Five minutes with... James Hayden & Sofiane Sehili

The 2019 Italy Divide was nothing short of good old-fashioned ultra-endurance bike racing. Everything we’ve come to expect from long distance riding we were fortunate enough to watch: extreme weather, disqualification, DNFs and of course winners. But this was a race that unfolded like no other we’ve seen before or are likely to see again: there were two winners. We caught up with James Hayden (JH) and Sofiane Sehili (SS) to reflect on this incredibly exciting race.

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Sofiane ready for the off

You both have fairly long histories with ultra-endurance racing. How did previous races prepare you for the Italy Divide 2019?
JH: Not much at all! Italy Divide is completely different to anything I’ve done before. The rule book and experience I had helped prepare me to be fit, but the skills to race off-road, and the requirements of kit are very different. Back to school for me!

SS: I believe each race makes you tougher. And toughness is what will get you at the finish of Italy Divide. It is like no event I’ve raced before. It is both shorter and more brutal. The length is tricky because it’s over 72 hours but under a week, which makes it hard to come up with a sleep strategy. And in competitive bikepacking, sleep is often a decisive factor.

Nothing had prepared me for the kind of terrain the route offers. This is legit mountain biking, with slippery singletracks through the forest and the occasional fallen tree blocking the way, steep rocky trails, long hike-a-bikes, relentless climbing... just a really hard daily grind where you feel you’re making no progress.

But one thing I learned from the Tour Divide (where the terrain is not as rugged but you still have a few frustrating parts) is that there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. It may take you two or three hours to complete a hike-a-bike, it may even take a full day hiking in the snow before you can get back to the comfort of the pavement, but it always ends. No punishment in this world is never-ending. So, you might as well be patient, push the bike and wait until it is over and you can ride it again.

What were the highlights and lowlights of the Italy Divide 2019?
JH: Walking through the snow and finishing joint 1st was a hell of a highlight. Riding into a puddle, my front wheel sinking over the hub and then putting my foot in, up to my knee was a funny ‘lowlight’!

SS: Highlights: I have to say Tuscany. Riding there at sunrise, seeing the hills covered in the early morning mist, the quietness of the place where you hardly see a car, beautiful villas surrounded by vineyards and the famed “strade bianche”. That was pure bliss.

Another highlight, and I know it’s gonna sound insane, was actually climbing to the top of Lessinia, pushing the bike ankle-deep in snow. Being there alone, and kind of not understanding what was going on because I was so sleep deprived, was a truly unique experience. Definitely something I had never done before, and probably will never do again. That’s what I love so much about cycling: whether it’s being in a forest in New Mexico, a desert in Uzbekistan or a high pass in the Pamir, I stand there and can’t believe that, at the same time, these places are so magnificent and I have them all for myself.

As for the lowlight, it has to be the first day. I just hated everything about it. The first two or three hours, there were a dozen of guys racing it out on pavement through small towns in the heat of Campania. And I’m not a big fan of riding in groups - it makes me nervous. In terms of scenery, there was not much to see. Some of the streets were quite busy which is not what you’re looking for when you sign up for such races. I just had no fun on this first day and I spent a lot of time struggling mentally to stay in the race.

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One of the many hike-a-bike sections James faced

Have you ever had to deal with extreme weather in a race before? What goes through your mind when weighing up safety concerns vs the race situation?
JH: No. I decided to stop at this point. Once the cloud closed in, I had seen it was snowing higher up and it began snowing at 1,200m. We had to pass 1,800m and I knew it was not safe with the kit I had. At the end of the day it's only a bike race.

SS: I’ve had to deal with snow on the Tour Divide and actually it was way worse than what happened in Italy because I was soaking wet from a couple of hours in the rain and nearly went hypothermic. I’ve also had to deal with extreme heat in Australia and Laos. What I usually do (and I am not saying it’s smart) is I keep going until I can’t. There’s not much that goes through my mind, whether it’s in a race or just touring remote parts of the world. Forward progress is my obsession. I remember running into a shepherd as I was riding in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and he basically told me, “if you go this way, you’re gonna die” (I don’t speak Kyrgyz but thanks to his gestures I understood everything). But I’ve found myself in so many desperate situations that I don’t really pay attention to such warnings. I ended up 3000m high on a gravel road with fresh snow but I made it out alive. I’m careless and I always think everything is gonna be fine. That’s who I am and I won’t change.

