Five years ago, Transcontinental Race finisher Darren Franks had his primary sporting passion compromised when a severe knee injury kyboshed his ski-mountaineering pursuits. Languishing through a lengthy and low-morale rehab he was advised to give cycling a bash…Two years later he found himself near midnight lined up at a famous cobbled Belgian berg – the Kapelmuur – with about 220 other cyclists and a 3800km unsupported, mind-melting, muscle-mashing ride to Çanakkale in Turkey ahead.
Yep, Darren Franks is no dabbler…The Draft caught up with the 40-year-old Londoner…
The 2016 Transcontinental Race was your first major ultra-distance event after only being in the sport of cycling a short time. How did it feel to be there?
“There was a lot of excitement but I tried to be calm and measured and then we did a neutralised lap of Geraardsbergen. When we come back through to start the race up the Kapelmuur they were playing The Prodigy through the PA system and the climb was lined with crowds bearing flaming torches. I was glad to be there, lining up against the best ultra-distance riders in the world on my first race.”
How did it go grinding out 300+km a day for, to be precise in your case, 14 days 20 hours and 18 minutes? I see your saddle sore-ridden arse opened its own Twitter account in protest…
“The 2016 TCR was my first race and at the time I wasn’t even sure if I was capable of finishing. Unfortunately, I began the race with saddle sores, which quickly got worse, and then I had Achilles tendon problems which nearly ended my race in the Italian Dolomites.
“I climbed the Passo Giau through an insane storm and my Achilles tendons were about to snap and I had been screaming in agony all the way up the climb. At the top, it was near freezing. It was agony and I thought I was going to have to pull out. My Achilles were hanging on by a thread. I took a couple of hours to thaw out in the refuge at the top along with every other guy that came over the col. Then I stole every newspaper, stuffed them down my jersey old-school-style and descended to Cortina d’Ampezzo.
“I found a hotel which had a hot tub. I went into town, got some drugs, got some physio tape and then went into this lingerie store to buy some swim shorts and basically caught myself in the mirror in the most extreme race I had ever done standing in a lingerie store holding a green pair of shorts and a brown pair of shorts and trying to figure out which pair I liked the most. I just thought what the fuck is going on?”
But you made it to Çanakkale in Turkey?
“I took a day to recover in Cortina d’Ampezzo and I was a few days behind and only had two days to cover the final 1000km. People suggested it wasn’t possible, especially with the injuries and illness I’d picked up, and that I should go easy on myself. The stubbornness and pride kicked in and that final stretch became the competition. Somehow I got there. Often with both feet clipped in but only one leg pushing to rest my Achilles. Afterwards, I couldn’t ride a bike for two months.
Humour is a great distraction. I set up a Twitter account for @darrensarse and spent the darker moments dreaming up conversations. There are people that don’t get saddle sores but unfortunately, I didn’t have one of those kinds of arses.”
Were you surprised that a woman – 24-year-old German cancer researcher Fiona Kolbinger – won the TCR this year?
“Not really. I was surprised a rookie won – not that she was a woman. I know some insanely quick women in ultra-distance. It seems the longer it goes the less important sex is. It was her first ultra-distance race. She looked fresh at the end. 24 years old. Quite something.
“There’s a new wave of youngsters coming into ultra that has the character traits – the grit and mental toughness – that typically develop as you get older. Combined with youthful athleticism it’s pretty scary but it’s great for the sport.”
How do you recover from an effort like the TCR or the 6800km TransAm event across America?
“An ultra-distance race is incredibly punishing on the body and the accompanying sleep deprivation is horrendous for short term health. After a race, it typically takes 7-10 days for the saddle sores to abate. It’s another 3-4 months of carefully managed recovery before you regain any top-end power. It’s quite common to lose 3-4kg during a race only to put on 6-8kg in the days that follow. We spend a season building up to these races, then four months recovering from them before repeating it all over again.”
How much do you plan for races like the TCR?
“You can’t plan too much but I try to give myself four hours sleep a day – I learnt that is a good chunk of time for me – I feel like I am rested. Although in events like the TransAm where you are racing for three weeks or so a longer 6-7 hour sleep once a week can help to stay on top of things. Staying in hotels can sometimes be the best strategy. There’s no shame in that.”
“My general strategy is to race the stops. To try and be quick at everything that isn’t on the bike. Your on-bike pace doesn’t change too much but what really makes the difference is everything you do off the bike. But I feel I still have a lot to learn. There’s always room for improvement. Part of the appeal of this kind of racing is there are a few basic tenets to follow but a lot of it is learning yourself. It’s trial and error.”
“So practising bivvying; eating from the bike; being confident and competent fixing mechanicals; navigating; learning how to manage your hygiene and health; learning coping strategies for the darker moments; gaining experience racing in all sorts of weather conditions. These are all additional things to focus on during your training.”
