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On the new craze of riding round the world as fast as you possibly can.

The odds aren't good...

“Ah, it was a fine night, a warm night, a wine-drinking night, a moony night, and a night to hug your girl and talk and spit and be heaven going. This we did” – Jack Kerouac

A common question in my talks is “what do you think of Mark Beaumont’s ride?” Last night, to my surprise, I came up with a brief answer that pleased me rather than the usual mental meanderings I come out with in Q&A’s.

Mark, as you will know, cycled round the world a couple of year ago, breaking a world record for the fastest bike ride round the world. On the back of his trip Mark featured on an Orange ad, broadcast a TV series and wrote a really successful book. He’s just back from another televised ride for the BBC.

Mark’s journey was very different to my own ride round the world. He rode 18,000 miles in 194 days. I rode 46,000 in about 1600. Him fast, me slow. But neither one of them is “better” or “worse” than the other. Neither Mark nor I set out to compete with anyone else. But Mark’s trip has spawned a bit of a competitive craze for cycling 18,000 miles really fast. Every couple of months someone pops up who has done it quicker than the last person. Two more were in the news just last week.

It is perhaps inevitable that I get asked about these journeys. After all, we all went ’round the world by bike’. But, apart from that, I always answer that I don’t see anything else in common between us. Theirs are impressive physical, athletic feats. Mine was an ambling journey: I was on the road for longer than all of the new batch of speedy guys put together which shows how amazingly quick they are! Separate but equal, perhaps.

And so to my answer last night:

“it is like comparing Chris Hoy with Jack Kerouac.”

By that I meant that it’s just not really an appropriate or relevant comparison.

Was I right or wrong with this? Do these speed rides fit in the categories of “Adventures” or “Journeys” or “Expeditions”? Or are they “Races” or “Challenges”? Or both? And does it really matter? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments.


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Comments

  1. It’s the difference between endurance and exploration isn’t it?

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  2. Fergie Meek Posted

    Thanks to your writings I have become much more adventurous again (I used to be when I was younger!) and I recently finished a 150 mile cycle from Killin to Culloden in 4 days. Several people have asked me why I didn’t do it faster as it is easily possible to do it in 2 days if you are fit. My response was that I wanted to really see the country I passed though and talk to people – I saw Pictish stones, prehistoric cairns, Jacobite era barracks as well as beautiful countryside and mountains. Although I really admire Mark Beaumont (I went to his talk in Stirling and bought his book) I totally agree with your ‘ambling’ approach.

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  3. Alastair

    You are absolutely correct! No comparison. I have just walked the Way of Saint James for 65 days (www.dustytrack.com) and met many speedy walkers. In the evenings when I met them at the same refuges, they did not seem to have seen anything of the route they walked. They missed out on the real spirit of the walk.
    Some had heads thrust into maps and GPS, many were so exhausted they could not walk the next day. I got to Santiago de Compostela before many of these ‘fast’ walkers! Each one their own Camino as we said!

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  4. After I dragged you & Rob in for breakfast mid M25 (I hadn’t realised at that point you’d both had cycled round the world, apologies for my ignorance). Nevertheless your visit got me reading your books and Rob’s, consequence of this is I also read Mark’s book expecting more of the same. I enjoyed it but it’s seemed a very very different adventure. In the book you feel the constant pressure to beat the clock. “Got up cycled long, was very tired slept, got up cycled.not really having fun.” And so on and so on.

    I think a lot of people don’t understand adventure for adventures sake and therefore we need to pigeon hole it and pin a badge to it Fastest / First / Highest and with the badge comes the fame, the awe and the BBC TV deals.

    The only insight I can offer as an outsider who’s read all 4 books is: When reading about other peoples adventures fastest doesn’t make for the best book but it does seem to get you a TV deal or two.

    Matt

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    • Thanks for the sausages Matt! You achieved Hero status with that gesture!

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    • Matt,
      I think there is definitely a case that breaking a record is important for getting a large number of people aware of your project. Mark has done fabulously here.
      But I think the books comes down to preference: some will love the endurance of Mark’s book, others will like the rambling in Rob’s. Horses for courses I guess.

      Reply
      • Hi Matt.

        Although our “walk” around the M25 felt like a bit of a race, I am very glad we had time to stop at your house for those sausages! MMMM!

