Tag Archives: Cycling around the World

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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Pole Position

Photo by Josh Landis

They call it the sleigh ride: the three-hour flight on a ski-equipped Hercules cargo plane from the U.S. base at McMurdo to that most exotic of Antarctic destinations: the South Pole. Schoolboy keen, I showed up early at the icy airstrip, bundled up, bags packed, eager to go. It was the summer of 2000 and I was in Antarctica on an assignment for National Geographic, bound for Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station where I was supposed do a story on the future of science at the Last Place on Earth, talk with climatologists about such worthy topics as global warming and the ozone hole, and write a side piece about the construction of a new $150 million super-high-tech base the Americans were building there.
Unbeknownst to my editors, I had a hidden agenda as well: to ride a bicycle around the world. I love touring and I’d always wanted to circumnavigate the globe by bicycle, but never could find the spare year or so such a journey would take. At the South Pole, however, not only could I ride around the world on a flat course free of traffic, but I could do it in a time that would make even the space shuttle’s ninety-minute orbits seem pedestrian by comparison.

A few quick turns of the pedals was all it would take, a little circle around the pole itself, and I would have passed through every single line of longitude, both the Prime and Ante Meridians, and geographically speaking, could claim to have ridden round the world.

The stars must have been all in alignment on this one. It turned out I wouldn’t even need to bring my own bicycle. In the course of my research into the goings-on at Pole that summer, I learned that a team of design students from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, working in conjunction with scientists from the U.S. Antarctic Program, had recently come up with a ‘Polar Bicycle’ for use in the South Pole’s extreme conditions.

Given the high cost of getting fuel to Antarctica, the sensitivity of the astronomical instruments at the South Pole Observatory, a half mile away from the base, and in keeping with the general low-impact eco-philosophy of Antarctic research, it was decided to make Amundsen-Scott South Pole base a bicycle friendly zone-or at least take a crack at it. A prototype of the new Polar Bicycle had been built and shipped down to Pole for testing-and yes, sure, I could take it for a spin if I liked. I liked.

The Sleigh Ride to ‘Pole’ was magic, three-hours of high adventure, following at 22,000 feet the route taken by both Scott and Shackleton back in Antarctica’s Heroic Age: across the Ross Ice Shelf, through the towering peaks of the Trans-Antarctic Mountains along the Beardmore Glacier, up to the hauntingly empty vastness of the high polar plateau. Amundsen-Scott base, when I eventually spotted it in the distance, looked almost frighteningly remote, a few scattered specks of colour in an immensity of white that stretched to every horizon.

We circled once and then the big turbo prop touched down, its skis kicking up a blizzard of snow. The hatch opened and we emerged, blinking, into a dazzlingly bright, bitterly cold, alien world, where the air was razor thin with the nearly 10,000-foot altitude, a double halo circled the sun, and home was a great blue Plexiglas dome that belonged more to the realm of science fiction than real life. The outside temperature on that balmy summer day was minus-33, the wind chill minus-61, while in the dimness beneath the dome, where the sun’s rays never reached, the temperature stayed at the Poles constant year-round average of about minus-60.

But all was pleasingly snug and warm inside Sally’s Galley, as the base canteen was affectionately known. Cramped and crowded, with lots of heavyweight red parkas hanging on hooks along the walls, it made me think of a truckstop café on the Alaska Highway, circa 1975. Meals here were hot and hearty – 5000 calories a day was the reckoning for people living and working in the extreme conditions at Pole – and there were always pots of steaming coffee on hand, trays of fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies, and generally plenty of amiable company as well, for this was the social hub of the base.

And it was there, the following day, over mid-morning coffee and biscuits, I met Jeffrey Petersen, an astrophysicist from Carnegie-Mellon University who, it turned out, was Pole’s resident wheelman, commuting back and forth between the dome and the futuristic astronomy complex half a mile away.

He took me around to the Polar Bike. It was quite a piece of work. With its chunky frame and seven-inch-wide steel-mesh tyres it was never going to make me forget my whippet-lean Italian road bike back home, but then Italian road bikes aren’t designed to run in minus-80 temperatures, and be operated by someone wearing huge fur-lined gauntlets and enormous insulated ‘bunny boots’ that are standard South Pole-issue. This one was.

I hopped aboard. Jeffery grabbed his studded-tyre mountain bike which he’d freighted all the way from America and together we pedalled off to trot the globe.
And yes, if you’re wondering, there really is a pole at Pole. There are two of them in fact: the barber-striped ‘Ceremonial Pole’ with all the flags around it, where everyone goes to have their photo taken in Hero mode, and, because the ice cap shifts about thirty feet or so each year, a more portable and more precise Pole a few yards away, its position being recalculated by GPS each January. We looped both. Many, many times.

We pedalled east to west, west to east, racing each other, cracking jokes and playing the location for all the quirky humour we could conjure. We even paused to wind our watches for the different time zones. As far as handling goes, the Polar Bicycle made a Mao-era Flying Pigeon look as light and responsive as a Pegoretti-Jeffrey’s mountain bike performed far better-but it was a fun toy to play with out there on the high polar plateau. Finally when we’d had enough we turned for home and pedalled back to the sheltering warmth of Sally’s Galley.
Our best time, we reckoned, was somewhat under ten seconds, or as I like to think of it now, we lapped the entire world in around the time Usain Bolt can run a hundred metres.

Alas, I’m afraid our record doesn’t stand. I’ve since learned, with all the recent hoopla over round-the-world cycling records, that the nice folks at the Guinness Book of World Records take a picky stance as regards circumnavigations. They expect you to suffer a little more than we did, the morning’s minus-72 windchill and Pole’s razor thin air notwithstanding.

They expect hills, traffic, bandits, war zones, bad food, bad roads, near misses, and hairbreadth escapes. They want visas and stamps in your passport. They want you to have cycled a full eighteen thousand miles, to be precise, like James Bowthorpe did when he set the record of 175 days, not to do it playfully during your tea break as we did on a sparkling summer morning at the South Pole, then trot inside for milk and cookies like a couple of overgrown kids in the world’s biggest winter wonderland.

I dunno. Maybe I should see if they’ll give it to us with an asterisk: done at altitude.

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