The Artist

The intangible and ephemeral briefly solidifies through common understanding. Fledgling thoughts get the opportunity to spread their wings. There are u-turns and dead ends. The conversational equivalent of high speed singletrack; flowing and undeviating. Then there are the thousands of junctions, forks and the joy of wandering into a shared unknown, leading each other by the hand. 

''The very best conversations are adventures in their own right.''

Camille McMillan is a very good conversationalist. Over the course of ninety minutes we somehow bounce between the climate crisis, Karl Marx, Henri Desgrange, Chalamain, and Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey and the Merry Band of Pranksters. This is despite a somewhat inauspicious start however…

Art takes many forms

“I’m always tired after an event. It’s the constant talking, I think. It takes me a few days for my mind to catch up. I always find it strange that people are interested in me, rather than the event.”

Camille is the founder of Further; a bikepacking race based around his home in the Ariège department of the French Pyrenees. When I speak to him he is back in the UK; at his childhood home in Cambridgeshire and the event centre of Further East. Despite the obvious contrast between the Pyrenees and eastern fens, the second event under his “Further” banner shares a lot of similarities with its French sibling. It takes place over a single long weekend, and is designed to stretch entrants to their physical limits over the course of 400 miles of predominantly off-road riding. 

I propose the idea that if a bike ride – or indeed an event – is an expression of creativity, then it is human nature to be just as interested in the person behind it as they are in the output itself. Whether it is Shakespeare or Bach we seek to understand the brain behind the art.

“It’s funny you should say that; I’ve got a fine art background. Qualifications and everything! And, yes. It’s important to me that I communicate the ethos of the event. I do this to bring people together. I want them to share ideas, share the adventure, share the hardships and share the sense of achievement at the end.

“Maybe it is a piece of performance art. I like to embrace the history of a location. Knowing yourself is about knowing ‘place’. The landscape informs you about your inner workings. Want to learn about yourself? Go on a bike ride. In many ways, Further is a personal journey. It is my journal; my place to collect my thoughts. The event is the physical manifestation of that. And it grows and becomes deeper as more and more layers of other’s experiences are added to my seed of an idea.”

''Knowing yourself is about knowing place.''

The thing about art is that once it is out there, it takes on its own life. The creator can try and communicate their intention, but the public can (and will) interpret it however they like. 

“Sure. Some people come to my events because they just want to ride; and that is poetry in itself. Others are definitely attracted by the bucolic and the journey. But you know what? Sit and listen to the conversations on the Sunday night, once everything is over; everyone is pedal-drunk [as an aside I adore this term and it perfectly captures the heady post-ride hormonal highs and lows] and that is art itself. It becomes this shared journey, even between people who didn’t even see each other on the route.”

''Listening to conversation once everything is over and everyone is pedal-drunk and that is art itself. It becomes this shared journey.'''

The journeyman’s journey

How does the fine art student from the Cambridgeshire fens become a race organiser living in the Pyrenees? It perhaps isn’t a surprise that Camille’s journey isn’t a linear one. 

“I grew up in a world surrounded by art and cycle racing. It was the old man that got me into bikes. We’d go over to Belgium to watch the classics and cyclocross. He’d talked to me about who he ‘fancied’, based on their pedalling style or their tactics. Now it’s all raw power and data [we’ll return to this subject later].”

As a teenager in the 80s, McMillan moved to London – “I wanted to open the world up a little” – and worked in a restaurant. In his own words, he spent a few glorious years just being aimless in London before deciding he wanted to go to art school. He spent another five years studying at St Martin’s School of Art.

''My dad would tell me which racer he 'fancied', based on their pedalling style or their tactics.''

“At college I started doing some work with bicycles. I’d go down to Herne Hill velodrome and take photos of whatever was going on. That drew me back into riding and by the late 90s and 00s, life and work was all about photography and bikes.” 

McMillan carved out a career in cycling reportage; following grand tours as well as covering the burgeoning domestic scene. The 00s felt like halcyon days for cycling in the UK. There was a counterculture that was built on combining the romanticism of past – Hinault and Merckx, Pantani, steel frames, Tim Krabbe’s The Rider – with burgeoning talent on the pro scene and an undefinable ‘cool.’

