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The Amazing Chase Diary

The Amazing Chase
(Image credit: Tristan Cardew)

Paris

The Arc de Triomphe stands at the top of the Champs Elysees, peering down the long tree-lined avenue. In its 185-year lifespan it has witnessed the funeral processions of Napoleon Bonaparte and Victor Hugo, various military parades, and, of course, 46 stages of the Tour de France. It watched on, too, as Jack Thompson arrived in Paris to complete his Amazing Chase. 

Setting out from Brest ten days after the professional peloton of the Tour de France, Thompson comfortably beat the race to Paris. To do so, he rode an average of 350km a day, eventually completing this year’s route in just ten days, with another day to reach Paris and its processional stage.

After the long 600km transfer from the Stage 20 finish in Saint Émilion to the Parisian suburb of Chatou, Thompson tackled the last stage of the Tour de France with its customary eight laps of the Champs Élysées. Like the winning team who are allowed by the peloton to ride onto the Champs Élysées together, Thompson’s team, and his partner Laia, each rode a lap with him.

They cheered him on as he finished the final lap and threw his bike across the line as if he were a sprinter in the Tour de France. Then, as the setting sun radiated through the trees like avenues radiate from the Arc de Triomphe, the champagne was opened and the celebrations began.

Before Thompson embarked on his journey across France he said that, “these challenges are almost like mini life-cycles. What I’ve learnt is that you have these good times and you have these difficult times and you can’t have the good times unless you have the difficult times. I enjoy that process of suffering through the hard times and the reward at the other end.”

“You can do really cool things and push the limit of what’s possible,” he said, “I suffer from depression, it’s OK to suffer from depression- you can still do these really cool things, it doesn’t need to hinder you.”

Cycling, in many ways, derives from suffering. By completing the Tour de France in such a short period of time Thompson both exemplifies and accentuates this. His achievement derives from suffering, both physical and mental, but, like so many struggle to do, he has marshalled his suffering towards superhuman ends.

Day 10

Clouds coagulate around the mountains in the Pyrenees; their summits are often shrouded in a thick mist that obscures the valleys below. Indeed, the second time that the Tourmalet hosted a stage finish of the Tour de France, when Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck battled for the yellow jersey on its slopes in 2010, it was almost impossible to see the race.

So, it seemed fitting that when Jack Thompson departed from the Tourmalet’s summit, he did so in fog and temperatures of 2 degrees.

Thompson, an ultra-cyclist, is attempting to complete the Tour de France in half the time that it will take the professional peloton to ride the same route. On the tenth day of his odyssey across France, Thompson descended off the Tourmalet, climbed Luz Ardiden, and completed stages 19 and 20 of this year’s Tour de France. In total, he rode a further 282km during the day.

“I could definitely taste Paris,” he said, “which made rolling out from the top of the Tourmalet that bit easier. I’ve become accustomed to the rain, so even though I don’t love it, waking up to it was no surprise.”

The road quickly rose again after the descent off the Tourmalet as Thompson made his way up to the ski station at Luz Ardiden, a 13.3km climb with an average gradient of 7.4 per cent.

“It was amazing to get to the top of the last climb, Luz Ardiden, and know that there were no mountains left,” he said. “The barriers were out for the race and it felt pretty special. It made me quite emotional to be honest. A mixture of happiness and relief.”

Leaving the Pyrenees for the flatlands again, Thompson transferred to Mourenx, rode Stage 19 and, finally, the Stage 20 individual time trial.

“The final road stage was just so tedious,” he said. “Flat, on busy roads, with a continual cross headwind…a change from the peace of the Pyrenees. So wrapping up that stage was a big relief, and then the TT was more like a cool down ride, riding through the vineyards with the guys blasting music from the car. It was just a really fun way to end the day.”

Now, the long drive to Paris and the ceremonial stage there are all that remains between Thompson and completing the Tour de France in a remarkably short period of time.

