Words Julia Roth
Armed with only a bicycle, some sparingly packed gear, and an unimaginable dose of nerve, Mark Beaumont set out to become the fastest man in the world to cycle the length of Africa. Bracing himself against treacherous roads, brutal elements, soaring hill climbs, and everything else Africa threw at him, it took only 41 days, 10 hours and 22 minutes for him to smash the previous record for the 10 812-kilometre solo ride.
Beaumont is no stranger to extreme exploration, or even world record title-holding. In 2008, he became the fastest man to cycle around the world (a formidable journey of nearly 30 000km) solo. Then in 2010, he became the only person in the world ever to have cycled the length of the Americas while also summiting both of the continents’ highest peaks in a single climbing season. And between these epic journeys, he has also delved into team ocean rowing and Arctic exploration.
If one man embodies the spirit of an intrepid explorer, that man is Mark Beaumont. Here he gives us a glimpse into his extraordinary expedition: 270km per day, through unfamiliar territory, in extreme isolation—and the ride of a lifetime.
You have been tackling various adventures and challenges since you were young. Is this trait something that has been handed down through the family?
Not really. My parents are farmers and no one else in the family has pursued a sporting career. That said, I was home-schooled until the age of 11, so I spent most of my time working and playing on the farm, which meant an incredible freedom to be adventurous. Aged 12, I decided to cycle across Scotland with a friend, and I was 15 when I soloed from the top of Scotland to the bottom of England—about 1 800km. So I did start cycling young, and that has led to a career trying to break many endurance world records, as well as ocean rowing, mountaineering and Arctic exploration.
How do you train—physically and mentally—before each expedition you attempt?
Training is specific to each expedition, but taking my recent race down Africa, from Cairo to Cape Town, I teamed up with the Scottish national cycling team and spent a lot of time in the [Sir Chris Hoy] Velodrome. Track cycling really builds your leg speed, power and bike handling. I wanted to go faster than ever before, covering on average 270km per day. My biggest worry is always getting an injury, so I spend a lot of time in the gym as well as trail running, to build up my all-round conditioning. Mental preparation can be gained only from experience: You have to build up over the years, pushing yourself to new comfort zones and pain levels; this can’t really be taught in the training phase.
Why did you choose Africa as your next journey to conquer?
I’d already cycled around the world and the length of the Americas from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego—and so Africa completed this hat trick of world cycle routes I’ve long dreamt of. After a five-year break from cycling expeditions, I was keen to go faster than before, learn from the development of the sport, and set the Cairo to Cape Town world record at a much faster and more professional level. Until 2015, the record was 70 days. I completed the route in 41 days, 10 hours and 22 minutes.
How does it feel in the moment you set off on an expedition?
The start’s always a bit confusing. There’s lots of media, normally some other cyclists and well-wishers. Leaving Cairo was certainly pretty mad, and it was later that day, about 160km after the start, that I was on my own for the first time, thinking about what lay ahead. That’s quite a daunting time on expedition: trying to settle into the daily routine.
What is it like being so isolated in the wilderness for such long periods of time, and how do you cope?
It can be relatively sore on the bike, especially at the start of each day, and I’m left with my own thoughts all day, every day. But I never feel completely alone. I’ve a great team back in the UK who are just a phone call away—they sort out all my logistics and planning ahead. And I also have what I call my ‘virtual peloton’: an amazing army of supporters on social media who are constantly sending their messages of support, questions and feedback. I certainly fall into a unique mindset when riding my bike on big solo rides. One thinks about the simple things like where to find clean water, enough food and a safe place to sleep each night. I always think that life on expedition is pretty brutal, yet wonderfully simple.
How did you motivate yourself to keep going every single morning on such an epic journey?
Motivation is hard to explain. Some things that I do, others may think impossible, but I’ve spent a lot of time over the past 20 years building up the stamina and experience. So when the alarm goes off at 4 a.m., after four hours’ sleep, and I roll onto the bike for another 16 hours of riding, it hurts—but it never crosses my mind to delay or to quit. I’m going for a world record, and I couldn’t forgive having regrets, or thinking I could’ve gone faster.
What was the scariest moment of the Africa Solo expedition? Did you ever consider quitting?
