The former Olympic and world rowing champion tells Angela Sara West about his sporting adventures in France
When did you first visit France and what are your first memories?
From the ages of three to 16, I spent three weeks every summer on family camping holidays in France. I love the campsites by lakes, mountains, the sea, châteaux… it’s a beautiful country. As for first memories, smelly cheese that was surprisingly tasty, lovely bread and croissants – and nudist beaches!
Your appetite for adventure has seen you undertake numerous epic challenges. What motivates you?
I did sport as a full-time athlete for nearly 20 years and the majority of sports (rugby, football, swimming, rowing) are all held in sterile environments. The location may change but not the ‘pitch’, so the chance to explore new environments, where you are a tiny dot on a massive landscape, is very exciting and rewarding.
You once rowed across the Channel from Dover to Cap Gris Nez and then cycled through France to Spain…
I’ve never been so glad to see France! Falling in the Channel in February wasn’t the best way to start the crossing but if you keep going, eventually you’ll get there. It was the toughest four hours I’ve had in a boat.
In 2005 you set a world record of 5hr 26min for paddling the Channel on a surfboard…
I think someone has broken it now, but I took the record from Laird Hamilton, a big-wave surfer from Hawaii, and it’s the only time I’m going to get remotely close to anything he can do on a surfboard.
How was the London to Paris bike ride?
The Arc de Triomphe was a welcome sight, but the best memory was the patience that motorists showed the cyclists.
How did you find competing in L’Étape du Tour cycle ride, which took you over a mountain stage used in the Tour de France?
I enjoy climbing rather than descending, as my skills going downhill aren’t good enough to get the most out of the mountain, but going up is a battle of you against the hill. The Étape I did ended at the top of Mont Ventoux in Provence, which is iconic in British cycling because Tom Simpson died there during the 1967 Tour. It was a brutal, but brilliant, way to finish the ride.
What has been your most challenging adventure in France?
Racing the French rowers, in particular Jean-Christophe Rolland, who is now president of FISA (rowing’s international governing body).
When were you last in France?
I worked at the World Rowing Championships in Aiguebelette, near Chambéry, in early September. It’s a beautiful lake and has a special place in my heart as I won my under-18 world championship there.
What do you like best about the French way of life?
A little bit of what you fancy does you good – they live all aspects of their life in that way.
What is your favourite thing to do there?
Camping in Biarritz.
What other parts of France would you like to visit?
I’d like to go to more mountains in the summer, especially the ones with white-water ravines and canyons to kayak on.
Which are your favourite French foods?
Cured meat, fresh bread and cheese – what more do you need?
In 2010, you suffered a traumatic brain injury in an accident [he was hit by a truck while cycling in the US]. How are you now?
Some things will never be the same, but I do have an appreciation for things that I probably took for granted before the accident. I’m determined that the Mark2 version will be better than the Mark1!
James is vice-president of the brain injury association Headway and president of the London Road Safety Council.