Big Interview: Mark Beaumont

The May issue of HIAL’s Connect has just hit the airport shelves… which means that if you missed your copy, you missed my ‘Big Interview’ with ‘Around-the-world-in-80-days’ cyclist Mark Beaumont. Here it is for perusal at your leisure. Don’t say I’m not good to you!

From a home-schooled ‘Swallows and Amazon’ childhood on a smallholding in the foothills of the Highlands to becoming the fastest man to circumnavigate the globe on a bike, Mark Beaumont BEM, athlete, broadcaster and corporate leadership guru, has packed a lot into his first 36 years on the planet.

He has cycled round the world twice; breaking world records each time. He has cycled the Americas and the length of Africa and tried – and failed – to cross the Atlantic in a rowing boat. And he was part of a team who ‘rowed’ to the north pole in a 1.3 tonne sled – it’s bitter-sweet that they were able to succeed; the ice caps are not as robust as they used to be.

A year after he completed his ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ cycle, HIAL Connect editor NICKY MARR caught up with Mark as he launched the book of his 80-Day world challenge, to discover that although he’s travelled all over the world, his heart is still in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

I’m not sure I have ever met anyone as determined to succeed as Mark Beaumont. The word he uses to describe that determination is ‘clinical’, and it’s a good fit. Everything he does, in whatever sphere of his working life – adventure challenges, broadcasting, or working with corporate clients – is meticulously planned.

Talking to a packed Eden Court Theatre in September 2018, almost exactly a year after completing his Around the World in 80 Days challenge, Mark explained that with all of his adventures, ever since he set out solo to ride across Scotland from Oban to Dundee at the age of 12, he has never failed because of the lack of a plan. If he has failed, it’s because something has gone wrong. Talking to him, and hearing him address audiences, you get the strong sense that everything is carried out with care and deliberation, with nothing left to chance.

In the prologue to his new book he references Jules Verne, whose 1873 adventure novel inspired and gave its name to the 2017 adventure. He also sets out his ‘simple plan’ for the 80-day world record breaking challenge to succeed.

A simple plan

Day 26. Mark in Mongolia

CThere are certain rules that must be followed for any bike-related circumnavigation of the globe to count as a new world record. The distance cycled must be at least 18,000 miles, with at least 24,900 miles travelled – that’s the distance of the equator. It must be completed on the same type of bike – you can’t switch between a mountain bike (good for the rough roads of the Mongolian Steppe, for example) and a road bike. The journey must be done continuously, and the clock does not stop for any waiting time for flights or ferries or for the duration of the transit. Crucially, no differentiation is made between supported and unsupported rides.

It sounds simple, doesn’t it? And once the plan was in place – which itself took a couple of years to finalise – it was simple. As long as everyone in the team did what was required of them, all Mark had to do was pedal. I start by asking Mark where his determination to succeed came from – and how did he know he had what it takes?

Day 13. It took steely grit to start every day on the bike pre-dawn.

And he is unequivocal – it’s all to do with experience and the confidence that brings: “With anything in life, and with sports in particular, you’ve got to have the basic ability to do the job, and that can be learned. But what really allows people to do things that haven’t been done before, and to push boundaries, is experience; all those things you have done before.

“I am 6’3” and 90kg and I can’t ever be the world’s best bike rider, so the ability to do these things and break these records definitely comes from the journey I have been on since I was a 12-year-old boy, pushing through those comfort zones and knowing how to suffer well, thinking my way out of tricky situations.”

A good team to take the ‘faff’

Of his 80-Days he says, “The point of the challenge was to work out how fast I could get around planet earth on a bike, and to do that I needed to be supported all the way. If every moment that I was on the bike was to count, I needed someone to take the ‘faff’.”

Faffing is a phrase that comes up more than once, and Mark is not a fan. “I had to get on the bike at 4.30 every morning in order to achieve the goal, for myself, my sponsors and for the whole team,” he explains. “If I faffed for even five minutes every time I got on the bike, that would add up to the equivalent of over a day lost.”

That ‘someone to take the faff’ was a team of around 40 individuals, hand-picked because of their ability to perform under pressure.

Mark continues, “Figuring things out in the heat of battle is such a terrible way to try and achieve the best possible result. For me it’s about planning and setting out expectations before you even turn a pedal stroke, and then when you get out there and are under pressure, in order to cope with that pressure, you simply do exactly what you have already decided to do. You’re not having to think cleverly in the heat of battle, you’re just reading off script.”

Where did that come from, I ask – that wisdom and single-mindedness?

“That has always been there – I have always been clinical about setting out my plans and then trying to deliver on them. Of course, over the years the planning has become more extreme but that has been there from the very start.”

Land’s End to John O’Groats solo at the age of 15.

He continues, “If you reverse-engineer my career you can see that the freedom I had being home-schooled, spending most of the first decade of my life outdoors, living independently, and not being involved in playground or classroom activities. That definitely gave me an independence of mind and a confidence that set me up in terms of habit for what came next.”

And it’s this confidence and independence which led him to achieve the extraordinary things he has achieved. He adds, “You can be the best or brightest person in the world, but if you are only ever doing what other people are doing, then you’re not going to do anything distinctive. My upbringing gave me the confidence to give things a go.”

