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Riders On The Storm

On the 4th December 2009, 23-year-old London bike courier Julian Sayerer had just completed a physically unparalleled, record-breaking ride around the globe. He had covered over 18,000 miles in just 169 days, travelling East through Europe, Kazakhstan, China, New Zealand and America. In the end he’d beaten the standing record belonging to Scotland’s Mark Beaumont by over three weeks.

Sayerer’s reaction to his own success was a strange one. Rather than thanking friends and name-checking sponsors, he wrote an entry on his blog, at thisisnotforcharity.com. ‘What I want to say concerns Mark Beaumont,’ he typed, hours after his triumphant return. ‘Completing that all-but meaningless record was motivated, more than anything, by earning my license, having done exactly as he did, to say exactly what I thought of him.’

In a tirade of articulate fury that stretched to several thousands of words, Sayarer did just that. ‘I have no respect for him,’ he wrote. ‘I regard him as a lifeform some way inferior to the dead skin that accumulates in the seat of my crotch after three weeks of cycling a desert without washing.’ What was it about the journey made by these two apparently similar men – both politics graduates, both cyclists united by an extraordinary achievement – that had led not just to a lack of respect, but to hatred?

Global Conflict

Circumnavigating the globe by bike is a peculiarly British pursuit. In August 2001 Alastair Humphreys set off from his front door in Yorkshire and arrived home over four years and 50,000 miles later. Humphreys’ was a journey of adventure and exploration rather than speed – he always planned to take several years, and, he remembers casually, when the invasion of Afghanistan blocked his original route he ‘got to Turkey and turned right for Africa,’ admitting that from this point he was making up the rest as he went along.

Earlier, the first ratified Guinness World Record holder for circumnavigation was Nick Sanders, who in 1984 covered a staggering 13,000 miles in just 78 days. Then, in 2005, Devon-based Steve Strange set a new record under an updated set of regulations set by Guinness, hitting a starting target of 276 days.

Mark Beaumont became interested in the record while at university in Glasgow. He had two focuses, he says – completing major expeditions, and becoming a filmmaker by making documentaries about them. The world cycle struck him as an interesting possibility. ‘I was amazed how few people had gone for the record,’ he remembers. ‘The record stood at 276 days and almost nobody knew of it. I asked Guinness, ‘Why is that? Why has that not been attempted at a really challenging level?’

Beaumont had been doing smaller rides through his teens, and was confident that his body was up to the task. In consultation with Glasgow university he drew up a rough program of 100 miles per day (a figure that became a gold-standard for future record attempts) with 6,000 calories needed to fuel the effort. Next he outlined a route designed around speed rather than exploration. ‘I really looked at it in terms of a race,’ he insists. ‘It wasn’t my chance to see the world, I was trying to go as fast as possible.’

No logos

While he felt physically prepared, Beaumont found it much harder to organise sponsorship

and coverage for the trip. ‘It wasn’t fantastic,’ he admits. ‘It took six months before anyone would back me.’ His sponsors – including Orange and Lloyds TSB – would later play a part in Sayarer’s views, although whether Beaumont was in a position to be selective at this point is doubtful. His final route was based almost entirely on a series of practical considerations – ‘prevailing wind directions, road conditions, border crossings, danger zones, blah blah blah’ – with one personal touch. ‘I looked at what had been done before, and nobody had drawn an undotted line from the West coast of Europe to the to East coast of Asia,’ he explains. ‘You can miss sections in the middle there and make up the miles so long as you never go back on yourself – that’s absolutely fine. But I wanted to be able to stand back at the end of it, and on a world chart look like I’d pedalled an undotted line around the world.’

It was a singular spark of adventurous ambition in an expedition Beaumont readily admits was otherwise carefully designed to kickstart a career, and it led to some of his greatest difficulties. ‘It’s why I ended up going through one of the hardest parts for me, through Pakistan,’ he admits. ‘I knew it was going to be tough. I knew it in the year of planning, and then when I was on the road in Iran the British Embassy said that based on the 20 kidnappings there’d been in the previous month, they couldn’t back me to go through.’ The BBC, who had given Beaumont several cameras for his proposed documentary on the trip, fell in line with the Foreign Office, but as he wasn’t being paid to make the journey, he decided to go ahead anyway. ‘I couriered my cameras back from Southern Iran and picked up an armed guard on the Pakistani border.’ Not that it was plain sailing from there. ‘I was driven through at a pace which I could barely sustain, locked in a police cell every night for my own security,’ the Scot explains. ‘And every time I changed guard they would try to put my bike in the back of the jeeps and I was just… it was really hard to stay on the bike and get enough food to sustain myself.’

