Interview: Round-the-world cyclist, James Bowthorpe

James Bowthorpe in San FranciscoJames Bowthorpe is currently cycling across the USA, 19 days from returning to London at the end of his round-the-world trip.
If he hits his target, he will do it faster than anyone in history. He took some time out to talk to me for an article in the Guardian, but here’s the full transcript.

How long have you been on the road?

I left London on the 29th of March, I’ve been away five months. Sometimes it feels like a lot longer…

How soon do you expect to finish, and how much are you hoping to beat the record by?

I’m hoping to get back to London mid-September. The current record is 195 days all in and I’m hoping to beat that by around two/three weeks. Anything less would be ungentlemanly!

What’s been hardest part of the trip?

Physically, probably the first three weeks – which were still a part of the training. In general, headwinds are the hardest thing to deal with – they’re so soul destroying. It’s an environmental and physical hardship that becomes an emotional hardship – you just can’t beat them and it can really grind you down.

Getting sick after India was really hard. I couldn’t leave my Thai hotel room for nearly three days, let alone get on the bike. It was a pretty dark time and I did think about getting on a plane home. But eventually I could keep enough food down to fuel the cycling and I just got on and did it.

What have you missed most?

My friends, my family, my girlfriend. Sleep. Clean clothes. Being able to stop and look around once in a while.

Any amusing/scary anecdotes along the way?

Scary – only one, when I was in Iran and five men tried to force me off the road and into their car. I was saved by two sixteen year-olds (both called Hassan). I loved Iran apart from that.

Amusing – many. Lots of people will be friendly from their cars, asking you where you’re from or what your name is. In Turkey, one such friendly soul with arms outstretched, cried out to me, “What’s my name!?”.

I’m pretty sure he got one word wrong there, but as it happened quite swiftly I just shouted back, sort of honestly, “I don’t know!” The car carried on, its passenger perhaps struggling with having briefly met someone who didn’t know their own name.

I can play this back over and over and still get a laugh (from myself). Then I start to wonder maybe he didn’t know what his name was, still doesn’t, and just gets driven around, asking people.

This makes me feel less bad about saying, “I don’t know”, but it’s not very likely, is it?

Painful, scary and amusing (in retrospect) was the time I cycled straight in to a wombat in the middle of Australia. I went right over the handle bars and smashed my back brake off, which really cramped my style coming down some pretty big hills when I should have been gaining miles… But now it’s a good anecdote.

James Bowthorpe setting off from Hyde Park

What are the practicalities (camping, flat tyres etc)?

Until the wombat incident I had no punctures. Not one, from Hyde Park to the middle of Australia (thanks Schwalbe!) After that I got several in quick succession in the back tyre which were just as frustrating to fix in the middle of the Nullarbor as they are in Balham.

I’ve been doing a mixture of camping and staying in roadside motels and the like. In Iran I did a lot of camping in mosques, which I really enjoyed.

It’s pretty quick to throw the tent up and it’s nice to be able to stop when I feel like it but I do enjoy a shower and a mattress. And AC – it’s been pretty hot on and off this trip.

As I write this I’ve just got a huge crack in the right crank which has brought me to a complete stop somewhere near Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Think I’ve found a bicycle shop that can help me out on a Sunday afternoon… fingers crossed.

What sort of bike/equipment are you using?

I’m riding a customised Santos Travelmaster with a Rohloff hub and a belt drive. The belt-drive is a complete revelation; no oiling, no cleaning and no noise. The Rohloff hub is also amazing; if I stop on a hill in the wrong gear I can change down while stationary, which is a boon on a fully loaded bike.

This is a first by the way – Rohloff are a very cautious and thorough company and do not allow bike manufacturers to sell their hubs with a belt drive attached – yet – because they have not been fully tested in the field.

I think that’s about to change. It’s good to be at the cutting edge!

My Brooks saddle isn’t anything new or fancy (I took it off my last bike) but it’s doing a great job and now carries perfect indentations of my sit bones.

I’ve got some very nice Go Lite clothing and equipment – I love my little tent very much, it’s been a boon companion.

My lights and camera batteries and iPhone are powered by the dynamo which I pasted together (and have to re-adjust regularly). I’ve got a GPS tracking system from Spot which links to my website and means you can see where I am at all times on www.whereintheworldisjames.com.

What do you do normally, for a living? What made you think of trying to beat the record?

I’m a volunteer at a Parkinson’s Disease (PD) research clinic based at King’s College London in the Institute of Psychiatry. I chose the clinic and the work because my grandfather had PD and I wanted to find out more about the disease.

The clinic has got by on a shoestring budget for several years and the doctors that lead the research are working constantly at funding the next five years of work. I decided I wanted to help – my contribution was taking on the hardest challenge I could find.

When Mark Beaumont set the current record many thought it was unbreakable, so I thought that would be the thing to do!

Dynamic and unique research requires an equally singular fundraising proposition. If it were for myself and simply to break a record, I’d probably give up halfway round. If I succeed it will be because other things are more inspiring.

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