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80 days

Soigneur Tekst Soigneur Gepubliceerd 07 March 2018

Mark Beaumont will be settling bets for the foreseeable future. Guinness confirms it. At 78 days, 14 hours, and 40 minutes, he’s set the record for the fastest circumnavigation of the world by bicycle ever. That’s his prize. “My Everest,” he says.

Beaumont’s journey was inspired by that of another British gentleman, Mr. Phileas Fogg Esq. of London, who travelled around the world in 80 days to win a bet in Jules Verne’s 1873 book. “The old world record was 123 days, and initially I thought that going under 100 days would be very fast, and then I started to think, Is it possible to go around the world in 80 days? It’s a one-time prize, you know, a big milestone. Anywhere around the world people know the story of Around the World in Eighty Days. And even if they don’t know the original story of Phileas Fogg, they know the Disney version. If it was possible, I thought that’s what we should go for,” he says.

He reckoned it was possible, but only barely. To meet Guinness’ standard, he’d have to ride 29,000 kilometres in the same direction and pass through two antipodal points. Flights across the oceans were allowed. The clock would never stop though. And the facts were daunting. To ride around the world in 80 days, he would have to cover, on average, a little more than 380 kilometres per day. Still, “a properly used minimum is enough for anything,” as Phileas Fogg says. There was no margin for error, no time to waste. The unforeseen could not exist.

So, for two years, Beaumont set about preparing. He’d ridden around the world before, but never at such a pace. Ten years earlier, he’d set out from Paris and broken the around-the-world record, carrying all his own gear and riding 160 kilometres per day. His time of 194 days stood for a while, and the BBC made a successful documentary about his trip. That inspired competitors however, and his record was soon broken several times over. Beaumont, in the meantime, was off doing other things.

What I kind of felt was that there was always a compromise between the adventure and performance

He joined a team that tried to row across the Atlantic in 30 days, and had to be rescued 27 days in. He rode from Alaska to Chile, with stops to climb Aconcagua and McKinley. He made documentaries and worked in television, did some mountaineering and other cycling trips. Something was missing though.

“As I’d carried on my career as an athlete, what I kind of felt was that there was always a compromise between the adventure and performance. On the adventure side, you’re trying to find a safe place to sleep every night, you’re trying to find your next meal, and, you know, you’re just trying to get by, whereas the performance side is about how fast you can go, purely your physical ability as a bike rider,” he says.

Beaumont became more and more interested in going faster. In 2015, he broke the record for cycling the length of Africa, time trialling from Cairo to Cape Town with as little gear as he could. “I’d gone from basically touring cycling to adventure racing — bike packing, carrying minimal kit, really going as fast as possible — and that was as fast as I think I could go unsupported,” he says, which sparked a new dream.

“I kind of felt like the biggest prize, you know, my Everest, my biggest dream as a bike rider, would be to go back to attempt the circumnavigation of the world, but this time to go fully supported, so it wasn’t about the wild man, the adventure; it was purely about performance. How fast can you go? And that’s what I spent the last two years doing,” he says.

It took a huge amount of research to figure out the fastest route around the world.

First, he had to raise half a million pounds and hire the 40 people who would be involved in the project. “It was a completely professional expedition. We did not start from Paris and just go, let’s see how fast we can go. There was no finding out on the road what was possible. Everything was decided before the start. And when we were on the road, it was just a case of ticking off the plan. We had the entire 29,000 kilometres broken into four-hour sections,” Beaumont says.

The route had to be chosen. All options were open, so long as Guinness’ criteria were met. Mountains and hills were to be avoided, wind patterns and road quality considered. The weather, the ease of crossing borders and catching flights — all were factors that would determine Beaumont’s overall speed. “It took a huge amount of research to figure out the fastest route around the world,” he says.

