For almost every spectator watching the Tour de France by the roadside or on their sofa, racing for three weeks around France seems to be one of those unattainable dreams, an unimaginable feat that can only be accomplished by blurry figures from another dimension. This was the case, too, for ultra-cyclist Jack Thompson.
"I always had this dream of riding the Tour de France as a kid," he says, "I'd stay up late at night, especially in Australia because of the time difference and I'd sit there glued to the TV."
Now, Thompson is riding his own Tour de France – with a twist. Beginning in Brest on July 5, ten days after the Grand Départ, he is aiming to ride the same route as the professional peloton and catch them before they reach Paris.
Ultimately, Thompson will ride 3,550km with 51,000m of elevation gain, and spend roughly 24 hours of transfers in the car, all in just 10 days. He likens this challenge to the Sydney-Hobart yacht race.
"You've got these super-yachts in the ocean racing each other and imagine if someone in a single-man sailing boat set off 10 days after and actually beat those super-yachts to Paris, or Hobart."
To beat the peloton to Paris, Thompson will have to ride around 350km each day with the elevation gain ranging from 2200m to 8000m "in one of the big days".
Such numbers seem staggeringly difficult, an overwhelming cascade of mountains and kilometres to overcome in an impossibly short period of time. Rather than focusing on the enormity of what he is undertaking, Thompson breaks down the challenge into smaller segments using music to help him do this.
"I love house music," he explains, "I almost use it as a bit of reward. Say I've got 150km, for the first 75km I'm not going to listen to any music and for the next 75 I will listen to music and for that first 75km I think its 75km until I can put the music in and zone out. It's those little rewards and games that I play with myself to get to the next milestone."
These strategies have been carefully fine-tuned for this is not the first ultra-cycling challenge that Thompson has set himself. Last year, he rode 3,505km in a week - a new world record. In 2019, he completed three Everestings in three countries in three days, climbing 26,768m in the process.
Thompson's attraction to ultra-cycling began as he rediscovered his childhood love of riding a bike as a means to cope with depression and recovery from a drug addiction.
"I feel like when I'm on the bike, I'm in a sort of alternative reality and nothing else really matters. You're concentrating on where you're going, you can block things out and I love that," he says.
Indeed, it is impossible to separate these twin strands of ultra-cycling and mental health. Each one informs the other, allowing Thompson to push his physical and mental limits.
"The very hard time on a bike is nothing compared to the very dark period when I had a drug addiction," he says. "For me that puts it into perspective. All I'm doing is pedalling a bike."
At the same time, his experiences of extreme physical suffering on the bike gives him hope that, "when I have a difficult time mentally and I'm not doing great, it will pass. Just like it passes on a bike."
These messages will be ever present throughout Thompson's lap of France. Emblazoned on his helmet will be 'it's OK not to be OK' in ten different languages, with the wheels also bearing the same words.
"Obviously the wheels will be moving forward… so it's like we're moving forward from a mental health point of view."
Physical and logistical, as well as mental, difficulties litter the road in front of Thompson.
"I almost look upon it as more of an eating challenge than a cycling challenge," he says regarding nutrition.
Using the SuperSapiens device and experience from his previous ultra-cycling endeavours, Thompson has decided on a liquid diet of sports drinks and meal replacement shakes.
"It is a lot easier to consume liquid than food, especially if it is hot… and the combination of fats and the proteins, mixed with the carbohydrates, while on the bike really keeps my blood glucose more stable."
It is the logistical intricacies, though, which Thompson is most nervous about.
"I'm very conscious that while we're doing the transfers it's very easy to lose time. It could be an hour-twenty transfer, but you stop and get something from the gas station, fill up the car and suddenly it's a two-hour transfer."
Much like a lone breakaway rider is chased by the peloton, Thompson will be the lone breakaway rider chasing the peloton and "when this all kicks off the clock has started, and it never stops". Every minute wasted in the car must be retrieved on the bike.
By fulfilling his own childhood dream of riding the Tour de France, Thompson hopes to show others that "if at first you don't succeed, keep trying because there's other ways of achieving goals.
"I would have loved to have ridden the Tour de France in a team, but my journey didn't take me that way. Just because it didn't take me down the conventional route doesn't mean that I can't attack it from another side."
And so, though Thompson's 'Amazing Chase' seems a more unimaginable feat than the Tour itself, it should not rank as one of those unattainable dreams. Instead, it is an example of finding an alternative way to the same destination, perhaps even arriving before those following a more conventional route.
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Issy Ronald has just graduated from the London School of Economics where she studied for an undergraduate and masters degree in History and International Relations. Since doing an internship at Procycling magazine, she has written reports for races like the Tour of Britain, Bretagne Classic and World Championships, as well as news items, recaps of the general classification at the Grand Tours and some features for Cyclingnews. Away from cycling, she enjoys reading, attempting to bake, going to the theatre and watching a probably unhealthy amount of live sport.
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