Julio Greff / Cycling

Race Report: Race around the Netherlands 2022

The Race around the Netherlands is a fully supported ultra distance cycling race, unsurprisingly going around the entire country of the Netherlands.

It is probably the flattest ultra race in Europe, with only 6800m of elevation gain in 1.950km of distance. That’s not to mean this is an easy race: strong headwinds are always to be expected, and most of the elevation is concentrated in about 100 kilometers of short but extremely steep hills in South Limburg.

I have some history with this race, having already scratched from it twice. Back in 2020, 600km in due to injury, and again in 2021, much more frustratingly because of a broken rear hub, more than 1.500km in. But they say third time is the charm, and I was determined to walk to the finish if I had to.

Fortunately, this time I was much better prepared, having put much more time on longer rides as preparation, a newer bike, and a lot of lessons learned from my two previous attempts.

The Bike

This year I finally got to ride my 3T Strada for the race. I had already planned to ride it for the two previous editions as well, but supply chain disruptions for the first one and a broken seatpost for the second one had me riding my old Merida Reacto. This time, all components were bought, installed, and tested with plenty of time to spare in case anything needed adjusting.

My 3T Strada all setup for this race

The Strada sounded like a good match for this race. It’s almost entirely flat, so I didn’t need a huge range of gears, so I was hoping the SRAM Force AXS 1x12 setup would be ok: a 44T chainring, a 10-33T cassette. As this is an electronic groupset, I’m bringing spare batteries for both the rear derailleur and the shifters themselves.

On my cockpit, I adopted two suggestions from Joep, a fellow racer from last year. First, I replaced my crusty old Garmin Edge 520 by a Hammerhead Karoo 2, with much better navigation where I actually get to have maps for the entire country, and a few more hours of battery life. Second, the Vision Metron 4D MAS handlebars, with integrated aerobars that don’t slip when going over potholes will keep me in a good position and give my wrists a good rest.

As the main theme here is aerodynamics, I also need to mention the wheels. Even though things can get pretty windy closer to the coast, I’m again going with a relatively deep wheelset. This time, the Hunt 54 UD, 54mm deep on front and rear, and carbon bladed spokes. On them, 28mm Continental GP tyres, with lightweight butyl inner tubes, which in my experience rarely ever puncture, even when running relately low pressures at 70 PSI when riding with all the luggage. Add in tan sidewalls for style points, because the bike also needs to look good.

I’ll be trusting most of my storage to my Tailfin Aeropack Carbon. I already used it for the RatN 2021, and the experience was very positive. It’ll carry my food (mostly Haribo gummy bears), extra 750ml water bottle, tools and spares, and clothes. I’m also using a Restrap Top Tube Bag instead of the handlebar bag I used previously, so I have better access to food and my power bank while riding.

The Plan

The goal, besides finishing the race at all, was to finish the race in less than six days, which sound perfectly reasonable when looking at my performance in 2021. Less than five days sounded a bit aggressive, but I figured it was possible if weather conditions were favorable, so that’s what I ended up basing my plan on. I also secretly hoped to be able to finish at the top quartile of the ranking, which would be around 25th position, depending on the actual number of finishers.

In the previous year, I ended up riding through the first night, sleeping through the second, and riding again through the third. The weather had been really wet and cold, and I made a lot of mistakes that left me so much worse for wear, but I figured that such a schedule would be doable again this year.

The final plan was then to ride 800km in about 36 hours to get to Lemmer, 430km from Lemmer to Rotterdam as the second leg in 18 hours, and a final 720km leg from Rotterdam to the finish. I had no idea how long the last leg would take, given that I had never tackled the steep climbs in Limburg so fatigued and with a loaded bike, and having to walk some of the climbs, like the Keutenberg and its 22% maximum gradient, was probably going to happen. The distance itself wasn’t a problem, and I expected the final stretch home to be relatively easy.

It all sounded like a doable plan, if a fair bit close to what I expected to be the top end of my capabilities. Fortunately, I like a good challenge!

Confidence is all at the bike check the day before the start

Leg 1 - Amerongen to Harlingen

Let's ride bikes!

We were all lined up at De Proloog right before the start at 8AM. It wasn’t such a cold start compared to previous years, so I didn’t have to dress too warm. That would prove a small advantage during the first few hours, where I (very briefly!) passed the top contenders by the side of the road taking off jackets. The waterproof gilet was also prescient: although we didn’t have rain in the forecast, there was a downpour where I was able to pass some more people putting their jackets back on. Not having any other reason to stop, the first 8 hours were a very strong start, and I was riding in the top 10 for almost all of it, averaging 30 km/h with some help from a light tailwind.

