It becomes clear that Mark Beaumont has a few miles in his legs the moment the road rises into the Pentland Hills. Sitting on the bike in front, on a cold November day on the edge of Edinburgh, the Scottish athlete ascends with the apparent ease of a man standing on an escalator (while I labour on the stairs). He waits for me as the road levels. My ribs strain the zip of a cycling jacket that appears to have shrunk since last winter.
Beaumont, who is 34, admits that he is the fittest he has ever been. And, by Beaumont standards, that’s crazily fit, the result of riding 240 miles a day, with 3am starts and 16-hour shifts in the saddle — and all with a broken elbow. Fit enough to cycle around the world in fewer than 80 days, the feat he completed in Paris late in September, shattering the world record by 44 days.
“I could have come home three days ago and I still would have broken it,” Beaumont says, more than six weeks after he returned to the Arc de Triomphe. Seventy-eight days, 14 hours and 40 minutes earlier, he had set off from the same spot on an 18,039-mile ride through 14 countries — and into unvisited regions of human endurance. “But 80 days had so much more power. It was the four-minute mile of long-distance cycling. It was also my Everest, my biggest dream as a bike rider.”
The stakes are slightly lower — and the pace slightly slower — as we take a right into the Pentlands proper, up a four-mile dead end that rises gently through green pastures, past the Glencorse and Loganlea reservoirs. When he’s in Edinburgh, Beaumont uses this hill to train. There are no cars, a luxury he rarely enjoyed as he traversed Europe, Russia, Mongolia, China, Australia, New Zealand and North America. He is riding one of his “world” bikes, a still gleaming Koga Kimera now on its 10th replacement chain. He has loaned me his identical spare bike. I ride it gingerly; in a few weeks, it will be put on display inside Edinburgh Airport.
The first time Beaumont broke the record for a global circumnavigation by bike 10 years ago, it took 194 days. Then, he rode with no support, carrying 30 kilos of gear and camping at the roadside. By the time of his second attempt, the record had fallen to 123 days. But while Guinness World Records has a long list of rules (riders must pass through two antipodal points, cover at least 18,000 miles, must not “draft” other cyclists nor stop the clock during flights over oceans), it does not distinguish between supported and unsupported rides.
For years, Beaumont had dreamt of matching the mark made famous in Jules Verne’s classic 1873 adventure Around the World in 80 Days. But the only way to get close to the audacious 240-mile daily average required was to ride light, with a support team. This time he slept in a trailing camper van, albeit for no more than five hours a night, and travelled with a manager, physio and a mechanic. As he explained to me before he left, “this is my one chance to put all my cards on the table. It’s a pure test of performance.”
The professional approach looks indulgent compared to the wild-man adventuring Beaumont is used to. After his first world ride, he cycled the length of the Americas and broke the record for riding from Cairo to Cape Town — both alone and unsupported. He nearly died when his boat capsized while he tried to row across the Atlantic in 30 days. But he says the “80 Days” ride was by far the hardest thing he has done. He remembers it almost with fear, as if talking about an incarceration or tour of duty.
“I took myself to a place physically and mentally I’m never sure I want to go to again,” he says. “In the US and Canada, my team were really worried because, earlier in the trip I’d had normal emotional reactions. I laughed, I cried, which I’ve never done on an expedition. But then I stopped feeling anything.”
The first tears came when a hidden pothole catapulted Beaumont over his handlebars in Russia, threatening to derail the attempt on day nine. Laura Penhaul, his performance manager, had to repair his broken tooth with a kit flown out to a remote British consulate. Less could be done for the elbow, which had to hold out for another 16,000 miles. A scan after his return confirmed his suspicion that it had been fractured. It’s still sore as we negotiate cattle grids and potholes in the Pentland Hills.
Beaumont proved that the human body could withstand such a punishing regime. His weight remained stable to the end, which meant eating — and burning — 9,000 calories a day, a challenge of its own. On occasion he ate breakfast from a bowl resting on his time trial handlebars, which are designed for speed rather than porridge. But it was in North America that his brain began to suffer. He stopped remembering entire days and at times looked as if he might fall asleep on the road. The stress got to him. “I look back on myself and see sides of my character I didn’t know I had and don’t particularly love,” he says. “My tolerance for faff and small talk was almost zero and I got incredibly tough on my team.” He adds: “I will never be able to find a way to describe it. Half past three in the morning, on the bike, 16 hours. Back to back for 78 days. It does very weird things to your mind.”
Crossing the finishing line in Paris, after a punishing, mountainous last leg from Lisbon, was as much a relief as it was a sort of atmospheric re-entry. Beaumont’s bones had lost density like an astronaut’s, a scan later revealed, because they had borne little weight or impact for two and a half months. He worked hard to realign his pelvis for walking after 16-hour days in the saddle. “I probably did about 20 steps a day going in and out of the RV,” he says of his camper van. On a flat stretch of road, I lie my forearms flat on Beaumont’s aero handlebars. I feel as if I could sustain the position for 10 minutes at most.
Beaumont’s other challenge is financial. The business of modern adventure can be as fraught as a race through a storm to a ferry in New Zealand (missing the link between the North and South islands would have eaten a big chunk of his two-day contingency cushion). The cyclist had struck gold with a saleable idea that required little explanation on TV sofas. But he arrived home a poorer man. He says the challenge cost the best part of half a million pounds. He paid his team but could not afford to pay himself. Most of the money came from sponsors, including Artemis, a fund manager, as well as Visit Scotland. But as his start time approached, he had to invest “a good chunk” of his own money too, just to keep the mission on the road.
Now it’s payback time. Beaumont is about to start writing a book about the ride, and there are plans to turn the hours of footage his media team gathered on the road into a documentary. He may get back into broadcasting, in which he dabbled for the BBC during the 2014 Commonwealth Games. But he also has a business brain, and in another life would have become an accountant (he studied economics and politics at Glasgow university, but a childhood thirst for adventure steered him away from offices). The way to really cash in, he says, would be to hit the after-dinner speaking circuit, but instead he has found a market for his fortitude and attention to detail inside big companies, some of whom pay him a retainer to consult and host events.
Beaumont describes a void between the public expectation of an amateur adventurer — “you should look like a guy who never got a real job” — and the realities of the business. “It probably spoils the illusion a bit when you realise what goes on behind the scenes,” he adds. He admits his approach has priced plucky adventurers out of a world record that once belonged to them. “But I was that plucky adventurer 10 years ago,” he says. He would happily mentor any rider who sought to break his record, but it’s hard to imagine anyone raising enough money for the required support team now that Beaumont has put the 80-day stamp on it. Who would have backed the second man to summit Everest or run the four-minute mile?
Beaumont is taking stock before thinking about his next adventure. A friend has suggested he try to break the hour record on a penny farthing, which has stood at 23.7 miles since the last official attempt in 1891. It would be his shortest challenge. In the meantime, there is family life to consider.
We end our ride after a very conservative 20 miles with a coffee so that Beaumont can get home in time for the nursery pick-up. He and his wife, Nicci, have two young daughters. News cameras captured their glee when Beaumont arrived back in Paris. But if even a man as modest as him needed grounding after conquering the world, Harriet, who is four, soon did the job.
“A couple of weeks ago I was tucking her up in bed and I said to her, ‘Is it good to have daddy home?’ And she said, ‘Yes, Daddy, but you keep saying that’. For me it was like, I want to hold on to this — I’ve been away and missed you all — but in her eyes that was yesterday. She was thinking ‘Now you’re home, let’s just get on with it.’ It was lovely.”
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