Five Minutes With... Kevin Francis

Five Minutes With... Kevin Francis

9 December, 2023

The Great British Divide has established itself as an iconic off-road route, taking in 2000km of varied terrain across the length of the UK. Kevin Francis is the man behind the race, and with a strong background in corporate and sporting events it's not hard to see why the award winning race has received such success. We caught up with Kevin to hear about how the Great British Divide came about, and his plans for the fourth edition and beyond.

1. Your professional work is in event management, a role which sees you jet setting to some exotic corners of the world.  Can you give us a snippet about yourself and how your professional experience has led to the creation of The Great British Divide?

For the past twenty years I have organised and run corporate and sporting events all over the world. With a specialism of food & beverage I lead some very high end programs with multi-million dollar budgets in the U.S., Asia, and Europe. I literally get paid to eat all the food - which at times is genuinely a burden. It all sounds very glamorous (and at times it is!) but the reality is being away from home six months a year and that means a lot of time not riding a bike too!

At the point the Divide started to come to life I was riding some ultra events myself as well as volunteering on others. I was totally hooked and started thinking about how I could combine my event management expertise with my passion for cycling. On a very long and sleepless flight in 2018 my brain went into overdrive and somewhere at 38,000 feet over China the Divide started to come to life! After much research, planning and route creation the first edition in 2020 was good to go but the pandemic obviously had other ideas and of course the Divide could not take place that year.

What 2020 did provide me with was time, loads of it and with that came the creation of the Escapades. Using a significant chunk of the first two sections of the Divide it was pretty straightforward to create the 500km loop for the route and with test rides completed as soon as we could venture further afield we suddenly had an event and rolled the dice to fit something in for 2020.

It worked perfectly with 45 riders taking the start and riding through lovely conditions on what ended up being the last of the amazing weather we’d been blessed with during lock-down. Not only that, literally days later the Covid Tier System came into effect which would have prevented us running the event - the stars had all aligned and we were up and running - it was the highlight of year and this little project kept me going through what was a very dark period for anyone involved in the events industry.

2. Bikepacking races have exploded in popularity in recent years, with events springing up left right and centre. As a creative project based in the UK, what did you want to do differently to other events and those you run in the corporate world?

For me it was a case of taking some of the principles from the corporate event and hospitality world and applying them that was important. Keeping things fairly small and personal was top of the list. This allows you to get to know your participants and have time for them - before, during and after the event. Making riders feel welcome, cared for and special regardless of who they are and their experience is also right up there for me - it makes a difference.

Having a selection/application process for participating was something I was keen to completely avoid, I wanted to make the events attainable to anyone that wanted to have a go and not put them out of reach of mere mortals…. We are transparent about the difficulty of the routes, we make ourselves accessible to talk to and discuss the events and what it really takes to do them and let our riders make the decision to enter with all the information they need. It is a given that even to consider it in the first place, our riders will be fit and strong and I find it far more interesting to have a group of riders on a start line that all have just as much of a chance as each other to get to the finish. The feedback we are getting year on year supports this and we are seeing more and more riders enter based on this element alone.

Running events is hard, there’s no getting away from it and it is not for everyone. Often sleeping less than the participants whilst chasing around after them on the route, seeing them at checkpoints and always at the finish whilst bearing the responsibility for riders being out on the route you created makes for quite a challenge whether it’s a four day Escapade or a two week long Divide! With my background it is more straightforward for me and I’m used to operating under huge pressure and thrive on it. The feedback and now awards we are getting seems to substantiate this and we are excited for the 2024 season as we start our fifth year of operating.

3. For riders who have never experienced the magic and allure of British bikepacking, what would you say are some route highlights of The Great British Divide and Great British Escapades?

The two events are very different animals of course but they share the same principles as well as bit of the route. We are blessed in the U.K. with fifteen National Parks and whilst the Escapade only passes through one (it’s a good one!), the Divide takes in nine to them. We have an incredible network of bridleways, byways, forest trails, single track, canal paths and quiet country roads that all stitch together to create a route through some spectacular scenery with some challenging riding.

Whilst the Escapade remains in the South East for the duration there is still a lot of variation from area to area, and the Divide captures the changing of the terrain, the architecture and the people of the U.K. from the bottom to the top and the transition through it on our fairly small island is fascinating. Wales and Scotland are personal favourites with some iconic riding whilst the Peak District and Yorkshire provide the most challenging and hard sections - there really is a bit of everything all along the route.

4. OK, take my money… Where and how do I sign up for this adventure!?

The Escapade is already open for 2024 and is selling quickly. The Divide opens on Sunday 29th October. Registration is via the websites and It’s a simple process for both events with the Divide having some payment options this year too.

5. What’s next for you in 2024? Do you have your eye on any big bikepacking adventures, or will your focus be on the event running side of things?

For 2024 my cycling focus is purely some time on the bike, getting some fitness back and burning some of that food intake I mentioned in the answer to question one! I might get myself in a position to do an autumn event but 2025 is more realistic when I think the grown-up work will start to calm down a little bit and go back to pre-pandemic levels.

I have some tweaks to the Divide route to make for 2024 so there is some test riding to do for that and I would really like to introduce a second Escapade route too so there is a bit of riding to be done.

6. Final question – if you had a spare month and unlimited funds to ride anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?

The Tour Divide holds a big appeal to me and if I had the time I’d be there in a flash. For a start it was the trigger for many of the events around the world we now see including my own and I think it’s only right that it’s one I should take on. As with GBD, I love how the terrain and landscape changes as you travel through it and in my opinion there is no better way to see it all than whilst sat on a bike!