In 2017 German endurance cyclist Jonas Deichmann set the world record for cycling across Europe, fully self-supported, in an incredible 25 days. This is a 6500km journey, starting in Portugal on the Westernmost point, crossing a further 7 countries all the way to Ufa at the Easternmost point of Europe.
However, the world’s fastest cycling record is something that has eluded another endurance athlete for years. That of UK based and Zimbabwe-born, bearded adventurer Sean Conway. Sean has set other incredible records, including the first person to swim the length of Britain, and also setting a record for a full triathlon of the UK, where he cycled, ran than swam within a mile of the entire coast of mainland Britain. But a world’s fastest is something that came within his reach when he attempted the Europe crossing in 2017, the same years as Jonas’ record. Unfortunately for Sean, after just 1200km, when approaching the French Pyrenees, he had to pull out because of an injury.
Fast forward to 2018 and it’s time for Sean to give the Europe record another crack. This time with a new bike (A Reynolds steel Stanforth Conway) and renewed determination to break the elusive record. Also with the intention of making a film of the ride. So I was asked by Sean, having previously filmed him in the UK’s stunning Lake District a few years before, to travel with and to capture his second attempt, along with my buddy and film partner Gavin Kaps.
So after many meetings with Sean and months of planning and prep, the time arrived to head out to Portugal with Sean, and to be in the privileged position of filming and witnessing first hand one of the worlds top endurance athletes on a mammoth cycle.
I was to meet Gavin in Portugal as he had already been filming in the Morrocan deserts on a 4×4 expedition. Gav has his own fully equipped large overlander which we often use a mobile film unit as well as our home whilst on the road. A vehicle perfectly suited for such a big trip across Europe. Plenty of room for two people to live in, but room also for all our film kit, and space for us to both work on edits whilst out on location.
Day zero arrived after a few days of pre-ride filming and exploring the stunning coast of Cabo de Roca and it was time for Sean to get back in the saddle and point the bike East once more. The ride starts at a clifftop memorial and marks the Westernmost point of Europe. Tourist soon gather round Sean, looking striking in yellow and black, his smart Stanforth Conway bike and with his huge ginger beard blowing in the Westerley wind. The clock strikes 5pm and without too much ceremony, Sean is off and away, with a jaw-dropping 6500km of cycling ahead of him.
After filming the start, Gav and I then head to the van, packing up the last of our kit aiming to meet Sean around 40km into his ride, just so he can settle in and get his down for the first stint, and not be bothered by us shoving cameras in his face or buzzing him with our drones. We meet him on the outskirts of a busy industrialized area of Portugal as he is about to head off for his first night of riding on the trip. He is in good spirits and busily eats scoops of peanut butter as he chats to us. We manage to film a quick piece to camera before he is off and peddling away into the fading evening light.
We meet him again the next morning, now 130km into his ride, at a sleepy village as he is buying coffee and pastries. During the night he had a puncture and decided to sleep where he stopped, at around 2am. His first night sleeping out in the open, under the cover of some trees just away from the roads. This would be his usual bedding down situation for most of the record attempt. Sean says that staying in a hotel, although comfortable, warm and dry, just takes up too much time on these record attempts. By the time you book in at reception, then try and explain to them that your bike has to stay in the room with you, it all eats away at his time margin. Every minute is precious. He would only stay in a hotel a few times on the ride, and that was mainly so he could wash his socks!
His first full day unfolds without any drama. We bunny hop him along the way, stopping to film, letting him go ahead for a while, then driving ahead ourselves before setting up the cameras again. And repeat. We soon fall into a rhythm that is mainly governed by where Sean rides, where he stops and what interesting places we can find to film. It may seem that we have the easy part of the trip, being as we are driving a big comfortable overlander, but with it comes a whole heap of jobs to do. Filming, location recce’s on the fly, charging batteries, navigating, editing, doing social media and also finding our own places to eat and sleep. The van is big and white and not very inconspicuous. At times we have trouble finding places to stop for the night where we aren’t going to get moved along.
