GBDURO is a 2000-km self-supported bikepacking race across Britain. In 2021, two round the world cyclists, who had recently discovered gravel riding, chose this as their first-ever race. Mark Beaumont, record holder for cycling around the world, won the race in five days 15 hours and 24 minutes, and Jaimi Wilson, who cycled 58,204 km around the world in 3.5 years, finished third in 6 days 4 hours and 39 minutes, the fastest women’s time.
‘Yeah, I really enjoyed it. I would have enjoyed it more if I beat Ollie.’
When Jaimi stood on the John O’Groats signpost, which marks the end of one of Britain’s most challenging gravel races, her voice sounded happy, but with a small hint of disappointment. She has a competitive nature, and this showed all the way from Land’s End to John O’Groats.
The race was an interesting one. Two round the world cyclists that had not yet dipped their toes into the breezy ocean of endurance bikepacking races, but had a wealth of experience otherwise. On the 14th August 2021 they lined up at Land’s End, Britain’s most southerly start for any bike adventure, to complete the about 2000 km through all sorts of terrain in four stages. Modelled on the early Tour de France, riders raced as fast as they could and then regrouped at three checkpoints, from where they’d start again.
Just before the end a mechanical problem took the leader Angus Young out of the race, and Mark Beaumont’s time of five days 15 hours and 24 minutes became the winning time. While he had been a comfortable second all along the way, the race for third and fourth between Ollie Hayward and Jaimi was much tighter. Riding slower than Ollie on stage one, Jaimi gained a massive ten-hour lead on stage two, the most technical of stages. It was Ollie who made another big gain on stage three, and he also managed to ride two hours faster than Jaimi on stage four, which in the end secured him the second place and Jaimi the third fastest time overall.
‘In some ways I was naive but I was excited about the massive challenge, eager to learn and pretty confident in my ability to give it a good go. I had a rough idea of the route I wanted to take but you have to be flexible and willing to adapt as you go’.
Jaimi’s love for gravel bikes and her confidence on tricky and challenging terrain doesn’t really come as a surprise, as her home trails are just that – challenging. Living just outside the less touristy northern part of the Lake District, she recently made the switch to gravel riding. She is no stranger to cycling, after spending 3.5 years cycling around the world on her own. She doesn’t wait long to tackle a new challenge, and riding GBDURO was just that. Coming third was an outstanding achievement.
Her round the world trip took her from her home in Penrith across Europe and Asia eastbound, then across Australia, where she spent some time working. From there she cycled all across South America and the US, and finally back home to the Lakes. The whole trip was planned in a three-month period, and upon leaving Jaimi had never been on a fully loaded touring bike, wild camped, used a camping stove, repaired a puncture or been to a non English-speaking country alone.
‘I’ve been around the world on my bike, and some of the gravel sections were the most memorable, because they were the most remote.’
So how did her first gravel race compare to the 3.5 years she spent cycling around the world? The sleep deprivation was the worst bit, but riding around the world was harder. When cycling in remote areas her bike weighed around 60kg fully loaded. Her gravel bike was the exact opposite, weighing in at a sixth of that weight, or a fourth if fully loaded. So what did she think about her first gravel race? She loved it. But she would have loved it more if she’d come second.
‘It’s a little bit less intimidating than mountain biking. I love how easily accessible it is. You can link up little pieces of road, and I think it is definitely a lot more accessible:’
For Jaimi gravel riding is much more chilled, she has more time to enjoy it. It’s a bit like riding around the world. It offers her the chance to explore new terrain and provides a different routine from most of her rides on the road: Out of the saddle. In the saddle. On her road bike she can be very focussed on keeping the speed, and doesn’t take in as much in around her. After a year of gravel riding, she’d rather just get out on the trails instead these days. ‘If I am going to hurt myself, I’ll be the one to hurt myself.’
And she also shares that experience through ‘The School of Rocks’ – a woman-led community to empower everyone in off-road cycling, and leads the Northern Campus of the initiative.
The route of GBDURO took both riders through very familiar terrain. For Jaimi, who lives in Penrith, this was Great Dun Fell, one of the biggest climbs in the race, followed by a hike-a-bike section towards checkpoint two. For Mark, who lives in Edinburgh, the section from the Falkirk Wheel to Loch Rannoch was familiar territory, although he didn’t get to enjoy it much: ‘I didn’t stop on this stage – and it was 33 hard hours of riding! I would have stopped, but it was raining for most of the night, so I thought I would just get cold if I stopped in the wet kit.’
Despite the wet conditions and a tire problem at the end of stage three on the notorious Corrieyairack Pass, GBDURO was an event that left lasting memories for Mark, which are captured in MAIDEN RACE, a film about the event, which has recently been published on the Shimano YouTube channel.
‘If I was to summarise gravel riding in a sentence, it would be: Creating memories. I never ever come back anymore from my gravel rides and define it by how far I went. I define it very much by moments in time. Gravel riding for me has been about redefining why I ride a bike.’
While GBDURO was his first bikepacking race, no other name is so closely connected with the Guinness World Record for fastest circumnavigation of the globe by bicycle as Mark Beaumont’s. On 14 February 2008 the Scot completed his first circumnavigation of the globe by bicycle in 194 days and 17 hours, and started a decade of record attempts by other riders. His record was broken multiple times before Mark regained it by rolling through the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile on the Champs-Élysées on 18 September 2017, having completed his second circumnavigation of the globe by bicycle in 78 days, 14 hours and 40 minutes.
For a man whose life until his second record-breaking cycle around the world had really been defined by numbers, Mark’s motivation for getting into gravel was a way of focussing on the map instead of average speed. Since most of his cycling thus far had been on tarmac, he was interested in pushing himself in a different way as a bike rider.
‘I feel that gravel bikes have really connected me with those trails and allowed me to still move really efficiently, but to do almost everything. I feel that my bike handling has gotten a lot better just with that variety of terrain.’
Growing up on a farm in rural Perthshire Mark had some of the best gravel riding in Scotland on his doorstep, even if the term wasn’t commonplace back then. Aged only 15, Beaumont embarked on his first solo adventure by bike from John O’Groats to Land’s End, supported by his parents. His fascination with this classic British end-to-end-journey hasn’t diminished. In 2021 he had a go at the route three times over the summer: First as a relay and then on a tandem. But it was the third attempt on a gravel bike that was the most memorable.
And it ultimately achieved what got Mark first into gravel riding – becoming a better bike rider. Joining 45 other starters he cycled away from GBDURO21, his maiden gravel bikepacking race, as the winner.
A collection with the GBDURO route and Mark’s comments can be found here.
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