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The Tour de Phuket: One Man’s Life Cycle

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.


Tour de Phuket, John Julius “JJ” Bennett, feature by Brilliant-Online
John Julius “JJ” Bennett on Tour de Phuket

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.


Record Holder

Tour de Phuket, John Julius “JJ” Bennett, feature by Brilliant-Online
John is quite the record holder

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.


‘Demons’


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.



‘Focus Bubble’


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.


“Imagine you are wearing a weightless space helmet that cuts out all external distractions. You are only left with your own battle in your head to get through each hour and each day. Getting into the Focus Bubble is relatively easy, but getting back into your bubble after something pushes you out is the hardest thing to do for any athlete.


“The one thing that popped me back in the bubble was the reason I was doing this ride: to help poverty in Phuket. I kept seeing children in my head with empty stomachs, and remembered I was doing this for them, not for me. If it was only for me, I may have given up, but I had a goal and was determined to finish.”

Tour de Phuket, John Julius “JJ” Bennett, feature by Brilliant-Online
Little supporter in Phuket

Back to the coffee shop on the hottest day of the challenge with 125km still to go.


“I sat in the corner with an iced towel on my head desperately thinking how to get back into my Focus Bubble,” John recalled. He appeared to be stuck. Tired, worn down, helpless even.


“Suddenly I regained focus and I asked my wife Ching, who was part of my support crew, to go and buy ice bags from the local convenience store. We proceeded to stuff one bag down the back of my jersey every 20 minutes, to help cool my core down and it did the trick,” John said with a smile.


“We started at 6:30am that day and finished at 6:00pm as dusk was settling. It had been brutal and finished with an incredibly tired but satisfied JJ,” he added proudly.


Running on Empty


For the second longest stage of 220km the weather reversed and the monsoon rains took hold, “the sort of rain where you can’t see beyond 100 meters because of the intensity and spray,” John commented.


Again, he turned to his tried and tested Focus Bubble to get him through something he found relatively easy on this occasion due to regular training in his formative years back in Cornwall in his native England where 5-6 hour sessions in cold, torrential rain was common.


“I had also prepared in the car for this,” John added. “I wore a peak cap under my helmet and a light undervest to whisk away the cold rain - yes ‘cold rain!’ - as the temperature dropped to 23 degrees at one point.”


When asked what the toughest part of the challenge was, John was quick to reply: “In the final week I contracted food poisoning and suffered badly for three days where I couldn’t keep anything inside me. These were my darkest days as I was running on empty.”


However, a combination of positive thinking, sound sports science research and techniques and staying in his Focus Bubble helped push him through.


“I knew that if I paced my effort at 180 watts I would be using 75% fat and only 25% carbohydrates. In theory we all have enough fat as fuel to keep going for weeks, but you need approximately 10 grammes of carbs per hour to act as the match to light the fat. Every 15 minutes I would pop some raisins into my mouth and let them dissolve through the membrane of my mouth, which actually gets the sugars into the muscles pretty quick, thus bypassing my dodgy stomach.”


‘Support’



Support from the public was key too in helping him maintain his focus and drive. Be it the daily barrage of positive messages of encouragement via Facebook or direct support out on the road, it all contributed.


Tour de Phuket, John Julius “JJ” Bennett, feature by Brilliant-Online
Support from the public for JJ

“On stage 18, with 40km of the daily 170km still to go, I was on my last legs,” John recalls. “A Thai guy on a motorbike road next to me, looked at me and, once he knew who I was, shouted ‘Susu coach JJ, Susu’, Thai for keep going and don’t give up.


“Another day a car passed me and an expat lady stuck her head out of the window shouting ‘Go JJ, Go JJ!’ in encouragement. Such cases helped me immeasurably,” John said.


Seeing the donations rise each day was also a key means of motivation to maintain his levels and remind him why exactly he was doing what he was.


“It would help me start the day with a smile, knowing that we were on the way to our goal,” John commented proudly.


‘Deserved Pint!’


John allowed himself to enjoy the final day, riding the 112km with a few friends and letting the occasion sink in before demolishing a huge Sunday roast dinner and a much deserved pint once finished!


“We raised B250,000 at last count (just over AUD10,000) and are hoping we may get a few more donations yet,” John said.


“I couldn’t have done this without the amazing support of my wife Ching and my secretary Non. They drove every km in the support car, taking care of me, protecting me from crazy motorbikes. Since finishing, I have been sleeping 9-10 hours a day as my extreme fatigue starts to come out and my 57-year-old body recovers,” he added.

Tour de Phuket, John Julius “JJ” Bennett, feature by Brilliant-Online
Victory for John

Asked whether he would consider taking on such an extreme challenge again in the future John replied steadfastly: “If it is going to help someone then yes, absolutely.”


Last year he rode 3,000km in 30 days around Phuket and raised B150,000 for a charity supporting youngsters and babies affected by the pandemic. To improve on that this time is incredible, he said.







All communities need heroes like John. Someone who selflessly puts others first and is willing to sacrifice so much in order to help those less fortunate in challenging times. The wind may not always have been at his back, the sun not always on his face but he should be extremely proud of his incredible efforts, as so many grateful recipients on the island of Phuket certainly are.



Donations can still be made via the GoFundMe page, established to ensure maximum transparency and to monitor all contributions.



 

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1 Comment


Unknown member
Aug 14, 2021

Thanks for sharing my story, we have already had some more donations in to help the poverty in Phuket 🙏

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