“I didn’t have much time to prepare,” says Ana Orenz, describing her spur-of-the-moment decision to attempt the record for greatest vertical ascent by bicycle in 48 hours. “I have a daughter – I’m a single mum – and we were building a new life in Spain, so I had to be very spontaneous for this one.”
The 39-year-old wasn’t targeting the women’s record, but the outright – 29,623 metres, set by American Craig Cannon in 2015 (since broken by UK rider Alan Colville). No woman had ever attempted it, so Orenz was going to make history whatever the outcome, with the one minor proviso that she would have to keep climbing and descending for two days non-stop.
Until four years ago, it was horses rather than bikes that took up most of Orenz’s time. A wandering spirit, she was born in Germany, but after finishing school got a job looking after racehorses, which took her to Portugal, then Ireland, then the UK for 16 years, and now Spain. Switching from reins to handlebars was literally a pilgrimage.
“In 2016 I did the Camino de Santiago [Pilgrim’s route] with my daughter. She refused to walk as she was an avid cyclist. I wasn’t. We did 300km in four days.” Along the way, Orenz’s head was turned by svelte-looking road bikes. “I said to my daughter, ‘When we get back I’m going to buy one of those and I’m going to race it.’”
True to her word, upon getting home, the action-hero mum went to the local bike shop and placed her order. At around the same time, she heard for the first time about the existence of ultra races.
“I saw the Transcontinental race report and I said, ‘Oh my God, there are people who do something like the Camino, only they call it a sport!’” Orenz laughs. “I entered my first race, the  Transatlantic Way Race with my partner – he retired, but I finished.”
Not only finished, but was first female – 2,500km in just nine days and six hours.
The following year, Orenz switched to hill-climb racing, culminating in sixth place at the UK Nationals, before returning to ultras and finishing first woman in the Race Across France. Last year, she dominated the women’s category in both the Trans-Pyrenees and Paris-Brest-Paris. In the latter case: “I finished [the 1,200km] in 51 hours with one hour’s sleep.”
It might come as a surprise to learn that the 48-hour ascent record was, in Orenz’s mind, just a training session.
“I needed to cram in as much as possible into a small amount of time,” she says, explaining how she was intensively preparing for her next ultra, the Two Volcano Sprint (1,000km from Mt Vesuvius to Mt Etna). “For ultras, I like to do one good ride, a month or two before.”
On 2 September, after two days riding up and down her local climb, Orenz hadn’t managed to claim the outright record for 48 hours – but it barely mattered. She had set the first women’s mark, and for good measure carried on riding for another 10 hours to complete a triple-Everest – three times the elevation of the world’s highest mountain, or 26,544m. Jubilantly feted by the inhabitants of her new hometown, Mioño in northern Spain, the ride felt like a homecoming as much as a cycling challenge. But did it have the desired effect on her fitness?
“From now on, I’m going to do a triple-Everest prior to every ultra,” jokes Orenz. “I gained 10 watts and somehow lost 3kg.”
What an incredible journey: from non-cyclist to apparently unbeatable ultra racer in just four years. What does Orenz think gave her the hunger and the grit to push herself so far?
“I was born with hip dysplasia – as a kid, I’d cycle 2km and burst into tears, then lie awake at night in pain. Maybe that has made me a stronger cyclist.”
It was the subsequent years of riding horses, Orenz believes, that not only strengthened her ligaments to overcome the joint issue, but also built a solid foundation for competitive bike riding.
“On a horse, you need core strength, a lot of balance, and you sit very much in the same position as on a bike. You need to be happy to put lots of work in, too.”
In her case, lots of work, including training, means 72 hours per week – but there is no sign of the workload getting her down.
“It feels great. I’m super happy with everything in my life at the moment, but it is time-intensive,” she pauses to ponder what she would do with more spare time. “I’ve no time to sit down and write about all this, so if you can, I’d be grateful!”
Where it began
It all started with Jim Bartholomew, proprietor of Independent Bike Works in Cirencester, Gloucestershire, who supplied Orenz with her first road bike
“Ana is engaging, inclusive and funny – a person who never looks down on others. Her personality is the reason I got involved, and have tried to help her where possible over the last few years. We also wanted to see if we could build a bike that would be suitable for the ultra events, but also be competitive in hill-climbs with a few changes – seems we succeeded!
“Ana’s development and focus on her racing surprised me at first – but no longer. Her drive and determination to succeed are astonishing; she doesn’t race for the glory, but wants to prove what is possible to herself and the people she cares about. That’s the strongest motivation there is.”
This feature originally appeared in the print edition of Cycling Weekly, on sale in newsagents and supermarkets, priced £3.25.