As I was on my way out of Greece, Sean Conway was cycling in from Turkey. We met not far from Asprovalta. Sean was one of nine cyclists who set off from London on 18th February to race 18,000 miles around the world and attempt to claim the record for the fastest time. Before the race, the record stood at an amazing 106 days. It once took me that long to cycle from Preston to Burnley. (There was a lot of traffic.)
Unfortunately, Sean's attempt was scuppered when he was hit at 55 miles an hour by a truck in America. It just ploughed into the back of him. He spent a couple of weeks in hospital and then another week being kindly looked after at the home of one of the hospital's medical staff. With such a delay, as well as continuing back problems, the record was out of reach but he decided to finish his trip.
Sean and his, erm, heavily laden bike
I noticed that he wore a helmet. Because I don't, and because my mum always tells me off for not wearing one, I asked him if it had helped during the accident. "Without the helmet, I would have been dead," he replied. Hmm, that really wasn't the answer I was looking for. The extremely dense, centimetre-thick foam at the back of the helmet was crushed to a couple of millimetres, and the top of the helmet itself had been cracked in two. I hope my mum doesn't read this one.
The existing world record had been completed as a supported tour, in other words with a lot of help from a team and a car to carry the cyclist's gear and keep him refuelled. Like everyone else who set off in Februrary, Sean's attempt was self-supported, which made it even more challenging. I couldn't believe how little he was carrying. I've carried more than that on a ride to the pub. Compared to his, my bike looked like something with advanced elephantiasis. From this handlebars, his sleeping bag hung like a tea bag. "Smallest sleeping bag in the world!" he said. "And the smallest ground mat." What, that bag included a ground mat as well? He was wild-camping most nights, setting up a sheet from the top of his bike wherever he happened to be at darkness and sleeping beneath it. God help him if he ever passes through Blackburn come sundown.
Although I massively admire Sean's athleticism and sporting ability, it's not the way I'd like to see the world. He was cycling from before dawn till after dusk. Now that the competition is over he can slow down a little but he's still pushing it. Even since the accident, he hadn't done a day of fewer than one hundred miles, whereas I hadn't done a day over one hundred (well, maybe one, but with a non-functioning cycle computer it's hard to tell). But with such a punishing schedule there's no time to see the sights, to rest for a snooze on a pretty hillside or to chat to the people you cycle past. I'm pretty sure that our conversation would have been a lot shorter had the record still been within reach. And I couldn't have blamed him. Paula Radcliffe doesn't stop for a natter during a marathon, does she? I suppose we're different animals. He's a top sportsman and I'm a lazy sod.
Mike Hall, one of the guys who set off with him, won the race and the record, slashing the time to just 91 days. That's an average of nearly two hundred miles per day, which is simply mental! Sean still hankers for a record of his own. He's thinking of trying to beat the current fastest north-to-south-Africa time. I hope he manages it. He's a fine bloke and he deserves a record of some sort. Although if he can't manage a record using his bike, as his photo shows, he may be in with a chance of World's Most Ridiculous Beard. And bear in mind, this is coming from someone's whose own stupid beard killed a woman in Bratislava last year.
I said goodbye to Sean and continued towards my home for the evening. I knew that it wasn't far but I passed right through the town where I thought it was. I asked an old fella if the campsite was nearby. He pointed up the road and said in heavily accented English, "Fifty kilometres!" No, surely not. I'd already done a hundred kilometres today. For Sean, an extra fifty would have been trivial, but not for me. I was ready, nah, desperate for a cold beer. Then the old fella showed me his forefinger and, with his other hand, slide a finger halfway down it. Ah, not fifty kilometres, but half a kilometre away. That's better. Even me and my stupid, fat bike could manage that.