On 11th May 2018, Sean Conway arrived in the town of Ufa in Russia, breaking the world record for an unsupported crossing of Europe by bicycle. The 3500 mile journey, from Cabo de Roca on the Atlantic coast of Portugal to Ufa in the foothills of the Ural Mountains, took 24 days 18 hours and 39 minutes, beating the previous record by some 9 hours.
His ride was self-supported, meaning that he had no accompanying person to help organise food, water, accommodation or logistical help,
Known as the Big Bearded Adventurer, Sean lost just a few kilos in weight (going from 68kg to 64 or 65kg), but his beard grew a centimetre.
Images courtesy Gavin Kaps of osprey imagery.
How did it go?
I split the journey into 1000 mile chunks and the first 1000 was really, really tough. There was an issue at the start, which didn't go that well, and I was sore all over to begin with. But later I found my rhythm and things went better, as my body adjusted to the demands. Generally it was a still ride, and in the Ukraine I even had a small tailwind for a couple of days. But then, for the last 1100 miles, almost from the moment I arrived in Russia, I hit a headwind of 15-20mph. At one point I was 26 hours ahead of the previous record, but then with the wind and the bad roads with no hard shoulder, constantly worrying about being run over - I had to stop to let trucks past about every three minutes - the lead was eventually reduced to just nine hours.
Did you get your training and planning right?
I was on fitness to break the record, but I didn’t leave myself much room for error. If I had had a proper mechanical - a spoke break or a tyre wall split - even in the last 500 miles - that could have been the end of it. But could I have been fitter? Unfortunately the weather over the winter in the UK, with the snow and the storms, meant that I had to do so many indoor sessions that yes, basically I was a little under-powered. Normally I would happily ride a 5% gradient at 8 mph, but here I was down to 5 mph and I didn’t feel that I had the power in my legs. So towards the end of the attempt, I lost power when going into the hills
My strategy at the start – to start in the evening with the intention of cycling through the night, covering around 220 miles in the first 24 hours, turned out to be a bad one. The idea was good, but I arrived at the start tired after a difficult journey and by the end of 24 hours I was all over the place.
I was glad that I did the ride in April and May though. It wasn’t too hot - which means finding and drinking perhaps an extra 2 litres per day - and it wasn’t too cold at night, which means you have to take the heavier sleeping bag. It was 5-6 degrees at night and so I had the summer sleeping bag and the right clothing.
And the decision to go from west to east was probably a good one too, though if I had been fitter it might have been better to have gone the other way around. It would have been easier to make up the lost time.
One thing I could have done differently was to adopt a more aggressive position on the bike. It would have helped with aerodynamics and posture. And it would have enabled me to put down more power.
How was it physically?
For the first 1000 miles everything hurt, my neck, knees and ankles, and it felt as though my cleats were swivelling in the pedals. It was probably the result of stress hormones and inflammation as the body went into shock at what I was asking of it. Those roadside crash barriers come in useful for massaging your thighs, though.
After the first 1000, I felt more robust and my body adapted as it became accustomed to what was asked of it. My legs felt more piston-like and I didn’t have to stretch so much (I began to do this on the downhills, by hooking a foot back over the saddle).
Were your strategies right during the event?
As I progressed I found I became less sleep deprived, which was strange because I was actually sleeping less. This was a new one for me. I also began to fall asleep more quickly when I stopped. I guess it was the body giving itself a better chance to recover. Interestingly, at 25 days, this was actually the shortest challenge I have put myself through (others have been 44 days, 85 and 150 days) and so I was working a bit harder. I was allowing for 4-5 hours’ sleep a night but in the end I found myself waking up after just four hours and so I would set off at 3 am.
I slept in hotels for four or five nights in total, mainly so I could wash my clothes. I probably should have done it a couple of times more. The salt in the material caused chafing and that’s hard to heal. On the other hand, stopping in a hotel costs time, strangely, because you have to arrange things in a language you don’t know. One morning I got up at 4am and found someone had helpfully locked my bike away in the night and they didn’t come back to work until 7am, so I lost three hours then.
What was the most challenging moment?
The most challenging thing was getting used to each country, working out where to get water and food quickly. Petrol stations are the easiest source of course, but in some countries there would be a rack of motor oil and hub caps and a rack of crisps and maybe nuts but nothing else. Finding fresh food – fruit and veg – was often nearly impossible. It took a couple of days to get used to each country, and then I was moving on to the next country, of course.
You need a balance of food of course: some energy food, some recovery food and some health food. It’s tempting to eat all energy food, but you won’t perform well. Fresh fruit and veg is really important to sustaining yourself.
Did you feel down at any stage?
I actually did feel down a bit towards the end. Not because I couldn’t handle the riding, but more because I knew I was potentially taking 36 hours longer than I needed to. And in Russia it got to me. By that stage I just wanted it to be over. I was constantly worried about being run over by lorries and the headwind made it feel like reaching the finish line of a marathon only to discover that the organisers have upped and moved it another 10 miles further away.
Was there a crisis moment?
Just the whole of Russia, really. It was really hard going, and I was worried the whole way whether I would make it in time. Having got to 26 hours head of the best time, I was terrified that I was losing the record.
Was there a pleasurable moment?
Truthfully, no. There were a couple of amazing sunrises - it was kind of cool to see the sunrise and the sunset each day - and obviously sections of the scenery were nice – the Pyrenees are amazing – but for the most part I had my head down and I was blasting it.
My feeling on reaching the end at Ufa was just relief, really. I was so pleased that the headwind was over. And that I didn’t have to get up again at 3.58 the next morning and set off again. My saddle sores were pretty bad, as well. There was barely any time to settle anyway. I arrived in the afternoon and I had a 7am flight the next morning, before which I had to find a bike shop and get ready to leave.
And the pleasure of the record hasn’t really hit even now [about a month after finishing]. I’ll start writing a book about it soon. That’s when I might start enjoying the idea of cycling again.
What did you learn?
I learned that I can push myself even harder now at 37 years old. I thought I might be coming to the end of my ability to do that, but I have realised that my endurance can keep going on even longer.
I realise I will need to prepare a bit more in the future. It would have been very helpful to have known where to find routes and where to get food in each country. And when in the past I would have winged it, in future I will prepare more because I will be able to achieve more.
I found it interesting to do this at higher speed than my other events. There really is less much less room for mistakes.