Interview: Round-the-world cycle record holder Vin Cox

Around the world in 163¼ days and other adventures

On 1 August 2010, Vin Cox triumphantly rolled into London to become the fastest person to cycle around the world, beating the previous records set by Mark Beaumont, James Bowthorpe and Julian Sayerer. Next month he'll compete in the UK & European Solo MTB Championships, so where do the man’s cycling ambitions stop? Not there. Lara Dunn finds out where for BikeRadar...

Having pedalled some 18,000 miles round the world in a record breaking time, you’d think Vin Cox would be a super-human athlete, ready to tear the competition apart in the UK & European Solo MTB Championships in a month’s time. In the past he’s competed in cyclo-cross and 24-hour mountain bike races, so he should be well prepared.

"I used to be a downhiller, back in the early Nineties," says Vin. "I started downhill mountain biking because my cyclo-cross skills weren’t so good. A year or so after I started doing downhill, I competed in the Junior World Championships on the national team. Next year I did the senior World Championships. Then I decided downhill was a sport for nutters and I ought to do proper cycling again. So I now do long enduros instead.

"I do 24-hour races every now and again, and I’m now entered into the Europeans. When I entered them they were just the Nationals, and now it’s the Europeans as well. It’s taking place on the Newcastleton 7stanes circuits in Scotland. I’ve never won a 24-hour race. At the first Mountain Mayhem I managed a podium finish, but then the first Mayhem was rather low-key. I got seventh at the Bontrager 24/12 a couple of years ago. I’m capable of a top 10 in that sort of thing – who knows what I can do in this European comp." 

So was the round-the-world ride good or bad for Vin’s fitness levels? Is he on top form for the European Championships? "I’m still rebuilding myself really after the RTW," he says. "I’m probably a bit heavy for it. I thought I could keep my fitness and be great, but I really couldn’t. I had to ease off because my knees in particular had really started to ache, especially over the last 3,000 miles of the race.

Vin Cox is still 'rebuilding himself' after his 18,000-mile journey

"Also, I was on a 10,000-calorie-a-day habit. Even if you halve that you’re still talking twice what you need for sitting around! So I put on weight pretty fast after the race, my knees were still hurting, I didn’t have any strength or speed in my legs anyway, I only had endurance. Eventually I decided to press the reset button and took a couple of weeks off the bike completely. I stopped eating pretty much as well.

"I’m now a few months into being a more normal cyclist again. I’m a bit more stocky than when I finished, but steadily losing weight, building fitness, gaining strength... I guess I’m probably exactly back to how I was before the RTW, with no benefits whatsoever, but at least I’ve not kept that weakness and those aches that I had as I finished."

Over 18,000 miles, through Europe, North Africa, Asia, New Zealand, Australia and the USA in 163 days is an impressive achievement in anyone’s book, taking almost two weeks off the previous record set by James Bowthorpe and a week off that set by Julian Sayerer a short while later. Did Vin start out aiming for the record and did he always believe he was capable of breaking it?

"Really the record was a sort of tertiary goal, behind having an adventure and raising money for charity," he says. "But when it was looking more and more like I was going to get it, it did start to be a factor. Even then I had a month over Mark Beaumont, who had the record with Guinness at the time, and even now they’ve ratified the records that came between mine and Mark’s, I’ve still got a week in hand, so I could have slowed down for 1,000 miles and that wouldn’t have mattered. It would have been a bit close then, though.

"The issue was that there was another guy going round, called Alan Bate [Bate completed his attempt in 113 days in the end but this has yet to be ratified by Guinness ed]. He was going round in a very different style – the first to try it with a support crew. He looked just like a road racer, on his carbon fibre bike, with no bags and stuff, and was doing a good old pace.

Vin broke the round-the-world record on this Genesis Croix de Fer cyclo-cross bike, carrying all his own equipment

"He was going to finish about the same time as me, so the challenge for me was to make sure I finished before him, so that there wasn’t any confusion for the record. My sister insisted, 'you’re just going to have to get here as fast as you can. Don’t make any detours anywhere, you’re just coming straight here'. I remember speaking on the phone with her when I was in Utah, and her saying, “get here fast and stop faffing around’.

"Breaking the record for cycling around the world wasn’t a challenge that had always been in my mind, but I was raised on stories of cycle touring and was encourage to cycle and do outdoorsy, adventurous things as a child. What really sparked that as being a challenge I wanted to try was probably watching Mark Beaumont’s documentary. I remember sitting there with my wife, saying, ‘he looks like he’s having a horrible time! I’d enjoy that!’ I think the TV programme tried to make it look more gruelling and tough. I was thinking that it would be a brilliant adventure to have, and that I could do it and enjoy doing it."

Originally, the route was supposed to take Vin through South America, making him the first RTW challenger to have tackled all the continents except Antarctica. What happened to change that? "I needed to go over the Andes if I was going to do South America," says Vin. "My original schedule had me getting there just before mid-winter, before the worst of the snows."As it panned out, it was going to be after that, so it would have been pretty harsh getting over the mountains. I did try to stay focused on having an adventurous time, and that would have been more adventurous, but a little bit of speed pressure finally got to me."