Day 9

On the ninth day of his Amazing Chase Jack Thompson traversed the Pyrenees, completing Stage 17 and most of Stage 18 of this year’s Tour de France- a total distance of 305km with 6,720m elevation gain. He rode over some of the most famous mountain passes in cycling – the Col de Peyresourde, Col de Val Louron-Azet, Col du Portet and Col du Tourmalet – all in a single day.

Thompson, an ultra-cyclist, is nine-tenths of the way through his ambition to complete the Tour de France in just ten days. He caught the peloton on Monday and is now 298km ahead of the race.

“What a day,” he said. “A last little tester with a whole lot of climbing with some very tired legs. I had my trusty yellow cap with me which the boys collected from the previous night’s finish, so I felt like I was being guided by the yellow spirit.”

The yellow spirit of the Tour de France seeped into the landscape around Thompson as well. Campervans, brightly coloured flags, and brightly coloured fans parked by the side of the road waiting for the race cheered as he rode past seemingly aware, consciously or unconsciously, of the remarkable feat they were witnessing.

Their support was much needed, especially towards the end of Stage 17. “The Portet was probably the hardest climb so far,” Thompson said. “It felt like climbing up to hell, rather than heaven, to be honest.”

Support also arrived virtually from members of the peloton, including Mitch Docker, Ben O’Connor and Michael Woods, who sent messages of encouragement to Thompson as he suffered through the mountains.

There was, however, no time to celebrate completing this year’s queen stage. After transferring from the summit of the Col du Portet to Pau, Thompson was immediately back in the saddle for Stage 18.

“I found a really good rhythm on the flat section before the Tourmalet, and going up I was all good too,” he said. “It was the first time I’d used the caffeine, so I got a nice little buzz. I had some nice mixes on and found my own little world really. At the top conditions were pretty hairy so it wasn’t a smart move to descend into darkness. So we called it a night and got a few hours sleep.”

With nearly all the mountains conquered, Thompson is now within touching distance of Paris; only Luz Ardiden, a flat stage and an individual time trial separate him from the Champs-Élysées.

Day 8

Eight days into his Amazing Chase, Jack Thompson overtook the Tour de France as it slumbered, recovered and press conferenced on its second rest day. He completed a further two stages of this year’s route, riding a total of 318.65km in the day.

 Thompson, an ultra-cyclist, set out from Brest a week ago- ten days after the peloton- and has followed the contrails left by the Tour de France ever since, growing closer to the race with each passing day. After completing 2,270km in the last seven days, he caught the peloton in Andorra and will now continue towards Paris.

To complete such an enormous distance in such a short period of time, Thompson has spent every hour of the day and nearly every hour of the night on the bike. Day 8 was no exception. On the road by 6am, before sunrise, he was still cycling at 12pm, well after sunset.

The first stage of the day marked Thompson’s entrance into the Pyrenees where three Category 1 climbs, including the Port d’Envalira which at 2,408m is the highest point in this year’s race, lay between him and the stage finish in Andorra la Vella.

“I am pretty cooked to be honest,” he said, “but it was actually super nice. It started out with plenty of climbing, but they were climbs I’d done before, so I knew what to expect.” 

Later, on the final climbs of Stage 15, Thompson was joined by his fellow Australian Michael Hepburn, a former world champion in the team pursuit.

“I didn’t realise I was going to see a couple of familiar faces as well,” Thompson said. “Familiarity on trips like this is really good for the mind.”

 Phil Southerland, the founder of SuperSapiens whose technology Thompson is using to fuel correctly, and a group of cyclists waiting atop the Col de Beixalis also provided company throughout the day.

“We got the first stage done, then descending back into France the weather got shit again and that set the tone for the afternoon,” Thompson said. “But it was cool because it was the first time I was actually in front of the peloton and I got to see people out on the road, caravans, stuff like that. There was a great vibe seeing everyone out on the road, excited to watch the race.”

As the night drew in, more encouragement came from the side of the road in the shape of Simon Gerrans and Ant McCrossan. They have been commentating on the race and headed out to the finish of Stage 16 in Saint Gaudens to support Thompson.

