Meet the adventurer: Paralympic cyclist Steve Bate on crossing Africa in the quest for a new world record

Having become the first person with visual impairment to scale El Capitan, Steve Bate is no stranger to adventure. The Tokyo Paralympic Games are but one challenge on his horizon — in 2022, he aims to smash the world record for biking across Africa.

By Sacha Scoging
Published 21 Aug 2021, 06:08 BST
Having trained as an alpine guide, Steve Bate MBE was the first person with visual impairment to ...

Having trained as an alpine guide, Steve Bate MBE was the first person with visual impairment to scale El Capitan, a formidable rock face in California’s Yosemite National Park. Now, the multiple-medal-winning Paralympic cyclist, plans to break a new world record biking the length of Africa, from Cairo to Cape Town. 

Photograph by Chris Prescott

Have you always been an active person?

Absolutely — the majority of my upbringing was spent outside. I was very fortunate growing up in New Zealand and having parents that were so relaxed. There was no social media, so we'd often go camping, fishing and exploring.

You’re the first visually impaired person to solo climb El Capitan, in California. What inspired you to do this?

I’ve always been fascinated with mountains and the outdoors, but I didn’t get into professional rock climbing until I moved to the UK and started working my way through the challenging process of becoming an alpine guide. However, in 2011 I received my diagnosis: retinitis pigmentosa. They told me that the worst-case scenario would be blindness in four years. I lost my driver’s licence, stopped climbing and got really depressed — who on earth would want to trek into the mountains with a blind guy?

However, a friend of mine, [Paralympian] Karen Darke, told me I could still do anything I wanted to do and Andy Kirkpatrick, an expert in rope-soloing, suggested I climb El Capitan before I went blind. I guess it was he who planted the seed and certainly gave me something to focus on. I wanted to prove, not to anyone else, but to myself, that I could still be who I wanted to be; that I could live a life of adventure without my disability holding me back.

What did you learn about yourself during this experience?

After spending six days on that wall, in 2013, something clicked. When I reached the summit, I thought that if I can do this, I can do anything. I’d been a climber for a decade and had always wanted to try El Cap, yet I’d always made excuses not to go. All it ever really boils down to is the fear of failure, which is probably the thing that stops most people from achieving their dreams.

How did this lead to you cycling for the ParalympicsGB team?

Getting to Rio 2016 seemed like such an impossible dream, so it was the perfect challenge after El Cap and a way to test my newfound determination.

I had a willingness to try hard and an attitude to always give my best. British Cycling knew what I had done climbing El Cap, and I think for them, it was a case of ‘if he can do that on his own, then he's got the right mindset of what it takes to achieve’.

What was easier, climbing El Capitan or winning three Paralympic medals in Rio?

As an athlete, you’re constantly looking ahead and planning for what’s coming next, therefore it’s very rare that I look back and talk about the Paralympic Games. You have all the support imaginable with Paralympic cycling. It’s this huge, well-oiled machine with a proven track record of churning out Paralympic champions. When you cross the finish line and realise that you've won, you’re ultimately relieved to have delivered the performance your support team in the track centre have worked so hard — perhaps harder than you — to achieve. However, with El Cap, I was completely on my own. During my training, I’d email Andy a few questions and he’d give a few vague answers, but ultimately, I had to figure everything out for myself.

After being accepted onto the Great Britain Paralympic Cycling Team in 2013, Bate announced himself to the sporting world at the Paralympic Games in Rio 2016, winning two gold medals and a bronze alongside his cycling partner Adam Duggleby. 

Photograph by Steve Bate MBE

You’re planning to cycle the length of Africa in 2022 and break a new world record for speed. How did this idea come about?

In 2017, I followed Mark Beaumont’s journey cycling around the world and breaking a new world record; he went fully supported [with a logistics team and crew] and absolutely annihilated it in 78 days. I thought it’d be awesome to do something like that one day. I spend so much of my time riding round in circles, always coming back to the same place, so to be able to go on an adventure like that and see new things every day is something that really excites me.

