Updated: Aug 26, 2021
John Julius Bennett
He called it the “craziest, hardest challenge of my life,” an assertion no doubt many would agree with. But one man took on a challenge with the aim of helping others and more than delivered.
It has been an incredibly difficult past 18 months for so many of us with the COVID-19 pandemic decimating countries, economies, communities, families, businesses. Sadly, far too many lives have been lost and others adversely impacted forever.
It is during times of adversity that we often see the human spirit shine through and true heroes emerge. Phuket-based British expat John Julius “JJ” Bennett is one such example.
On June 26, John took on the monumental feat of replicating the famed Tour de France on the tropical Thai island, cycling a distance of 3,417km over a 21-day period to raise funds for a local charity initiative called One Phuket which supports those devastated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“It is heartbreaking to see so much poverty impacting so many in Phuket,” 57-year-old John had said prior to the challenge.
“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 100 Baht just to be able to buy some food to eat, which is incredibly sad,” he adds. That equates to just four Aussie dollars.
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 21 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 was split across 21 days with two days allocated for rest and incorporated the varying stages seen at the Tour de France; hills, flats, mountains and time-trials all featured across separate days with the longest cycle set at a distance of 249.5km.
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 in Phuket meant frequent visits to the island, a move he and his wife made permanent in March 2020, just before the first lockdown descended.
The Tour de Phuket was always going to be a huge ask, demanding incredible levels of resolve and determination to overcome the huge daily distances, the physical toil, the punishing weather, hazardous roads and mind-numbing solitude.
“When I took on this crazy challenge, I always knew it was going to be tough,” John said on reflection.
“But I never envisaged how many demons I would have to ride through in 21 days and 133 hours. I had to draw on every kilometre of my 43 years cycling experience to get through the daily challenges,” he added.
Things didn’t get off to a great start. The first day, a 188km ride, involved several technical issues causing John’s stress levels to rise meaning he failed to hydrate correctly and then suffered severe cramps in the last stretch as a result. “I literally couldn’t get off my bike when I arrived home,” he winced.
Each day offered similar obstacles, namely the infamous Phuket traffic with reckless drivers aplenty. Losing the support car became a problem as did inevitable mechanical issues with the bike. However, it was Phuket’s extreme weather conditions that proved the most obstinate hurdle.
In a somewhat cruel twist of fate, the longest stage of 249km also coincided with the hottest day, with temperatures topping 39° Celsius at one point.
“At the half way point I pulled into a gas station and sat in an air-conditioned coffee shop, wondering how I could do another 125km!” John said, reflecting on the day.
This is where the value of self-belief and sports psychology come into play, John said.
“At no point did I think ‘I can’t finish’, but many times I had to tell myself ‘how to finish’ by keeping in my ‘Focus Bubble’,” he said.