Bikepacking: the 3 Grand Tours

Bikepacking: the 3 Grand Tours

Follow Maximilian's adventures on the 3 Grand Tours. We'll start with La Vuelta in Spain!

Let me dive into the context behind this challenge: in late April, I left Lille to ride my bike to Turin. In May, I cycled the entire Giro d'Italia as well as the transitions, in the same allotted time as the pros. In June, I biked from Milan to Brest. Then, I cycled the entire Tour de France as well as the transitions, in the same allotted time as the pros. Next, I biked from Paris to Burgos to attack the last stage of my challenge: the Vuelta in Spain. 

I'll start at the end, with a few lines that I wrote at the end of the Tour de France: "You'd think that the joy is no longer in the sport, but in success. That success means victory, and not in personal accomplishment."

I'd been struggling through the Vuelta for nine days when these lines suddenly (re)appeared in my mind. Tomorrow, the pros have a rest day, and I'll have an insane advance. I've achieved the hardest part of the Vuelta, the goal always in my sights. I covered 2,500 km in 9 days, half of the total distance that awaits me in 23 days. The margin is huge, my adrenaline tanks, and I start to wonder.

Did I appreciate it? The answer is clear: No. I'm in one of the most beautiful countries in Europe, and the Vuelta mainly follows highways. I've been riding 12 to 15 hours per day to keep up with the route. I eat on my bike. I sleep in towns to gain time by not needing to set up a tent. I eat quickly.

My motivation to continue: my ego and "what people will say". I don't care. I've gone on adventures for 5 years without letting myself be influenced by the judgement of others. So now is not the time for me to force myself to finish this challenge at all costs and sacrifice my own pleasure.

I arrive in Almería: the plastic desert of monoculture greenhouses puts an end to my adventure. It's done. I leave the Vuelta and create my own itinerary in Spain (and Portugal).

Bikepacking: the 3 Grand Tours


I then begin another voyage. I decide to achieve a long-standing dream: climbing the Pico Veleta (3,393 m), the highest mountain in Europe accessible by bike. It's a delight and an emotional day for me.

Next is a detour through the mountains from Cordoba to Seville, in the middle of millions of olive trees as far as the eye can see. I take the time to camp, for real. Appreciating the sunrises and sunsets. Taking the time to eat, sleep, and stop in villages to talk to people. That's when I got the idea to go explore Portugal, particularly the Algarve and the mountains of the Serra da Estrela. It's a delight. Every day, I seem to have made the right decision, and I feel like I'm making the most of these last weeks of summer. I ride less on the days I'm not motivated. I ride for longer on the days when I feel like I need to move or cover some ground. I let myself be charmed by different routes as I travel. I improvise. I discover. Basically, I get back to the freedom of bike travel, and shake off the pressure of the race. After over 4 months of planning and imposed itineraries, I feel a sort of lightness in me. Everything is permitted, without needing to redouble my efforts the next day to compensate.

I still don't regret this challenge, and the 2 1/2 Grand Tours I accomplished. I had a need to flirt with the extreme. A need for a project and a direction, to put myself to the test. I'm physically satisfied, since despite some fairly harsh conditions, I always succeeded at keeping to the time limits and even creating a bit of a margin. But I'm even more satisfied with having abandoned it: knowing when to say no at the moment when the hardest had already been accomplished, to listen to my heart and not my ego. All of my life choices over these past 5 years have been in that direction: placing pleasure over obligation. I would have been betraying myself by pushing to complete this challenge when it went against my desires at the time. Staying true to myself, a life philosophy and a promise that I renewed with myself in that moment. A return to bike adventures where joy is primordial, a certainty that I now have and that will guide me in the coming months. The ability to find wonder in my practice - that's the whole reason I cycle.

Bikepacking: the 3 Grand Tours

In any project, the "after" is its own challenge that you need to prepare for and envision for a long time before the end of the project. I've tried to prepare for this "after" for a long time, but obsessed by my Three Grand Tours project, it's true that I've had trouble imagining anything concrete. The uncertainty of the increasingly wintry weather and my motivation after a project of this magnitude were sources of blockage in the first days and weeks after the end of the Vuelta.

I now have a few plans in mind, although winter makes them hard to achieve. But at least it's not me making the rules, but the weather. When you choose to be nomadic and live on your bike, winter is a hard time, where you need to take advantage of windows of good weather to have fun while getting used to the cold. Winter is also a period of creativity - that's when plans for the following summer are born. So I have plenty of time ahead of me to plan for what's next.

This summer, I needed to push myself hard over a very long period of time. Despite cutting the challenge short, I'm more than satisfied: 22,000 kilometres in 4 months are the proof that my body responds well.

I still feel a passion for extremes. I want to test myself on shorter formats, over a 24-hour period for example. That'll be for next summer! What I realised during this Three Grand Tours challenge, however, is that I need to share and see others improving and succeeding in their own practices. I think back to the time when I wrote these lines for the woman whose name I forget, whom I met on the 3rd stage of the Tour de France, part of the peloton of the Donnons des Elles au Vélo, in the pouring rain, a few kilometres from the finish line in Mûr-de-Bretagne. She was trying her rear pannier bag for the first time, with the goal of trying some endurance races. Her bag was touching her tyre, so I told her to stop and I tightened it for her. We then set out in hot pursuit to catch up to the peloton. The Mûr-de-Bretagne was rising in front of us. We were the last in the group. I asked her if she had any energy left. She shook her head no. I told her to draft off of me and not to give up. We got back to the group and she dug in. She got to the top, totally spent, but her look said thank you. And I relish that more than any personal prowess.

It's something I'd like to push even more in the coming months. Communicate. Share. Grow.

So, not to worry, I'll keep sharing my adventures with you!

Bikepacking: the 3 Grand Tours