Ultra-cyclist Jack Thompson likes to plan an epic challenge on the bike every year, but this year COVID-19 threw a wrench in his plans. He’d come up with an idea to race the pro peloton to Paris during the Tour de France, giving them a 10-day head start and then riding the course behind them, stage by stage. No biggie, right?
Yet as the pandemic put the certainty of the Tour going ahead in jeopardy, Thompson said he needed to find a ‘Plan B.’ He’d read of someone who set the weeklong distance record earlier this year and studied the stats of the ride.
“I said to myself, ‘I think that’s beatable,'” Thompson said.
In June, he decided to go for his Plan B, and on October 4, he made it happen: Thompson rode 3,505 kilometers in a week, setting a new world record.
Editor’s note: Thompson’s record is for an unsupported ride on a UCI-legal road bike. Christopher Strasser holds the ‘supported’ seven day-record.
Who is Jack Thompson?
Thompson is no stranger to epic challenges on the bike. Each year the Aussie likes to undertake a sufferfest of his own design and has recently begun to bring along a film crew to document it. Think Everesting is so 2020? Think again. Last year, Thompson completed three Everestings. In three days. In three countries! In 2018, he summited the Taiwan KOM four times, three of them without stopping and then during the race to cap it off.
Is Thompson cut from some rare cloth? Is he an ex-triathlete? A genetic abnormality? If you ask him, he’ll say he’s a lot like you.
“I grew up in a small city in Australia, normal upbringing, etc., etc.,” he said. “And, I’ve suffered depression since my teens.”
Thompson can’t really tell the story of his upbringing or his relationship with cycling without weaving in the thread of mental health. When he first jumped on a bike at age 13, he says, “I immediately found that my mood lifted because I had these mini-goals. I found it sorta kept my mental health issues at bay.”
Nevertheless, Thompson carried on with life, attending university to study construction management and economics. A booming economy in Perth at that time meant that Thompson was able to put his degree to work immediately and bring home a very healthy salary. It also meant that he started to party heavily and developed a drug addiction. In 2010, he found himself in a rehab program.
“When I got out, my dad said to me, ‘Why don’t you jump back on a bike,’” Thompson said. “We didn’t have a great relationship at the time, so I said ‘no,’ but he finally convinced me. I went out with him once, and I was hooked again. I guess you can say I have a bit of an obsessive personality.”
He began to train and race, even spending a season in Belgium in 2013. He spent time in the cycling mecca of Girona – now his home base — until he received a diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome. He went home to Perth to spend some time off the bike.
After a year of recovery, Thompson’s dad again proved influential.
“Dad had set a goal of riding around the world,” Thompson said. “Every year he’d set off and do a section. I thought, ‘I’m gonna start doing stuff like that.’”
In retrospect, Thompson’s choice for his first-ever ultra-distance cycling event was just a harbinger of things to come. In 2015, he signed up for and raced The Transcontinental Race, considered one of the most challenging ultra-distance bike races in the world. He was admittedly clueless when he flew to Belgium for the start, but the naïveté soon turned into something very powerful.
“It was the first time I’d really felt alive,” he said. “It was the most amazing sense of freedom, seeing everyone’s lights flashing red, and then everyone turns off and goes their own separate ways. It was totally eye-opening.”
After the race, Thompson returned home to Perth and gave notice at his job. He had decided he wanted to have a crack at making a living out of the bike.
Thompson spent a few years making ends meet by doing ambassador work for bike brands, all the while continuing to train for long-distance adventures. His first was the Taiwan KOM project in 2018. The resultant film about his experience, “Exploring the Limit,” garnered 90,000 views on YouTube, convincing Thompson that there was an audience for his adventures. His next insane exploit, the three-country/three-Everesting/three-days, was captured in the short film “The Grand Tours Everesting Project.”
Although everything Thompson has done seems mind-boggling difficult, this year’s record-breaking challenge takes the cake.