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What kit do you need to race 7,000km across the US on the @transambikerace? Not much but everything has to be exceptional at what it does. – Pic 1: Dry weather Pic 2: Wet weather – Sleep Pic 3: Inflatable pad Pic 4: Bivy bag & half sleeping bag Pic 5: Down jacket – The bike @j.laverackbicycles J.ack with components from @rideaera @rideshimano @3tbike @profile_design @absoluteblack.cc @powertap @schwalbetyresuk @apidura @alpkit @wahoofitnessofficial @supernova.design – Clothing @rapha_uk cargo shorts, pro team base layer, lightweight gilet & merino socks @castellicycling Idro rain jacket, warmers & toe thingies @iamspecialized_road S-Works shoes, Evade helmet and Grail gloves @sealskinzinsta waterproof gloves @assosofswitzerland early winter booties & chamois cream @buff_uk merino buff @goretexeu waterproof shorts @quechua silk glove liners @smithopticsuk Pivlock 2 glasses – Sleep @rab.equipment ultra lightweight bivy bag @klymit Inertia inflatable pad @phd_uk_made half bag & down jacket – Essential kit @crankaliciously chain wipes Schrader-Presta adaptor @topeak Multitool @kmcchain quick links @lezyneusa Carbon mini pump @leathermanuk Skeletool @scienceinsport Electrolyte tabs @sudocrem Skin repair @pizbuin_uk sun cream iPod, @spotify & @audible_uk audiobooks @anker_official Battery pack & cables Spare cleat & seat post clamp bolts Tubeless plugs, boots, tubes and patches Cable ties, tape & superglue Titanium spork Sanitising wipes Probiotics, vitamins, migraleve & ibuprofen @revolutapp borderless credit card – What else would you pack? – #bikepacking #ultradistance #cycleblogger #bikeblog #cyclingblog #cyclingpics #cyclinglife #instabike #fromwhereiride #ultraendurance #instacycle #TiBike #adventurecapitalist #TABR #TABR2018 #TransAm #TCRNo6 #kitgrid #whenindoubtpedalitout #cyclingporn #whatsinyourbag #audax #bikeporn #transamerica #packlighttravelfar #roadcycling #ultracycling #flatlay #flatlayoftheday
Is having that kind of off-the-bike smarts why few pro cyclists or recently retired pros smash it in ultra?
“Exactly. How fast you can push the pedals is a factor but it is much less of a factor than people realise. Retired pros have done races and they have done well but they have not been able to hang with the best ultra specialists. They just don’t have that kind of experience.”
That kind day-in-day out sleep deprivation must take its toll?
“One consequence is our emotional responses swing a little further to the extremes, similar to what bipolar people experience. The lows can be very low but at the same time the highs are incredible, and they’re often relatively close to each other. I find sunrises particularly uplifting. We’re usually riding in some beautiful landscapes and watching the full sunrise happen over an hour or so is really cathartic. That helps to get me back on the bike when my alarm goes off after four hours sleep.”
There are few rules and race commissars in ultra-distance cycling it seems – is it largely self-policing?
“The ultra-cycling community is very special. The sport has adopted the ten simple rules set out by the late Mike Hall. Ultimately it’s about self-sufficiency and integrity.
The way I think of it is basically don’t be a dick. The main rule is no private re-supplies. But the rules also say you’re not even allowed to share an inner tube or a pump but this is applied a bit differently at the front of the race than at the back of the race. Which is not to say that is encouraged.
Thing is at the moment the sport is a little bit underground, it’s not that prestigious so there is not really that incentive to be a dick. It kinda takes care of itself. There’s no animosity or negativity among racers unless they’re seen to go against the spirit of those ten rules. That’s rare though.
As the races are such intense experiences you’ll find there’s an unusually deep bond that’s formed among riders, even though we may rarely see each other on the road.”
You have a few sponsors but are an amateur – how do you balance it all?
“I have my own design agency so that provides a level of flexibility plus my wife knows ultra-distance cycling is a huge part of my life, an ever-present itch that needs to be scratched. It’s part of who I am and what drives me and what keeps me sane. I’m not much of a dabbler. My wife is quite an adventurer too. But the longer races can put a huge strain on partners though and this is often the most difficult aspect.”
“Having partnerships with brands like J Laverack Bicycles, Spatzwear, Hexr, Crankalicious and Endurance x Nature helps but it is mostly in kit rather than cash.”
“There are a couple of riders who could be considered semi-pro, but this is not football or boxing. Part of the appeal is actually that it isn’t pro. There’s something wonderful about these races being won by teachers, scientists, engineers, bike messengers; ultradistance racing is accessible and relatable to anybody who can ride a bike, in a way that the Tour de France simply isn’t.”
What about the nutrition side of things? Do you take many supplements?
“I’m not interested in snake oil and magic beans, so I stick to supplements with proven science. High-quality omega-3, beta-alanine, vitamin D during winter and iron. I also take a zinc-magnesium supplement before bed as hard training can cause a deficiency which impacts sleep quality. I’ll take a whey shake after longer rides and caffeine/guarana pills and gels during races.”
Where do you see the sport going?
“I think we’re enjoying a golden age for ultradistance racing right now. Fiona Kolbinger’s outright win on the 2019 TCR put the sport on the front pages around the world. It’ll be interesting to see where the sport goes from here but it’s reassuring to know that the custodians of the most prestigious races are good people who care far more about the spirit of these races and the community they’ve created than chasing profits.”
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With #TCRNo6 about to kick off, I’m looking back to where I started ultradistance racing. The full story of my rookie year is now live (link in bio) if you fancy a no-holds-barred look at riding across Europe in the greatest race of them all, @thetranscontinental. . . . #TCR #Transcontinental #ultradistance #bikepacking #cyclingblog #geraardsbergen #bemoremike #cyclinglife #instacycling #packlighttravelfar
You have not been back to the TCR – will you?
“To me the Transcontinental Race represents the pinnacle of ultradistance racing. It tests riders in so many different ways. The route is open to riders to choose, but with checkpoints structured in a way that forces riders into challenging terrain if they want to be competitive. The rapidly changing landscapes, languages and cultures makes for a great challenge and the race attracts the strongest competitors. So yeah, I’ll be back.”
Read more about Darren Franks’ ultra-distance cycling adventures here.