 With the peloton now caught and passed, all eyes turn to Paris and the Champs-Élysées on whose cobbles Thompson is hoping to arrive at in the next couple of days.

Day 7

The seventh day of Jack Thompson’s Amazing Chase took him through southern France as he completed Stages 13 and 14 of this year’s Tour de France. It was his longest day so far; he rode a staggering 415km in 15 hours and 17 minutes.

Now at the foothills of the Pyrenees, Thompson has almost caught the peloton of the Tour de France, a remarkable achievement considering that he set off from Brest ten days after the Grand Depart. Once he has caught the peloton, he will continue to Paris, arriving there days before the race.

“I went to bed last night not in a very good headspace” after the Ventoux day, he said.

“I was nervous this morning because I didn’t really know how the body was going to be. Yesterday was a really hard day, mentally probably more than physically.”

In the morning, rising before the sun in an attempt to avoid the midday heat, Thompson tackled the 220km from Nîmes to Carcassonne where, 24 hours earlier, Mark Cavendish had equalled Eddy Merckx’s record of 34 stage wins in the Tour de France.

“I got rolling this morning,” Thompson said, “I had a bit of a sore left knee so I just eased into it. I’m feeling pretty good on the bike and I’m finding a nice rhythm. I’m pretty happy with where things are at.”

One strategy that Thompson developed to help control his mind over such long distances was to switch his Wahoo computer to its map display. 

“I decided today that I wasn’t going to worry about numbers, just focus on the map,” he said.

“It was actually really nice because it meant that I could zone out a bit and really enjoy where I was riding. I’ve been getting so caught up in all the numbers of the challenge- the watts and time and kilometres- that I just needed to look around and take it in. 220km disappeared in what felt like only a couple of hours which is always a good thing.”

There was no transfer to break up the day since Carcassonne served as both the Stage 13 finish and Stage 14 start. The route that stretched out from Carcassonne to Quillan was hilly, officially classed by the Tour organisers as a medium mountain stage, and Thompson ultimately climbed a total of 4833m during the day.

Under blazing skies, the temperature crept up to 37°C. “This afternoon it’s really hot so I’m just trying to stay hydrated,” he said. France seems to be showcasing its full range of extreme weathers during the Amazing Chase for it was only a few days ago that torrential rain soaked the roads in front of him.

Whatever the weather holds, the final stretch of Thompson’s Amazing Chase will continue to be extreme as he overtakes the peloton and heads into the Pyrenees.

 

Day 6

Mont Ventoux is a storied mountain. Its bare slopes rise out of Provence like a pale horse rearing in astonishment at how far it has hauled itself above the rest of the landscape. On the sixth day of his Amazing Chase, Jack Thompson joined the ranks of cyclists tackling the mountain as he completed Stages 11 and 12 of this year’s route.

By the end of the day, he had ridden another 298km with 5,744m of elevation gain, inching closer to his goal of catching the peloton of the Tour de France before they reach Paris. 

Stage 11 demanded a double ascent of Mont Ventoux, a task so difficult that even the seemingly infallible yellow jersey, Tadej Pogačar, cracked on the second ascent, when the Tour de France visited the mountain four days ago.

Thompson, an ultra-cyclist, is accustomed to testing his outermost physical and mental limits but, like so many others, Mont Ventoux threatened to undo him.

On his first ascent, Thompson met a Belgian cyclist who was also scaling the climb twice. They made their way to the summit side by side, fist-bumping when they reached it.

In the extreme heat with days of sleep deprivation and nearly 2000km in his fatigued legs, Thompson faltered on the second ascent of Ventoux, as Pogačar had four days earlier. Unlike Pogačar, however, who had no teammates in his moment of difficulty, Thompson’s team has surrounded him throughout the whole week, following behind in a car and campervan.

Coach Zippy, Thompson’s coach, and friend jumped on an e-bike and rode the climb with him, offering company, encouragement, and an ear to listen. Together, they willed Thompson to the summit of Mont Ventoux for the second time that day.

