One on One Jan Kopka – Adventure racing as a way of life
In today’s One on One, I talk to Jan Kopka, a well-known mountain biker who specialises in extreme (or adventure) racing. His first major competition, years ago, was the Crocodile Trophy in Australia. Later, Kopka won the Iditarod Invitational, an MTB race held in winter across Alaska. In today’s interview, those (as well as a race across the Czech Republic and Slovakia) are discussed; if you want to know it feels like to cross the finish line after racing hundreds of kilometres, read on.
“By the time I began getting into extreme biking I had already been cycling actively for twenty years: ten on road bicycles and ten on MTBs. But all the races were almost the same – boring – and I started to look for something new. I learned about races in nature in different parts of the world, usually in places where there were no people, and without civilisation - races that were self-supported and usually transcontinental. So that was the next challenge for me to try.”
It strikes me that this kind of race presents a very different challenge: that it is less about the other racers and more about overcoming your own fears and limits. Is that correct?
“Yeah, I would say it is. In the very hardest races I think other riders matter less: what is important is you yourself: your mental and physical preparation and strength. Those are the most important factors.”
What was your first extreme race?
“The first one was in 1996 and it was Dolomitenmann held in the Dolomite Mountains in Austria. That is billed as an extreme race but from my point of view today it wasn’t extreme, just different. For me, my first real extreme race was the Crocodile Trophy, a race across the interior of Australia: lots of desert, bushes, and really tough conditions.”
“Yes. The race was more than 2,000 kilometres long. It’s kind of a Paris–Dakar but for mountain bikes. You have stages and set up a very basic camp each evening at the end of each stage. The average length of a stage was 180 kilometres, which was a lot in conditions like those in Australia. You mentioned spiders and snakes: Australia is home to 12 of the world’s most poisonous snakes, so there is danger not only on the bike but also when you camp between stages.”
How did you do in that competition?
“I finished fourth. Which was a surprise for both me and many of the competitors: many professional riders took part and for my biking up until then had just been a hobby. I was an amateur then and I was also older than many of the others who took part: at the time I was already 37. So it was surprising.”
Was it at that point that you realised that extreme sport was something you not only really enjoyed but was also something you could do well?
“Yes. Of course, the first race was very hard. There were a lot of things I didn’t know about that kind of competition still and afterwards I was very tired, both mentally and physically. But even during the race I realised that this was exactly what I wanted to do: this was exactly what I had been looking for. It was not only about racing: it brought me a lot of new knowledge, put me in contact with different cultures, allowing me to meet interesting people and experience their philosophy and to see how they lived. It’s not only about racing but it was about knowledge, too.”
On the one hand you did this race in Australia, on the other, you took part in Iditarod. Many people know that is a famous race with mushers and their huskies, but there is also a mountain bike equivalent. You won the race in 2007 and having had that experience, would you agree it is the toughest man-powered race in the world?
“Yes. After Australia, which is the probably the toughest in terms of heat I wanted to try the coldest race and Iditarod is exactly that. I knew I could perform in extreme heat but I wanted to see if I could do the same in the cold. Iditarod is 1,800 kilometres across Alaska in the winter, so it is very, very tough. I prepared for it mentally two-and-a-half years. Physically, it was a matter of training for several months – that was easier. Mentally, it was hard.”
What was the toughest moment for you in the race?
“I was just off the Bering sea and I got caught in a blizzard, a really bad one with what must have been 90 kilometre winds. You couldn’t see a thing through all the snow, it was flat, and there was nowhere to hide. The only option is to continue pushing forward and actually I didn’t think I would get out of it.”
It reminds me of something described in a book by journalist/mountaineer Jon Krakauer, a moment which he describes where disaster strikes and, if I paraphrase, the sportsman has to focus on one singular aspect which is to keep pushing ahead at all costs. Was that the same for you?
“I would say so. Alaska is just very difficult and we had –40 for a whole week. You have to keep pushing ahead.”
How did you feel when you won it?
“It was interesting because the whole race I was looking forward to crossing the finish line. But when I did I was suddenly sad: I knew that a great adventure was finished, that the next days would be boring and would bring me nothing.
“I was surprised that I felt that way at the finish because I had been lucky to survive. But my feeling was that I wanted to turn around on my bike and head back across Alaska to the start.”
Today do you still train? Do you still compete? I ask because in roughly a fortnight you will launch the second inception of an adventure race that you founded last year, across Slovakia and the Czech Republic...
“I would like to train as hard as I used to and still compete but it has become impossible. Organising the race last year took so much time that wasn’t realistic. To date, my last race was in Mongolia in 2010. I still trained a lot. But the race I founded here changed things.”
You have put together this race, new younger competitors are taking part and I imagine that you see much of the enthusiasm and drive in them you yourself know well...
“That’s true. I felt very happy when I was able to see them at the finish last year because it enabled racers to take part in a big competition, not unlike adventure races abroad. And that was very satisfying and that’s why we are doing it again this year. Last year the start was in the easternmost point of Slovakia; this year, the start is the opposite: from the westernmost point of the Czech Republic.”
You are based in Jablonec nad Nisou: have the Jizera Mountains played a big role in your career?
“I would say they have played maybe the biggest role in my life. I love it there. When I need to train, I go there. When I need a rest, the nature there is perfect for recharging my batteries and I can relax. The mountains give me all: it’s the most beautiful ‘gym’ in the world.”
If you'd like to learn more you can visit jankopka.cz