Taking the FFWD DRIFT's a bit Further
A story about an epic gravel bikepacking and hiking adventure!
Like any kind of racing, a lot of ultra and bikepacking races had been cancelled, moved or postponed due to corona. The race called Further Journal had been on the edge of cancelling due to changing rules and regulations. In the end organiser Camille McMillan managed to put the race together. With some alterations to the course, by not having it cross borders into Spain or Andorra. In the last week before the race a few new quarantining rules were put into place, preventing a lot of competitors to attend. We went from a field of 40+ people down to 11. All remaining competitors were stuck in a whatsapp group with the fitting name 'The Few', and we all agreed: Future should happen.
About Further Journal
Further is Camille McMillan's brainchild. A hard race in his home of the Pyrenees. It's organised based on the rules of self-supported racing. There is one starting point. Racers choose how much (or little) they sleep. First one that comes across the finish line is the winner. No organised resupply points, no marshalls, no technical support crews, no nothing. Prior to the race, competitors get provided with 16 sectors in the form of a download of GPS files, that need to be ridden in the correct order. Some of the sectors have a curfew on them, banning you from being in motion on the sector between 20:45 and 07:00. This was a safety measure for sectors that were deemed too dangerous, mostly because of exposure to fall of a mountain side. The connections from one sector to the next need to be made by competitors themselves in advance using navigation aids like Komoot, RidewithGPS, Google Maps, or even paper maps. And knowing Camille, there would be some sections that you would not be able to solve behind a computer. From trying to ride the race last year, I know that Camille likes to make things hard. Really hard. Carrying your bike on your back kind of hard.
About Bas Rotgans
I love challenges on my bike. Especially ones where I have to take care of myself, and solve whatever kind of problems or hardships I run in to. I've ridden races in Scotland, Kyrgystan, Sweden, Pyrenees and Morocco. I've crossed over mountains in the dead of night, because it would be dangerously cold to sleep at the pass. I've eaten noodles, suspicious stew, countless Snickers, two day old pizza slices, sardines, gummy bears and nuts at the most inappropriate of times, just to get some calories into my body. But at the end of all of that I still LOVE to ride my bicycle.
Learning from last year's race I wanted to build up a new bike (last year my bike was very much overbuilt for the terrain that we would tackle). It had to be a gravel bike, but a very capable and strong one. I've never been much of a weight weenie, but this one had to be reasonably light. I chose a Salsa Warbird, for it's ample tire clearance and relatively low weight, but also it's obvious prowess at handling rough terrain. I mounted some minimalistic frame bags from Apidura. Their limited size would force me to make some hard choices in what gear to bring. A Shimano GRX groupset with a mountain bike cassette gave me a 34 x 40 lowest climbing gear. I know that sounds ridiculous to some road riders, but I used it a LOT! And to top it off I received a brand new FFWD DRIFT wheelset. They had pretty much everything I wanted; wide internal width for big volumes tires, a very low weight. FFWD laced the front wheel to a dynamo hub that produces electricity for lighting and charging my GPS and phone. I had never raced on carbon wheels, always choosing the option that was more secure in my head. But for this race I was taking a gamble. I also took a gamble on the tires, choosing a 40mm Schwalbe G-one Speed. A gravel tire yes. But one that might seem a bit 'under-tired' for the kind of terrain we were taking on. However, out of the circa 510 kilometers that this races was long, about 400 kilometers would be on asphalt or hard surfaces. And since I consider myself a pretty decent descender, I would rather keep the speed and work a little harder on the descents. Another mayor addition to my equipment was a pair of Specialized SPD shoes with a big grippy rubber sole. With all the hiking that needed to be done, I compromised power transfer from a stiff sole for more comfort during the hikes.
Last year I showed up under-prepared and with the wrong bike. And this year I was a lot better prepared. Still not perfect, but at the very least a hell of a lot stronger and mentally better prepared at what was coming. And still I managed to overcook myself on the first day. The very long climbs in forty degree heat took the best of me. I was hydrating myself so excessively that there was no room for food in my stomach. At the end of the first afternoon, I arrived at a sector that was 'only' five kilometers long and would involve hike-a-bike. I climbed the first few hundred meters, and upon seeing a mountain stream, stripped my clothes of and sat in the cold and refreshing water. I had to do something to get the heat out of my system. It worked well, but already a few minutes later I was back to being overheated. The entire five kilometer Sector took me three hours. In part because I was tired and calorie-defficient, but mostly because the terrain was so damn hard.
At the end there was a Refuge. The inn-keeper set me down in his kitchen and kept feeding me whatever food was on supply. Ben, from the Further organisation, suggested I could take a nap before carrying on. I weighed my options, it seemed still far too early to sleep already, but I was in a bad state and it was getting dark anyway. Whether I descended from the refuge now or in a few hours, it would not be daylight anyhow. So I decided to take a quick nap for a few hours. I set the alarm at three, woke up quickly, and started the tehcnical descent. It was fun and challenging, but I could feel all the food from the night before doing it's magic. I was energized and charging. On a mission to catch up with some of the people I had to let go yesterday evening. This good mood stuck around with me the entire day. No matter how hard the climbs I endured (and there were some hard ones!). And obviously on the sweeping descents. Even puncturing my rear tire on a randomly stewn rock didn't phase me. I had a plug in there in a matter of seconds, pumped the tire back up and never looked back. After passing through the medieval town of Foix, it was obvious that I was not going to be able to tackle the upcoming Sector 12 outside of the curfew. I slowed down, grabbed a pizza in St. Girons. I called ahead to a climbers inn that was situated in the last town before we had to enter Sector 10 and reserved a bunk bed. At least I would get a decent sleep and I was bout 300 kilometers in.
