Mark Beaumont has ridden around the world on a bike before – but this time, he’s aiming to do it in an astonishing 80 days or less. MF meets a man who knows exactly where he’s going
At this point in the 21st century, most records are broken by tiny increments. This isn’t surprising: the easy gains are gone, training theory is (fairly) well understood, and technology and marginal gains can only do so much. And while cycling around the world hasn’t had any photo finishes (yet), it’s still a hotly contested event. Since Mark Beaumont first tackled the distance for time in 2008, the record has dropped from 194 days to an official 123, with a couple of efforts in the lower 100s either disqualified or unratified by Guinness.
It’s an unforgiving challenge, relying on everything from the weather to border crossings going right – and that’s before you get to the logistics of cycling hundreds of kilometres a day without your body breaking down. So how fast does Beaumont think he can do it now? Well… everyone remembers Phileas Fogg, right?
To be clear, Beaumont’s basing his record effort on more than a classic Jules Verne novel. After climbing mountains, rowing the Atlantic and a stint as a TV presenter during the 2014 Commonwealth Games – he followed the baton relay around the globe – the 34-year-old Scotsman started to plan a new challenge.
“For a recently retired athlete whose job it is to listen to young athletes talking about training to be their very best… well, it’s kind of a mixed dose of inspiration and jealousy,” he explains. “I just couldn’t remove myself from that passion that they had in that journey they were on. I sat down with my team and my family and said ‘Look, I’m not done yet.’ At 34, as an endurance athlete, I’m probably in my physical and mental prime. I can always come back to being a TV presenter in ten years.”
With his sights set on the world, in 2015 he set off on his first training ride: along the 10,812km route from Cairo to Cape Town. “It was always about the world,” says Beaumont. “Everything else is small talk. I mean, there’s lots of other amazing bike rides you can do, but the circumnavigation is the ultimate. Cairo to Cape Town is quite neatly a third of the world in terms of distance, and I took 18 days off that record, so…”
Multiplying that by three, he was pretty sure he could have a crack at the current world record. “In Africa I was riding fully unsupported, so I was food rationing, water rationing, finding a safe place to sleep… That’s when I started to build the confidence.”
MAN WITH THE PLAN
That’s when Beaumont started testing the waters. “About 18 months ago I set on this idea, this hypothesis, that maybe you could do it in 80 days,” he says. “Then a year ago we turned that hypothesis into a plan. If you’ve got the right team working at the right intensity, all the logistics in place and the ability to mentally hack it, yeah, you can do it. It’d be 75 days of riding, 220 miles [354km] a day, five days for flights and a small margin of contingency.” Beaumont has changed his original route slightly to make border logistics easier (he’s skipping Afghanistan’s Helmand province in favour of going north of the Himalayas, for instance), but he’ll still need to cycle around 29,000km
and go through two points on opposite sides of the globe – currently, Madrid and Auckland are the plan.
So why 80 days specifically? “Well, there was some discussion about, you know, why not just announce you’re going for the record and then surprise everyone by absolutely blowing it out the water. And I said, ‘That’s not good enough’. You never do that much better than you set out to – you’re not going to try to break the 123 days record and accidentally smash it by 40 days. So you’ve got to be very, very clear on day one what you’re trying to do. And we’re absolutely focused on what it takes to do what we believe is possible.”
“We” includes a team of half a dozen set to make the trip with Beaumont, including drivers, chefs and logistics co-ordinators. Half will go ahead in a support car, taking care of accommodation and border crossings – some countries shut down their checkpoints outside of office hours. The rest will drive in an RV alongside Beaumont, helping him fuel and recover as he goes.
“It was always about the world. There’s lots of other amazing bike rides you can do, but the circumnavigation is the ultimate”
“I’m used to being out there on my own, on these wildman-style adventures,” says Beaumont. “But this time I’m really focused on performing, not worrying about where my next meal is, finding clean water or where I’m going to sleep. The amazing team we’ve put together aren’t just technically good at their jobs – they’re people with resilience and tenacity. You can’t just be a good physio, you need to be somebody who’s been on expeditions and knows what it’s like – a month and a half in when you’re sleep-deprived and stressed, can you still think clearly? So, yeah, I’ve got a great team.”
Performance manager Laura Penhaul knows a thing or two about stressful endurance efforts herself: in 2015, she and three other women rowed the Pacific from the US to Australia, setting two world records. In the run-up to the attempt, she’s bringing Beaumont up to date on training theory, among other things.
