Rider Q&A: Mark Beaumont

Posted By Gravel Union On 28 October 2019

Never judge a book by its cover is never truer than when we chatted with Guinness Round the World record breaking cyclist Mark Beaumont recently.

When the Gravel Union team were asked whether we would like to interview Mark Beaumont and talk about his latest book “Endurance – How to ride further” we were initially a little concerned that the book would be more relevant to long-distance road cyclists, rather than gravel & adventure riders.

Now that we’ve read it though we’ve realised the error of literally judging a book by its cover!

Although Mark is best-known for his exploits as an ultra-distance road cyclist and adventurer, he’s also a keen gravel rider and is sponsored by Shimano to use their GRX groupset on his off-road adventures. We’ve chatted with him about his book and how the advice contained in it is useful for riders of all disciplines.

Image @ Moonsport/Johnny Swanepoel

GU: Our readers come from all over Europe and North America, so for anyone who might not have heard of you, can you introduce yourself please?

MB: I’m Scottish. I grew up on a small farm in the foothills of the highlands of Scotland. I was home-schooled until the age of 12. The reason this is relevant is that I was never a [cycling] club racer - I was never coached in a formal manner. My passion was always adventure – getting out there, spending a huge amount of time on my own, exploring the beautiful countryside. For me it was more about where the bike took me, than my physical ability as a rider.

It was much later, after the first time that I cycled around the world, that I started to get interested in performance. I think now that I hold the world record for cycling around the world and the length of Africa and all these other ‘firsts’ and ‘fastests’, there’s an assumption that I’m a pro whose grown up in that world, but I’m not. I was a kid whose main passion was horse riding and skiing until I was 15 years old.

I think that’s a useful framework for who I am as an athlete – I think the risk with all the Guinness world records is that [people think] it’s all about smashing the clock, but for me there’s still this kid inside who’s a home-schooled farm boy who just wants to go on great adventures. I’ve spent a huge amount of my life so far doing endurance road riding, but I’ve never entered a race – I’ve never been that interested in trying to compete with people around me.

My passion has always been finding that fine balance between what am I capable of as an athlete, but also where can the bike take me. I’m very much about going out there and finding great routes, particularly at this time of year – getting muddy, night riding, just exploring.

GU: A few quick fire questions to start us off. What bikes do you have in your collection at the minute?

MB: Not all the bikes I have in the garage are mine as I often get lent bikes for shoots, but among others I have an Argon18 Dark Matter, an Orbea gravel bike, my Round the World in 80 days bike and a 52” wheeled Penny Farthing, a Cannondale World Cup F-Si XC MTB and a Yeti enduro MTB.

GU: If you were going to listen to music while riding, what would your No.1 choice be?

MB: The only time I tend to listen to music on the bike is super early in the morning (and if I’m sure there’s no traffic/people around). If I could only choose one [non-classical music] track it would Red Hot Chilly Peppers - Otherside

GU: What’s your favourite food to eat while you’re out on your bike?

MB: I’ve got a horribly sweet tooth, so like most bike riders, a good coffee and cake stop is always a good way to punctuate a tough trip, but if I’m not able to stop then a wrap is ideal. It’s protein wrapped in carbohydrate and on endurance rides, despite having a sweet tooth, I crave savoury over sweet. I try and keep it natural and not live on gels and manufactured bars.

GU: Favourite place in the world to ride and why?

MB: A difficult one to answer – but probably a stretch of my route through Africa, near the Zambezi river just south of Victoria Falls heading into northern Botswana. Its known as the Elephant Highway – there’s a 300km stretch where the wildlife on and around the road is just extraordinary. You’re literally riding along during the day time with elephants crossing the road and zebras all around you. When you’re riding through a part of the world like that and you’ve got the wildlife so close at hand, you’re completely in the moment – nothing else matters. You’re so excited and all your senses all super switched on to everything that’s around you – those are the best moments as a bike rider.

GU: Mechanical or electronic gears?

MB: Electrotonic

GU: Tubeless or tubed tyres?

MB: Tubeless off-road and (at the minute) tubes on road. I use tubeless when I’m riding gravel.

GU: Flared bars or standard dropped bars?

MB: Both, depending on the bike. I got into riding flared bars from a Koga beach race bike that I own. On really technical trails I tend to use standard bars, but on less technical, more power-based riding I like the flared ones.

Image @ Moonsport/Johnny Swanepoel

GU: What would you consider your biggest achievement on a bike to have been?

MB: The obvious one is the Round the World in 80 days – this makes most of my other trips look like kindergarten. I would consider that my Everest. What is the hardest thing I can do as an endurance bike rider? Obviously how fast you can get around the planet and [in the process] breaking the previous record by 37%!

GU: Have your family got the cycling bug or do they consider your addiction to riding as strange as a lot of non-riding families do?

