Interview with Sean Conway: Why He's Cycling The Earth By Himself, Unsupported, and Hopefully in World Record Time

Sean Conway's world record attempt begins
on February 18, 2012. (S. Conway)
Sean Conway's website headline reads "18,000 miles. Two Wheels. 150 a world record and £100,000 for charity." Basically, Sean wants to cycle around the world faster than anyone else has while supporting a cause near and dear to his heart. To complete this superhuman display of endurance, his legs will each make seven million rotations on his steel frame bike and he'll have to average at least 112 miles per day. No big deal, right? Sean's journey starts on February 18, 2012. In the meantime, he took time out of his busy training schedule to answer a few questions, namely, of course...

What on Earth possessed you to take on something like this? 
Sean: I am not really a cyclist at all. I cycled 1,000 miles up Britain, which took a painfully slow 25 days in 2008, and haven’t really cycled since. Cycling the world has always been on my bucket list though, along with Everest and swimming the English Channel. I figured I’ll get the cycling out the way first as it’s probably the hardest of the three.

On one cold winter's day,  I was hanging my penguin suit out to dry, standing in my freezing cold London flat wondering what to do next.. (I had just come back from climbing Kilimanjaro and in typical Sean fashion I decided that just climbing Kilimanjaro wasn’t hard enough, so thought I would do the entire climb dressed as a penguin.) It had to be something BIG, something horrible, something long, something that will be the most challenging experience of my life. Everest was too expensive. Swimming the Channel could be done later in life. It was then that the idea to actually go ahead and cycle around the world was born. Just cycling around the world wasn’t tough enough; In order to really challenge myself I would attempt to become the fastest person to cycle around the world, solo and unsupported.

What's the most challenging thing you've run into along this journey?
S: There are so many things to sort out. First, you need to make sure you are fit enough. This has been anything up to 45 hours a week training including long rides, sprint work and gym sessions. Then, you need the right equipment, visas and vaccines. Then, there is deciding the route, probably the hardest thing to work out. There are a million different roads that I could choose.  I need to make sure they are of good quality, don’t go over huge mountains and go through enough towns for me to stock up on food and water. Then, there is the weather aspect. A huge headwind for five days could ruin my chances at a world record. Trying to go through all six major continents doesn’t make things any easier either. All I can do now is hold thumbs that none of the roads on my route are under heavy construction and I am blessed with a tail wind.

Just another day on the bike... (S. Conway)
What does a typical training day look like?
S: It varies, but for one of my long rides I set off at around 5.30am. I usually try and stop after the first three hours to get some food. I stop again at six hours to have a bigger meal. I usually stock up on a bananas, chocolate and nuts as backup in case I don’t find anywhere to eat. I carry on and have another meal at around nine hours and then again at 12 hours. Sometimes I go on to around 14 or 15 hours.

It’s quite hard to do those sort long days in winter as you just can’t keep your body warm enough. It’s also important to keep my muscles relaxed and flexible, so I go for a weekly deep tissue massage. It’s hell. I cry like a baby. I’m not sure I feel the difference but they say it’s good for me.

What gear are you taking with you? How do you plan everything out?
S: I am going as lightweight as possible. Things I am taking include a steel bike with hub gear for reliability, sleeping bag, bivyi bag, camping mattress, two spare inner tubes, spare chain links, tool kit, first aid kit, toothbrush (cut in half to make me feel like a proper adventurer), one set of cycle clothing (Jacket, shirt, tights, socks, shoes), GPS, iPhone, two cycle computers, and maps. I'm not taking a tent, toothpaste, soap, spare clothes, casual clothes or casual shoes. Things I will have to pick up along the way include maps, new tires, new inner tubes, new chain, and new set of cycle gear.

The trip itself is definitely the proverbial logistical nightmare. You can’t plan stops as you have no idea on what mother nature will throw at you. I am taking a sleeping bag and will sleep when I can. I will also stay in hotels when possible to get a shower and good meal. Solo and unsupported just means I don’t have a car following me giving me food, deciding on a route and allowing me to sleep onboard. I have to do all these things myself while trying to cycle 200 miles per day.

What will a typical day's worth of food and water look like?
S: Nutrition is going to be the hardest part of this entire attempt. I burn about 500 calories per hour and can be on the bike for up to 18 hours. This equates to around 18 Big Mac burgers, 67 Mars bars, or around three kilograms of of pasta. Along with that, I need to drink four or five liters of water each day. I will eat and drink my entire body weight every two weeks. I will need to eat the food before my body needs it. That sometimes means getting up at 3am, eating and then going back to bed so that I am ready and fueled at 5am when I set off.

(S. Conway)
If you complete the route, but don't break the record, do you plan on doing it again?
S: There is no way I will ever be able to do it again, mainly from a financial point of view. I have given up everything for this. The only way would be if someone came along and offered me a supported attempt.  (Guinness don’t recognise the difference between supported and unsupported). I already have another cycling world record in the pipeline for when I get back, though. It’s a little shorter but a lot more adventurous.

Are we going to be able to follow you as the journey progresses?
S: It was important from the outset to allow people to follow my entire journey. I want to inspire people to follow their dreams; I can get one person to do something because of me, then I will be a happy man. You will be able to follow my entire route via a GPS tracker on my website. I will also be blogging, tweeting and facebooking the entire way. I am looking forward to showing people all the dodgy places I am sleeping and the weird food I am eating. I want to document the attempt as much as possible so that people can learn from my mistakes and hopefully go on to break the record in the future.

Why did you choose Solar Aid as your charity? 
S: I am from Zimbabwe and have seen firsthand how important it is for Africa to utilize the one thing the have a lot of – sunshine. Smoke inhalation from flame-based light sources kills more people than malaria. Kerosene lamps contribute heavily to this. Replacing kerosene with solar lamps not only save lives but it saves the average family 25% of their salary (which was spent on kerosene), and saves the world’s natural resources.

Solar Aid’s ethos is simple - ‘Let’s teach them how to fish rather than give them a fish.’ This means donations allow families and schools to buy these lamps at a very low price. By ‘giving’ them away, we can’t create a market. Selling them cheaply means local entrepreneurs buy them in bulk and are able to create an industry. These same entrepreneurs will also be able to service and fix people lamps. This way Africa actually has a chance to solarise itself rather than depending solely on handouts. Solar Aid’s school installations have been proven to increase learning by a staggering amount. There are some amazing photos online of kids doing their homework at night under solar power whereas before they struggled to work efficiently using kerosene lamps.

Sean says that donating money for Solar Aid is the most obvious way people can help him, but there are many other ways people can get involved. He'd love to have folks come cycle with him for a day as I go through their town. If you're anywhere near his planned route, leave a comment or shoot an email to and I'll see if we can connect you with him! Also, if you've got great song ideas, Sean would love those too.

Editors Note: Shortly before communication regarding this interview began, a faster record was ratified by the Guinness Book of World Records. As of January 14, 2012, the record stands at 96 days, 10 hours and 33 minutes, achieved by Alan Bate. Alan's record-setting ride did include a full support team, but there is no distinction between supported and unsupported attempts in the book. Regardless, best of luck to Sean on his ride! He's cycling for an incredible cause.


Babette Pinder said…
Sean you are a true inspiration, may the Irish charm and luck be with you and may the wind be always at your back.  Babette