Sofiane Sehili – The man who doesn’t sleep

Sofiane Sehili on sleep deprivation, motivation and what it takes to win some of the hardest ultra-races in cycling

On the eve of the first bikepacking event since February (the Hope 1000) we caught up with Sofiane Sehili, winner of the inaugural Atlas Mountain Race, to hear about what he has been up to in lockdown. We discussed sleep deprivation, the lack of prizes in ultra racing and his favourite bit of dhb kit. As well as his salvaged season of races after everything was ‘corona-cancelled’. 

You can follow his progress in the Hope1000 here and for those of you not familiar with Sofiane and his journey into ultracycling here is a brief introduction: 

Sofiane is a bike messenger in Paris who first got into bike touring in 2011 with a 5 month tour around South East Asia. During this trip he developed a passion for two-wheeled adventure which eventually saw him bikepacking the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route through the Rockies in 2014. It was on this trip he heard of the Tour Divide race and two years later he found himself on the start line and came away with an astonishing 3rd place on his debut. 

He has said of ultra-racing that “If touring gave me the will to see where my limits were, racing inspired me to try and push them.” And true to form he continues to push his limits with numerous race results across the world including another attempt at the Tour Divide and the Trans Am Bike Race. 

Last year he had a great year of racing. Winning the BikingMan IncaDivide route and placing joint first in the ItalyDivide. He came into 2020 with big expectations on his shoulders and clearly the form to match as he dispatched the opposition in the inaugural Atlas Mountain Race completing the 1,145 km race in less than 4 days and with very little sleep! 

It is a great pleasure to hear his thoughts on these achievements so make yourself a cup of coffee and settle in because this is something you won’t want to miss. 

It is hard to do anything now without talking about the elephant in the room, coronavirus. How have your riding plans altered for this year due to coronavirus? 

I had several races on my calendar. The Malteni Bootleggers which is a 250km CX race in the North of France, the second installment of the BikingMan series in Corsica and the Highland Trail 550, a 900km epic ultra in the stunning landscapes of Scotland. All of these races were cancelled or postponed so I’m trying to put together a different calendar. Next up is the Hope 1000 in Switzerland. It is going ahead as planned and I have secured a spot on the start list. 

I want to race on the road as well so I signed up for the Three Peaks Bike Race, from Vienna to Nice. Organizers are confident by the end of July that a multi-country bikepacking race will be possible. 

And finally I had a chat with the organizer of the French Divide and he told me he’s doing everything in his power to make sure the race happens. If it’s on I’ll be there.  

What have the strict lockdown restrictions imposed in France been like for someone used to travelling so far on a bicycle? We saw you managed a pretty incredible ride never straying further than 1 km from your house, tell us about that.

I can’t really complain about the lockdown as I spent it in a big house in the countryside with a huge garden and plenty of space; when most of the people I know were cramped down in their small Parisian flats.

Still when like me what you value the most is freedom, it’s hard to have so much of it taken away. What angered me the most is that there was no debate whatsoever about the restrictions. I mean, clearly measures had to be taken, but some of them seemed unjustified (like banning cycling). Yet no one dared question the actions of the government. In the cycling community a schism appeared and riders in favour of the cycling ban proceeded to publicly lynch those who dared to think differently. That’s a real pity. 

Luckily cycling was not completely taken away from me. Being locked down in a somewhat remote location, I still could ride 20km to get groceries. After much confusion and misinformation I found out you could actually still cycle for an hour every day as long as you stayed in a 1km radius of your home. 

I got on the Komoot route planner and explored all the options around. With the house sitting in a valley and being surrounded by many roads, I was quick to find a loop that allowed me to ride within the limits of the new regulations while still presenting a bit of a challenge, especially in terms of ascent.

Before coronavirus took hold you took a pretty resounding win at the inaugural Atlas Mountain Race which certainly helped establish you as one of the best if not in fact the man to beat in off road adventure races at the moment. Talk us through your emotions as you finished the race, what did you feel?

It was a mix of several feelings. I was glad it was finally over, especially since a good chunk of the finish consisted of pushing my bike in the sand at night in a thick fog. I was desperately longing for a hot meal, a shower and a bed. 

