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A Wheel of a Time

By, Lorna Wallace

Some of the most inspiring stories I have ever encountered come from human beings who display an unshakable determination to endure, to experience and to succeed. No matter what obstacles may stand in their way, no matter the physical or mental battle, no matter what elements they have to face – rain, snow, scorching sun – these astonishing people somehow find the strength to push through.  They, quite simply, go beyond the limits of what anyone thought possible, including them.

One man who fits this character description particularly well is Scotland’s very own record-breaking endurance cyclist, Mark Beaumont. 

Brought up in Scotland, Beaumont was home-schooled until the age of twelve and spent most of his time outdoors, immersed in the countryside and the daily running of the family farm.

“When I was very young I was growing up on a farm. I spent my whole time outside pony-riding, cycling, all sorts of stuff. Being outdoors was kind of everything I did. Because I was working on the farm I was doing chores all the time, so every morning before going to school there were 200 hens to collect the eggs from, there were 60 goats to milk, 13 horses and ponies to put out and muck out and you had to check the sheep and cattle.”

The diligent work ethic of his childhood continued into Beaumont’s teenage years, which he spent working in a local hotel:

“When I was about twelve I got a job as a gardener in a local hotel, doing bob-a-job for the Scouts. From the age of twelve to eighteen I worked in that same hotel. I ended up working as a kitchen porter and by the time I was eighteen I was a barman. It was wonderful spending six years of my teenage life. Kids aged twelve don’t really get jobs now but living in the countryside where I did it was quite a normal thing to do.”

A true child of nature as well as an incredibly hard worker, it’s easy to see where Beaumont’s nose-to-the-grindstone attitude, his passion for cycling and his insatiable need for adventure began.

“I was terrible at rugby, terrible at football, terrible at anything in the playground, especially sports, but when it came to the great outdoors and adventure sports, skiing, climbing, cycling…I think that was the start.”

Although he was already a keen cyclist on his family farm, I ask Beaumont what first attracted him to cycling longer distances:  “I was reading in my local newspaper, the Dundee Courier, about someone who had cycled from John O’Groats to Land’s End and I wanted to do that. I put it to my mum and dad as my first big adventure plan. My mum suggested it was maybe a bit ambitious because I hadn’t cycled off the farm before so I recruited a friend and we went across Scotland from Dundee to Oban. I was about twelve when I went on [that] first big adventure.”

With 130 countries under his belt, Beaumont has seen more of the world than most people will ever see in their lifetime. I wondered which part had left the biggest impression on him and had been most memorable to cycle through:

“Well I’ve been to about 130 countries in the last ten years, so seeing that on a bike is pretty amazing. I’m incredibly biased for home. I genuinely think we have some of the best cycling terrain in the world, both on and off road – and that’s coming from somebody who’s cycled through 130 countries. If you were to talk about cycling round the planet, I do love the opposite of Scotland. I do love the desert. Some of my favourite places to ride in outside of Scotland have ended up being the opposite in terms of geography. The Atacama Desert through Chile or the Sahara desert going through Sudan, the Ballouchi Desert through Southern Pakistan…I love these stretches of road that are just going through huge expanses of nothing. When you’re travelling round the world at the speed of a bike it’s often the people that you remember. If I was to go back to one continent and explore more it would definitely be Africa. I rode the length of Africa from Cairo to Cape Town a couple of years ago and I would love to go and ride my bike again in Botswana and parts of East Africa.”

The adventure Beaumont speaks of began on 21st May 2015 and over the next 42 days and 8 hours he cycled over 10,000km and broke the world record for fastest solo ride of the length of Africa. In 2010 he cycled from Anchorage, Alaska, in the USA to Ushuaia in Southern Argentina, cycling 13,080 miles in 268 days and climbing North and South America’s highest peaks. However, I had to know more about Beaumont’s most incredible achievement to date: breaking the world record for circumnavigating the globe by bike. 

From 2nd July to 18th September 2017, he cycled through Europe, Russia, Mongolia, China, Australia, New Zealand, North America, Portugal, Spain and France, finishing triumphantly in Paris, where his epic tour began. During the journey, Beaumont cycled a staggering 18,039 miles in 78 days, 14 hours and 40 minutes, averaging around 240 miles per day on just five hours of sleep each night. He told me about a typical day:

“It was a pretty strict routine. Every day started at 3.30am. I was out the RV and on the bike for 4am and was riding for 16 hours a day, broken into four hour blocks. I had to average 15 miles an hour, which is not fast but you’ve got to do it consistently for 16 hours. To get around the world each day – not on my best day [but] on an average day – I needed to cover 240 miles. Every day finished about 9.30pm or 9.45pm. I was in my scratcher for about 10.30pm after food and massage, had about five hours’ sleep, was back up at 3.30am, on the bike at 4am and repeat. My job on the bike was 16 hours a day, 5 hours’ sleep, 16 hours a day, 5 hours’ sleep…and that was it for two and a half months.”

The severe sleep deprivation quickly took its toll on Beaumont, who describes it as the most gruelling aspect of the whole experience:

“It was physically brutal. Sitting on a bike for 16 hours a day is psychologically really tough but sleep deprivation is the hardest part.”

