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Race Around the World – The Armchair View

Map of the world in 1886

One of my favourite books when I was a kid was Around the World in Eighty Days. I don’t know how many times I read it, but it was lots. My favourite parts were those opening chapters, when the scene is set, the wager made, and Fogg strolls home early from his club and coolly instructs his startled manservant to pack a bag for each of them, and be quick about it; they hadn’t a moment to lose; they were to set off on a tour of the world that very same evening, and twenty-thousand pounds sterling was riding on whether or not they could complete the journey in eighty days.

And a few minutes later they were off, just like that, with the crack of a hansom driver’s whip, careening through the streets of gaslit London, with a copy of Bradshaw’s Continental rail and steamship timetables and the great wide Victorian world stretching out before them, all brass and mahogany and steam. None of the hairbreadth escapes and exotic locales that followed ever piqued my imagination as much as that cavalier departure, for it made adventure on this sort of grand operatic scale seem possible.

In all the other adventure stories and explorer’s tales I read in those days the action was invariably predicated on some glamorous circumstance that I could never reasonably aspire to. I mean, nobody was ever really going to send me abroad on a clandestine mission to save the British Empire, or call upon me to shoot man-eating lions along the Ugandan Railway, or solve great geographical mysteries, all of which had been satisfactorily solved by the time I was born.

But here was a fellow just getting up from the card table and striding out the door, a host in himself, off to trot the globe on a whim and a bet – that was something I could at least imagine and relate to, even if I didn’t, like Phileas Fogg, have a fortune in sterling in the bank.

What I did have though was something nearly as liberating: a Schwinn Varsity ten-speed, my very own, and which I knew from first-hand experience could transport me anywhere I liked along the backroads of Carroll County, New Hampshire and could fill the miles with adventure. You didn’t need to be a poet to sense the difference between a trip down to the village in the back seat of the car, and pedaling there yourself on your bike: one was twenty minutes of dead time, life in suspension, and swiftly forgotten but the other cold fill and entire morning with colour and event and imaginings you might be mulling over days or even weeks later.

And to think – if even the five miles between our house and the village could be so rich and involving, imagine what five hundred such miles would be like, or five thousand, or making a trip around the world? It took but a small hop in my imagination to go from skipping school and riding over to the lake on a fine spring morning to picturing myself setting out one day on a grand globe-trotting quest, off to where there were real tigers and jungles, palm trees, deserts and high mountain passes. I couldn’t wait to go someday. More than anything I wanted to travel and see the world, and it pleased me to think that in my trusty Schwinn, propped up hopefully against the shelves of old paint tins in the garden shed, I had my ticket already.

I’ve been lucky. I’ve done a lot of travelling in my adult life, writing for newspapers and magazines and such, and in between assignments I’ve done quite a bit of expedition cycling too – I’ve ridden across America, the length and breadth of Britain, went from London to Istanbul, through Zanzibar and the Swahili Coast and in 1996-97 did a solo 10,000-mile trek through the Australian outback. I never did find the time to circle the globe though. The nearest I ever came to that was a whimsical bike ride around the South Pole a few years ago when I was down there on an assignment for National Geographic – riding a tight little circle around the pole itself and crossing, in a few cheeky seconds, every line of longitude along the way and therefore, technically and in an irritatingly strict geographic sense, riding around the world. If mine wasn’t exactly the most arduous and dramatic circumnavigation on record, I liked to think of it as it least as the fastest.

But alas it isn’t, not officially anyway. My time of perhaps eight seconds or so is not one the good folks at Guinness recognize, and fair enough too I suppose. They expect a bit more effort than that, eighteen thousand miles more effort to be precise and have set a number of other technical conditions for would-be record-setters to fill as well (for Rules see here). (If you care to read the tale of my cheeky and totally never-to-be ratified circumnavigation in eight seconds and minus-72 windchill, you can do so here)

When I ‘rode around the world’, back in the year 2000, the idea of lapping the globe as quickly as possible on a bicycle was rather an alien one. As a general rule cyclists who set off to circumnavigate the world pretty much did like Marco Polo, disappearing for a couple of years and resurfacing many thousands of miles later, lean and fit and nut-brown, and as storied as mediaeval pilgrims, with their bicycles saggy from hard use and their dog-eared passports crammed with visas and inky stamps.

Victorian-era steamship map of the world

But then, almost exactly four years ago, on 14 February 2008, a Scottish adventurer named Mark Beaumont captured the endurance-cycling-world’s imagination when he completed a circumnavigation of the globe in a record 194 days 17 hours – shattering the previous mark of 276 days and 19 hours set by Steve Strange in 2005, and which was the first record set and ratified under the Guinness Book of World Records strict set of rules for a circumnavigation.

Beaumont’s feat drew challengers out of the woodwork – James Bowthorpe did it in 175 days the following year and in 2010 the record was broken twice more – by Julian Sayarer in June (at 169 days) and by Vincent Cox in August, with a Guinness-ratified time of 163 days, 6 hours and 58 minutes, for cycling 18,225.7 miles.

