The engagement with cycling didn't go easy for James. His first cycling memory (from the age of 4) is about flying over the handlebars. The second one was touching the ground with his face first. Basically he had more broken parts and fractures in his early years, than most of us in an entire life. For some it could be a sign to give up activities which are considered painful. But not for James. He started dirt jumping and tried himself in sports like skiing, boxing, rugby, rowing, football, weight lifting, and BMX. He was looking for something. Looking back it seems he was seeking his limits. These painful early days were the guarantee that he can hold on when he encounters them one day.
He actually lived in Budapest as a child for 4 years. He has some cool memories of sneaking out with a friend and riding bikes across the city (at the age of 9). James Mark Hayden is an English pro ultra endurance athlete, sponsored by Canyon, Ride with GPS, and Endura. He won the Transcontinental Race twice in a row. In 2019 James and Sofiane Sehili finished first, neck and neck in the Italy Divide, after a great battle between the two of them. Also in 2019 he led the Silk Road Mountain Race when he was attacked by two horsemen in Kyrgyzstan. He had to go back to the last checkpoint and wait almost a day. Finally though he finished 4th. He came in second in the 2020 Atlas Montain Race, just 4 hours after Sofiane.
When I approached him with the idea of an interview he positively responded within 2 hours.
- Can you say 3 words James, which describe you the most?
- Determined. Thoughtful. Integrous.
- Where do you live and what do you do for a living?
- Right now, in Catalonia. We moved here just before Brexit. And I ride bikes currently.
Catalonia 2020. It seems there are some sweet gravel roads...
- What is your philosophy of life?
- Life can be complicated and overwhelming, I think it’s important to focus on that which you can effect. I know life is short and have found an acceptance in the reality of my finite existence. Therefore, I try to live a life true to myself, one where I can look back and say that I made the most of the rich experience in a way honest to me. It is easy to get caught up in the modern ideals of life, finding the courage and vision to rebuff this is hard, but important. We get one go, make it yours.
- What is your earliest cycling memory?
- When I was around 4 years old. I had a little bike with stablisers, I rode it off a ledge and flipped over.
- Where and when was your first ever bikepacking trip?
- Probably around 2013. It was October and I went touring (I’d call it touring) into France. It was cold and it rained every day. I lost my rain jacket on the second day and it seemed like the end of the world. We all must start small and grow!
- Is there anything you don’t like in bikepacking?
The misconception by people that you need all the gear, or this kit or that. You just need whatever bike you have and kit in your bag and go. It’s about the experience.
- Where is your favourite home land route?
In the UK, the Highland Trail 550. Alan Goldsmith has put an amazing route around Scotland together, I’d never been before and doing the race in 2019 was amazing. I really hope to get back soon.
- Where is your favourite foreign route?
- I think my time touring in Kyrgyzstan was really great. For long stretches I had no phone signal and no company, the experience was rich and profound. I was left alone with my thoughts. So my favourite route would be one that is remote and alone. I think time alone is very powerful for mental development.
- As a bike fanatic how many bikes do you have right now? What types?
- I think 4 right now, one just went back to Canyon. I have a Endurace, Grail, Exceed and Neuron. So from road to trail. I am lucky to have Canyon!
James and his Canyon Grail.
- Do you have time to have a non-cycling hobby as well? If yes, what is it?
- Nice question. I like working on things, and learning how they work, I am a practical person. In the summer of 2020 I converted a van to campervan. I have a motorbike and I like working on the engine, taking it apart learning how it works. I probably get more joy from working on the engine that riding the motorbike. Sometimes I get little projects on the go when I want to solve something, like writing some code to make a decision making model. I read a lot, trying to learn more, and question everything. Cycling is more a task for me now, getting fit, but getting a Neuron and learning to ride trails is my fun side of cycling, I really enjoy that. Right now my wife and I are learning Spanish together which is fun.
A bicycle rack on the motorbike made by James, and the campervan under process.
- Your are in the first rank of the international ultra races. Why did you hook on Ultras? What do you like the most in these races?
- I have a chip on my shoulder from when younger, lots of people said I lacked focus and wouldn’t achieve anything! So I like to see how far I can push myself. There is nothing as amazing as riding your bike through the night and seeing the sun set and sun rise, it’s profound.
- What drove you from road ultras to trail/off road?
