The hardest race

People often ask me what’s the most difficult race I’ve taken part in. Well, not that often actually. But I think I’ve already been asked the question a few times. Anyway it’s one I’m keen to answer. And this being my blog, nobody is gonna stop me.

It’s not easy to answer though. Each race has its traps and hardships. For example you may think that the Trans Am bike race is pretty straightforward, given that it’s all paved, doesn’t have much elevation gain and no big gaps between resupplies. But the crosswinds I experienced in Kansas for two whole days turned out to be one of the biggest tests of my mental fortitude. After one day of riding between 15 and 18kmh on flat paved roads, I got in my sleeping bag and curled up in a ball for 8 hours, not willing to go back to the battlefield. The idea of fighting the wind for another day was one I could not bear. It was only my third ultra, so I was still a bit green. But really, this stretch of godforsaken land and the constant 40kmh winds blowing in my face destroyed me mentally. 

Montana on the TABR

I had come to the TABR following a third place on the Tour Divide the year before. The reason I had picked this race is because I felt I needed two years to forget how hard TD had been. I was not looking forward to putting myself through these hardships again. TD 2016 being my first bikepacking race, I made a lot of mistakes and ended up being miserable most of the time. I climbed on the podium because it’s a race of attrition and years of bike touring had given me plenty of resilience. I kind of held my pace towards the end when everyone was slowing down and this is how I got third, but it sure was a painful and sluggish finish. And I benefited from other racers feeling unwell or having mechanicals.

Wyoming on TD 2016

The Inca Divide in Peru is a good contestant in the debate of which was the hardest of all of my races. Peru is a beautiful place for sure, but the climbs are never-ending and they take you to altitudes where the human body can barely function, let alone perform. When I was at the top of Nevado Pastoruri, the highest point of the course, at a staggering 5000m, something as simple as taking off my gloves would be enough to get me out of breath. Still, this climb was not the worst. Starting at 3000m of elevation and towering at an intimidating 4300m, the climb to Abra Huachucocha took everything out of me. It’s 25km long and a gentle 6% incline, but the track is in such an awful shape that it took me more than 4h30 to clear it. Towards the end, I just gave up on cycling and got off my bike to walk. It was bitterly cold and windy at the top. To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever faced a harder climb. 

Pretty much everyday of the Inca Divide was hard. Even the first one, which had no noticeable difficulty turned out to be a nightmare when I got bit by a dog in a gas station. I had to seek urgent care as rabies is a fatal disease in 100% of the cases. As the race went on, the nights got so cold it became impossible to ride and, a few hours after it got dark, all the riders pretty much had to find a hotel room to spend the night. Even the last day which was supposed to be easy, as it was mostly downhill, turned out to require a lot of work due to the headwind blowing in the Canyon del Pato. And let’s not talk about resupply which is very limited during the day and inexistant once the sun has set.

But the majestic scenery, the breathtaking landscape were always here to remind me why I was doing this. Inca Divide might be the single most beautiful race I’ve ever been in. And that kind of pleasure is unique. It makes things easier as it gives them meaning and justification. 

Another race that proved to be really challenging is the Atlas Mountain Race. Just like the Inca Divide, darkness and daylight would have roughly the same duration. Which means a lot of time spent riding in the dark. Even when you’re used to it like I am, it’s hard. Try riding 12h seeing only what your front light shows you and you’ll see how eager you are to see the sun rise. I don’t know if I can call myself unlucky since I won this race, but I was unfortunate enough to tackle the worst part by night. The infamous colonial road will forever stay in my memory as one of the worst bits of cycling I have experienced. It’s hard to describe and pictures don’t do it justice. But it lasted hours and hours and took everything out of me. The climb was horrendous and the descent was probably worse. The rather wide road was covered in rocks that had just the right size, shape and distribution to make it impossible to ride faster than 10kmh going up, and very uncomfortable to ride above 20kmh going down. Obviously such a road is horrendous no matter when you ride it, but it sure as hell is even more difficult when it’s your third sleepless night in a row.

The mountains of the Atlas

All things considered, I think my hardest race was the Italy Divide 2019. It started in Naples at the end of April and it was really hot. A group got out all guns blazing and I got dehydrated following the frantic pace on flat paved roads. Then night came and the hike-a-bikes started. Rocky, long, steep, full of thorn bushes… By morning I was in Rome and wondering what I was doing there. I had no drive, no motivation and was looking for excuses to give up. I couldn’t find any so I kept going, but I was not enjoying myself. I was disappointed by my start and by the course itself. The day lasted forever, hot in the morning, rainy in the afternoon. Then night came and I caught Jay-P who had just rested for a couple of hours in a hotel. He was fresh and he dropped me fairly quickly. I figured I couldn’t go to sleep now otherwise I would never see him again. So I rode through the night. The next day was the best with the nice strade bianche of Tuscany. I got all the way to Florence, resupplied, kept going a bit then proceeded to lie on the side of the road for some much needed sleep. That is when James Hayden showed up. I figured since he was riding, I couldn’t decently be sleeping or I would never see him again. So I went back on my bike and we rode through the night together. In the morning, I took a wrong turn, he disappeared and Jay-P caught me. We rode together in the Bologna area as it was pouring rain. Later in the afternoon, he had a mechanical and I was by myself. At some point during the day I had gotten ahead of James which meant that I was now in the lead. But he was only a few kilometers behind when night came. No matter how badly I wanted to sleep, I could not, otherwise he would catch me. So I kept going, only stopping short 8 minutes naps when I couldn’t take it anymore.

Eventually he caught me and got in the lead. The sun rose and it started raining, Pretty soon the rain turned into snow and my brain was barely functioning. As for my gps, it was not functioning at all. I was navigating using my phone, which is a bit tricky when it’s raining. At some point, I got lost in a field and actually gave up. Mentally I dropped out of the race. I decided I would stop in the next hotel and sleep my fill. But my brains were so fried, I didn’t even think of looking for a hotel online. I just got out of the field, somehow got back on the course and kept riding while looking for hotels. There were none that I could see so I just kept riding. Until I couldn’t ride any more because I was knee deep in snow. I hiked my bike in the snow for pretty much the whole day. A few kilometers before the finish, James, who had stopped in a hotel for a few hours, caught me and we agreed to finish together. I crossed the finish line absolutely exhausted, my legs covered in scratches and my feet destroyed to the point that I could not walk anymore.

James Hayden and I at the top of Italy Divide’s last climb

I don’t think Italy Divide is renowned as a particularly hard race, but the way it went, with terrible weather and fierce competition, made it my toughest test to date. Overcoming doubt early, being to hot, then wet then freezing, experiencing extreme sleep deprivation for the first time, going toe to toe with the toughest racers until the final hours, it made for an intense contest. You see, it’s not a matter of the course, its difficulty and its length. It’s a mix of how experienced you are, the course, the weather, the competition, how much you push yourself and how much you enjoy what you’re doing.

Greg Lemond said “It doesn’t get easier, you just go faster”. It certainly is true for road racing, but it doesn’t apply to bikepacking. The hardest races are the first ones, when you’re still learning. Then you find out that every hike-a-bike eventually ends, pain goes away, ferocious headwinds finally stop blowing, mud always dries. It may take five hours, but you always reach the top of the climb. You just have to be patient. You just have to endure. Bikepacking teaches you just that: how to endure. It makes you tough. And the tougher you are, the easier the races.

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