Talk about a coup for the Outer Hebrides. Mark Beaumont, at one time the fastest man to have cycled around the world, launched the Hebridean Way Cycling Route by biking up through the isles in 24 hours.
He was “amazed” by the support he got – but, equally, everyone who met him was struck by how nice he was. I had the pleasure and privilege of chatting with him in Callanish on Friday morning – I was tagging along with Leila Angus of brighterstill.com whose amazing photographs you see here (thank you Leila) – while he warmed up ahead of the final push to Ness.
It was there, over coffee and cake, that he revealed plans for a new World Record attempt in the autumn. Although most of the details are still under wraps, it will be on the bike. And it is definitely a bid for a new WORLD Record, as I checked three times!
Mark was talking about what’s next on his agenda. There’s a book tour for the next three weeks, the arrival of Baby Number Two in May, and then “training very seriously for another record attempt in the autumn”.
Mark, 33, said: “My ambitions for the next two or three years are back on the bike. I’m still trying to push it, still trying to take it to the next level. I feel lucky. I’ve been doing this for a decade now and it’s great fun. I’ve probably got two or three years to really push it.”
This Scot’s achievements are incredible. In 2008, when he broke the World Record for cycling round the world, he covered 18,296 miles in just 194 days. There have been other major challenges, on land and sea, one of which ended in disaster and near death. In 2012, Mark and a crew of five were attempting to row across the Atlantic in less than 30 days when their boat capsized and sank. They were more than 500 miles from their destination in Barbados.
It was a fight for survival for 14 hours. I wonder whether Mark still has the same appetite for risk. Would he try something like this again? “Absolutely not. Not a chance. That was a big turning point. Even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t put my family through that. A lot has changed.”
That change has been a wife, a two-year-old daughter and another baby on the way. Mark admitted: “I’m probably taking less big risks now. In the past I did a lot of ocean rowing.”
Some might be surprised that Mark, who is used to cycling across entire continents, would bother coming to the Western Isles for 175 miles. But for Mark, “any time on the bike is good” and there was the time challenge to make it interesting. He has also been “looking more to home for challenges” since becoming a father.
“I’ve always lived in Scotland and I’ve always trained in Scotland but I’ve cycled around the world, top to bottom, and over the last decade, I’ve become more and more aware that we’ve genuinely got an incredible adventure playground in Scotland.
“You only realise that the more you travel. I’ve been in 130 countries over the last 10 years and I appreciate what’s at home.
“Yeah, the challenge was to do the Hebridean Way in a day, but it’s been great fun. Some of it was a bit grittier because of the weather but the community support has been amazing. Four schools came out on Thursday, people were cheering me on over their fences, and lots of cyclists have come out to ride with me.
“I’ve never been here. I’ve no connection with the Outer Hebrides… to have that local support has been amazing.” He added: “It’s definitely harder, doing it in March, but it’s still been great. I think most hardy cyclists would love the challenge.”
Among those who joined Mark on the road were Neil Malcolm and Robert Sinclair, who kept him company from Leurbost to Callanish, and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar convener Norman ‘Dokus’ Macdonald, on the road to Ness.
Neil, duty manager at the Cabarfeidh Hotel, said: “I’ve seen some of the stuff he’s done in the past and I thought ‘when are you going to get the chance to cycle with someone like that again?’ He’s a really nice guy, really down to earth.”
Neil Malcolm (left) and Robert Sinclair kept Mark company from Leurbost to Callanish. Pic courtesy of Outer Hebrides Tourism / Leila Angus
Dokus said: “It’s fantastic to get somebody who’s cycled round the world to mark the opening of the cycling network from Barra to the Butt. “It’s a real coup that he’s taken the time to come and open a very small part of the cycling round the world. Perhaps this is him completing his cycle round the world… because I don’t think he came to the Hebrides that time!”
Mark’s trip was organised and managed by Outer Hebrides Tourism and coincided with the launches of the Eat Drink Hebrides Trail and Scottish Tourism Week. A joint celebration was held, post-cycle, in the Isle of Harris Distillery on Friday night (bet that was a good party).
What makes the Hebridean Way ‘new’ – it follows the roads up the isles from Vatersay to the Butt of Lewis – is new signange and its listing on the National Cycling Network. Officially numbered Route 780, details can be accessed through the Sustrans website.
Mark blasted through in no time but mere mortals will take a few more days and can really soak up the surroundings. The benefits of touring on a bike do, of course, include being able to “see and hear everything”.
Mark added: “I think you’ve got quite a lot to boast about. It’s so varied, as well, from landing on the beach in Barra up to Lewis, which is far more rocky, more rugged. “People assume, before they’ve visited the islands, that they’ll be similar. I did. I thought they’d be beautiful, but that they’d be similar. That’s a massive surprise.
“I love these old landscapes. It reminds me of the west coast of Norway; it’s got that incredible wild ruggedness to it.”
Mark’s day job could have been very different. Graduating with a degree in economics and politics, he turned his back on all that in order to chase his dreams. He is undoubtedly an amazing role model and, having been named Rector of Dundee University in January, is keen to encourage young people to be brave too.
“The trick is to try and give them the confidence to step into careers that they’re passionate about. The big risk with education is you get fast tracked into something that’s not yours. I think about that more and more now that I’ve got kids.
“The hardest thing is just having the confidence. Most young people have the skills sets but it’s having the confidence not to do the easy thing.
“Who knows where it will lead you? That’s the exciting thing. A small decision in your early 20s can make a fundamental, massive difference 10 years into your career. “The best time to risk big is when you’re young, when you have no ties. Why not? What have you go to lose?”
Mark Beaumont could have worked in the City. Instead, he’s an adventurer. I think that makes him someone worth listening to.