Interview with Olivier, one of the Gravel Up founders
“Hi Olivier, thank you for your time today, lets start with an intro to you”
I’m Olivier, I come from Paris and I’m 39 years old. I’m currently living back in Paris having spent 11 years abroad (2008 - 2019) all across the world, namely Indonesia, Morocco, Tunisia, The Bahamas, Italy, the States and finally China.
I worked for Club Med for 13 years in Operations in their holiday centres, in finance, activities and then Director of specific centres. Then I moved into HR for North America followed by China and eventually globally from their HQ in Paris. Phewf!
In terms of sport, I played regional basketball for 8 years (I’m quite tall!) before joining the Second Row in rugby whilst at university and after. I found it hard to keep up with sport once I started working and travelling a lot, so in 2012 when I wanted to become the Director of a centre I realised I needed to lose some weight… I started running, dropped quite a few kgs and discovered the joy of endurance sports.
I quickly got hooked and entered some long distance events - tour of our island in the Bahamas 56km, Rome marathon, the Sainté Lyon Paris to Cabourg relay…
Then in 2014 while I was based in Florida I got involved with triathlon through the Training Centre for young athletes at Sandpiper Bay. A year later I’d done all the distances up to Ironman in Cozumel, Mexico. It was an incredible feeling hearing the commentator announce me as an Ironman as I crossed the finish line!
I was worried that it would be hard to keep up with my training in China but it was the opposite! I met an incredible group of cyclists and triathletes there including JB and Aurélien, and we were lucky enough to be able to take part in some amazing events: Korea, China, Taiwan, Inner Mongolia, Thailand…
It was when I moved back to Paris in 2019 that I bought my first gravel bike, as I was ready to get off the beaten track away from the tarmac and to find more variety and joy in riding. As well as my first bike packing trips.
Then covid hit and this urge became stronger, so after the first lockdown I set off on the Vélodyssée from La Rochelle on the west coast to St Jean de Luz right down in the south of France. Which started a whole new chapter of exploring by bike!
I had one final triathlon (the 70.3 Pays d’Aix) to do that had been delayed by covid. I ended up doing it on my gravel bike!
“So how did the Gravel Up adventure begin?”
It all goes back to a catch up with JB in October 2020 - he was still in China with some time on his hands but unable to leave due to covid and we were about to go into our 2nd lockdown here in France.
We realised that all our mates were really interested in our bike packing trips and we’d got them dreaming a little. We also agreed that gravel riding was about to explode and was the next big thing in cycling, that this sense of freedom go where you want was addictive.
From then on we spoke every morning to brainstorm, swapping ideas, articles and anything to do with gravel. Our watershed moment was falling upon this video from Shimano which sums it up perfectly. Little by little our thoughts turned into the expeditions we have today… We ran it all past a couple close friends just to check we weren’t going crazy, put together a Business Plan and created the company officially on 20th Feb 2021. Which meant it was time to take the plunge and commit 100% to Gravel Up, so I negotiated to leave Club Med shortly after. That was it, we were off on the next adventure!
“Why did you want a change in your life?”
I’d already been thinking of setting something up for myself for a few years, but I hadn’t managed to form an exact idea of what and I didn’t fancy doing it totally alone. I’ve always dreamed of running my own guest house/holiday centre based around sports in the south west of France, a bit like the Base Camps that we have for Gravel Up. After 13 incredible years with Club Med it was the right timing to start anew and return to the operational and practical side of things, more hands on action and less office time. You get what you wish for!
“At Gravel Up its clear that your adventure trips are all on a gravel bike, why did you decide that?”
For us a gravel bike is the perfect tool for getting off the beaten track. It’s got the lightness and responsiveness of a road bike combined with the comfort and capabilities of a mountain bike, allowing you to go (almost!) anywhere you like.
It allows you to travel so much further than you can on foot or mountain bike and explore so much more on every ride, especially if you add panniers. Most importantly it’s the state of mind and spirit of gravel that most appealed to us: this freedom, total immersion in nature and sense of calm that we love. We’ve turned the page on racing, competing, looking at watts and data and getting faster time splits on the next triathlon or race.
We love to travel, taking the time to make the most of every moment and to share the journey with those around us. Gravel is to cycling as trail running is to road running in that sense.
“Whats your role at Gravel Up?”
I’m responsible for Operations and HR, so just like before but in a totally different way! Operations consists of putting everything together in each destination, working all our local partners and the regional park authorities. With my team we take care of every last detail of each trip and all the associated logistics, making sure that all our clients have the best Gravel Up experience that we envisaged right at the start. An experience that’s transformative and also a de-connection from daily life, allowing a reconnection to the most important things in life. Namely ourselves, others and nature. We have two team members who are responsible for each destination - Loïc in the Vosges (who is on placement with us) and Julien in the Grands Causses and Corsica.
Thanks to my previous experience and the fact that we are a small start up, I’m also in charge of HR - recruitment of all members of our team and making sure that Gravel Up is the great place to work that we always dreamed of. The three of us have all previously worked in big corporations where people weren’t always put first back in the day. At Gravel Up people are at the centre of everything we do, as that’s what makes our trips so memorable. We really are connectors of people!
“And onto the the last part of our interview - the “up to you.” Be as honest and concise as you can!”
- Your best memory on a bike?
When we were living in China an English friend ran a guest house in a small village up in the mountains a couple hrs from Shanghai (Wildhomestay in Anhui.) A group of us used to go there for the weekend, riding in the morning and making the most of the natural plunge pools in the afternoons. Thats where I climbed my first mountain passes on a bike, eating Dim Sum to refuel! We used to stop in these tiny Chinese villages where the villagers had rarely seen white people, and definitely not on a bike, being confused for Americans. Such good memories!
- Your dream destination and why?
Iceland. It’s a destination that we’ve been dreaming of since the very beginning and a gravel traverse is definitely on our radar. For me the attraction is nature in its most raw state, with a healthy dose of volcanic activity too! All adding up to an incredible adventure to share, with some type 2 fun and challenges in the mix too of course as there you are quickly far from civilisation. We can’t wait to go recce our trips and take our first GravelUppers there!
- Any nightmare moments on a bike?
I’m really lucky to have never had an absolute disaster. Maybe when I has hit by a car in Miami when I was training after work, my helmet definitely saved my life and I got off lightly with just 3 days in hospital. However my first bike, a Trek Madone which I absolutely loved, didn’t survive so well. I think thats why I’ve taken so well to Gravel, you are far from traffic and away from busy roads immersed in nature.
- Your must have item that you always take with you on your bike?
My two water bottles! I always drink loads and I need at least 2 large bottles, especially on a gravel ride where you can find yourself far from anywhere to refill. And of course my handle bar bag with Gravel Up badges proudly on display too!
- The first thing you do when you get home from a bike trip?
Upload my ride to Strava and Komoot, adding photos to tempt more people to come on a trip with us! Haha only joking… A nice hot shower and large glass of fizzy water. Then I’ll upload to Strava!
Comment s’entraîner pour une aventure gravel de plusieurs jours ?
Lorsqu'on envisage de partir pour une aventure à vélo de 3, 5 ou encore 7 jours, il est important de s'entraîner en amont pour être suffisamment prêt à relever le défi physique que cela représente. Passer plusieurs heures sur le gravel, même si ici on ne parle pas de performance ni de compétition, peut être difficile quand on n’a pas l’habitude.
Et vous, vous faites quoi pendant les ponts ?
2023 est une année assez exceptionnelle car elle vous permet de profiter de nombreux graaaands weekends ! Si vous optiez pour un weekend aventure de pure gravel dans les plus belles chaînes de montagnes avec GravelUp !