A man of mental strength - Sofiane Sehili interview

Sofiane Sehili is a French bike messenger, and athlete based in Paris. Someone who spend his days on riding a bicycle as a work not necessarily want to spend his free time in the saddle. But we are not the same. He uses his job as a form of training as well so he can attend on ultra endurance racing. And he performs damn well. Sofiane is sponsored by Komoot, Apidura, Bombtrack and Hunt Bike Wheels.

He took the 3rd place on the 2016 Tour Divide race, In 2019 he won the BikingMan IncaDivide race, later that year he came 1st in line (with James Mark Hayden) on the Italy Divide. In 2020 he won the Atlas Mountain Race, and the French Divide (with setting a new course record).

It seems that he has inexhaustible stamina. Is he a superhuman who doesn't need to rest or sleep? Or he plays Russian roulette with his health and safety? Whatever the truth is he just sits on his bike at the start line, takes a deep breath and starts pedalling without stopping much. This year he had an unfortunate bad accident. Although we can follow his recovery on Instagram, which goes pretty well, what is the best scenario for him? We asked Sofiane about this and many more.

- Can you say 3 words which describe you the most?

- Passionate, stubborn, fun.


- What is your philosophy of life?

- Spend as much time as possible doing what you want. And as less time as possible doing what other people want you to do.

- What is your earliest cycling memory?

- Riding a BMX in the underground parking lot of the mall next to my grandma's place. I was 9 years old.

- How many bikes do you have? What types?

- I have 4 road bikes. 2 mountain bikes, one gravel bike, and one fixed gear.

- Where and when was your first ever bikepacking trip?

- It started in Laos December of 2010 and ended in Malaysia three or four months later.

2010 Malaysia - 2020 Hope 1000 Switzerland . Can you spot the 10 differences? (photo by Alfredo Betancourt)

- Is there anything you don’t like in bikepacking?

- Camping.

- Where is your favourite home land route?

- Any road in the Vercors. A stunning place in the French Alpes.

- Where is your favourite foreign route?

- It's the Pamir highway in Tajikistan.

- Do you have time to have a non-cycling hobby as well? If yes, what is it?

- I like to write stories.

- Why did you hook on Ultras? What do you like the most in these races?

- I heard about Tour Divide as I was riding the Great Divide mountain bike route. I thought it was an insane challenge and I wanted to see if I could do well. What I like the most is that you get to race other people, but you still spend most of your time by yourself. I like to be alone.

Racing the Tour Divide - Photos: Spencer Harding

- How do you train ?

- I used to go by feel and mix long rides with my work as a messenger. Couriering would give me the speed, and weekend rides would give me the endurance. Now I train with a coach which designs the sessions to get me to peak form comes race day. I train alone, about 4 to 5 times a week. And I do a bit of strength and conditioning once a week. It's hard to train in a big city like Paris as there's not many quiet roads. For the short sessions I just ride laps around a horse track. Training rides over 5 hours are the best as I can plan a nice route with Komoot and get away from the city. I can trust the route plane to get me on the quietest roads. 3 hours rides are the worst as it's too long to ride loops but too short to realy get away and enjoy a bit of countryside.

- What is your strongest skill as an ultra cyclist?

- I can go for days without any sleep at all. I can race 4 days on an hour of sleep.

A man of mental strenght - Photos: Lian Van Leeuwen and Nils Laengner

- You are known for this outstanding ability to handle sleep deprivation well. What was the longest consecutive time period you spent in the saddle? Do you train for it? Is it something a human can prepare for?

- I raced the entire Hope 1000 on nothing but a few 10 minutes naps. I never slept more than 10 minutes straight. You can train for this. But you have to have a genetic ability first. Some people just can't do it, no matter how hard they try. But in me I have this natural ability, and then I experienced to push further and master it.

- What do you think, on a high level, how much ultra races about actual cycling strength and the ability to handle sleep deprivation well?