There were several other ups and downs. Beaumont picks his lowest point as riding into an unrelenting headwind in the Australian Outback, crawling 3,500 miles in a month of ten-hour days. ‘It was the only time in the ride where I ended up on the side of the road, cracking up slightly.’ But he also remembers some amazing highs. ‘New Zealand was spectacular, California was spectacular. And the one that really sticks out for me is Iran, because I didn’t know what it would be like. When I got there it was very, very friendly, with one of the best roads I’ve cycled on, and the people were so dif

ferent to what I’d imagined. I was really charmed by Iran.’

Beaumont finished his ride in Paris on 15th Februrary 2008, logging a time of 194 days. He was officially recognised as the world record holder shortly after, and a documentary about his experiences called The Man Who Cycled The World, lasting four hours on BBC 1 instead of a planned 30 minutes on BBC 2 Scotland, was broadcast in August.

Feud for thought

It was this documentary, along with Beaumont’s appearance in Orange’s ‘I Am Everyone’ advertising campaign, that raised the profile of the world cycle and led to a rush of new contenders. Julian Sayerer was one of them, and probably unique among the group in his motives. He regarded Beaumont, he says now, as a ‘negative inspiration.’

‘I thought ‘Well, it’s something I’d like to do, and I could do it, and I don’t like the way that he’s done it,’’ Sayerer remembers. His problems with Beaumont stemmed from the Scotsman’s sponsors – from their character, rather than their presence. Sayerer has strong political views. He is, broadly, a radical liberal, wary of exploitative corporations and their relationships with government, and with well-informed and pessimistic views about where society is heading. In person, in a locally-owned coffee shop, he is charming and articulate, a far remove from the anger that sometimes surfaces on his blog. ‘Though I respect Beaumont’s achievement, I respect very little of that which I know him to have done with it’ Sayerer wrote when first publishing his feelings about his world record rival. ‘In my mind, the man represents an awful lot of that which is wrong with the world, i.e. a perfectly likeable fellow, cosied-up with unlikable people, for the perfectly reasonable reaso

n of making one’s life that bit more comfortable.’

In his blog, Sayerer picked out the Orange commercial, and one episode Beaumont recalled from the Outback, in particular. ‘It really made me sick to think that some chap in the Nullarbor gave water, something presumably quite precious out there, to a stranger in need, and that that stranger then went on to sell the sanctity of that act to a bloody telephone company…I don’t mind people making their lives a bit easier, earning some money, it’s just a bit shit when it’s dressed up in some saccharine bollocks that suggests all is lovely.’

Sayerer’s expedition was set up in direct opposition to Beaumont’s. He pursued a few like-minded sponsors for equipment, but was almost entirely self-funded, and selected his route based on places he actually wanted to see. ‘I went through Kazakhstan and Northern China, countries I’d always had an interest in visiting,’ he says. ‘I’m half-Turkish and speak some Turkish. There’s a lot of overlap with those guys, so it was great to be able to communicate with people in Kaz.’

Even so, Sayerer’s journey was marked with similar moments of crisis and triumph.

Perhaps surprisingly, one of his favourite places was the United States. ‘There’s a great humanity to America and we often just see the obnoxious patriotic side to it’ he says. ‘At one point a guy told me he could fix my broken wheel, and when we rode back to his house he gave me $100. There’s this really migratory spirit in America, and this idea of pursuing a dream. This heroic challenge – as they saw it – really appealed to them.’

Leader of the pack

By now, though, Sayerer wasn’t the only one taking on the challenge. When he set off in June 2009, fellow Londoner James Bowthorpe had already been on the road for three months. Bowthorpe’s motivation was different again – he aimed to set a new world record of 150 days, at 120 miles per day, in order to raise funds for the charity What’s Driving Parkinsons? ‘It was something I’ve always wanted to do, since I was touring at 18, 19, 20’ he says. ‘And I thought it would always be a dream because it would take two years to do. But Mark’s record and me wanting to raise money came along at the same time, and it reduced it to a less-than six-month window, which was ideal.’

