Who are these crazy cyclists that dare to ride the French Divide?
Who are they? Where are they coming from? How do they prepare for this race? We will share a few bike packer portraits that will ride this first edition of the French Divide. Take some notes, there are many interesting tips for you, bike packers!
Hi Ben, could you introduce yourself?
Hi my name is Ben, I’m 37 and I grew up in Poole, Dorset which is on the south coast of the UK. I’ve just spent the last eight months working freelance for Sustrans (a charity promoting walking and cycling in the UK) surveying the National Cycle Network. And now I am simply an unemployed cycle tourist again. I’m trying to actually live my life rather than feeling restrained by working a job just to pay for rent and bills.
What kind of rider are you?
I wouldn’t say I am a particular type of rider. I’ve always ridden bikes since I was a child. About ten years ago I started riding longer distances and being more involved in both cycling culture and the cycling industry. Since then I’ve raced both cyclocross and road although I’m not very good at this short course style of racing. I’ve also cycle toured and bike packed across large portions of the UK and Europe. I like being able to get to places fairly quickly under your own power and getting off the beaten track. Off road touring/bike packing is particularly good for this. I only own two bikes, a single speed cyclocross bike I built myself from bamboo and a bicycle with a custom made steel frame that is my ‘workhorse’ and serves as my tourer and mountain bike.
How did you hear about the French Divide? And why did you register?
I think I first came across the French Divide when someone posted about it on the Bearbones Bike Packing forum. I entered as I’ve always wanted to do something like the Tour Divide race in the US but was put off by the expense and having to fly to get there. The French Divide looked like a good challenge a bit closer to home.
“A battle with myself, a challenge of terrain.”
What are you expecting from that adventure?
I actually am not sure what to expect to be honest. I’ve toured in western France and ridden in the Alps but I am unfamiliar with most of the regions the race route passes through. Also as this is my first event of this nature the mental element is a big factor. It’s as much a battle with myself to maintain a good pace, distance, schedule as it is a challenge of route or terrain.
What is your bike packing experience?
My bike packing experience has up until now been more leisurely. Last year I covered around 6000 miles across Europe cycle touring. Off road I’ve ridden a self supported loop of the Tour de Mont Blanc route with a few friends and lots of other multi-day trips and overnighters in the UK.
What about “ultra” races or events in the UK?
This is the first real “ultra” event I’ve entered. Over the years I have completed some long 100 mile plus organised single day road events and also once rode a 200 mile route with some friends. More recently I completed the Dirty Reiver 200km gravel event. I am used to riding long days in the saddle and sleeping where I stop however this is the first time I’ve pushed myself to do it more quickly in a ‘race’.
These last 10 years cycling became something quite big in the UK, can you tell us more about that?
Cycling has seen a resurgence in popularity in the UK definitely. My gut feeling is that this has mostly been focused on road riding off the back of successes in the Olympics and the Tour de France. However I do think that a lot of people who initially were drawn to riding on a weekend for fun are now also riding for travel purposes and looking at other disciplines like bike packing and cycle touring.
What is you best cycling souvenir?
Only memories really, I’m not one for collecting physical stuff if I can help it. My best touring souvenir is the 15cm scar on my knee where I set my leg alight with a meths stove in Spain last year! (The full story is here on his blog: Watch it burn)
What is your training for the French Divide?
So far my training has consisted of very little! I have been riding all winter for my job but that has all been fairly slow and short days. As mentioned I rode the Dirty Reiver 200km gravel event in northern England in April and that showed that I can ride a decent distance but not at any great pace and it required a fair bit of effort. So for the next month I am concentrating on riding longer days in the saddle back to back and putting in some effort to ride at a quicker pace. Then I’m going on holiday!
I’m actually bike packing through Norway, Sweden, Finland and possible some of the Baltic states in June and July. So that will give me some exciting terrain and plenty of time to get my body and mind in the right place to complete the race. My only issue in preparing for the race is really pushing myself to do the miles before hand with a decent level of effort. I like to enjoy myself whilst riding and sometimes riding long days is as much a mental challenge to keep going as a physical one.
What bike will you ride for the FD2016?
As mentioned above my bike is formed of a custom steel frame made by Lee Cooper in the UK paired with a rigid Surly fork. It was my own design in terms of geometry which allowed me to tailor it for my personal body proportions. I’ll be running it with off road drop bars to give more hand positions but plenty of control on rough ground and I’m going to be running mountain bike tyres.
I’m under no pretence that I will complete the French Divide quickly but I know from experience that in order to ride long miles on back to back days a level of comfort is needed so you don’t feel sore from the experience. I’ll be using a dynamo front hub for lighting and charging batteries for my GPS. I’m actually heading off in June with a 29+ tyre on the front but still considering the possibility of switching that out for a standard MTB tyre before the start of the race as it’s probably unnecessary weight/drag for the route.
“Don’t worry when you start talking to yourself it’s perfectly normal!”
What would be your advice for the other participants?
Well from my experience of long distance touring, don’t worry when you start talking to yourself it’s perfectly normal.
Do you have any sponsors?
I don’t have official sponsors but I have to say thank you to my friend Nathan who runs Restrap. I’ve been using his bike packing gear for a while and fingers crossed I might have a few new prototype items to put through their paces during the race.
I haven’t actually told many of my friends or family that I’ve entered the race however I would also like to thank my friends Carl and Tom. They dragged me out on my first really long cycle ride many years ago and were driving forces behind the setting up of ‘our’ blog at punkrockbikeclub.com. They also haven’t moaned as I’ve monopolised the writing on there. I sent them a message asking if they thought I could complete the French divide before entering and their collective response was a nice and reassuring “maybe”.
My friend Phil has also been incredibly supportive by funding/publishing my writing in paper form. If you are interested in the two fanzines I have written about my cycle touring or the book of (non-cycling) writing that myself, Phil and three others produced last year then go to Bwread for more information.
Finally I have to thank my girlfriend Judith for being hugely supportive and very accepting of the fact that I’m going away for almost 3 months.
Thank you Ben for sharing this with us.
You can read more about his adventures on his blog: Punk Rock Bike Club