Complete darkness is slightly alien to those of us who live in any kind of conurbation. Thanks to light pollution, even on the edges of an urban area, a faint hallogon glow bounces off the sky. You have to go a long way from civilization to enter into complete darkness, assuming you don’t fancy popping underground. But the Scottish Highlands provide this kind of sensory deprivation in abundance, it’s perfect total nothingness.
This is what Mark Beaumont had to tackle on his attempt on the North Coast 500 (NC500) record, the 516-mile route that traces the north coast of Scotland, which meant non-stop riding through the night, a night that in mid-September lasted about 12 hours.
His endeavour started at Inverness at 8am on Saturday 24 September, and finished 28 hours and 35 minutes later, just past 12pm on the Sunday. A new record, with verification from the World Ultra Cycling Association (WUCA).
Setting off from Inverness Castle, the mood was suddenly frenzied as Beaumont needed his bike, which was still being finely tuned, in time for his scheduled start. Once he was away, there was a rush to get in the cars that would track him for the next day.
Following behind in a support vehicle, from about Ullapool onwards, all you could see for hours was the red light on the back of Beaumont’s time trial bike, constantly moving forwards; a little red dot of hope in the inky blackness.
It reminded me of the green light that Gatsby reaches out towards across the bay in The Great Gatsby, the beacon for the eponymous character. As the narrator writes: “...he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and far as I was from him I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward--and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.”
Driving along the NC500, between Ledbeg and Wick, pretty much across the whole of the top of Scotland, the only thing that pierced the gloom was the red light on Beaumont’s bike slicing through the night It could be seen from miles away on the rolling hills of north Scotland, the illumination the only thing to say that his attempt was still going.
Speaking after his attempt on the Sunday, the 39-year-old said that this was one of the reasons he succeeded, his ability to keep going through the night.
“I've done a huge amount of night riding, and so I have the discipline to still ride quickly,” he told Cycling Weekly. “I think it's just the unknown when people ride into the night and through the night. Some of those little roads, when you're descending fast on the tri-bars, there's no room for error on those roads. I'm constantly trying to stay safe. But I'm trying to go fast. You can just lose so much time overnight, if you're on the brakes all the time, or if you just naturally slow down, your circadian rhythm, when you get tired.
“I often think one of the advantages I've got is that I've done so much night riding. These races aren't won at midday they're won at midnight. How good are you in the middle of the night?”
The night does bring problems, especially on the roads of north Scotland where deer and other wildlife roam freely. It was nothing wild that almost scuppered his attempt, but instead farm animals.
“I was so lucky,” Beaumont explained. “I was doing about 30 miles an hour and the sheep scattered. I locked up, and then released my breaks. I just picked a line, and luckily there was no sheep in the line I took. But that was pure luck, that would have been a really serious crash.”
It is worth focusing on the night-riding, because this was the most impressive bit. While members of the support crew swapped roles, slept for a bit, struggled to keep going,
Beaumont charged on into the dark, keeping his average up, storming towards victory.
There was a moment, when we thought we had put enough distance between ourselves in our vehicle and Beaumont and his follow vehicle, that we pulled over to rest, only to see the cyclist shoot past at his incredible pace once more. It never ended.
You may well know Beaumont’s name as he has achieved epic achievements before including breaking the world record for circumnavigating the globe, which he did in 79 days, in 2017, and in 2015. He also broke the world record for fastest solo ride for the length of Africa by finishing in 42 days and 8 hours. However, to see it up close was impressive, actually being there to see the speed, the relentless energy, the focus. I couldn’t get close.
Breaking the record
If one compares the times of Robbie Mitchell, the previous record holder, and Beaumont, the moment that the latter started to turn the screw and take the time was not until over 350 miles in, about John O’Groats.
He was gaining a lot of time through not taking many breaks. A ten-minute break was scheduled every six hours, but in the end these were cut right down. He spent about 16 minutes off his bike in the 28.5 hours, which is, frankly, ridiculous. I have been on two-hour long rides where I’ve spent longer off the bike thanks to one thing or another.
Each stop was a crucial point which showed the team around Beaumont for the well-oiled machine it was. A car would go ahead and find a suitable stopping point, he would pull in on his bike, and head straight off to relieve himself, while his bike was checked and wiped down, with batteries on his lights replenished if they needed to be.
