What took the peloton 23 days in front of a worldwide audience, took one Australian 10 days in front of five support crew.
Tadej Pogačar’s domination of the Tour de France, and Mark Cavendish’s near-stranglehold on the race’s sprint stages, gripped millions, but they weren’t the only cycling actors pedalling around France this summer.
For Jack Thompson, an experienced and highly accomplished ultra-cyclist hailing from Australia, cycled the entire route – all 3500km of it – in just 10 days, giving the peloton a head start and then breezing past them to reach Paris two days before they did.
It was the culmination of three years of planning and a lifelong dream. Has he now ridden the world’s greatest bike race? “Albeit with a twist, I’ve ridden the Tour de France,” he smiles. “I think my way is better, too.”
Thompson started his ride from Brest on Monday, July 5, and then battled his way through rain, unseasonably cold conditions, and into the Alps, before travelling south to traverse the Pyrenees and then back north to the French capital. He climbed over 62,000m.
He’s honest when he describes its difficulty – a no-nonsense, “it was f**king hard, one of the hardest things I’ve done” – and it gave him a greater understanding of just how tough the race is.
“One thing that really surprised me,” he says, “is that you don’t realise watching the race on TV, but you look at a sprint finish and think it’ll be another flat run-in, but then you ride them and you realise there’s a decent gradient to the finish.
“It gave me a much greater respect for the fast guys coming into a finish to execute a sprint. It’s similar to when you go a velodrome for the first time and don’t realise how seriously steep the banks are.”
Thompson’s grades his achievement – coined The Amazing Chase (presented by Wahoo) - of beating the peloton above his feats of doing three Everesting challenges in three consecutive days and setting a world record of riding 3,505km in one week.
“It’s the best,” he says. “Being on the Champs-Élysées, in the middle of Paris, I didn’t want that to end. I had got to the final and I was just thinking, ‘this has been so much fun, this is why I originally started cycling because I love this’. It hasn’t really sunk in yet. It’s been a three-year goal and it’s finally happened. It’s special.”
There were times, though, during his week-and-a-half expedition when the experience was classed as Type 2 fun: not enjoyable in the present, but it’ll raise a smile when looking back on it.
He explains: “It was weird at times because, in my head, it’s France, the middle of summer, and there’s beautiful, sunny days on the bike. But it was the complete opposite: it rained almost every day, it was cold and I was descending climbs in really thick fog so I’d have to concentrate so much, and I was tired too.
“It was a rollercoaster – so many highs, so many lows. You don’t have time to take it all in, and having dinner in Paris after, everyone in the crew is remembering little things, and I’m like ‘I don’t remember that!’”
A tired and battered peloton repeatedly declared the 2021 edition the hardest Tour in living memory, mainly drawing on the series of crashes and abandonments. The route, though, at least for Thompson warrants the tag alone.
“I would argue it is one of the hardest routes you can do,” the 32-year-old, who lives in Girona, Spain, says.
“When you get into the mountains, it’s hard riding, but it’s not like you’re on holiday and you can do one and then go back and have a beer: you’ve got three to four back-to-back, tired legs from the day before, and you’re doing it for multiple days.
“One climb, the Col du Portet, is seriously hard. It’s mental because it’s steep at the bottom, and then there’s a part where you turn onto the second section and it’s called the stairway to heaven. But, believe me, it feels like climbing to hell.”
Eating is something Thompson has mastered, for spending hours on end in the saddle is his speciality. But even he was taken aback by the constant task of fuelling.
“It’s actually an eating challenge,” he laughs. “The Tour is a game of who can replenish calories the quickest and the best. That’s one of the hardest things.
“I drank a liquid that gave me 80 percent of my calories, but was also eating full blocks of cheese, baguettes full of butter. You have to try to get as much fat in as possible so you don’t waste away.”
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