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World Bike Speed Record: John o’Groats to Land’s End. And back again

James Spender
4 Sep 2017

Ultra endurance cyclist James MacDonald tells us about his upcoming attempt to break the JOGLEJOG bike speed record

Page 1 of 2World Bike Speed Record: John o’Groats to Land’s End. And back again

James MacDonald is a crazy man. On Monday 4th September 2017 he will set off from the most northerly point of mainland UK, John o’Groats, in a bid to break the record for the fastest solo return journey to Land’s End by bicycle. That’s nearly 3,000km.

The current record is held by Ben Rockett, who completed JOGLEJOG in August 2010, traversing 2,880km (1,800 miles) in 5 days 21 hours.

That’s an average of 490km (306 miles) a day, which by Rockett’s own admission left him ‘with many problems still waiting to heal’ six weeks after he’d finished.

James – who isn’t a professional cyclist by the way – will be aided by a support crew, but otherwise it’s just him, the clock and a small matter of the Great British weather and finding time to sleep.

We chatted to James ahead of his departure to discuss everything from record pacing to failing to tie his own shoelaces.

Come 4th September, we’ll be tracking him live, every pedal stroke of the way.

Photos: Tom DiBiase, flickr.com/photos/tomdibiase

Cyclist: Tell us about yourself, James

James MacDonald: I’m 46, and my day job is as a systems engineer for an American tech company called Cisco.

I started road cycling when I was told to retire from competitive BMX at 18 due to a shoulder injury. I carried on riding my bike on the road, and got the ultra endurance bug in 2011 when my employer sponsored the Ride Across Britain, and I was on the team.

Cyc: But that was ‘just’ John o’Groats to Land’s End. JOGLEJOG is double that, and you’ll have a full support crew following. How did you arrive at this point?

JM: The Race Across America [RAAM] was the big turning point. I pitched this idea to the Cisco chairman Phil Smith in 2014 that the Internet of Things [IoT] technology could be used to improve the performance of endurance athletes, using new sensor technology and analytics to monitor sleep deprivation, calorie deficiency, extreme heat, to help keep the athlete in a more comfortable zone.

We agreed we’d use RAAM as our proof of concept test ground, and 20 months later with the help of Cisco and Dimension Data I was on the start line with a crew of eight people staring down the barrel of 4,800km (3,000 miles) of roads across the US.

Cyc: And you finished 8th in your category, but evidently that wasn’t enough of an ordeal already?

JM: No it was! The evening of the award ceremony, the day after we completed RAAM, I had to phone my coach Gary and ask him to come and tie my shoelaces and button my shirt before heading downstairs.

After RAAM I had two weeks off the bike for my saddle sores to heal up, and because my hands and toes were numb due to nerve damage I couldn’t change gear or use the brakes properly.

In fact I couldn’t even press the buttons in my car for a while unless I used my thumb. My wife had to cut up my food for and help dress me.

Then a month later, early September 2016, Gary and I got talking about the JOGLEJOG world record. I’ve probably ridden 11,000km of prescribed training since then, on top of the two years spent building up for RAAM.

Cyc: Why not just attempt the one-way record?

JM: This kind of distance suits my physiology better, but even then I had to adapt my training, which included a lot of gym work – one legged squats till I couldn’t walk, bicep curls, core – and turbo training.

There’s a reason I have a sofa in my garage next to my turbo, it’s so I can collapse on it after a session before I can gather the strength to walk again.

It has taken me from 63kg to 65kg, all muscle, and now my power-to-weight is 4.35w/kg, up from 4w/kg in September. My FTP is now 298w, up from 270w.

Cyc: What are the rules the attempt?

JM: We’ve registered with Guinness and will follow their rules. We can choose the route, and to be awarded the record we need to prove beyond any reasonable doubt that it was achieved.

For example, the use of a professional GPS tracker that is published in real time, recorded video evidence for so much each day, written statements from impartial witnesses.

You can’t just turn up with a Garmin and download it to Strava and say you’ve done it.

We are supported by Leadership Challenges, a social organization that is also assisting with logistics for Mark Beaumont’s 80-day ride round the world.

They have been invaluable helping us with funding, logistics and advice.

Cyc: What’s been the biggest challenge beyond the training itself?

