Wearing a t-shirt from the Trans Iowa, Vin Cox answers our video call.
Ten years after setting a new world record for circumnavigation of the globe by bike, it seemed fitting to talk to one of Britain’s pioneering cyclists.
Vin has a made a hugely varied contribution through the decades, from racing at the downhill mountain bike world championships in the early 1990s, to taking away pen and paper points calculations for the Notts and Derby Cyclo-Cross League when he devised an automated, computer-based spreadsheet system as a school project.
Vin’s life has been lived through the bicycle and we’re honoured that he agreed to take time out for a chat, ten years on from his most famous achievement.
With all that is happening in the world right now, it seemed like the ideal punctuation mark and moment for reflection – as well as a time to look forward to what might be to come.
In a throwback to some of our original blogs, we’ve kept things unedited and long-form. This is part one. We hope you enjoy the conversation.
Hi Vin – great to see you! How have things been in lockdown – have you been dreaming of freedom and getting out on an adventure once this has passed?
Dreaming of adventure is a tortuous thing to do in some ways. But most of the adventure stuff I’ve tried not to think too much about, because these are bad times for international travel and long days in the saddle.
The huge idea that travel is now constrained more than any time in my lifetime and my parents lifetime; it’s weird.
It has been 10 years since you went on your world record-breaking round the world ride, has it been on your mind?
It has been, particularly at the start of the year. It does keep popping up on my timeline – 10 years ago today you were somewhere. Yesterday a picture popped up where I was sleeping on a picnic table in the town of Kim, Colorado. And it was actually a beautiful day, a wonderful day riding in and out of New Mexico and into Colorado again and these are really nice memories.
Take us back to the beginning, how did it come about to ride around the world?
I got into the whole idea through watching a documentary that was made on Mark Beaumont’s first record.
I remember the narrator setting the scene to increase the drama and scale ‘of covering 90-miles into a tough wind, in this alien environment’. And I was watching thinking, this sounds like fun!
Of course that scene setting was all part of the editing and isn’t really Mark’s personality coming through, but it did make me think that when I planned my journey I wanted to do kind of the opposite.
I wanted to portray myself as having a nice time – like the biggest best bike holiday ever.
And I was dead lucky that it was at a point where I could do that and still get a record, without having to go and put myself through the torture that Mark then put himself through to take the record. A serious challenge and a record I really respect – but not my idea of fun.
It’s amazing to think how his approach developed from the first to the second record.
The first time, his attitude was ‘I’ve done nearly 100 miles today.’ Whereas a few years later he was pushing on to 200.
His journey, learning how hard he can push, is an extreme example of how the gravel/adventure scene has changed during that time.
What were some of your most memorable experiences of the ride – could you enjoy it as you hoped?
I did enjoy every day of it. There’s always tough times, nasty experiences and bad people and whatever, but in the majority even on the worst day there’s lots of lovely things as well.
I had some friends thinking that I should be able to get free meals and help along the way. But the truth is, if you try to explain to anyone who is remotely interested, you’ll just spend all your time doing that.
The most modest and most productive way to be is just that person who has turned up by bike and is passing through their town and wants to get some refreshments or find a hotel.
So I try and just put all of that aside and I think that’s been true on the journey and since.
What did you learn from that experience – 10 years on, are those experiences something that shape you?
I learned not to take my previous experience forward; that you can have a very bad day if you are still grumpy about the thing that happened in the previous town.
If you force yourself to forget it, put a smile on your face, sing some happy songs – whatever you have to do to get you through – then the next experience will probably be positive. And I tested this in multiple days in multiple places. If you bring the negative experience into the present something negative will happen.
I remember a day in India in particular. I’d had a puncture, it was hot, I was tired and somebody had been a pain in the place I’d last stopped. I thought ‘this is going badly’.
I decided I needed to shake it off, so I decided to smile and wave at the next person I saw - and I carried on like that for the rest of the day, smiling and waving like some absolute loon
From that moment on everything was brilliant. So I’ve tried to incorporate that into my everyday behaviour, although I’m not always very good at it!
I’ve seen so many different cultures and places that a lot of the media represent as dangerous and terrible. But those are other people’s normality. They are not sinister, there’s nothing wro
g with them.
Sometimes I’ve been surprised by stuff. I remember riding through Libya and thinking it was quite nice and peaceful. A place with a totally different culture and political system, yes – but everything is heading in the right direction. What I was seeing was reassuring, considering my dad had told me I wouldn’t come back if I cycled through Libya!
Then, I remember chatting to a stranger and he told me that everything was really bad and that there may be a war. I couldn’t see that. But within a year he had foretold the civil war. I don’t know what I had learned from that, but it’s something I think about.
What was it like in Libya – looking back were there any indications of what was to come?
I had to have a minder in Libya. I talked him out of trailing me, and instead he would meet up with me every 50km or so.
He was telling me how safe and wonderful Libya is - of course he has a bit of a government point of view on things – and after that other guy, I remember saying to him: how much crime is there? And he said ‘none’. No burglary, no robbery.
So I asked why does everyone have high walls and fences and security wire? And he just replied that was what people did! And maybe looking back I should have read more into that!
But people I met were trying to be open and welcoming. I stayed at somebody’s house at some point. They had a guest room, we ate together and I was welcomed.
It was a very peaceful hospitality receiving experience going round the world. People would look at me and think I needed some help and rest and would go out of their way to help me.
In Malaysia, for example. I was a couple of days away from Singapore. I got up 4am and headed out. I hadn’t cleaned my stuff, looked really tired and had lost weight after being unwell earlier in the trip.
It was dark and I’d only been going for 20 minutes and I was asked if I needed a place to rest – they didn’t know that was the start of my day!
Was this concept of finding help along the way – and the restoring of faith in humankind something that you were looking for, or were aware of before starting your trip?
I had read about people referring to the kindness of strangers. But also there was some nervousness that certain places would be as hostile as I feared.
But I also know that in some situations I got out of trouble by being a six-foot tall white guy speaking English.
I was safe in many places where others wouldn’t be. I realised I was privileged to be the right size, colour and gender in those moments.
What are some of the other questions that you have been asked about your trip?
Which side of the road did you ride on more, left or right?
Where would you recommend to go cycle touring? I’d say America if you want to do big miles. They have lots of convenience stores and fast food, which is also good fuel for cycling long distances and getting the calories in.
There’s nowhere better than the USA for those facilities. It’s not boring, there are lots of people to meet and amazing scenery.
Where would I go back to? Sumatra. I got there the day after a big earthquake and travelled in on a flight carrying aid workers.
The country is mountainous and tropical – a truly foreign environment. The roads were broken and destroyed.
They were terrible conditions for setting a record, but the people were welcoming, there were monkeys hanging from the trees, you were in the jungle and it was a proper adventure.
I went there because I have always thought that a round the world bike rider ought to cross the equator.
Not to disrespect anyone, but I think I’m the only one to do it. If I was making the rules I would change that. It is of course a challenging thing to do, and I probably went across it in the most normal and developed country.
Were there any regrets from your trip, or things that went wrong?
I’d planned a route that had the minimum of transfers possible and I wanted to cycle all the way to the UAE and my first flight would be to get across to India.
I had a visa that I thought was going to be arranged, however unfortunately that fell through. I really wanted to go across Saudi Arabia and follow the Trans-Arabian Pipeline, a huge straight road across the desert. I’d love to have the chance to do that again and cross countries like Myanmar and Bangladesh.
We will leave it there for now, but stay tuned for the second part of our interview with Vin Cox, where we will discover what it was like to return home and how his Croix de Fer rides, 10-years on.