I’m hoping to replicate his model of riding 16 hours a day in four four-hour blocks. I’ll also be fully supported, so all I have to do is focus on being an athlete and seeing how fast I can go. I can’t do too much before September as I must remain focused on the Paralympic Games, defending a few precious titles in Tokyo! However, all the training I’ve been doing has had one eye on Africa as well. I'm really excited as no other para-athlete has gone after a world record of this magnitude. I want to prove that it doesn’t matter that I’m a pasty ginger bloke who can’t see very well — anything is possible, even with a disability.

The current world record for cycling Cairo to Cape Town is 41 days, 10 days and 22 minutes — also set by Mark Beaumont in 2015. You’re planning to complete it in just 25. How is that possible?

Unlike his round-the-world tour, Mark travelled from Cairo to Cape Town completely solo, which involved finding his own food and places to camp. It’s an adventurous way to go, but it’s also time you lose when you could be riding. Mark's fully supportive of my approach and he's even come on board as my adviser and mentor. My aim is to average 250 miles a day; some days, I'll come up short and hopefully others I'll get a few extra miles in the bank. For example, northern Ethiopia looks horrifically mountainous — I’ll have back-to-back days of climbing 6,000 metres, which is going to be insane.

How do you mentally prepare for a journey like this?

If I were to ride from Cairo to Cape Town tomorrow, I think I could do it, physically. I’m already riding at a level now, for the Tokyo Games, that will be similar for this expedition. But mentally, 16 hours a day on your bike is a long time inside your own headspace. In terms of preparation, I’ve been doing bike-packing [biking with panniers of luggage] trips to test myself. For example, when I rode the length of Scotland (from Coldstream, on the border, right up to Tongue, at the top), I chose to ride through the Cairngorms National Park. It was really challenging, but I wanted to see what I could achieve in 24 hours and how I would cope mentally in certain situations. This is where a lot of riders can get unravelled, but for me, the point where I just want to get off is the space where I can learn about myself. 

Steve Bate has always been an adventurous person and enjoys bike packing trips all over the country. These expeditions have been preparing him for his upcoming cycle across Africa in 2022, where he hopes to average 250 miles a day and break a new world record. 

Photograph by Chris Prescott

What travel kit can't you do without?

Toothbrush and toothpaste. Even when I go minimalist bike-packing, I'll always pack a toothbrush. I might not shower for days, but it’s a simple hack of still feeling human and fresh.

What advice would you give to those coming to terms with a challenging new disability?

I think it's really important to separate emotions from reality. From my own experience, there’s always going to be that period where you’re upset (which is completely natural) but at some point, you’ve got to step back and assess the situation. I recommend writing down the facts or speaking them through with a friend, then you can start to work out a timeline.

It's important to look towards a goal of where you want to be, but equally important to work it back to where to you are. Ask yourself what small thing you can do today to make tomorrow easier; break it down into bitesize pieces and always try to remove emotion from the equation. Success is never a straight line; it’s three steps forwards and four steps back. If you can accept that, adapt along the way and always keep your end goal in mind, then you’ll have the ingredients to succeed.

Describe what adventure means to you in three words.

Learning about myself. 

Everyone always asks ‘what’s the meaning of life?’, ‘why are we here?’. I think it's to understand who we are; to work out how we fit into this world. This is why I go to the places I go to, why I do what I do. Going on adventures and pushing myself in terms of physical and mental endurance helps me understand what sort of person I am and what I can achieve.

Steve Bate MBE is an ambassador for Elliot Brown Watches and a motivational speaker, contributing to events with the Premier League football events, government departments, international companies, sports and outdoor clubs, schools, youth groups and charities. In 2020, he helped raise £231,000 for the NHS in just four weeks, as part of the The World in One Day challenge.

His book, 22,000 Miles: A Father and Son’s Cycling Adventures (2020), is out now.

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