In an extraordinary way, Mark Beaumont’s job has been easy. He just sits on a bike for 16 hours a day and hopes that his immense fitness and fortitude keep him on record pace. To cycle around the world in 80 days, as is Beaumont’s mission, that means riding an average daily distance of 240 miles. Imagine pedalling from London to Brighton, then straight back again — and doing the same again after lunch. You would still have about 20 miles to go.
I spoke to Beaumont this week as he rode through Alberta in Canada during the North American stage of his ride, from Anchorage in Alaska to Halifax, Canada. Regular readers will be familiar with the journey, which began in Paris on July 2. Since then, the Scottish adventurer has crossed Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand.
He is still on course to shatter the world record for a global circumnavigation by bike, which stands at 123 days (contenders must ride at least 18,000 miles through two points on opposite sides of the world, starting and finishing in the same place; the route is up to them).
“The only thing I can control is my time on the bike,” Beaumont said into a phone headset on Monday — day 58. Cruising at 17mph, and speaking no more breathlessly than a supermarket shopper, he was protecting a buffer of a few hours that he had built up in the face of winds, crashes and extreme fatigue. “I’m never going to get off my bike because of wind or a hill, so as long as I can say I’ve ridden 16 hours, I have to trust that the average will take care of itself.”
But to keep an attempt as ambitious as this on the road, matching the 80-day mark made famous by Jules Verne’s novel, Beaumont, 34, has required the support of someone who knows what it means to dig deeper than a South African gold mine. Laura Penhaul spent nine months last year leading the first all-female team to row across the Pacific Ocean. The former head physiotherapist for Britain’s Paralympic team is now Beaumont’s performance manager.
“It’s amazing to watch what he’s doing and what he’s pushing himself through,” Penhaul, 33, said from Beaumont’s camper van, which follows him and serves as his home for up to five hours of sleep each night. One of Penhaul’s tasks is to stop Beaumont falling asleep on the job. “We’ll pull up alongside and give him a coffee or cold flannel,” she said. “Mouthwash also seems to work, or we’ll talk to him via his headset. But he knows when that slow blink starts and we’ll get him in for a 10-minute cat-nap if he needs it.”
The psychological toll has been significant — even for a man who cycled around the world solo in 194 days in 2008. “He has his own ways to get himself out of dark headspaces, but for me it’s more about being empathetic . . . while also not getting drawn into that state,” added Penhaul, who had to act as an emergency dentist after Beaumont crashed in Russia. The team then survived a crash that wrote off the camper van in Australia. But Beaumont says that his greatest nemesis has been the wind.
“If a headwind drops my average speed by 5km per hour, I’m putting down more power to go slower,” he explained. “Multiply that by 16 hours in a day and the losses can be huge. I can wake up and step out of the camper van at 4am knowing that I’m going to spend the entire day until 10pm limiting damage.” The day after we spoke, as Beaumont crossed from Alberta into Saskatchewan, a wicked easterly cut 50 miles from his daily target despite a 17½-hour ride. Weather forecasts suggested that night that the wind would stay strong for much of the week.
Beaumont’s route across North America dips into North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin as he navigates the Great Lakes. He will cross back into Canada on his way to Halifax, from where he will fly to Lisbon for the mountainous push back to Paris. Support has grown along the way, by the roadside and online. His daily videos have gained thousands of views on YouTube, generally revealing a man battling exhaustion, rarely smiling below hollow eyes. Is he, you know, having fun? “Am I having fun?” Beaumont said, thinking for a few pedal strokes. “I think I’m in too deep to answer that. There’s been a huge amount of satisfaction in covering the miles and some epic landscapes, but this is what I call type-two fun — the miserable kind you look back on fondly. I’m not really out here to have fun but to figure what’s possible.”
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