Mark Beaumont recently broke the world record for circumnavigating the globe on a bike, covering an astonishing 18,000 miles in 78 days, 14 hours and 40 minutes.
To achieve this, on almost all of those days, he rode for 16 hours, covered 260 miles and burned 9000 calories. It is a feat of almost unparalleled human endurance, which will rightly go down in the history books. Beaumont spoke to The Stack about the less human element: the impact that technology and data analysis had on his ride.
There were many factors that went into getting rider and bike from Paris to Paris via the world in such a short space of time. Crucial to this ride was Beaumont’s decision to carry out the ride with a support crew. Ten years ago, he had completed a similar ride unsupported, taking 194 days and 17 hours. That ride was completed with no outside assistance and carrying all his own gear.
The difference between the two rides is massive, with the more recent ride being a pure speed event, compared to the earlier “wild man” style ride. Importantly, being able to use a support crew meant that Beaumont was creating, and relying on, a massive amount of data.
Breaking barriers with data
It is now common in the business community to see data as being a rich and fertile resource, having been variously compared to gold, oil, and cash. Beaumont himself argues that he would not have been able to achieve what he did without paying close attention to a host of data sets.
This is clear from Beaumont’s summary of some of the logistics. Having had his performance tracked by two Garmin systems simultaneously – a 920XT watch and an Edge 1000 bike computer, data would be uploaded every day.
Beaumont says, “my coach back in the UK would be looking at that data and feeding back accordingly.
“My performance manager on the road also had sight of that, and then my logistics manager, the guy who was in charge of making the miles add up to exactly 18,000 and making sure that we stuck to the rules of the race.”
Logistics manager Mike Griffiths sometimes changed that route if it were to be detrimental to Beaumont’s ride, for instance, if there was a strong headwind expected. In one day alone, his movement was being tracked by three people, assessed, fed back, and his route potentially altered accordingly.
Using the data allows you to push yourself very hard – it allowed us to endure and suffer and to do everything we did
Griffiths, who spent 26 years in the Royal Engineers, reinforced the importance of quickly adjusting to make Beaumont’s life more comfortable. “Our electronic set up was critical when minor route adjustments were needed to keep the wind off Mark’s face. Even slight adjustments made incremental gains.
“Throughout North Dakota, we made a significant route shift through tracking the weather charts as Mark’s physical condition was being tested beyond comprehension.”
Making life easier for Beaumont was clearly priority number one for the team, and according to the rider himself, there was a direct link between his morale levels and the precision planning that went into the trip.
“I think using the data to be very organised allows you to push yourself very hard – if you were saying ‘let’s wake up at 3.30 in the morning, get on the bike at 4 and just go wild’, there’s nothing to focus on, you’re hurting too much,” Beaumont says.
“The only thing that keeps you sane when you’re suffering that much is that you’re ticking off a plan – you’re not just going hell for leather. The fact that there was such a structure to it allowed us to endure and suffer and to do everything we did.”
‘Hell for leather’ is not a technical term, but it was important for Beaumont to ensure he was sensible with his output. In the cycling world, it is now common practice to ride ‘to power’, where the cyclist will match a certain wattage output as measured by a power meter, as opposed to simply estimating how they feel. It’s this technique, and an obsession with data, that’s catapulted Team Sky and riders like Chris Froome to the top of the sport.
In the world of pro cycling, the usual aim is to be hitting wattage numbers that are as high as they can hold for the duration of the race. For context, in the final sprint of a stage race, the best riders will be producing around 1200 watts, and in track cycling numbers break the 2000 barrier. Beaumont tried to ensure he never went over 200 watts.
He could do this mostly by feel, but in tougher terrain, such as mountainous areas, it was vitally important he didn’t go “into the red.” To have done so would have had a serious impact later that day, or further down the line, and could have jeopardised the entire ride.
This focus on remaining in “zone one” in terms of effort had unexpected effects. Despite exercising 16 hours a day for nearly three months, Beaumont’s top-level fitness, the type that you use when sprinting, was seriously reduced. As well as this, a post-ride DEXA scan found that the bone density in his legs has reduced by 2% – a result of not walking or supporting any weight for so long; the only time Beaumont walked for the duration was a few steps at a time between his bike and the support bus.
It was vitally important not to go ‘into the red.’ To have done so could have jeopardised the entire ride
It was not only rider which faced challenges. Support staff too had their share of obstacles. Griffiths, for instance, had to compete with technological challenges. “Training all four teams with electronic navigation, the use of computers, tracking systems was the greatest challenge,” he says.
“Uploading each day’s route for the public and evidence for Guinness World Records was critical. It all sounds simple but setting backup watches, iPads and checking back office software for all systems when things go wrong, his Bluetooth system used to talk with the press and his support crew on the road; there were many simple devices but functionality was always hampered by poor connectivity.”
Technology as an enabler
Given how important it was to the team to break the world record, this mattered massively. With so many fans, sponsors, and other cyclists watching, to have completed the ride but not got the record due to a technical problem would have been heartbreaking.
To that end, a very small, lightweight, and completely tamper-proof GPS tracking unit stayed on Beaumont’s person at all times. Data from this went back through an Iridium system that would update every ten minutes with his position, altitude and speed.
Looking at the way technology and the smart use of data helped Beaumont break the record is enlightening. Without verging into grandiosity, it can serve as a metaphor for the wider use of technology. In this case, it helped an extraordinary team achieve a monumental goal, but it still could never have happened if not for the determination and effort of one man on a bike.
This is applicable to business. At its best, technology allows the human involved achieve far greater things than they might have otherwise. With the increasing introduction of automation and artificial intelligence, Beaumont’s ride may be a timely reminder that we should see technology as just that – an amplifier of human greatness.