It’s now the second full day and Sean starts to approach the Spanish border and much steeper gradients. Not only this, but the wind veers sharply from a tailwind to a strong 25kph headwind and Sean struggles to average more than 12kph all day. We catch up with him in a service station and interview him as he scoffs as much fatty food as he can. His mood has changed and the wind has slowed him down considerably. He checks his phone, bringing up a GPS app with his position on a map, along with a ‘ghost’ graphic and position of Jonas and the current record that Sean is aiming to beat. Sean would soon become obsessed with checking the map and his position against Jonas’. All the while knowing that if the little graphic of Jonas on the map was ahead of him, he is slower than the record at that current pace.
Within a few days, as he approaches the beautiful surroundings of Pampalona in Spain, he reaches the area were on his attempt at the record he got injured and had to ditch the whole thing and fly home. Luckily this time around he sails through without a twinge and heads on up towards the Pyrenees. The scenery now starting to get absolutely stunning. We film Sean as he attacks switchbacks and steep up sections, as well as incredibly long downhills. Cycling heaven and also pretty good for filming too. He makes light of this big mountain range, a testament to his endurance and athletic ability. With Pyrenees now behind him he rides on across into France. Three countries down, five to go.
The only problems France throws up are to do with his diet. The food is fine when he can get it. But the trouble with France is that on certain days everything shuts. So there are a few mornings, where after riding from 4 am and running out of food by breakfast time, there is nothing open. On one occasion he has to cycle nearly 8 hours without any food. His mood and energy levels drop and he struggles along until he finds a service station and takes on well overdue food and water. We notice a constant ebb and flow and change in Sean’s mood and energy levels. Sometimes we catch up with him, and everything is fine, and he’s in great spirits. Other times he hardly has the energy to talk. So many factors affect your well being when on these big rides. Anything from weather conditions, road conditions, food, the amount of sleep you have or haven’t had, and so much more. Endurance riding is a science as well as a mental and physical game.
As Sean eats up the miles, his progress against the existing record also fluctuates. Some days he wakes up, looks at his GPS map to find that Jonas is anything up to 80 miles ahead. And on other days Sean is on target for breaking the record. He cannot relax for a second. Always in the knowledge that if he stops too long, oversleeps, gets lost or has a mechanical problem the record could slip away from him, and possibly not to be able to make up the miles in time.
Eventually, Sean makes it into Germany. A country proud of its road and cycling network. Although this might seem a godsend for the average cyclist, the cycling paths become a hindrance for Sean. It’s the constantly having to stop at traffic lights and junctions every five or ten minutes that really slow him down and stop him from getting into the zone. However, the upside to cycling in Germany is that there are service stations everywhere, and the food is good and nutritious. So at least he can keep his energy levels up by taking on plenty of food and water. Gav and I also take advantage of Germany’s culinary delights and sample plenty of traditional dishes. Filming is also hungry work!
Sean makes it through Germany in 4 days and crosses into Poland. Now the trip is starting to feel like more of an adventure for all of us. With more unfamiliar countries to go through, language barriers and much more remote areas to explore. Poland turns out to be a firm favorite for both us and Sean. It’s a beautiful country, with incredibly friendly people and amazing food. On several occasions, we make friends with locals as they are intrigued by what we are doing and amazed at the fact that this small bearded chap on a bike is cycling across the whole of Europe. Sean also reaches the halfway point of the ride in Poland. A big milestone for him and a confidence boost. He celebrates with a well-earned beer and an interview to camera.
Although things are going pretty well, the wear and tear is starting to show on Sean and his bike. With no real-time to worry about general hygiene, Sean is looking more of a vagrant as the days and weeks roll on. He is also visibly losing weight, no matter how much he eats. The big daily mileage of around 250kms means it’s almost impossible to take on enough food and the calories needed for such strenuous, constant cycling. His bike is now also covered in dust, grease and dirt, but luckily still performing really well. The steel Reynolds 853 tubing a great choice for this sort of tough ride, especially with the bad road conditions that lay up ahead.
Poland soon gives way to the Czech Republic, and Sean is blessed with another country with amazing people, stunning scenery, and good food. However, as soon as we roll across the border the roads become instantly worse. The smooth blacktop is replaced by older, warn tarmac, and no hard shoulder. This is when the danger increases. With poorer roads, combined with Sean becoming more and more tired, this is where he now needs to start digging deep and also focusing on his safety. Not only this but now the wildlife becomes an added concern. The Czech Republic is home to Wolves. Not a problem so much if you are staying in a hotel. But sleeping in bushes, forests and ditches raise the chances considerably of coming across a hungry wolf looking for an easy snack.
