Jack Thompson Is Riding the Tour de France Route in 10 Days
An interview with Ultra-Cyclist before his latest challenge
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If everything goes to plan, the first rider to cross the Tour de France finish line in Paris this year won’t actually be racing.
Ultra-cyclist Jack Thompson holds the world record for most kilometers ridden in a week, and has Everested three times in three different countries in three days, among other incredible feats—all while advocating for mental health awareness. His latest test of endurance and will power could be his greatest yet. He will be riding the entire 2021 Tour de France course as fast as he can, aiming to finish in 10 days.
While the race peloton takes a well-deserved rest day Monday July 5 in the Alps in the eastern portion of France after an exciting, emotional week of racing, Jack will just be rolling out from the coastal town of Brest in the west, the site of the Tour’s Grand Départ over a week ago. He plans to roll into Paris some 10 to 12 days later, days ahead of the pros.
For the event, called the Amazing Chase, he will be aiming for about two stages a day in that time, and will be doing the course exactly as the pros do, which means driving the transfers between stages. In total, it’s 3,500km and 62,000m of climbing in half the days the pro race takes.
We caught up with him last week while he was finishing up preparation at home in Girona.
Jack, why do you do these ultra-distance rides and challenges?
That’s a good bloody question and sometimes I ask myself the same thing. There’s a couple of reasons. I love just being on the bike. I love the meditative aspect of just riding. I find that when I’m on the bike I can escape my thoughts. I suffered quite badly from depression and mental health disorders that are pretty common nowadays. And I spent a stint in rehab. For me, being on the bike, no matter what’s going on in life, I can sort of turn it off when I’m on the bike. Whether it’s a seven-day event, a 10-day event, while I’m on the bike, everything else disappears and I’m focused on this one thing. I do it because I’m happy on the bike no matter what else is going on outside of the bike.
You don’t start in ultra-endurance riding by going out to ride the entire Tour de France route in 10 days. How did you get started on the bike?
I started off originally doing triathlon back when I was in first year of senior school. This was when I first started having negative thoughts, depressive thoughts, and what I found was like whether it’s jumping in the pool in the morning for a swim or going for a run or going for a ride, having these little goals, I could almost put the depression aside and concentrate on other things. I did triathlon all through high school. When I finished school I decided I was going to put triathlon away, because I went to university and sort of focused on other things. During this time at university, I wasn’t mixing with the wrong crowd, but I was studying, I was going to the gym, I was partying and ended up with a drug addiction problem. So, anyhow, I went to rehab and my dad said to me when I got out, ‘why don’t you jump back on a bike mate? You used to love riding a bike.’ Eventually I gave in and said ‘yeah let’s do it. Let’s get back on the bike. It’ll shut you up.’ And I got back on and I just fell in love with it again.
From here I followed a more traditional path of going on local club rides and racing and training and came to Girona back in 2012 for a training and racing block in Belgium. When I got back to Perth I got diagnosed with chronic fatigue. And so I couldn’t ride. I spent a year on the sideline. I was sort of fed up with it. I thought ‘my chance to ever race professionally is gone. What am I even doing this for?’ And I kept coming back to that I do it because it makes me happy.
My dad retired when he was quite young. And his goal when he retired was to go ride around the world. So we grew up with a dad who was constantly doing these long bike trips. And when I could jump back on the bike I thought ‘why don’t I do something like my dad?’
It sort of just clicked. I found that my obsessive personality was satisfied because I could go and ride a long ride, and the next day I would go and ride another long ride, and I didn’t have to worry about racing or training for anything in particular. Basically I went and did my first ultra-race in 2014, Transcontinental.
In 2018, I thought, ‘let’s go shoot a film around doing something extreme. What can we do?’ The Taiwan KOM was coming up so we focused on an event around that. That’s sort of what kickstarted it. And every year I’d go and set up a project and go and do it and film it. Fast forward a couple years and I’m lucky enough to call it like a full time job and have partners who are behind me backing it. It’s been a long process, but it’s also a rewarding one.
Where did the most recent idea to ride the Tour route in 10 days come from?
It was initially an idea three years ago. I was running some bike tours in Bhutan and I was talking to a guy there about how I would have loved to ride the Tour. But that obviously I’m far too old to go down that route. It got me thinking, ‘I wonder if I could still ride the Tour with a bit of a twist?’
Essentially I’ve always had the dream to ride the Tour. My cycling journey didn’t take me down that typical path. But in sort of following my dream of riding a bike the ultra-long distances, I worked out I could still ride the Tour, but with a bit of a twist.
What does your training plan for an event like this look like?
