Suzi Higton talks to Mark Beaumont about university, Iranian hospitality and cycling around the planet
“I had no idea that you could make a job out of doing something you love so much,” Mark Beaumont smiles, “I genuinely thought I’d have to go back and do what my traditional education was for. I couldn’t have done what I was doing if I hadn’t gone to university, without a doubt.”
This February saw the former Glasgow University student hit the headlines for breaking the world record for the fastest circumnavigation of the globe by bike, beginning and finishing his expedition in Paris, a feat that even he found difficult to come to terms with at first:
“I wasn’t that excited about it (the world record) because I was so shattered, I’d spent six and half months on my own, stuck in the moment, trying to cycle as far as I could go each day.
“When I cycled round the Arc de Triomphe there were over hundred people there, with this big sort of paparazzi hustle. I couldn’t get across the line because of all the cameras, I had to push my bike across the line. I was stuck there for three hours doing interviews and it was just amazing, but how bizarre — you spend half a year on your own and come back to this media craziness.”
The attention that Beaumont’s expedition has drawn has been unprecedented, appearing in an advertising campaign for Orange and a two-hour documentary based on his own footage from the cycle. When broadcast by the BBC over two nights to a national audience averaged 3 million viewers a night.
Having graduated from Glasgow University only two years ago with a joint politics and economic degree, it is apparent that student life is still a clear memory:
“I still feel like a student. When I graduated two years ago in June I literally walked out of the West End of Glasgow and moved to Edinburgh and started training.”
The move from Glasgow to Edinburgh was not a welcome one, having enjoyed the student culture whilst at Glasgow for four years: “I forcibly took myself from all my friends in Glasgow and moved to Edinburgh, where I knew almost nobody. It was a pretty lonely year; I was a facing a lot of insecurities about going from that sort of buzz and that sort of network and it was worth it, but at the same it was a bit of drag getting the project off the ground.”
“But it’s only really been in the last six, seven months that my life has changed so much. Being approached to do things like the Orange adverts which are all over TV and cinema, its crazy, its absolutely amazing.”
This new found fame has also opened up opportunities, with the graduate having recently launched intercity charity bike ride Pedal for Scotland and numerous school projects, meeting youngsters who had eagerly followed his expedition online, something which he would have never have imagined stemming from his global adventure: “I did the expedition for very personal ambition. I did it for charity and the fact that it has now allowed me to have a public profile means I can quite easily go and do other expeditions and make other documentaries, which is fantastic.”
His passion for endurance cycling was fuelled by his first expedition from Dundee to Oban at the age of only twelve: “It was very small beginnings. Its quite easy in retrospect to say that there was some grand plan, but there’d never been one from the age of twelve. When I was fifteen I did John O’Groats to Land’s End and then over the years during my school holidays and at university we did other cycle trips through Europe.”
It was at university where Beaumont nurtured his passion for sport, being heavily involved with the Ski and Snowboard club as well as being elected treasurer and then vice president for GUSA. It was also where he kindled his ambition to shy away from the typical image of a graduate tied to a nine to five job:
“I guess I was about half way through (my degree) when I went and did an internship in Boston and I absolutely loved it. It was brilliant, it was exactly what I wanted to do but it was also enough to make me realize that I didn’t want to work in the office environment. I saw people, five, ten years older than me and decided that it wasn’t what I wanted to do. You get one chance and I realised it was something that could happen whilst I lived other dreams first.”
The dream expedition spanned over twenty countries and 18,000 miles and opened up a whistle-stop, panoramic view of the globe, of which Beaumont has many fond memories:
“There weren’t many countries I wouldn’t go back to, I had a really good time everywhere which was bizarre because I was always racing, pushing 160km (100 miles) every single day there was never any time to stop and to experience it the way most travelers would. I was sort of seeing the whole world as a slideshow.’
The expedition also opened a world that so many of us rarely see behind the headlines and although cautious, Beaumont found that a country portrayed so pessimistically in the media proved to be one of the most rewarding to visit:
“My favorite country was Iran. It was the country I was most worried about before I went but in retrospect as soon as I got there it had some of the best infrastructure, easiest cycling roads it was just so different from what I expected. The people were so warm and welcoming. I would sleep in mosques at night, they would give me food and accommodation finding whatever way they could to look after me.”
“All we ever hear about Iran is high politics in terms of international relations and the reality, when you get there, is that you never hear about the people in the place or the culture, those sorts of things.”
In amongst the highlights, there were also low points to the global challenge. His bike was ruined and he was quite badly injured after being hit by a car and having his wallet and his BBC kit stolen on the same day in Louisiana. Although proving a setback, it was in Australia where the psychological “hitting of the brick wall” really pressed home:
“I was cycling into a headwind pushing a hundred miles a day for the middle stretch of Australia through the Outback, there’s not a single turn off, not a single anything, and you’ve got chronic saddle sores and that sort of slow ride. That battle of attrition was harder than the specific accident of getting knocked off your bike, you can steer yourself and you know you can move on.”
The mindset that brought him through his world record breaking cycle will have to be translated to his next challenge of rowing the North Atlantic as part of a crew of twelve, in June next year from New York to Falmouth in 55 days. “It’s going to be an incredible expedition and the reason I’m doing is to test myself in the team setup. I’d like to figure out if I could apply what I’ve learnt in mental and physical strength [to this field]”
Mark’s current challenge is writing a book about his adventures and he is finding it quite arduous, the most he has previously written being 3000 word essays for politics at university.
But he also sees this as an opportunity to remember his time on the road which he hadn’t previously been able to do: “I was so stuck in the moment because I was on my own, so it will be amazing to be able to look back and reflect on all that and relive some of the adventures, I find it almost therapeutic to get closer to this project before moving onto the next one.”