In 1984, the publishers of The Guinness Book of Records decreed that cyclists wishing to be considered as having completed a world circumnavigation record must have passed two antipodes and cycled a minimum distance of 13,000 miles. A man named Nick Saunders duly completed the route in an incredible 78 days.
In 2008, the publishers changed the rules: the distance was increased to 18,000 miles, which prompted Mark Beaumont to cycle it in 196 days. Not only did Beaumont establish a world record, he documented his efforts in a book called The Man Who Cycled the World which inspired hundreds of others to attempt the same journey.
In many respects, Sean Conway’s Cycling the Earth is a continuation of Beaumont’s original. Neither falls into the category marked ‘great literature’ (and there are far too many spelling mistakes in Conway’s book), but in fairness, both men were in pursuit of a world record, so opportunities to embark on a series of literary diversions, a la Paul Theroux, were understandably limited.
None the less, Conway does provide readers with his motives for tackling such an epic challenge, and while his style is limited, it’s difficult not to empathise with the man for meeting it head-on.
He tells of how he once dreamt of becoming a National Geographic photographer but ended up taking snaps of nursery-aged children, many of whom are cross, tired, hungry or a combination of all three. Then, on the eve of his 30th birthday, his girlfriend dumps him.
What’s a man to do? Circumnavigate the world on two wheels of course.
As Conway’s life heads for the pits, he enters the World Cycle Race and with less than six months’ training, a steel bike made in Somerset and limited luggage, he sets off.
What follows is a catalogue of potholes, punctures, dehydration, bandits, scrapes, accidents, deserts and oversized trucks mixed liberally with equal measures of beauty and danger.
Conway is no professional sportsman who can wax lyrical regarding trophies and medals collected during a glittering career. He’s an ordinary guy who embarked upon an extraordinary quest, characteristics that make Cycling the Earth so compelling.
Few of us will ever score the winner in a World Cup final, hole a putt to win the Open, or win Wimbledon, but sport, in this case cycling, has the ability to inspire and make us do great things; for this reason alone, you should read this book, warts-and-all.