Even after climbing Mont Ventoux twice Thompson’s day was not over. He transferred from Malaucène to the stage 12 start at Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux and then completed the 160km of Stage 12. The blistering heat continued well into the evening; by 6 pm the temperature had still not dipped below 32°C.

So upon finishing for the day at 9:30 in the evening, an emergency Mcdonald's was called for to help restore morale. In ultra-endurance events, as in life, it seems that tending to the mind can haul the body over apparently insurmountable obstacles.

Day 5

At the halfway point of the Amazing Chase, Jack Thompson has now ridden 1680km in only five days. On the fifth day of his challenge, he completed Stages 9 and 10 of this year’s Tour de France- a total distance of 347.5km with elevation gain of 5,731m.

Thompson, an ultra-cyclist, is chasing the peloton of the Tour de France across this year’s route. After giving them a ten-day head start, he is aiming to catch the race before Paris. 

The first obstacle of the day presented itself in the form of another mountain stage featuring the Col du Pré, the race’s first Hors Categorié climb. The route also revisited the Monteé de Tignes where, two years ago, the extreme conditions faced by those audacious enough to cycle over mountains thwarted the Tour de France as it was halted by a storm and landslide.

After experiencing these extreme weather conditions in a rain-soaked opening few days, the sun finally emerged for Thompson. Still defrosting after the rain and cold of the previous day, he said that “the theme of today was definitely highs and lows. I started feeling low after yesterday’s shitty weather and fatigue but the high of getting in the car with the gang at the top of Tignes was amazing.”

During the transfer from Tignes to Albertville, the Stage 10 start, Thompson was able to catch up on some sleep since, “from here on out there’s not going to be an easy day. I’ve got a lot of climbing to come and a lot of tiredness in the body.”

“I finished off today feeling good,” he said, “I had a good rhythm and with 40km to go I took the earbuds out to enjoy the quietness and the last of the sunset. There were no cars and the first of the sunflower fields were out which was really nice.”

Thompson rode late into the night, silhouetted against the fading light, and continued into the darkness until 3am to achieve his goal for the day. There is no time for rest, though, for tomorrow will bring a double ascent of Mont Ventoux, a mountain so mythical it blinks like a sparse, lone headlight within the imagination of every cyclist.

“Doing these kinds of events is a huge rollercoaster,” Thompson said. “I have big mood swings over the smallest things when I’m tired. But it’s also what I love about it: this is what I’m here for.”

 At the halfway point of the Amazing Chase, Jack Thompson has now ridden 1680km in only five days. On the fifth day of his challenge, he completed Stages 9 and 10 of this year’s Tour de France- a total distance of 347.5km with elevation gain of 5,731m.

Thompson, an ultra-cyclist, is chasing the peloton of the Tour de France across this year’s route. After giving them a ten-day head start, he is aiming to catch the race before Paris.

The first obstacle of the day presented itself in the form of another mountain stage featuring the Col du Pré, the race’s first Hors Categorié climb. The route also revisited the Monteé de Tignes where, two years ago, the extreme conditions faced by those audacious enough to cycle over mountains thwarted the Tour de France as it was halted by a storm and landslide.

After experiencing these extreme weather conditions in a rain-soaked opening few days, the sun finally emerged for Thompson. Still defrosting after the rain and cold of the previous day, he said that “the theme of today was definitely highs and lows. I started feeling low after yesterday’s shitty weather and fatigue but the high of getting in the car with the gang at the top of Tignes was amazing.”

During the transfer from Tignes to Albertville, the Stage 10 start, Thompson was able to catch up on some sleep since, “from here on out there’s not going to be an easy day. I’ve got a lot of climbing to come and a lot of tiredness in the body.”

“I finished off today feeling good,” he said, “I had a good rhythm and with 40km to go I took the earbuds out to enjoy the quietness and the last of the sunset. There were no cars and the first of the sunflower fields were out which was really nice.” 

Thompson rode late into the night, silhouetted against the fading light, and continued into the darkness until 3am to achieve his goal for the day. There is no time for rest, though, for tomorrow will bring a double ascent of Mont Ventoux, a mountain so mythical it blinks like a sparse, lone headlight within the imagination of every cyclist.

