Sean Conway on challenge of around the world race by bike

Sean Conway during the World Cycle Race. Picture: Contributed
Sean Conway during the World Cycle Race. Picture: Contributed
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Looking for adventure, Sean Conway signed up to race around the world by bike. It would change his life for ever

Ten ... nine ... eight ...” My heart was practically bouncing out of my chest with nervous excitement as the crowds started the slow countdown. The day had finally arrived. I had packed my entire life into 30 square feet of storage, said farewell to my friends and was just about to embark on what would turn out to be the most challenging experience of my life. The start to the first ever World Cycle Race was seconds away and I was one of 12 people lucky enough to be a part of it.

It was a crazy notion, but the next time I’d see the city I’d have cycled the earth

Sean Conway

Greenwich Park was teeming with friends and family of the riders, general fans of adventure cycling and the media. It was all a bit overwhelming for someone who had only really started cycling properly six months earlier. My attempt to be the fastest person to cycle around the world wasn’t my only challenge either. I had received a very nice email from a school in East London near the Olympic Park who wanted me to take their replica mini Olympic Torch around the world and back to London again in time for the Olympics. I had to say yes, even though it was 100g extra to carry: it was a cool idea and would give me added incentive to stick to my plan of getting back to London in time for the Games.

Such were my nerves, I hadn’t got more than three hours’ sleep the previous night and in my haste in getting ready had decided not to put on my thermal leggings. As a result, I was freezing. I could barely move my lower jaw when Sky Sports News interviewed me: I must have sounded like a zombie. It wasn’t just my legs that were cold either: someone had paid £100 at my charity fundraiser to shave off my huge afro. The idea was that I’d start today completely clean shaven and then see how long the beard and hair would grow by the time I returned. This seemed to be what all adventurers did. I had never grown a beard before. I very much doubted I’d enjoy having a huge ginger beard, but you have to try things at least once, don’t you?

Most parks in winter are pretty sad places to look at. Disused playgrounds, lifeless trees and an empty eeriness make them rather depressing. Today, however, was different. The usual dull greyness of winter was consumed by the bright outdoor jackets, joyful smiles and nervous excitement overflowing around the Observatory. I found myself looking across the river to see the city of London below me. I loved London but the city itself had drained me of all creativity over the years. It wasn’t London’s fault; it was completely my own doing for chasing the wrong dream. Now, for the first time, I didn’t feel suffocated by it. I was looking at London with a new perspective, with the knowledge that a brand new chapter in my life was just about to begin. The next time I’d see the city I’d have cycled the earth. That was a crazy notion that still hadn’t quite sunk in. Hopefully, by the time I returned I’d have a new outlook on life, London and where my life was heading. For now though, I was heading to Australia. What a thought.

“Seven... six... five...”

My teeth started to chatter. I looked to my right to see Mike Hall, one of my fellow competitors, looking cool, calm and collected. How did he do it? Mike was one of the main riders competing in this race and was probably my biggest rival. He had an impressive history of endurance cycling including a few 24-hour time-trial wins under his belt and best rookie rider in the 2011 Tour Divide, the world’s toughest mountain bike race. He didn’t give too much away about his preparation but every now and then he’d share what he was up to on Twitter or Facebook. It was pretty impressive.

I also couldn’t help thinking how sexy his bike looked. He was taking a bit of a risk going full carbon but then again his route was a lot flatter than mine and probably with fewer potholes.

I had decided to go for a full steel bike made by Thorn in Somerset. She was called Maid Marian and we had formed a special bond over the past few months. She may have been a little heavier but I knew, without fail, that she would work all the time, no matter what was thrown at her. I think Mike was surprised at how light my set-up looked. When he asked me if he could pick up Maid Marian, I said, “Not a chance”, with a huge grin on my face. I knew my set-up was probably one or two kilos heavier than his but didn’t want him to know that. Dirty race tactics or just playing the mind games everyone plays? This was a serious race after all.

• Cycling the Earth, A Life-Changing Race Around the World by Sean Conway is out now in paperback, published by Ebury Press at £12.99