Bowthorpe’s was a self-funded effort like Sayerer’s. Concerned that a glut of other riders would be setting out following Beaumont’s documentary (a suspicion later proved correct), Bowthorpe gave himself just seven months to prepare, and sped up the planning by copying the record holder’s route. ‘He’d very kindly put i

t up on his website,’ Beaumont jokes.

The ride wasn’t without problems. Bowthorpe suffered from severe food poisoning in India, and had to slog through the pain to escape what his medical team called the ‘infection zone’. ‘I was basically doing 120-130 miles a day just on breakfast, because I couldn’t eat any more than that. I was sick all the time, and I lost about 15 kilos in two weeks.’ Even with a five-day recovery stop in Bangkok, Bowthorpe’s time of 174 days – which would have been closer to 160 once deductions for transit had been made – was comfortably low enough to topple Beaumont’s record. Except, astonishingly, Bowthorpe didn’t apply.

‘I never actually finished doing that,’ he says quietly. ‘It was partly because – well, you must have read about all the background stuff that was going on between Julian and Mark. I just didn’t really want to get involved in any of that, really.’ Bowthorpe makes it clear that he’s still very proud of his achievement, a pride not dependent on holding the record. ‘I still could do it, and I’d be there in retrospect, but it’s not really hugely important to me. There’s a bit of a bitter taste after all that rigmarole.’

Two more attempts followed in 2010. First there was Vin Cox, a now ex-IT consultant and experienced cyclo-cross rider based in Cornwall. He’d switched from mountain riding to touring during the foot and mouth outbreak, and first came across the idea of cycling the world in Beaumont’s documentary. ‘I thought it was a great thing to do’ he says. ‘The only thought I had about it really, probably just because of the way the film was edited – it looked like he had a miserable time for six months. I’ve spoken to Mark and I know that he /didn’t/ have a miserable time, and he’s still pursuing those sort of events. But I set off to try to do something like Mark had done, a little bit faster, and to enjoy myself.’

Cox, 35, was an experienced rider, but shrugs off the idea his route was selected for speed. ‘No,’ he says wryly. ‘I looked at Mark’s route, and I followed Julian and James on theirs, and simply want

ed to do things as differently as I could.’ What surprised Cox was that no attempt at this global event had so far touched on Africa or South America, two places included in his original plan. In the end the timing of the South American winter forced a redirection, but Cox’s route still stood out. ‘I tried to string together beautiful places to see – world heritage sites, different cultures, and unusual places,’ he says. ‘And I knew that – it might sound a bit arrogant – but I’d done cycle tours through the Highlands of Scotland knocking out 100 miles a day no problem.  If you can manage that in hilly terrain and having a good time, I didn’t see a reason why I wouldn’t be able to maintain that pace.’ He was right. Having set off from Greenwich in February 2010, Cox returned in August having set a new record of 163 days.

The second rider in that year was Alan Bate, who stands apart from the other cyclists for several reasons. He is British, but he now lives in Thailand, and is a good deal older at 45. In fact, when Cox reached Thailand on his own journey in March, Bate was just setting off, and the pair exchanged emails. But Bates’ record attempt was to be very different to Cox’s. ‘I am from a racing background,’ he explains, ‘which made me believe I could undertake the event from a different angle. No [other] rider had utilised the rules to make a truly competitive attempt to go as fast as possible.’ As such Bate’s route was all about speed. ‘I wasn’t interested in visiting anywhere, just getting round quickly and safely, then returning to a normal life,’ he asserts.

Bate’s ride was also controversial. He dedicated the record to the king of Thailand, which left several onlookers baffled, and had the benefit of a support vehicle for large sections of the ride, making his journey more comfortable and enabling him to receive massages on the road. He was also going much faster than Cox, ploughing through one long, mile-heavy day after another, and not everybody was happy about it. ‘He seemed to provoke some bad feeling from some people who were supporting me,’ admits Cox. ‘In some ways once Alan was on route and going faster than me, it helped me really focus on the fact that I didn’t want to just do what Alan was doing. It wouldn’t have interested me.’

