Photos by Rue Kaladyte (@rugilekaladyte)
The Hope 1000 is a 1,000-kilometer self-supported mountain bike route across the Swiss Alps that combines a medley of singletrack, doubletrack, gravel roads, and quiet paved lanes that rack up over 30,000 meters of climbing. As Lael Wilcox put it, to ride this route in four days “is like climbing Mount Everest every day for four days in a row.” The race kicked off last week with 76 riders participating. Marin de Saint-Exupéry finished first with a course record-setting time of 3 days, 16 hours, and 56 minutes (03:16:56) beating Jochen Böhringer’s 2020 time of 3 days, 17 hours, and 30 minutes (03:17:30).
Originally from from Paris, Marin is a 24-year-old bike messenger currently living in Renens, Switzerland. After the race, photographer Rugile Kaladyte and Lael Wilcox sat down with Marin to discuss his race experience and life leading up to the event. Find the full interview transcript below along with a photoset from Rue.
Lael: I think it’s exciting to talk about how it ended up because everyone’s watching and first this guy Markus is way ahead, not sleeping and then all of the sudden, he’s gone and then it’s you and Joan. So did you ride together?
Marin: At first we were really at the same speed and we were catching each other and we just started to stay together. By the end, we thought to push from not the last climb, but the climb before, we pushed quite hard and then we got down and he was a bit over, so I went.
Lael: And when you left, were you looking to see if he was coming?
Marin: No, I knew he was done and I was in pretty good shape, so I just went full gas, but it’s funny on the way down, just before this really rooty singletrack, I went left and I missed my way. And that’s funny, all my friends saw it, and they were like, “what did you do this time?”
Rue: Because he’s only 12 minutes behind.
Lael: And if you make a wrong turn for ten minutes, he catches you.
Marin: That’s really funny because he said he made the same mistake. Exactly the same.
Lael: He did! So, then it was the same.
Rue: because it’s hard to see. You’re also riding at night and I think it was raining too.
Marin: Yeah, really pouring rain. My light was with a red flash. That means I have almost no light.
Lael: You had no light left?
Marin: almost none and I was really scared to walk down because I had no more light.
Lael: you’re in the dark.
Rue: I looked at your Instagram a little and I wish you had more photos there because I think what you’re doing is amazing. You were a bike messenger beforehand? Or are you a bike messenger?
Marin: Yes, I’m still a bike messenger.
Rue: How did you get into riding bikes and bikepacking? And maybe your adventure from riding from Switzerland to Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan). How did you get into riding bikes?
Marin: That’s a long story. I was living in Paris, so I was born there and I grew up there and it was the trend of fixed gear bikes, so I just had a fixed gear and I wanted to study industrial design, so I was really interested in the object of the bicycle and fixed gears were cool. I moved to Switzerland to study industrial design. So, I discovered mountains and stuff like that. And I just saw the movie of the Trans Continental and I was just inspired by that and I tried the Trans Continental.
Rue: When was this? What year did you do the Trans Continental?
Marin: It was four years ago. I was 20. And I did a second time after and then I did the Silk Road Mountain Race.
Lael: And rode from here to Bishkek?
Marin: Yeah, I didn’t want to take the plane, at least for the way there, and I had time and a bit of money, so I just rode there.
Rue: Do you know how far it was to bike to Bishkek?
Marin: It was 8,000km. I didn’t go to the north. I went to the south, from Turkey, I crossed the Black Sea by boat and then I crossed the desert through Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan and traveled through Kyrgyzstan from the south, through the mountains.
Lael: That’s super cool!
Marin: Yeah, that was really amazing.
Lael: I mean, that’s a bigger adventure than the race.
Marin: Yeah, of course! It was more meaningful. And to cross the desert by bicycle, this desert in particular, is quite amazing. It’s the real Silk Road, in fact. You can really see the trucks coming from China and going to Europe.
Lael: Yeah, so did you see the race first and say, “I’ll do the race and ride to the start?”
Marin: I saw the race first, but yeah, I just wanted to take some time to ride. There is also this question of taking planes. People are aware that it’s more and more a problem to travel by plane. I just wanted to avoid taking the plane. From the beginning, then, I wanted to return by train, but I was too tired, so I just took the plane. But if I get back to the Silk Road, I really want to travel by train.
Lael: Yeah, that would be super cool! With some really old trains. It might take as long as going by bike.
