By Robbie Broughton
As Sean Conway enters his third week of a record-breaking attempt to cycle across Europe unsupported, we take a moment to check on his progress, discover what makes him tick and find out how he gets through his ultra endurance challenges.
Sean Conway isn’t the first and won’t be the last adventurer to sport a beard. But there are beards and then there are beards. Sean’s is an extravagantly long, ZZ-Top-style mass of ginger hair that flows down to his chest. Let’s hope that his hirsute appearance will put an end to that debate about whether a beard slows you down on a bicycle or not.
He actually began growing it for purely practical reasons when he tackled his triathlon feat of running, swimming and cycling some 4,200 miles around the coastline of Britain. After becoming repeatedly stung by jellyfish it was the only way he could protect his face. And since then it’s become somewhat of a trademark.
His first taste of adventuring had nothing to do with breaking records. On a leisurely Lands End to John O’Groats ride on a bike that he bought on Ebay, he took the best part of a month to complete it. But the freedom and challenges of the experience ignited a desire within him. Before long he’d climbed Kilimanjaro in a penguin suit and decided to sell off his photography business to his partner for the grand sum of £1.
He vowed to “never again make any decisions in life based on their financial outcome but rather on those unusual and daring experiences I dreamt of as a child…And I have never looked back!”
He embarked on a 16,000 mile bike ride around the planet. Three weeks in he was hit by a car travelling at 50 mph which tossed him through the air and to the side of the road, leaving him with a fractured spine, torn ligaments and concussion. He refused to give up and completed 12,000 miles of the trip, dosed up on painkillers.
Although he’s experienced the occasional “hiccup” as he likes to call them, those failures “have only been met by successes that have been much more rewarding.”
Since then he’s cycled between and climbed the highest peaks in Britain, cycled from London to the Alps and became the first person to swim the 900 miles from Lands End to John O’Groats. That’s what led him to his remarkable triathlon challenge.
This month saw him embark on another ultra endurance adventure in his attempt to break the world record of cycling unsupported across Europe in less than 25 days. On 16th April he set off from Cabo de Rocca on the western coast of Portugal with all his own kit. He plans to reach the Russian town of Ufa in a couple of weeks.
Progress is good. The GPS tracker which you can look at on his sponsor’s website (Yellow Jersey Bicycle Insurance) shows that he’s currently ahead of Jonas Deichmann’s record set in 2017 as he approaches the German/Czech border.
Travelling unsupported means that he has to carry everything he needs with him at all times. The conflicting issue is that he needs to cover some 200 miles a day and can’t afford to have kit slowing him down. With that in mind, he spent a long time whittling down his equipment list to the bare minimum. It’s mostly strapped to the back of his Brooks Cambium C13 saddle. It contains his down gilet, mainly to sleep in, a charger for his GPS and a few basic tools. Spare clothes don’t get a look in. “Just one pair of socks. Two pairs just stink out your bag.”
He also has a sleeping bag, bivvy tent and language cards for each country he passes through asking for food, water, sleep and a place to charge his phone. He also manages to find space for some loo paper and a couple of sentimental motivational tools: a flying cow mascot and a letter from his fiancée to open every 1000 miles. A clever tip for any aspiring bike-packers is to carry a ‘fake’ wallet with some cash and cancelled cards in to give to anyone who decides to mug him.
He’s riding a steel framed bike with a carbon fork designed for touring at speed while retaining comfort.
Sean describes adventure as way of thinking that can be applied to more humdrum everyday lives. “What these adventures have taught me is three things, three really important life skills. One is resilience, one is resourcefulness and the third is level-headedness. I think if you’re resilient, resourceful and level headed, you’ll kind of get out of anything.”
And his message to those of us who may not have quite the courage that he has?
“No matter what you do with your life…make sure you make it a daring and unusual experience. Make it adventurous.”