Ride Report - Speed versus experience: racing FURTHER

Posted By Gravel Union On 2 September 2019

Shimano Gravel Alliance rider Katherine Moore sent us in this great write-up of the recent FURTHER bikepacking event

FURTHER is an endurance bikepacking race like no other. Set in the French Pyrenees, it might sound a little less hardcore than the Atlas Mountains or Kyrgyzstan, but the terrain is anything but. The work of highly acclaimed cycling photographer Camille McMillan, who lives in the Ariège region, the race has earned a fearsome reputation after its inaugural edition in 2019.

With travel restrictions across Europe shrinking the field to a cosy eleven riders, Camille scrawled the start list across just two post-it notes. Instantly, these names chimed bells in the minds of dot-watchers, the people who spectate these unique races through a network of online trackers and maps.

Bas Rotgans and Jon Woodroof were back to attend to unfinished business at FURTHER. India Landy is a veteran of the TransPyrenees, Michal Serafin the Transatlantic Way and Transcontinental. James Hayden stood out in the list – formerly a double winner of the Transcontinental road cycling event, but who’s turned his attention to off-road races, and is regarded as one of the best in the game.

Then two other names came as a surprise. Christian Meier and Laurens ten Dam are both former WorldTour pros, Laurens retiring just last year and Christian in 2016, both of whom have launched successful businesses in cycling since.

In a game of speed versus experience on reportedly one of the hardest courses in the world, who would win?

FURTHER wasn’t the first time that James and Christian had battled it out. They’d both been at the pointy end of the Atlas Mountain Race in Morocco in March, before Covid-19 wiped out the racing calendar. Ultra-endurance debutant Christian had really impressed with his performance, holding his own against experienced riders Sofiane Sehili, Jay Petervary and James Hayden, until a saddle sore issue put a sudden and pretty painful end to his race.

With James’ goal of an improved performance at the Silk Road Mountain Race now off the cards, and a curiosity to see if FURTHER was really as hard as it had been claimed, it didn’t take much for Camille to persuade James to race.

Laurens ten Dam, a Dutch pro cyclist recently retired from the CCC Team, was about to make his endurance racing debut at FURTHER. In fact, he had a whole raft of events and races lined up this year including the DK200 and hosting his own popular gravel events. FURTHER hadn’t even been on his radar until three weeks before the start, when his friend Bas Rotgans had told him about this ‘crazy (race) in the Pyrenees’. He was down for it immediately, seeking the adrenaline again after all the folded races of the year.

If you’ve been following James Hayden’s racing over the last few seasons, you’ll know that his turn to off-road events has proven to be particularly tough. Despite many impressive performances, luck hadn’t always been on his side. James was leading the 2019 Silk Road Mountain Race on day five, before an attempted robbery in the night. He lost his leader’s advantage after spending a day giving statements to the local police to explain the incident. Could FURTHER be his chance to finally win an off-road race?

For Laurens, as the first race of this kind, his ambitions were more relaxed, aiming to simply finish. That might have changed when lining up at the start though, as Laurens explains “I suddenly felt those race nerves again, and I knew I was up for some good racing.”

When asked about how James felt about lining up against two former pros, his strategy was clear. ‘I just ignore it completely’, James revealed, ‘I don’t worry myself with my competitors - that can only serve to negatively affect your mental state.’

What James did concern himself with was tactics. ‘You can’t mess around at the beginning as it’s only a couple of days long. I went fast straight from the start, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to match the pace of Laurens and Christian’.

Usually James opts for longer events, flexing his mental strength to keep pushing on after many days in the saddle. FURTHER was different for him, with ‘a lot of tarmac and only two days’, covering 513 km with 15,000 metres of climbing and 49 hours of riding time, practically a sprint for this endurance rider.

There’s no ‘right bike’ for FURTHER. Some call it a gravel race, but according to James ‘there’s not a bit of gravel in the race, it’s either a rocky track or road, a gravel bike would be wrong everywhere!’ He opted for a Canyon Exceed hardtail XC bike, whereas Laurens took his drop-bar Specialized Diverge, and Christian a gravel bike too.

The race was very different from what Laurens had anticipated. ‘The first day went according to plan, but that night I got lost, snapped a derailleur hanger and took a nap. Rain woke me up and from there on I basically suffered my way through. My back hurt and my ass too.’

Key to this race is the unusual format of 16 off-road sectors that you have to navigate between, with night curfews on certain sectors where you can’t ride in the dark.

As Laurens and Christian slept a while on the first night, James powered on, overtaking them both at a steady pace. James knew that he needed to get to the cut-off on Sector 12 before the second night, which meant that he’d have to ride for 33 hours straight to make that.

‘I had a spreadsheet with all the speeds I’d need to get there’ revealed James, who had assumed that the others wouldn’t have put in this level of tactical planning. Sticking to this overall average speed over a combination of silky tarmac and rocky hike-a-bike would be key for James’ plan.

By the following afternoon, Christian was back, hot on James’ heels. They both slept at a hotel in Auzat, before a nail-biting assault on the final few sectors. Waking at 2am to reach the final sector at 7am, the end of the night curfew, James started to tackle this climb, but Christian was much closer than he’d anticipated, passing ‘like a freight train’. It would have been easy to be totally defeated at that point, but calling on experience, James kept on pushing. Anything can happen in those last few kilometres.

‘It’s nice to have won, it was unexpected to be honest after 6 weeks off with injury, you never know! It was close, really close.’ James admitted. He’d carefully scoured the maps before the race to confirm what would be the best way to reach the finish from the end of sector 16, which had proven to be valuable time spent. As Christian got a little lost in the brutal closing hike-a-bike, James had taken the lead, and an incredible seven minute gap at the finish.

Laurens arrived at the finish in the afternoon in third place, the world of off-road endurance racing now no stranger. ‘Although I suffered for hours,’ Laurens confessed, ‘five minutes after the event I was already thinking on how I could do better next time. It certainly did plant a seed and I will for sure do more like this in the future.’

The podium complete, the race was far from over. Riders were still hauling themselves and their loaded bikes over rocky mountain sides and flying down tarmac passes across the Ariège. Jon Woodroof, a veteran of the 2019 edition, was rounding off the field on his incredible canti-braked rando Lester.

‘While they were turning the screws, I was taking in the views’ Jon joked, although pretty determined in his approach to complete the course. Despite that, Jon didn’t want to suffer more than he had to, claiming he ‘was prepared to get the course done, but on my terms’.

Jon remembered a quip from endurance rider Erik Nohlin of Specialized, who’d once talked about the shame and guilt of head down blasting through countries without soaking it in from the Transcontinental Race.

‘My approach to bikepacking races is sustaining perpetual motion but no hesitation to savor a moment; a swim by waterfall when it’s hot, endless tea with Omar at Atlas Mountain Race, or join a family reunion at their invitation at Silk Road.’ Explained Jon, ‘for me, I go to these places to escape my routine at home but I’m fascinated by those that call these remote places home too.’

India Landy proved that there’s more to racing than finishing position. After scratching from the race so that she could make the finisher’s party, she then returned to where she’d stopped to finish off the whole course. Chapeau!

Although there’s no denying that James is a fast rider, when lined up against two former WorldTour pros, FURTHER proved this time that experience is king; just. The sharp end of these endurance races is becoming even more hotly contested with retired professional athletes from all different sports joining in - notably former World Time Trial champion Emma Pooley taking the title at last year’s race.

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