James Bowthorpe: Only 6,000 more miles to go

James Bowthorpe set out four months ago from London and, after cycling through 19 countries, is on course to shatter the world record. Report by Simon Usborne
Click to follow

Four months since rolling out of London's Hyde Park, James Bowthorpe has faced attempted kidnap in Iran, severe bouts of "Delhi belly" in India, a bruising encounter with an Australian wombat, and kebab missiles on the outskirts of Sydney.

And yet, after pedalling almost 12,000 miles through 19 countries, the south London cabinet-maker is on course to shatter the world record for circumnavigating the globe on a bike.

Bowthorpe, who is sponsored by The Independent, has clocked up an average 120 miles a day in his solo bid to beat the six-month mark set last year by the Scottish cyclist Mark Beaumont. Now zipping down the Californian coast before he steers his trusty touring bike towards New York and a flight to Portugal for the homeward stretch, Bowthorpe will break the record by 18 days if he gets to London on time. He will have cycled more than 18,000 miles in five months and three weeks.

"Mark has set the bar very high but I'm going to do everything I can to beat the record by as much as I can," Bowthorpe says from beside Highway 1 on his way to San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. "I have to bear in mind that I have to do a lot but the closer I get to home the more I can open things up a bit."

In the meantime, Bowthorpe must ride 6,000 miles across America and southern Europe, a journey he's hoping won't be as tough as the first 12,000 miles.

His problems started almost as soon as he'd set off. After a late-night ferry crossing from Dover, he pitched his one-man tent in the shadow of an electricity sub-station on the edge of Calais. Two hours' sleep isn't enough when you have to cycle the distance between London and Bath every day. But Bowthorpe picked up the pace as he pedalled through France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, usually camping beside the road, except for a night of relative luxury in a Dresden youth hostel.

His first real test came in Romania. "If I say I didn't really enjoy it it's not because it's not a lovely country full of beautiful landscapes and interesting people," he wrote on his blog, "but because I had a headwind that cut my speed by more than half for two whole days and nearly had me weeping into my sleeve."

Seventeen-hour days in the saddle helped Bowthorpe to claw back the time he needed to reach Istanbul just a day behind schedule for a rare rest day and his only reunion with his girlfriend, Nadja. The fight against loneliness has been constant. "I hadn't thought about it enough beforehand to realise how hard it would be, for both of us," he wrote before reaching Turkey's largest city. "I wonder how many calories it uses up."

But Bowthorpe's biggest test was still to come – an encounter in Iran that would leave him reeling. "It was the worst half-hour of my life," he says. Leaving a small town after dark, Bowthorpe was confronted by five men in a car, who shadowed him for more than three miles. They then got out of their car and attempted to drag Bowthorpe off his bike as he passed before finally speeding away. A stranger came to Bowthorpe's aid and called his army friend. "He explained that the people in the car would at least attack me and take my bike, passport, everything," Bowthorpe recalls. "He actually ran his finger across his throat, but who knows?"

The near-miss left Bowthorpe rattled and, with his support team back at home, comprising Nadja and his brother, Tom, he decided to cut short the Iran leg, flying from Tehran to Amritsar in Western India. The detour also meant no Pakistan, a country security advisers had advised him to skip from the outset.

Without the miles on his log, Bowthorpe had to re-draw his route through America to reach the 18,000-mile minimum distance required for a record attempt.

First things first: India, where the nation's food lived up to its belly-bothering reputation. Bowthorpe, who has faced a constant battle to keep his legs fuelled, ate something suspect that left him unable to stomach any food for days. But he ploughed on, clocking up 132 miles on a day when he could eat nothing and had constant diarrhoea. Over the next 11 days, Bowthorpe lost a fifth of his body weight. It was only the knowledge that there was more riding on his journey than a place in the record books that kept Bowthorpe going.

"I have always said that the speed and endurance of my challenge directly reflects the urgency of funding for the charity I volunteer for," he says. Bowthorpe's cause is What's Driving Parkinson's, a research team he has volunteered for at King's College Hospital in south London. Bowthorpe set the ambitious target of raising £1.8m, or £100 for every mile he rides. He has raised 2 per cent of that figure so far, but will devote his time to finishing the job on his return.

But the dogged drive that has seen him persevere even at his lowest ebb got the better of him after his illness in India. It took five days of rest in Bangkok, Thailand, before Bowthorpe could summon the energy to carry on south towards Singapore and his flight to Australia. It was here that Bowthorpe had his first proper crash, or "expedited dismount", as he calls it, on the coastal road between Melbourne and Sydney.

"Everyone thinks ooh, wombats – they sound cute – and when the Australians warned me to look out for them at night, I laughed them off. Sure enough, I hit one going downhill at speed into a town called Eden. They're massive – it was like hitting a brick wall. My bike folded up and I went flying over the handlebars. The wombat ran off and I limped into town, luckily with only scratches and bruises."

Apart form his earlier brush with a group of Iranians, Bowthorpe's dealings with people has been positive, despite the inevitable language barrier. "Everyone else in Iran has been so friendly, often waiving the bill or giving me something to drink," Bowthorpe wrote on his blog. "I still don't speak Farsi, but I can recognise questions and answer: 'London'; 'just me'; and 'Chelsea' (I don't follow a team but it helps to say something)."

But not everyone is so supportive. Bowthorpe formed a theory in Australia after an incident on the road to Brisbane: "At some point a population will get dense enough to include a person who will try and throw a kebab at you as they pass you at speed on the freeway. They will miss, mainly due to a lack of understanding of physics, but the attempt remains. Doner gets wasted, cyclist gets upset and the freeway smells of chilli sauce."

As well as airborne takeaways, Bowthorpe has had to contend with saddle sore, every long-distance cyclist's nemesis, as well as tendonitis in both ankles, numb hands and cramping legs. A lesser man would have packed up his bike and flown home hundreds of miles ago, but not Bowthorpe, a quiet and uncommonly focused, not to mention resilient, man. He has his eyes fixed firmly on London and a reunion with Nadja, Tom and the rest of his family.

"If I'm having a hard morning I might stop for 'self-pity' breaks but I'll remind myself that the only way back is forward, if you get my meaning," he says. "When you're trying to raise money for something you believe in, it's not even worth thinking about giving up".

To follow James's progress or to donate money, visit www.WhereintheWorldisJames.com