- Off-road is a richer experience, tougher, more fun.
- What is your strongest skill as an ultra cyclist?
- I like to really think about things a lot and analyse them, then make good decisions. Also, when I get the bit between my teeth, I go to another level.
- How do you train ?
- I train alone always, cycling is my personal joy and I prefer the experience of being alone. Also I ride very slowly so riding with other people does not work, as they ride too fast. I have a rough plan, but I am felixible, as I write this I am taking a couple extra days off as I have a small injury – nothing serious and I could have kept riding but it’s a long time till racing so it is good to be smart.
Why shall we hurry? Photos by Camille McMillian
- What circumstances do you consider when you choose a new challenge? (How do you fill up your “race calendar”?)
I do not have set criteria, I just see races and I think that it looks interesting. If there are fast racers there too, then all the better. Normally, it’s somewhere new, tough terrain, different culture, mountains, good race director, good route planning.
- Which was the most challenging race for you so far? Why was it that hard?
- It would have to be Silk Road Mountain Race, the terrain and climate are tough. When I race in 2019 it was cold, -15 C, it rained, I pushed through a blizzard at 4,000 m. The terrain was rough and unrelenting, it ground you down. But that makes it all the more rewarding.
In Kyrgyzstan 2019.
- What is your personal favourite drink and food during races?
- Normally something hot and savoury as I am sick of sweet snack food.
- We know that you’re one of the first pro bikepackers. How shall we imagine that?
- Generally getting sponsorship or partners involves a lot of hard work, speaking to people and not giving up. Eventually you find the right people and it works out great. Ride with GPS actually approached me, I have been using their service since 2012 and always a vocal supporter, so they decided to support me. It is important to keep true to yourself and not just do deals for a check. And it is a bit like any job really, sending some emails, doing some work. But it’s pretty relaxed in comparison! Though there isn’t a pension.
- What has changed in your life since that?
- Not much, I just do not go to university now. I have more time on my hands as a consequence so I am thinking a lot about what I want to do over the next 5 years and putting some plans in place.
- Do you need to organise your sport career differently? (Training, choosing the races, gear, tactic, ect.)
- No I don’t. It would be easy to pile pressure on yourself and that is not helpful. I just concentrate on enjoying what I am doing, and in turn the hard work will happen itself and the performances will come when ready.
- What are their requirements towards you as an athlete?
- Generally to just be an athlete. No one I work with has said I have to win X,Y or Z, as that is unrealistic. To be a good ambassador and just keep doing what I already did. I work with brands on feedback and product development which is really fun, I am very fussy and have unreasonable standards so I notice things and can help them improve. It’s been great to develop a load of new stuff with Endura.
Working along with Canyon.
- There are more and more pro (UCI) or former pro cyclists on bikepacking ultra races. - What do you think, why do they register? Can it change the aspect of ultras? If yes, how?
I think it is great, as long as they understand the spirit and ethos, which perhaps not all do. But as always, things change. Perhaps in 10 years the current races will be mainstream and we will see new underground races coming up – as happened with the Tour de France!
- How do you see the future of bikepacking as a sport/hobby?
Hopefully a long term enjoyment, I wish to be doing this when I am an old man still.
- How did Covid affect your 2020 year as an athlete?
- I was going to do Silk Road again, but it was cancelled. This meant I was able to do some other events which went ahead in Europe, Further, Badlands and Two Volcano Sprint – it was a nice opportunity to do races I would not have been able to and which were all great. As the saying goes, when life gives you lemons make lemonade.
Mont Blanc tour 2020.
- Can you share what is in your 2021 calendar?
- Not yet, who knows what will happen!
- We have a fantastic event, the Hungarian Divide, 1200 km with 20 000+ m elevation. Is there any chance that the Hungarian (and international) participants might meet you and the start line of this event?
Ha perhaps in time, I have a few things to cross off at the top of my list. And with how hard these races are, I wish I could do more!
Thank you very much James, we wish you a succesfull 2021!
You can follow James on instagram and on his personal blog and page, where he shares valueable thoughts of training, races, gear and so. If you'd listen to podcasts about bikepacking, I really suggest visiting Bikes Or Death podcasts hosted by Patrick Farnsworth. The one with James is available on Spotify or here as well.
Photos: Camille McMillian, James Mark Hayden Text and editing: Boros Balázs Mókus