Marin: I calculated it. You can do it in a week on the bicycle.
Lael: Maybe. Maybe you can! 8,000km! That’s super cool.
Rue: How did you hear about the Hope 1000? I mean, it’s here in your home country.
Marin: I guess I heard from social media or something like that, but I also had friends who’ve done it in the past. I work in a bike shop and we do work with Willi Felix (the organizer of the Hope 1000). My boss called him and told him, “we also have a rider on the start list.”
Rue: small world!
Marin: It’s local people and bicycles.
Rue: Can you tell us about your bike? Why did you choose this? It looks like front suspension, rigid back, anything special about your bike?
Marin: I just bought it one year ago because I’m totally new to mountain biking. I did the Silk Road on a gravel bike which was a pretty bad idea. So, when I came back, I just decided to buy a mountain bike. To be honest, I work in a bike shop where we have Merida and that was the best price for me. It was an easy choice.
Lael: Would you change anything or was it good?
Marin: A dropper seatpost maybe?
Lael: Yeah, because it’s so steep.
Marin: And I’m not really good technically, so it’s easier. And maybe the tires are a bit too light.
Lael: And pretty worn out!
Marin: Yeah, I should have changed them before the race.
Rue: I heard you say that you made your half framebag. Did you make all of your bags?
Marin: There are two that are Apidura and the other bags I made. I made the framebag and the front bag.
Rue: Is that your first time making bags for your bike?
Marin: No. As I mentioned, I did some industrial design studies and my diploma project was a bike and I made the bike and the bags. I raced the Trans Continental with this bike and so then it’s just a process, I just changed some stuff on the bags. These bags are welded with an iron. It’s a really basic process, but it’s waterproof. It’s really easy to do. I mean, everyone could do it at home.
Lael: Did everything work? Did you have any problems?
Marin: Everything almost worked. Just some problems with the gears, but that’s no big deal. Oh, and my fork — I’m really new to MTB so I don’t know how forks work and I guess the pressure is too low. I have to check, but it was bottoming out.
Rue: I think you had pretty much the most minimal set up. You have no stuff on your bike. What did you put where on your bike? Where did you carry food? Do you have a sleep system?
Marin: So, I have an emergency bivvy. I would change it because during the night you wake up really wet inside—condensation. That’s pretty disgusting. And I had a foot problem due to that because I was keeping my socks on and it was staying wet all day.
Lael: It was so wet every day, that even without that, your feet would just be wet.
Marin: Yeah, but it was even worse, I guess. I have some clothes in the front, light clothes, like a rain jacket and a sleeveless jacket, and a long sleeve merino just for warmth. And then it’s only a few tools, tubes and food.
Lael: Did you have any mechanical issues?
Lael: What did you eat mostly?
Marin: junk food. A lot of chips. I really love those and in Switzerland, there’s a great choice of chips everywhere compared to Kyrgyzstan where they are not good at all.
Rue: What was the biggest challenge during the race?
Marin: The first day it was the heat. We had a pretty shitty month of May in Switzerland. It was still the winter almost or the spring. It was the first time I was riding in the heat for a long time, so I got heat stroke. The first night, at 8pm, I had to stop and sleep as my heart, I could not rest anymore. I slept for an hour or so and then I started again. During the night, it was quite hard.
Lael: And I saw you!
Marin: I was really sick all of the night. I couldn’t eat and drink, but still I kept going and it got better with time.
Rue: Sometimes that happens and you just want to quit, but you rest and then you approach it a couple hours later or an hour later.
Marin: I hoped it was going to be okay. And I don’t know the word, when the food comes up.
Lael: You threw up.
Marin: Yes, I threw up and in fact, I felt much better after that. I could eat again and drink again.
Rue: Before this race, had you ridden any parts on the route? Was it all new to you?
Marin: I really discovered, even the trail that’s near my house, the rooty trail, I did not know it and I was really happy to come to the pass because I think, “Oh, I know the place. It’s just getting down to Montreux and the finish.” But not at all.
Lael: And then it turns.
Marin: Yeah, it turns and you go on the roots.
Lael: And then you go on 5km around on grass and then the roots. But there is that one spot with the big shelter. Did you see it? It was dark.
Marin: Right at the turn. Yeah, I know this shelter.
Lael: I would go there just for camping.
Marin: Yeah, that’s really nice. In winter you can climb there by ski touring and we do some fondue up there. A good place with a big fireplace.