Perhaps Cox’s secret was a combination of fitness, determination and the desire to enjoy the journey? "I don’t want to sound too arrogant about it, but I knew from previous touring holidays that I could break the record time and enjoy it," says Vin. "The challenge was to keep enjoying it, because I knew if I stopped enjoying it I probably wouldn’t be able to keep doing it. So I deliberately chose a route that wasn’t necessarily the fastest but passed through some interesting places and that would keep me mentally motivated to keep going. So, I did that and, sure enough, I could sustain that mileage.

"That would be my worry for somebody trying to beat me actually – that they might choose a more boring but faster route, which they'd have to do to definitely beat me, but then they might get bored with it. I think it’s really important when you’re pushing yourself like that to maintain morale. There’s obviously different motivation for different people but I just wanted to enjoy myself."

It was essential for Vin that his trip remained fun, not just a mindless slog

Despite his amazing positivity, there were obviously dark times for Vin during such a long and arduous ride. A savage bout of dysentery in Libya dented his blistering average mileage, but he was prepared and got through it. "I got to Libya on an average of about 135 miles a day," he says. "It was all still going brilliantly, despite having been through a few sandstorms. Within a couple of days of being there, I was bedridden and felt about as bad as I’ve ever felt in my life. I’ve been hospitalized with dysentery before and this was worse!

"Thankfully, I had the right medication with me and I knew that a hospital wouldn’t necessarily be the best place to be. So with the right medication and somebody to bring me water, all I needed to do was sit it out, really. I was very lucky. There are almost no hotels in Libya, but I got ill at a big tourist site, Leptis Magna, which is a world heritage site. So, there were some hotels near there."

Re-acclimatisation to everyday life doesn’t seem to have been a problem, and Vin still finds himself quite bemused by the idea that he's the holder of a world record – something he feels that, as a nation, Great Britain has a particular affinity with. "It’s surreal," he says. "The Sunday Times phoned me up a couple of weeks ago and they were asking why I think it’s a British record. All the people who've held it have been Brits, and most of the riders who are going to do this race I’m organizing are Brits too. So they asked why I thought that was the case.

"I think Brits like world records because we were all brought up with Record Breakers on the telly. It still doesn’t feel quite right for me to say that I hold that. Perhaps when I no longer hold it, I’ll feel a bit more natural about it. I know I’ve got to shout about it a bit, to open doors to get sponsors for my race, but there’s a part of me that shies away from it – it doesn’t feel like me."

The ‘race’ Vin nonchalantly mentions is an epic plan to persuade anyone wanting to tackle the round-the-world challenge in 2012 to start it at the same time, from the same point. "Aside from my normal IT work, the other thing I’ve had fun doing is cycle events," he says. "I’ve organized cyclo-cross races to put something back into the sport. I’m friends with Pat Adams, who's organised Mountain Mayhem, and I’ve helped out at those races for a long time as well.

Vin hopes to inspire others to follow in his tyre tracks with his Race Around The World

"I’ve seen that far from being embarrassing that somebody takes money out of the sport, if somebody professionally organises an event on such a grand scale, where they're creating publicity and getting sponsors into the sport, then that’s a very constructive thing to do. If I can turn this into a job, or just make a little bit of money on the side from it – enough to make it worth committing some good time to creating something big – that would be great.

"It seems to be going well at the moment. People are very enthusiastic and interested in it as a new concept – the ultimate biggest race you could have. It’s mainly Brits – probably half the riders who've expressed an interest are Brits. There are also a couple of Australians and a Spanish guy. There are about 20 interested at the moment. I thought half a dozen people would be fine, but this is absolutely brilliant.

"It’s almost all from recommendation and word of mouth at the moment, it hasn’t even been properly launched yet as an event. There’s no website yet, it’s just growing and generating interest as a concept. I've set a start date – I worked out that if my record is going to fall in an organised race around the world, I’d like it to fall in London, just before the Olympics start, so I worked back 160 days from that and the start will be on 18 February."

Vin’s other plans for the future include a ride from Lhasa to Kathmandu, the Great Divide Mountain Bike race, a visit to the Andes to tackle the section he had to miss out of his RTW route and a host of more unusual rides around the UK. There’s also a book in the pipeline, which should be out by the end of 2011, all going according to plan.

Would he do it all again, to try to break his own record? Perhaps with a support team this time? "Oh God, that would be horrible!" he says. "Having somebody behind me, like those Race Across America guys, with loudspeakers shouting at them all the time. I’d be a mindless robot suffering for all those months, rather than somebody in control of their own destiny. No, that would be awful for me.

"To beat my own record, the main thing I’d have to do would be to either ride a faster bike and/or take an easier, faster route, but it then becomes less interesting. I deliberately took a route that I could break the record on but that would be interesting. I do think that gradually people will have to choose less interesting routes."

A recent remark by Vin on Twitter sums up his positivity about his ride around the world, his enthusiasm for the Race Around The World concept and his hopes for a more peaceful world around which to ride: "I'll celebrate when eventually my circumnavigation record is beaten. It will signal that the world again has a safe path around it."

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