Culture

One man’s quest to ride the Tour de France distance on a bad stationary bike

Jacob Hill-Gowing has already pedaled more than 3,100 kilometers on an uncomfortable stationary bicycle in his tiny London apartment. His final day of riding will be broadcast by the BBC.

It was Geraint Thomas who told Jacob Hill-Gowing that he should really be wearing cycling shorts with a chamois. By that time, however, Hill-Growing had already pedaled 1,000 or so kilometers.

“I asked him why my ass was hurting and he told me about bike shorts,” Hill-Gowing told VeloNews. “I took his advice on that one.”

This past month cycling fans across the U.K. have become enthralled with the bizarre exploits of Jacob Hill-Gowing, a 28-year-old Londoner who is riding the approximate distance of the Tour de France on a stationary bicycle inside his 350-square-foot apartment. Hill-Gowing works at a creative agency in London, and like millions of others saw his life upended by the coronavirus pandemic and felt motivated to take on a challenge.

“I thought I could do a sponsored cycle ride indoors to raise money, and I was trying to think about a distance and just thought that I’d ride the distance of the Tour de France,” Hill-Gowing said. “My friends said, ‘Do you realize that it’s 3,500 kilometers long?’ When I found that out I was pretty surprised.”

Hill-Growing inside his tiny apartment in London. Photo: Jacob Hill-Growing

This Friday Hill-Gowing is slated to pedal his 3,500th and final kilometer, and the BBC is going to broadcast the event on television.

Every night after work Hill-Gowing sits down on an old stationary bicycle and pedals invisible miles for five or six hours, and averages anywhere from 60 to 100 kilometers a day. He live-streams the action on the website Twitch, and catalogs his rides on Instagram. He has done this, day after day, for 39 continuous days.

“I’m definitely over 100 hours of riding at this point,” he said. “I knew this was a bit of a stupid challenge when I first started, but it’s become easier and easier.”

Hill-Gowing’s zany challenge, which he calls the “Le Tour de flat,” is raising funds for the Big Issue, a street newspaper that exists to help homeless people generate income. His is the latest strange indoor cycling stunt in the age of COVID-19 that raises funds for charity. Earlier this month it was Thomas himself who completed three 12-hour days on the virtual cycling platform Zwift to raise funds for the National Health Services.

Former NFL and MLB great Bo Jackson recently organized a virtual version of his Bo Bikes Bama ride to raise funds for the Alabama Governor’s Emergency Relief Fund. And then there was the tale of Callum Townsend, the 22-year-old who rode 24 continuous hours on Zwift on a whim to raise funds for the NHS.

Hill-Gowing’s story follows a similar vein. As the coronavirus lockdown impacted his daily life, he thought about the local homeless who would be impacted by the shutdown. Similarly, he felt motivated to try and get in shape during his own lockdown. Now, he’s raised nearly £7,000 ($8,760).

At first Hill-Gowing’s rides were an oddity on social media, and then, mainstream media took notice. Now, Hill-Gowing is something of a strange celebrity — he has been interviewed by major newspapers and cycling publications alike.

During a recent radio interview, Hill-Gowing was the guest of honor alongside Thomas, who passed along the sartorial advice about bike shorts. Yep, before Thomas told him to buy a chamois, Hill-Gowing had been pedaling away while wearing a pair of scratchy workout shorts.

“I’ve probably done everlasting damage to it,” Hill-Gowing said, referring to his, er, nether regions.

You see, Jacob Hill-Gowing is not a cyclist. He doesn’t follow the sport or even ride a bicycle for pleasure. The last outdoor ride he completed was seven years ago. So, while Thomas and Jackson and Townsend have completed their own cycling challenges with the aid of fancy bicycles, cutting-edge apparel, and years of experience, Hill-Gowing is doing his with little more than inspiration, boredom, and a really terrible bicycle.

Would you ride 3,500 kilometers on this bike? Photo: Jacob Hill-Gowing

The bicycle Hill-Gowing is pedaling is, to put it bluntly, an awful hunk of crap.

“It’s literally an ironing board with pedals,” Hill-Gowing said. “It’s one of those [un]branded things that are so bad they don’t even have a brand name.”

It has flat pedals, which Hill-Gowing pushes with his sock-clad feet (he’s not wearing shoes). The bike’s data is flashed on a screen that resembles that of a calculator. In the past five weeks the bicycle has received so much use that it is falling apart.

“It sounds terrible now,” he said. “It’s covered in sweat and when the pedals turn they make a horrendous noise now.”

Hill-Gowing’s story is proof that cycling goals can be attained without fancy apparel or an expensive bicycle.

Sometimes, a little bit o’ crazy (and yes, good intentions and inspiration) is all you need.

Do you have a story of a cycling community finding a creative way to ride during the shutdown? Email us at webletters@velonews.com