MB: My wife has an e-bike and rides that very regularly around the city that we live in. My daughters are age 4 and 7 and they’re both keen bike riders. During lockdown in Spring 2020 my eldest daughter took on a challenge with me to cycle every street in Edinburgh – we spent over a hundred hours together with me running and her cycling. She ended up riding more than 500 miles (800kms) which is pretty amazing for a 7 year old – we did an hour a day, every day for three months.

GU: In the past your books have been narrative-based and have given readers an insight into your cycling adventures and record-breaking achievements. This one is different in that it’s advice-based. What gave you the idea to co-author this one and were you worried that it was going into a pretty busy marketplace of advice-based books for cyclists?

MB: To be honest, I hadn’t considered that there’s anything else out there like it! Throughout my career, on a daily basis, I get asked for bits of advice via social media and emails – I get asked for the ‘toolkit’ to be able to push someone’s ability as an endurance and adventure bike rider. I always get back to people and I always try and help. When I was asked to write a book about this, I didn’t really look over my shoulder and say where does this book fit in the marketplace. I just wanted to distil everything I know into a book that gives people the confidence to push their abilities

The team at GCN came to me and said they wanted to me write a book to help people to build their confidence and build their adventure ambitions. Most other “How To” cycling books are written from a coaching/training perspective, but they don’t deal with all the stuff that happens off the bike – planning, fundraising, time management and this is very different from a training book that’s going to give you fitness sessions to work on. That much broader look at how you take on those life-affirming rides, how do you get out there and really push yourself, how do you become more than just a Saturday club rider.

GU: The structure of the book is interesting in that what to most cyclists might be the obvious first chapter i.e. the bike and tech issues is ‘relegated’ to Chapter 3 and you focus on the mental and physical planning that you recommend riders do, as the first two chapters – can you tell us a bit about your thinking behind this?

MB: What gives you a sense of purpose in life? Some people strive for the easy life, but actually the easy life makes you fundamentally quite lethargic and discontent. I wanted to call out some of the assumptions of what people perceive as “making it” and if you’ve built the time in your life so that you do have the freedom of time to go out on interesting bike rides, why do you do that – what’s the point? I think until you answer that question, the motivation to ride has to come before anything else. Building a sense of identify around what you do is hugely important too. I also wanted to look at our relationship with discomfort and pain and why that’s worthwhile - I think by reframing those things, that sort of unspoken part of being a bike rider - why do we endure, why do we go on adventure rides, why do we do difficult things, is easier to comprehend. Ultimately, it’s because it makes us feel better about who we are. By highlighting that, it allows people to feel differently about why they do these things. Once you acknowledge that we’re at our best when we’re striving, when we’re slightly out of our comfort zone, then it allows us to go searching for that – it gives me and my mates, or me and my family a sense of “that was hard, but that was fun”.

GU: A lot of advice-based books are quite dry and you’ve managed to avoid that, particularly through the use of photos. The quality of the imagery (and the general layout) in your book almost put it into the coffee table league - was it a conscious decision to make your book look so good as well as being informative?

MB: I can’t take too much credit for the look and feel! I’m very proud of it and the editors and the team have done a cracking job. I wanted it to be a book that people didn’t have to read from cover to cover – they could open it at any page and be inspired. I didn’t want it feel like it was a heavy tome – I wanted it to have that light touch to it, so people could happily flick through it because it’s visually very attractive.

GU: In the past, ultra-distance cycling events tended to be won by male athletes, perhaps partly because very few women entered. This all changed in 2019 when Fiona Kolbinger won the TransContinental Race and there are other female riders who are now increasingly dominant on the ultra-endurance event circuit. Do you think we’re going to see increased dominance of female riders in endurance cycling events? Having a female co-author and specific sections of content applicable to female riders was presumably a deliberate effort to make the book as inclusive as possible?

MB: It’s super important that we put specific focus on female athletes until we’ve got better equality in the sport. We have to bias female readership to the point where there’s equality, because at the moment it’s so skewed [to a male perspective]. Without putting blokes off, I want to open up the conversation and put undue focus on female riders and young riders, so that we can tip that balance. As we know, as the distances increase, it becomes far less about your FTP and your sprint and far more about your ability to endure – that level playing field which is adventure riding and endurance bike riding – there’s far less to split, which is also why riders into their 40s and 50s can be super strong and take on the kids as well! The other really valid point is that in endurance riding and adventure riding, the only person you’re really testing and racing against is yourself. You might be in a wider field, but in real terms you’ll never tire of figuring out what your personal best is, of bettering yourself.

Rather than making it about blokes versus female riders, if you take on these adventure rides or endurance rides, everyone is simply trying to figure out their personal best, which is often around their admin and their off-bike skills as much as it is about their pedalling power, whoever comes out top of the pile – fantastic – they’ll have an interesting story to tell, but ultimately all they will have done is push themselves and figure out their best possible ride. I think that by making [the focus] personal, we can keep the motivation up within endurance and adventure bike riding as opposed to thinking that you’re on the start line with hundreds of others and that it’s about who’s the strongest. If you’re racing across Europe or the length of America for example, you’re not actually shoulder to shoulder with anyone. I think there’s a different mindset within endurance and adventure racing which allows for a much more level playing field.

