I was never very sporty growing up. I avoided physical education as best I could. But when I started commuting by bike in London, I was instantly hooked.
After a couple of years of sportives and club riding, I wanted to set myself a new physical and mental challenge, and inspired by women like Lael Wilcox and Lee Craigie, I wanted to bikepack. The feeling of setting out on a journey carrying everything I needed and nothing more was what I was searching for. So, when a friend told me about the French Divide, I entered.
The French Divide is a 2,200km, self-supported bikepacking race. The majority of the route is off-road, cutting through the French countryside from Dunkirk to the Basque country. The climbing is considerable: 35,000m – almost four times the height of Everest. Quickly realising how much training I’d need to do in order to complete it, I made a beautiful, colour-coded plan. Training was plotted in 4 week cycles: 3 weeks of building up intensity (the lung-y stuff) and volume (the long stuff), followed by a week of recovery. Around that I also did weight training in the gym to build up strength.
My year kick-started in January with turbo training. Instead of fighting with an ancient resistance trainer, staring at the wall, my KICKR and I became the best of friends. I did focused Zwift workouts, then as the French Divide came closer, I rode for two, three, sometimes four hours in the augmented reality world. Excellent mental strength training.
This was always going to be a challenge for the legs, but the mind was going to make or break the ride. I had to learn to ride when I really, really didn’t want to so I started doing some really peculiar training. Jumping on my bike when a storm was rolling in. Starting a ride at 10pm at night to get used to the darkness. Riding another 150km home after a 350km event, leaving my friends celebrating with pizza and beer.
And there was everything outside of the cycling that I had to train for: learning to be able to ride fasted but also very full; finding a bivvy spot and sleeping outside in an electrical storm (not to be recommended); what to pack and how much weight I could carry on the bike.
To even make it to the startline was an achievement in my eyes. I’d put a figure of 80% of the challenge as the training. The final 20% was the challenge itself. By the time we set off from Dunkirk beach at 06.24am, I had 8,000km in my legs so far that year. I was quietly confident, but aware that so much was out of my hands.
Life becomes curiously straightforward on a challenge such as this. You’re stripped of any real responsibility. All of life’s decisions and complications are put on hold. The simplest of necessities are all that fill your conscious: Where can I find food? Do I have enough water? Where might I bivvy tonight?
The Wahoo ELEMNT made a lot of this easier. Its faultless navigation, worldwide maps and long battery life meant I just had to follow a line on the screen. When it came time to finding a hotel or campsite to get dry for the night (weirdly often thanks to uncharacteristically wet weather for France in August), a quick Google and the Wahoo would lead me there.
As the days ticked over, my goal of 12 days seemed like a really long time. The mindset you have to have is that the race never stops, despite the highs and lows. And there were some crushingly low points (I never want to see the boggy ascents and rocky singletrack of the Morvan national forest ever again). I learnt to have patience and to accept everything that was thrown at me: patience with the GPS route on my Wahoo ELEMNT, leading me up yet another unrideable ascent; patience with myself, to keep the cranks turning and brain working; and patience with that which I couldn’t control, which was pretty much everything.
In truth, when I started out on this challenge, I was never certain that I could complete the training, let alone the actual ride. A huge part of me (coincidentally, the same part that loves gin and pizza) expected I wouldn’t even make it to the startline. Less than half of the starters finished the French Divide, so to complete it and win the fastest female accolade in 12 days, 11 hours and 59 minutes has been incredible. I’m a lot stronger than I gave myself credit for at the beginning of this journey.
If you’re considering a new challenge, I’d wholeheartedly encourage you to take on something you’re not sure you can complete. That’s when the magic really happens. You’ll surprise yourself, I’m sure of it.
Read more about Anna’s French Divide experience on www.bikingforbrioche.com.