Ultra heroes

What I want this blog to be is not only a place where I tell my stories, but also a space where I can reflect on bikepacking, bike touring and ultra cycling. One of the questions I’ve often asked myself about self-supported bike racing is: who are the real heroes? 

In most cultures, it would seem natural to consider that the fastest racers are the heroes. On the other hand, I think the american way would be to crown pretty much everyone. To consider that the midpack and back of the pack have it as hard, if not harder, than the pointy end. This is a bit hard to swallow when you actually belong with the front runners. When you give it your all until there is nothing  left to give. But there might be some truth to it. 

I’ve never been midpack so I can’t testify to what it’s like. I have, however, been slower than I am right now. So what I can do is compare my two Tour Divides. The first one in 2016 and the last one to date in 2019. The race of a rookie vs the race of an experienced ultra-racer.

I can honestly say that in 2016, for most of the race, I was miserable. On day one, I crashed both literally and figuratively and spent the night shivering in my sleeping bag. Day 2 was not that bad, but day 3 was horrendous. After a sleepless night, I spent pretty much all day riding on an empty stomach, with swollen feet, inflamed Achilles and I crashed again. I spent the night of day 4 sleeping in the streets of Butte, Montana and the night of day 5 riding in a snowstorm on Bannack Road, borderline hypothermic. That whole race was just mistake after mistake. Nights spent in the wild without a tent or bivy, getting very little sleep and barely recovering. Then trying to push with whatever energy I could muster. Much more experienced riders than myself would get some quality rest indoors, start out fresh in the morning and catch me mid-day when I was tired and demoralized.

A lot of times I felt mentally broken. Not up to the challenge. 

On day 3, I only made it to Lincoln thanks to Chris Plesko and Gareth Pellas. On day 4, I made it to Helena thanks to Kevin Jacobsen. On day 5, I made it to Lima thanks to Andrew Kulmatiski. On day 7, I made it to Wamsutter thanks to Brian Alder. I’m not talking about actual drafting of course. But what you could consider as emotional drafting. Someone is riding, you ride with him, you chat, it takes your mind off the suffering. Often times it goes both ways. You need your buddy and your buddy is glad you’re here.

I managed to finish in 16 days which isn’t slow but is still two full days slower than the pace I was keeping in 2019. 

Yet I feel my 2019 ride was easier. I had a plan. I had the right bike and the right gear. I had the right mindset. Everyday I was setting goals and reaching them which, you should know, is fairly uncommon on the Tour Divide. 

A couple hours of hike-a-bike on Koko Claims

It was not easy. I hated the last climb in Canada, before Roosville. I had barely recovered from the Italy Divide and my knees were giving me a hard time. Sleep deprivation was hard to deal with. Staying awake on that long straight paved road to Pinedale was almost impossible. That last stretch to Wamsutter deep in the night really beat me up. The sleepless nights were long and the mornings cold. But most of all, that clock was always ticking. Taking five minutes to change my socks made me feel guilty. Checking in for a hotel night was like a formula 1 pit stop. Resupplying more than once a day felt like a rookie mistake. No meal was taken seated at a table. Every minute spent not cycling or sleeping felt like a waste of time. 

I feel this is the biggest difference between the front runners and the other racers. That constant pressure, always being aware that the clock never stops. For days. The race never stops. 

The pain? We probably feel less. The mental challenge? Not as tough when you’re in touch with your goals. You’re energized and you want to keep moving forward. Physically and mentally, it could very well be that the experienced, strong, focused racers at the front have it easier than the midpack who struggles with injuries and challenges never faced before.

But that clock… you have to be at the pointy end to understand how it feels. How much it takes out of you. How much you want it to stop ticking for ten goddamn minutes. But it doesn’t. It never stops ticking. 

It takes a lot of discipline to race fast. It takes a lot of you. A few months after the TD, I went to Peru to race the Inca Divide. I tried to showcase the same focus, to be as disciplined as on the TD. I couldn’t. My body had recovered. But mentally I was still exhausted from spending every minute of every day racing against the clock that never stops. I did well and ended up winning the race. But in no way can my 6 days on the Inca Divide compare to what I was able to achieve on the first 7 days of TD. 

To each his own struggles. The tour divide is hard for every single racer. When I toured the course in 2014, it took me 4 days to reach Eureka and I thought I would never see Antelope Wells. When I heard that some people were able to ride the 2700 miles in fifteen days, I couldn’t believe it. It seemed superhuman. 

Surely the more you do it, the easier it gets. 

Hal Russell 70 years young

In 2016, when I first heard someone say that it’s as hard for the back of the pack, I was quick to dismiss it. I was too aware of my own pain and my own shortcomings. But now I see that there’s some truth in there. The faster is not necessarily the harder. I’m not gonna say that everyone is a hero, I’m way to French for that kind of stuff. But I think of people like Hal Russell, the veteran of the 2019 field at 70 years of age. If that man is not a hero, who is? I think whoever rode the course, gave it his all, left it all out on the trail, kept going everyday until he just couldn’t do anymore is a hero. Anyone who felt the pain and didn’t give up, pushed to his limits (whatever they are) not to win, not to break a record, not to get kudos on Strava. He did it for the sake of knowing how far he could push, to find his own limit. I respect that.

4 thoughts on “Ultra heroes

  1. Really enjoyed that Sofiane. Thanks. The fun and pain in the mid pack – or lantern rouge – is just as intense I guess. Time to smell the roses and take the photos is a bonus! Hope your recovery is going well.

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  2. Enjoyed the read.. thank you for sharing, it’s a funny game we play,roll of the dice sometimes.
    you prepare physically sort of in the blind not knowing how much demand will be asked of your body and mentally you prepare.. but sometimes it all goes south and at that moment you make choices good or bad !!
    That’s the real defining moment in a event I feel..it’s the low point and the turning point.

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