JM: The lack of time. I travel for work most weeks and my job isn’t one that just stops at 5.30pm on the dot. So fitting in so much training has been a huge challenge… Let’s just say the grass doesn’t get cut at home very often and there are a few DIY jobs waiting for me!

Going out in bad weather for seven hour stretches has also been tough. It becomes incredibly difficult to carry enough food, drink and clothing for those rides so I often ride with a small backpack and plan rides via pubs and petrol stations.

Cyc: What are you most dreading?

JM: Sleep deprivation and bad weather. I’m probably only going to get two hours’ sleep a day – any less and I’ll begin to hallucinate.

It’s also going to be considerably colder than riding across America was.

Cyc: What has been the biggest sacrifice?

JM: It’s this thing I’ve heard about called a ‘social life’. To say I’ve been AWOL from my family and friends is a massive understatement. I’ve had to train a lot at night, after my daughter Jessica is sleeping, so I’m not missed as much.

One Saturday we were booked in for dinner, so I parked the car near the restaurant, did my five hours’ training from there, got back to the car soaking wet and filthy and changed.

Then I went straight to the restaurant with wet hair and sat down just as my meal that my wife had ordered arrived.

The ‘buy in’ from my wife Julie has been incredible, and I’ve actually learnt to love those night rides. The roads are clear and you see some incredible things, sunsets, sunrises, shooting stars, drunk pub goers throwing apples at you!

Cyc: How have you and the team determined how to pace it, will everyday be the same distance goal?

JM: As a rider it’s difficult to ride consistently on feel alone so we will be using the Dimension Data performance tracking technology so the team can monitor my things such as power, speed, calories and heart rate in real time from the support car wirelessly.

In fact as long as we have Internet access we will publish this data live via the internet [look out for the live page on the Cyclist website].

The pace is based on a realistic average speed we know I can sustain, mapped over 80km (50 mile) ‘stages’. Each stage represents about 3% of the total distance.

I’ll be offered a brief description of each stage together with a target time. If I hit my target the team will offer part of the difference back to me in the form of rest.

So the faster I ride, the more rest I get on top of the approximately three hours I’ll get per day. An hour for cleaning up, changing, eating etcetera and two hours for sleep.

The team aren’t planning on giving me much leeway for hilly stages!

Cyc: What parts of the route are you most looking forward to?

JM: Riding within one mile of my home and right past my daughter’s school will be emotional – if they let her and her friends out to see me I think I’ll be keeping my mirror visor closed for that one!

Cyc: What failsafes have you built in?

JM: Ultimately the point of failure is the rider: me. So there isn’t much we can really do. I’m also only allowed one bike, which is a Giant Trinity TT bike, so we’ll have to deal with mechanicals if they come.

We do have a few tricks though, such as having several different pairs of shoes, so if my feet start hurting I can change to a different type and that will hopefully help.

The team is also very strict on hygiene, so they’ll be copious amounts of alcohol gel. It’s not only Team Sky that don’t like shaking hands!

I also have Thirza, our physio, to keep me on the road. It’s amazing what she can solve after a hard day on the bike.

Cyc: So who else is on your team?

JM: There’s ten plus me. Steve Thomson, crew chief; Gary Hand, my coach and deputy crew chief; Thirza Gibson, physiotherapist; Lyn Thomson, nutritionist and cook; Mike Garvie, tech support and driver; Tom Diabiase, photographer; Toby Ellis, driver and entertainer; Grame Scott, motorhome driver; David O’Neill, driver and navigator; Kay Armstrong, social media.

Cyc: How do will you manage to keep motivated, or not just get plain bored?

JM: That’s easy, just like we did at RAAM. We used the rider to crew radio and we just chatted about anything and everything.

Going up Wolf Creek Pass I spoke to my wife on the phone for a good part of it, just like a normal call home from a business trip except I climbing to 3,000m over the Continental divide.

The crew brought quiz books and we did endless pub quizzes.

Cyc: What is your projected time?

JM: We do have a number but because we are British we don’t like to say we have ambitions, we pretend we are just there to take part.

But if pressed I’d have to tell you we want to take 10 hours off the record. There, I’ve told you so now the benchmark is set.

Stay tuned to Cyclist.co.uk to see James’s live progress. Coverage starts Monday 4th September.

Chapeau James, and bonne chance!

Click through to the next page to read part II of our Q&A with James

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Page 1 of 2World Bike Speed Record: John o’Groats to Land’s End. And back again