Interview: Mark Beaumont
By Marcus Farley | Friday, October 3, 2008 11.56pm
Earlier this year, Scotsman Mark Beaumont became the fastest man to cycle around the world, clocking an impressive time of 194 days and 17 hours.
A film of his journey was commissioned by the BBC and his story was picked up along the way by news agencies across the globe. Mark talks to BikeRadar about his preparation, coping with the loneliness of the journey and his new found fame.
Taste for adventure
Mark has been involved in adventure cycling since he was 12 years old. After completing a degree in economics and politics, he decided that a city job could wait and went for broke with the biggest adventure he could dream of.
“The world record for cycling around the world wasn’t particularly competitive and I knew from the outset that I could break it with the right preparation and backing,” he says. “I love the mental challenge of ultra endurance sports and wanted to push my comfort zones.”
Mark set a target of 195 days to cycle 18,000 miles – 100 miles a day with a day off every fortnight. Yet in training for this, he never did a single 100-mile training session.
High intensity approach
There was a method to his apparent madness. “I trained for 13 months after university, which included a lot of cross training –cycling, fell running and circuits, for example,” he says. “It was vital to get all the small muscle balances instead of doing long hours on the bike, which would promote tendonitis and other repetitive strain injuries that I’ve had before. All the training was at a much higher intensity, but for a shorter time than my daily routine while on the road.”
The final stage of his preparation was one that he no doubt enjoyed the most: “The last step was to put on a lot of weight before the start, so I had reserves!”
Mark’s 13 months of testing and training were also spent trying to organise the necessary sponsorship and media coverage, not to mention all the logistics of route setting, securing visas, sourcing kit and finding a global network of support that could be called on if needed.
Weapon of choice
Since taking on the world, Mark has been sponsored by Koga Miyata and he made his global journey on a custom-built Signature. “It was a big, 63cm aluminium frame and I rode 700cc wheels on a Rohloff 14-speed hub with a Smitz front hub dynamo,” he says. “Out front, I rode butterfly bars on a 110mm stem for a more stretched position for the big flats. It was an incredibly comfortable and reliable setup. I also rode a SMP Pro saddle, which looks very alternative with its eagle beak and big split, but proved amazing for the big miles.”
Mark was unsupported en route, so he carried all his own kit, fitting it into a standard five-pannier setup that included GPS Iridium tracking, film kit, laptop, clothes, camping gear and food.
“I changed a back tyre every 2,000 miles and a front tyre every 3,500 miles,” he explains. “The Rohloff was superb throughout and took less than 1,000 miles to run in smoothly, so I only used three chains throughout and had one oil change. It was incredibly low maintenance – I wouldn’t go back to a derailleur setup for long tours. The only big challenge I had was with broken wheels and that was caused by a mistake with the initial set up where the spokes were over-tensioned.”
Keeping spirits up
Mark was kept company by psychadelic trucks in Pakistan
Mark had few luxuries to keep himself going on the 195-day trip. Having no time to read books, or the capacity to carry them, his only entertainment was a small iPod and a few photos of his family on his laptop.
He also kept in touch with the people back in Scotland: “I spoke to home almost every day where Mum was running base camp, so I was always up to date with family and friends. I insisted that no one meet me on the road though, because that would have taken my focus off the race.”
Being part of the fabric of the country he was cycling through helped to keep Mark’s spirits high, particularly on his journey through India. “There was a big Hindu festival in every town,” he recalls, “and I couldn’t get used to how beautiful, flamboyant and colourful everyone looked as they danced. Their enthusiasm and delight were overpowering and kept me smiling right through to the next village, where it then happened all over again. It really brought the country alive for me and I felt honoured and privileged to have witnessed it.”
Mark’s spirits were also raised by random acts of kindness from total strangers. “It’s a cliché,” he admits, “but the poorer the place was, the more people gave. Despite racing and almost never being in the same place for more than a night, my greatest memories of the whole world cycle are of the people I met along the road.”
There’s one scene in the documentary that encapsulates that spirit of generosity. In it, a shattered and dejected looking Mark explains that the landlady in the New Zealand motel he checked into on Christmas day has told him that the nearest food shop is 10km backwards on his journey. But his face brightens when he recounts how, having seen upset he was, the landlady offered him the leftovers from her family’s Christmas dinner.
