Interview: Bill Honeywell, circumnavigating Britain by bike

4,300-mile trek around the UK coastline

How many feet of climbing do you think you’d have to endure on a ride round the entire coastline of Britain? The answer, according to estate agent Bill Honeywell, is 205,000. How does he know this? Because he’s just passed the halfway mark of this very challenge.

When you think of tests of cycling endurance in Britain, Land's End to John O’Groats is the one that immediately springs to mind. Covering around 1,000 miles, it’s a much-travelled route and is attempted by thousands every year. At 4,300 miles, the circumnavigation is a considerably sterner test.

Speaking to BikeRadar from an overnight stop in Swanage, Dorset, Bill explained what drives a semi-retired 58-year-old to spend 12 weeks in the saddle and why, on tours like this, he wouldn’t trade his motor home for anything.

“I just get these ideas every now and again,” said Bill, on the reason he’s holed up in a motor home on the south coast of England, a little over 3,000 miles on the clock since he left his home in Clitheroe, Lancashire. Always on the lookout for new endurance challenges, he’s ridden the length of Britain and walked all 214 “Wainwrights” – the Lake District hills described in A Wainwright's seven-volume Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells –  in aid of cancer charities.

At the start of a 4,300 mile trek, bill (centre) prepares to depart his home town of clitheroe: at the start of a 4,300 mile trek, bill (centre) prepares to depart his home town of clitheroe

At the start of a 4,300-mile trek, Bill (centre) prepares to depart his home town of Clitheroe, Lancashire

“It had been 18 months since I’d taken on something major, and usually about that time my mind starts to wander and I start to dream up a new challenge,” said Bill. He got to wondering how long Britain’s coast was and, after a couple of days spent sketching a route and hatching a plan, he had a firm idea of where his next challenge would take him – his Great British Coastal Bike Ride was born.

When we spoke to him, he'd just finished his 59th consecutive day in the saddle and his 69th in total. Usually covering between 75 and 85 miles a day, and never breaking the 100 barrier, he said it had been gruelling, but not overly so. He has refused to takes full days off (“I’d rather spread a typical day's mileage over two days – it keeps my legs moving”) and reckons he’s slipped into a routine, where he rides the miles simply because it’s what he’s programmed himself to do after two months on the road.

“There was one day a week or so ago where a lady put us up in her home and gave us a slap up meal,” he said. “It was wonderful, it was extremely generous and I wouldn’t have had it any other way, but there was this little part of me which regretted it upsetting my routine!”

“Us” are his family and friends, who take it in turns to trail him in the motor home he sleeps in every night. Not having to lug his equipment around on panniers has been a massive help, allowing him to ride his racing bike for much of the tour. He wasn’t able to persuade anyone to follow him for the full 10 weeks, so he has a rolling roster, where a new support crew arrives every week in his car, relieving the existing crew, who drive back to Lancashire in the same car.

Bill, his support team of the week and his motor home: bill, his support team of the week and his motor home

Bill, his support team of the week and his motor home

Bill said he’d had tremendous support from the Caravan Club, and that he'd lost count of the number of times he’d been offered free accommodation for the night. “I just ask,” he said. “And when I don’t get a reply, I just ask again! They obviously can’t do it often – they’re a business trying to make money like everyone else – but when they see you’re doing something for a good cause they’ll always try to help you out.”

He cited the weather (“the type you’d never, ever go cycling in when you’re at home”), the mental aspect (“If I do start to lack motivation, I just break it down into 25 mile sections – who can’t ride 25 miles?”) and, on one occasion, a tree falling onto his accommodation, as the biggest barriers to getting through the 4,300-mile ride.

A member of bill's support crew tries to clean up the debris left by a collapsing tree in fort william, scotland: a member of bill's support crew tries to clean up the debris left by a collapsing tree in fort william, scotland

A member of Bill's support crew tries to clean up the debris left by a collapsing tree in Fort William, Scotland

“I spoke to a chap who'd been round the coast of Scotland at the same time and in the same way as me, and we talked about how the weather had been so bad he’d stayed in his motor home for three days running,” he said. “When he asked me what I’d done, I just said I was out riding my bike. I’ve never had days where I've felt like I didn't want to do it, I’m in such a routine now. When I’m in the motor home and rain's crashing down, I know I need to just keep moving forwards.”

Bill is riding in aid of Cancer Research UK and is aiming to reach home by the end of July. He's heading clockwise around the coastline of Britain, and can currently be found somewhere in north Wales. Visit his travel blog for his entertaining anecdotes on the journey so far, or his JustGiving page to donate to Cancer Research UK. 

After early cycling flirtations with the Tour de France on childhood holidays, John Whitney fell for it hook, line and sinker in his mid-20s as an escape from the more sedate sports of his youth. As a classically trained news reporter, he snagged his dream job as a cycling writer straight out of college and is now fully immersed in the industry and wouldn't have it any other way.
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