GU: Gravel Union readers have come to the site because of their love of gravel and adventure riding. They would be interested to know what got you into riding away from the road?

MB: Cycling for me is all about exploring – that feel of being a kid again, looking for adventure just over the hilltop. Gravel and adventure riding fits perfectly with this. Although I’m known best for endurance road riding, these days I spend lots more of my time riding off-road.

GU: The list of off-road or multi-surface ultra-endurance events seems to be ever growing with GBDuro, Atlas Mountain Race and Silk Road Mountain race now firmly in the calendar - are you tempted to put your own advice into practice and try out some more gravel-based events in the future?

MB: I would love to take on some of the world’s best endurance races, but my career has been based around doing expeditions on the bike and world record attempts. There’s a part of me that thinks that’s where I started, so that’s what I’ll continue to do. For the 15 years that I’ve been doing this, it’s been very much about going in that direction. It’s not to say that I wouldn’t do some of these events, and now that I’ve done “my Everest” as an endurance bike rider I would happily tick off some of the bucket list of events. My caveat to that though is that I would much prefer to do unsupported gravel events rather than unsupported road events. From a personal perspective, I’ve figured out how to take my performance to an extreme as a supported rider – 240miles (400kms) every day for 10 weeks – but always with a performance support team with me and I would be a little worried that I would push myself to the same level, but without the safety net of a performance team behind me. [For that reason] I would much prefer to push myself in an adventure-riding space off-road, so something like GBDuro has definite appeal.

GU: From an off-road perspective, how much of the advice and guidance in your book do you think would be directly relevant to the Gravel Union readers?

MB: No matter what the cycling discipline [or riding surface] is, the key factor to success in endurance and ultra-endurance riding is off-bike planning. If you watch pro-level endurance racers they make everything look effortless, including the riding of course, but perhaps more importantly the off-bike strategy too. They’ve ‘earned’ the right to look that effortless by doing all the preparatory work in advance. If you’re considering taking on an endurance or ultra-endurance challenge, make planning and forethought your priority. Think about contingencies – all the “what if” scenarios – and make sure you have a plan for dealing with them.

Image @ Moonsport/Johnny Swanepoel

GU: When you broke the world record for cycling round the world you had to average 240miles/400kms a day. To many cyclists covering that distance in one day is almost unimaginable – the thought of doing that consistently for 80 days, particularly with so little sleep/recovery, is difficult to comprehend. If you had to give aspirant ultra-endurance riders one top tip for trying to emulate your success, what would it be?

MB: The single most important factor for succeeding in ultra-distance events is recovery. You need to prioritise this above everything else. It includes everything from looking after your body properly (post-ride hygiene, stretching, conditioning, massage) to appropriate nutrition to effective hydration. My performance manager (and co-author of the book) Laura Penhaul uses the term “Training Adaption” as a better way of thinking about recovery and it’s the most important factor to consider when planning to take on an ultra-endurance event.

Image @ Moonsport/Johnny Swanepoel

GU: You’ve now got the Guinness record for riding around the world, plus the record for cycling the length of Africa and you ridden the whole length of the Americas. With a palmares as impressive as that, what do you do to motivate yourself to “just go for a ride” with your friends – doesn’t everything else just feel a little tame in comparison?

MB: For me cycling is all about ‘feeding your soul’. I get just as much enjoyment from a short effort as I do from riding around the world! I’m a big believer in not just doing all your training inside – getting away from the digital training space and getting out there. By experiencing poor weather, wet trails and tough conditions at times, you will get a much better sense of satisfaction from the days when the weather is perfect and you have a constant tailwind.

Image @ Moonsport/Johnny Swanepoel

GU: Following on from this, have you got any plans for future ultra-endurance rides that you can tell us about?

MB: I’ve got a number of projects in the pipeline for next year, but not all of them are quite ready for a public launch yet! The ones I can talk about are an attempt at the Race Across America record next June where I’ll be competing as a pair. I’m also going to be taking on the John Muir Way in 24hours with adventure cyclist Markus Stitz. I’ve also got a number of other single and multi-day challenges planned in – watch this space for more details!

GU: If you gaze into your crystal ball, where do you see yourself in ten years’ time – are you still likely to be going for ultra-endurance challenges or is it more likely that we’d see you out using an e-gravel bike to ride in the woods with your friends & family?

I ride a bike because I love it - it feeds my soul and gives me an outlet on life. I’m super-passionate about the outdoors. Every time I ride a bike, it makes me feel like a 15 year old kid again. While I might not be breaking Guinness World Records in ten years’ time, my aim is that every year on the bike, I’m going to do something which becomes a story.

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