For $100 you can board a train at 7 am in Osaka and within two and a half hours be 250 miles east in Tokyo in time for your morning meeting.
For Jack Thompson, ultra cyclist and YouTuber, his day job has also involved making the trip from Japan’s third biggest city to its largest, but his involved two wheels rather than train tracks, and the 520 km ‘Cannonball’ route with 13,800 feet of climbing, which he needed to conquer in under 19 hours in order to break the record.
For a rider whose internet-documented palmarès includes 52 Everestings in a year, it wasn’t the distance or the speed necessary to break the record that was the hardest part of the challenge.
“The most difficult part of this ride was something I didn’t necessarily expect,” Thompson tells Escape Collective. “I didn’t take into account crossing the three biggest cities in peak-hour traffic, the complexity of trying to hold a certain speed through 200-300 traffic lights.
“The rain too,” he continues. “Riding through these major cities on wet roads, you’ve got the metal grates and things on the ground. You have this group of complexities that add up to a fatigue in itself.”
Nevertheless, it’s an experience many can only dream of, and therefore which Thompson has distilled into a four-minute mini-documentary. Calling it a “YouTube video” would be a disservice to the production values – it certainly doesn’t start with someone talking to a camera saying “Hey guys.”
The ride, Thompson says, was a “crazy mix” of chaos and peace. The sprawl of the major cities is mitigated by the courteous nature of locals, where road rage and people picking a fight with you is in short supply. Plus, the riding is further aided by the many 7-Elevens and Mini Marts on most corners.
“You’ve got the major cities but you’re also crossing by Mount Fuji,” Thompson adds. “All within a day’s ride. I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.”
After the release of his Cannonball video, Thompson published his most ambitious film yet, the story of his 2022, climbing 1,000,000 metres in a year with an Everesting on a different climb each and every week. A brutal, insane thing to do.
“There are three components, physical, mental and the third one is the fuelling strategy and the equipment that you’re using,” Thompson explains of how he approaches these ultra-cycling challenges. “You need to work out a way to break down whatever you’re doing … breaking it into manageable chunks.”
So 100 kilometres becomes 10 sets of 10 km, and so on. All you need to do is get to the next chunk, and then simply keep going.
“A lot of it comes down to fuelling, it’s like a car. I was eating a gel every half an hour, so I had about 32 gels. Gels and Snickers. It’s having that regimen,” Thompson reveals. “That’s the biggest challenge for anyone getting into the ultra stuff.”
“Last year’s million metres was brutal,” he continues. “A year of no rest. Training stress scores were through the roof week after week. Something like [the Cannonball] is simple in comparison, it’s mentally easier to deal with. But last year was very taxing mentally and physically. And fundraising was hard in itself because I couldn’t control it but I felt responsible for it.”
For the 34-year-old, it’s the preparation for the event that holds his true love of ultra.
“It gives me a structure day-to-day, and I’m actually working towards something, ticking a box. I get a lot of satisfaction with achieving that. When I’ve finished I often feel a little bit lost. It’s taken me a little while to build up a technique for overcoming those blues.”
When asked what the difference is between himself and a professional road racer, he says that while those in the WorldTour may be Ferraris, he’s a tractor; he’s not highly tuned but he can just keep going. We then move on to discussing why we haven’t seen more pros move into ultra stuff after their racing careers; the answer could be that they’ve just had enough with 30- to 40-hour weeks on the bike.
“I probably spend 30 hours on a computer making everything happen as well,” Thompson says of the time needed to do what he does along with the 30 hours spent on the bike every week. “There’s a lot that goes on. Chatting with tourism boards to organise the people to meet you there. Someone to meet you to interview. That’s perhaps something that’s not seen on social media. I’m not complaining, that’s part of the job. There’s more than just the pretty pictures and things we see online.”
Getting the funding to undertake challenges such as the million metres of climbing and 52 Everestings is truly the hard part, Thompson assures me.
“My background is in construction management and economics,” he says. “My work is in contracts, you get something for something else. If a brand gives me an amount of dollars then I have to provide an amount of dollars [of value] in return. I think that’s perhaps something that’s not understood. Brands get burned a lot.”
This is another aspect that influencers themselves maybe don’t understand as well as the audience who just sees popular social media figures being paid to ride around, Thompson says, adding that funding is increasingly difficult to come by at the moment.
“I’m trying to engage with brands outside of cycling to engage with my story,” he says.
“I plan things out a year in advance, this time last year I wanted to take a break from the more extreme stuff. So for me the rest of the year is about talking about climate change in Alaska and looking about how we can ride bikes to reduce the effects of climate change, and in Peru we’re doing a story in the Amazon about deforestation.
Hefty, important topics, about more than simply cycling. “The reason it’s so mapped out is because I have to pitch it and look at funding and where we’re getting that from and try and make it all happen,” Thompson explains. But then, in 2024, a white whale appears on the horizon.
“And then next year my goal is to try and break Mark Beaumont’s round-the-world record. So that’s something that has logistics that require planning and funding, and that’s been a bit of a bucket list item for a little while. And I think off the back of this year being a little bit more relaxed, next year I’ll be a little more fresh to give that a crack.”
Thompson seems to like big numbers, and 18,000 miles (29,000 kilometres) of two-wheeled navigation in under 78 days, 14 hours and 40 minutes will be required to set undoubtedly the biggest cycling record out there. What’s better, is that via his video camera he’ll likely be bringing everyone along for the ride.
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