Interview: Round-the-world cyclist James Bowthorpe
By Lara Dunn | Saturday, October 17, 2009 7.00am
On 19 September 2009, James Bowthorpe shattered Mark Beaumont’s supposedly ‘unbreakable’ world record for the fastest bicycle circumnavigation of the globe, raising the bar for future riders to an impressive 176 days.
BikeRadar spoke to the quiet former furniture maker from Balham, London about what kept him going throughout those 100-mile-plus days, his tips for maintaining focus and his plans for the future.
The round-the-world cycle record, as laid out by Guinness, consists of 18,000-plus miles in one direction, on the same bike, taking in two antipodal (ie. on diametrically opposite sides of the globe) points.
Bowthorpe set out to break this record to raise money and awareness for the charity What’s Driving Parkinson's?, for whom he had done some voluntary work.
“I was looking for something to base my fundraising on and considering all kinds of things, not necessarily to do with the bike," he said. "Then I saw that Mark Beaumont had set a new world record that was being touted as ‘unbreakable’ and I said to myself, 'that’s the thing to do'. The fundraising was always the most important thing.”
Hot on Bowthorpe's heels in a round-the-world record attempt is Julian Sayarer, currently in North America, whose website name ThisIsNotForCharity.com echoes his manifesto of a totally non-sponsored ride with no commercial interests.
It’s a strangely militant approach, yet nice guy Bowthorpe is keen to point out his support of the new contender, and says that he was sent an email early on in his attempt, saying that the name of the website was not intended as a jibe at him. It would appear it is Beaumont who is the target of Sayerer’s vitriol.
Bowthorpe is unfazed by the idea of having his record broken. “I can only break the existing record, not future ones," he said. "He’s really doing well and I hope he breaks it. Not many people put themselves out there to do this kind of thing. I wish he was fundraising for my charity, he has so much energy.”
Bowthorpe is greeted by his girlfriend Nadja Coyne after arriving in Hyde Park
It’s natural to think of round-the-world cyclists as being a breed apart – super-humans with the stamina, if not the speed, of Grand Tour riders. While that’s probably not far from the truth by the end of the journey, in the beginning Bowthorpe was an averagely fit guy who had prepared adequately and was passionately committed to the task at hand. "I was resolved from the beginning," he said. "I knew it was going to be difficult. I just did it.”
He did have considerable long distance riding experience on his side though, with past achievements including a trans-Himalayan trip with his brother, cycling around Canada and pedalling from Alaska to LA. But most of these took place about a decade ago; since then, Bowthorpe has mostly used a bike as daily transport. “I definitely came out of retirement for this one!”
Training for the ride took place mainly off the bike, with the primary focus being on strengthening the muscles he would require for 100-mile-plus days. “I didn’t do very much riding as preparation," he said. "I knew I'd be in the same position every day for 14 hours so I worked on core and back strength, forearms, wrists, fingers and neck muscles. This enabled me to put the hours in on the trip and the cycling fitness developed from there.”
Fresh faced: Leaving the UK back in March
The road is long…
In an 18,000 mile solo journey, there are bound to be ups and downs, both literal and figurative. Bowthorpe had periods of mental and physical discomfort to contend with during his epic ride, including intense heat and thirst in India and the Australian Outback, gastric problems in India and several episodes of unwanted attention, both well-meaning and not so well-meaning.
India was one of the greatest challenges. Battling severe stomach problems, Bowthorpe could barely manage breakfast and lost nearly 20 percent of his body weight, all while tackling some of the hottest and most intense riding of the trip.
“I knew that in order to carry on I had to go forward and get out of India," he said. "This meant cycling 130 miles a day on very few calories. India is quite a difficult place for rapid cycling at the best of times. Knowing that I had to go forward to get home was the thing that kept me going!
“There were hard times but I was never going to give up. Maybe if I’d been doing it for myself I’d have been more inclined to give up, but I was doing it to raise money for something I really believed in, and there were so many people supporting me and in a way relaying on me, that I couldn’t give up.”
Bowthorpe faced some of his hardest times while travelling through India
Support was something Bowthorpe was grateful for throughout, and he kept in touch with his followers by posting on social networking website Twitter. Part of the way through the ride, Lance Armstrong, 'Mr Fundraising Cyclist', mentioned Bowthorpe’s expedition to his 1.7 million ‘followers’; the result was a huge leap in Bowthorpe’s own ‘followers’.
“Twitter was really important to my morale," he said. "It was crucial for me to stay positive and Twitter is a punchy, lighthearted way of keeping people abreast of what I was doing, and it’s a fun way for me to communicate with followers.”
Rather than playing mind games to keep him going when the going got tough, Bowthorpe hunkered down and tried to maintain a positive outlook, feeling very strongly that the physical and mental exertion of his trip were inextricably linked.