Lael: That is the special thing about riding in Switzerland. There are always shelters versus Kyrgyzstan, there’s nothing.
Marin: There were the pipelines under the roads.
Lael: You slept in those?
Marin: Yeah, that was perfect. They are under the road. You don’t see them. Every night I slept down there.
Lael: This time, if you did sleep, where did you sleep?
Marin: As you say, there is shelter everywhere in Switzerland. In farms, where there is some hay, that’s perfect because I don’t have many clothes, so on hay it’s a bit warmer.
Rue: Did you have a favorite part of the route? Any section that you really loved?
Marin: I was a bit disappointed by the first part. This is not mountain biking. It was too easy. There is too much tarmac, too much easy gravel. And then it got better. The second half is definitely more fun.
Lael: Much more beautiful too.
Marin: Yeah, also.
Lael: Higher mountain passes, more remote, I agree.
Marin: And I didn’t know that part of Switzerland, so it was really nice to discover. It’s really different from here. The people don’t speak French at all. It’s really remote, really different. It’s kind of another country.
Rue: That’s where Willi lives.
Lael: The first section ends at Willi’s house.
Rue: His wife was out there with an umbrella, a table and water.
Marin: Oh yeah, I remember, I didn’t stop. It was on the way down the hill and I thought, “that’s nice, but it’s the beginning.”
Lael: That’s Will’s house. So, if anyone tours the route, he sees them out the window and he goes and chases them and invites them for a coffee.
Rue: When Lael did the race three years ago, it was the fourth year of the race and there were maybe 30 people starting and this year, there were more like 85.
Lael: I think maybe 150 signed up, but people cancelled because of COVID-19.
Rue: What motivates you to race? Why do you race? It’s so unusual to put yourself through this pain and discomfort.
Marin: I don’t know. It’s just a game. Just fun. Even at the end, it was fun. I was a bit disappointed when Markus quit because I wanted to chase him for fun and do my best.
Lael: I was sad when he quit too. He worked so hard to get so far. He had a problem with his knees, I think.
Rue: Maybe he could’ve rested and gotten better, but then, he’s probably thinking about it for hours and he knows what he needs to do.
Lael: I don’t know. Stop for an hour and try again. Like you!
Marin: Yeah, but he was three days into the race. I stopped after one day. And I guess when you have accumulated so much tiredness, when it breaks, it breaks way harder.
Lael: Do you have any other races or adventures that you want to do?
Marin: Yeah, in October, I’ll be in Morocco to race the Atlas Mountain Race. I’m really looking forward to that. I’m also going by bike there and taking some holidays.
Lael: Did you make a nice route to get there?
Marin: In fact, I have to shortcut, I don’t have that much holidays. I will take the boat in the south of France to the north of Morocco, so I’ll just go there easy.
Lael: And for work, you work at a bike shop?
Marin: Yeah, I work 50/50 as a bike messenger and in a bike shop.
Lael: Do you like it?
Marin: Yeah, it’s nice. Right now, it’s really hard to work in a bike shop with COVID and so on. It’s quite stressful, but I love the job.
Lael: bike shops are crazy right now. No bikes, no nothing.
Marin: No bikes, but twice the amount of work. So, that’s not a good equation.
Rue: Did you have a strategy for the Hope 1000? Before the race, did you know what you were going to do?
Marin: Not at all. I just looked at the map on the train when traveling to Romanshorn.
Lael: Did you know the other racers?
Marin: I know some friends, but not competitive racers. I did not know Markus, for example, and I learned that he was third last year. And it’s funny about the record. On the last day, I asked Joan (second place finisher), “I heard there is a record and it’s a bit less than four days. Maybe we could do it.” And he told me the actual record and we were on track for it, so we said, okay, let’s do it.
Lael: And you got it! Which is incredible considering all of the rain. I think last year, they had pretty much perfect conditions. Maybe some rain on the first day, but after that, it was really nice. You set the record in some of the worst conditions.
Rue: Really hot and then really wet.
Lael: Well, I hope you do some more races because I’m excited to see what you do.
Marin: I hope to be in shape in Morocco.
More on the Hope 1000
Stay tuned for more coverage of the 2021 Hope 1000, and in the meantime, make sure to dig into these related articles...
Please keep the conversation civil, constructive, and inclusive, or your comment will be removed.