Picture: Camille McMillan
Again an early alarm. I wanted to be ready to roar at the beginning of sector 10 at 6:45 and I had to climb about 10 kilometers up the road to get there. Sector 10 was special, you had to climb about 10 kilometers on a steep old double track up to an abandoned mine. And then turn around and descend the same stretch. The entire climb up I thought I was going to have to walk, but just barely managed to stay riding on my bike. I met Michal, one of the other participants that have stayed up at the mine during the night. He had been caught out by the curfew and had had a very spooky night up there and was now on his way out. Seeing Michal gave me a renewed drive to chase after him, he was obviously about an hour two ahead of me and looked like he was riding very strongly.
The rest of day three I felt like I was much more in tune with my body. I was feeling strong, was managing my food much better, and chasing the deadline for the infamous Sector 15. 24 hours before it had proved to be a near bottleneck for race leaders James Mark Hayden and Christian Meier. Third rider Laurens ten Dam just barely missed it and had to stay in a town before the sector. If I wanted to stand a fighting chance of catching up with Michal, I had to make it through 12.
As it turned out Sector 12 was another brutal hike-a-bike. Not as steep as the one up to the refuge, but the path wasn't more than a goat's track. Too narrow to walk next to your bike while pushing it up. The rubber soles on my cycling shoes were working overtime. In the descent on the other side, I certainly pushed the DRIFT wheels to their absolute limit. The trail would have been suitable for a full-suspension enduro bike, and here I was. On a carbon dropbar bike, with semi-slick tires, and ultralight and wide wheels. Most of the time I was just barely within control. But simultaneously I was extremely impressed with my equipment: it wasn't pretty, but it was getting the job done! I was just praying that no-one at FFWD would ever get to see what I was putting their wheels through. This was definitely not in their Intended Usage Desciption. I managed to pop out on the other side of Sector 12 with about 15 minutes to spare before the curfew kicked in. And this opened up the possibility to ride on. From here my only limitation would be the curfew at Sector 15, the second to last one. And there was no way in which Michal could have managed to get through. In short, I had the rest of the night until 07:00 to catch up with him. But it would also mean that he had more time to rest.
After coming down and having some late-night tea in Tarascon, I was weighing my options. I had had a long day and was pretty tired. Sector 14, that I was about to start, seemed short but pretty hard. So I rolled out my sleeping bag at the edge of town and decided to take three hours of sleep. Then the alarm would go off at 04:00 and I could tackle Sector 14 and the climb up to the start after it with fresh energy and meet Michal there for the 07 o'clock start up Sector 15. I slid in and out of sleep for those few hours, my mind was afraid of oversleeping the alarm. Just before four I couldn't stand it anymore and decided to go for it. The climb up, and descent down the other side were both part of a local downhill trail, the tire ruts from the mountainbikers going down made it tough and hard-going. But within an hour I found myself on the other side of this smaller mountain ridge. I was hoping to find an early bakery for some food, but the town at the bottom was deserted. I chowed down on a panini I had bought earlier the previous day. Anything to have some energy for later. At six I was at the start of Sector 15, looked around for Michal but couldn't find him. The cold morning was sending chills down my spine, so I decided to dive into my sleeping bag again. A quick 45 minute power nap set me up for the final stretch. I wanted to give Michal the first right of way, but when my clock hit 07:02 I gave up and decided to pin it up the rocky climb.
The switchbacks just kept on coming, and lifted us a couple of hundred meters above the valley floor. The rocks on the doubletrack were very chunky and it was hard to keep momentum going. It's moments like these that make you love big tires and wide rims. Tire volume saves the day. I didn't see Michal, but imagined him breathing down my neck. At the top of Sector 15 came the biggest navigational challenge. We had to cross a stretch of mountain where there was no discernable path. I was half riding, half hiking through knee-deep bushes. One eye peeking through the morning mist, the other trying to keep track of what was happening right in front of my wheel. When I found the gate that would lead us over the saddle into the final sector I let out a sigh of relief: from here it was pretty much all downhill. That final sector however was called 'Lost' in the files that Camille sent us, and once up here I saw why. Chest-high bushes didn't show any kind of path. I just more or less followed my gps, at some points dragging my bike while it was laying flat on the top of the bushes and sliding with me. I carried on like this until I found a small gate in a fence. From there it was a path, that grew to a doubletrack, that ended in a ski resort town that seemed like it hadn't seen business in a few years.
I turned on the gas, still feeling like I was within reach for Michal. A big sweeping descent through the foothills of the Pyrenees and towards the castle that marked our finish spot. My body felt like it had been in a altered state and was waking up. I was yearning for coffee, croissants, all the good stuff that France has to offer. The last final meters towards the castle made me feel good. I had finished this brutal challenge, I had taken revenge on myself from last year, I had made it to the end of Further and even put up a good fight. I felt good to be here!