“One of the biggest changes we’ve made is that Mark’s just used to doing sheer massive volume on the bike,” says Penhaul. “He’s not used to doing Wattbike sessions and high-intensity stuff to undulate his programme. Lesley Ingram, his physiologist, and I sort out his diary and work out his commitments, then we do three weeks of building and one week of adaptation – which is a better way of putting it than “rest”. If you do high volume, you need a period for adaptation to take place, or you’re getting worse, not better.”
Beaumont is also including strength and conditioning in his cycle training plan for the first time, focusing on teaching his body to work as a unit. “We’re working on hip mobility, thoracic mobility, neck strength,” says Penhaul. “What we call anti-rotational work really helps on the bike, building isometric trunk stiffness. Mark does a move where he has his legs fixed to a bench and has to hold the rest of his body horizontal with his core muscles, for a couple of minutes at a time. If you just do arms and legs and there’s nothing connecting them, you’re not getting the most from it.”
Beaumont’s world-conquering riding plan, which calls for 16 saddle-hours a day in four-hour blocks, doesn’t leave a lot of room for eating or recuperation, so things are going to get micromanaged. His schedule includes ten-minute catnap/meditation breaks to relieve the mental pressure, and he’ll wear custom-fitted, medical-grade compression gear to reduce DOMS and stop blood pooling in his arms as he rests on his
tri bars. During his one daily off-the-bike meal, he’ll use electrical muscle stimulation while he eats to cut down on recovery time. Most of the time, he’ll be fuelling on the go.
“We’re aiming for 8,000 calories a day,” says Penhaul. “It’s a balance between what you can stomach and what the body needs. We’ll be monitoring him to make sure he’s not losing significant weight. Historically he doesn’t lose a huge amount, but his previous fuelling was a massive breakfast, ride and ride and ride, gorge at night and do the same again – for performance that’s not adequate. He’ll be waking up at 3.30 in the morning, having some beetroot juice and some rehydration fluids, then fuelling every 90 minutes throughout the day – bars or a wrap or a smoothie, whatever he can tolerate.”
Elsewhere, the team will be using the same “marginal gains” approach that’s paid dividends for Team Sky. The whole team will be using hand gels and bug sprays to reduce the risk of ride-ruining infection, and everyone’s on a similar supplement regime to keep them sharp. Mark’s saliva will be monitored for shifts in immunoglobulin and amylase, and even his bone density will be monitored. Cycling might be exercise, but in impact terms it’s a notch down from being in space – or rowing the Pacific. “We lost around 10% bone density during that timeframe,” says Penhaul. “To some extent it’s the same on a bike.” This is part of the reason Beaumont’s mixing training rides with running: it all helps redress imbalances from hours spent in the saddle.
To most people, Beaumont’s upcoming venture looks like a cross between a military campaign and the Tour de France. Every detail is accounted for, with little left for the man himself to do but put his head down and ride. Still, with any huge undertaking like this, the tiniest detail – a niggle in riding position, a bout of flu, an overzealous border guard – can make a difference. So what happens if… “If I come home in 81 days?” he asks. “Well, I’ll still have obliterated the world record by about 45 days. But as I say, this is about success on our terms.”
Beaumont genuinely has no interest in beating others – that’s not why he’s doing this. “I’ve got the utmost respect for everyone else who’s gone for this record over the years. It’s unbelievable, the leaps in performance in the past decade. I’ve never been a competitive athlete so far as I have never entered a race and gone shoulder to shoulder with anyone – but you know since I was a teenager I’ve always been interested in performance. I’ve always wanted to push myself and figure out what I’m capable of.”
What’s different now is that he’s not prepared to take huge risks to do that. “Some of the things I’ve done in the past – the ocean rowing, the high-altitude mountaineering – while statistically they’re quite safe sports, when things do go wrong they tend to go very wrong. I’ve now got a wife and two wee girls at home, and my interest at this point in my career is to push myself and figure out what the limits are, to reset people’s expectations in terms of what you can do on a bike.”
Beaumont sets off on his world record attempt from Paris on 2nd July, so he needs to be back on 20th September at the latest. And if he does it? “Within the cycling world I think it’ll be a significant milestone in pain endurance,” Beaumont says. “As a wider story, though, I’d love for people to reflect on what their 80 days is. What ambition do you have? What dream can you work towards? What does that look like? I want to go around the world in 80 days because I would love for people to follow this journey – enjoy it, learn about the world and think, ‘Well, what would that look like in my world?’ It’s unlikely to be on a bike, but ‘That was my 80 days’ would be a wonderful legacy from this project.”
“My interest is to push myself and figure out what the limits are, to reset people’s expectations of what you can do on a bike”