        It’s funny, but although in theory my Cycling Home From Siberia trip, and then more recently M25 walk, and walk through Israel, were not supposed to be races, I did often end up having to rush because I had a deadline to make (not a record to break).

        I am really determined to try and allow plenty of time for my next exped… (though Al might not believe me on that one)

        Hope you and your family are all very well.

        Rob

        Reply
        • I had quite a chuckle at your book and a great deal of empathy, I’m a bit of a faffer myself and tend to dawdle this seemed to come through in the book (no offence). This also seemed to annoy Al who seemed to excel at efficiency. (Tent up and cooking in under 3 mins).

          Anyway I digress but the point being I quite like to faff and pootle and stop for a cup of tea just because, no other reason. Somedays though you’ve got to get your head down and push on.

          I can only relate this to stuff I’ve done. I’ve done the South Downs Way on my bike over 3 days with a Bivi Bag and I’ve done it 13 hours start to finish.

          I enjoyed both for very different reasons.

          Over the three days I met some people, got invited in by a stranger for a cup of tea, slept under the stars and woke up with frost and a beautiful sunrise, got drunk and got very wet.

          The same journey in 13 hours flat was hard, I took no photos, I was exhausted at the end but the elation of completing it and knowing I’ve done it still makes me smile as I’ve feel like I have achieved something not many others have.

          I’d do both again. (I think, the pain of the 13 hours is still quite fresh but starting to fade. )

          Family has an additional very small member and all are well, thanks.

          All the best to you and yours,

          Matt

          Reply
  5. I have heard a few people openly slag Mark Beaumont off for various things, but if he wants to cycle somewhere as fast as possible then fair play to him. I agree that comparing his journey to yours is pointless, yours was an adventure, his a race.

    Backpacking is more my thing than cycling and this year especially I’ve realised the importance of slowing down and experiencing the world around you. I have been guilty in the past of rushing from one hill to the next, I missed so much by doing this.

    I have had in my mind a trip that I would love to do and have started to seriously put thought into the planning. I would like to walk every 2000ft mountain in the UK as a continuous walk. While this sounds more like a Mark Beaumont style race to do them, its not. This is where my mindset has changed and my reasons aren’t to complete them in as fast a time as possible but to see some of the most beautiful places in the UK and the areas between them while also having a focus. The thought of rushing between each puts me off. If I feel like taking a couple of days off then why not. It is tempting to do them fast and I’m not aware that anyone else has done them continuously, but so what if they have.

    “The journey is better than the end”

    At some point I would quite like to ask a couple of questions, but you must get sick of them. Keep up the excellent posts.

    Reply
    • Hi Stephen,

      Mark B is a really nice guy. He’s doing stuff for reasons he cares about. He’s down to earth, always willing to help people out, and I don’t think anyone should ‘slag him off’ at all.

      Your trip sounds very ambitious! Have you read Running High by Hugh Symonds? Lovely guy and amazing athlete.

      Al

      Reply
  6. I don’t think it’s a question of right or wrong as both methods have very different intentions. However, most people find it easier to comprehend the “to be the fastest/farthest/first” line of thinking than a simple “why the heck not”. To them, “why not” does not define a meaningful, philanthropic purpose, but is seen as somewhat selfish and self-indulgent.

    Reply
  7. Hugh Symonds book is in my “To Read” pile. I know my dream is ambitious, when you realise there are over 1300 mountains falling into the category and the time and distances to do these becomes staggering, hard to believe this is just in Britain.

    If you don’t do something about your dreams, surely you look back later in life and wonder “if only”.

    I personally like Mark Beaumont, sounds a nice guy from interviews.

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  8. I set off to cycle more or less directly round the world about 3 years ago, well before Mr Beaumont began. I wasn’t trying to break the record for speed, but nevertheless I quit the idea. Why? It became boring. Why use such a flexible, independent means of transport to do something so linear and single-minded? After a few months I was sick of grinding along in one direction in the name of ‘progress’, just in order to achieve the rather abstract concept of having done it.

    But I didn’t give up and go home – instead I have spent the last three years on the road in a much more abstract fashion, still spending a lot of time cycling (slowly and in a roundabout manner), but doing plenty of hitching and other overlanding when I felt like it, and much more importantly spending a lot of time living in places where I’ve become planted for one entirely personal reason or another, becoming part of communities, being able to work, study and let out some of my creativity.

