Sofiane Sehili has made waves in the world of Ultra racing in the past year winning Italy Divide, Inca Divide and most recently the inaugural Atlas Mountain Race. He has developed a tough style of racing which entails very little sleep. We spoke to Sofiane to find out more about him and what makes him tick. Read on to find out more…
Tell us a bit about yourself. What is your cycling background and how did you start racing ultras?
"I'm a 38 year old bike messenger based in Paris. My background is actually in bike touring. I started ten years ago in South East Asia with a 7000km trip, then went back the next year for a bit less than 9000km. And I haven't really stopped since then, racking up long tours in more than 40 countries. In 2014 I toured the Great divide mountain bike route from Banff, Canada to the Mexican border and loved it. I found out about a race called the Tour Divide was held every June on this course and decided I would line up. I came back in 2016 for my first ever ultra-race and managed to finish third in 16 days. From then I was hooked. I took part in several events and lately found some success with wins on the Italy Divide, the Inca Divide and the Atlas Mountain Race."
You have a string of good results now in Ultra racing and have developed a reputation for leaving it all out on the trail early. What motivates you in ultra races and what has been your favourite ride so far?
"I'm a fairly competitive guy and I hate losing. Riding long distance is pretty much all my life, it’s the thing I enjoy the most and when I look at my competitors, I don't see a reason why they should be better at this than me. I do understand that there is an adventure component to these races that attracts a lot of people. But as an adventure cyclist I don't need the context of race to explore remote parts of the world. If I sign up for a race, the goal is to measure up with the best out there and do my absolute best to prevail. It is by competing with the top bikepackers and ultra-racers in the world that I push myself and find what I'm capable of."
Tell us about your recent win the Atlas mountain race. That was a huge effort on very little sleep, how do you feel the race went?
"Since last year I've been experimenting with sleep deprivation and found out I was able to push pretty far. I knew it would be a short race (4 to 5 days) and sleep would be a deciding factor. There are always two approaches to bikepacking races: rest and hammer on the pedals or go slow and steady stopping as little as possible. If you're able to run on little to no sleep, it's a huge advantage. It means that someone who stops to sleep 2, 3 or 4 hours will have to be considerably faster to catch you. Also, by opening up a gap early in the race, you sometimes can get in the head of your opponents. Looking at a 5 hour or 90km gap can be fairly discouraging even if you know the guy ahead has had well less sleep than you. So that was my strategy and I'm glad I managed to implement it and it worked."
What are your upcoming goals for the rest of the year, more ultras on the calendar?
"Last year I showed up on the Tour Divide for a second run and had a good start. I managed to ride ahead of Mike Hall's record until I hit snow and then mud. The race ended bitterly for me when I got lost up a snowy pass in Colorado. This was the biggest June snow storm in 80 years and I was not equipped to deal with such conditions. Fearing for my life, I decided to go back to a safe place and scratched. I have unfinished business with the Tour Divide. It is the one race I have always dreamed of winning and maybe, why not, set a new course record.
My mind is not quite made up yet, but there's a good chance I will be at the start in Banff on June 12. I will most likely take part into one or two other events this season but I have yet to determine which ones."
And finally gravel bike or mtb? What’s your choice and why?
"Mountain bike, without any hesitation. For any long off-road race, I would stay away from gravel bikes. When you spend 18 to 20 hours a day on the bike, comfort means speed. I like big tyres, low pressure. Flat bars for the technical descents, aero bars for the flat stretches. I did my first tour divide on a gravel bike with 40c's and no aero bars, and it just wrecked me."