At his first stop near Torridon, after he had climbed the Bealach-Na-Ba from Applecross, he gave himself time just for things to be checked over before jumping straight back on. Any normal person would need a half hour break after that. Almost all eating and drinking was done on the bike, specially checked, with no margin for error.
Beaumont was often ready ahead of the team themselves, who were having to work at his pace. If he had become hungry or thirsty at any point, it would be too late, but this was avoided. Not that it all went swimmingly, however, physically and mentally.
“There were real slumps, I had one around dawn this morning,” he said soon after he finished. “At about 350 miles, I just felt so sore. I had another one late yesterday afternoon, around 150 miles in. I guess at that point where I'd gone a decent way, but it still felt like an absolute mammoth task ahead of me. You start to feel sore. And you think, 'oh, crikey, I'm only like a quarter of the way through'.
“It's pretty intimidating and that can get in your head. I'm not listening to anything. I'm not distracted. I'm just literally staring at my Wahoo in a pretty uncomfortable position. It's a stunning bike. I mean, you saw how quick it was. But it's not built for comfort. And especially on those roads. The NC500 has some pretty broken tarmac and rough roads, you're just getting absolutely battered.”
There were some serious climbs on the 516-mile route too. The road up Bealach-Na-Ba is a stunning one, even if he did not have the time to take it all in enroute, instead focusing on getting up the 626m of climbing in 9.1km. This would be hard on a road bike, let alone a TT bike, through the Scottish weather, alone.
The team behind the rider
It was all down to Beaumont to keep pedalling, keep his power and pace up, and fight off the fatigue that built over the 28 hours. However, to allow him to do this, there is a group of people to keep the whole operation on the road, to keep his bike working perfectly at all times, and to keep him fed and hydrated.
There was a first car, the follow vehicle, with a driver, Iain; a mechanic, Peter; someone in charge of nutrition, who happened to be his wife, Nicci; someone who was taking care of Beaumont himself, Alice. Following that was another support vehicle, with Mike Griffiths, the organiser of the whole project, logistics and all, plus GCN’s James Lowsley-Williams, and Ben from myWindsock, with a camera crew, another van driven by Natalie, and myself on top of that.
Speaking ahead of the attempt, Nicci, Beaumont’s wife, spoke of her nerves, especially around his safety on the road, but also her role in the team - this was the first time she had joined in actually helping an attempt. “I kind of just wanted to come along and be a driver or something, and now I'm the nutritionist and involved in keeping him healthy,” she said. “I don't think it's going to change us much, because when Mark trains, I keep my distance from him anyway, and I can judge his mood swings very quickly. I think I've got to keep my emotions under wraps and kind of just stay headstrong. I've always been really envious of them coming back from an expedition and the way they're all buzzing together.
“I'm loving being with the team and working together. And just being a part of it, it's a really nice feeling. I don't know if it's going to be something I keep on doing. But it's a really amazing opportunity”
By the end, Beaumont was telling her that she had passed the test and Nicci was crying with pride - a bit of exhaustion and awe thrown in. We were back at Inverness Castle, although this time the gates were closed and the team had to pose in front of the construction work going on there. It felt both like an enormous amount of time and no time at all had passed, although we had the time to the second.
There were lots of small things that kept the team going that would be invisible to an onlooker - sandwiches bought in bulk from Inverness Morrisons, a mammoth order of fish and chips from Ullapool, and 14 coffees from a self-service machine in Golspie. All this happened while Beaumont was powering away.
It was mission accomplished, and while at times things looked stressful from the outside, this did not get through to Beaumont, which is the whole point really.
“Anyone in my close team will reflect that I'm pretty good at getting the blinkers on,” he explained. “I work on a need to know basis when I'm on the bike. There were quite a few different pods on the road this time, with filming and logistics, but I just focus on my job. In one sense, it could be so overwhelming have this many people here. If I didn't have a coping mechanism for that, it would be a lot of pressure. Everyone is here for me. It's an amazing amount of support, a huge amount of belief in my ability. That can translate into pressure. But it's a very special project.”
Beaumont’s record-breaking ride was being filmed for a GCN+ documentary. The film will join a catalogue of exclusive GCN+ epic adventure and challenge films including Mark’s 'Around the World in 80 Days'.
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