    There are still vast chunks of the world I’ve no idea about whatsoever, but they can wait until the time comes. As a result of slowing down I’ve been able to understand much more deeply the places I have spent time in, and had time to digest experiences and thoughts properly, and for me that’s scratched the travelling itch much more than blasting along on my bike all the time and always saying no to cups of tea ever did.

    I guess what I’m saying is that the high-profile, high-concept challenge/race/record is for someone who wants to achieve a goal and go home, which is absolutely fine if that’s what you want to do, whatever your personal reasons, and I fully respect those who have gone this way and stayed true to it. But a deep, long, all-encompassing journey of self-discovery by bike or otherwise is an intensely personal thing, and just can not be wrapped around a world record, a line on a map, a list of impressive-sounding statistics or anything else which sits on comparisons. It’s your life and there are no medals.

    I do fear that the attention being lavished upon the high-speed style of world-cycling may well be confusing people into thinking that it’s the only way to do it. The messages and questions I’ve received through my site recently have definitely reflected this. So I’m glad you wrote this article, as it hits the nail on the head exactly 🙂

    Reply
  9. You are right, no comparison there; Beauty is in the eye of the beholder – and there is allure to both approaches.

    Records are meant to be broken. Going far and faster than others is a great endurance challenge. Another nice example here is Erik Straarup’s North Cape to Gibraltar ride in 18 days (average of 302 km/day – see http://www.lonebiker.dk)

    During my own Panamerican Peaks ride starting in July 2009 I tried for a few days to catch up to Mark who was riding about 2 weeks ahead of me. I followed his tweets and saw his guestbook entries at campgrounds. But then we followed different routes and my climbing and interspersed family vacation took my on a different course. My idea to climb the highest mountain of every country along the Panamerican Highway was different and dictated its own schedule (due to the short climbing seasons of high peaks). Geography and climate made it a bit of a race against time; I had to start in the hemisphere summer and ride away from winter.

    While I enjoyed this time-challenge, I also wished I had had more time to immerse in the local culture, to say Yes to a cup of tea more often, to hang out with more people and to learn better Spanish while at it. I posted a bit more philosophical on this immersion aspect here: http://tlausser.com/blog/2010/05/immersion-versus-insulation/

    Cheers, Thomas.

    Reply
  10. Andy Pag Posted

    I travelled with some overland bikers on nice BMW bikes. To them the world was a playground for their great bikes, and who could blame them (they are great bikes). To me, my truck is a vehicle to get me to see and engage with the world (who could blame me, its a great world – and a rubbish truck).

    Think you’re right, comparisons of the journeys are irrelevant, but its interesting to compare how the experience impacts on the people. Both Mark and you have worked hard to turn your projects into successful careers that allow you to carry on your ambitions, with books, talks and media presence.

    Out of curiosity, would you say there’s a competitive element there? Is there rivalry to be the long distance cyclist spokesman of choice for events/media? I’m fascinated how adventurers create a brand out of their achievement, and in my mind that’s an achievement you both deserve praise for as much as for your pedalling.

    Reply
  11. Hi Alistair

    Really glad I came accross this (founded it on Mark Beaumonts Facebook link). My wife and I are currently making our way through Peru, Chile and Argentina by bicycle and I’ve certainly got a new found respect for Mark’s Pan-American feat.

    I can only think that the goal of a world record and everything that goes with it is what helped push him through what certainly must have been some very challenging moments. I can’t think of anything else that would push me to get up at the crack of dawn, ride hard all day, crash when I can’t go any further, then get up and do it all again the next day, barely having a moment to take in the culture and communities being cycled through.

    It was so easy to sit back and watch Mark in the comfort of the sofa – I even laughed at how the films had been constructed for their drama. I eat my words now – particularly the moments of concern for personal safety.

    You’re right – it’s two totally different kettles of fish which require two very different mindsets, and I’d say there’s not that many that can say they understand what drives 4 years on the road either.

    Feel free to drop in on our adventure as we go (there’s been a few buses but it is our honeymoon!) – blogs.boldcreative.co.uk/alegria

    Good luck with the Pakistan Night of Adventure, we were at the last one and really enjoyed the 20 slides from your fellow ‘slow adventurer’ who gave it all up to live in a tree!

