Riders from all over the world are preparing for Badlands, one of the most famous long distance unsupported races in the Spanish desert.
We put together a team of four riders to compete, explore or just take a “sadistic holiday” in this already mythical race.
Scroll down to get to know our friends Taylor Phinney, Luisa Werner, Sophie Jail and Davide Belfiore.
Since retiring as a professional cyclist in 2019 Taylor Phinney, laid-back and soft-spoken, has combined the experience of his ten very intense and varied years as a pro with his creativity and broader interest in culture to develop what we think are some of the most interesting ideas in the “industry”.
So first question is really can you just please tell us about how the idea came about for geometry and build of the custom Cinelli Nemo Gravel we just sent out to you?
There are a couple of directions I could take answering this question…
Tell us both!
Well firstly over the last 5-6 years I have started seeing the bicycle as an explorative tool, whilst when I started riding it was a tool for success and for winning. For me the relationship with the bike as a piece of equipment now is: where can it take me AND where can I take it. I like the concept of underbiking i.e. taking a bike that is not technically really up to the terrain you’re riding on. I like to find a balance between how far I can push the bike, how deep into some weird trail I can go before either the bike explodes or I mentally explode.
And secondly, from a technical point of view I believe that gravel cycling as we know it today is essentially a continuation of late 80s early 90s mountain bikes. Those bikes were also totally rigid and had a similar tyre profile. But one thing I think is missing or wrong about the current gravel market is that for whatever reason it seems that people just want to make road bikes with big tyres. That’s fine if you want to ride a road bike with big tyres… but when I think of doing a really long adventure or mixed terrain ride I want to be comfortable and a lot of that comfort stems from my upper body position, how straight is my back, how open are my shoulders… For open terrain and steep trails but even asphalt you need to be able to be dynamic, and I find that the strictly road position, very bent over and very far over the front wheel is very unhealthy for my back – with which I have a lot of problems because I’m a giant! – but also from a safety point of view. The further back you are, the easier it is to save the bike if you lose the front wheel. So to cut a long story short the geometry I worked on with the Cinelli technical office was less of a performance fit than your standard model and something closer to an 80s-90s MTB geometry. This is the second bike I’ve tried to develop this idea on and the first custom bike I’ve ever had in entire cycling career despite many promises from previous sponsors! All I ever wanted my whole pro career was a custom frame. It’s only taken about 3 years of not being a pro to have it…
And how does it ride?
Not perfect, but pretty close! [Laughs] I’ve been working on different setups these last few weeks. I’ve ridden it as a mullet bike, with 700c wheel at the front at 650b at the back, I’ve tried a few different handlebars…
Are you ready for Badlands?
To be honest riding Badlands was Davide’s [Cinelli’s trade marketing manager – ED] idea and I just said yeah sure. Only last week I looked at some videos and though oh f**k what have I got myself into… I’m going to take it like a kind of sadistic vacation: 4 or 5 days with no zoom calls no business to attend to. All you have to do is ride your bike and take care of your contact points. It’s total simplicity: stay alive and stay happy.
Haha sounds like a great holiday! One more question: I saw the poster you put out for your social ride with Cinelli this weekend (28/08) in Girona and I noticed that the most prominent piece of information on it (and on other posters you have made in the past for rides) was “100% ego-less ride”. When I read that myself personally as well as others in the office that saw it were really excited, to us it felt like exactly the kind of message we’d like about a ride we’d go on. Can you tell me a little bit about how you came to use this description of your rides?
I think it’s important to let people know up front when they’re coming to any kind of group ride what the vibe is going to be. The reason I write it is because there’s something about men mounting their bicycle and being around other men that makes them feel like they need prove themselves. There can often be this kind of energy where people become immediately competitive because they assume others there are being competitive with them. And it’s that kind of energy that really pushed me away from the road cycling environment. To me it felt like people weren’t connecting with each other but isolating themselves. That’s not the purpose of the bike for me. So I try to make it really clear from the start that this competitive mentality isn’t really welcome and that the people who come to the ride won’t be subject to that.
After a brief sojourn as a semi-professional cyclist and, before that, a budding career as an elite rower, last year Luisa Werner began exploring a new kind of cycling: endurance races. This very quickly led to competitive success with victories at prestigious races such as the Italy Divide and Three Peaks. But competition is only a very small part of Luisa Werner’s interest in cycling!
So, I wondered if you could begin by telling us how you first got involved in cycling?
Yes sure! So when I was younger I was a competitive rower, representing Germany at a U23 level. I started riding a road bike, like a lot of rowers and other athletes as a way of helping to build endurance. But soon enough the bike became about going out on long day rides, doing bikepacking trips using Airbnb in its early days… This eventually led to me stopping my rowing career and signing with a small semi-professional German cycling team.
How was your experience as a professional cyclist?
To be honest whilst I loved being with the girls and meeting other athletes I never felt comfortable, was often afraid of crashing and pretty quickly discovered that the peloton was not the side of cycling I’m interested in exploring. I rode for the team for just 1.5 years.
