Life's Short, Ride It
“Don’t quit unless you’re on the verge of dying” Tom Seipp advises me on how best to complete a bikepacking race. He’s the 14-year-old younger half of the father-son cycling duo, from Hayfield on the fringes of the Peak District, who have so far ridden Strathpuffer, the Highland Trail 550, Rapha Festive 500, and last year Everested the Kemmelberg in Belgium – where challengers ride repeats of a single hill until they’ve climbed 8,848m, the equivalent height of Mount Everest.
We’re chatting on the phone five days before the pair fly to Calgary, from where they’ll drive to Banff in the Canadian Rocky Mountains to begin their attempt at the Tour Divide, a 4,418km bikepacking race from Banff to New Mexico crisscrossing the Continental Divide.
I try to coax the pair into confessing their nerves – I imagine the prospect of a 4,418km ride through unfamiliar territory (with bears) to be a nerve-wracking one – but they maintain an effortlessly cool composure.
“It’s one of those things, if you think about it too much, you sort of overthink it,” says Rich Seipp, the older half of the cycling duo, casually. And when I ask Tom whether the route will be the hardest he’s completed so far, I am bowled over by his pragmatic response. “To be honest,” he says, “I think it’s just a bit different to everything else we’ve done.”
As we mull over the pair’s cycling feats, it becomes clear that their calmness in the face of such a challenge comes not from arrogance, but from experience. Aged five, Tom completed his first 35-mile ride. “We didn’t leave the door saying we’re going to do this really big ride today,” says Rich. Instead, the pair set-off with options for places they could ride to – the ice cream van, then the fish and chip shop, then the café that serves beans on toast. At each stop Rich asked Tom if he felt like riding a little bit further, and each time he did.
Rich admits that taking Tom on long rides isn’t always easy. When Tom was seven, the pair completed the Rapha Festive 500, a challenge to ride 500km between Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve. On the first day of the ride the pair narrowly avoided disaster when the weather changed suddenly, and Tom’s temperature dropped so quickly that he was nearly hypothermic. “I made a mistake there really” says Rich. Grandparents were called and the frozen pair were picked up and driven home for a hot dinner. The next day Rich was woken by Tom bearing a cup of coffee, telling him to get up because ‘it was time to go riding’.
But that was seven years ago, and since then the pair have learnt from their mistakes. They’ve tackled Strathpuffer – a 24 hour race in the Highlands of Scotland – five times, and in 2012 were accepted to race the Highland Trail 550 – a 560-mile race also in the Scottish Highlands – after proving to race organiser Alan Goldsmith, who initially had his doubts, that Tom was capable. They’ve generally found the cycling community to be 99.9 per cent supportive of Tom’s participation in such events.
Next year, Tom plans to cycle the Highland Trail 550 solo for the first time, which he says should give him a better shot at a faster finishing time. “When there’s two of you, there’s more faffing” he points out, diplomatically, being careful not to suggest that he’s faster on the bike than his dad. With faffing time reduced, he hopes to finish the course in less than six days – a competitive time, but an achievable one, given that the pair completed the course last year in seven days and 18 minutes.
But riding isn’t about being fast for Rich and Tom. Neither is it about placing competitively in races. It’s about riding as a team, enjoying the ride, and the lessons learnt along the way. “Going out and cycling isn’t just about cycling,” says Rich. “The point is getting outside, going to different places, meeting different people, and experiencing different cultures.” He says Tom has developed an enduring love for France through his riding there. And when Tom was 13, he was invited to Belgium to give a cycling talk to an audience of 150 people, which Rich says was an invaluable learning experience.
Though accomplished in his cycling achievements – Tom’s rides are noted by some of the best cyclists in the endurance-bikepacking community, like Belgian Kristof Allegaert, who brought him Coca-Cola and Snickers as he Everested the Kemmelberg – Tom is endearingly self-deprecating and modest, which makes him all the more likeable. “I find a lot of the stuff that I do really hard and I don’t think that I’m anything special, I just don’t quit” he says, which is as good a lesson as any for life at large, and excellent preparation for the challenges of adulthood.
As the pair grow older, Rich acknowledges that there’ll come a time when Tom is faster than he is, but the assumption is that Tom will wait for Rich, just as Rich has waited for Tom since he was five-years-old – he laments the men he cycles with locally who choose speed and cycling with their mates over crossing the finish line last with their kids in tow. And just before he hangs up the phone, as a final token of wisdom, Rich adds: “Have kids, spend time with them, because they’re not kids for long.”
Rich’s top tips for getting your kids into long-distance cycling:
Tom’s top pieces of advice for kids who want to get into long-distance cycling:
Rich and Tom together at the US border on their Tour Divide ride earlier this summer