His iPhone proved invaluable, allowing the all-important blog updates, and also carrying photos of loved ones and music. “Music was very important to the ride – linking me to strong memories of home and friends and family," he said.
An iPhone and other gadgets helped Bowthorpe keep in touch with life back home
The Good, the bad and the ugly
Clocking up an average of over 100 miles a day meant that there wasn’t much in the way of sightseeing time along the way, but there were still people and places who made an impact.
In Iran, Bowthorpe encountered one of the most frightening and dangerous situations of the whole trip, when he was threatened and nearly run off the road by a car full of strangers, yet this was also where he met with the greatest hospitality and human kindness.
In Turkey, he was given accommodation and fed by a father and son who ran a roadside mosque, in San Francisco a signmaker named Boon printed a flag for his bike free of charge, and in New Zealand he encountered support and enthusiasm that helped him on his way.
New Zealand was also one of the countries that most struck a chord with him. “The most amazing place I passed through was the Pacific Coast of New Zealand," he said. "I’d like to go back and spend more time appreciating New Zealand, as I passed through it in just six days 23 hours.”
Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge in California
Tools of the trade
The Santos Travelmaster Alu 2.6 that Bowthorpe rode around the world still looks good as new, showing little to suggest a circumnavigation involving deserts, dirt roads and wandering wombats.
There were some initial problems with the belt drive, due to a misalignment, which was addressed during a scheduled service in Perth, Australia, and the replacement belt is still going strong now.
“It was virtually maintenance free, which saved me a lot of time and was one fewer thing to worry about," said Bowthorpe. "Given the opportunity I’d never ride a chain drive bike again. A spare belt only weighs about 100g too.”
A cracked crank – replaced with a crank from a mechanic’s own bike- and the inevitable punctures were the only other technical issues Bowthorpe encountered: “The bike was pretty much unstoppable.”
Bowthorpe with Robbert Rutgrink, MD of Santos, who supplied him with his bike
Bowthorpe's kit list had to be pared down to the absolute minimum to allow for the fact that he was carrying everything himself, with no support. All 20kg of it went into two pairs of Ortlieb Classic panniers, including tent, sleeping bag and clothing, which he exchanged by post from time to time to make sure he always had what was required for local conditions.
Water was a big consideration and added significantly to the weight being carried, at a kilo per litre. “I had to carry all my own spares and tools but I was careful not to take too much," he said. "I opted not to take any cooking equipment – it’s heavy and I knew I wasn’t going to have time to cook anyway.
"My capacity for carrying water changed a lot. Through the Nullarbor (a huge plain in South and Western Australia) I was carrying 15 litres just in case; and crossing the Mojave (a desert in the south-west of the US) I was carrying 20 litres and using it.”
Hot and thirsty in Guadalupe, California
Surprisingly, Bowthorpe’s kit list did not include padded shorts. “I was sent my first and only pair of padded shorts in Istanbul," he said. "I didn’t use them all the time, and I didn’t get saddle sores. I put this down to good hygiene, clean underwear, Gold Bond talc and my 10-year-old Brooks saddle.
"The bike was fitted to me, which had a big part to play – I was sitting perfectly on my sit bones. That’s probably the best way to avoid saddle sores.”
Using thousands of calories each day, Bowthorpe was on a constant mission to take in enough food to sustain his progress. “My general guide was to eat as often as possible whilst not stopping too often," he said.
"I did have to resort to Mars bars and condensed milk sometimes, but I tried to eat proper meals… even if that was giant cheese sandwiches. I was relieved to get to Australia so I could start eating junk food but my favourite food was soup and dumplings in Thailand.”
Bowthorpe faced some 'Interesting' menu choices
The road ahead
So far, Bowthorpe and GlobeCycle have raised about £60,000 for charity, which is still a way off the ambitious target of £1.8 million, but he’s certainly not done yet with his fundraising; in the last week alone, the coffers have swelled by £4,000.
When asked about his plans for the future, Bowthorpe was keeping his cards firmly to his chest, although hints have been dropped about a UK challenge with TV coverage. “It’s potentially more difficult than what I’ve just done, and has never been done before," he said.
His profile has been steadily rising, with coverage in several newspapers, magazines, websites and on BBC London and Radio 2. With TV lurking in his future, the comparison has to be drawn with his media savvy precursor Mark Beaumont, who has carved a nice career for himself from his record.
Bowthorpe seems grounded in the present though, and keen to focus on his original goal. “It’s all been very exciting," he said. "Part of the point of this trip was to raise the profile of What’s Driving Parkinson's? so I’m very grateful for all these opportunities and I’m looking for more! There seem to be a few people interested. I want to carry on with fundraising for What’s Driving Parkinson's?.”
For the time being though, he’s happy spending some time with his girlfriend Nadja, has just found himself a flat in London and is enjoying more than five hours of sleep a night and getting dressed standing up rather than lying cramped in a tent.
Knowing what he does now, would he do it all again? “Yes, why not?”
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