And after this you discovered endurance/bikepacking races?
About two years ago I discovered these kinds of races, yes and in September 2021 I rode my first one.
What attracted you about this format of cycling compared to your experiences as a professional?
Basically at an endurance race nobody goes home a loser. It’s not about position and ranking but adventure and the journey. People have a different spirit. You don’t feel competitiveness in the atmosphere, you feel people doing it for themselves and for the memories that will be created.
You’ve been very successful though, from a competitive point of view, from the very start in these races. What is your attitude towards winning and your objectives for Badlands?
The first priority for me is always to race against myself, not the others, because if do my best that will produce the best ranking. But like I said for me it’s not just a race but an opportunity to talk to the riders around me and to be pushed by them to try to do new things. In fact it’s the atmosphere created by the other riders that put me in the spirit of going fast.
Ok! Last question: you are of course going to be riding the Cinelli Zydeco King gravel bike for the race but are there any other special technical details that you have prepared for the race and that you are excited about using?
Well I am very excited about my mattress (laughs), the Thermarest Neoair X-Lite which I have used in every race over the last two years… And also a new 3 liter bladder bag made by Decathlon that can be placed under my aero-bar extensions to allow me to carry more water…
Sophie Jail is a nomadic French adventurer with a passion for bikepacking and restoring vintage cars and mopeds. After a long “informal” history with bikes, as a commuter and occasional summer tourer, two years ago she bought her first serious bicycle and began properly bikepacking across the European summer.
So, last time we spoke you told me that only last year you rode your first endurance race? How did this come about?
Well basically I had been suffering from some health problems and had been also using long-distance bikepacking as rehabilitation and “reappropriation” of my body. Signing up for an endurance race was a logical next step.
And how did it go?
I had studied the course before and prepared myself to try to finish it in about six days. I ended up finishing it in three days and a few hours. I was shocked to discover I could do this! To me it was amazing to discover what I was capable of, how the body could find ways to keep going, to handle pain, to use adrenaline. I was so proud and happy to achieve this. I didn’t care if I was the first one or last one over the line. I had discovered what I wanted to discover in a race against my body.
Had you any previous experience in competitive cycling?
No. In fact I have no previous experience in any kind of competitive sport. I never thought I was good at anything before this!
And how did you end up signing up to ride Badlands?
I actually decided during a ride, the Women’s Komoot Torino-Nice Rally, a great women’s only bikepacking ride. On one climb I started riding together with another girl, Sara, and we were really racing, going up fast, and at the top of the climb we said to each other we have to go do a race together and to us, because we both love gravel, Badlands seemed like the perfect race. At the time I actually had only ever done one endurance race so I was pretty scared by the idea. But now I have some more experience and I’m not scared!
What is your objective for Badlands?
To go as fast as I can!
So for you it’s a competition?
It’s not a competition against others, just an opportunity to do my best.
Last question: you have chosen to ride the carbon fiber Cinelli Zydeco King frame for the race… could you tell me a little bit about how you chose your exact setup for the bike?
Well, I’m a bit of a gearhead so I am very interested in lightweight solutions and I will try to go as light as possible because of the heat but at the same time I don’t want to run the risk of not being able to finish the race because my bag got ripped when I fell or I don’t have enough spare tubes… so really my build is all about striking a balance between lightweight solutions and neutralizing risk as for me my absolute first priority is finishing!
Davide Belfiore, trade marketing manager of Cinelli, is our own endurance cycling guru. He has been riding his bike in extraordinary and unusual ways ever since we’ve known him. Last year he rode Badlands, broke his sternum and tore his rotator cuff and had to retire after 270km. This year he is going back with Taylor, Luisa and Sophie to resolve some unfinished business!
Davide, tell me about your history as a cyclist?
I grew up in Brianza and always rode my bike competitively, like so many other kids in the area. In 2002 I became a professional cyclist with the Sud Tirol team, I rode 3 seasons as a professional but to be honest the peloton was not a place I felt comfortable in during those years for many reasons that people now understand better!
And after that?
After that I hated the bike for quite a while and kept my distance… When I finally got back into cycling it was through Triathlon, where I found a much nicer atmosphere. There I was also able to compete at a high level and competed twice at 70.3 World Championships in Clearwater where I was the top Italian finisher. But in general, since stopping being a professional I’ve always had an approach to cycling which kept its distance from competition.
When did you start riding endurance races?
Only about three years ago, but that kind of cycling has always attracted me. Before I even knew about these kinds of races I was trying to invent them for myself. For example the last time I rode a triathlon, four years ago, the race was in Puglia so I decided to ride to the race from Cinelli. I left on Tuesday, rode 300km a day, arrived on Friday evening and raced the triathlon on Saturday…
What are you attracted to in endurance racing?
What I really enjoy is the experience of losing all the comforts of your regular life: your house, social media… Nothing is no longer in your possession other than the essentials: air, land, sky, your fatigue and your dreams. Riding these races is like a dream in which I carry most cherished memories with me. And this way of being produces visions for me, and ideas for life. It’s a kind of spiritual pursuit!