If everything had gone to plan, Steve would have been finished by this time.
Unfortunately, he has cycled down a long and winding road since we saw him last, encountering trials and tribulations that forced him to re-launch his record attempt. It meant that, having ridden almost without interruption since January 2015, he wasn’t due to finish until August 2016.
But it was not to be: on January 21, Steve announced that he was abandoning his record attempt. After committing 4,317 hours to the challenge, Steve decided not to continue.
“Anyone who’s following me on Strava is probably wondering what’s been happening in the last two days,” he said, in a video posted on his website. “I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m just not going to get the record, so I’ve decided to stop.
“I had a schedule to ride to, to get the record, and I’m just not doing enough. I’m getting further and further behind and I don’t think there’s any way I can get back on it again.
“I think the only way I can do more is by getting faster, and the only way I can get faster is by doing less.
I’ve decided to call it a day, and so has the rest of the team. Everyone agrees that it’s not in my interest to carry on. I don’t want second best, I want to be the best.
Steve’s plan had been to start relatively easily – with ‘only’ 180-mile days – in the icy depths of the British winter, ride himself into fitness, and then smash out some big days in the summer.
And, at first, his strategy seemed to be paying off. At one point he was more than 2,500 miles ahead of Tommy Godwin, the previous record holder, at the equivalent point in Tommy’s ride.
Godwin, another British cyclist, broke the record in 1939, riding 75,065 miles in 1939 – that’s an average of over 205 a day, every day. Afterwards, he took a few months to learn how to walk properly again, and then signed up to join the RAF and went to fight in World War 2.
“The only way to get the record was to get the winter miles in,” Steve said, “because what he [Tommy] did in the summer was unbelievable.”
But Tommy’s incredible target was not his only challenge. There was also Kurt Searvogel, a Florida cyclist who started only a few days after Steve. Searvogel was riding faster and resting longer than Steve, and the tortoise-and-hare race between the riders on opposite sides of the Atlantic was a slow-burn sensation.
Then disaster struck: Steve broke his ankle when he was hit by a scooter in March 2015. That put everything in jeopardy, and, after weeks of reduced mileage, and riding one-legged on a recumbent bike, he relaunched his record attempt on August 8 2015.
Even with the broken leg, he only had 17 days off the bike in 2015 (he even rode on Christmas day, stopping in a petrol station for his Christmas lunch), and by relaunching he had committed to riding for seven extra months.
Despite everything, Steve was reluctant to blame falling short on the accident, or on any other factors.
“I’ve never felt like I’ve got up to speed during the whole attempt, I’ve never felt like I’ve been going well,” he said. “I didn’t start [the whole attempt] fit – I was doing 16 hours flat out on the computer every day just so I could get to ride. The original plan was I’d get fit during the attempt, but I think there was never enough recovery time because of the lack of speed, right from the start. If I was fitter when I started it and could have gone a bit faster, I would have got more sleep at the start and recovered more. That’s what I think would have happened, but we don’t actually know.”
It’s basic training: you don’t get fit from exercise, you get fit from recovery, and there just wasn’t enough recovery.
In recent weeks, he’d also endured stomach problems and had difficulty adapting to a new diet, which he had be set by nutritionists concerned that his liver was being affected by too much sugary bike food.
And, on top of everything, on January 9, 2016 the record got even further away: Kurt finished his year with a grand total of 76,156 miles – giving Steve a target of an average 209 miles a day.
Strava rode with Steve less than two weeks before his announcement, with the intention of posting an update on his progress, so Strava athletes could show their support.
And we found him in good spirits. “I’m still getting stronger I think,” Steve told us on that sunny January day. “I’ve had no big pains, I think the new diet’s helped with that.”
With us, he ate four portions of porridge with cheese and vegetables for breakfast, then a dinner of four pork chops and two jacket potatoes, plus another dinner later, as he powered to a near-200 mile day. Then, following his usual routine, he rode until around midnight. Then he went to bed, got up and (“I just wake up, I don’t bother with an alarm.”) and cycled off again.
He was, however, keenly aware that his record attempt was finely balanced on the knife edge between success and failure.
“There are so many unknowns in what I’m doing,” he said.
You can’t just give up if it looks bad, because you can’t rule out it getting a lot better – unless I had to average 300 miles a day or something silly like that and I was absolutely on my knees, then it would be silly to carry on.
Unfortunately for Steve, that point came last week. One of his support team went round to give him his mileage update and found him getting ready for a day’s riding after a 24-hour bike session, and only three hours‘ sleep.
They were concerned for his safety – as well as by the growing gap between Steve’s mileage and his schedule – and asked him to consider his position.
He did so, regretfully, and after deciding to call it a day thanked his support team: “Most important of all I’d like to thank everyone who’s helped and encouraged me along the way. Everyone who’s donated money, who’s come out to the side of the road and shouted at me, and all the people who’ve helped volunteer, to host and give motor transfers. So many people, more people than I know, have offered to help.”
Steve told Strava that he and Kurt had been in occasional contact and that he had already congratulated the American. “I’m really glad he’s got the record,” Steve said. “With everything he’s put into it, it would be a shame if he didn’t break it. There’s no point me being bitter about it. But if I can’t do it, that’s fair enough. That’s bad luck.”
Steve estimated the accident cost him 10,000 miles, and his 2015 total of of 63,608 miles – broken leg and all – is, as far as we know, still the fourth-highest annual mileage total ever verified.
It is, in fact, the highest certified mileage by the UltraMarathon Cycling Assocation in the 18-49 age category, so he will officially hold that record. Kurt Searvogel, 53, will hold the overall Highest Annual Mileage Record, and is the only living person to have cycled further.
After a little time off and a rest, Steve will be rejoining normal life, where he thinks he may try to get a job as a spin instructor. Then, he says, he might go cycle-touring, to relax. “I’ll get my mountain bike out, get my panniers and my tent, and probably go to Wales. Ride 20 or 30 miles, sit in a nice cafe, have a coffee and a bit of cake…
I won’t have to worry about how many miles I’ll do, I’ll just go and enjoy it.
Photo credits: George Marshall