When I first saw the lights of the hotel that marked the finish, for a brief moment, I felt an immense joy and had a huge smile on my face. 

But it didn’t last. Actually the lasting emotion was relief of not having lost. 

I came to Morocco with the goal of finishing first and I would not have been satisfied with another result. I refused to picture a different end to this race. So when it happened, I can’t say I was over the moon. It was just “mission accomplished”. 

Every once in a while I think about the Atlas Mountain Race and I’m proud of what I did. But most of the time I think of future races and what remains to be done. 

For people new to this kind of racing one thing that is often a surprise is that there is usually no prize for finishing first. Can you put into words what it is that pushes you to race for the win, do you have to create your own prize?

I guess what draws people to these races is both the thirst for adventure and the desire to find out how far they can push themselves. It’s a race but it’s also an experience. Sometimes a life changing experience.

Not only is there no prize, but actually you have to spend quite a bit of money to take part in these races. The bike, the gear, the plane tickets, the entry fee, the hotels… all of these add up. Still people come from all over the world to take part in these races. Because they’re something quite unique. A chance to find out what you’re really made of. 

And when you know you have what it takes to win, you owe it to yourself to give your absolute best. I don’t need a prize to find the motivation. 

On the final AMR podcast you say “my positioning doesn’t affect the way I race” that must take a lot of self control not to look at what is happening around you, does this ever change towards the pointy end of a race? For example if you are coming into the last few hours with rivals nearby. 

I usually avoid looking at the tracker because I know it can have a bad influence on my mood. I’m pretty much giving 100% all the time, so if I’m not in first place I start asking myself why. And I know I can’t go faster, sleep less or stop less often. So it’s a matter of waiting for whoever is ahead to slow down. And I don’t like to feel I’m not in control of my race. 

If I open up a big gap I feel more comfortable looking at the tracker. 

But if someone is on my tail, especially towards the end of the race, I just smash the pedals hoping it will be enough. The tracker is not really useful in times like these. 

But it’s almost impossible to stay in the dark about my positioning. I always get updates from my friends via texts. So I better make sure I’m in first place as soon and for as long as possible. 

Would it be fair to say sleep deprivation is your wild card when it comes to ultra races? How do you train for this kind of riding especially as we’ve heard you don’t drink caffeinated coffee?!

When I raced the Italy Divide I garnered a nickname: “L’uomo che non dorme”. The man who does not sleep. 

It was not even a predefined strategy. It’s just that if I stopped, the others would either catch me or get away. So I couldn’t. This is when I discovered I had this special ability. I had experience with sleep deprivation from my past races but I had never pushed this far. I feel the more I do it the easier it gets. Looking back at Tour Divide 2016 I went sleepless for one night and was a complete mess the next day. Now if I ride all night in training I don’t even need to nap the next day. 

As for decaf, I drink it so that my body doesn’t build a tolerance to caffeine. This way when I use caffeine during a race, it’s more effective. 

What is the one thing you never leave home without when touring or racing and what is your favourite roadside snack?

I never leave home without my headphones. I need music. Some people are content with the sound of nature, but me, I find music has the power to change my mood, lift me up and make things easier. Needless to say it’s also useful to fight sleepiness. 

Favorite roadside snack? Definitely snickers. Cashews are also a must. The one thing I can’t eat anymore is clif bars. Funnily I found out many racers have developed the same aversion. 

As someone who has raced ultra races with no financial support for years what changes for you now you are an ambassador for brands such as dhb?

The main change is that I can now stay off work for longer periods. I’m still a bike messenger but I don’t have to work as often, since pretty much anything that is bike related I get for free now. And everyone knows, bikes, parts, kit, gear… all of this costs a lot of money. 

Besides dhb, I am now supported by Bombtrack, Hunt Bike Wheels, René Herse, Apidura and Fizik. The next step is to strengthen the relationships I have with these sponsors and hopefully, with a little help from all of them, be able to make a living from bikepacking. 

What is your go to piece of dhb kit, the one garment you couldn’t leave home without?

I would have to say the dhb Aeron Lab Ultralight Waterproof Jacket. It’s so protective, light and packable, you don’t think twice before putting it in your jersey pocket if there’s the slightest chance of rain.

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