Sunday, 12 December 2010

Book review: "The man who cycled the world", by Mark Beaumont

To misquote Douglas Adams:
"The World is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to the World."
So Mark Beaumont found when he set off to break the record for cycling around the world in 2007. Over 194 days he cycled 18,297 miles, beating the existing record by an amazing 81 days. "The man who cycled the world" details his adventures.

His story is written in an eminently readable manner, and the intensity of the task can be seen on virtually every page. The book was gripping despite it being clear from the start that he did indeed break the record - a neat trick. The ride increasingly takes over his life as he progresses, and the task of riding 100 miles every day becomes his obsession.

He rode unsupported, i.e. he carried all of his own gear; tent, food, water, spares for the bike and a multitude of other items. Sometimes this was a real problem, especially on the couple of occasions when the wheel rims on his bike started to crack, making it impossible to tighten the spokes and balance the wheel. A broken wheel is of no use when you are a thousands miles from the nearest bike shop.

Beaumont is robustly honest about his own failings in the book - his main aim was to break the record, not to do many other things that can go along with such a ride. In some ways he does not come across very well, but that is just a sign of his unfailing honesty. It is hard to remain sociable when giving your all to a dream.

The constant slogging routine of his ride does not, on the face of it, make for a gripping book. Yet there is a variety in the places he camps overnight, and his feelings about them mean that each day seems fresh and vivid. At times he comes across as whining slightly, but that can be forgiven, and he cannot be criticised for giving an accurate description of his feelings and experiences.

Which brings me onto another point: he met several other round-the-world cyclists on route, and they were all taking far longer over it. He ignored most of the sights and sounds on his route and concentrated on piling on the miles. Which is all good and well for a record attempt, but poor for experiencing the places he was travelling through. He did have some memorable moments, however, like an exhilaratingly-described dune-buggy ride through the American desert. These are in the minority, however, and much of this book reads as an example of why not to try for a world record.

The tone of the book is varied. Most was written in a day-by-day manner, as if it was a diary, although thankfully it was relatively seamless. Towards the end, however, he does separate the journey out into days, and details the vast distances that remain to be covered before the end. This change in tone worked remarkably well and added some drama to the end of the book.

He experiences the best and worst of people during his ride, but he learns a great deal about himself. He finds that being social in the evening dramatically reduced the distance he could cycle the next day, to the extent that  he refused most companionship offered to him in America. He details with brutal honesty the way his thinking changed over the months, until at the end he is insular and withdrawn.

His troubles always seem to occur where he least expects them: he makes his way through Iran and Pakistan without incident, yet gets hit by a car and mugged on the same day in the USA. He planned the early part of his ride through the Far East in detail, yet discovered that Australia and America - which he had expected to be easy - needed far more research.

It is interesting to compare this book with a similar walking book. Walking is by its very nature a slow business, meaning that you only experience one type of scenery or culture for extended periods. Covering a hundred miles every day meant that Beaumont had constantly new experiences, and could compare them with ease. His descriptions of his journey from Europe, through Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and India details the differences in the cultures far better than any travel guide. Someone walking a similar route would probably not notice the change in quite the same way; someone driving it would be isolated from much of it.

One minor point: the book could have done with a strict edit in places. For instance, in the first chapter he repeatedly mentions a woman called Heather, but leaves it hanging about who she is. Is he his girlfriend, sister or friend? Only in the next chapter do you learn that she is his sister. A minor point, true, but the sort of thing that has you flicking back through the pages to find out, only to find she was not mentioned.

The best thing about this book is the realisation that Beaumont is no heroic superman (although he certainly seems like one at the end); he is just a normal guy who had never done a road race in his life. His previous experience of riding had been a few tours through Europe. He faced a severe learning curve. If he could do it, then perhaps we all could.

It is perhaps inevitable that Mark Beaumont's record no longer stands - it has been beaten by three British men, including the current holder, Vin Cox. We seem to have a stranglehold on this peculiar form of endurance cycling |(if not manners). Perhaps now that Britannia can no longer rule the world, we choose to ride it instead.

I award this book 4 out of 5 stars, and his effort 5 out of 5 stars.

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