As Sean cycles across Europe, mile after mile, country after country, Gav and I feel privileged and quite often astounded as we witness first hand one the world’s best endurance cyclists in his element. It really is mind-blowing to watch as he just keeps riding. From way before to the sun comes up, until late at night, day in day out without really complaining. There are only a select few who have the right combination of a stubborn yet incredibly positive mindset, and a hardy fitness to able to cycle such huge distances in record time. Epic stuff in the true sense of the word.
Sean finally reaches the first hard border crossing, from Czech into Ukraine. Something that has been nervously on the back of both Sean, and our minds from the start of the trip. Especially as there had been increased tension between Ukraine and Russia around the time of the trip. However, Sean gets through the border without a problem, and although we have to wait in a huge queue of cars and lorries for hours, whist Sean luckily goes through the pedestrian area, we all get through fine. But once again, with the new border crossing the roads become worse still. Now peppered with potholes and cracks, and even more worrying is the traffic. The Ukrainians are not best known for good driving etiquette and road deaths are scarily high. We are all on heightened alert and try to be as vigilant as we can, but constantly bearing witness to crazy overtaking maneuvers and completely reckless driving.
Sean is now starting to enter the last part of the trip, and he is still neck and neck with Jonas’ previous record. But it is still not in the bag. So he just has to keep his head down and be mindful of not losing too much time. So with the added worry of dangerous traffic, things start to compound and the pressure mounts with every mile that rolls under his thinning tires.
Finally the last but no means least country arrives. 1600km of long, straight dangerous Russian roads now lay between Sean and the finish line in the city of Ufa. Although this is the final hurdle so to speak, it posses a significant challenge. Starting at the border crossing. Another hard border, with military-style enforcement and strict rules for who comes through and who doesn’t. A worry for all of us.
Sean decides to take a different border crossing than us, for various tactical reasons. But we all arrive at the Russian border late at night. Gav and I have an uncomfortable 4 hours at our crossing. They go over our van and documents with a fine-tooth comb. We have a huge amount of filming kit on us, and even though we explain our reasons, they remain skeptical and suspicious of us. We are made to wait here, go there, sign this, go back here, back in the van, move the van, back out of the van, etc. This goes on for hours until we are finally set free and on our way through the pitch-black night and into the unknown that is 1600km across Russia.
Sean has similar trouble at the border. They completely unpack his bike bags, scrutinizing every single item. He is put through a similar rigmarole to us but again is allowed to pass through into Russia in the wee small hours of the night. That’s four hours that Sean now has to make up over the coming days if he is to break the record.
Sean takes a week to cycle through Russia. And this is by far the hardest leg of his ride. The roads he chooses to cycle on are arrow-straight for hundreds of kilometers, no hard shoulder, and with hardly anything of interest along the way. Just flat open farmland with the odd small town or poorly stocked service station. It’s now a case of being able to mentally endure the challenge as well as its obvious physical challenges. With no change of scenery, or even bends in the road for days on end, Sean’s mindset begins to drop. He struggles to keep upbeat. And then to make matters worse, after just a few days into his final week of riding, the wind gods decided to throw him a band hand. He now has to battle against strong headwinds for the last 1200kms of the ride. Slowly but surely the record starts to slip away from him. But he just keeps battling on.
After a week of this, including sleeping in drains under the road, ticks, mosquitos, and a poor diet somehow the finish line is in sight. We catch up with Sean at a truck stop restaurant on the last night of the ride. He looks totally knackered. His gaze is vacant, his dirty, weather-beaten face showing hardly any signs of emotion. He’s is blank and just to exhausted to even smile. He just wants it to be over with. One more day of cycling and the record could be his.
Finally, on the afternoon of his 24th day of cycling, Sean rolls into the big city of Ufa and across the finish line with just 8 hours to spare. This may seem like a fairly big time difference, but Sean said that just 20 minutes a day gained or lost during the ride could have meant the difference between him getting the record and losing it again. But not this time. He finally gets the record he has wanted for years. A world’s fastest cycle. Such an incredible effort by one of the world’s quirkiest adventure athletes and one of the greatest endurance cyclists.
Sean Conway broke the world record for cycling the full length of Europe in a time of 24 days, 18 hours, and 39 minutes.