Talk us through a brief timeline that led up to the final stretch and ultimately the joint winning position.
JH: I set off from the hotel after 6 hours’ sleep. I knew that Sofiane was 15km ahead, having been neck and neck when I stopped. I pushed on hard all day and by evening I was catching him. At the bottom of the final climb with 45km to go, there was 20-30 minutes between us, so I just pushed as hard as I could up an 18km 1,200m climb. Every corner I looked for him. With 2km to go, I finally saw him. I pulled alongside and said, “respect Sofiane!” and then I attacked as hard as I could. He clawed back. I went again. He came back. I went again and finally got a gap, maybe 10 meters at most. As we came to the top of the climb I saw the road was covered with snow. I knew we were equal. If you don't have a good lead on someone after 1,200km then it's a draw. So I stopped, turned around and asked if he wanted to ride in together to finish joint first. He said yes. 

SS: I was stopped at a gas station the night before when I saw James roll in looking for water because his bike was literally covered in mud. We briefly rode together then he had to stop again to clean his bike some more. I was progressing slowly because my Garmin had stopped working and I had to use my phone to check the route, which was very impractical. I made several wrong turns and he overtook me. Sun came up and it started raining a bit which made navigating even harder. I kept going and made my way through small villages with not a soul in sight. Eventually the rain turned to snow as I gained altitude. I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to go as all was covered in snow and I couldn’t see the road. Then came the word that James had stopped. It took me several hours, both pushing and riding the bike, to make it to a rifugio where I had a plate of pasta and slept for 45 minutes. Then came more hiking in the snow. I have no idea how long it lasted. I was so sleep deprived I had no sense of time and wasn’t sure that this was actually real. Then came word that James was on the move and going pretty fast. I finally made it to the pavement and really enjoyed that downhill. But more climbing was to come. And then James was on my tail. I gave it my all (all I had left anyway) and as I was nearing the top of that last climb, I turned back and saw him. He was going fast. In a matter of seconds we were together. He fist-bumped me and said “Respect”. Then he attacked. I gathered all the strength I had left to hang on. When we made it to the top, I was a few metres behind him. He looked at me and said “We made it to the top of the last climb together, we might as well roll in to the finish together.” This was both sportsmanship and the smart thing to do since the downhill ahead us was a gravel road with bad patches of snow.

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Sofiane finds himself bottom-bracket deep in snow

You’re not likely to see a finish like that in the TdF or indeed any other bike race. Do you think there is a different mindset or respect between riders within self-supported ultra racing?
JH: Yes. There is complete respect and admiration, you know what the other riders have been through. Serious sportspersonship.

SS: I absolutely think there is a different mindset and a lot of respect between the riders, more than what you see in professional cycling. First and foremost, in this sport, what you see is people competing against themselves. It is a personal challenge. You have this gigantic beast in front of you and you try to defeat it by giving a hundred percent. Most people racing want to reach their limit and then see if they can push it.
I’ve been in a few events and I’ve only met very humble riders that had nothing but the utmost respect for their rivals. This is an amateur sport, there’s no prize money and that’s what keeps it pure. That’s why it is, above all, about sportsmanship.

I feel what James had in mind when he asked me if I was okay finishing together: if 4 days of pushing our bikes up ridiculously steep hills, carrying them on impassable trails while being rained on, pedalling through 3 sleepless nights and finally hiking for hours in the snow, falling over countless times hadn’t been enough to determine who was the better man, it was not up to a 20km downhill to do it.

James, you rode a gravel bike and Sofiane, you were on a MTB. Is there anything either of you would change about your bike setups if you were to take part in the Italy Divide again?
JH: No. Knowing what the conditions were, perhaps I'd take a 29er. However, I got round on 40c gravel bike. The whole route is a compromise, there is no ideal choice.

SS: I would get a bigger cassette. I had an 11/36 and lot of times I found myself wishing I had a 40T cog. I also had one-sided SPD pedals because I like having pedals with a bigger surface, to compensate the lack of stiffness in my soles. But the trails are fairly technical and you do need real mtb pedals as you find yourself unclipping a lot. Other than that, I was really happy with my setup.

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Credit: James Hayden

What’s next on the calendar for you both?
JH: I just announced this week that I’ll be doing the Highland Trail 550.

SS: Tour Divide which starts June 14th in Banff, Canada and ends 4300km further south at the Mexican border. It will be my second time on the TD after my third place in 2016. And actually one of the purpose of the Italy Divide was to test my bike and gear as well as my body.