A 3,500-mile bike ride, a 70-mile ski and summiting a mountain: Oli France on pushing the limits of mind and body

The 33-year-old adventurer from Wigan prepares to embark on his second-leg of his seven-stage challenge

When Oli France pops up on my computer screen, he admits that it’s pretty chaotic at the moment for him. It’s the final week before he leaves for South America, and he laughs, saying he’s pleased he can blur his background because “everything is just everywhere”. It’s not a surprise that he has so much to sort out, France is about to embark on a 14-week journey from Death Valley in California, US, to Denali, Alaska, to then summit the highest mountain in North America, Denali Mountain via the Kahitna Glacier – all human-powered, meaning no support vehicle or means of assistance, just himself, a 3,500-mile bike ride, and a 70-mile ski. 

This forms part of a bigger challenge, which will result in him being the first person to ever achieve such a feat. France is aiming to go from the lowest point on each continent to the highest, all by human power. The challenge, titled The Ultimate Seven Project, will see him traverse 15,000 miles across 20 countries and achieve four world records. He completed the first leg from Africa’s Lac Assal to summiting Kilimanjaro last September, ticking off one continent in 28 days and knocking off 1,636 miles, leaving only 13,364 miles to conquer. 

Yet, despite the next expedition being a monumental challenge that’s looming large in the near future, France says that getting on the bike when he lands in California will be “very relaxing” compared to all the planning he has had to do. “I’ll be quite glad for a bit of downtime,” he quips before quickly adding: “Physically hard, but mentally, hopefully quite relaxing.” 

Others may find a spa day or a day in the garden reading a book relaxing, but France has always had a passion for the outdoors and a curiosity to explore the world, so challenging himself in some of the most extreme landscapes is where France feels most himself. “When I’m spending time away from these adventures, I feel like I am missing something. It’s like when you get an injury and you can’t do something, it’s agonising not being able to do that. That’s almost how I feel when I’ve had a long time away from a big adventure. I feel like I have an itch to scratch,” he says when I ask about his motive behind why he wants to complete these feats of endurance. 

France, now 33 years old and a father to two children, recalls his first taste of adventure when he was 17 and went on a climbing weekend with his friends. He’d never climbed before, but it instantly felt natural to him, exciting too, he adds.

“I loved the adrenaline of it. Based on that one experience, I signed up for a three-year outdoor leadership degree course at the University of Lancashire, and suddenly, I’m in this world where I’m with some really experienced instructors, learning new skills, and they’re encouraging us to travel. I’m then working in America and Lebanon the year after, then Uganda the next year and it was that that just gave me this love for adventure,” he reflects passionately. 

Since his first taste of adventure, France has travelled through deserts, jungles, mountains and war-torn countries, but has also been tested to his absolute limits, both physically and mentally, having faced spies, interrogators, minefields and arrests, as well as earthquakes, avalanches, and severe dehydration. But this is one of the biggest things France says he takes away from these adventures – learning to find the light in the darkest of places. 

“You have to lean into this discomfort,” France says. “I always say that as humans we are born explorers. If we weren’t, we’d still be living in the jungle. We have a desire to learn more about the world around us, to explore the next corner, and it’s good to lean into that. For me, that is where we grow. That’s where the magic happens when you start getting out there and testing yourself.

“I also think resilience is a big part of these expeditions, finding strategies to continue through difficult situations which do, and will, arise. I have been through a hell of a lot of crazy situations over the years, but it is finding ways just to get through it. The problem might be grim and awful when you’re going through it, but it will blow over. Just keep moving, make decisions, trust your instincts, and just try to tap into that inner voice that allows you to carry on.” 

He’ll certainly need to embrace everything this challenge throws at him, especially as he has over 3,500 miles on his bike, completely solo for long stretches of time until he reaches inhabited areas. “These challenges are certainly not just about my physical ability, it’s also 100 per cent mentally challenging,” he admits. “I often say that you could spend all this time and money travelling halfway around the world, but actually, you spend most of your time in your own head, and even though you are completely alone, you experience every emotion from total euphoria to total misery and everything in between.” 

Staying positive is a huge factor that helps him throughout these challenges, but it is a work in progress, and every day relies on little mental tools he has learned from previous expeditions. Self-talk and visualisation are two tools France pulls upon in particular. “Oh, and podcasts,” he laughs. “I’d probably go stir-crazy without podcasts and music.”

France recalls an expedition in Siberia, where he was solo for 16 days, crossing the world’s biggest frozen lake, which is 400 miles long, all whilst carrying a 60kg sled, covering a marathon distance a day. Completely cut off from the outside world, all France had as a means of communication was a device that allowed him to send one or two messages a day.

“When things got really hard, and the terrain was atrocious, and I was struggling to even do one mile an hour, I would say to myself, ‘You are a sled hauling machine. That is your one job on this earth right now. Just hold the sled.’ I think that was my way of giving my absolute focus to the task because my easiest way out of that is to carry on – the alternative is much harder,” France says about learning to listen to his inner monologue of positive self-talk during challenging moments. 

In his upcoming challenge, starting March 24, he’ll be using everything he has learned to overcome the mental challenges he might face, including avalanche risks, extremely strong winds, multi-day storms, extreme heat and bears. He confesses that these are slightly daunting thoughts, but an adventurer through and through, he adds: “I think a lot of the time fear comes from a lack of understanding.”

In order to be as prepared as he can for any situation which may arise, he learns to be aware of all the factors. So, for example, with the reality that he may come face-to-face with a bear, where he’ll be a “small snack to a big grizzly bear”, he’s arranged to meet a bear expert to learn how to overcome this hurdle if he was to face it. 

Despite all the concerns he’s had to prepare for, France has wanted to do this trip for many years and at the end of this month, he’ll finally get to start this next expedition as he searches to complete his world-first journey across the seven continents. “I’ve never been to places like Northern Canada and Alaska, and I’ve wanted to visit for years, so just to have the opportunity to be out there in the pristine wilderness with glaciers, mountains and lakes on my bike is pretty unique, so that’s really exciting,” he says. 

As Oli France embarks on his extraordinary odyssey, he reminds us that the true essence of life lies not in the safety of comfort zones but in the exhilarating unknown beyond. His journey is a testament to the indomitable human spirit, urging us to push past our perceived limits, embrace discomfort, and find strength in adversity.

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