Why I race

Why do I race? Ultra-cycling is hard. You’re miserable most of the time. There’s always a part of your body that’s bothering you; whether it’s your legs, your neck, your ass, your hands, your feet. You’re always tired, exhausted even, sleep deprived. It may very well be the hardest sport in the world and there’s no money in it. Guys get paid millions literally to push a ball around for an hour and half, and we get nothing for digging pretty much as deep as anyone ever dug. So why would anyone put themselves through such an ordeal? 

To be honest, there’s a few things I really dislike about competing. First of all, I hate getting ready for an event. I’m very disorganized and I tend to procrastinate a lot. The week or so before leaving for a race is spent knowing what I’m supposed to and not doing it. Until I run out of time and have to take care of everything in a day or two. Of course I end up forgetting some stuff; which is why I always get to the start of the race early or ride there, whenever it’s possible. 

Before the race, I’m always nervous, always fighting an anxiety that keeps growing the closer we get to the start. I always ask myself: why did I sign up for this? I could just ride my bike by myself, without any pressure, free of all worries. Instead here I am, battling the fear of failing and disappointing the people that believe in me. The closer I get to the start, the less I sleep.

Picture by Lian Van Leeuwen

And then there’s the actual racing. Granted I like to ride my bike a lot. But I also like having the possibility of looking at the surroundings when I’m on the bike. During the Atlas Mountain, I actually could enjoy half of the landscapes, because 50% of the time I was riding in the dark. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy night riding once in a while. But 48 hours of night riding out of 95 hours on the course, that’s just too much.

We usually invest a lot of time and a lot of money to take part in these events. And sometimes, something as basic and cruel as a mechanical, something you have no control over, can throw everything down the drain. There’s so many things that can go wrong in these events that it’s terribly stressful. Early in my ultra-racing career, after a couple of failed events back to back, I really came close to giving up competing. It just seemed like it was not worth it.

So why do I do it? Well, when everything goes smoothly, when I manage to do what I came to do, and I end up being out there leading a race, a whole peloton chasing me, there’s really nothing that comes close to this feeling. Even the feeling I get when winning a race doesn’t compare. It feels good to win, for sure. But it does’t feel as good, because winning means the ride is over. No, the best part is what comes before. When I’m still riding and I feel every pedal stroke is bringing me closer to victory. It’s exhilarating. It’s the joy of being out there, riding my bike, doing what I love, and then, on top of that, the certainty that I’m doing what I’m meant to do, and the knowledge that everyone that believes in me is sharing this joy. 

Picture by Nils Laengner

Why do I sing? Because I’m over the moon! I came thinking I could be the fastest out of +200 racers, and I’m finding out I actually am. Obviously the fact that I enjoy prevailing, that I get my kicks out of proving that I’m faster or stronger than others, isn’t very positive. And I wonder if it truly is in adequation with the values of bikepacking. But that’s the way I am. It’s deeply ingrained in me (thanks mom and dad). Very much like other competitors, deep down, I’m just a kid trying to make his parents proud. 

Granted there’s nothing really positive at the root of this feeling I’m chasing, but there’s another way you can look at it. When you’re really good at something, isn’t it kind of your duty to do it and, furthermore, to do it to the best of your abilities? Maybe. I don’t know. I honestly don’t have an answer. But I chose to do what I’m good at.
I have always openly talked about my will to win. The fact that I can only be proud of a first place and that for me races are contests, not journeys. I have received criticism for this stance. I am willing to accept it. I don’t think there’s anything sane in such a strong desire to prevail. And I’m aware most people look for something else when they line up for a bikepacking race. There’s a certain ethos to this sport. It’s about more than who is the fastest. It’s about exploration, discovery and pushing your own boundaries first and foremost. But these are things I already do in the context of my extreme bike touring trips. This is why, when it’s time to race, I only care about winning. 

Someone on social media once said he didn’t think I was a good example for his kids. And I get that. I understand that as a parent, you want your children to be happy whether they win or lose. You want them to be happy because they experienced something, not because they’re better than their friends. But I’m not this way and there’s not much I can do about it. Maybe I could see a therapist, but keeping on racing and winning sounds less expensive.

6 thoughts on “Why I race

  1. “When you know you have what it takes to win, you owe it to yourself to give your absolute best.” – Sofiane

    I saved that quote when I read it. It struck a chord. It is true.

    Being openly ambitious should not be considered negative. Someone has to win, many people want to win, but most keep their ambitions hidden.

    This is worth a read and has thoughts along very similar lines; just skip the bits about being professional!
    https://mxendurance.com/news/what-motivates-champions-part1/

    In particular: “I was bewildered that to many of my peers, being openly ambitious was considered a negative. I saw this as a huge weakness on their part, almost a spotlight on their internal nervous energy or fear of failure. If you are too scared to admit it openly, then it is going to be tough to deliver it on game day.”

    Sofiane, whether people are open about it or not, you can be sure other people feel the same. There is no need to feel ashamed of your desire to win! And I think you are a fantastic role model for kids =)

    “Still I do feel that beneath what many of these star athletes portray themselves to be, there must exist a killer competitor. Those emotions that at times can be ugly and almost brazen (but exist within every one of us) are the main fuel to the mongrel that drives every endurance athlete.” – Chris McCormack

    Keep doing what you do, you’re an inspiration to many.

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    1. I’m happy to inspire but it’s important for me to try and stay as humble and accessible as possible. I feel the human values in bikepacking are very important and I don’t wanna stray away from the roots of this sport.
      In the meantime, I will keep being honest and openly state that I race to win and break records. I do know some people will think it’s arrogance and there’s nothing I can do about it.
      We often say failures make you grow, but I feel successes should to. I try to learn from every experience and to better myself as a human being despite some major flaws.
      I will keep being myself. The people that appreciate it can follow and support me. The ones that don’t, I’m sure I can survive without their validation 🙂

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  2. “There’s a certain ethos to this sport. It’s about more than who is the fastest. It’s about exploration, discovery and pushing your own boundaries first and foremost. But these are things I already do in the context of my extreme bike touring trips. This is why, when it’s time to race, I only care about winning”
    It’s clear straight znd simple 😁

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  3. You have to remember that most people *can’t* win. There can only be one winner. So « the will to win » is not sustainable motivation for most people. And of course a desire to triumph over others can incentivize unsportsmanlike behavior. But competition is innate in us I think, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with your motivations in my opinon.

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