Learning about Beaumont’s jaw-dropping achievements over the years, I have often wondered what kind of food (and what quantity) he puts into his body to fuel it for such unfathomably long distances. I immediately think of the typically high calorie, high fat foods like chocolate and sweets but just can’t imagine an athlete at the peak of fitness consuming anything remotely like junk food. Beaumont gave me an insight into his nutrition plan and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that chocolate still had its place:

“I was eating about 9,000 calories a day and ate most of them while on the bike. I had a nutritionist, Ruth McKean, who is based back in Scotland, a chef on the road plus a performance manager, so there were three people working on my nutrition plan. You couldn’t eat 9,000 calories of pasta every day. Even though you might think it’s good fuel, it’s too much in quantity. You need to get really calorie dense food in, so more to the fatty end of the spectrum. You’ve got to imagine yourself as a diesel engine. You’re doing a low level output for 16 hours a day, you’re not sprinting, you’re not going fast, but you need constant energy, so very fat efficient, very packed calories, and also very natural. You can’t live off gels and sports bars for two and a half months. When you get tired your digestions slows down so I had to try and make it as easy as possible for my gut to keep working.

“I would absolutely have sweets and chocolate as a treat but not as a staple. You’ve got to be careful about how you use sugar and caffeine as a stimulant. Psychologically and physically they give you a real peak and trough. I would use chocolate treats quite carefully through the day and make sure I wasn’t developing a sweet tooth. I was far better having cheeses and avocados, really slow burning calories, and then keeping chocolate for later in the day as a bit of a pick-me-up.”

At the time of interview, Beaumont was preparing to smash another world record. This time he was taking on the classic Penny Farthing bike, which has a 56 inch diameter solid front wheel and requires two steps to reach the saddle. As part of the World Cycling Revival Festival, Beaumont was accompanied by eight experienced Penny Farthing riders in Herne Hill Velodrome in an attempt to beat the current record of 22 miles and 150 yards cycled in one hour.

“It’s a 135-year-old record and you’d think with 135 years’ progress you would smash it but it’s actually bloody tough. It was set back in 1883 and it’s the hour record for the most miles cycled. It’s really tough for myself who is used to doing ultra endurance. 

This is the opposite. This is about your threshold power, the maximum power you can put out for one hour, and you’re on a 56 inch Penny Farthing. That’s about 6ft 3” in diameter and it comes up to my shoulder. You’ve now got to imagine you’re going round a velodrome, with all those bad corners, no brakes and no air in your tyres.”

This is surely a task that would strike fear into the heart of the most seasoned adventurer. However, with characteristic determination, Beaumont welcomed the challenge with open arms:

“It’s pretty exhilarating. It’s pretty exciting. Like any bike, as long as you’re going fast,  you’re fine. The Penny Farthings are not very good at slow speeds and it’s very hard to get on and off them. There’s a group of nine of us going for the record and I’ll probably be the worst at getting on and off because they are all much more experienced. Once I’m on it though, as a bike handler and because of my strength on the bike, I’m absolutely fine. I’m away.”

Although Beaumont fell short of breaking the world record by 290 yards, he smashed the British one by cycling 21.92 miles in one hour – an incredible achievement by anyone’s standards.

I move on to ask Beaumont about the Ayrshire Alps, Scotland’s first road cycling park through the hills of South Carrick. Spanning sixteen uphill routes, or ‘climbs’, of varying length and difficulty, each one is suitable for road bikes and offers breath-taking scenery and a Scottish cycling experience like no other. 

“I know of them and have cycled parts of them. I got a chance to do a route through Ayrshire last year when I was doing my ride of Britain. I was doing a 3,000 mile training ride in the build up to the world record attempt, so I did a section around the Ayrshirecoast and some of the climbs. The Ayrshire Alps sort of encompasses Southern Ayrshire and I’ve had the chance to film on and cycle some of those roads. So much is made in

Scotland about cycling up the North West, the North Coast 500, some of Perthshire and all the fantastic adventures there are to be had in Dumfries and Galloway, the Borders,

Argyll…parts of the world where there has historically been that focus. I think people often forget that there is so much to do in adventure sports and cycling south of the central belt.

With the new website www.ayrshirealps.org and all the events that are popping up in Ayrshire and the Ayrshire Alps, it will hopefully bring more people into the area.”

Finally, I ask Beaumont what advice he would give to anyone wanting to begin long distance cycling. He explains that, providing you are well-fuelled and hydrated, it really is as simple as getting on your bike:

“People often say to me “How do I do my first 100 miles?, as that’s a big mental milestone.   Then you clock 100 miles and it’s not that scary. It’s just about pushing people’s comfort zones and realising that you can keep going on the bike as long as you look after yourself in terms of nutrition and hydration. I’d say it’s different to saying ‘I’m going to be a 25 mile time trial rider’, where it’s all about your speed and power. That’s hard for people to do.  If it’s just a case of getting on your bike and gently riding for long distances it’s amazing how far people can go.”

According to Beaumont, another selling point of long-distance cycling is that people of virtually any age can take part:

“The great thing about long-distance cycling is it’s really accessible to almost anyone, of all ages.  It’s very difficult to become a racer, to do more technical cycling, like downhill but the great thing about endurance cycling is, as long as you’re physically fit, it’s mainly about the psychology, your resilience, your want to keep going.   You’re not asking people to sprint or be fast or be the most powerful, it’s just about temp riding pushing the distances, doing sportives and then maybe doing a coast to coast or taking a route closer to your home.  [Some people] are maybe not as fast as they were when they were eighteen but they can cycle for 100 or 150 miles and begin to build confidence.” 

I thank Beaumont for his time and tell him my dad, a keen cyclist himself, will be thrilled that I’ve just spoken to one of his heroes.

I reflect on Beaumont’s answers and realise one thing is remarkably clear. His staggering achievements, while obviously the product of countless hours of training and dedication, would not have been possible without a solid belief in himself.  Perhaps this is the most important thing any adventurer needs.