Even with a small routing mistake at the Hoge Veluwe National Park, still going strong close to the front!

By my best calculations, I passed by the first checkpoint in the Veluwezoom at 6th place (the leaderboard is hard to read after the fact). Martina was at the top of the first climb to take pictures and cheer me on, and also left a nice drawing in chalk on the road at the exact point of the time check. She would do this a couple more times during the race, and I’m still amazed at how much better it makes you feel after riding alone for so long.

6th place at the 1st checkpoint, with some great on-the-road encouragement

The riding ended up being a bit too strong, and I started to have some pain in my lower back. The legs were ok, but the rest of the body was not used to pushing this hard for this long. I slowed down a bit, and stopped for dinner at a McDonald’s in Enschede. Slightly recovered, things kept on going great until sunset, but then the cracks started to show, with the temperatures dropping and the knees starting to complain. I stopped after descending the Holterberg to gear up for the night and saw several riders pass me, never to be seen again.

The night itself was a horrible experience. The temperatures were below 5 degrees, and I was wearing everything I had trying to keep warm. It was very dark for reasons I couldn’t decipher at the time, making me curse my headlights and go much slower than I could’ve, in turn keeping my body colder than it should’ve.

Battling the cold, but still looking cool with sunglasses in the dark 🙄

I arrived at the second checkpoint in Groningen very early in the morning, with the temperatures at their lowest around zero degrees. I was very happy for having beaten both of my previous times this far, by a very wide margin. Another McDonald’s stop a few kilometers further in Appingedam, and I felt I had enough in the tank to ride the 12 more hours or so to Lemmer as I had originally planned, so I pressed on against some headwind and the nothingness that’s the north of Groningen.

Despite having done ok in Groningen, Friesland was a different matter. Not because of the course itself, which was very similar albeit filled with way more sheep, but because my clothing decided it wanted to murder me. After 30 hours of riding, something had been rubbing the skin around my stomach area, making pedalling hurt a lot. It took me a few hours to realize that it was my base layer’s seams, and by that point the mind had already given up, so as I closed the gate on the last sheep farm I decided to call it a day at Harlingen, 70km earlier than planned, even though I had plenty of time to make it.

Leg 2 - Harlingen to Haarlem

Having tended to my friction wounds, and slept for a good bit, I was off to a 4AM start. Again, incredibly dark, and incredibly cold, made worse by riding on a path that had the IJsselmeer on one side, and sheep on the other. At least south Friesland looks much prettier and less barren than its northern counterpart once the sun started to rise.

I limped my way to Urk, where I stopped at a supermarket to buy something to have breakfast with. Once I got back on the bike, the temperatures were a bit nicer, so the pace started to pick up. Everything was much helped by some tailwind, so the kilometers just flew by all the way through Flevoland and into Amsterdam.

More encouragement from Martina in Diemerpark, Amsterdam

What tailwinds must headwind at some point, so turning back north after Amsterdam slowed the pace down, but spirits were high and pushing on was easy. I used to live in North Holland for many years, so the roads were familiar, and even the detours didn’t make me lose much time, and soon enough I was passing the halfway mark of the race, and eventually I reached the northernmost point in the race as well, in Den Helder.


Riding through the dunes in 2021 was a highlight of the race, but this time around I only got to experience a small part of it. You’re not supposed to ride a chunk of it after dark, so I took the mandated detour that goes through the city instead. That probably lost me some time, as I’m sure the tailwind would’ve helped more by the coast than through the city.

At the end of the detour, I felt like it was about time to start looking for a place to sleep. There was just no way I would’ve been able to make it to Rotterdam as originally planned, but Haarlem sounded as nice a place as any. There was some drama in finding a hotel that would allow me to bring the bike with me to the room, but it all ended well and I was in bed by midnight.

Leg 3 - Haarlem to Amerongen

I woke up around 3 AM, and did my best to be out of the hotel by 4. I was around 20th place, and with only about 800km to go I decided to try to somewhat stick to the plan and try to finish it in one go. The body didn’t exactly agree with that decision, with the saddle sores really starting to impede progress for long stretches of road.

