06/02/19

Jack Thompson Cycles Very Far

Words: Jayden O'neil

Images: Zac Williams

The first time I met Jack Thompson was in a cafe. It was a bitter autumn morning. He ambled in the doors, wearing fluorescent cycling lycra that wrapped brawny legs. I asked how the dawn ride was. Good, he said amicably. I later found out he’d cycled from Yallingup to Perth—260km—through the night, for fun.

Jack is an ultra-endurance cyclist. Last year alone, he rode over 50,000 kilometres. That’s what the average driver achieves in three years. On any given week he spends around 35 hours on the saddle, riding between 150 to 500 kilometres a session, and upwards of 960 kilometres. He has a resting heart rate as low as 37 beats per minute and has been known to burn enough calories in a single day to warrant eating 15 Magnum ice creams.  The few articles written on Jack have stated he’s one of the most extreme cyclists on earth. Not in speed, but endurance. The Tour De France cyclists are built to ride 4-6 hours a day. In a Tortoise and Hare style story, Jack has the ability to ride for 48 hours straight.

I heard he was planning a torturous challenge in Taiwan which a few cycling luminaries believed impossible. He set off late October. Early November, an Instagram post showed a triumphant Jack, ascending a switchback road, thighs bulging, skyscraping mountains in the background. 

 

I can’t listen to this…

The man’s a freak.

The route was the Taiwan King of the Mountain (KOM) challenge, an event dubbed the world’s most arduous climb. The race begins at sea level and, after clambering up mountainous canyons for 105 kilometres, ends at 3275 meters above sea level. Attracting 600 of the world’s best riders, the challenge takes 3-4 hours to complete, which isn’t particularly long for elite cyclists. But, as one rider put it, ‘if the length doesn’t get you, the gradient, humidity, altitude and landslides will’.

I caught up with Jack, during a strictly-no-riding week to hear about the journey. As we take a seat at a cafe, Jack nods to an older man who sits opposite us. They obviously know each other. Still early morning, the man has already run 40 kilometres. Drinking a Coke and dripping with sweat, he eavesdrops on Jack, who begins to talk of the challenge.

Jack wasn’t in Taiwan to compete. He planned to set a new record by riding the KOM climb four consecutive times, totalling 14,440 meters of elevation, almost 6000 meters higher than Everest. Last year, an ultra-endurance cyclist based in Taiwan cycled the KOM two and a half times. After riding for 24 hours, he reached the finish line. Jack, the ever overachiever, planned to complete three ascents and descents, timing the final climb with the official race. As Jack speaks, the marathon runner gets up. “I can’t listen to this,” he says. “I start to feel sick. The man’s a freak.”

The ride didn’t really challenge me. I prepared for it to be a lot harder. The most challenging part was the lead-up…

Jack planned the challenge around an organised event for a couple of reasons.  Riding routes in time frames that few, if any, have attempted, not even the best cyclists in the world, means Jack’s talent is difficult to fully measure and therefore appreciate. Also, as a relatively unknown cyclist, he’s funding the pursuit on minimal sponsorship endorsements and savings. The more coverage, he says, the better.

“I thought if people saw the best riders in the world ruined after one climb, then maybe I could gain more credibility for completing it four times in a row,” he says.

Having experienced the extreme weather of the tropics when riding around Taiwan the previous year, Jack prepared a wet and dry plan. The steep gradient and narrow roads makes the descent highly technical, especially at night. In wet conditions, a wrong pull of the breaks can send a rider off the mountain.

A few days before arriving in Taiwan, the forecast predicted nothing but torrential rain. If he was going to time the final ascent with the race, he needed to allow for more time on the three prior descents. He landed three days before the event and, after a briefs night rest, set off. For the majority of the climb, the gradient is 7 degrees. He compares the slope to a road in Perth warranting emergency escape ramps for trucks who can’t sufficiently break on the decline. The final 10km of the route, though, curves exponentially, reaching gradients up to 27 degrees. Many semi-professionals have to walk it.