    Greg and Georgia

    Reply
  12. Al,

    This post has attracted a wealth of opinion, all of fascinating to read. Nice work. My two cents is social: taking the time to learn about yourself through the presence and absence of people you meet or don’t meet along the way is at the heart of what exploring is about.

    Adventurers say they are going to travel the terrain but when they’re back home it’s their experience with the people they meet that seems to inform most of their learning about themselves.

    Geoff

    Reply
  13. I think the key think, like you say Al, is that these are different expeditions. A race can be an expedition as well, I think. Scott and Amundsen raced to the pole but who wouldn’t call both of their hauls expeditions?

    I think each is cool and worthy and brilliant. Ultimately I think it’s all about how what it means to the doer. The racer. The expeditioner.

    Records schmecords really – the most important thing is the journey, no matter how it happens – fast or slow.

    I guess it just depends what floats your boat.

    As for Mark – what a top guy. I agree – no one should be slagging him, or indeed anyone, off. Each to their own, every time.

    Reply
  14. Jackson Griffith Posted

    First up, would just like to say Alastair, I finished reading Thunder & Sunshine last night having first read MoFJ of course. And I must congratulate you, not just on the journey, but on a really fantastic piece of writing too. Loved every single page, the candid, honest style was a real pleasure. I’ve read many many adventure bios over the years and these two are now definitely up there with my favourites. Thanks for the read!

    Back to the point of this thread, the general concensus is right of course, you can’t really compare the two forms of challenges. To me, one is a “performance” and the other an “experience”.

    To achieve an “-est” is to demonstrate some form of “Performance” to others (however the reality of the challenge or the performance may be a little contrived to maximise PR).

    To travel purely for adventure’s sake at your own pace leans more towards seeking a personal “Experience”.

    You can attempt to run a 150 mile Ultra Marathon under time pressure (and be disqualified if you’re too slow) and if successful, demonstrate an amazing athletic performance. Or, you could quite possibly have a much better experience undertaking the same route (across a desert, a mountain range, across icey wastes etc) with no ticking clock, no competitors, just solo or with a few buddies. Each approach has merits, I’ve done both and I really enjoy both, but they are very different.

    I’m sure your sub 3 hour Marathon Alastair sits very different in your mind to your 4 year cycle around the world. One a great performance, the other an amazing experience.

    As we get older, I think we lean more towards seeking an experience rather than demonstrating a performance. Maybe it’s a symptom of fading physical ability as we get older, or maybe we develop less need for the ego massage of being able to achieve something fast or high.

    I know you like a quote or two Alastair, so;

    “Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself”

    The other aspect to consider is, what different skill sets and abilities do you need for either type of challenge. Would you rather have a superb athlete on your expedition, or someone less fit yet more experienced? Something for a another thread …

    Jackson.

    p.s. See you on the 7th at Google HQ!

    Reply
  15. Mmmm – performance or experience.

    Last year, I finally accepted that the biggest constraint I currently have is time. Maintaining balance between sometimes conflicting interests can be a challenge in itself.

    My two passions are exploring the mountains and hill running. Very often the choice at a weekend is a competitive race or a mountain trip to a new area or revisiting the scene of past trips. Both give an “experience” located in the same wild environment…they just different experiences. The challenge of moving quickly over rough ground sometimes making equally quick (and sometimes wrong) navigational and route choices is equally as rewarding as the more sedate trips. The hill running gives a level of physical fitness that makes the exploration easier and more enjoyable. In addition, hill racing has taken me to many places that I may never have visited otherwise.

    Does age shift the focus – for me no. I may be about to mark 42 years kicking around this planet but I am probably more competitive than I was in my early 20s (mid-life crisis …will let someone else decide the answer to that one). I am firmly in the “never won anything and never will” midfield but I measure myself against rivals of similar abilty in races (and it is always nice to get a new PB in an event) and against myself. I just managed to complete the Ben Nevis race this year in under two hours this year and will be aiming to do at least the same again next. If anyone suggests that age is a “real” barrier to performance – spend a wee bit of time reading about Joss Naylor 🙂

    In short, I reckon competition and exploration can happily live beside each other – it is all about choice and balance. Nice thing …you are in control of both !

    Reply
  16. I completely agree with the metaphor. Have you managed to read the book? It’s an excellent read and I enjoyed BBC docummentary when he cycled from the top of North America to the bottom of Argentina. “The man who cycled theAmericas.”

    Reply

 
 

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