Is This The World’s Most Extreme Adventure Race?

Why the World Cycle Race makes the Tour de France look like a summer holiday

Sean Conway

Sean Conway in the Atacama Desert just inside Peru while taking part in the first version of the World Cycle Race in 2012. One of the toughest possible route options for racing round the world, Conway was taking on big climbs and temperatures that peaked at 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Tour de France has nothing on this. While Chris Froome, Alberto Contador and company are completing their 2,271-mile circuit through a small slice of Western Europe this summer, the winner of the world’s most grueling cycling race will likely already be crowned.

We’re talking about the second edition of the World Cycle Race, and it’s exactly what it sounds like: a competition to see who can circumnavigate the globe the fastest.

By bike.

If this sounds a little insane, that’s because it is. The winner of the first edition, Mike Hall, averaged nearly 200 miles a day for over 90 riding days on some of the most extreme terrain on Earth.

For comparison’s sake, the longest stage on the 2014 Tour de France will be 147 miles—and it’s in France.

On March 1 at noon, five racers from England, Germany, India and Ireland will depart from Greenwich Park in London, and will do their damndest not to return until they’ve ridden at least 18,000 miles and crossed opposite ends of the Earth. A ceremonial “launch peloton” (sign up here) will escort the competitors through London to the starting line.

The race is sponsored by the high-end saddle and touring accessory company Brooks England and organized by The Adventurists. (Their motto: “Taking a big dump on health & safety in the name of adventure.”)

We reached out to one of these “adventurists,” Dan Wedgwood, to explain what the World Cycle Race is all about.

TAT: What is the World Cycle Race? Is it real?
DW: It's the biggest bicycle race on the planet, the tag line is for real: if you want a bigger race, find a bigger planet. People have been cycling around the world for years, and trying to cycle round the world as fast as possible. Now there's a head to head race to make things more interesting.

Essentially it's a one-stage race around the planet. You have to start and finish in the same place and pass through two anti-podal points (opposite points on the planet). You have to cover at least 18,000 miles in the same direction. The clock runs continuously from start to finish so route and tactics are an important aspect of the race.

Where did the idea come from?
This is the second edition of the World Cycle Race; the first one was held in 2012 and organized by the riders themselves with help from a company called Brooks England, who have been around since 1866 and make leather saddles. That race was won by Englishman Mike Hall and he's still involved as a race ambassador and Rules Committee Chairman for the 2014 edition.

Is there a set route?
There is no set route around the world. That's what makes it so interesting; there are so many options for tackling the race and completing the distance under the rules. There is a lot of debate around the rules and whether riders should have to go through a minimum number of countries or continents, but right now the rules are quite simple and riders must cover at least 18,000 miles in the same direction.

How long does it take?
The current male world record holder is Alan Bate. He did it in 125 days, 21 hours and 15 minutes, and the female record is held by Juliana Buhring, who did it in 152 days and 1 hour.

We reckon the winner of the 2014 World Cycle Race will also become the new world record holder—that's what they're all aiming for...

How many people have started it and how many have finished?
Here's the info about the 2012 race from our website:

“In 2012 the first World Cycle Race was contested by 9 unsupported riders who departed from Greenwich Park, London on 18th February. The winner, Englishman Mike Hall, finished on 4th June and set a new record of 107 days which remains the fastest unsupported circumnavigation. [Guinness revised the rules to include total travel time, meaning Bate still holds the official record. -Ed.] Second place Richard Dunnett completed the 18,000 miles on 7th July and Irishman Simon Hutchinson became the third and final rider of the nine to complete the required distance, arriving back in London on 27th July.”

Hall took this road through Death Valley en route to winning the 2012 WCR. Photo courtesy of Mike Hall.

How many (serious) competitors do you expect this year?
In 2014 we have 5 riders. There were a lot more interested and intending to take part but many had to pull out due to financial issues. There's no entry fee to take part in the World Cycle Race but the cost of funding a circumnavigation on two wheels builds up once you add up the number of days on the road and the flights you need.

Although this race won't be contested by a large number of people the guys taking part are very serious and have been training ridiculously hard for many months, so we expect some strong rides this year.

Our aim is to build the race into an international spectacle with categories covering pairs, teams and solo riders, recognition for unsupported rides and multiple start points around the world. We have grand plans for the World Cycle Race (and if anyone is interested in racing in 2015, give us a shout!)

Is support provided, and if not, what kind of gear do participants need?
We don't provide support on the road for riders, we look after the start, finish and race coverage including a live tracking map. We also advise riders before the race and publish information on how to build and manage a successful circumnavigation campaign.

In terms of kit riders need a robust lightweight bike. The key is reliability and taking something they can fix easily on the road. In terms of kit and luggage we reckon less is more. Everyone is welcome of course but we particularly like the concept of travelling as light as possible so you can ride hard and fast, sleep in a ditch, take only what you absolutely need and focus on the race. Essentials include a GPS tracker, basic spares and riding apparel that can cope with a massive range of temperatures and weeks on the road.

What are (or have been) the most challenging segments of the race?
Of the routes taken by riders on the 2012 race, India was a hard one for Sean Conway. The heat, road conditions and traffic were tough, but he also said it was one of his favorite sections despite the challenges. He also took on the Atacama desert in Peru, which is tough because, well, it's a desert.

Mike Hall, the guy who went on to win the race took on the 90 mile straight—Australia's longest road—and also the Death Valley in eastern California's Mojave Desert.

They're all examples of tough spots, but generally speaking the toughest part of the World Cycle Race is what happens upstairs—the mental challenge to continue racing all the way round the planet is immense.

Cycling during the first version of the World Cycle Race in 2012, Sean Conway passed through central India just before monsoon season, facing hot, humid and occasionally windy weather. Photo courtesy of Sean Conway.

I have to ask: What are some of the dangers of this race? Has anyone ever died or been seriously injured?
The biggest danger is probably the traffic: other road users in places where they might not expect to see many cyclists, or where the road rules are not exactly enforced or followed to the letter. India's highways are renowned for their shocking statistics, but it's less obvious dangers such as large trucks on highways that you have to be aware of.

During the 2012 race Sean Conway was hit by a truck while cycling across the USA. Here's how he reported it:

"At 5.45 a.m. last Thursday I was hit by a huge Ford pickup truck. Somehow he hit me slap bang in the middle of his car. I was spun onto his bonnet and then was thrown off into the dirt. My worst nightmare came true and I now battle a fracture to my spine, torn muscles in my right leg, chipped tooth and concussion. It’s no cliche but my helmet saved my life. My bike is also a complete write off. That's £4000 worth of kit sitting all mangled and disfigured."

Amazingly he was taken in by a family, who helped nurse him back to health and helped arrange a new bike for him and he carried on and ended up cycling a lot further even with his damaged neck. Impressive stuff but a reminder of the dangers out there.

Here's the blog about the accident on his website.

Is there a prize for winning?
The winner of the World Cycle Race will get a trophy, and massive recognition from the adventure, endurance and long distance cycling communities of our fine planet! There's no financial prize this time round but there will be a trophy, plus recognition awards for fastest unsupported ride and fastest male/female rider depending on the sex of the winning rider.

Everyone taking part is also in contention for setting a new official world record.


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