Last week I completed arguably my hardest-ever cycling challenge, Badlands. Geared up as one of Europe’s wildest gravel races, Badlands tests riders over a 750km course, scorching heat, through tough terrain with long stretches with few options for resupply. This was my experience of the 2023 Badlands ultra race.
I’d be lying to you if I said I was taking this on for the adventure. I was heading to Badlands to race and I wanted to do well. I’d prepared myself for long stretches on the saddle, minimal stops, little sleep and, at times, suffering from the heat and dehydration.
As an event, Badlands attracts riders from all over the world with various ambitions on how to tackle this adventure. The time cut is five days, with some taking this on as a challenge to finish, others with a pure focus mind on racing. From speaking to other riders who had taken on Badlands before, it sounded like this year the organisers had really stepped it up when it came to the communications and organisation, and I have to say I was very impressed myself. Very detailed manuals, beautifully presented, and a host of pre-race rides to join in with.
2023 Badlands Bradley Shenton copyright @albertoviciana4.jpg, by @albertoviciana
I landed in Granada on the Wednesday before the race started on Sunday as I wanted to join the pre-race social rides on Thursday and Friday. As the week progressed, it was clear that the 2023 edition of Badlands was going to be one for the history books. Usually, all the pre-race chat is about kit and bike set-up (I’ll go through my kit at the end) but, this year, it was about the weather. Not the extreme heat that usually tests the riders, no. Instead, a storm was due to hit Granada and the surrounding areas for 24 hours following the race start.
Rumours started floating around about mandatory stops and shifting the start time, but ultimately the organisers made the right decision to change the course slightly, avoiding some potential flood-risk areas. A chunk of the first part of the course goes through the Gorafe desert, arguably one of the most iconic parts of Badlands but, when you mix flash floods and a desert, you get standing water and rivers. During our briefing the day before the start, we were shown videos of what that area of the course looks like when the rain hits. It’s safe to say we were never going near it with the rain incoming.
Being a Brit, used to riding in cool temperatures and rain, I actually welcomed the sight of high 20s and rain, over the usual high 30s and burning sun, I was actually quite excited to tackle this race with how things were shaping up.
Onto the race. I've split my race report into three parts because that’s how I remember it, and I feel best represents how the race went for not just myself but others, too.
Part 1 - Getting to Gor
It’s 7am and we’re waiting around at the plaza, looking up at the sky and anticipating the rainfall that is due. Most riders had decided to start with no rain jacket, but I took a bet and decided that the skies looked dark and the rain was coming, and stuck with the rain jacket.
We started at 8am, rolling out of central Granada with a police escort for the first four kilometres. Having listened to a few podcasts and speaking to other riders, I’d heard that the start of Badlands can go off pretty hard, so I tried as much as I could to move up during the neutralised section. As soon as the police pulled off, it was full gas, and straight away I knew the jacket needed to go. Overheating and overgeared, I struggled to hang on to the front pack up the first section but fortunately managed to get the jacket off without stopping and stuff it into the back of my Albion bibs.
The first section of Badlands is a 20km climb with 850m elevation, climbing through El Sacromonte. About 10km into the climb I find myself next to Rob Britton, eventual winner of Badlands, who turns to me and mutters ‘If this is the pace of the race, we’ll be laughing and on for an easy ride’. Hearing this gave me no confidence boost, as I was already struggling and hanging on with all my might.
2023 Badlands Bradley Shenton copyright @albertoviciana1.jpg, by @albertoviciana
At the top of the climb the front group had been selected, with about 10-15 riders, and the pace didn’t ease up as we entered the Sierra de Huétor Natural Park. Fortunately, the anticipated heavy rain was still staying at bay and visibility was great, so when I did get a chance to look up, I was blown away by the stunning scenery. I had to remind myself to try and enjoy this unique landscape and not get carried away chewing my stem just to try to hold on. The terrain really was beautiful with fast rolling gravel through the hills.
