Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The Man Who Cycled the World

In 2007, when Mark Beaumont was in the process of breaking the Guinness world record for riding a bicycle around the world, I was (ahem) working on a magazine that was all about the global potato processing industry – the Mighty Spud, as we called it.

I'd been riding my bike on and off since the early nineties, entering the London to Brighton, London to Oxford and London to Cambridge sponsored rides on my Marin Bear Valley SE. A few years later, riding the Kona Scrap, I headed out towards Botley Hill alone, prior to the time in 2006 when, after a curry – no, we didn't go out on our bikes IMMEDIATELY after the curry – Andy and I first set out together during the magical pre-blog days.
Mark cycling through Iran. Pic: from his own website

In fact, as Mark pedalled his way around the planet, Andy and I were making a variety of what we regarded as pioneering rides in and around Northern Kent to places like Westerham and Oxted and Tandridge, not forgetting the now legendary Tatsfield Bus Stop.

What I'm trying to say is that I'm reviewing a book that was written a few years ago and I've only just gotten round to reading it. In fact, as I write this, I've just finished Mark Beaumont's The Man Who Cycled the World. The only bit I haven't read is the final chapter, Una's Story, because, in all honesty, I've read the main bit of the book and it's now back on my bookshelf alongside some other cycling books. I'm seriously considering Beaumont's The Man Who Cycled the Americas, but I won't read it straightaway, that would be overkill, and besides, I'm knackered, just like Beaumont, and need a rest from reading cycling adventure books.

Another reason why it's taken me some considerable time to get round to reading Beaumont's excellent book is that it's taken me a while to start reading books about cycling. And if you want another reason, it might have something to do with judging a book by its cover. Yes, I'm guilty of spotting Beaumont in Lycra on the front cover and thinking 'no, he's a Lycra monkey'. I was wrong, but before I realised this, I read quite a few other cycling books (Mike Carter's One Man and His Bike, Leon McCarron's The Road Headed West, and Rob Lilwall's Cycling Home from Siberia) all of which were very good and, like Beaumont's book, the reader feels as if he or she is actually on the ride with him.

I had picked up Beaumont's masterpiece in Waterstone's on more than one occasion and put it back on the shelf. Eventually I decided to take the plunge and buy it – a purchase well worth making and one I should have made much earlier. From the word go, this proved to be an adventure of epic proportions. Beaumont rides a Koga touring bicycle (similar to one I saw in a bike shop in Littlehampton recently) and sets off from Paris to ride leg one of his journey to Istanbul. Within days of setting off his is beset by problems: punctures, broken spokes, all sorts of mechanical issues he wasn't expecting so early on.

Beaumont camps a lot in fields, behind bushes – out of harm's way – and he isn't phased by it either. He blends camping in his one-man tent with nights in hotels, including some strangely entertaining places, like an odd establishment in the Ukraine, and, in between putting in some serious miles – and fuelling himself on cous cous and other foodstuffs, totting up to around 6,000 calories per day, he rides the bike from dawn to dusk. It's quite incredible how he takes some serious distances in his stride, on a daily basis, and finds time, in between eating and riding, to have the occasional massage, courtesy of a guy called Piotr who brings along his own massage table during leg one of the ride.

After reaching Istanbul (the end of leg one) Beaumont embarks upon the most worrisome section of his adventure – riding through Iran, Pakistan and India. By and large, however, he has no major problems. There are frustrating moments with a police escort through Pakistan, but he makes it through, spending nights in police stations and some extremely rundown 'hotels', somewhere (I can't remember where) sharing a room with a rat.

Leg three is from Bangkok to Singapore, where heavy rains play havoc with Beaumont's 'on board' computer systems, and then, leg four, Perth to Brisbane: a hot, punishing section of the ride where dangerous animals – snakes and spiders – were cause for concern while camping, along with strong headwinds. Leg Five sees him ride from one end of New Zealand to the other, where the weather is in stark contrast to that he experienced in Australia, and then he flies across the Pacific to San Francisco to begin his ride from the west to the east coast of the USA.

In the USA he has a lucky escape after a road accident, which is quickly followed up by a mugging while staying in a dodgy motel, chosen for him by the son of the woman who ran him down. Not good at all, but he pulls through, gets the bike fixed, sorts out the emotional fall-out and gets back on the bike, heading for Florida.

What a relentless ride! Beaumont just keeps on going, bar a few days off, powered by cous cous and pizza and plenty of other carbohydrates. Nothing phases him. He rides, he eats, he sleeps, he rides and he's hurtling headlong towards a well-deserved place in the record books.

The final leg, from Lisbon to Paris, was much harder than Beaumont expected it to be, mainly because he didn't research it; he figured he knew the lie of the land in Western Europe, but admitted: 'Spain had been far tougher than I'd ever imagined. Then again, maybe the problem had been that I hadn't really imagined it. I'd just assumed it would be more average miles.'

As the end of the ride drew near, Beaumont was too keyed up to want to imagine the finish, although he was looking forward to the freedom of not having to get up and ride a bike the next morning. He wanted to see his family and friends, many of whom were in Paris awaiting his arrival at the finish line.

In total Beaumont cycled 18,296 miles in 194 days and 17 hours – the fastest true circumnavigation of the world by bicycle and I'm assuming he still holds the record.

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