Mark is keen to point out that the kindness we see in the documentary is just the tip of the iceberg. “It’s important to be aware that, although it’s an amazing portrait of my journey, it’s just two hours long and only includes a few of the stories I managed to film. Inevitably, the most spontaneous and, in many cases, the most interesting meetings and conversations happened when I couldn’t film. I’m now writing those events up as part of the book of my journey.”
Nevertheless, breaking the record was not without its setbacks and not everyone Mark met was so friendly. The most frightening moment for him was being threatened and mugged by a group of drugged up youths in Lafayette, Louisiana. “My BBC camera and money was taken and, to make matters worse, it coincided with the day that I’d been run over by a car. I was left pretty shaken up.”
There’s a scene in the BBC documentary where Mark crosses the Australian Outback via the Nullarbor Plain: a 1200km stretch of desert that runs from Norseman to Ceduna without a single house along the way and only a handful of petrol stations. It’s gruelling enough to watch, let alone ride.
His only travelling companions were the scary looking spiders that invited themselves into his tent at night and the occasional monster Aussie juggernaut that would pound the road alongside him, kicking up clouds of dust.
Mark found that the success of conquering these long stretches lay in shifting his mental perspective – a trick he’d learned from previous, smaller expeditions. “The success of any ultra endurance expedition is the optimisation of each day – a completely focused and immediate view of the world,” he explains.
“When it got tough, you set a target as short as you need to keep you going. It isn’t bloody mindedness, it’s just a mental game and a logical, critical evaluation of the factors that you have control over. There’s no point in distracting yourself with anything else – just watch your input of sleep, food, and hydration and monitor your heart rate.”
Impressing the BBC
Mark secured the BBC documentary through sheer enthusiasm and hard work: “I had no idea how documentaries were made, so I just walked into the BBC in Glasgow and met a director who a friend had recommended. They eventually bought into my dream and I was introduced to a producer who commissioned a half hour documentary for BBC Scotland.”
The majority of the documentary footage was shot by Mark, following tutorials that the director gave him before he left, with an additional 3 days of filming by the BBC team in Istanbul, Lahore, Perth and Texas.
Back in Scotland, the BBC were so impressed by the footage that Mark delivered, as well as his achievement of the world record, that they extended the coverage and profile. “The final programme was a four-part series shown on BBC One to an audience of three million people! It was an amazing success for everyone involved and I’ve made some great friends within the BBC along the way.”
Fame and fortune
Many people have succeeded in cycling solo round the world, but few have become so well known. Mark himself admits he’s been surprised by how his profile has risen, but says he’s gained more than just fame.
“Life has changed immeasurably. Two years ago I was a student working in a bar, a year ago I was flat broke and training, now I am trying to keep my head above water in the flood of opportunities that have come along. I love it, but sometimes wish there was more time to appreciate everything that’s going on!”
“I’m grateful for how it’ll let me continue a career in expedition and documentaries,” he says, “but the most positive outcome has been how much the charities I rode for have benefited in terms of raising both awareness and money."
Mark has also starred in an Orange mobile phone advert. Like most cyclists who saw the ad, I was curious to know more about the ‘heavy’ bicycle that was given to him as a youngster by his grandfather and cherished so much.
“It was a Peugeot mountain bike,” says Mark. “I was probably about eight years old and it was a simple steel bike with 15 SIS gears. I thought it was amazing and rode it all the time. Unfortunately, I no longer have it – I accidentally left it on the farm my family left when I was 16.”
Zen of travel
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Despite his extraordinary feat, Mark doesn’t feel a particularly deep or profound connection to riding. “I love travelling at the speed of a bike, but I’ve never been a techie bike guy, ridden religiously or followed competitive cycling,” he admits. “The bike was simply the mode of transport for this journey.”
He is more interested “...in the journey and the mental endurance that allows you to push new limits. That’s why I’m hanging up my pedals and picking up oars for my next challenge. Next June, I’m attempting to break a record that’s stood for over 100 years. As part of a team of 12, I’m taking on the North Atlantic rowing world record, which stands at 55 days for the 3300 miles from New York to Falmouth.”
In keeping with his preparation for the world record bike attempt, he might not lift an oar while training for this new challenge – although he might cycle the odd 100 miles a day in preparation instead.
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