- It's tough to say. It's a mix of so many things. Your ability to endure pain and discomfort. Your mental strength. The knowledge you have of your own limitations. And then there's this balance you have to find between riding and sleeping. The less you sleep, the slower you are. Also riding at night is slower than day riding. Which means, if you ride through the night while others sleep for 4 hours; you're not gonna be 4 hours ahead. They're gonna ride faster cause there's more light and they're fresher. But sleep deprivation is inherent to our sport. You can't sleep more than 4 hours a night and win an ultra.

"You can't sleep more than 4 hours a night and win an ultra. "

- Photos: Lian Van Leeuwen Atlas Mountain Race

- How do you see the future of ultra racing? What do you think about actual pros turning up at these events? Can their appearance change the aspect of ultras? If yes, how?

- I like it. I think the fact that pros try bikepacking and don't crush the competition shows that what we do is legit. These are real high level performances even though we are amateurs. It's tough. It really is. And when you have Grand Tours racers showing up and saying "Man that's the hardest thing I've ever done", I'm like "Okay, I might be an amateur, but nonetheless, I'm a real athlete. But what I don't want is to see money in these races. If you have prize money, you will attract cheaters. We don't have cheaters, and we don't want them.

- What circumstances do you consider when you choose a new challenge? How do you fill up your “race calendar”?

- There are three things I take into account before signing up for an event. The first one is the course. It has to be a place I want to go. The landscapes are very important.

The second thing I consider is the field. I like to compete against top athletes to see what I'm capable of. And I'd rather race against 200 people than 20.

And the final thing I take into consideration is the notoriety of the race. Some races have been around for a longer time and are more prestigious. For example, Tour Divide is the oldest bikepacking race in the world and this is why it's a dream of mine.

"It has to be a place I want to go. The landscapes are very important. " - Photos: Lian Van Leeuwen and John Schilling

- What is your personal favourite drink and food during races?

- I love to drink ice tea and eat snickers.

- Which was the most challenging race for you so far? Why was it that hard?

- I have to say Italy Divide. It was really hot the first day and I suffered dehydration. Then the second and third day, we had rain. And finally, towards the end, it snowed and I had to hike my bike for most of the day. On top of that, it was my first time racing without sleep, just a few ten minutes naps here and there. And the course is very hard, with frequent and fairly long hike-a-bike.

- How do you see the future of bikepacking as a sport/hobby?

- Competitive bikepacking is gonna grow much bigger. Right now it's a bit confusing as there's too many races. But the good ones are going to stay and the bad ones are going to disappear. The best of them are going to attract the top athletes and the level is going to raise quite a bit. The best racers are going to sleep even less while still being able to ride fast. The most popular events will be off-road, for safety reasons. On road events are going to decline in popularity as the top competitors will move away from them towards gravel and MTB ultras.

- How did Covid affect your 2020 year as an athlete?

- I had to change all my plans as all the races I had targeted were canceled. I stayed flexible and signed up for events last minute, making the most of the opportunities I was given. Paradoxically I ended up racing more, but closer to home. I didn't get the results I expected as the lockdown in France did not allow me to train properly.

- Regarding your accident, how do you see 2021? What is the best scenario?

- Best case scenario, I'll be back racing in May and it will be like nothing ever happened. And then I'll race another three or four times. Actually I'm more concerned about covid19 than my injury.

- We have a fantastic event, the Hungarian Divide, 1200 km 20 000+ m elevation. Is there any chance that the Hungarian (and international) participants might meet you and the start line of this event? (No promises or so!)

- I get invited to a lot of events, so I can't promise anything. But my friend Bagoly Levente told me it's a real cool and hard race. So, why not?

Thank you very much Sofiane, we wish you a quick recovery and a succesfull, best scenario 2021!

You can follow Sofiane on his personal page or on instagram. If you'd listen to podcasts about bikepacking, I really suggest visiting Bikes Or Death podcasts hosted by Patrick Farnsworth. The podcasts with Sofiane is available on Spotify or on Patrick's page here and here as well.

Photos: Alfredo Betancourt, John Schilling, Lian Van Leeuwen, Nils Laengner, Spencer Harding, Thibaut Mieszko

Text and editing: Boros Balázs Mókus

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