Almost four years ago to the day, a Scottish adventurer was on the verge of shattering what was then a little known record – the fastest circumnavigation of the Earth by bicycle. Mark Beaumont’s time of 194 days and 17 hours broke the previous benchmark by a whopping 82 days, setting a credible benchmark and dangling a carrot in front of motivated, endurance-hungry cyclists the world over.
While his achievement was impressive, it was a record Beaumont himself reckoned could easily be topped. Perhaps this is what James Bowthorpe thought prior to his unratified effort of 175 days in 2009, or Julian Sayerer and Vin Cox, who would both break the record the following year just months apart of each other. Cox, who rolled into London just over 163 days after he’d left in early 2010, held the record until the turn of this year, when Guinness World Records (GWR) finally awarded the accolade to Alan Bate. His stunning time of 106 days, 10hrs and 33mins was achieved with the partial help of a support crew, and with GWR either unwilling or unable to distinguish between what’s supported and what’s not, he’s now considered the man to beat.
It is Cox’s time, though, which is the primary focus for many of the ten competitors in this month’s inaugural World Cycle Racing Grand Tour(WCR). The Englishman is the last person to break the record independently, lugging all his own equipment across the 18,000 miles that Guinness decree to be “round the world”, and is the time most are targeting.
Mark Beaumont's BBC documentary and subsequent book 'The Man Who Cycled the World' planted a seed in the minds of many of the WCR competitors
In its earliest guise, the tour was known as the Global Bicycle Race and was the brainchild of Cox himself. Unveiling the idea to the world last September, his vision was for a group of record chasers to depart at the same time and place in London. He wanted it to be an event where progress could be tracked in real time on the internet, an actual race rather than a group of disparate cyclists undertaking an attempt individually on their own terms. "Sport is heading for the extremes and I just asked myself 'where does that lead in the end?'" he told BikeRadar. "I wanted to encourage and inspire that progress to the extremes of cycling."
Some may wonder what makes the holder of a record actively encourage others to try and break it, but he was never one of them. “I knew it was going to happen with or without my help and I thought it would be better to encourage it,” he says. “I’d be able to meet like-minded people, do something good for them and help make this record a prestigious one. I see no advantage at all in being quiet and hoping the record doesn’t get attacked."
Cox’s enthusiasm for the project made it all the more surprising to learn that the GBR had been cancelled last month. While Cox couldn’t go into the details of why, from its ashes rose the World Cycle Racing Grand Tour, a race featuring the majority of riders from the original but without any input from Cox, who now serves only as a source of encouragement and advice to several riders.
It seems the new race was formed late last year by riders attached to the GBR, with one competitor telling BikeRadar this move had contributed to its demise. “Vin inspired the original race concept. However due to circumstances surrounding it, the riders had to make the decision to set-up a rider led event to ensure the dream was realised,” he said.
While these circumstances aren’t clear, another rider offers an alternate explanation. “I think he just felt he couldn’t manage the responsibility and try to accommodate everybody else’s preparations, and still remain true to his original concept."
Vin Cox: "I have to give the WCR space to do its own thing. The scene will develop and the GBR might be called back into existence if and when the world is ready for it"
While the name has changed, from an outsider’s perspective little else has. Ten riders from England, Scotland, the Isle of Man, Ireland and South Africa will depart on 18 February at 9am, appropriately from the Greenwich Meridian outside the Royal Observatory in London, though this isn’t the case for all. Some will head west, some east but all will follow the rules set by the record keepers at GWR; start and end points must be the same, travel should be continually in one direction, distance travelled should be a minimum of 18,000 miles (cycling) and 24,900 miles (total) and they must pass two opposite antipodal points. They will be tracked by satellite, with the race website www.worldcycleracing.com providing progress updates in the shape of blogs, photos and videos.
As a rider led race, throwing their hats into the ring was a daunting prospect. They’ve each spent the last year of their lives living and breathing it, so if they weren’t getting the miles in on the road, they’ve been trying to overcome the planning and logistics of a solo, round-the-world cycling odyssey – the Visas, travel tickets, accommodations, language barriers, vaccinations and equipment – often to the detriment of their fitness. The buck stops with them every step of the way, so nothing can be left to chance. “I’ve toured on my bike many times before, but this trip has completely taken over my life,” says Jason Woodhouse, a 25-year-old from Newcastle-upon-Tyne. “When I’m not working, I’m planning, and the amount of logistics has made it extremely difficult to push ahead with a training plan."
It’s a problem 30-year-old South African Sean Conway knows all too well. “The logistics are so hard to manage. I’m just glad I didn’t know half of it at the beginning otherwise I might not have started!”
Sean Conway's message for his rivals comes from Muhammad Ali: "Don't quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion"
When the idea for the race was first mooted, Cox was the record holder. His record stood for 17 months, despite Bate completing his ride just three days after he had crossed the finish line, again at Greenwich. It took Bate, who was partially supported by a crew and riding an un-laden race bike, until October of last year to submit his evidence to GWR, who verified it in early January. This change, coming so late in the day for the WCR competitors, shifted the goalposts in dramatic fashion. While some would be content to break Cox’s 163 day effort, others have risen to the bait.
