As the dust continues to settle in the Ariège our appreciation for Further continues to grow. A race for the brave or a race for the foolish? What follows is our take on the maddest, cruellest and most challenging bicycle race we’ve seen for a long time.
The long and insufferably flat drive to Calais following the race afforded ample time for reflection. Whilst at the race and partaking in the rally life was a blur. Constantly meeting new people, all tied together through a common love of the bicycle. Following the race, either out in the hills or on the spot tracker meant that we had very little time to reflect on the race as it happened. It made sense to have some form of debrief in between Dan’s non-stop photo editing and my iffy singing along to the radio.
Further was unlike any bike race we had been to. Challenging what we thought racing was about. Calling into question the balance between how far your body can go at the same time how far your mind allows it to. Motivation, commitment and grit had to be arrows in the quiver of any rider who wanted to succeed. The result of this concoction was a fascinating display of different tactics, riding styles and mental approaches.
Behind the madness was one man. Camille McMillan. A passionate and outlandish character, we struggled to pin down exactly what the race meant to him. It seemed like his child. Nurtured and born out of a love for exploring, and seeing. So when, on Friday morning, the riders ran across a field towards their beloved steeds for the start of the race it felt like his child had flown the nest. We didn’t really know what to expect from the race so the night before it began we spoke to Camille. “Ideally only 5 people will finish” was his response when asked how he’d like it to go. His ideal scratch rate almost came true as in the end only 8 people made it home having covered all 12 sectors en route.
A key part of his plan was to send riders up and over a particularly intimidating and unrideable peak on the first day. Sector three saw riders hike-a-bike over Mont Fourcat up to the only checkpoint of the race. A tricky climb even with hiking boots, the support of a pole and no time pressure, instead the riders were wearing cycling clogs, had a bike on their shoulders and were in a race. A race against their competitors but mostly a race against the route and its creator.
Sat atop the mountain like an emperor surveying his conquered land was Camille. Decked out in white from head to toe, perhaps hoping to issue a sign of surrender to the angry mob of cyclists approaching. Encased in their bikes like Trojan warriors in formation with shields above their heads, marching into battle. I am sure there were many a profanity muttered at his expense on that climb.
Stories of riders being sick with heat exhaustion as well as the hours spent carrying a bike over Fourcat really drove home how serious this race was. Billed as ‘only’ 500 km’s it soon became apparent that the three and a half days given to complete the race in the time cut was going to be a tough task.
The second day was where major time gaps opened up. As we drove into the mountains for a long day of race chasing and shooting we checked the spot trackers. Riders were split up all over the different sectors but we were ready and waiting to chat to Angus Young the leader of the race. Desperate not to get in the way and do our bit to respect the race we were very grateful when Angus unexpectedly pulled up by the side of the road for a chat. After all we were there to admire, encourage and be a part of their journey, whilst all the time remaining careful not to interfere with the spirit of the race.
Shivering and clearly feeling the effects of being sick on day one he told us how he snatched an hour of sleep on a bench outside a village shop, waiting for it to open. Seeing him suffer so much and the pain evident on the faces of all the riders that morning we decided to go back to base, grab a much needed double espresso, in Dan’s case an accompanying flat white, pack up a tent and go straight back to the mountains.
We camped by the beautiful Etang de Soulcem and were joined by fellow race photographer Greg Annandale. Pasta was shared, stories of what we had seen told and plans for the coming day revealed. When we woke up shivering in our tent the first thing we did was to descend off the mountain until we got some phone signal. As the sun started to fall down the western valley wall we knew it was time to get moving.
With the spot trackers checked we saw that in the night Emma and Angus had leapfrogged each other over the Spanish French border and were now in touching distance of the last three sectors of the race. This meant we were in race mode once again. Out of the hills, a brief pit stop in a whale of a supermarché and then back up into them. This time to the top of the Col de Legrillou.
Called to action by Camille we used the 20 minutes we had before Emma was predicted to come through to prep for the perfect shot. This involved me posing as a cyclist in a patch of light round a corner so that Dan could get his settings dialled in. We knew there was only one chance to get the shot so when a farmer in a large silver truck flagged Dan down moments before Emma rounded the corner the nerves were flying.
Our last escapade onto the route was to go and find the second place finisher Angus Young. Parking the Breakaway team car somewhere in the woods near the end of sector 12 we began thrashing through the bushes in search of Angus. Bumping into friends of Breakaway and riders Jo Burt and Claire Frecknall for the third time that day. They told us how long the walk would be. Apparently an hour, but much more like 25 minutes. We put their exaggeration down to a fatigued mental state, waved goodbye and carried on up. Sweat dripping down our brows we reached the ridge and were blown away by the view.
Each time we saw the riders it gave us a sense of respect and admiration. We didn’t know what it felt like to ride the route but from the genuine conversations the riders allowed us to have we could tell it was really hurting. This was certainly the case as Angus heaved his way up the final gravel switchbacks and into view. Mutually pleased to see each other we had a brief chat which included an interrogation over his peculiarly shaped saddle. He must have dropped off the mountain as by the time we made it down and to the car he was almost home.
Over the course of three days Further developed into something, as our eventual winner Emma Pooley would go on to say, resembling performance art more than a bike race. Camille the director, the Ariège his stage and the riders his cast. Not to mention the film crew who played neatly into this narrative. A cleverly curated play where those who auditioned successfully were at the mercy of the carefully orchestrated script.
Whilst thinking up this wistful analogy somewhere South West of Paris we wondered how we fitted into it. Were we extras in the performance, the audience looking on or critics on its opening night? I’d argue none of these. The warm welcome by Mike and Joss at Zero Neuf, the appreciation of sponsors Hunt, Mason and Café du Cycliste and the smiles received from all the riders on the road meant we felt a part of it. A part of Camille’s production.
We had collectively entered into Camille’s universe, where fantasy is on an irrepressible rampage. No-one knew where we were going but it turned out we simply went further.