Bate finished his ride on the 4th of August, just three days after Cox, with a provisional time of 113 days. But if Cox’s well-wishers weren’t happy wit

h Bate beating the fresh record using a support vehicle, then strangely neither was Bate himself. Despite the cloud of mystery and even suspicion surrounding his attempt, Bate comes across as open, earnest and, above all, respectful. ‘I am mostly proud to have ridden my last event successfully,’ he reflects, aware that his competitive days are numbered. ‘The record became insignificant to me.’ He has asked Guinness to recognise his attempt in a separate, semi-supported category, and won’t submit his evidence for ratification until he has a response. ‘That’s only fair to Vin and the others in my view.’

What’s interesting is that a similar respect runs right through this unique group of athletes, with the obvious exception of Sayerer and Beaumont. And even then, Sayerer is full of deference for just about everyone else. He describes himself as ‘a big fan’ of Bowthorpe and also has good things to say about Cox. ‘I respect what he did to the route, especially the fact that he didn’t necessarily go for the flattest possible route.’

With the others it’s even more pronounced. Beaumont tracked down Humphreys to ask the more experienced rider’s advice about routes and kit before leaving to set the standard all the others would chase. When that standard was broken, he contacted the riders in question to congratulate them (though not Sayerer, understandably). And when Sayerer completed his record-breaking journey and attacked Beaumont in the way he felt he’d earned, the consensus was that it was a misguided and unsportmanlike act. ‘I really enjoyed following his trip,’ Humphreys says. ‘He’s quite a poetic guy on his blog. The piece he wrote when he got back, I have to say I thought was very rude’ Cox’s response was similar. ‘I was a little disappointed in what Julian was saying,’ he explains. ‘I could see where he was coming from, I understand his political outlook. I just think he can make a point as strongly as possible by doing it for his reasons and saying what they are, rather than criticising someone else’s.’

It was rude, and it was unsportsmanlike. But that’s because, perhaps unlike the others, sportsmanship is not at the centre of Sayerer’s moral compass (‘Yours in sport,’ Bate signs off his emails). Sayerer isn’t needlessly unpleasant or competitive. The outburst, and his stance on Beaumont, come from a set of ethics about which he is frustratingly, admirably uncompromising. In contrast to Beaumont’s further television success – a second series on the Americas followed the world cycle – Sayerer is still working as a courier and aiming to ‘make a living doing things that I enjoy, and that don’t compromise me,’ which he describes as ‘a really big challenge in itself.’ In the end the drive behind his attack on Beaumont was not the pair’s differences, but their similarities, which compelled Sayerer to hold Beaumont to the same standards he does himself. ‘We’re the same age, we’re both politics graduates,’ Sayerer wrote tellingly in that blog entry. ‘I feel no desire to make excuses or allowances for him that I would never make for myself.’

That, above all, is what is striking about hearing the world cyclists talk about their journeys. There is a unique shared experience here. Not just the mechanical emergencies, or the physical exertions, or the miles per day or the calorie intake. In each man’s recollections there comes across a sense of the people they have met, and an overwhelming and unexpected friendliness in the places they’ve travelled. Humphreys talks about a man who wielded his broken steel frame back together in the Sudan, and two churches – one Baptist, one Mormon – who banded together to buy him a new bike in Arizona. Beaumont talks about the lady who ran him down in New Orleans, only to take him home and have her son fix his bike. Vin Cox remembers the frankness of the Australians he met crossing the Outback (‘How the fack d’you do this? It’s so facking boring out there!’) but also the man who stopped his van in the Nullarbor to hand him a cold can of Coke. And Sayerer was humbled by the welcome he received from New Zealand to Kazakhstan. ‘New Zealand, people were amazingly friendly,’ he says. ‘I’d pull up at a farm and ask if I could camp in the field, and by the time I’d got my tent out they’d come out going ‘Well, my wife can make you up a bed. In Kaz, you’d walk up to a house in the middle of nowhere and the guy would invite you in for dinner with his family.’

There were clearly bad times too – misunderstandings, intimidation, even robberies. But these are also shared experiences. ‘Anybody who’s ridden round the world has more in common than they do in difference,’ says Cox, summing up how he views the efforts of Sayerer and the other riders. ‘I’d rather focus on the kinship of our shared experiences, our motivation and determination, knowing some of the things each of you have gone through. Everyone’s got their own different ways of doing it, there’s nothing wrong with saying how you’re different. But I’m going to recognise my similarities between him and everybody else first.’

This text originally appeared in Men’s Fitness magazine. Image by Vin Cox.

 

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