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Around the world in 80 days with Mark Beaumont

Joseph Delves
8 Dec 2017

This summer Mark Beaumont obliterated the record for the fastest circumnavigation of the globe by bicycle. He tells us all about it

In 1873 Phileas Fogg, the fictional protagonist of Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in Eighty Days, left the Reform Club on London’s Pall Mall to begin his circumnavigation of the globe. Almost a century and a half later, a very real Mark Beaumont emerged from the former gentlemen’s club having just explained to its members how he achieved the same feat by bicycle.

Striding into the London evening, he looks remarkably solid for a man who has recently cycled 18,032 miles in 78 days, 14 hours and 40 minutes.

Despite some residual back pain and problems with his wrists, he has somehow escaped the gaunt and hollowed-out look that haunts most ultra-endurance cyclists.

Incongruously dressed in the smart suit required of visitors to the club, and without the beard and shaggy hair of his previous adventures, we doubt any drinkers in the pub where we meets him would peg him as a cycling globe trotter.

Yet balancing the appearance of normality while achieving extreme feats of adventure has been something of a theme in Mark’s life.

Not a man new to the game, this latest record-breaking ride is the culmination of a decade of hard work and exploration. It’s not even the first time Mark has cycled around the world.

Twice around the world

This latest record actually has its genesis in 2007, when fresh out of university, Mark set off on what he expected to be a last hurrah before taking a job in finance.

‘I thought before joining the rat race, why don’t I go on one big ride?’ he tells us.

A keen cyclist, Mark was never a classic nomadic traveller, but wasn’t a traditional racer either. Having got into cycle touring he instead discovered his talent lay in being able to push the distances he rode.

Recognising this aptitude for big route riding and assuming his post-uni jaunt would be the only chance to undertake such a large-scale adventure, he decided to go all in and try to make it around the world.

A fastidious planner, researching ahead of the expedition Mark was surprised to find the record for the 18,000-mile circumnavigation of the globe stood at a relatively sedate 276 days.

‘I was amazed. I expected it to be this coveted thing that would be well out of my range. Instead I thought I can beat that!’

In the event, despite bouts of dysentery, a robbery, and some dicey moments in lawless northern Pakistan, Mark completed his trip in 194 days, taking 82 days off the existing record.

Forming the basis of the BBC documentary The Man who Cycled the World, the ride set his life off on a completely new tangent, launching a career as an adventurer and TV presenter.

Expeditions cycling across the Americas and rowing in the Arctic followed. In 2012, he tried to break the record for crossing the Atlantic, an attempt which ended after 27 days and over 2,000 miles when his boat capsized.

Three years later, in 2015, Mark set a new record cycling across Africa from Cairo to Cape Town in 42 days – beating the previous time by 17 days.

Through relentless hard graft, Mark had turned adventuring into a career. Yet while he might have turned his back on being a City boy, he wasn’t the typical wildman either.

Despite his wandering Mark now had a young family to support and offers of steady TV work coming in.

‘I always wanted a normal life with a house and a family. Now I had that, I didn’t want them to suffer for my obsession’ he reveals. 

From adventurer to athlete

Still, despite the pull of a steady home life, in his early 30s Mark was nagged by the sense that his best was still within him as an athlete.

‘I wanted one chance to put all my cards on the table before I was too old. So I sat down with my wife and had this difficult conversation. We were newly married and we had a young daughter. There was work coming in and I could have played it safe, but instead I wanted to risk it all.’

Mark knew if he was going to come back to cycling it was going to be for the world. ‘It’s the ultimate endurance bike ride,’ he explains. ‘Compared to the circumnavigation, everything else is small fry.’

With his wife onside, Mark began plotting one final lap. But having already held the circumnavigation record he wasn’t keen to simply repeat his trip.

‘Cairo to Cape Town was quite neatly a third of the distance around the world. Riding it had given me the confidence to be ambitious.

‘At that time the record for the unsupported circumnavigation was 123 days. I thought I could probably beat that. But doing so would still be a compromise between adventure and performance.

‘Instead I decided to build a team around me and commit to going fully supported, and trying to take it to the next level.

‘That’s when the idea occurred, can you get around the world in 80 days? A lot of people warned me off, saying even if you make that the target surely you’re better off trying to break the current record and surprising everyone by going sub-80.

Why stake my reputation on it? If I came home in 85 days I’d have beaten the old record by a month but still be viewed as a failure. People were nervous about me being so ambitious.’ 

The plan

Mark’s assault on the world would be painstakingly planned, breaking down the circumnavigation hour by hour and mile by mile.