“Doing these kinds of events is a huge rollercoaster,” Thompson said. “I have big mood swings over the smallest things when I’m tired. But it’s also what I love about it: this is what I’m here for.”

Day 4

"That would go down as probably one of the hardest days on the bike ever," Jack Thompson said as he completed Day 4 of his Amazing Chase challenge. In the pouring rain he rode 249.48km and gained 5220m in elevation- the equivalent of riding up the third highest mountain in Canada.

Thompson, an ultra-cyclist, gave the peloton of the Tour de France a ten-day head start, and is now chasing them along the same route with the intention of catching the race before Paris. On the fourth day of his expedition across France, he tackled the second half of Stage 7, where, on the route's profile, a chain of steep hills huddle together like blades of grass.

"This morning we woke up to dry roads but that didn't last long, and it started raining again," he said. "Rain seems to be the theme of the Tour this year. I don't even remember watching a Tour on TV and seeing so much rain, so we picked a good year for it! The second half of Stage 7 was bloody hard- there were some really steep climbs in there, up to 22 per cent gradient.

"And with the roads being wet it made for some slippery descending but also slippery ascending as well so I couldn't really take advantage of the downhills as much as I would have liked. I have a newfound respect for Mohorič who won that stage- that would have been a brutal finish to a long day on the bike."

From the stage finish in Le Creusot, Thompson and his team transferred to Oyonnax, where the Alps have their roots. In the car, he "popped the recovery boots on and got a bit of sleep before Stage 8." Stage 8 of this year's Tour de France was the race's first foray into the mountains, cresting five categorised climbs including the Col de Romme and the mighty Col de la Colombière.

"It was wet, seriously wet, seriously cold and seriously miserable," Thompson said. "I was so cold at one stage that I almost shivered myself off the bike. It was actually quite hard to keep the bike steady going downhill. So it got a little dangerous at one stage and I decided I had to pull over and warm up a bit just because I felt as those I was doing damage to my body.

"Definitely one of things I've learnt doing these things is the importance of listening to the body and today was a good example of that. In the past, I would have just pushed on and dug myself a hole. But I decided today to stop, warm up and then get going again. It was definitely worthwhile. Here's hoping for better weather tomorrow."

Day 3

After such a dramatic end to Day 2, the third day of Jack Thompson’s Amazing Chase was more straightforward. Edging ever closer to his goal of catching the Tour de France before it reaches Paris, Thompson completed 318.65km with 2,524m of elevation gain on Day 3.

 “There were more straight stretches today,” he said. “We started off with some wet weather again which made for pretty shitty riding conditions. It’s difficult to zone out when you’re riding on dead, flat roads with no shoulder, it’s raining and there are trucks everywhere. You’ve got to be wide awake just to keep safe.”

Thompson rode the 160km stage from Tours to Chateauroux won by Mark Cavendish last week, and then “stayed overnight at around the 150km mark” of the mammoth 250km stage from Vierzon to Le Creusot.

Now, after dispatching with the flatlands of central France, the mountains beckon for Thompson.

“I really enjoyed riding through the small towns because of the people and it also stimulates the mind a bit. I never thought I’d say this but I’m really looking forward to getting stuck into the climbing just because it means that I can zone out a little bit and it’s a bit of a change of scenery,” he said.

Setting out from Brest nearly 1500km behind the peloton, Thompson has made up half of that distance in just three days, and is now ‘only’ 749km away from catching the Tour de France.

Day 2

On the second day of his quest to catch the Tour de France, Jack Thompson once again surpassed his daily target, completing Stages 3, 4, and 5 of this year’s route. Thompson, an ultra-cyclist, is accustomed to testing the limits of human endurance. Last year, he rode 3,505km in a week- a new world record. Beginning ten days after the Grand Départ, Thompson is now aiming to chase, catch, and ultimately arrive in Paris before the peloton of the Tour de France.