The record was shattered once again in August 2011 by Alan Bate, albeit with the assistance of a support crew, and now stands at 106 days, 10 hours and 33 minutes. It was formally ratified by the Guinness Book of World Records just last month, although in the eyes of many round-the-world adventurers Vincent Cox’s record for a solo, unsupported circumnavigation remains the more prestigious mark and the time to beat.

One or perhaps even both of these records might not be around for much longer, for at nine o’clock this morning a group of ten intrepid cyclists pedalled away from Greenwich Park and, using the Prime Meridian as their starting line, set off on the first ever round-the-world bicycle race. It’s a race Jules Verne would have loved. Run under strict Guinness Book of World Records rules, the World Cycle Racing Grand Tour competitors – all of them riding solo and unsupported – will race each other around the globe with the winner hoping to break, at the very least, the solo-and-unsupported record for a circumnavigation by bicycle – and possibly even arriving back in London in time for the opening ceremony of the Olympics, which starts exactly 160 days after the racers set out.

Like a specter at the feast Alan Bate’s 106-day official world record is also dangling out there as a tempting carrot, although pedalling a fully laden touring bike the 170 miles or so per day needed to break it is a mighty formidable ask. And then of course there is the ultimate fantasy, breaking, by bicycle, Phileas Fogg’s (fictional) Eighty Days – a romantic benchmark one of the Grand Tour competitors described as being like the four minute mile for endurance cyclists.

The travel romantic in me loves it that there should be such a race. With its old-fashioned air of derring-do and gallant young men in jaunty jalopies, exotic locales and the weeks of hardy travel involved, it is the perfect restorative to a 21st century world made small and mean and over-familiar by cheap air travel and a gazillion frequent flier miles. As I followed the nine o’clock start from the Greenwich Meridian and monitored the satellite-tracked progress of the competitors on the Grand Tour website (follow them here) as they snaked their way through the tangle of inner city streets and out into the countryside, and pictured in my mind their coming adventures through central Asia, and the Australian outback, and the American west, the world around me seemed to become wide again, fanciful, rich in detail and ripe for discovery, the way it used to feel back when I was a kid reading Around the World in Eighty Days and rehearsing these favourite someday-daydreams on my old Schwinn Varsity. And just as I did back then, when I was sighing over the adventures of Phileas Fogg and Passepartout and Inspector Fix, I found myself feeling a bit like a kid left out of a circus and wishing I could have gone too.

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Bicycle Touring Survival Guide

Vintage '50s poster for Phillips Bicycles

One of the many nice things I am discovering about the blogosphere is that it can bring you into contact with interesting cyclists whom you might not – in fact, almost certainly wouldn’t – otherwise meet. I am thinking now of Andrew and Friedel Grant, two peripatetic Canadians who have cycled all over the world and have written what is truly an excellent guide to bicycle touring, called the Bike Touring Survival Guide

I had a read through it yesterday – and a very enjoyable and informative read it was. In its 246 pages, they have distilled not just their own considerable experience on the road, but that of fifty other veteran road-hardened cyclo-tourists as well, and vividly brought to life the thrills and adventure of setting out on a bicycle expedition, what to expect on the road, what you’ll need to bring along or take into consideration, risks and hazards along the way, and how to maintain and repair your gear, be it your bicycle’s drive train or your tent and cook stove – even a chapter about what it is like returning home after a grand globe-trotting adventure and dealing with the sense of anticlimax that often follows. This latter bit is a particularly thoughtful inclusion, and an aspect of adventuring that is often overlooked by lesser, run-of-the-mill guidebook writers, but as with everything else in this highly experienced couple’s book, rings absolutely true to anyone who has ever taken a long and involving tour.

Everything a bicycle tourist could possibly want is in there, and all of it well-written, well researched, well thought-out, practical, neatly ordered and nicely presented. The style is conversational, and the authors have managed to pitch it so that anybody, from rank beginners to sinewy sun-bronzed hard-cases who’ve been on the road for years, can get something out of it – even if it is just an nodding affirmation of some of their own thoughts, ideas and experiences.

Writing a guide book is a drawn-out and mentally exhausting process as anyone who has ever written one will attest. My own experience with this hard-to-do-well genre was writing National Geographic Traveler’s Guidebook to Australia. Whether I did it well or not is for others to say, but the experience of researching and writing it certainly gave me an appreciation for just how difficult it is to do a book such as this, and Andrew and Friedel Grant have done a cracking job. It would be fair to say that with this in hand anyone who wanted to could, with confidence, set out to see a bit of the world on their bicycle – be it a long weekend on leafy Sustrans route through England’s Lakes District or tackling the Takla Makan desert on the Silk Road.

The book is available through the couple’s website Travelling Two which is itself an excellent source of information for anyone planning a tour.

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