Mike Hall, a 30-year-old design engineer, occasional bike tester and top ten Tour Divide finisher from Harrogate, doesn’t believe 106 days is insurmountable. “I know I can do that kind of mileage, maybe slightly more, for two or three weeks. It’s a case of how long can I keep it up. We all knew Alan’s ride had been completed and that it was always a possibility it would be validated,” he says. “But the record is the record. There’s at least one other competitor who has the right idea about what is possible on this ride and how to go about it. He hasn’t come from a racing background, or ever being a cyclist, but that doesn’t matter so much. The winner will be the guy who lives fast, not necessarily the one who rides fast.”
Mike Hall: "People say getting to the start line is the hardest part - they're not wrong!"
Hall is perhaps referring to Conway, who is looking to the past for his inspiration. “It’s going to be tough, but yes it’s doable. Just look at some of the pioneers, Tommy Godwin cycled 75,000 miles in a year in 1939. That’s 200 miles per day for a lot longer than 106 days. Alan has pushed the bar back to where it was 70 years ago, and with better bikes surely we’ll be able to push ourselves further."
That’s all well and good, but Cox warns such mileage will come at a physical – and mental – cost. “I was possibly the last person to enjoy breaking the record, or take a route designed to interest and challenge, but Alan has shown the way forward,” he says. “Around the World in 80 days a la Jules Verne is going to be the equivalent of our four minute mile and it’ll be the target from now on."
Given the help he received, Bate had hoped his record would be acknowledged as a supported attempt, but some have sympathy with GWR over the difficulties in distinguishing between what counts as assistance and what doesn’t. “If you were to meet some friendly chap and they ride with you for a few days, does that slipstream count as being supported? Does staying with friends, meaning you don’t have to worry about lodgings, count? I think they’re in an awkward position,” says 21-year-old student Stuart Lansdale, the youngest in the competition. Others, including Cambridgeshire policeman Stephen Phillips, will be writing to GWR asking that the true circumnavigation record be recognised as an unsupported ride – should he win, that is.
Stuart Lansdale: "It's the opportunity to do a whistle stop tour of the world at a speed which isn't too fast to miss everything you pass through"
Whatever the approach, they’re all taking on the challenge of a lifetime and nobody is under any illusions to the contrary. “I’ve trained harder than I ever have in my life, almost enough to think of myself as a proper athlete,” confesses Hall. While he gave up his job to dedicate his efforts to the record attempt, others including Lansdale and Phillips have had to fit weekly mileages of up to 500 miles around studying, jobs and family life. Off the bike planning has been equally, if not more, challenging. “My life has become one big Excel spreadsheet,” laments Lansdale.
Even elementary decisions, such as whether to head east or west, can have huge ramifications and with a 50:50 split on the issue, it seems they all have radically different game plans. While Woodhouse will be riding against the wind towards America (he expects to hit snow in a chilly Pennsylvania by March), he’s hoping this long game pays off with eventual longer days and warmer weather. Others, such as Lansdale, will be heading east on a more interesting, and potentially more challenging route through Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan.
Conway believes it’s important to be creative in the route choice, and not just cycle 18,000 miles in a zig-zag fashion across America and Australia. “We were given rules and it’s up to us to interpret them,” he says. “But I think it’s important to inspire future adventurers, and riding through all the major continents, cycling around the world in the true sense of the word, is important.”
Jason Woodhouse: "I have no doubt I'll wind up crying at the road side more than once. It's the most demanding test I will have ever put my body through"
Others have a different approach to preparation. While he's put the miles in on the road, studied the countries he'll pass through and taken advice from cyclists who've been in his position, 24-year-old Irishman Simon Hutchinson is in a philosophical mood, admitting his real training doesn't start until the 18th. "There's no doubt in my mind this race has the capacity to break me, but I also believe it has the power to make me a stronger person. I will experience things, good and bad, but I know I always have a home to come back to. That is what will keep me sane."
Simon Hutchinson: "My biggest challenge is also my main motivation - missing my family and friends. It will only remind me to cycle harder every day to get back to them"
Now their planning is more or less complete, all that’s left to do is get the show on the road. The race's secret Facebook page has been lively in recent weeks and has allowed them all to get to know each other, share their concerns and offer encouragement. When it all boils down, though, the innate competitive nature of anyone who puts themselves through something like this means they're keeping the important cards close to their chests. “We’re a cagey bunch,” admits Phillips. “And we like to keep as much of our own preparation to ourselves. Some of the louder ones have been sharing their preparations, but it’s just mind games if you ask me."
Stephen Phillips: "My message to the others is this: there's no need to watch your backs, because I'll be ahead of you"
It will no doubt be the toughest, gruelling and at times torturous adventure they have ever, and perhaps will ever, experience. Win or lose, new record or not, it will be something they'll carry with them for the rest of their days. Hall puts it best: "There are 10 people setting out to do something amazing. There will only be one winner but there will be 10 different stories to tell. Charities will benefit, friends will be made and dreams will be realised. Most people will never get to the starting line of something like this, let alone finish. It'll be an honour to share it with them."
The World Cycle Racing Grand Tour begins at 9am on Saturday 18 February at the Greenwich Meridian, London. A big crowd is expected on the day, and the riders are hoping to drum up support prior to the grand departure to make it even bigger. Head over to the race website for further information.