“Because it was seven days instead of three or four,” Thompson said. “And, there were a lot of things out of our control, like the weather. Logistically, there was quite a bit to plan, so I felt quite stressed going into it. I felt like I couldn’t relax, always had something on my mind, so I went into it more stressed than I normally would. That’s probably why it’s the hardest one I’ve done.”
A record-setting ride
One of the biggest logistical hurdles in Thompson’s attempt to break the record was finding a suitable place to ride for the week. At first, nothing in Spain where Thompson lives seemed like it would be flat enough for the quantity of kilometers he had to ride. The previous world record holder had managed to only gain about 1,000 meters of elevation per day that he rode; Thompson was trying to keep his day’s ascent below 1,500m.
He settled on southern Spain, south of Sevilla, and mapped out a 125km route that he would ride out and back twice a day, for a total of around 500km per day, barring any issues. But of course, there were issues.
After four days on the original out-and-back, Thompson shifted course, literally. The stretch of road he’d chosen was narrow with very little shoulder, busy during the day, and lacked adequate lighting when it was dark. If there was a headwind going out, sometimes it would shift and confront him for the entire 125km back. It was also far from his basecamp, where there was a shower, a bed, and more food.
So, before the fifth day, which called for horrendous wind and rain, Thompson mapped out a new route.
“So we mapped out 40k loop around the house, so I’d do that 10-12 times a day,” he said. “The problem with that was that it had a lot more climbing. But, it meant I’d stop in at the house for lunch, two of the days I had a quick shower. It also provided a little more interest — I could almost build a pattern in my mind of what was coming next. It becomes a little more familiar and I could relax a little more and I found that was quite helpful.”
Fortunately, Thompson had banked up some extra kilometers during the first few days because the fifth day was a doozy.
He woke up to howling winds with a forecast for gusts up to 40kph later in the day. After riding for only an hour, Thompson says he had to come home and take a 20-minute nap.
“Then, I woke up, went out, did another lap, came back, was like ‘I need more sleep,'” he said. “I went out again, and it started raining. It was fucking miserable. I remember I was really annoyed I didn’t get the 500km that day. I remember coming around the house for the final time, and the guys said ‘I think you need to stop now otherwise it won’t be good for tomorrow.’ I was so agitated, but it was a blessing in disguise.”
Fortunately, by that time Thompson had his nutrition dialed, although it took him a few days for his gut to adjust to the ride. He had trained using only Maurten’s carbohydrate-rich sports drinks and hoped to fuel his ride using only liquids. On the first day of the ride, he added some rice cakes to the drink. It was a total mistake.
Thompson lost his appetite after the rice and rich drink formed a mass in his stomach and awoke on the second day “feeling flat.” After some tough love from his crew, he decided to go with something he knew: McDonald’s McChicken sandwiches.
“It’s something I never eat normally, and I feel sick thinking about it, but it lasted for two days and sort of got the fire burning again,” he said.
10 McChicken sandwiches did the trick, and by the third day, Thompson was back to eating normal food like pasta, bread, and toast off the bike; and Maurten, peanut M&M’s, and Haribo gummies on the bike (fun fact: there is a Haribo Factory Store in Girona).
Of the other things that could go wrong, not much did. Thompson did not have a single puncture, chamois sore, ache or pain (that came after the ride), or gear malfunction. He kept his mind occupied with house music. The weather, aside from that horrendous day in the middle, was mostly fine. He got enough sleep. It was all A-OK.
However, what Thompson hopes that people remember most about the world record ride is that #itsoknottobeok.
Although Thompson is attracted to epic challenges on the bike because they give him a goal to train for and a sense of accomplishment at the end, he is also committed to using them to share a mental health message. The hashtag that he uses in his social media accounts and interviews is a reminder that people are still capable of doing amazing things, on the bike or otherwise, even if they’re not always OK.
“As cyclists, we celebrate fact that we can suffer on a bike,” Thompson said. “What’s the hardest, who can suffer the longest. Why can’t we associate that same pride with ‘I actually suffer in my life and I’m not weak about it?'”