For all you number crunchers out there, I can’t share my power data as my power meter decided to pack it in the day before the race but my buddy Tristan (who placed one place in front of me at the end) was in the front pack with me at the start and mentioned that the first three hours were ridden at 4w/kg, for a 750km race. At hour three I decided to back it off and ride my own race.
Around 65km the route transitions from the forest to the desert, into the natural plain of La Hoya de Guadix. Not long after entering the plain, you hit The Mirador del Fin del Mundo, an iconic climb that has an average gradient of 15 per cent, ramping up to a maximum of 25 per cent. This is where I truly realised I had messed up with my gears, a 40T chainring with an 11-42T cassette on the back, my knees were in for a long and grindy few days.
I continued on and glanced every now and again back to appreciate the view. The next main point was the village of Gorafe. It was to be the last stop before a large loop, which would usually see riders take on the Gorafe Desert, but with the weather conditions as they were, and flooding likely, we were routed slightly differently and this year saw us take on more road than usual. I did find myself on a flat road section, head down next to Ulrich Bartholmoes, just as the heavens well and truly opened. A few of the Spanish riders in front of us took shelter until the shower had passed.
2023 Badlands Bradley Shenton copyright @albertoviciana7.jpg, by @albertoviciana
I was cruising just outside the top 10 with the village of Gor in my sights, about 50km away. I remember this part so vividly. I was riding solo, and the ‘climb’ section came up on my Wahoo, with the climb length stating ‘39km’. All I could do was laugh, literally out loud, at the sheer length of such a climb. I wasn’t used to that sort of number for a climb, I genuinely thought I would see myself arrive at Gor in no time, I guess that serves me right for going into an ultra race having done little research into the route. Will I ever learn? Probably not.
Starting on Sunday has its challenges, the main one being resupply during the evening. Fortunately, the event organisers had agreed with a cafe in Gor to open for 24 hours for the riders, which proved to be invaluable. Arriving in Gor was such a special moment and something I will cherish forever. Music is pumping, the village is out for support and Santiago is there with his trusty handycam to capture it all (I urge you to watch his Badlands video).
The village of Gor is where Badlands started to take its victims. Of the first front 12 riders that arrived in Gor, only six or so finished the race. The first 12 hours over that first 250km were hard racing, and it was a true turning point for me, too. I rushed into the cafe, but I didn’t take the time to sit down and have a proper meal, I was so focused on keeping my stop time down to a minimum, I just asked for a couple of bocadillos to go and got going as quickly as I could, that was a rookie error and something I learned the hard way.
Part 2: Day turns to night
2023 Badlands Bradley Shenton copyright @albertoviciana8.jpg, by @albertoviciana
As I head out of Gor, nightfall is approaching and the first night is inbound. The climb continues out of the village, however, but I’m still feeling positive and my body is feeling good. It wasn’t long before that changed though with temperatures dropping and the rain falling harder. I found myself stopping more, dropping back places, and mentally struggling with the fatigue.
The route continued up and into the mountains as we headed towards the Sierra de los Filabres. I really can’t say much about the view as it was genuinely pitch black, all I remember was the loneliness, in the middle of the forest, dark clouds with thunder and lightning above me.
One of the main points of interest during this middle section is the Calar Alto Observatory, sitting at the highest point on the route at 2,168m. The stark reality of racing ultra events was the most evident at this high point: I can’t remember passing it, and I certainly didn’t look out to see any sort of view.
During the night, and after 20 hours of straight riding with no sleep, I tried to have my first nap as I had found a smooth ledge and the rain had stopped. My diet up until this point had consisted of carb mix, sugar (lots of it), a host of baked goods, and a fair few gels. It wasn’t surprising then when I lay down, my HR was through the roof and there was no chance of me getting any kip. I lay still, looking at the sky, and decided after 10 minutes that enough was enough and I might as well just crack on as I wasn’t getting any sleep anyway.
