Monday, 3 May 2010

The Man who cycled the World and talked in Stirling

On Friday night last, I was privileged to be able to attend a sell-out talk at Stirling’s Albert Halls by Mark Beaumont, the 27 year old Scottish adventurer, round-the-world cycling Guinness World Record holder and recent completer of the first North-to-South cycle of the Americas also to take in successful summit climbs of Mount McKinlay (or Denali) in Alaska and Aconcagua in Argentina, the highest peaks in, respectively, North and South America. Both of these epic rides (and the latter associated mountain climbs) were the subject of multi-episode documentary series on the BBC, largely self-filmed by Beaumont. In fact, he only returned from his Americas trip a few weeks ago, which must mean that the BBC broadcast “The Man Who Cycled the Americas” almost as soon as he completed his journey (more on this later). I’d seen parts of the first series and all of the second and was curious to hear more, hopefully gaining more of an insight into the mindset of someone capable of pushing themselves, largely alone, for months on end, in these amazing feats of physical and mental endurance.

Programme for the tour, signed inner leaf and cover of The Man Who Cycled The World

Anyway, the sell-out crowd of over 700 were treated to an inspiring performance. Mark Beaumont is a fine public speaker, confident but quite humble in manner, with a nice sense of irony in his presentation style. His Twitter feed beforehand said: "Getting ready to go on stage in front of 750 people in Stirling. I know at about 50 of those which makes it that bit more nerve wracking!" Don't worry Mr B, you did just fine! And no notes - a really natural public speaker!

He used a mixture of photographs and video excerpts from his self-recordings. We were treated to over three hours (and were only expecting two), including a short intermission during which I slipped out quickly to miss the queue for the book stall run by Mark’s mum, events Organiser and chief logistician, Una. I picked up a signed copy of the first edition of his round-the world book (cover above).

During the longer first half, he talked about different aspects of his round-the-world ride. As well as what you’d expect in terms of incidents and people encountered on the trip, he also tried to describe the mindset or mental attitude that had allowed him to push himself to cover an average of 100 miles a day for 195 days. I found this particularly interesting as, I confess, my first impression from the first documentary episode I managed to catch was of someone rushing past experiences that you’d expect to be looking to enjoy if you chose to cycle around the world. I think it was in a restaurant in Pakistan where Mark was complaining about how long it was taking for food to appear despite promises of a quick delivery, and how this was costing him valuable time from his schedule. I remember being disappointed about this, considering he was 80 or so days ahead of the world record.

But on Friday, he explained the difference between what he had set out to do and what he described as the more usual “nomadic” approach to cycling around the world. He definitely wasn’t a nomad, had many friends who had cycled the world in a more leisurely, investigative way, but he simply didn’t have the mindset for it, and needed to be driven by a goal, working to meet some challenge. He also described how, in trying to ride the 100 miles a day that was necessary to beat the time target he had set himself, it was pretty important just to ride in “the now”, cycling for the present, focusing intently on that day’s ride, riding the rollercoaster of physical and mental fatigue that riding day after day (after day) brings. He said that, if he had set out to ride round the world in 6 months and had focused on that and tried to keep that in his mind, he would have burned himself out in the first few weeks. So achieving those daily targets was a supremely important part of keeping it all together mentally (with one day a fortnight scheduled off as a break) and it put into a better context for me why he came across the way he did in that particular scene.

Mark's mum Una hard at work

In the second half, he did, of course, talk about his trip down the Americas and described the scary summiting of Mt McKinlay (walking along a snow ridge, one foot in front of the other or straddling the ice ridge, roped to three other guys – if one fell off at that point, there was not enough space for the others to arrest his fall, so, someone was supposed to drop off the other side of the ridge to balance up the weight, and then both would have had to be rescued...). But perhaps more interestingly, he did it through the medium of describing the complication of doing this while self-filming, sending the rushes of the filming back to the BBC in London by portable satellite link, getting feedback from the production staff about that and what else needed to be filmed to make for a balanced programme, planning and executing the filming of scenes, while still trying to experience the spectacles he was seeing as a traveller and not just a documentary maker, all on top of doing the cycling!

And also there was the added complication of cycling through dangerous areas of Central and South America, laden down with expensive electronic equipment which he couldn't keep hidden away all of the time as he was making a documentary! On this trip, although he wasn’t on as tight a schedule (no time records were being chased) there were, of course, still massive challenges, both mental and physical. But it seems he was able to balance those more against other elements of the trip. I think the scene in the first programme where Beaumont stopped to enjoy a little impromptu motorhome music festival in Canada made me realise this was a very different beast from his world record attempt.

Mark talks about the climbing of Mt McKinlay

Like lots of the audience, I am a keen cyclist and have a variety of bikes to cover all kinds of riding and terrain. I was quite surprised that, although there were three bikes on stage, including the Koga touring bike on which he completed both rides, a Trek racer and a Koga mountain bike, these were never really discussed. But I guess the important lessons from these trips were always going to be more about mind and muscle than machine. Unfortunately, my close-up from the balcony of the touring bike is pretty blurry but here it is anyway.

Blurry shot of Mark Beaumont hard at work on the other side of his business. Given
the length of the queue when I left, he was there until well after
11pm, signing books and talking to people. His Twitter feed later said:
"WoW. Tonight was BIG! Pretty shattered now to be completely honest! It was great, enjoyed it, lovely people, just soooo busy".

So, on reflection, a fascinating insight into both the physical and mental demands of long, solo adventures (in this case, on a bike) (and, actually, on what happens both to put a trip together and what guys like Mark need to do afterwards to pay for both the trip and the next one). Also, a lesson learned for me on not making complacent judgements from the sofa about the motivations and emotions of others based on a few seconds of film!

To see such composure and drive combined (and in someone so young!) is unusual and, for an audience, quite compelling - the audience in Stirling, including yours truely, was pretty spellbound - I am looking forward to reading both the book above and, in due course, the one from the Americas trip, to see if he writes as well as he speaks (and rides...)! He is on tour - you can find out more here and he is on Twitter here - I'd recommend this as a rewarding night out, whether you are a cyclist or not.


  1. i do like him but know alot of folk who dont because he killed a spider on TV!,
    still...amazing what he has achieved
    another hardcore scot!

  2. Christine Gaylor3 May 2010 at 20:18

    My husband and I were at Mark's talk at Stirling and you have given a full and excellent precis of the evening. Mark comes over as a very unassuming, and endearing young man and it was a great pleasure to hear about his two journeys.

  3. Thanks for your kind words Christine - yes, I think you describe very well how he appears to me too. His Twitter comments also reflect well on him! Since I posted this, I have had several comments from Facebook friends that suggest he is giving of his time to their children's schools and children's projects too. Nice to hear that.

    Coastkid - I suspect they don't come much tougher, physically or mentally. If he ever takes up Ironman triathlon, he will do well!


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