Numb fingers and euphoria: Interview with Sofiane Sehili

Three days, 21 hours and 50 minutes. That’s the time it took Sofiane Sehili to cover 711 miles (1,145 kilometers) of rough Morrocan terrain, becoming the overall winner of the inaugural PEdALED Atlas Mountain Race. 

Spotting a rare opportunity to get inside the head of a rider within days of managing such a feat, we asked Sofiane some questions about Morocco, and the overall experience of ultra-endurance racing.  

Over 1000 kilometers in under four days is a serious feat, both physically and mentally – how are you feeling right now? 

Physically I’m exhausted. My lips are burnt, my butt’s all fried, my toes are sore. I’m having trouble standing up or sitting down. I’ve lost feeling in my fingertips. And I have a few scratches that testify to the deplorable state of the tracks. Mentally, on the other hand, I’m super happy. Almost euphoric. 

Looking back, what did you think of the route? Was it harder than you thought? As beautiful as expected?

Ever since the Silk Road Mountain Race No. 1, Nelson [Trees, the SRMR and AMR organizer] has had a reputation for concocting very demanding routes, so I was expecting something really hard. In terms of difficulty, we were indeed served. The first pass set the tone with insane gradients. And the following sections were accordingly tough, with roads in bad shape, or mule tracks difficult to distinguish by day, and almost indistinguishable at night. 

In terms of landscapes, I wasn’t disappointed. The Atlas is really superb. However, during this kind of challenge, your mental state inevitably fluctuates and I sometimes got tired of seeing rock-covered mountains. Luckily the oases were never far away. 

Where other riders rest, and then compensate by riding faster, it seems your strategy has always been to literally never stop riding opting for a steady pace over sleep…

Yes, that has always been my strategy. That’s what I know how to do from my bike touring background. I spent a lot of time perfecting this method. At the beginning of the race I make an effort to stick to the front of the pack, but once I’m alone in front I switch to low intensity pedalling –  the kind of pace I know I can keep indefinitely. That’s what I prefer. And as it works I see no reason to change. 

A lot of people wonder how it’s possible to endure so much sleep deprivation, especially while exerting such physical effort. Is it something you’ve worked on/trained yourself for?

It’s something to work on indeed. I started experimenting in 2016 and I take advantage of every race to learn more and more. Four years ago I wouldn’t be able to do what I’ve done in Morocco, or what I did on the Italy Divide. Back then I could choose not to sleep during one night, but the next day I’d pay for it by losing my morale and concentration. Today it’s easy for me to stay awake all night and still concentrate the next day.

I’ve developed a few tricks to combat falling asleep when I feel it coming on. With practice, my body and brain have learned to go without sleep for a while. But of course, the more sleepless nights are linked together, the harder it is to stay focused. 

How does this level of sleep deprivation affect your body and mind?

The first few times I really pushed sleep deprivation to the limit, I started hallucinating, but it doesn’t happen much anymore. In Italy, where I pushed it even longer without sleeping, I ended up going into a kind of delirium where I couldn’t distinguish between dream and reality. I was pushing my bike in the snow, wondering if it was really happening, or whether it was a dream.

However, I never put myself in danger. I know that the only thing really important is to be able to recognize the exact moment when you can no longer fight against sleep. You have to be able to stop before you wake up in the ditch, or worse.  

How do you handle the pressure of competition once you’re on the bike? 

My strategy is always the same: give everything. Go as fast as you can. Not by pushing like crazy, but by hardly ever stopping. That’s why I hate not being first. When I’m not in front, I spend my time wondering why there’s someone in front of me despite giving all I can. I think and wonder what he did better than me and how I can hope to catch up with him. I’m usually in a bad mood when I’m not first. But as soon as I’m in the lead, I really get my kicks out of it. However, it’s complicated to maintain the discipline when you have a big lead. The pressure naturally drops and the little breaks become longer and more frequent. 

In your opinion, who were your fiercest competitors at different moments in the race?

The first two days I was in battle with Christian Meier. He’s a former pro and went off like a rocket the first day, before stopping for three hours to sleep. That’s when I passed him. He caught up with me a few minutes before daybreak, launched like a high-speed train. He impressed me with his ability to generate watts, but I quickly got the impression that this race would be too demanding for someone with almost no experience. In events like this, you almost always see newcomers take starting hot before exploding. And seeing him roll, I thought that was probably what would happen to him. 

The guys I was really worried about were James Hayden and Jay P [Petervary]. We had an intense battle on the bike in Italy last year and I knew they’d be out there on the front lines as always. That said, I found Jay less imperial than usual on day one. It’s not easy to get in shape in February when you live in Idaho. 

James was discreet the first day but ended up very strong. He arrived at CP (checkpoint) 3 almost five hours after me, and managed to reduce the gap to 2h20 in the end, only finishing at 2h20 in the end. Between CP 2 and CP 3, I got a little worried because I knew I was having a bad night and he could take advantage of that and catch me up. But when I saw that he was more than 4 hours behind me at CP 3, I understood that, barring a catastrophe, the race was won. 

How do you manage the post-race moments with your direct competitors, who also happen to be your friends?

James is not only an outstanding athlete, he is also a man of great class. I consider him a friend and I have a lot of respect for him. The reunion wasn’t as warm as in Italy, where we shared the win, but that’s normal. You can’t win this kind of race without being a competitor. And a competitor is always disappointed not to win. I didn’t have much time to talk to him, but I was still happy we could chat briefly. 

Jay is a special character in bikepacking. He doesn’t have a lot of friends among the headliners, but I don’t think he’s especially interested in making friends. He did have a kind word to say about my performance, which was a pleasant surprise. 

To tell the truth I spent very little time at the finish because I had to return to Marrakech quickly to catch my plane. 

How did you feel during the last day of the race with the tiredness catching up but knowing you were so close to victory?

It was quite peculiar. I rode for a little over twelve hours knowing that I had won. Of course there was always the possibility of a fall, accident or breakdown, but deep down I knew that wasn’t going to happen. So on the one hand I was saying to myself “it’s done, mission accomplished” but on the other hand I couldn’t really savour it yet. 

When I saw the light, 1000 feet (five hundred meters) from the finish, I felt overwhelmed with immense joy, even though I had known for a long time that victory was mine. I finished with a huge smile on my face. Paradoxically, I believe that for me, the relief of not losing outweighs the joy of winning. 

After the physical and emotional effort, and complete absorption in your mission, what’s it like to step out of the race bubble and back into normal life? 

The physical recovery is relatively long because the body is pushed to its limits. It takes more than two months to regain sensitivity at the fingertips for example. Forty days after Italy, my knees hadn’t recovered from what the Tuscan hills did to them. The post-race phase immediately after finishing is certainly the best. Being reunited with friends, family and colleagues and knowing that they have been thrilled. Going on social media and reading all the cheers we didn’t have time to read during the race – it’s something that never fails to move me. I have a lot of people supporting me and believing in me and I would be very sorry to disappoint them. 

With the PEdALED Atlas Mountain Race behind you, what’s next? 

I’ve just returned to Paris and I’m leaving on Saturday morning for a weekend in Savoie. I should do 93-124-mile days (150-200 kilometer). It sounds a bit crazy but after what I went through in Morocco, believe me, that riding an eight-kilogram bike on asphalt roads is going to be resting. 

Check out his AMR Collection here and follow Sofiane on komoot here

Photos by Lian van Leeuwen and Nils Langer.