A new cycle clothing brand called Rapha marketed into – and kindled – the same scene, and set up a magazine to further this aim.

“I remember picking up the first issue of Rouleur in 2009. My first reaction was, fuck. It felt like something that I should be doing and perfectly represented where I was at the time. It was my little world. I met the editor, Guy Andrews, at a local road race that I was covering. He was actually having a bit of a moment and had just tossed his bike into the nearest hedge, so I held off and emailed him asking if I could contribute to the mag.”

There is always a tipping point though. Counterculture filters into the mainstream and it metamorphosises; rarely for the better.

“What is the Karl Marx quote? ‘All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned’.”

There’s no bitterness to McMillan’s statement. Just an acceptance that change is inevitable, and the scene has moved on and left him behind. Or rather, he has chosen a different path. 

''I don't understand why people are interested in me''

“I was already feeling disillusioned with the race scene when I passed through Ariège while covering the Tour de France. I fell in love with the area and chose to move out there. 

Following a new path

That was ten years ago. It’s taken me a decade to truly feel like I know the place. There’s the large-scale geography of the mountains, but it’s the micro-geography that is so discombobulating. It takes a long time to piece together a network of interconnected trails; and the best way to navigate them. I should say that I have relied hugely on Josh Ibbett when it comes to the Further East route, and Lee Craigie for the Scotland event.”'

'There's the large-scale geography of the mountains, but it's the micro-geography that is so discombobulating.''

Our personal histories are not the series of consecutive events that our CVs make them out to be; there are overlaps and gaps. There is a blurriness around the edges that time only ever seeks to smudge further. There is the story that we tell others that becomes the truth and even that evolves over time. The neatness of this retelling of Camille’s life isn’t a perfect reflection of his transition from photo-journalist to event organiser, but rather a distilled version. A tug at the thread that just so happened to be exposed on the day that we spoke. Decades become sentences; relationships and people, punctuation. That is not to undermine the importance of the people mentioned. Punctuation is not an afterthought. It brings sense and meaning and nuance to our thoughts.

Mike Hall was a bikepacking racer extraordinaire. He won the inaugural World Cycle Race (which is as it sounds – a self-supported race around the globe). He won the Tour Divide, and has been the long-time record holder on the course. He founded the TCR, or Trans Continental Race (a self-supported bikepacking race across continental Europe). He died on 31 March 2017, while competing in the Indian Pacific Wheel Race. 

The TCR became Mike’s legacy and was sustained as an event after his death by his partner, Anna Haslock and a small team, including Camille. 

“Bikepacking racing gave me everything that I felt that traditional racing, and the cycling scene in general, had lost. It is about so much more than watts and the number of grams of carbs you consume an hour, or where the team car is. The strongest rider isn’t necessarily just the fittest. They are the one that persevered the hardest, were the luckiest, took themselves to places that others didn’t. 

“The added dimension makes it so special. It’s how Henri Desgrange [the original Tour de France race organiser] wanted the race to be; without just being retro. It is linked to the past, but embraces modern technology. Desgrange would totally have used GPS trackers to follow the riders if that were an option in the early 1900s.

''Henri Desgranges would totally have the used GPS trackers in the early Tour de France is could.''

“Bikepacking racing is an exploration of person as well as landscape. There are places that you take yourself while you race that you don’t on a normal ride. Amazing achievements. And there is a level of egalitarianism that has been lost from other forms of racing. I love the self-supported ethos of racing and the level playing field it creates.”

Inspired by his new home, McMillan developed a route that became the Trans Pyrenees, run under the banner of the TCR brand. But, you get the impression that as soon as something becomes ‘the norm’, there is a part of Camille’s makeup that is wired to reject it. 

“In so many ways, TCR is now the template for these kinds of ultra races. Everything from the numbers on caps through to the comprehensive rule book.”

