The article that Mike wrote for ‘The Bugle‘ by Brooks England, 2016 edition, that inspired the name for these Audax events.
THIS IS NOT A TOUR
Rider-led racing grew out of the World Cycle Race and its ethos is to bring racing back to where it was over a century ago: when riders challenged each other over impossibly long distances and without the support and conveniences associated with today’s racing. Gone are the team cars, the Death Stars and the gourmet energy bars, and in their place is the simple joy of the pursuit. One man only has led the way to this new reality – Mike Hall.
Five years ago I entered my first bikepacking race, a race quite unlike anything else I had encountered. It wasn’t just any race either; the Tour Divide is possibly the ‘queen stage’ of Bikepacking races. It is also claimant to the title of world’s longest mountain bike race.
The route itself follows the continental divide and was originally prospected for the touring cyclist. For many who take to the start line on the ‘Grand Depart’ it is still first and foremost an adventure, but out front it is absolutely and unquestionably a race. The record stands a few minutes shy of 14 and a half days, and last year’s first three finishers were separated by just 40 minutes. Somewhere through the pack the mentality changes though. Whether one is racing or touring is largely a mind state and the line is often blurred.
Touring many people can understand, but the motivation to race such a distance can provoke questions, particularly when there is no apparent reward. Questions of why, for any endeavour, I struggle with. This may be, in part, because I feel so ill-equipped to articulate it concisely to those who have no notion. It may also have something to do with the exasperation I feel that the question should need asking at all. To me the reason is self evident and the obvious but unhelpful retort is “why wouldn’t you?”. For some, whether it’s 250m of wooden boards or more than 2,700 miles of Continental Divide, racing is reason enough.
The response “for sport” alone seems a flimsy one, yet to me it should be enough. Is questioning the pursuit of any sporting challenge not akin to questioning the notion of sport itself? Should the racer bear the burden of this justification? Central to sport after all is that it’s a game, and fundamentally pointless. Therein lies its beauty.
Could this disconnect be a symptom of a widespread culture of convenience which seeks to remove physical effort from our lives without forethought and replace it with a packaged commodity sold back to us? One where sport must either have a point, be a profession or a business interest to be credible. Otherwise it should be a leisure activity and its assets resigned to toys. Its easy to see in such world that voluntary physical activity taken to such an extreme and without compensation would be viewed as alien or perverse and requiring explanation.
The question of why racing versus touring was given a more poignant form for me on the day I finished the World Cycle Race. A journalist with a particular interest in cycling wrote a piece in the Guardian bike blog entitled exactly that; ‘Cycling around the world, Great, but why race?’ I can appreciate some of the author’s points, but one of the main assumptions is there is only a choice between leisurely pasttime or an industry, and there is no room or reason in between for a sporting bet struck between amateurs for the sheer sake of curiosity and an interesting life.
By now this question has come to me in numerous forms, more often than not as “wouldn’t you enjoy it more if you slowed down a bit?” Over the years I have ruminated on a more detailed response, perhaps introspectively on the odd long ride, but largely the answer comes down to the same; “not really, no”.
I wonder if anyone asked Stirling Moss after he won the Mille Miglia in 1955 whether he wouldn’t have enjoyed it a bit more had he slowed down to appreciate the Tuscan hills, or stop by at the Campo in Siena to watch the world go by with a few slices of Pecorino and a glass of Chianti? Likewise did anyone suggest to Juan Manuel Fangio on his way to victory at the 1950 Monaco Grand prix that maybe he could park up at Cassino and play a few games of roulette and chat to the locals? Probably not.
I would not like to draw personal comparisons with such illustrious figures of history. I mean more to illustrate how we are influenced to perceive sport and how what counts as legitimate sport is closely coupled to our cliched perception of what success is, one that is only read at the bottom line.
I also wish to counter the premise that one cannot enjoy intensely one’s surroundings adequately whilst expending ones self. Indeed I’ll go further and assert that the effort of climbing a mountain or crossing a continent serves only to enhance its delights and majesty in a manner no leisurely wanderings can approach.
Racing the divide has been a transformative experience for me in so many ways and in some way has touched almost everything I have done since. The trail might take the body to the physical place; covering vast distances through wild open and desolate landscapes alive with wildlife and changing before your eyes. The race however, the thrill of the chase, the potent cocktail of adrenaline, endorphins, fatigue, sleep deprivation, stress and finally relief takes the mind to quite another. The personal satisfaction, confidence and empowerment from the achievement lasts a lifetime. For me this combination is untouchable.
This is why, for now at least, you can keep your nice, your leisurely and your convenience and if it comes to it, you can also keep your professional sports. This is not a tour and no, I do not want to slow down because I really don’t think I could possibly enjoy any more than I do.
We wish to thank ‘The Bugle’ by Brooks England for allowing us to reproduce Mike’s article.