Along with an exploratory ride around the coast of Great Britain to hone his method, over a year and a half went into examining every detail, including the route, topography, wind directions, and border crossings.

The required 18,000 miles were divided into a series of four-hour sets, with four sets totalling 16 hours to be ridden each day.

Across the globe, a team of almost 20 people, some of whom would follow behind in the support van where Mark would get his five hours of nightly sleep, were assembled to help with logistics, physiotherapy, nutrition, navigation and mechanics.

With everything finally in place, the entire expedition set off from under Paris’ Arc de Triomphe just after midnight on 1st July this year.

Ahead lay Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, Mongolia, China, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the USA, Portugal, and Spain.

On the road

With good weather and a tailwind, Europe flashed by in six days. Russia proved more difficult. Poor roads, heavy traffic and pollution were compounded when the support vehicle got stuck at the roadside.

Worse followed when Mark crashed on day nine, damaging his elbow and cracking a tooth just outside of Moscow.

‘We now know from the MRI scans that I’ve had since coming home that I suffered a fractured radial head,’ reveals Mark.

‘The roads in Russia are terrible and riding with it meant I was unconsciously protecting my left elbow and putting much more pressure through my right pedal, which led to nerve issues in my neck.’

Patched up at the roadside, despite injury and some DIY dentistry, Mark still managed to hold religiously to his schedule.

‘Physiologically, people think your legs will hurt, but they just spin away happily. It’s conditioning. People worry about repetitive strain injury or tendinitis, but they’re first fortnight injuries. You wear through all that.

‘First month it was my neck. By the second month my neck just gave up complaining. Then the problem becomes pressure sores on your feet. It feels like you’re riding on hot coals,’ Mark recalls.

Inside of a month, Mark had spanned the great mass of Russia and crossed into Mongolia. Treeless and with never-ending horizons, wild horses ran alongside him and the team as they passed through the Gobi desert before entering into China, where camels replaced horses and the isolated yurts provided the only shelter other than the safety of the van, and nomadic tribespeople the only other human company.

In 2012, the rules for the circumnavigation record had changed to include total travel time, not just time on the bike. So when Mark reached the metropolis of Beijing, and took the first of three flights, his careful planning really started to pay dividends

‘Within 30 minutes of landing in Australia, I was riding my bike. That’s nothing to do with me being a good bike rider – these wins happened long before I started riding.

‘It was planning, making sure that I had fixers helping me get through customs and back onto the bike as quickly as possible.’

The grind

Mark crossed Australia’s southern coast during winter, although it wasn’t until he arrived in New Zealand that the cold weather really hit him.

Riding the length of both islands, he took the ferry north between the two before embarking on a second flight, crossing the Pacific from Auckland to Anchorage in Alaska.

‘New Zealand was freezing but absolutely stunning, riding through mountain passes with snowy peaks all around me and ice forming on my jacket.

‘Similarly, Alaska and the Yukon in Canada. You can’t go at the speed of a bicycle and not be tuned into what’s around you. I cycled through every sunrise and sunset for 78 days. You see the world like a slideshow, and every day is special. I loved it.’

Yet despite the spectacular scenery, two months deep into the expedition – although still on schedule – Mark was beginning to lag mentally.

‘Going through Canada was pretty desperate,’ he reveals. ‘It was a battle of attrition, I was sleep deprived and running on empty. I carried on out of routine, but for two weeks it was grim.

‘I was in idiot mode, devoid of emotion, neither excited nor depressed. That emotional response, the laughing, the crying, all happens in the first month. After that, you’re left with nothing.’

It was during these bleaker moments that the importance of having a strong team around him became apparent.

‘The thing I like about working with them, besides the camaraderie, is handing over control,’ explains Mark. ‘I know if I’m cognitively slow, they’re looking out for my best interests. I’ve two young kids at home.

‘I wouldn’t push myself as hard without the team because I don’t trust myself to know when to stop. When you’re sleep-deprived and riding massive miles, the big concern with unsupported riding is how safe you are.

‘With a team, there’s no limiting factor. You have one job – to ride the bike. My nutrition, my kit, navigation – it was all taken care of.

‘My job was to get on the bike at 4am, ride 16 hours, eat 9,000 calories, sleep and repeat.’

The neatly spaced GPS coordinates that plotted Mark’s methodical progress day by day across the globe belie the difficulty of the task he’d set himself.

Sticking to his schedule of 16 hours riding a day, he was racking up an average of 240 miles every 24 hours. Not 240 miles on a good day, in the sun with a tail wind, but each and every day.