The rain held off. Jack not only made unexpected time on the ascents, but the rainless conditions allowed for a quick descent. At the conclusion of the third descent, he was 10 hours ahead of schedule. Jack completed the fourth ascent 30 minutes quicker than the third, finishing in the top 100 in the race, and totalling over 700 km in 28 hours (only fours slower than the cyclist who completed the KOM two and a half times).

I ask Jack what was the most challenging part of the ride, trying to extract an answer that epitomised the hardship, the burning legs, the mental fatigue. His laconic reply is underwhelming.

“The ride didn’t really challenge me. I prepared for it to be a lot harder. The most challenging part was the lead-up.”

The only mention of fatigue, in fact, is when he talks of tiring the palette, which apparently happens when you eat too much sugar. The trick to staying properly fuelled for days on end, he says, is to eat a variety of foods, not just lollies. He mentions one of his first adventures in Europe, the Transcontinental Race (from Belgium to Istanbul), where he was stricken with severe food poisoning from a lack of food preparation. He recovered sufficiently, though, to cross the finish line. He does tell of one failed mission in Tasmania in which he planned to ride a figure eight of the state (2000 kilometres) in four days. He hadn’t prepared for the gravel roads or the rain and after 7 punctures and a waterlogged phone and laptop, he called it quits at the end of day 1.

“When you’re pushing the body to absolute extremes, if you’re not prepared you’re finished. 50% of it is in the prep. You need the right gear, nutrition, and you need to research where you’re going. One wrong turn and you can add another 50km,” he says.

Jack compares riding for days on end to an endless roller coaster. One minute, he says, you’re on a high; the next you can be in the grim depths of fatigue. Triggers like chaff on the legs can become excruciating. To endure the pain, Jack sets himself rewards to have something to look forward to. He mentions music or an audiobook, as if a recorded story is a sufficient reward for skinless legs.

Simple mind games may help tough moments, but the disposition to quit a well-paid office job to pursue ultra endurance cycling full time runs a lot deeper. Jack has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). As a teenager, he was imprisoned by a horde of crippling habits: avoiding cracks in pavement; winking with the right eye if he liked someone, the left for those he disliked. Seeking professional help helped him outgrow certain compulsions, but he’s never lost the obsessive streak.

At university, Jack joined a gym, a hobby that quickly turned into a fixation.  Extreme training routines and dietary requirements took over. The mania and the crowd he associated with changed him. “I became quite aggressive,” he recalls. The turning point was Jack’s father finding illicit party-drugs in his bedroom. After that, he gave up the gym, completely. “Mentally, it ruined me,” he recalls. “It took a while to come good again.” 

Jack’s father, a serious cyclist himself, encouraged him to try a bike. Although initially reluctant to participate in exercise that wasn’t bulking, he relented. That first ride, he says, hooked him. Within a few years, he was riding professionally.

Once again, Jack took to the pursuit with zeal. In Europe he was training too hard, not eating enough. Chronic fatigue took hold. Doctors warned Jack if he didn’t rest, he’d permanently ruin his body. It was then Jack decided to give up competitive riding.

Although OCD is incurable, Jack says, he now channels an obsessive nature to push himself to limits others can not. The pathway to pushing cycling limits does, however, require hefty sacrifices. With a training regime that consumes every day, he’s had to forfeit a normal lifestyle. 

I would love to go out with mates and have a few beers but I feel guilty doing it – like I’m losing sight of my goal if I’m not constantly working towards it.

Jack is happy with his choice, given the alternative is an office job he quit to pursue cycling. Post KOM challenge, he’s having a two-week recovery, but the next mission is already on his radar. His eyes light up as he mentions a couple in the pipeline, like riding from Perth to Esperance along the beach with a fat bike and riding the Tour De France in half the time of the pros. (Jack will ride through the night).

“These days when I look at a calendar I only see the next bike challenge. I just want to be a mad adventurer. I want to do routes that I’ve never been ridden, just go exploring and push the limits of what people think is possible.”

Chatting to Jack, I get a sense cycling is remedial for him. He talks of a peace he feels when riding new terrain, during the dead quiet of the night, nothing around. He sighs. “That’s living,” he says.