On June 26, British expat John Julius “JJ” Bennett is taking on the monumental feat of replicating the famed Tour de France around Phuket, cycling a distance of 3,417km over a 19-day period to raise funds for the One Phuket food drive supporting those devastated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“It is heartbreaking to see so much poverty impacting so many in Phuket,” says 57-year-old John. “People’s lives have been ruined, lifetime savings have disappeared, businesses gone forever and many families within poorer communities remain desperate for food and bare essentials.
“I have seen many Phuketians selling their saucepans for as little as B100 just to be able to buy some food to eat, which is incredibly sad,” he adds.
Stirred by the dire situation, John decided to take on a challenge that would attract attention and hopefully raise much needed funds.
“To cycle 3,417km in 19 days is tough,” John commented. “To put it into perspective, that is equivalent to the distance between Edinburgh and Moscow, or Canada to Mexico. Many people have told me I am completely mad and I probably am, but that’s what makes it a challenge.”
The cycle will be split across 21 days with two days allocated for rest and incorporates the varying stages seen at the Tour de France; hills, flats, mountains and time-trials will all factor in across separate days with the longest cycle set at a distance of 249.5km.
Last year John rode 3,000km in 30 days around Phuket and raised B150,000 for a charity supporting youngsters and babies affected by the pandemic. He is hoping to improve on this achievement this time around.
John has always been a cycling enthusiast. Aged 14, he became national school boy champion and junior record holder in the South West of England for the 25 miles Time Trial, a record that stood for 30 years. At senior level he raced in France for Peugeot but never made it to the real Tour de France. “I just wasn’t good enough,” he says, modestly. While continuing to cycle for fun, John took a sabbatical from racing for many years before returning competitively and winning over 200-time trial races in the UK between the ages of 35-45.
He moved to Thailand seven years ago to take on the role of Professor of Sports Science at Thammasat University in Bangkok. Regular freelance work at Thanyapura meant frequent visits to Phuket, a move he and his wife made permanent last March just before the first lockdown descended.
‘Hydration, nutrition, pacing’
John’s training regime in preparation for the upcoming challenge is intense and regimented, incorporating anywhere between one to four hours before or after work, five times a week.
“I was too heavy six weeks ago, so have had to focus on losing 6kg and teaching my body to use more fat as a fuel and less carbohydrates. It’s quite a complex process that uses specific nutrition techniques and specific training intensity to teach the body into burning more fat.
“For example, Friday evening a low carb meal, then Saturday no breakfast, a coffee to kickstart fat metabolism, followed by a four hour ride at fat burning intensity with only 10 grammes of carbohydrates per hour, just enough to ignite the fat and get me home.”
John’s comprehensive training routine and sports science expertise will place him in good stead for when the challenge starts, crucial when tackling the average daily rides of 169km.
“The key to coping with the distances is hydration, nutrition and pacing,” he says.
“I am confident I can hold 200 watts using a power meter on the bike to gauge my effort. Having a support car with me means I have peace of mind that all my drinks, nutrition and spare bike are at hand if required.”
The one challenge he has no control over, of course, is the weather, something he states could be the biggest hurdle.
“Whereas I don’t mind some rain, which can be warm and cooling, it is monsoon season and the heat and humidity are intense,” he says.
“But by starting at 6:00am daily, 160km will take me between five to six hours, meaning I am back by lunch and avoid the main heat of the day.
“However, the 249km stage will take me eight hours so that day will be really tough physically and mentally.
“I will become more and more fatigued as the days go on but it then becomes a mental battle of focus and motivation. When someone tells me I am mad and it’s impossible to emulate these distances aged 57, it just makes me want to complete it and raise as much as we can.”
With Phuket scheduled to reopen to vaccinated tourists on July 1 many see light at the end of a very long and painful tunnel. However, if there is anything the last 18-months has taught us it is that nothing is certain and to be prepared for the unexpected.
“We are in desperate need of donations right now to help keep families fed and watered for the next six months,” John says gravely.
“If we can get 1,000 people to donate US$10 (B310) each that will help feed and support an incredible amount of families struggling in poverty.
“I am willing to give up three weeks of my time to ride 3,417km in monsoon rains, 35 degree heat and 90% humidity. All I want out of this is to raise awareness and donations to help. Every single baht will go to the charity.”
All donations can be made via the GoFundMe page, established to ensure maximum transparency and to monitor all contributions.
John is still seeking the help of someone who has a car and can drive as his support, with all gas costs already covered by sponsorship. Interested parties can email him directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org