In March this year a tired but elated Omar Di Felice knelt in front of a red sign spray-painted on a rock: Everest Base Camp (5,364m).
At that moment he became the first cyclist ever to reach base camp on the Nepalese side of Everest by bike, in winter, after crossing the entire Himalayan region completely alone, without a support team.
This most extreme of adventures had begun 1,294 kilometres away in Kathmandu and over the three life-affirming weeks on his bike he’d notched up an incredible 33,630 metres in elevation gain.
Along the way he’d tackled mule tracks and rocky paths, carried his bike on his back and walked long stretches as his shoes sank into the mud. He’d toiled over the most vertiginous passes on the planet, coped with sub-zero temperatures and just about everything Mother Nature could throw at him. Just him, his rucksack and his bike.
It was all a far cry away from his days as a pro cyclist, where he earned a ride for Team Endeka in the 2006 season before realising his ambitions lay beyond the peloton. “I didn’t like being constrained by timetables and specific training programmes,” Omar said from his home in Milan. “Cycling had always been my passion but I wanted to enjoy it, and when I discovered ultracycling I knew that was for me. It was more about adventure and exploration, and pushing the limits.”
Omar entered his first ultracycling event, the Race Across the Alps, in 2011. The rest, as they say, is history. Since then he’s ridden in extreme endurance races all over the world, but it’s his solo pursuits which have set him out from the crowd – particularly as he prefers to do them in winter. He’s circumnavigated Iceland, crossed the Gobi Desert and now conquered the Himalayas in the most extreme conditions imaginable. Why?
“Winter is my favourite season,” he explained simply. “As a child I was fascinated by tales of Arctic explorers and mountaineers, and doing what they did in those freezing conditions was the most inspirational thing to me. When I started going on these adventures, I thought, I want to go to those places but take my bike with me. I love the winter, it’s a deep-rooted feeling in my heart and soul, and it’s in those extreme environments where I feel most alive.”
In his Himalayan expedition it wasn’t just the freezing conditions he was battling with though, but the altitude as well. Traversing the Thorung La pass took him over 5,400m and at those heights, every pedal turn was a battle. “You have to accept that,” he added. “It’s so difficult to breathe up there and you have no choice but to ride at a snail’s pace. You have to be patient.”
Patience is a word the 40-year-old keeps coming back to and he regards it as one of the secrets to his incredible success. “You also have to respect your body, and respect what it’s telling you. You’re doing these rides in the most dangerous places on the planet and your life could be in real danger if you push it too far.
“Ultracycling is not like riding the Tour or Giro, you don’t get time for a massage and relaxation at the end of each day, it’s a constant battle so you have to give your body the chance to recover while you’re on the bike. You have to accept your whole life is now on the bike – you do everything on it except sleep, that’s the only time you stop.”
See Omar di Felice at Rouleur Live 2021.
Patience is also the most important advice he’d give to any budding adventurers looking to follow in his footsteps. “Everything has to be carefully planned and carefully thought out. Your training, your equipment choices, where you can eat and drink, you have to be patient, take time to learn and get your body prepared for the tasks in hand. Start small and gradually build things up.”
Not being consumed by the scale of your challenges is another piece of advice Omar gladly imparts. “Hide your GPS tracker, especially the screen which tells you how far you still have to go” he attests. “I made that mistake when I was crossing the United States and I’ve never done it again, the task looked never ending. Take your challenges day by day and they become much more manageable.”
With the Himalayas now ticked off the list, Omar is planning equally lofty adventures to come, but his most pressing voyage on the day we spoke to him was a relatively pedestrian 2,750km trek from Milan to Rouleur Live in London, heading up to Glasgow on the way to speak at the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference no less.
“I hope to make it to Glasgow in eight days,” he said. “Along the way I’ll be conducting talks on my social media channels with scientists and weather experts about climate change, and just what a perilous position the world is in right now.
“Doing what I do, especially in the most northerly parts of the world, I’ve seen the effects of climate change first-hand, and the serious impact it’s having.”
The ride is also to raise awareness of a new venture called Bike to 1.5°C which aims to highlight the role cycling can play in reducing global warming. “Bikes are the greenest vehicles there are. Getting more people to ride will have a significant effect on combating traffic pollution, and of course, cycling helps make people more healthy as well. It’s a project I’m very passionate about and I hope it can make a difference. People can find out more about it on my social media channels and we’ll be launching our website in the next few weeks which will also lay out much more about the project.”
You can follow Omar’s progress on his Instagram page and see him in person at Rouleur Live on Friday 5 November alongside the likes of Vincenzo Nibali, Jonas Vingegaard and Fabian Cancellara. Click here for more information.
Follow Omar's adventures on Komoot.