Northern Ireland

Ultra-cycling: Age a red herring, says Joe Barr

Joe Barr Image copyright Team Joe Barr
Image caption Ultracyclist Joe Barr raced across the United States for 22 hours a day for 11 days

"For me, age is just a red herring."

That's the view of 60-year-old ultracyclist Joe Barr who recently won the 3,000 mile (4,828km) Race Across America (RAAM) in his age category.

He explained that the RAAM is essentially twice the distance of the Tour de France in half the time.

It crosses 12 states from California to Maryland, across three mountain ranges and deserts where the temperature hits 45C (113F).

Image copyright Team Joe Barr
Image caption Mr Barr rode through the dappled sunlight of a Pennsylvania evening as he approached the end of his journey

A former professional road cyclist, Joe got into ultra long-distance cycling after his son was diagnosed with cancer and he wanted to raise funds for the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.

The RAAM is the ultimate test for ultracyclists and many don't make it to the finish line.

"I went in 2012 but I failed," said Mr Barr, who lives in Limavady, County Londonderry. "A third of the rookie people who come fail."

This year's winning effort involved six bikes prepared for different road conditions and a back-up of nine people, involving road captains, bike mechanics, clothing experts and a nutritionist, who was Mr Barr's partner Jill Mooney.

He said that while the race arguably takes a greater toll with age, "the older guys know what they're doing".

"The biggest part of RAAM is the mental part," he added.

Image copyright Team Joe Barr
Image caption Mr Barr took power naps in the back of his support van, surrounded by cycling equipment

And Ms Mooney confirmed that is an aspect of the sport where he excels.

"Joe is an exceedingly resilient person - he's very good at getting all the pieces of the puzzle together," she said.

Resilience is essential for competitors in the RAAM.

Image copyright Team Joe Barr
Image caption Mr Barr's mental resilience played a big part in his Race Across America victory

It takes 11 days to cross the continent and if competitors don't finish within the cut-off time they are disqualified.

It's called DNF - did not finish - the three most disheartening letters in cycling.

In order to finish in time the cyclists are forced to ride day and night, averaging 22 hours in the saddle each day.

Image copyright Team Joe Barr
Image caption Mr Barr pounded out a rhythm on the pedals in some challenging conditions

"It nearly got to me 30 miles from the finish," said Joe.

Sheer exhaustion drove him to the back-up van where he took an unscheduled power nap.

"The race is never over until you reach the finish line," he said.

Image copyright Team Joe Barr
Image caption Regular massages helped Joe to cope with the stress on his body

Ms Mooney explained that unlike typical long-distance runners or cyclists, Mr Barr's nutrition was not packaged carbohydrate gels.

Oatmeal, buttery sandwiches and mashed potato were his staples.

"You wouldn't want someone to have a lifestyle like this but Joe's lifestyle is one of the healthiest out there," she said.

Image copyright Team Joe Barr
Image caption The RAAM may be finished for Mr Barr but the road leads on to his next challenge

"You are definitely pushing pushing towards the edge of personal performance," she explained, adding that it brought risks but they could be managed.

Mr Barr said he is unlikely to enter the RAAM again now that he has achieved his goal of winning the 60 to 69 age category but he has no intention of giving up on cycling.

The World Ultra Cycling Association has dozens of long-distance challenges, including a tour of the Himalayas, an Israeli 24-hour race and the Race Around Austria - rated as Europe's toughest bike race.

There's plenty to keep Joe spinning.

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