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Mark Beaumont: the man who conquered the world

Mark Beaumont
Mark Bailey
11 Apr 2016

The Scottish cyclist smashed Africa's Cairo to Cape Town record last year, cycling 6,762 miles in just 41 days.

Cyclist: How did your Africa speed record compare to your record-breaking round-the-world journey in 2007-08?

Mark Beaumont: I’m known for world records and almost everything I’ve done in the last decade was not just about pipping records but trying to take them to a whole new level. When I finished my round-the-world trip in 2008, I’d covered 18,296 miles [29,444km] in 194 days and 17 hours, and I broke the world record by 81 days. But as I was making a documentary, there was always that niggle of compromise. Africa was the first time I can honestly say, ‘Bloody hell, I don’t think I could have gone an hour faster.’ I took 18 days off the world record and I just went hell for leather.

Cyc: What bike did you use to travel at speed through Africa?

MB: I rode a Koga carbon road bike with [Shimano] Di2 electronic gears and hydraulic brakes, and I carried just 7.5 kilos of kit. I had one spare pair of cycling shorts – that’s it. It couldn’t have been more different from my round-the-world trip when I was touring with 35kg of kit and panniers full of camping stoves and things. In Africa I averaged 160 miles [257km] per day by travelling fast and light.

Cyc: How did bike tech help you?

MB: In Africa I spent 439 hours in the saddle, over 41 days, so that is a tonne of time to be on your bike. Using Di2 gears was really a practical choice as electronic buttons are easier than levers. When you’re riding all day, you can get real issues from pain and nerve damage in your hands. If you lose the pinch and feeling in your hands, you’re in trouble. Di2 claims to do 10,000 shifts between charges. Mine ran out every two weeks because I was riding 12-15 hours a day, but I could charge it off a USB external battery pack. People get scared of technology in remote locations but it’s worth it to go fast.

Cyc: What was the most extreme terrain you encountered?

MB: I was so scared of the Sahara desert because the week before I flew out the temperature in Khartoum hit 40°C. I thought, ‘Shit, I’ve left it too late.’ Every record attempt had left between January and March and I was leaving April to May, so I knew I was risking the Sahara being super-hot. The top temperature I faced was 43°C and when you’re out in the dunes for 10 hours, it gets intense. I was trying to choose the flattest route through Africa, while staying on tarred roads, but in so many countries there is only one road and parts of Africa, like Tanzania and Ethiopia, are surprisingly hilly. 

Mark Beaumont interview

Cyc: How did you stay hydrated in the Sahara?

MB: I went into the Sahara with a litre and a half of water. People go on 20-mile rides around London with that amount. I had to ration water so I was taking a sip every half an hour, but all I wanted to do was finish the bottle as I was dying of thirst. I had to get water along the way, trying to join up the dots between places where you know you can pick up water. An unpleasant reality is that it’s easier to buy Coke than water in Africa so a lot of the time I was downing fizzy drinks or filling my water bottles with Fanta to get the calories in.

Cyc: And what kind of food did you eat along the way?

MB: I was reliant on the world around me for food, which is not easy when you’re burning 7,000 calories per day. At times you are not getting the fuel you need and you feel it in terms of low energy levels and seeing the weight drop off you. But over a month it needs to be sustainable and you need to roughly put back in what you burn. 

South Africa, Botswana and Zambia are all pretty developed so you can pick up food at a petrol station, but in Sudan and Ethiopia and parts of Kenya I was just eating rice, stew and a hell of a lot of goat. I’d pay a bit extra for real meat as the first thing they offer you is offal – grey off-cuts of pipes and organs and all sorts, so you really want the meat. On stalls throughout the African continent you tend to get loads of packaged biscuits so I was getting through 12-15 packets a day. Coming back to civilised company and having a single biscuit at someone’s house was really hard as I was used to ploughing through a couple of packets.

Cyc: What did your training involve? 

MB: After working with the BBC at the Commonwealth Games I got to know the Scottish cycling team so I hooked up with them over the winter. I did most of my training in the velodrome so I was riding round and round with guys a decade younger than me. Their idea of endurance is 2km – mine is 200km. But I’d do sessions behind a derny motorbike, sitting there for 20 minutes at 55kmh, just hanging in there for dear life. It was all high-intensity power endurance stuff – three sets and you’re cooked. I averaged 160 miles a day through Africa but I didn’t do a single training ride over 100 miles.

Mark Beaumont portrait

Cyc: How do your foreign adventures compare to riding in the UK?

MB: We grumble about headwinds in the UK but you need to go to the southern hemisphere to understand them. In Australia or Patagonia, that wind just circles off the South Pacific and Antarctica. It doesn’t gust, it stays unrelentingly fierce all day, and when you’re on your bike for 12 hours a day it just feels like riding uphill for 12 hours. Heading to the far north and south, like Alaska and Patagonia, can be a bit nippy too.

Cyc: How did locals react to seeing a cyclist in such far-flung places?

MB: People don’t see cyclists as a risk so they’re very receptive to you. If you’re in a car, there’s a barrier between you and other people, but on a bike you’re out there. When I was riding in Africa I would speak to locals riding their bikes to the market or going to work in the fields and we would chat away. I would tell them I’d ridden from Cairo and it would blow their minds. There is a tendency to look at Africa as one big country, but when you ride 7,000 miles down the length of it you see its diversity. People are wonderfully friendly. Africa is not all about war and famine.

Cyc: What were your hardest days in Africa?

MB: People say they love what I do but I say, ‘You love the idea of what I do.’ It might look good on telly, like a sort of escapism, but the reality is a lot of pain. But I know that the toughest times, when I’m massively pushed and in trouble, are the most important moments. Those days when you’re in Ethiopia, struggling up hills, sick with food poisoning, and your body is falling to bits and you’re going through hell… that’s what breaking world records is all about. Anybody can ride a bike when they have a tailwind and the sun is shining. Some days I would ride 220 miles [354km] a day. But the secret to breaking the record were those days when I did 80 miles, with food poisoning, through hilly terrain. That is your point of difference. Like all cycling, it’s about how much you can hack.

Mark Beaumont was a guest speaker at The Telegraph Outdoor Adventure & Travel Show. His new book Africa Solo is out on 19th May. 

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