Ever heard the story of the first man who virtually rode around the world? And how he decided to quit his job, became a professional cyclist at the age of 53 and rode 100 miles per day for six months on a bike trainer? Well, this is the mind-blowing story of Chris Daniel.
Chris and his wife Rita were a happy couple living in Wales. Sadly, fate struck them as she was diagnosed with bowel cancer, the second biggest killer in the world. Despite her illness, Rita started to raise money for cancer charity. Chris wanted to help her: “It’s a terrible disease, but I have the strong belief that the more people stand up and do just something small, all those small things will add up to a big thing and that will sort things out.” At that time, he was getting back into cycling, so in in 2015 he used that as a platform for charity. He rode over 850 miles around Wales and raised over £25,000 in donations for a number of cancer charities and raised awareness of Bowel Cancer.
But Chris wanted to do more than that. From a Bowel Cancer UK auction, they got the book The Man Who Cycled the World by Mark Beaumont. Here, the idea arose to cycle around the world, but this time on an indoor bike trainer. This way he could ride indoors and thus go to venues where people would be. “If you are trying to do something for charity and you approach people, then most companies will come back that they already do something for sponsoring or charity. But if you come up to people and say, ‘look, I’m going to be the first person in the world to do this,’ that’s something that really takes peoples imagination. I was 53 at the time, so not a spring chicken anymore, I had no background in this and it was going to be really tough. People had to look at me like: ‘there’s no way this guy is going to be able to do this. He isn’t an endurance rider, this is a normal guy.’ This helped me to raise money and I got the support of a lot of people and venues.”
The original plan was to do this after he retired and Rita had recovered from the illness. Unfortunately, though, life completely changed in 2016 for the worse because Rita passed away at the age of 53. Chris was obviously devastated and had two options: go back to work or ignite this crazy plan and become the oldest professional cyclist in the world (he uses the term professional because it is was what he did for a living). He chose the latter: “My wonderful wife Rita bravely fought Bowel Cancer for well over four years. Sadly, she is no longer by my side. However, I know that she would want us to continue to do all we can to stop cancer once and for all. And with that kind of passion driving you, you can achieve anything you set your mind to.”
Chris and a great team of volunteers started to set things up and soon it all started to snowball. They made a plan in which they could ride every day. Eventually, they got enough support to make this work and rolled it out into 25 venues. But when he started to train at some venues, he quickly encountered some aspects you normally wouldn’t think about when you go to cycle outside. Like when they placed him near a kitchen where they cooked meals throughout the day, so the temperature was immense. Or like in a shopping mall under a glass roof where it’s boiling when the sun started to shine, or the complete opposite in an open venue where it was absolutely freezing in the winter.
Furthermore, he experienced that when you’re sitting on an indoor bike, you hardly move so there are only two pressure points that you sit on. You don’t move around as you normally would on a road bike. He had to learn how to cope with that and had to make sure he often got out of the saddle.
Another thing he hadn’t thought of is that when you’re at a venue you’ve got people talking to you constantly. “That is lovely because it helps killing the time. But we’re talking about really realistic scenarios. It is fine when they talk to you when you’re riding through flat countries, but when you ride the Rockies for example…And in some cases they were sharing their cancer stories. You’re in absolute agony climbing these hills, and meanwhile you have to be kind, you have to show and feel emphatic as well. Some of these stories are heart-breaking. So, you’re climbing and I’m in tears. Not because of the pain but what they’re telling me.”
Logistically it was a challenge as well. Every day he had to get up and drive 30 to 40 miles on average from where he lives to a venue, set everything up and break everything down at the end of the day. So, he woke up at 5AM every day, had breakfast and drove to the venue. The time he got home was about 7.30 to 8.30PM. He then had some time to get everything ready for the next morning, have dinner and go to bed. And after a day on the indoor trainer you’d like to take a shower of course. But most shopping centres don’t have a shower, so he had to change clothes in the toilet. “Imagine how that was in winter for customers who wanted to use toilet. Suddenly a man in lycra steps out of a toilet in the middle of the winter.”
During the winter, he had to take his bike back home where he kept his Tacx trainer because he couldn’t risk not riding for a day if it snowed. At one point, he was snowed in for four days, everything was shut and he couldn’t get out. He had only one meal a day available in the fridge. The only other food he had was porridge. So, he had porridge for four days in order to meet the required 4,000 calories a day. He then ran out of milk, so he ate porridge with water, which he wouldn’t recommend to anyone…
Setting up the virtual ride
You might be wondering how he created the virtual ride around the world. Well, first he tried to get around the globe with Google maps, but that was very difficult. So, Chris approached the writer of the book that started this idea, Mark Beaumont, and explained his story and plan. What he didn’t know is that Mark had done another cycling attempt. He rode around the world in under 80 days and wrote a book about this as well. Mark had researched this route for years because he wanted the fasted possible route. Sometimes that meant climbing large mountain passes because otherwise he had to travel hundreds of miles. “He put a lot of time and effort into this. He very kindly gave his official route to download and he also gave us a lot of publicity. That made me so proud, he is my Lionel Messi.”
The whole ride covered more than 18,000 miles, so Chris knew it was going to be a long and tough challenge. Alaska and the Canadian Rockies were difficult to conquer and New Zealand was very challenging, but relatively short. He loved Australia the most because it’s pretty flat. The worse part according to him was riding through Russia. “It’s such an enormous country. Of course, you’re doing it virtually, but you really get into this when you’re doing it every day. It has three mountain ranges and they are awful. The Urals took me a week to get over. They are absolutely unforgiving. Mongolia was terrible as well.”
