100 kilometers it can take almost 16 hours to roll over the terrain there and if you don’t have water for 16 hours, then you’re not going to have a good time.”
Van Strien feels he is improving in terms of bike setup and gear options. “It still doesn’t feel like we’re at the top of our game,” he says. “We are expanding, experimenting all the time. We don’t have a dialed-in setup that we think, “Okay, that’s it, I know this is the right tire.” It’s about trying to make things work, and if not, we’ll do better next time.”
Van Strien’s forays into ultra-racing constantly push his equipment to the limit. This makes it the perfect tester for the latest innovations in cycling technology, able to Review whether products can go the distance over crazy terrain. He’s backed by tech company Hammerhead and used the brand’s Karoo 2 head unit in the Badlands. With its mapping and navigation features to guide you through tricky landscapes and intuitive software to help you keep up with your metrics, the Karoo 2 was one of the most important parts of Van’s team streak
“The screen is the best screen you can find here, which helps you in the dark and in the day when there is bright sun; it is very clear and easy to use”, explains Van Strien. He notes that he and his teammates constantly give feedback to Hammerhead’s developers and technicians: “They’re interested in our experience with this. Seeing us push products to the limit helps make the next generation even better.” Choosing gear is one thing, but being physically prepared for an event like Badlands is another.
In 2022, event winner Sebastian Breuer completed the 750 kilometer distance in 43 hours and 40 minutes, but for most competitors, it can take close to 100 hours or more. When I ask Netherlands-based Van Strien how he trained in the Badlands, his answer surprises me.
“We don’t really train, we just ride a lot. So we do a lot of big rides, but only because we enjoy these big attractions. We never go alone with headphones and ride 200 kilometers because we feel we have to in order to ride Badlands,” he says.
“What attracts us are great adventures. We’ll take our things and ride to Belgium and sleep there in the cabin, and ride back the next day. It’s what we enjoy. The adventures we experience throughout the year are the preparation we do for the Badlands. It’s things like just knowing your gear, knowing how to set up a tent, knowing your bike if you’re stuck somewhere and then you have to fix it.”
As Van Strien tells me about the difficulties he faced in Badlands, it’s clear that he had to draw on all of his previous experience to give him the strength to complete the event. After starting the race with his lofty ambition of finishing in the top 10, the Dutch athlete was forced to overcome disappointment: on the opening day, it became clear that this was not going to be possible.
“My goal was to be much faster than last time and not make the mistakes we made, because I felt we stopped too much. I didn’t really want to stop this time, I wanted to ride for 60 hours and be done with it, but in the end it took me more than 100 hours, so it didn’t work,” he says.
So what went wrong?
“I came out too strong the first day,” says Van Strien. “After 150 kilometers, I went up four hours with last year’s schedule, but after 20 hours, I couldn’t go any more. I had to walk, even if the road is enchanted only by two or three percent, because I was very nauseous.
“The whole first day I was pushing and it felt good, but I wasn’t really eating because I was pushing a little too hard. I should have known after five hours that I wasn’t going to be able to take this, but I just thought maybe it will work.” After hour 20 in Van Strien’s Karoo 2, things started to get worse. “I cried a little and tried to sleep for two hours on the floor,” he explains. After making the decision not to bring any sleeping gear with him, Van Strien was left lying in his Lycra on the cold, hard desert ground, making it nearly impossible for him to sleep. It was a change in mindset that helped him rediscover the motivation to keep going.
“I thought, what am I going to do? Am I going to scratch and quit the race and go home? Or am I going to try to recover a little bit and at least finish? he says. “I flipped the switch and decided: I’m going to take three days to finish the rest of the route and I’m going to enjoy it. And that’s what I did. I really enjoyed the next three days and felt better every day on the bike.
“You don’t have a choice either,” he adds. “Because no one will pick you up on the side of the road. You have to get on your bike and ride in one direction. Somehow you find yourself again. When you do that, it’s good.”
For Van Strien and the two other riders who are part of his ‘Ride Beyond Crew’ who completed the Badlands, showing the hard parts of the experience to their fans was of great importance. The group produced an hour-long film documenting their experiences in Spain, and they weren’t afraid to show the raw, honest emotion that comes with completing an ultra event.
“I was filming myself during the race and I just needed to capture the tough moments,” Van Strien says. “I want the films we make to be as raw as possible. Since I’m usually the one holding the camera, I always tell others: I’ll film everything. If you break down, if you’re crying, throwing up, if you break your leg, I’ll film it. Don’t bother me saying I can’t film it because I will, but then you can tell me if it’s okay to put it on video”.
As well as filming on GoPros throughout the event, the Ride Beyond Crew also had a videographer on a motorbike after the race, who himself rode 2,500 kilometers to capture the team at various points along the route . As part of the Badlands media rules, the videographer was not allowed to talk to the riders competing.
“If you really want to have the ultra-street and self-sufficient spirit, then you don’t want a camera crew with you because it affects your mood,” says Van Strien.
The Dutchman explains that he believes that other sports films can mask the darkest moments that drivers go through when completing great challenges, and this is a gap that he wants to fill with his documentaries.
“I want it to be super raw and emotional. This isn’t an ad for the Badlands race, but then again, I want our movies to have the best photography and the best images of the beautiful places we go through, so which seems like an advertisement for cycling in general, of what cycling can bring to a person,” explains Van Strien. After the ups and downs of what happened, and not being able to complete the goal he set himself of finishing the Badlands in the top 10, will Van Strien return to the brutal dirt tracks of Almeria in 2023?
“We’re not going back to this particular race, because one of the biggest things for us is that there’s no telling where we’re going,” says Van Strien. He and the Ride Beyond crew are adventurers at heart, driven by new challenges, loading new routes into their Hammerheads and following the map into the unknown.
“We have four of these types of races on our tentative schedule for next year. One in Peru, one in the Pyrenees and others in many different places,” says Van Strien. “After doing Badlands, I now know one hundred percent that this type of ultra racing is for me. But there’s so much to explore that I don’t think I’ll ever do the same race twice.”