Every year when Jack Thompson was a kid, he and his younger brother would watch the Tour de France from their home in Perth, Western Australia, at extremely late hours because of the time difference.
It became Thompson’s dream to one day ride the Tour. And this year he achieved that dream riding by himself, averaging 215 miles, or two stages, per day, without the help of a peloton.
Thompson, 32, isn’t new to ultra cycling events. Over the past several years he’s completed tons of endurance challenges, such as the Guinness World Record for the most distance covered on a bike in seven days (2,178 miles), and the record for riding the entirety of Portugal from south to north (444 miles, 33,464 feet of elevation, done in 24hrs 11min). He’s earned his nickname, Ultra Jack, for good reason.
Additionally, riding helps Thompson manage symptoms from mental illness and depression, with which he has struggled since he was young. He was addicted to drugs at one point, and spent some time in rehab. But now, he’s come to realize that it’s okay to not be okay—his mantra—and it’s something he talks about as much as possible.
“Having a physical focus each day gave me something to sort of defer my negative thoughts to,” Thompson told Bicycling.
In case you’re confused, or feel like you’ve heard this before, there was someone else who rode the entire Tour course this year—Lachlan Morton of EF Education-Nippo. But the idea for Thompson’s ride was hatched three years ago. But funding fell through in 2019, so they put it off a year, and the pandemic canceled the project in 2020.
When June rolled around this year, Thompson was more than ready. He found funding through Wahoo (the formal name of the ride is ‘The Amazing Chase – Presented by Wahoo’), and was additionally backed by Specialized, Velocio Apparel, BBB Cycling, and Supersapiens.
On social media, Thompson kept track of where he was each day in comparison to the Tour de France pro peloton, and how far he had left to cover. The official 2021 Tour de France ran from June 28 to July 18, with 21 days of biking and two rest days. Thompson’s version began July 5. His goal was to ride two stages per day, catch up with the tour, pass them, and then stay ahead. This meant 13 to 14 hours of pedaling per day, and then approximately three hours in the car to get to the next stage. And don’t forget refueling and resting. Many times Thompson would get to his hotel for the night with only a few hours left for sleep.
On July 5, with his rims and helmet adorned with “It’s okay not to be okay,” Thompson set out from Brest, France, hoping to be in Paris 10 days later.
Once Thompson was riding, he was surprised how drained he continued to feel mentally. He was moving through the towns and countryside so quickly that he could barely digest what he was seeing.
“There’s so much stimulation, especially as you get closer and closer to the event,” Thompson said. “But you don’t have the capacity to take it all in at the time.”
Thompson also had a really detailed schedule, which was crucial to follow. But it was hard to predict what would get in the way.
“The transfers [between stages] were quite stressful. I was riding pretty big distances every day, and I thought when I got in the car I’d be able to just relax, but it wasn’t like that. It was always, ‘Oh we’ve got to charge this, or charge that.’ It was mentally fatiguing.”
Thompson had plenty of difficult days, physically, too. Double stages in the mountains meant he was sometimes climbing 8,000 meters (over 26,000 feet) in a day. The weather was also a major factor. Some days soared to nearly 100-degrees. Other days had excessive cold and rain. He lost track of how many times he changed his clothes and how much clothing was necessary for the ride.
“I knew exactly how many kilometers I was going to ride every day, but the weather wreaked a bit of havoc on the plan,” Thompson said. “Out of the ten days it probably rained 80 percent of the time. We just couldn’t believe we were in France in July.”
On the fourth day, the weather was so bad that Thompson had to cut it short. He was fored to stop after only about 155 miles. It was the first time that he had been in the mountains, and he experienced continuous climbing, and torrential, freezing rain.
“It got to the point that I was so cold I had to hop in the van to warm up.”
For Thompson, that was the low point—not only getting so cold, but also the mental obstacle of knowing he was not yet to the halfway point. And the following day, he not only needed to ride his two planned stages, but he also had to make up the extra 45 miles that he hadn’t finished the day before.
“After that really difficult day, I decided that I was sick of this [ride] being all about the numbers,” Thompson said. “I [changed it up and] just spent the day looking at the line [on the map on my bike computer] instead of the numbers, and that really took me back to the origins of why I started—the enjoyment of just riding the bike. I think that’s one of the biggest lessons from this. You don’t always have to concentrate on the power and the heart rate and the miles or elevation. Just enjoy it.”
After he overtook the peloton during their rest day in Andorra, things felt easier because it seemed like he had made it past the toughest part.
“It was at the beginning of one of the climbs and [course officials] said, ‘No the road is closed, there aren’t any more cars going through.’ But luckily we convinced them to let just me through the barrier,” Thompson said, adding that was one of the highlights of the whole ride. “It was the first experience for me of really being in front of the tour. All of the supporters were on the side of the road having barbecues. It was pretty cool to have the road to myself knowing I was in front for the first time. And from then on it was basically smooth sailing.”
Thompson reached the Champs-Élysées in Paris on July 15. He rode 3,552km (2,207 miles) and climbed 52,002 meters (170,610 feet) in ten days. Thompson took each of the traditional eight laps around the Champs-Élysées with one of his crew members, who had been with him through it all. “The most special part of the whole thing was sharing a lap with everyone and just talking to them one-on-one. It was nice to share it.”
So, how is Thompson recovering from that huge effort? After a few days in Paris, seeing the sights and taking it easy, he headed to Menorca, in the Balearic Islands of Spain with his partner to essentially sit by a pool and put his feet up. But generally, one of Thompson’s favorite recovery-day activities is riding an e-bike.
“I found that I was always riding too hard on recovery days, so I got the e-bike and it took me back to actually having fun on a bike. I think there’s a lot to be said for e-bikes. Instead of having a power meter, just enjoy being on a bike for the sake of transportation and exploration.”
One of the goals of this project was to create a film—to encourage others to go after their dreams even if it’s not exactly how they imagined those dreams coming true. Just because you didn’t get a spot on a cycling team at the Tour de France doesn’t mean you can’t still do it. Thompson’s documentary film of The Amazing Chase - Presented by Wahoo will be out in September.
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