McMillan shuffles a little; you can tell that he doesn’t want to come across as being critical – and I should point out that he absolutely isn’t – but his vision of bikepacking events has perhaps evolved since his time working on the TCR and Trans Pyrenees.

There is much that is great about bikepacking racing, as McMillan has already explained. But, there is a side to it that niggles. 

'' I want to communicate an ethos of no-fly, no drive and a depth of understanding of place that goes beyond the flurry of race action.''

“I struggle with the way that so many races pass through communities at breakneck speed; with little regard to the people that live there; that use the shops that are emptied of food, or maintain the trails and roads that are raced across. The carbon impact of flights across the world is hard to stomach, especially for a fleeting visit to race.

I remember chatting to a racer about a particular event that they’d flown to. I asked if they felt guilty for flying, and they said that they did, but the place was so beautiful it was worth it. I get their point, but also fear that the beauty won’t remain unless we change the way we travel. I’m not pretending that Further, or I, am perfect (I’ve flown this year), but I want to clearly communicate an ethos of no-fly (and ideally no drive) and of depth of understanding of a place that goes beyond the flurry of race action.” 

Opening minds

“Do you know where I got the name Further from?” asks Camille. “Timothy Leary, Neal Cassidy, Ken Kasey, the Grateful Dead, Allen Ginsburg – all these 1960s beat legends – travelled around the States in an old school bus that they named Furthur/Further. It was kind of the tipping point for the psychedelic sixties as they travelled round handing out acid to anyone who would take it. They saw themselves as opening people’s minds and that’s what I want to do with Further. Switch on, tune in, drop out.

The first Further event was in 2019. It was small in attendance, and relatively small in statistics. McMillan has always been attracted by possibilities a single weekend offers. It’s part of his egalitarian approach; most people can spare a weekend away from home. Fewer can justify weeks or months. 

“Switch on, tune in, drop out”.

“I wanted the riders to see what I love about Ariège. There’s so much history packed into the area. The trails tell their own stories; from the packhorse and donkey routes between villages – the motorways of their day – to more ephemeral tracks like the freedom routes used by the Spanish escaping the rule of General Franco. I want them to experience the serene beauty of the mountains, the savagery of the environment; and the physical hardship that comes with that. Flow and toil. There has to be a payoff for the pain though. As brutal as the ride is, it is not head banging for headbanging’s sake.”

''There has to be a payoff for the pain though. As brutal as the ride is, it is not the head banging for head banging's sake.''

A third event is about to enter the Further fold; a 700km, mostly road and gravel journey through Scotland, starting at Corrour. If you happen to know that corner of the Highlands, you may already be raising an eyebrow. Corrour is completely inaccessible by road. Riders will need to either book one of the limited train spaces, or ride in via a long gravel track. McMillan is preparing to travel north as we speak; he recced the route earlier in the year, but since then storms have washed away a bridge in Glen Feshie. Camille wants to see how passable the river is likely to be; it is always a challenge to balance testing riders to breaking point while doing what is possible to keep them safe. 

I’m intrigued by McMillan’s personal relationship with bikepacking racing. It dawns on me that for all his passion for riding, all his passion for his creation, I have not seen him toe the line. 

“I’m a perfectionist. I hate attempting anything in a manner that is not to the very best of my ability. I create races; a physical challenge. I would want to be in the best shape I could be to race. I have a complicated relationship with riding though. I don’t enjoy riding all the time. I cannot be obsessive about it. I need the balance of exorcising my creative side; and I haven’t found a way of being truly creative while on the bike. Those parts of my life operate in separate hemispheres. And I’m in my fifties now. My body is a rusty old diesel. The more time I take off riding, the harder it is to regain any semblance of form.”

Which brings us full circle. The wind is picking up, and I can hear it tearing at the tin roof of Camille’s home-come-outhouse. Tree detritus rains down. 

I leave him to pack; and he leaves me with a final thought. 

“I never want someone to say that it’s not like the old days when it comes to a Further event. I want the rawness of it to stay the same”.

Produced by: Coldhouse Collective

Words: Tom Hill

Photos Ryan Goff 

21 March 2024