Dutch former pro rider Erik Dekker was a house-hold name in his grand tour racing days. More recently, Erik has been a two-time winner of the Al Adaid Desert Challenge and here he shares his tips for success… the podium or maximum enjoyment, whatever your challenge.
The body or the bike: what is more important? The one cannot do without the other. The bike is very important. It can make a difference. What is your goal? To compete or to complete (which can be a bigger challenge). Riding in the Al Adaid Desert is not really mountain bike terrain. So a full suspension bike is not needed. If you have a suspension lock-out on your bike, you should use it. My advice is to have no suspension. Gears: If tailwind: A good trained athlete can use 44 in front and a 11-34 cassette (or 10-42 SRAM cassette). If you are a bit less fit, a normal mountain bike cassette is good enough. 11-46. A normal chainring like 32-34 or 36 is fine too. Your position on the bike can be a lot more aero – stem as low as possible and 2-3 cm longer would save a lot of energy on the bike. Try if this position is ok for you! For Fatbikes it is the same advice!
Riding as fast as you can through the dessert with regular mountain bike tyres is possible off course. But you go slower and that is not what you want! Each year, I see that my biggest competitors do not have the right tyres and I am pretty convinced that I can beat them. Maybe they are stronger, but the tyres make the difference. 100%! Why? You do not need grip. The more grip you have, the more you dig yourself in. So, I recommend Schwalbe G-one Speed Evolution 2.35 inch or the Vittoria Tattoo Light 2.30 inch. The wider the tyre is, the better. That is also why you ride with low tyre pressure – it makes the tyre even bigger on the sand. I am 76 kg and my tyre pressure will be: 0.9 bar in front and 1.0 bar on the back. If you are lighter or heavier you need to adjust that accordingly. Tubeless tires allow you to ride low pressures without the risk of punctures on the rocky and hard parts. You cannot ride low pressures on traditional tubed tires.
My Al Adaid race time is around 1 hour 10 minutes. I took two bananas for the race and ate only one. Most of competitors are on the course much longer; then you need more energy as well. A good breakfast is important. Try to eat two hours before the race. For a two to three hour race you need about 2000-3000 calories. Take a good breakfast, avoiding fat as much as possible. Carbohydrates are the fuel you need! Carry some sport nutrition or bananas during the race. Eat before you feel hungry. Drinking is important as well. Bring two bottles. During the race you can get water at each dune. Water is ok, but isotonic sports drinks are better. That will be absorbed by your body much faster.
Course reconnaissance and practice
Preparation is everything! I discussed training, bike and tyres already but knowing what is coming is very important too. Last year I did the recon. with my wife supporting me with her on a rented quad bike. I learned how the desert was feeling and what the dunes are like, so I knew what to expect.
The desert is not all sand! Some parts are flat, hard and fast, in other parts the ground is stoney or bumpy. Not even every dune is the same. Some are short and steep on both sides. Others are higher, perhaps with a long tail leading off the top. Knowing where to push and where to save energy can make a big difference.
Riding the soft sand takes some practice. As for any downhill you must keep your weight over the back wheel but here it is even more important to avoid digging the front into the sand. You cannot be cautious because braking can also dig you in but be ready to let your arms and legs absorb the shock when you reach the bottom.
Being prepared also means that you can help yourself in the middle of the desert if there is a mechanical problem. For a flat tyre where the latex sealant does not close the hole, then you can use the ‘Samurai Sword’ to insert a plug – a kind of rope that you put in to the hole. It is easy to take with you and some are designed to be inserted at the end of your handlebar. If that does not help you, you’ll need a spare inner tube. Bring also a small pump and/or a CO2 tyre inflator cartridge. That’s the quickest way to re-inflate and it is much smaller than even a mini-pump.
A multitool is the last thing to bring with you during the race. The best thing is to stay out of trouble of course, but now you are prepared in case of a mechanical.
Riding in the desert is difficult, the main reason being the wind. It is important to be as aerodynamic as possible. Position on the bike, I discussed in an earlier tip. Clothing is important as well. A skin suit is the fastest. Why? It is designed to be aero, being really tight on the body. If you do not have a skin suit, try to wear good fitting clothing. An aero helmet will help you as well but maybe you’ll find it too warm in the desert. A normal helmet is a good option. It can be a bit chilly in the morning at the early start but do not worry, you will be warm in a minute. So, no arm warmers leg warmers or gillet. Race bib shorts and jersey is perfect. Wear gloves! Better grip and protect your hands in case of a crash.
Start as fast as you can and be at the finish as early as possible is one tactic – but not the best one! Because the air resistance is an important factor in this race, use other competitors to sit behind or work together. Riding in a group will save you a lot of energy. Energy you will need at the dunes! If you are able to ride in a group, it can save you 10-20 minutes on a 2-3 hours ride. If you want to be the first at the finish out of your group? Save energy and wait for the last dune and attack there. Try to avoid riding alone. It will “kill” you!
Eating and drink when others are doing that. That saves energy too because the speed drops a bit.