Five Minutes With... James Olsen

TNR4 has an ‘analogue’ entry system involving postcards and the website is somewhat minimalist. What do you think about the impact of social media and the internet on bike packing?

The entry process was just an idea to slow it all down from a rush of email sends, plus it's a bit more personal. It’s interesting to see how thing can work or what pressures are removed if there’s no commercial influence in it. The website doesn’t need to be slick: the ride is a stunner and the website will never do the scenery justice. The social media side of all this will never interest me like the riding and social aspect of the rally does. Maybe there’s an element of resisting the need to match up to better-presented sites or events as a way of not getting too much interest, or putting some people off if they think it looks shonky, even. I don’t make any money from it and getting bigger only complicate things or risks the event’s future so maintaining what it can raise for Smart Shelter Foundation (SSF) is the only commercial interest, that’s probably best done for now by just keeping it where it is.
It's fair to say the TNR only happened because of the reach a forum or Instagram can have so I certainly appreciate what it can do. And via the TNR I do find an outlet for something expressive or creative that I don’t really use social media for otherwise. I love how inspiration can be shared though I think there’s a responsibility that goes with that, caution over where/ what you show etc. I expect online content has allowed wider route sharing and inspiring images focus attention on areas, but still there’s a whole world of riders and riding that aren’t a big part of that, the ones who still use maps and never post their rides up.

TNR doesn’t have any entry fees. Why not?

The TNR was a ‘try it and see’ thing from the start and any voluntary contributions from riders go direct to SSF, the charity the ride supports. It does have an entry fee now though. It costs riders £1 to confirm an entry contract that clarifies liability and that started last year when it was clear the ride was growing fast. But essentially it’s free. I enjoyed creating the route for a tour in 2015 and putting the event on isn’t expensive, just a bit of time. It’s not a job that needs to pay as I’m lucky in my full time work. I think if you pay little/nothing you have fewer expectations and are closer to true touring ethos, self- sufficiency etc. If an event requires greater set up costs, rider support or similar to function well then you’d pay towards that to enter, fair enough.

You’ve encouraged female participation in TNR4 by granting automatic entry confirmation to women and couples. In your experience, what are some of the common barriers or misconceptions that women have that put them off entering an event like TNR?

Over the last couple of years I’ve realized how little perspective I really had on this topic, to be honest. Understanding how my often-blasé attitude to a solo urban bivi (for ex) just isn’t an option to all but the most confident women was a turning point. Seems obvious I know, but for a while I just thought similar situations or attitudes went hand in hand with bikepacking – they can, though shouldn’t be a barrier to those preferring not to. It seems positive to try to create an event environment where women are more likely to find others to ride with and camp out with on their own terms, if they want to.

The TNR’s not a race but long-distance racing and audax have welcoming cultures and no lack of humility among riders in my experience, so it won’t be the racing element that’s any barrier - certainly no more for women than for men. The TCR is no minor undertaking yet their approach to female entries has created a far more mixed field than other races so there’s something there to learn from there.

There is a set route, but it has lots of options and people can do their own thing. Most events are route or no-route, why the in-between style?

This isn’t a race so who cares if you stick to the route, it’s your call. I rarely stick to my routing plans when on a long ride myself. Touring or social riding is largely about freedom. That freedom is important and not suggesting any value in route completion helps there when other events are about ‘doing the route’. The route options encourage riders to think about where and when more than simply following a line, we can get a bit too reliant on one-line GPS files and it’s good to stop and think about ‘here or there?’ along the way. I like the way pre-considered route options mean a longer day or two might buy you the time to do that extra section that looks interesting, or a shortcut means ride plans aren’t spoiled by bad weather or a commitment to finish within a set time to get home again. I’ve planned most of my solo tours on that basis and it’s always made the route more rewarding if I ride well (well, as in efficiently and making good time). Options also help to manage some of the risks or give freedom for variation if you repeat the route, as well as making an ITT more complex to benchmark, to discourage time comparisons.

You have competed in a number of events yourself and done really well. Why didn’t you make a race?

(Thank you!). I enjoy watching events unfold on Trackleaders every year, I’ve not actually raced much myself but I have taken a lot from those experiences. Racing has pushed me further than I thought I could go and I owe it a lot for those experiences, but I guess speed alone isn’t very important to me compared to a sense of ethics or style of approach, so I find it hard to reconcile that with the needs of racing. Totally relaxed touring’s never quite been my thing either though. I do it and enjoy it but I’ve always loved that feeling of full-flow efficiency and I get a lot from riding in that way. I probably got my motivations for racing out of my system in the first big race I did without realising that would be one of the long-term effects when I set off. Not too long after that race we were in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday during the first Holyland Challenge and I felt that passing through without stopping for longer, a day or more, was a missed opportunity. Not the first time I’d had that thought but it hit hard there.
After those races, I enjoyed doing solo multi-day rides more ‘off-grid’, pushing myself on with no competitors or trackers. It can be harder to keep going to the same extent when truly solo like that with nothing external to answer or react to aside from the environment around you. It feels like a pure test and got to the bottom of what I was riding for, plus I was free to pause when I wanted to. I love those solo miles when you feel you’re in deep and testing yourself yet it’s good to share experiences with others. More conflicts for a potential distance racer.
Anyway... the TNR as an un-racer event appealed partly because of all those thoughts, to get away from some of the complexities or conflicts that racing creates for some, as an opportunity to free everyone up to just enjoy an event any way they chose. It’s not very long in self-supported racing context but I still thought the route could pose too many risks to a speeding or very tired rider, another reason not to make it a race. It was so good riding with people from all over Europe in that first TNR, new people to ride with for a few days, everyone with time to chat and share experiences over dinner or coffee stops as well as put in some long days or early starts if they wanted to. It’s been just as good each year since and there’s a lot of room for exploration in that general area. I look forward to it every year.
In short: not a rejection of racing at all, more about recognising that there’s other ways to bring riders together for an experience that’s different to the average group ride.

There is always a huge range of bikes at the start. Is there such thing as a perfect TNR bike?

That question is a big part of why the route was mapped in the first place, for me to test out some ideas about long-distance mixed-terrain bikes. There is no perfect bike for this kind of riding, there never will be and that makes it all so interesting from a design and event perspective – different riders, preferences, interpretations and the inclusivity it brings. I spend a lot of working hours on bike categorisation and how it’s presented and as much as I love it it’s nice to escape all of that for a while, because in all honesty it’s largely sales talk. Bikes can be made better by small changes or good design and the attributes of a bike really shape our ride experiences, but it also can be far simpler if we look to enjoy the places and company and to ‘make do’ where it comes to the bike, rather than focus on the product and its suitability for going fast over a route. Slow it all down a bit and there’s fewer disadvantages to just ‘run what ya brung’.

Are there any plans to expand the TNR ethos and create other social rally events in the future? If so, where?

No plans for more TNR stuff from me, I’m already aware of the commitment to communications and the interest the rally has generated. A few other events have started up with kind reference to the organiser’s experience on the TNR or influenced by the same ethics which is great to see. I’m happy to share anything I’ve found out about liability or set up if anyone is interested and always grateful if anyone has professional experience to offer - many thanks to those who’ve offered opinions or guidance so far.

If you had to distill what TNR is all about in one short sentence, what would it be?

Just riding our bikes.