Five mountain passes, 309km, an elevation gain of 7,611m, 51,000 turns of the pedals, and just one gear… When the Tour de France first went to the Pyrenees in 1910, its eventual winner – Parisian rider Octave Lapize – insulted the organisers, yelling, “You are murderers! Yes, murderers!” Years later, journalist Albert Londres would nickname it the “Tour de Souffrance [Suffering]”. In June this year, after six years of planning, Patrick Seabase – a systems engineer, musician and skater from Bern, Switzerland – retraced those pioneers’ tyre tracks… on a fixie.
As the name suggests, a fixed-gear bike has just one set gear. You can’t freewheel or brake. One crank turn is equivalent to 2.2 turns of the rear wheel, whether you’re going uphill, downhill or on the flat. Seabase completed his challenge with a time of 15 hours, 52 minutes and 32 seconds, during which – unlike the riders in 1910 – he didn’t have a single second to let his legs recover. Besides great strength, it takes a strong will and good planning to be able to conquer one mountain pass – let alone five – on a fixie.
But then, riding a fixie is second nature for Seabase. “Running barefoot is the only thing that might still possibly feel more natural,” he says.
Every signal his body gives off is transferred directly to the road surface. Movement becomes meditation. “First you forget your body,” he says. “Then you forget yourself.” Nothing comes between his thoughts and the road – bar occasional bouts of pain, exhaustion and, when climbing almost 1,000m in 17km on the Col du Tourmalet, sheer torture.
On the steepest sections, he hauls himself uphill at 26rpm; on the downhill sections, he pedals at 180rpm and his muscles bleed lactic acid. And as for braking: “You stop rotating very suddenly so as to jam the rear wheel with brute force,” he says. “It’s a pretty unnatural manoeuvre and your legs can’t do it on their own – you’d go flying off the bike. You need the body tension of an acrobat. My lower arms are practically the same size as my upper arms.”
And yet, says Seabase, it isn’t the body that takes the greatest strain when tackling such a demanding challenge. “You can never fully prepare yourself for D-Day,” he says. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a trial run or the crowning stage of the 1910 Tour de France. When it comes down to it, 80 per cent of your performance is in your head.”
It is critically important to see the inevitable low points as a sign that things are about to get better. After the bottom dead centre, the crank rises again. “People are full of hope,” says Seabase. There’s a battle going on inside his head and he already knows who’s going to win. The body can forget all the stresses and strains, but the mind retains those feelings of happiness forever.
What is more difficult, and no less essential, is not to think too much when the going gets tough, and not to look too far forward to when it’ll all be over. The project is broken up into bite-sized chunks, with each mountain pass becoming one single train of thought. “When I was at university,” says Seabase, “I never thought about graduating. I always just thought from book to book, from essay to essay.”
Of course, that means lying to yourself, which isn’t easy for an intelligent person. After the Col du Tourmalet, there’s the Col d’Aubisque and then another 160km, but you persuade yourself that the end is in sight. Except there are a whole lot of other, closer targets first. “At times like those,” he says, “every breath I take and every turn of the pedal is like a mantra that helps me get through the tough moments.”
And his third strategy for achieving the seemingly unachievable? “I try not to think of myself and make myself focus on other things,” he says. “The landscape, the people around me, my bike… Sometimes I allow myself to listen to music as a reward. The rhythm blends in with how I’m pedalling. In my head, I’m shooting my own film.”