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Q&A: endurance cyclist Sean Conway

After setting a new record for cycling across Europe, Sean Conway talks Russian border guards, sleeping in drains and wolf skulls

Joseph Delves
27 Nov 2018

This article was first published in issue 76 of Cyclist magazine

Cyclist: You’ve just bagged the record for fastest crossing of Europe by bicycle [Since beaten by Leah Timmis] What does that entail?

Sean Conway: To get the record you have to cycle from Cabo da Roca in Portugal to Ufa in Russia, the last city before Asia, via whatever route you choose.

To make it feel more like a race I copied the route from the previous record holder, Jonas Deichmann, which was 3,890 miles.

Cyc: What was your experience of the different countries as you rode through?

SC: Spain was great in terms of scenery, but it seems like everywhere is only open for a few hours each day, which makes resupply difficult.

France was amazing. Every country had good and bad sides. The further east I went, the more taxing it got. In Russia the roads I chose were big, plus I had a headwind for the last 1,000 miles.

There was no hard shoulder and with trucks passing I ended up having to ride in the dirt.

Cyc: How did you find crossing the different borders?

SC: The Poland-Ukraine border was the first manned border. Every other country before that I just cycled straight through. Getting into Russia was hard.

They made me unpack everything. They were asking me why I had two toothbrushes. What does each bit of my multitool do? Where do you sleep? How many miles do you ride?

I was there for three hours. That happened three times. You could see the border guards wanted to be friendly but kept remembering they weren’t supposed to be.

Cyc: What was your daily routine?

SC: I’d get up at 3:58am – I don’t like setting my alarm on the hour. I’d give myself 10 minutes to get on the bike, then go in search of the three Cs: coffee, cake and a crap.

Logistically there’s no point pushing on a few extra miles past a town when there might be nowhere else to get food the next morning.

I’d then ride until around 10pm, trying to do about 160 miles. The distance I was doing was hard, but not groundbreaking. I didn’t pre-plan stops – you have to cycle on time not distance.

Sometimes there’s a headwind, sometimes everything is closed, like in France on a Sunday.

Cyc: Where were you staying at night?

SC: I took a bivvy bag rather than a tent. I found the best places to stay were drainage pipes under the road. They tend to be quite quiet and I sleep with earplugs anyway.

Although one night I woke up in a forest and because I hadn’t heard the rain coming I was soaked. I just got on the bike and started riding.

Cyc: Was there any kit you wish you’d taken, or any that you did take but didn’t actually use?

SC: For the sake of another 300g I wish I’d taken a tent. It would have made life easier.

If you’re getting five hours sleep you want to make the most of it, plus I got sick from a tick bite and a tent would probably have prevented that.

I carried a spare tyre, yet didn’t get a puncture until 200 miles from the finish. I also carried toilet paper across Europe and never had to use it.

Cyc: Are you ruthless when it comes to saving weight?

SC: Not really. For example, I have my little flying cow mascot, just for morale. Then in Spain I found some roadkill, which I thought was a wolf, but it might have been a dog.

I took the skull and attached it below my aero bars. I named him Pedro and ended up carrying him all the way across Europe.

He caused some shouting at the Russian border, but I even managed to fly home with him. Now he lives on my desk.

Considering I cut my toothbrush in half to save weight, carrying Pedro might have been silly, but these things are mostly in your head.

Cyc: Were there any hairy moments out on the road?

SC: With ultra-cycling there’s always the risk of getting run over, but I’m pretty safety-conscious.

I had six rear lights and a bunch of reflectors. Plus I only cycle with one earphone – I cut the other one off so there’s no temptation. Top tip, it also saves your battery.

I saw some dead wolves at the roadside in Ukraine and Russia and there were bears in some areas, which was a bit worrying when you’re sleeping out.

I also got caught in a big lightning storm, which I had to hide from, but overall nothing too bad besides all the trucks.

Cyc: At what point does pushing yourself stop being fun?

SC: None of it was fun, partly because I didn’t turn up fit enough. Between getting a puppy and the snow we had this winter I didn’t get as much on-the-bike training in as I should have.

If I’d been fitter I might have enjoyed it more. I’m content with my effort, but I could have done it quicker. I planned just to break the record.

If the record had been faster I could have gone a bit harder. Part of me wishes I’d gone in and really smashed it, but then there’s all the rest of life to be getting on with too.

Cyc: You rode self-supported, but the record allows for outside assistance? Why did you go it alone?

SC: With self-supported there’s just yourself to account for. Also fitness is only 50% – the rest is logistics. There are five things I always look at: food, water, sleep, muscle management and motivation.

Across the 25 days, I reckon there were only two where everything was bang on. There’s room for someone else to break my record, although all the next attempts will likely be supported.

Cyc: How do you keep yourself going?

SC: If you get the first four things in order, motivation takes care of itself. Still, I get so moody doing these rides.

One minute I’m convinced I’m going to smash it, then I’ll have a puncture and minutes later think I’m not going to make it.

It’s mostly sleep deprivation and fatigue.

Cyc: There’s booming interest in all things adventure-based. Why do you think this is?

SC: I think people are bored of buying stuff. You can do huge rides on very cheap bicycles, so it’s accessible. It’s a millennial thing to have this itch to go and do things.

Social media is probably involved. People are looking for status by going off and doing a challenge rather than buying something.

Cyc: How do you fund your expeditions?

SC: The main focus is always the challenge. People won’t get behind you if they can tell you’re not authentic.

I work hard to get sponsors, then once I’m back I’ll do talks or write a book. I’m like a non-professional sportsman. I have to think of my own races and then win at them.

If they’re too easy no one is interested. If they’re too hard I might not succeed. That’s part of the fun.

Cyc: How did you become a professional adventurer?

SC: I grew up in Africa, which is pretty adventurous. Every day in Africa is difficult – something is always trying to kill you, be it animals, bugs or the weather.

I was pretty miserable in my old life as a photographer in London, so that also became fuel for the fire. I’ve got that as my benchmark.

My worst day on the bike is now 10 times better than my best day as a grumpy corporate photographer.

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