2023 Badlands Bradley Shenton copyright @albertoviciana9.jpg, by @albertoviciana
With sunrise approaching, the first night was coming to an end and the first 24 hours were nearly complete, with no sleep and minimal stops. I was sitting in the top 20 but my body wasn’t enjoying it, and this was confirmed when I bumped into a buddy on the route, who took one look at me, and told me I needed a proper sit-down and some food.
Approaching early afternoon, and getting close to Almeria, the sun started to hit and I began to feel what the real Badlands should feel like. Hot. Dropping down onto the coast and making contact with that sea breeze was bliss at this time of day with the heat, and I was starting to fade. Riding through the seaside town of San Jose was the first time I thought about packing it in, seeing holidaygoers enjoying a crisp pint and an ice cream. I really did question myself and my choice to push my body for 30+ hours with no sleep, but I had the sights of Almeria in mind and a proper meal to get after. Little did I know, it wouldn’t be as easy as that, even if Almeria was only 30km away.
Because in that last 30km to Almeria, I hit the dreaded sand section. It was hot, really hot. And I thought it was going to be a flat and quick run into Almeria. Instead, I was faced with unrideable (for me) sand sections, tracks filled with large puddles to navigate, and headwinds to keep pushing me back. This was another very, very low point for me. Again I was questioning why I was doing this but I had one thought: some proper food that would sort me out.
What I thought would take me about 1.5 hours took 3.5 hours but I finally rolled into Almeria around 3:30 pm and headed straight to Burger King. And I wasn’t the only rider, a fellow Badlands racer was sat there, head down, face full of burgers and chips, looking disheveled and covered in mud and dust. Onlookers were really questioning our state but seemed to understand that we really needed this BK. Having finished most of my family-sized Burger King feast, I had one portion of chips left that wasn’t going to waste, so I stashed them in the side pocket of my cargo bibs. I got a few funny looks, but I knew it would be worth it.
After a quick stop at a petrol station to fill up some supplies, I grabbed what I thought I needed to see me until early evening, but what I didn’t realise was that this would be my last (food) stop until the finish…
Part 3: The climb out of Almeria and the last 100km
Los Pedrolos, the climb out of Almeria. Ask any rider and I’m certain you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who said they ‘enjoyed’ it. With harsh and rocky terrain, this climb was no joke. It was also the hottest part of the day and I genuinely felt like the sun was on my face. I’m not a hike-a-bike fan, so even though I felt like a new man after eating my first proper meal in 34 hours, this section was a true test of willpower.
2023 Badlands Bradley Shenton copyright @albertoviciana5.jpg, by @albertoviciana
When I finally made it to the top, there was Tarmac to greet you and a very fun and long descent to get the spirits back up. I had in my mind that I wanted to try and hit 600km before nightfall, leaving me with 150km to tackle in the dark.
Having had that hour-long stop and some proper food in Almeria, I knew that I had messed up my stopping strategy. I went into this race thinking I would have 4 x 15-minute naps throughout the race and stop to stock up on food as and when needed. But I was now 35 hours into the race with no sleep, realising that a longer one-hour stop had made me feel brand new.
As darkness began to fall, the second night was approaching, and so was the last 100km. I’d been riding and awake for 36 hours now and my state of mind started to change. If you haven’t experienced sleep deprivation and what it does - it’s a unique experience, I’m not sure how else to describe it. Shapes started to appear, thoughts started to wander, and I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience at times.
Around 10 pm on the final night, I decided it was time to try and nap again, as I rolled into a small village. I found my bench, propped my bike up against a tree, and just lay on said bench, having not even taken off my helmet. The alarm was set for 15 mins and I was then horizontal. The alarm went off, woke me up, and I nearly jumped for joy at the fact that I had actually managed to get 15 minutes of sleep. It was what I needed to see me tackle that last 100km.
I sat in around 19th place coming into one of the hardest sections of the route, 2,600m of elevation gain in just 80km. The route also made for some interesting scenery as we navigated through small-town roads and swamplands that really didn’t feel like the rest of the route. The first section was a 14km climb with steep, steep ramps I had to let one rider go and just watch his light fade in the distance as my gearing just wouldn’t allow me to continue. I admitted defeat and found myself pushing my bike up some of the steepest sections.