People often think, ‘he’s got to ride crazy distances every day.’ But it’s not possible; you need to recover. In any normal week I’d maybe ride 25 hours. I’ve got a coach I work with. We work out, what is the event and then we’ll do some really long blocks that sort of help to prepare you for the event. This time essentially it was like a full week where it was 10-hour days. Two days of 10 hours, one day of recovery in between. And so on, just to keep building the engine. It’s not so much getting the kilometers in the legs. I’m more doing the long kilometers to practice my fueling strategies and little things you don’t really think of like ‘what am I going to feel like eating after four days of riding 10 hours?’
Are there ways you can train mentally as well for this?
I find that music really helps me. And setting little milestones. I’ve almost got a bit of a method where for any given day I’ll break it up into different segments. The cool thing about the Tour is that it’s already broken up into stage segments. I like to play little games with myself like ‘alright, I’m going to listen to music, but I’m only going to listen to it after 75 kilometers.’ That’s basically after a quarter of the day I get a reward. That’s sort of how I deal with it mentally.
Do you anticipate there being a challenge on this ride that you haven’t encountered before on your ultra-distance challenges?
I think this one the biggest challenge is going to be around the transfers. There’s a lot of opportunity to lose time there. The riding itself I’m not really worried about. I say that now, but come next week when I’m about to kick off I probably will be more worried about it. But I’m more worried about what if something happens with the car, or what happens if there’s a road block and we can’t cross—just little things you can’t control.
Is there a specific region or stage of this Tour that you’re most looking forward to riding?
This sounds really weird, but I almost haven’t looked at the map. I only break it down into numbers. And I couldn’t even tell you the day the Tourmalet is! I’m really looking forward to getting back to the area around Andorra where I’ve done a lot of training because I think getting back onto familiar roads, and at that point in the Tour it’s near the end, will be a very big milestone.
As far as milestones go, the one I’m looking forward to most, provided it actually happens, is actually catching the peloton and pushing forward.
I’m intrigued to see what how people react to it, especially the guys riding the Tour. Just, like, what the perception is. Is it seen as, ‘wow, look at what he’s done’? What I don’t want it to be seen as is ‘oh he’s just trying to steal the limelight,’ because it’s really not why I’m doing it. So I’m nervous to see what the reaction is. But at the same time I’m excited because the point at which I pass them, in my mind, is the home stretch. I’ll be super pumped and I think I’ll get a second wind once I go past.
How do you think this challenge compares to other ones you’ve done in terms of difficulty?
We were chatting about it yesterday. I had my coach here, and one of the other guys who’s in the [support] car. We were like, how do you think this is going to compare to the world record [for most distance ridden in a week]? They thought it was going to be easier, but I don’t think it’s going to be easier because with that record you just have to ride and ride and ride, and there’s nothing to upset your riding apart from bad weather. This one there’s just so much more potential for things to go wrong. I’m really confident about it, but I’m also really nervous about it. And I think that’s the result of having had it planned for a couple of years now and it’s finally happening. But also the media coverage, people are watching now! I don’t want to let myself down, but I don’t want to let other people who are watching down either.
Do you think there will be more media attention on this than anything else you’ve done before?
I think so, yeah. Lachlan Morton [who is currently riding the entire Tour de France course, including transfers between stages, solo and unsupported] lives in Girona as well, and while we never talked about it, what he was doing and what I was doing, I actually think it’s a really good thing that we’re both doing something similar but different in their own ways. If anything I think it will bring more attention to doing things differently. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the typical path you follow to become a professional cyclist. You don’t have to race. You can do anything. I think him doing his thing and me doing my thing, it really shows that there’s a lot of interest in this. There’s so many young boys and young girls who will never get to race the Tour. And I like to think this is showing them they can still achieve their goals, but you have to think outside of the box in how you go about achieving them. I think that’s pretty special.
How much sleep do you get in these ultra-endurance events?
This one, some of the days are pretty long. The shortest days are around 350km with 2,200m of vert. And the longest day is 384km with 8,000m vert. And that’s near the end. I’d say the first couple of days I would get some reasonable sleep, like four or five hours. But then come the end it would probably be two, three hours, weather dependent.
On these challenges when you’re days in and you’re slacking sleep and maybe a little bit delirious, what keeps you motivated to keep pedaling?
I find social media is very powerful because once people are watching and once there’s an audience as such, I find that inspires me, the fact that there’s people watching you and they’re interested in what you’re doing.
You’ve talked about struggling with mental health. For someone reading this who’s struggling with mental health issues, what advice do you have for them?
The biggest piece of advice I can give someone is letting them know it’s actually ok not to be ok. People think there’s something wrong with them if they’re struggling or if they’re going through a difficult patch. One thing I’ve learned is the more people you talk to, the more people you learn are actually going through a hard time or struggling. I think that’s sort of all part of life. You need to have the down times to enjoy the up times. You’re not alone. There’s hundreds of thousands of other people that are going through the same thing. Just keep pushing forward. There’s light at the end of the tunnel.
Follow Jack on Instagram to keep up with his journey.