The world at his pedals
Cyclist-adventurer Sean Conway is cycling 18,000 miles on his bicycle in a mere 150 days to raise money for charity. Sanjiv Nair spoke to him during his Mumbai leg and found that riding high often means riding rough
This week, the adventure enthusiasts at White Collar Hippie along with Mumbai’s popular urban biking store, Bikeshark, played host to an exceptionally malnourished Caucasian with a questionable sense of hygiene and personal care.
Thirty year-old Sean Conway has been consuming more than 7,000 calories of food every day for the past four months and, yet, has lost more than 10 per cent of his body weight over the same period. This, however, is a mere by-product of the colossal endeavour that Conway has undertaken — to travel 18,000 miles on his bicycle in a mere 150 days to create a new world record and raise £ 1,00,000 for Solar Aid, a UK-based international development charity that promotes the use of solar energy to help reduce global poverty and combat climate change.
So what drives a man to accomplish such a titanic task in the first place? Born in Zimbabwe next to the Zambezi River, Conway, in his own words, had little choice in the matter. “Adventure,” he says, “is in my blood. Growing up in the heartland of the African wilderness has meant I have always strived to challenge myself mentally and physically.”
In February 2011, Conway had just finished climbing Kilimanjaro and wanted to do something bigger. “I always wanted to swim the English Channel and cycle the earth. So, on a random weekend after mentioning it to my friends and family (who on the most part just shrugged their shoulders as if it was a normal thing for me to do) I decided to commit to this. I hadn’t heard about the Global Bike Race but once I found out about it, there was no doubt I was going to move my attempt a few months back to participate,” says Conway.
The Global Bike Race is an initiative of Vin Cox — the man who currently holds the world record for the fastest circumnavigation of the globe by bicycle. Its rules are simple — travel 18,000 miles (roughly 29,000 kilometres) around the world in 160 days and make it to Greenwich Park in London before the Olympics. Sounds strenuous? You haven’t heard even the half of it.
Conway’s journey began well before he pedalled his first mile. For nearly eight months, he planned his journey meticulously as he chalked out his route map, the equipment he would carry, funding, travel, and everything else he could think of. And when he wasn’t planning, he would train, putting his body through the sternest tests imaginable. He would cycle for hundreds of miles, sometimes through unfamiliar terrain, crashing into walls and all sorts of obstacles on the way. He spent countless hours in the gym, powering up his legs into turbines of raw power and endurance. And when that concluded he began to torture his mind as well.
“I would put myself through training which was excruciatingly uncomfortable. I would go swimming in very cold waters and sprint around circular tracks several times till the monotony drove me mad. In an endurance test, it is as important, to strengthen the mind as well as the body.”
Even his equipment is an extraordinary amalgam of strength and efficiency. “I have a custom made Thorn bicycle, made out of a steel frame, for strength, and to weld it in case of any problems. It has racing wheels but its handle bars are flat. I have also added a drop handlebar to rest my back as I cycle.” Conway’s back is one that does require quite a bit of rest, as it bears more than the burden of his Herculean task.
The initial leg of Conway’s journey took him across the picturesque landscapes of Spain, Morocco and Latin America. Conway’s apprehensions about travelling through diverse landscapes and different cultures had begun to wear thin as he began to enjoy his journeys. In Morocco, he says, “Every truck that went by gave me a quick ‘toot’ to say he is coming and two ‘toots’ if he thought it was going to be a close one.” Soon he reached America, the one part of his journey, he had little nervousness about. However, it was here that his ride took a near debilitating turn. On March 20, a truck hit Conway from behind at 55 miles an hour. His mangled bike was hardly the issue — it was whiplash, severe bruising to his legs, torn tendons and a damaged back that he had to endure.
Conway had been busted up enough to lose his ability to cycle again, let alone global circumnavigate to break records on one. But he is a man with a will made of metal. He rode on. “I love the dhabas on Indian highways, especially the paneer butter masala they serve. Although most of the time I just enter the dhabas and point at other people’s plates to be served whatever it is they are eating.”
The dhabas Conway speaks of are places where he satiated his enormous appetite as he cycled from Kolkata to Mumbai, nearly three months after the accident that had wrecked him. Instead of being bed-ridden, Conway exited the hospital within a couple of weeks and against the better counsel of doctors, continued his pursuit of the record.
Even the usually steadfast adjudicators of the Guinness Book of Records, submitted to Sean’s iron resolve and rolled back the time he had spent in the hospital. After journeying through Australia and South East Asia, Sean covered another 2,500 kilometers in India from where he takes back several fond memories. “The people in India are incredibly friendly. They smile and laugh whenever they see me. Although I am quite certain that more often they are laughing at ‘the white guy with the funny beard’.”
Armed with two bottles of water, a miniature Olympic torch made by children from a school near the Olympics Village, his lucky charm, ‘Little Flying Cow’ and his bicycle which he has baptised ‘Maid Marian’, Conway left for Europe on Friday, for the final stretch of his journey as he pedals across Greece, Germany, Bosnia and Turkey, among other countries, before he reaches England.
How does one muster the courage to wake up in the morning with an aching body to even begin a journey that long? “It is quite simple, really,” quips Conway. “Think of what you would do, if you were to know that you would succeed at whatever it was you tried to do tomorrow. And then do it!”