The trucks in Tanzania were seriously dangerous. The roads are narrow, often broken, and there’s no hard shoulder. And almost all Tanzanians cycle in the dirt paths at the roadside, so I was forced off the road quite a few times each day. There were a few terrifying moments when trucks very nearly hit me. It was also in Tanzania that a guy tried to get money off me—but he’d been drinking, and as soon as I retaliated, he backed off. It wasn’t particularly dangerous, and I was more saddened because 99% of people throughout the continent and in Tanzania gave me such a warm welcome. Ethiopia was by far the toughest. Straight after the border from Sudan, the road climbs up to around 3 400m, with serious climbing every day. And then the final 300km to the Kenyan border at Moyale is a construction road, so when it rained, this turned to mud. It was seriously tough going, not helped by kids throwing stones and trying to hit me with sticks. I had some pretty big mental lows, but never felt like giving up.
And what was the best moment?
I loved Sudan. I’ve always enjoyed desert riding, and the Sahara was incredible. It certainly helped that I had a strong northerly [wind] and they have the best roads in Africa. Even when the wind picked up into a sandstorm, it was a lot of fun and I covered quite a few days of 300-plus kilometres. At night I camped in truck stops, and the food and welcomes were always great. Another highlight was northern Botswana, where the wildlife was breathtaking. By day I had a giraffe cantering alongside me and then I had 100km of night riding with elephants on the roadside. Quite exhilarating, as I threw down my fastest intervals of the ride to get past them!
What was it like arriving in Cape Town after biking for 41 days through the heart of Africa?
The overriding emotion at Mouille Point was relief and then exhaustion. I had been pushing 17-hour days for the last week—on less than five hours’ sleep per night. It was brilliant to be welcomed by my wife, daughter and mum, who had flown out from Scotland. There were quite a few dignitaries, sponsors and members of the public, which gave the finish a great buzz. And the final hour through Cape Town was superb fun, helped by a police escort that got me through the rush-hour traffic quickly. I finished just before sunset, and the clouds parted to show off Table Mountain, so it was spectacular.
Have you spent other times in and around South Africa?
The only other time I’ve visited South Africa was as a BBC presenter during the build-up to the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games. I travelled to 68 Commonwealth nations and territories during 2013/14 and came to Joburg to film the South African athletes. We captured all the celebrations happening around the Queen’s Baton Relay and then focused on the story of Kirsten Beckett, the young gymnast. After the finish of the Africa Solo expedition, I had six days in the Western Cape with my family and had a wonderful time. People were incredibly kind after seeing the news of the world record, and we were treated like royalty! This included a memorable trip out to Stanford and around the coastline. It did take a few days to get used to being in a car rather than on a bike!
What drives you to attempt these super endurance expeditions, and what rewards do they give you?
There’s a lot of pain, and it can be tough getting these world record attempts started, in terms of sponsorship and media. I do them because, as an athlete, I’m still driven to figure out what I’m capable of. Like any athlete, I still feel there must be more, that I haven’t yet proven my personal best. So there’s always the motivation to go back, train harder and push my limits. And the reward in terms of a world record is simply a certificate! However, through the documentaries, books and speaking, I can now make a good living from this career, which is ultimately important now that I’m married with my own family.
What’s next? What can we expect to see you achieve in the future?
I have another book to write and I’ll be back out in 2016 for another major world record attempt. While I have a shortlist, I haven’t committed to what that is yet, as it’s only a matter of weeks since I finished in South Africa. All going well, I hope to have another three years as an athlete; while I’ve spent most of the last five years focusing on ocean rowing, climbing and Arctic expeditions, I’m now focused on the bike. I definitely plan to come back to ride more in South Africa, and would love to take part in the Cape Epic at some point.
Follow Mark’s journeys online at markbeaumontonline.com and on Twitter: @MrMarkBeaumont
Making his mark
Age 15: Cycled solo from the top of Scotland to the bottom of England.
2008: Broke the record for fastest true circumnavigation of the world on cycle, solo, in 194 days and 17 hours (29 446km).
BBC documentarian for The Man Who Cycled the World (2008) and The Man Who Cycled the Americas (2009); author of the books of the same titles.
2010: Became the first person to cycle the length of the Americas while also summiting both of the continents’ highest peaks in a single climbing season.
2011: Did a team row through the Canadian Arctic; the expedition became the world’s first to reach a certified polar position by rowing boat.
2012: Atlantic Odyssey—attempted the fastest team row across the mid-Atlantic, but capsized and was rescued.
2013: Completed the Highland Line Challenge, crossing Scotland by swimming and running.
Source: The Intrepid Explorer