The way by the coast all the way to Zeeland was fairly unremarkable, but at least it felt much easier than with 70km/h headwinds like 2021. Zeeland in particular is a boring province, and I couldn’t wait to get out on the other side. I met a small group of riders right before leaving it, and a bit of chatting helped with passing the time and keeping the spirits up.

Riding for a little bit with Martina by my side made me forget some of the pain

It was a long day, and by nightfall I was somewhere in the middle of Noord-Brabant. I was feeling ok, and stopped to put on more clothes to battle the cold. For some reason, getting back on the bike after that was torture. The sores that I had been managing well in the past few hours came back with a vengeance, and I had to stop several times to re-apply chamois cream. The situation became so bad that I had to wrap my second pair of shorts around my seat, so that the doubled up padding would provide some relief. While it did work, my engineering skills weren’t enough to keep it from eventually moving, so more stopping to adjust meant that this was a long, long night.

One final nap to take on the final kilometers

By morning I was entering Limburg, farther than I had made in the previous years. I had no idea what to expect in the hills, with tired legs and swollen knees. I was very surprised to take on even the Keutenberg without having to walk. I was also surprised to discover that the Gulperberg was even harder, and it almost felt like I was gonna tip over backwards. But still no walking!

Everything after finishing the Vaalserberg was just pain and suffering. The morning temperatures were above 10 degrees, but for some reason I felt very cold and had to keep wearing my down jacket, while still somehow sweating very profusely. I finally built up the courage to take it off in Heerlen, and eventually my body temperature regulated itself, but all the sweat made any rubbing 10 times worse.

I was having lots of feelings. On one hand, the body was in its last legs. But on the other, this race was basically finished! It may take me time, but the finish was in sight, and I would finally finish this. The right song came up in my playlist, and all of a sudden I became very emotional and cried a little bit. There was still a lot of distance left, though.

In one final rest stop before entering the Maasduinen National Park I saw the riders behind start to get very close. I had held on to 12th place since the morning, and I really didn’t want to give it up this close to the finish, so I decided to put my head down and keep pedalling, as slow as needed to cope with the pain, but always moving. That’s when I had the weirdest sleep-deprivation related experience I’ve ever had this far. I was effectively asleep on the bike, but yet somehow managed to navigate correctly. In my head, it felt like Martina had been telling me where to take the turns, and I felt completely dissociated from myself. This definitely wasn’t safe, but it’s hard to take good decisions when you’re sleep deprived in the first place.

Somehow that “nap” replenished my energies a little bit, and I essentially did a time-trial effort to the end of the park, hoping really hard I wouldn’t get caught by the riders behind. I had only a small advantage left by then, but I expected it would be enough.

I was caught by nightfall again, as the last 60km riding on never ending dykes felt like forever, and more than once I suspected I was riding in circles. Eventually I crossed back into Utrecht, and now this was a done deal.

I arrived at the finish around 10:30PM, with a time of 4 days and 14 hours, in the 12th place I fought so hard to keep (the next rider finished less than one hour after me).

The race does not actually award medals. This is a chocolate medal that Martina got me

I did it!

Lessons Learned

Even though this is the third time I enter an ultra race, there was still a lot to learn, so many mistakes that could’ve been easily avoided had I had more experience. I’m sure I stood a chance of placing a place or two higher just by using my brain.

The stupidest mistake was bringing the wrong lenses for my glasses. I could’ve sworn I had changed the dark lenses for the photochromic ones, but alas I was wrong. I only noticed when I got home and wanted to change back to the dark ones. This means I rode several nights thinking that my lights were garbage, riding much slower than I could. That meant I was much colder than I ought to be, which also meant that I had much more knee pain.

And speaking of knees. Turns out that my knees are very sensitive to the cold. I would’ve known this if I had done a single overnight ride in this training season. Early dawn temperatures were down to zero degrees, so I suffered a lot with the pain. Knee warmers are very high up in the packing list from now on.

The issues with clothing could’ve also been addressed before the start. Who would’ve known that some of them would only really appear after 24 hours of riding?

Final Thoughts

Even taking into account the mistakes in prep, I think this was great result for my first ultra finish. I’m amazed to be able to finish in front of some people that are clearly stronger riders. I may not have much in the legs, but the grit seems to balance that somewhat. The next RatN is only in 2024, so this leaves me a lot of time to train for it, and come back stronger to hopefully finish in less than 4 days and have a crack at the top 10? We shall see!