As well as the adventure challenges, Mark is a broadcaster – often making documentaries about his own adventures or joining other expeditions as cameraman and reporter – and his degree in economics and politics, when coupled with his experiences as an endurance athlete, is useful grounding for his corporate ambassadorial and advisory roles. And while these boardroom adventures may seem a million miles from pedalling a bike, to Mark there are strong parallels; “I help businesses get their people not just to be busy, but to be welded to the task – it’s remarkable how transferrable these skills are. And you might be surprised but I enjoy the challenges in the corporate world as much as I enjoy being on my bike and trying to smash records.”

East, west, hame’s best.

The Bealach na Ba during NC500

But not every challenge has seen Mark out of the country for days on end – some of his most memorable have taken place right here in the Highlands and Islands.

Mark takes up the story: “I was sitting in the Chris Hoy velodrome in Glasgow early 2015, training with the Scottish Development Squad and they were talking about doing a training ride around the North Coast 500 and I’d never heard of it. They put me in touch with Tom Campbell, and he told me about his dream and vision. Between us we came up with the idea of me cycling it non-stop as a way of publicising the route. We had such a fun time filming it, and a wee video we made went viral.

“I absolutely loved it – of course it was gritty, but it reminded me, even growing up in Highland Perthshire and now living in Edinburgh, how much of Scotland there is north of Inverness and how wild and beautiful and diverse the landscape is.

“Since cycling the route non-stop in just under 38 hours I’ve had a chance to come back and cycle it all again, in parts, and what I want to do now is come back and do it again with my wife and the children more slowly. I am often criticised for spoiling a good journey by going so damned fast and maybe that’s the case with the first time I went round the North Coast 500 but it was more of a publicity stunt and a feat of endurance than it was a tourist trip.

“NC500 is an incredible route and of course the positives outweigh the negatives, but you can’t keep everyone happy – around 18 months ago I was at an event in Plockton and I showed the wee film – I’m so proud of it. And this wee guy came up, poked me in the chest, and said ‘It’s your bloody fault the roads are rammed.’ We need to remember the footprints we leave and the impact we make when we encourage people to travel round the north of Scotland!

Discovering what’s on our doorstep

“Over the first decade of my career, while I have always lived and trained in Scotland, all my travels and documentaries have been abroad – 130 odd countries and counting. Doing the NC500 made me realise how little I know of what’s on my doorstep, so I started putting active feelers out asking, ‘what more can we do?’.

“I was delighted then to launch The Hebridean Way. The 180-mile trip was stunning. I will always remember that amazing flight in from Glasgow, flying low over the west coast of Scotland then landing on the beach at Barra; that has to be one of the best flights in the world, taking off from an international airport and landing on a beach! All the local school kids had turned out with home-made banners to welcome me and the film crew, and then we set out with all the kids cycling with us on those first few miles – it was so special, and I loved it. It wasn’t just the geography and discovering the unknown that made it special, it was very much the welcome and the people.

“The best part of those rides were the people who came out and rode with me. They became my rolling tour guides, pointing out what was around us. It’s one thing pedalling through a landscape and appreciating it for what it is and another thing having people alongside you who have pride in their place and want to explain the history of the area, and that strength of welcome is part of what has made these trips so special and memorable.

“This year I will be heading up to Orkney and Shetland, and I was back in Stornoway and in Arran and in Skye recently too. I think it’s too easy for people in my position to stick to the big cities, but I love travelling to the smaller communities around Scotland. That love of small communities came out of the first trip round the North Coast 500.”

More challenges ahead?

Married to Nicci, a former housemistress at Glenalmond School (and sister of chef and restaurateur Tom Kitchin) the couple have two young daughters, Harriet and Willa. As his family is growing up, has he finally scratched the adventure itch, or are there more challenges around the corner?

At this, he smiles; “Yeah. The way I’m wired up I’ll always push myself as an athlete. I’m never going to beat Around the World in 80 Days – I need to realise that that was my Everest, but I’ve always got an eye for weird, wonderful, historic, interesting and wonderful records, or ‘firsts’. I’m like a kid who’s not grown up; I love the idea of things that have never been done before.”

A case in point is June 2018’s penny farthing record – Mark ‘dug deep into his hurt locker’ to beat the 127-year old British record by cycling 21.92 miles on a vintage bike in an hour, agonisingly missing the world record by a mere 192 yards.

He explains; “When I broke the penny farthing hour record that was an opportunity to have a bit of fun. I’ve always got an eye to what’s interesting for me, good for my other work, and for what makes a good story. September’s Around the World in a Day Challenge was another one – I got 80 riders to ride 240 miles in a day with me across Scotland and we raised £85,000 for charity. It’s all about making an impact.”

Lessons for life…

For a ‘pretend’ cyclist like me, who tootles around with her friends on a bike on a weekend morning and has – once only – tackled both the Bealach na Ba and the Etape Loch Ness on two wheels, Mark Beaumont’s challenges sound like torture. Mark admits that being honest about how tough his challenges are is hardly going to inspire a generation of ‘round-the-world’ copycats. But even if we’re never going to cycle the world, there are lessons we can all take from his:

Rowing to the pole.

First – set your goals then plan – meticulously! – how you are going to realise them.

Second – surround yourself with good people. You need to know how both you and they will react when the chips are down.

Third – quit faffing. Just think what you could achieve with all those five minutes you waste every day!

But most importantly, appreciate what’s on your doorstep. Mark Beaumont has cycled the world, twice. That’s 130 odd countries and counting. And still the Highlands and Islands of Scotland take his breath away.

Mark Beaumont’s book Around the World in 80 Days is out now, published by Bantam Press (£14.99).