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Meet the adventurer: Mark Beaumont on record-breaking cycling journeys and what he plans to do next

The Scottish endurance athlete has spent more than a decade pedalling his way to new world records, including the fastest journey around the world on a bike. Here, he talks about the secret to long-distance expeditions and his new book, Endurance.

Published 23 May 2021, 08:00 BST
Mark Beaumont holds the record for the fastest journey around the world on a bike: in ...

Mark Beaumont holds the record for the fastest journey around the world on a bike: in 2017, he completed the 18,000-mile route in less than 79 days.

Photograph by Joby Sessions

Tell us about your first adventure.

I was home schooled on a farm in the foothills of the Scottish Highlands. I was outside all the time but had my first proper adventure when I was 12 — I decided to cycle across Scotland, coast to coast, which is about 125 miles. When you’re a 12-year-old child, that’s quite a long way and I loved it. It wasn’t just the adventure of riding across my country, it was going door to door, raising funds for local charities and getting my story in the paper. I’d never really been off the farm before; my closest friends were my sisters. I had such a small world. To go on an adventure like that was so liberating.

Where did your interest in cycling come from at such a young age?

Horse riding and skiing were my first loves. The bike for me wasn’t really about competition or racing, it was about freedom: I couldn’t ride my horse or ski across Scotland, but the bike gave me the opportunity to go on a journey. Even though I’d been on cycle journeys across Europe, Scandinavia and the length of the UK, cycling wasn’t my main thing until I graduated from university and decided I would cycle around the world. But again, it was quite practical, it wasn’t because it was my favourite sport. I just thought, well, if I’m going to go around the world, it’s going to be on a bike.

What inspires you to keep pushing yourself to break records on endurance journeys?

It’s just the kid inside me. I still like the idea of doing something that’s not been done before, figuring out what my personal best is. I’ve never been competitive in a normal sense. I’ve always done major expeditions because I love that interaction between the physicality and psychology, but also between you and the cultures, the places, the people. You need the friendship of strangers to figure out how to get by; the more you push yourself, the more you’re vulnerable. People often ask me, don’t you think you’re missing the point of these journeys by going so fast? But I think it creates this beautiful dynamic between the athlete and the cultures.

What are some of your best memories from your trips?

During my Cairo to Cape Town cycling world record, there was a moment going through northern Botswana where I had a giraffe cantering alongside me, going exactly the same speed as me. I also remember being about 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle, trying to take a small rowing boat further north than anyone had ever gone before, and encountering a pod of around 25 beluga whales. It was one of those beautiful moments where you’re in complete wilderness, hundreds of miles from the nearest town, but you have wildlife right there: these pearly white creatures were coming up and cresting around us.

What about the most memorable encounters?

I remember being in the middle of Sudan, not knowing where I would find a place to stay in the Sahara Desert, and coming across a small truck stop at the side of the road. I was a bit scared and went in knowing I would need to sleep there and find water if I was to carry on. Without a word in common, the people there gave me an incredible welcome. I was taken in, my water bottle was filled, I ate stew and left the next morning at sunrise after sleeping with them on the sand.

These are wonderful moments where people bring me into their world. I always enjoy the interactions you have when you meet people in the wilderness. There are a few places in the world where there are huge ribbons of tarmac going across massive expanses, like the Atacama Desert in northern Chile or the Alcan Highway going from Alaska down to British Columbia. If you meet anyone out there, you’re both on an adventure.

In 2017, you cycled 18,000 miles around the world in 78 days. What was it like behind the scenes?

Every other race over the past 15 years has been unsupported, whereas with the round-the-world record the team around me — including logistics and performance support, and the media — were extraordinary. In total, 40 people worked on that project, and I normally had six to eight people on the road at any one time. It was two-and-a-half years in the planning, and we took the record from 123 days down to 78. I think the simplicity of seeing a person on the bicycle belies the complexity of what that actually was. A lot of people think it’s about how fit or determined I am, but they don’t realise the scale of that ambition. That was my Everest; I wanted one opportunity in my life to put all my cards on the table, get rid of all the unknowns. It was purely about how fast you can go around planet Earth.

Of all your achievements, which one are you most proud of?

As an athlete, the round the world in 80 days record. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and there was a huge amount of suffering.

But I also made a film about the first Tour de France, which took place back in 1903. I like the history of sport. We took 120-year-old bicycles and recreated the first stages — projects like that I’m super proud of. It was great fun.

I also broke the British record for the longest distance cycled in one hour on a penny farthing [the first high-wheeled bicycle], which was a record that nobody had broken for 127 years. For me, they don’t have to be traditional cycle-around-the-world records — I quite like things that are a bit quirkier.

The cover of Endurance: How To Cycle Further, Mark Beaumont’s new book.

Photograph by Global Cycling Network

Your new book, Endurance, gives tips to people interested in endurance cycling, covering everything from training and bike set-up to nutrition and psychology. What’s the one piece of advice you would give our readers?

We can’t all be professional sprinters or pro-athletes, but when it comes to adventure and endurance, everyone has the ability to go a bit further. Some knowledge around preparation and nutrition can help, but it’s normally your own expectations that limit you. When you get to big adventures, the power of your own confidence is everything — it’s why, when it comes to adventure racing, you have men and women in their forties, fifties and sixties still smashing it. It’s very much about having that quiet confidence to keep going, and ultimately, within that, you’ve got to want to explore places. It feeds the soul. If I captured one thought in the book, it was that.

What’s next for you?

I had big plans for events and filming in America and other locations. But, like all of us, I’m trying to find some projects closer to home. I’ve spent a huge amount of time during lockdown doing gravel and off-road adventure riding, and I’m going to make some documentaries on the mountaineering side of cycling.

As soon as we can, I want to make a film in Lebanon, and we were talking about doing some filming in the north of Italy as well. I’m ready to get out there, but I’ve got to this stage in my career where I want to help other people pursue their ambitions. That was my motivation to write the book and start the Endurance podcast series: to share a toolkit of information for others.

Mark Beaumont’s new book, Endurance: How To Cycle Further, is available exclusively from the Global Cycling Network, £16.99.

A number of new documentaries on Mark’s adventures, including Around the World in 80 Days, Penny Farthing: the First Hour and 1983, the recreation of the first Tour de France, can be viewed on GCN’s new documentary channel.

Read more interviews from our Meet the Adventurer series

Published in the June 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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