In terms of riding on schedule, it swung back and forward. In the mountain ranges of Russia, he lost three days, but on the flat in Australia he gained them all back. Equally, he lost three days in Alaska, but won them back in the flatter stages of America.
According to Chris, endurance cycling is all about surviving. “You have got to learn how to survive physically, obviously. But the one that most people don’t realise is mentally. When you cycle for hours and hours a day, you get what I call a ‘flat spot’ every day. This feels almost like being depressed. You’re running out of energy mentally and your mind drops. The darkest thoughts and the darkest feelings will rise to the surface. That’s something you’ve got to learn how to deal with. You’ve got to have a strong self-belief. When you hit one of those moods, the self-belief can evaporate very quickly and you’ve got to be saying to yourself then, ‘look, this is one of those moods…you know it will pass.'”
The value of volunteers
Chris had a fantastic team of volunteers around him and they noticed that he was performing a lot better when someone was riding with him. So, they came up with the concept that it would be great for him to have someone with him every day. He was riding for bowel cancer, but there are a lot of other sorts of cancer as well. So, they set up another bike on an indoor trainer next to him and had different rides for those who wanted to accompany him: from flat rides to climbs (please note that this was not reduced from his ride). They had to raise at least £50 for a cancer charity of their choice to join him. The concept was that two to three people were riding with him every day. This also meant setting up two bikes every day and changing the bike to the length of the riders every time. Some of those people had never ridden a bike and were incredibly nervous.
At some places people wanted to ride with him as a team, up to 14 people every day! At some places they couldn’t accommodate the number of people who wanted to ride with him, so some of the venues that had gyms were bringing out spin bikes and placing them next to them. “It was fantastic to see all those people out there, 600 in total! But it was also hard: setting up, helping those people, breaking down, and driving home again.”
Physical and mental challenges
Sitting on a bike for so long is hard on the human body, so it was inevitable Chris had to cope with some physical complaints. He had one cold, one major injury (lower back injury) and he tore his lower back muscle. He got a physio free of charge who looked after him for the entire ride. With his massages, he could continue riding on his bike. His help and his coach Simon, who also did his bike fitting, made such a difference. He also did core and flexibility exercises and he’s convinced that prevented further injuries. He had also some saddle sores, but he used a good cream for that.
Then there were the non-cycling challenges, the ones he didn’t think would be an issue. Like when he was delayed for four hours going to a venue. Or when the elevators were out of service and he had to walk up the stairs, 15 stories high, carrying two NEO Smart trainers, three bikes and all the equipment; with his back injury.
What kept him going was what Rita said about chemo: “When you’re climbing up a big hill, there is always a point where you think: ‘I can’t just do this, but it will probably only last for 30 seconds.’ You’ve really got to dig in deep and really push. That 30 seconds, that’s what chemotherapy feels like for three weeks. That’s how crap you feel. Every time I felt physically or mentally like: ‘I can’t do this anymore, I want to get off…’, I just thought about that. I thought about Rita and all these people who’d come up and told me their cancer story and what they’d suffered and I thought: ‘you can’t get off.’ Every time I rode a tough mountain range, when I had the cold or the back injury, the saddle sores, every time you think: ‘I can’t do this…’, but you think of that and it gives you that extra energy and you just keep pushing. Even when you go very slow, as long as the Tacx system isn’t saying you stopped training, you continue. When the system says you’ve stopped, you push a little bit harder. And you get up that bloody mountain.”
At last: the finish!
Chris and his team put an open invite out for people to come along for the finish. They downloaded the last day of the route on to the second bike trainer. Hundreds of people who joined him on that second bike came along to the final venue and they rode 5 to 10 minutes next to him. Aside from that, lots of other people that had helped and supported came along as well.
Then the moment was there! Chris finally finished this extreme ride and became the first person to cycle virtually around the world. A journey of 18,096 miles over 232 days and 16 hours. “It was such an amazing feeling crossing the line. It was just incredible. It just now starts slowly to sink in. Wow, I virtually rode around the world. No one has ever done that! I actually did it!”
When we spoke Chris a couple of weeks after finishing his ride, he was still a bit ill at ease. “It feels really odd not to ride my bike everyday any longer. It also feels very strange not to wear lycra! I’m of course tapering down, because you just can’t stop after you’ve done that for 8 to 9 hours a day. So, I’m swimming and walking a lot to slowly wean myself off. I had no social life for two years: organising everything and riding of course. I’m actually nervous for riding outdoors again for the first time in two years: I have to brake and steer again!”
The main goal of this ride was to raise money, he and his team raised over £87,000 for 27 cancer charities! A lot of people said that Chris is inspirational, but he sees that differently:
“It’s of course very nice to hear, but I’m just a guy on a bike. The inspirational people are my team, who didn’t get anything like applauded, they were there for three years. They get no money for that, but they put an enormous amount of time into this. But my wife Rita is the real the inspiration, together with all the other people who suffer from cancer. It is hard to do this type of thing, but it’s easy to do something when you’re really driven to do it. When you raise funds or awareness, or help other people with a terminal disease, knowing you’ve got that disease yourself, that’s truly inspirational. The same goes for all the help we got from the people during this ride. Every day for seven months in a row, I saw humanity at its absolute best.”
If you want to support Chris or check out what his next plans are, visit his Facebook page: Tacx Virtual World Ride for Rity