Sofiane Sehili: World-Class Endurance
Sofiane Sehili is a French ultra-cyclist who has been dominating the most grueling races in the world for the past few years. We had the chance to chat with Sofiane about how he started, what it takes to stay on top, what comes next, and the type of music he listens to while grinding the cold and dark distances.
Chances are you have already heard of Sofiane Sehlili. But if you haven't, it's really quite simple - Sofiane is currently the best ultra-endurance bikepack racer in the world. He has triumphed in events such as the Tour Divide, Silk Road Mountain Race, and the Atlas Mountain Race, at times winning by significant margins. Watching Sofiane race leaves the mind a little boggled, and his performances raise a host of questions about what is truly humanly possible on a bike, and how he manages to stay on top. In this interview, we'll delve into the mind and experiences of this remarkable athlete and hopefully gain insights into what it takes to be the best in the world of endurance bikepack racing.
When you were a kid did you say, “I want to be an endurance bike racer?"
Absolutely not. When I was a kid, I never really thought about adult life. Responsibilities seemed boring and I wanted no part of them. I just wanted to grow up to stop going to school and do my homework. I mostly wanted to be free from chores and adult supervision. Then as a teenager, I never really found what I wanted to do. Adult life was not very appealing to me. I thought of being a writer and worked in a magazine for a while, but it wasn't as interesting as I thought. Then right before turning 30, I discovered bike touring and I immediately knew this is what I wanted to do. Racing came afterward. I was already 34 years old by then. Being a racer has been a short part of my life and I'm not sure what the rest will look like. It will have bikes, that's the one thing I know.
While racing, how do you handle the darkness that comes from lack of sleep and ultra-endurance day after day?
It's the hardest aspect of ultra cycling—going through the dark, with nothing to look at, fatigue and sleepiness, sometimes for 10 to 12 hours. There's no magic recipe to make it easy. It's hard on all of us and doesn't get easier with time. The only way you can stand it is by being super strong mentally and extremely focused and driven. Only if you have a clear goal, like winning, can you withstand the kind of mental suffering that comes with long nights on the saddle. I have a few techniques that allow me to stay awake, but no trick whatsoever that makes riding through the night pleasant.
You often wear headphones while racing. What are you listening to?
I have several playlists. One is music that I discovered recently. One is rap and RnB. One is French music. One is just straight-up old fashion rock n'roll. And one has metal, punk, hardcore, and drone. The last two are the ones I listen to the most.
Are there any other racers that make you nervous?
There is a lot of talent out there. On the other side of the Atlantic, guys like Kurt Refsnider and Neil Beltchenko have accomplished so much and are straight up legends. There are also very talented younger riders that are proving their value, like Marin de St Exupery and Robin Gemperle, who won the last two editions of the Atlas mountain race. If you look at ex or current pro cyclists, Mattia de Marchi and Lachlan Morton have proven they belong with the very best by winning races in impressive fashion. I don't race much on the tarmac, but if you consider road ultras, racers like Ulrich Bartholmös and Christoph Strasser have shown that they're virtually unbeatable.
What do you think about elite or pro racers in bikepacking events?
I think it's great to see racers with different backgrounds—some from the pro peloton, some that come from bike touring, or even bike messengers. The way that I see the future of bikepacking is shorter races dominated by pro or ex-pro racers in events lasting less than 72 hours. Their speed is a big advantage. However, on longer events, like Silk Road or Tour Divide, we have yet to see what they're capable of. I believe that experience and mental strength are as important as fitness when the distance requires to race for 5, 10, or 15 days in a hostile environment. I'm looking forward to seeing guys like Lachlan Morton take on really long races.
There's a lot of chatter about media teams in races. What's your take?
Ultimately it is the choice of the race director to decide if they want to allow private media crews to document the race of only one athlete. Once the rule is set, it is the role of the athlete to respect it. Generally speaking, if there is a crew dedicated to one racer, it is best that they don't interact too much. There are situations where knowing that you have a crew following you can be beneficial, especially in remote countries. These teams have to be monitored and these situations regulated. Some of the oldest and most prestigious races don't allow for private media crews which I understand and respect. I also know that to get sponsors, you need content. But that content should be created in a way that assures the playing field is leveled for all the riders.
You have accomplished so much. What's the one thing you haven't done yet? The shining jewel, the crowning achievement?
In terms of racing, personally, I don't think there's one thing that is left to be done. I could retire now and look back without any regret, just pride for what I have achieved. I've won the most prestigious and hardest races. I've done much more than what I originally set out to do. However, there is one thing I have been thinking about a lot, and that's a world record. I'd love to beat Jonas Deichman's record of the fastest unsupported bike ride across Eurasia, from Lisbon to Vladivostok.
What do you do outside of cycling? Any other hobbies or interests?
I don't do much outside of cycling. I like to work on my bikes and the bikes of my friends. I watch a lot of movies and read sci-fi books. Honestly, I think that without cycling my life would be quite boring.
Self-sustained racing seems to be more popular than ever. Any advice for new racers?
I think the most important thing is to set out realistic goals and then work towards achieving them. Many people fail because they just go too hard and have unrealistic expectations. Not everyone can win, and not everyone is top-ten material. And that's okay. Just be aware of what you're capable of and don't push yourself too hard. For example, don't ride through the night during a race if you've never done it in training. Remember finishing a race twice as slow as the winner is still better than not finishing it. If you're just a beginner, you'll have many chances to improve in the future. Go step by step. You'll get mentally and physically stronger as you race.
Don't underestimate what you are about to undertake. It is one of the hardest things you can do and it will test your limits. So be prepared. I guess that is the main thing: be prepared. Train, experiment, do your research, and leave no room for failure. And one last thing: always keep your butt and chamois clean!
Do you want to take a moment to plug your sponsors?
I'd like to thank Vitus for providing me with great bikes, Hunt for equipping them with fast wheels, René Herse for fitting the supplest tires on these rims, Shimano for the best groupsets out there, dhb for dressing me with the top-notch kit, Miss Grape for making sure everything I put in my bags stays nice and dry, Northwave for putting comfy shoes on my fit and finally, Supernova for showing me the way when it's dark.
Thanks, Sofiane 🙏Find Sofiane on Instagram, YouTube and his website.
📸: Thibaut Mszk, Ruben Plasencia, Sergio Villalba, Fanny Bensussan, JP Mothes, Patrick Farnsworth, Carlos Mazon