‘Riding each four-hour set, if I’d find myself going uphill or into a headwind, I’d never allow myself to break them down any smaller in my head.

‘As soon as you crack a little you’ve lost it. Long term, the average will take care of itself if you’re consistent with the inputs. There was never a time I doubted the plan. It was meticulous. This was not a hell-for-leather race. I didn’t see it in a “let’s ride as fast as possible and see what happens” kind of way.’

Having crossed North America, flown from Nova Scotia to Portugal and then ridden back across Spain and France, Mark’s consistency paid off when he arrived back in Paris to a media scrum 78 days after having set off. Yet despite people’s astonishment at what he has achieved, Mark remains pragmatic about his record-breaking ride.

‘It was just a case of me executing the plan. The public reaction has been surprise. I feel bloody relieved, but not surprised. I’ve just done exactly what I said I’d do to within hours. I rode to a script – 75 days riding, three days for flights, two days contingency. I just didn’t use my whole contingency!’

No bad way to ride your bicycle

With a documentary about his exploits in the works, Mark is now fully involved in the commercial hustle of selling his trip. After all, these sort of expeditions don’t happen without corporate sponsors, and bills don’t get paid purely on the back of athletic achievement.

But while Mark is understandably proud of his record, some have been quick to criticise his achievements.

As with mountaineering, where there’s a split between proponents of the heavily supported expedition-style of climbing and the more self-reliant alpine school, some in the ultra-cycling fraternity believe circumnavigation should remain the sole preserve of self-supported wildmen, and have been dismissive of Mark’s efforts as a result.

It’s criticism which strikes us as a little odd not least because Mark is someone who has also previously held the record for a self-supported circumnavigation!

‘Some purists think these big trips should be all about exploring the world,’ Mark says. ‘I accept that, but if you look at sailing where the round-the-world record is hugely contested, it’s become more and more competitive and more about performance rather than being a wildman adventure.

‘I spent over a year of my life living in a tent so I understand both. I’ve done that style and I love it, but I didn’t want to do the same again,’ he explains.

‘When I first rode around world, I was wide-eyed and naive. There’s something special about the first time you travel alone by bicycle outside of Europe and North America. I had a very different perspective on the world. I felt I was going fast, riding a hundred miles a day for half a year. But to me now, that looks pedestrian.

‘My impression of the world this time was an odd one. It made the world feel absolutely, gigantically tiny. When you cycle across Russia or the Australian Outback, the scale is staggering.

‘But then I’ve just cycled around the world in 78 days and that conversely makes it feel quite small.’

Mark’s attempt was never going to be a mad dash around the globe, the scale of his undertaking in trying to make it in under 80 days precluded that.

He explains the only way he could have gone fast would to have been to ride to a different plan. Would that have worked? Who knows? Certainly no one will ever take another 44 days off the record.

That one-time prize of the 80 days is gone and the margins are now so small anyone attempting to better his effort will have to get their head around some very complicated logistics.

‘This was my Everest,’ reveals Mark. ‘I can’t think of a bigger target as an endurance rider. I feel I left everything out there. I don’t know if I could have gone faster and I’ll probably never know.

‘I’ve sort of lost motivation to try to trump it. I’ll always need to get my fix, I love adventure, I love travel. But do I need to keep doing professional expeditions? Probably not.’

Regardless of what follows, Mark has secured a place in the pantheon of endurance cyclists and helped revive interest in one of the sport’s most elemental feats of courage and adventure.

Like long-distance cyclist Mike Hall, who was tragically killed earlier this year, Mark has proved himself a standard bearer for the peculiarly British tradition of ultra-endurance riding.

‘We have a rich legacy of madcap adventure. We live on this tiny island, yet look at the round- the-world record, the Pan-American record, the Cairo-Cape Town record, it’s almost all Brits. Not a single American has ever even gone after the circumnavigation record!’

‘In 1884, [Hertfordshire-born adventurer] Thomas Stevens set off around the world on a penny farthing with just a poncho and a pistol,’ says Mark as our chat comes to a close.

‘Those guys were literally riding off the map. What would Jules Verne and the Victorians have thought of someone getting around the world in 80 days under their own power?

‘I can’t understand why circumnavigation isn’t bigger. With so many pro cyclists, imagine if some of them put their minds to it! People aren’t going around the world faster because bikes have got better, or we’re more physiologically able than a decade ago.

‘We just believe we can go so much further. That’s why ultra-endurance is so exciting.

‘It’s all in the mind, it’s about what we believe is possible. And who knows what might happen next?’

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