Having finally crest the top of the climb, and seeing 40km to go on my Wahoo, I could feel the end in sight. What I also hadn’t realised is that a fair few riders in front of me had stopped to nap, so I was sitting in 13th with one rider in front of me on a paved 20km climb. I caught the rider in front.
But the lack of sleep was starting to get to me, and I started to hallucinate, murmuring words that made no sense. Knowing this wasn’t safe on the road, even in the middle of the night, I stopped at the side of the road and lay horizontally on the tarmac to give my eyes a rest for a few minutes. Excited at the thought of finishing I knew I wouldn’t sleep, but giving my eyes the rest of not concentrating was enough to see me back on the bike soon enough.
I was 45 hours into the ride and hadn’t listened to one bit of music, but I knew this little gift to myself would be the boost to get me to the end. Head down, I motored up the last climb, passing a rider and continuing like a possessed man. Towards the top of the climb, I found myself watching the sunrise cradle the mountains and I think it was the first time I managed to sit up, enjoy the scenery, and just take in what a magical experience this had been.
Until another curve ball was thrown in by the event organisers. At an abrupt stop with about 20km to go, I stood looking at a cliff drop, a small river at the bottom, with the route telling me I needed to cross. I honestly stood looking around for 10 minutes trying to figure out where the route actually went. I then threw the bike over the shoulder, down and up some steep rocks, questioning my life choices once again.
The last five kilometres is a fast descent into the town of Capileira. My emotions were high and my body was sore, rolling into town and seeing the friendly faces of the Badlands team was a sight I will never forget. I had completed what I had set out to do, pushed my body to the limit, pushed my mind to the limit, and given everything I had to complete my first ultra race.
750km, 15700m, 48 hours and 32 mins. 15 minutes of sleep. 12th place.
I learned a lot during and after my first-ever ultra race. I now understand more about my body; what works and what doesn’t. It’ll take a little while longer to reflect but I am hooked, and I genuinely think ultra races are some of the best ways to really understand a lot about yourself and what you and your body are capable of.
Badlands is a truly unique event, the organisers put so much effort into the format and the content, and even before the race you are constantly updated with info, never feeling like you don’t know something. For anyone wanting a serious challenge, I would stick this one on your list.
Will I look to take on Badlands again? 100% yes! I feel like I didn’t get the true Badlands experience due to the weather and am already eyeing up a mixed pairs attempt next year… We’ll see.
2023 Badlands Bradley Shenton copyright @albertoviciana10.jpg, by @albertoviciana
Overall, I was super happy with my kit. The one main element and improvement I made before heading out to Badlands was a bike fit, seeing my friend Jake over at Precision Performance, and it speaks wonders that I finished with no injuries or pain from riding for so long.
I should’ve run a 38T chainring on the front, or switched up to a mullet set-up, as I was fighting some of the climbs and would’ve much preferred a higher cadence.
I was fortunate to have no mechanicals and no punctures, a lot of people did comment on my choice of tyres and mention the word ‘slow’, but I went for comfort and durability with my Rene Herse Hurricane Ridge Endurance+ and it worked for me. I would probably opt for something a little fast next time but for this first attempt, I was happy.
I could’ve probably made my set-up about 5kg lighter, but I carried spare lights, an extra cell for the extra lights, an additional power bank, too much suncream, a bivvy I didn’t use and for some reason, my standard glasses that never saw the light of day but I carried along for the ride anyway.
Frame: FiftyOne Assassin
Groupset: Shimano GRX Di2 40T chainring with a 11-42T cassette
Wheelset: Hunt 42 Limitless Aero Gravel
Tyres: Rene Herse Hurricane Ridge Endurance
Lights: Exposure Torro Mk12 + Exposure Tracer (had more, but this is what I used)
Bags: Apidura with a Tailfin down tube bag
Clothing: Albion & QUOC Shoes
Computer: Wahoo ELEMNT Roam
Photos by @albertoviciana
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