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Adrien Liechti: Beyond the Mountain
Swiss long-distance racer Adrien Liechti seems to be in his absolute element whenever he’s outside on a bike. A whirling phenomenon of endurance and speed, we spent two days with him near Geneva, where he lives in-between racing around the world.
Hello, can you introduce yourself please.
I'm Adrien Liechti, 37 years, from Switzerland. I worked in Geneva as a Bike Messenger for a few years and now I'm a full-time bike-packer. I've been racing long distance mountain bikes and on the road for about four or five years. It's not a job, it's a passion, I don't earn money doing this, but it takes me a lot of time, so I can say that it's my main activity.
What pleasure is there in doing races like the ones you do, where you ride for days on end and get very little sleep?
I really enjoy travelling by bike and meeting other people. I like to push my limits always looking to see what's beyond the next mountain. It's about connecting with nature. On these long races, over two or three days, we only ride, eat and sleep. It’s a simple existence; we are truly connected to nature and sleeping outside is part of that (laughs).
What is your best racing memory?
Probably what happened this year on the Tour Divide when my bike was lost by the airline a week before the race. I asked for help on social networks and dozens of people offered me their help including Manu. He offered to lend me one of his bikes. We struggled throughout the race, he finished second and I third on a bike he loaned me. Fabulous memory.
And the hardest race?
The Silk Road in Kyrgyzstan. It is not the longest but since we are at altitude far from the cities, far from any civilization, that complicates everything. This is 1800 km of mountain biking and around 40,000m of elevation gain, it took me eight days. It is a solo race without assistance. You don't have the right to get help from the locals. You can go to all places open to the public and in shops, but you are not allowed to knock on the doors of the local residents.
These rules are very much respected by those who race. You have to know that most people don't race, they just want to finish which is already an achievement but for the first 10 or 15 it's very respected. We all know each other, we are a small family and we see each other around the world at each event, there is a strong ethical pact between us.
How do you prepare for a race like the Silk Rd?
The preparation of the route card is very important. I download the map as soon as we have it on several applications. I am looking for shops and their opening hours in general, on the Silk Road in Kyrgyzstan it was more difficult to find. I prepare the menu in its entirety and then I improvise. Either way, it's never going to go as planned. I only book places to stay a few hours before arriving, you can't predict how a race will go, nor project yourself by evaluating an average pace.
How long can you ride without sleeping in a race?
I have managed to stay awake for 55 to 60 hours. It's possible to do it but I didn't feel good. So, for some time, I prefer to sleep a few hours to be able to ride faster and enjoy the race. On the French Divide, I took a short nap but only went to the hotel after 800 km of racing. I saw a city on the map, I can't remember the name of the city, I booked the hotel two hours before arriving. Once in town, I went to buy food, drink, checked into my hotel, showered, ate and slept for three hours. In this type of racing, it is not on the bike that we make the difference but rather in the management of breaks, fuelling and sleep.
What qualities do you need to win a race of 2,200 km like the French Divide?
It's being a good mechanic on the bike, being able to eat anything on the course, making decisions in a state of advanced fatigue. And then on the French Divide in particular it's about being a good bike handler because it's quite technical. There were a lot of rocks, descents, technical climbs.
If you are not technically good, you do almost everything on foot. For my part, I don't necessarily ride fast but I stop very little. I manage to just keep going, that's my strong point.
How many kilometres do you ride per year? How do you train?
It depends, I think 25,000 to 30,000 km per year including the races. When I was a bike courier I didn't train because I did 500km a week at work. Now I do intervals but nothing very well calculated, I do full climbs here near Geneva and then it reassures me. I don't really need to do long distances to feel good.
Do you think you have specific physiological qualities?
I think I have a lot of experience in racing especially. Sleep management is something that is learned and worked on. You train the body and brain to sleep one hour, to two hours… and take turbo naps too. It works a bit like sailors do managing sleep where every second counts. When racing, I stop at the end of the road, I lie down I put on an alarm clock and then usually I wake up 2 minutes before the bell and then I leave. It’s fun to do that!
Does each race require a specific bike?
My specialty is off-road racing, but every race can be different. You need different tyre sizes, you will often need a suspension, a flat handlebar or a drop handlebar, you will need different bags depending on what you are carrying with you.
At the French Divide for example, in the middle of summer, I had almost nothing with me, because it was 35°C. On a race like the Silk Road, my bike weighed 25 kilos because you have to take food, and sleep in minus 15°C, so lots of clothes...
This year the Rhino Road, riding as a duo with my partner Sophie, we are not allowed to leave each other. You have to communicate and know that when you're tired sometimes we say things that shouldn't be said. It's going to be interesting…