The [Scots]Man Who Cycled The World

Duncan R. Jamieson PhD, Professor of History, Ashland University

Review: Beaumont, Mark. The Man Who Cycled the World. London: Transworld Publishers, 2009 (Corgi Edition, 2010, £8.99)

When the high wheel bicycle appeared in the 1870s young men began riding prodigious distances, which set the standard for others determined to break the record. In the United Kingdom, the popular long distance route became the ride from Lands End to John O’Groats, a ride of approximately 1,000 miles. In North America it is a transcontinental ride, the mileage depending on the route chosen. In the 1880s several people had set and broken records for Lands End to John O’Groats, but no one had yet crossed North America. In April, 1884, the English-born Thomas Stevens set out from San Francisco bound for Boston, which he reached one hundred three days later. Once there he convinced Colonel A. A. Pope, owner of Columbia Bicycles and Outing, a leading sporting monthly, to sponsor him to continue the rest of the way around the world, the ultimate long distance destination. In December, 1886 Stevens reached Yokohama, Japan, having pedaled and walked and carried his sixty inch Columbia 19,312 kilometers across three continents; but soon many people challenged both the time and the distance, going faster and farther.

In the early 1950s Sir Hugh Beaver, managing director of Guinness Breweries, frustrated by the lack of a standard reference work to determine records, created what’s become Guinness World Records, the authority for all sorts of natural and human achievements. One such record is around the world bicycling. In 1984 the Englishman Nick Sanders became the first person to hold the record, riding 20,921 kilometers around the Northern Hemisphere in 78 days. In 2003, however, Guinness changed the rules; to qualify, the rider now needed to cover at least 28,968 kilometers over four continents, plus an additional 12,875 kilometers by sea or air. The rider finally needed to pass through two points on opposite sides of the world. Though a surprising number of men and women bicycle around the world annually, very few are interested in speed or setting a record. Under the new rules the Englishman Steve Strange circumcycled the globe in 2004-2005 in 276 days, covering 29,651 kilometers. That record lasted only three years when Scottish cyclist Mark Beaumont shattered it, completing 29,446 kilometers in 194 days, averaging 161 kilometers a day.

Born on January 1, 1983, Beaumont grew up in the foothills of the Scottish Highlands. His first long distance bicycle ride took him across Scotland from Dundee to Oban. He followed this by conquering the John O’Groats to Lands End trek and then undertook a charity ride from Sicily to the Alps, 2,092 kilometers up the Italian peninsula. Though not a dedicated cyclist, during his junior year at the University of Glasgow he determined to follow his dream and ride around the world. After graduation he began a serious training regimen and the arduous task of identifying sponsors for his attempt to establish a new Guinness Record. He also needed to establish the logistical support to make sure he had adequate proof to meet the rigorous Guinness standard. Though many people who cycle long distances do it to disappear — Irishwoman Dervla Murphy has many books of her cycling adventures on three continents in which she leaves her normal life behind — Beaumont remained in almost constant contact via cell phone and computer with his mother who maintained his base camp in Scotland. The hardest part of the journey was the physical loneliness for days on end. As he traveled on a strict budget, camping and preparing his own food were necessities.

He started in Paris and rode southeast through Europe to Istanbul, Turkey and then across Asia to Calcutta, India. There he flew to Bangkok, Thailand and cycled to Singapore. He flew then to Perth, Australia, riding across to Brisbane before flying to New Zealand to ride the length of both the south and north islands. Next he flew to San Francisco, California to cycle across the southern United States to Saint Augustine, Florida. The last leg of the journey saw him flying to Lisbon, Portugal and riding north to Paris. Throughout the hardest aspect was maintaining the mental focus; though he took days off, approximately one every two weeks, he had to maintain the schedule, not matter how interesting and inviting a diversion might be. Much of the time he rode alone, though in some places guides or police escorts accompanied him. Such was not the case in the United States where he had his worst experiences, first hit by a car and then shortly afterward mugged. Still he persevered.

Two and one half years after Beaumont gained the title Englishman Vin Cox reduced the time by 31 days to take the record, only to lose it the same month to another Briton, Alan Bate, who reduced the time by 57 days, though unlike Beaumont and Cox who rode unsupported Bate had support for at least part of his ride. Though he no longer has the Guinness record, Beaumont’s The Man Who Cycled the World remains a great read.


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