“We managed to get about four or five hours sleep and then got up this morning,” he said, “I felt a little bit tired and the wind was absolutely howling. Stage 3 was 189km with around 2000m of climbing, my average power was 281 watts, and felt pretty good out there. “ 

“The plan today,” he explained earlier in the day, “is to finish Stage 4 and then transfer to Stage 5. All in all, things are going pretty good. The team is working really well together and I’m hoping for a bit more favourable wind later today. “

“There was a massive downpour as I started the second stage and I thought this is going to be a long day. But in the end, I had a tailwind for most of the afternoon, which was quite a nice feeling. To be honest though, the roads weren’t very pretty and there was not much to write home about, it sounds silly but they were just boring roads,” Thompson said.  

Riding these two stages, totaling 345.06km with 3,792m of elevation gain, was the intended target for the day. As Thompson explains, though, his plans changed late in the evening. 

“Last night was a bit of a whirlwind. We finished, jumped in the car and had a big bowl of pasta. The plan was that we were just going to transfer to the town of the time trial. The boys booked a hotel and it was all good to go. We knew that we’d get a good night's sleep because we’d finished a little bit earlier than we thought. We got there to find that there was a big expo in town and that the hotel we had booked was no longer available nor was any other hotel in town. We were sitting in the car, looking at where we could stay and it dawned on me that the only option was to jump back on the bike, ride the time trial and then transfer another 1h40 to the accommodation at the next stage.”

“I forget what time we set off, it would have been 11:30 or something. I jumped on the bike and did the time trial. It felt like a bit of a dream really. I had settled down, my heart rate was down, I was recovering and then, boom, straight back into it. But anyway, I didn’t feel too bad and I got the job done. Then straight back in the car and straight to the hotel and into bed. It actually reminded me of a night back home with a mate when we were little. We were bored at home and we decided we were going to go on an adventure so we went out on our mountain bikes and did a 40km loop around the river. It almost reminded me of that, it was just quiet and still.” 

Day 1

In Tignes today the Tour de France stopped to catch its breath, after completing the first nine stages of this year’s edition. In Brest, 1447.2km behind the race, Jack Thompson set out on his own odyssey across France, aiming to catch the peloton before they reach Paris.

Thompson is an ultra-cyclist who has tackled many challenges in the last few years, testing his physical and mental limits. Last year, for example, he rode 3,505km in a week and set a new world record in the process. 

Now, he intends to complete the Tour de France in a mere 10 days, following a schedule that should allow him to catch the professional peloton before they finish the race.

"After all the training, the logistical prep work and the planning calls… it hasn’t actually felt real, until now," he said yesterday. "I’ll be honest with you, I’m really nervous. It feels surreal that I’ve been planning this for three years and suddenly it all starts tomorrow."

On his first day in the saddle, Thompson planned to ride 350km, a distance that almost encompasses the Tour de France’s first two stages. The jagged profile contains 4,500m of climbing.

Beginning at 6:45 this morning, with all the excitement and relief that comes with the start of a long-anticipated challenge, Thompson rode stage 1 in a little under seven hours. Although the Tour de France passed through this route 10 days ago, the traces it leaves behind remain in the Breton towns traversed by Thompson today. Yellow bunting still hangs from houses while green, polka-dot and yellow jerseys still decorate shop windows.

In this setting it was difficult for him to continue avoiding the Tour de France, a strategy he followed last week because, “it seems like the peloton is just getting further and further away.”

This afternoon, other difficulties also materialised. Brittany’s weather is notoriously wild; its landscape seems permanently tousled by the buffeting wind and rain. As Thompson began stage 2, that familiar Breton rain began too. Such conditions, along with heavy traffic on the roads, conspired to create a torrid first afternoon for Thompson.

Fittingly, though, “the sun came out to play at the end of the second stage,” he said. “To me that always represents the light at the end of the tunnel. The body felt great and the power was good today.” 

In the end, Thompson did complete the first two stages of the Tour de France on the first day, riding 400km, “meaning that we’re about 50km ahead of schedule after the longest day of the 10 days."

For more on the Amazing Chase, click here.