Talented adventurer Sean Conway has achieved a long-held ambition to set what could become an unbreakable world record. His unsupported 3,980-mile ride across Europe in 24 days, 18 hours and 39 minutes beat the existing world best by nine hours.
By Cath Harris
Cath Harris is a freelance writer and proofreader specialising in cycling, the environment and adventure travel. Read her work at www.cathharris.co.uk
Conway, 37, whose long ginger beard and thick mane are instantly recognisable, used a custom-built bike for his second attempt on the record.
It began in Europe’s most westerly point, Cabo da Roca in Portugal, and ended without fanfare last month at Ufa, Russia.
‘I’ve finally got the record I dreamt about all those years ago,’ he said. ‘To finally do it is a relief.’
Conway’s yearning for a world record dates back almost seven years when he sold his photography business for £1, wanting ‘to add life to my day’.
‘I decided I wanted to make the most of my time on this planet’, which evolved into a desire to be the first, the fastest and achieve the furthest distance in three separate but then unspecified challenges – his ‘three Fs’.
He became the first to swim the length of Britain in 2013, completed the furthest triathlon (4,000 miles around the British coast) three years later and in 2017 attempted to break the cross-Europe cycling record.
That goal was thwarted by a knee tendon injury and a carbon bike with disc wheels that caused pain in his back and wrists.
The man dubbed ‘Britain’s favourite lunatic’ on BBC Radio 2 rode a different bike for his second attempt, crafted for the venture by expedition-bike specialist Simon Stanforth.
Despite its Reynolds 853 steel frame and Conway’s pared-down luggage, the total weight he propelled was just 15.4kg.
‘It’s the ultimate race-touring bike; comfortable, durable and reliable – a bit like a vintage Tour de France bike but one level up from old-school racing bikes. I rode 4,000 miles in training and didn’t have a single issue with it.’
The long, cold winter foiled many of Conway’s road-riding training plans, however, especially from his home in the Lake District.
He used a Wattbike instead but despite grinding three-hour endurance sessions and high intensity efforts lasting an hour ‘I really struggled to build up power’.
‘I did a lot of running to make up for the lack of miles. A lot of people said there was no point, but I found it conditioned by legs nicely against injury.’
Conway largely followed the route taken by German Jonas Deichmann who cycled 4,007 miles in 25 days, 3 hours and 38 minutes last summer, five days quicker than current Guinness World Record holder, Devonian James McLaren (Deichmann did not register his ride with Guinness).
McLaren’s end points were the same as those of Conway and Deichmann but he rode east to west.
Conway opted for Deichmann’s route rather than design his own ‘because I wanted to make it exciting for people to follow online, with his ghost chasing me.
‘It’s also important to limit your decision-making on a long challenge. It leaves more brain space for the important stuff like food and sleeping.’
Conway cycled through nine countries – Portugal, Spain, France, Switzerland, Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine and Russia.
‘Most of Europe was amazing with big hard shoulders. The route was hillier than I expected and the middle of France caught me by surprise. I’d be riding up a 5% gradient for 30 minutes then have only a five-minute downhill so wouldn’t gain any time.
‘I wasn’t bothered about scenery – if I do what I’m doing for another five years I’ll have an entire 50 years to enjoy the scenery.’
He rode for 16 hours each day, slept rough 19 times and had just four showers.
Conway ate mostly at service stations and carried little food with him. He followed main roads, the worst of which were in Germany and Russia.
‘Initially I used bike paths in Germany but they really slowed me down, because they’re made for leisure cycling and would take you away from the road.
‘When I switched to the road itself I experienced the worst driver attitudes in any part of Europe.
‘The motorways in Russia were horrible because there was no hard shoulder. I had mirrors and every time a truck approached from behind I had to pull off the road and wait for it to pass.
‘On a good day that would happen twice an hour and I’d lose 15 seconds each time. On a bad day it would be every few minutes, which meant losing an hour a day – and I was in Russia for seven days.’
Conway had to avoid working too hard after those stops to prevent lactic acid pooling in his legs. ‘The worst thing you can do is accelerate quickly. If you’re pushing 200 Watts just to accelerate, your muscles break down. So rather than push hard I took a hit on the time.’
Headwinds of between 15 and 25mph also hampered Conway’s progress. But he had time in hand having reached the Ukraine–Russian border 26 hours ahead of Deichmann’s schedule.
Conway had little human contact during the ride – ‘I was so tired’ – but in Eastern Europe found people ‘super helpful – they wanted to practice their English’.
He did have the company of ‘Pedro’, a dog or wolf’s skull he found in Spain on the second day and carried to Ufa. ‘It showed people I was a normal bloke and that anyone could have a crack.’
Conway still has the skull.
He had just three punctures and no other mechanicals, and didn’t miss a welcome at the finish. His unsupported record may stand for all time even if Lee Timms, who will have support, completes the route more quickly this September.
‘Once a record is set fully supported, Guinness doesn’t distinguish between unsupported and supported,’ Conway said.
‘The Guinness stamp [which should soon be confirmed] wasn’t my goal, it was that third “F”. It’s just a relief that I have finally managed to do it.’
Next for Conway is marriage in July, then more swimming and running while he contemplates his next book. ‘It’s going to be about ultra-cycling – its history, why people do it …
‘I’ve started it in my mind which is a huge step because then it’s easy to put down on paper.’
He isn’t done with cycling himself. ‘I’ve always regretted losing the fitness after other things. I’d like to try to keep it this time.’