His choice of equipment was also crucial. “It took about a year to build the dream machine, to make all the choices, test things, and make sure that it was as fast and comfortable as possible. The bike is not like a Tour de France bike. You need a bike that you can sit comfortably on for 16 hours every day,” Beaumont says. During his first around-the-world journey, he had ridden a Koga and has been working with the company ever since. “I know the guys at the factory pretty well, and they put a huge amount of time and effort into building the bike. Even though Koga is not the world’s largest bike manufacturer, I love the fact that they do everything bespoke and I have a relationship with them. All the world records have been on a Koga bike, and I’m really proud of that history,” Beaumont says. “The geometry of the bike was really important — having a slightly higher front end, having multiple hand positions with the aero bars and the shape of the drops. And everything needed testing. We tried several different bike set-ups before we actually made the final choices, before they actually made the final seven frames for the world. We didn’t need all seven, but they were all completely custom made,” he says.

Beaumont’s body also needed testing. His training regime was as meticulous as the rest of the scheme. “My biggest worry, like anyone involved in ultra endurance, is not getting injured. It’s about having a body that’s so well-conditioned that you’re just never going to get a repetitive strain injury,” he says. “You’ve gotta train through the range. That’s the mistake that a lot of endurance riders make is that they just sit at that low-level tempo riding for huge hours, and it’s not the best way to train. I’m on the velodrome. I’m doing the intensity, the pyramids, the intervals, but I’m also doing the long rides. It’s about having that all-round strength and the ability to never get injured,” he says.

Still, as Beaumont’s 18-month training programme was coming to a close, he wasn’t certain that his goal was within reach. So, he took on a 5,600-plus-kilometre ride around Britain with his full entourage to make sure he could handle the pace. If he could do it for two weeks around Britain, he could do it for two-and-a-half months around the world, he thought.

The alarm would go off at 3:30 every morning. He’d be on the bike at four and would ride for four hours, and then be allowed a half-hour rest. Then, he’d ride for another four hours and take another half-hour rest. Then, he’d have four more hours on the bike, a half-hour rest, and four more hours of riding again. That was the schedule. He would be on the bike for 16 hours every day, no matter what. His performance manager and chef, who’d be following him on the road, would make sure he had the 9,000 calories a day he needed to keep going — mostly ordinary food with plenty of fat. His team would manage the logistics and the media and keep his body and bike in good working order. Each night, he had five hours set aside for sleep. If he stuck to the plan, he had to trust that he’d cover the distance.

Around Britain, the team worked like a well-oiled machine. The plan was flawless. It was time to take on the globe with it, to ride around the world in 80 days.

But while steamships and trains and carriages and yachts and cargo vessels and sleds and even elephants might allow a character such as Phileas Fogg to maintain his aloofness, his famous debonair detachment, on a bicycle, there’s no storing yourself away in the perfection of plans.

“It hurt. It hurt like hell,” Beaumont says.

Nine days after leaving Paris, Beaumont crashed. It was just east of Moscow. It was early in the morning. It was still dark, and it was wet. He smashed his front teeth on the ground and fractured his elbow.

He kept going.

Imagine riding 16 hours per day, day after day, over the rough roads of rural Russia with broken teeth and a broken elbow. Imagine it. Think past the numbers and words for a moment to what that must have felt like, and then remember that it lasted for weeks on end. It is not impossible.

For Mark Beaumont’s journey goes beyond a line on a map. It’s about more than the 29,020 kilometres he eventually covered, and his 78 day-14 hours-and-40-minutes Guinness World Record.

For those 78 days, he rode through every sunrise and sunset, fell in love with the Gobi Desert and the Mongolian steppe, froze in the beautiful snow-capped mountains on the South Island of New Zealand, and battled headwinds and a lack of sleep on the Canadian Prairies, heat and dehydration in the Pyrenees. He rode with hundreds and hundreds of people, through 14 countries, but mostly he rode alone. The pain was all his.

Perhaps the dichotomy Beaumont’s drawn between performance and adventure is a false one. Although he was focused on speed much of the time, and surely suffered as no one on a bike has ever suffered before, Mark Beaumont truly saw the world, its landscapes flowing continuously past his front wheel. And he truly saw what, with determination, a man can be made of. That too is adventure.

On a bike, “you get to see all of it and a lot of detail,” Beaumont says. He saw what we can only imagine.

78 days, 14 hours, and 40 minutes is the record.

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If you liked this story consider purchasing Soigneur Cycling Journal 18 where it was first printed.

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