Five Minutes With... Ben Davies
March 16th 2021
Ben Davies has quietly made a big name for himself in the ultracycling scene, most recently with a 2nd place finish at TCRno7 - taking the “First Male” title. He showed steady progression and commitment to the sport, riding three editions since 2017, Ben managed a 44th, 10th and a 2nd place finish. His is not a story of a new rider bursting onto a podium in their first race. Instead, his is a tale of the years of work necessary to develop the skills and experience needed to succeed in these rides.
What was your first long solo unsupported ride?
My first long unsupported ride was TransAmerica (East Coast to West Coast). Actually, that TransAm was my first multi-day ride, ever. Then I did PanAmerica in 2016 over five and a half months, covering the ~24,000km from Northern Canada to the Southern tip of Argentina. After TransAmerica I had spent a number of years heading off on rides mainly in Europe and N. Africa and I wanted to get back and ride the Americas, north to south, as a larger project. I’m always fascinated at how cultures, landscapes and climates change through countries and continents, so getting the opportunity to ride through North, Central and South America was a special experience.
What was the goal of your PanAmerica ride?
One of the main aims for me was to follow the mountain ranges that run most of the length of the Americas. Each range has its own character, from the snowy peaks of the Rockies to sustained periods over 4,000m elevation in the Andes, so the cycling is incredible. It’s hard to pick a single highlight, but one particular standout was the cycling in Colombia. Cycling is a passion in Colombia; there aren’t many places where you will be clapped up a mountain by passing lorry drivers.
We’ve seen pictures of your maximalist setup but also reports of you averaging 100 miles per day. Was this ride more of a challenge or a tour?
One of the key drivers for me on these long rides is the physical challenge and simply riding the bike. PanAmerica wasn’t a race against anything but I wouldn’t know what I’d call it, I always refer to it as “fast-touring” or a “long bike ride”. I loved the setup I had for that ride and others like it; I had everything I needed, no luxuries and wasn’t dependent on anyone else.
What lessons were you able to take from your PanAmerica ride that helped in your TCR and Race Through Poland successes?
PanAmerica was certainly beneficial in terms of being comfortable on the bike day after day, but there are a lot of differences when it comes to racing. I remember the first time that I raced TCR, I tried to carry over a few things that I had used previously and they weren’t very successful. For example, solar charging is perfect for something like PanAmerica, when power requirements are low and relatively unimportant, but for something like TCR having power on tap, from something like a dynamo, is much more useful and eliminates a load of faff.
2020 was supposed to be the year you attempted the Cairo to Capetown record but Covid-19 put paid to an attempt that year. What is the new departure date? And why does the attempt need to be done at this time of year?
A new date is still up in the air until the situation around coronavirus stabilises and it is appropriate and feasible to give it a shot. The weather window is preferably a March/April start so it won’t be 2021, but fingers crossed for next year. The reason for the March/Apr start is purely the weather; trying to make the best of not too hot/not too wet.
Could you talk us through the route and likely challenges you’ll face on this ride?
The route starts in Cairo and finishes up a little under 11,000km later in Cape Town. I’ll be passing through 8 countries, mainly staying East and there will be some quite extreme changes in climate and terrain. I’ll be going from a British winter straight into the heat of N. Africa which is going to be a massive shift!
Is your route the same as Mark Beaumont’s? He has described his record as “there for the taking” due to the improvements in the countries’ infrastructure, primarily road surface. What is your intended total time?
Certainly in terms of countries that I’ll pass through, they are the same. Taking the route through the more eastern countries is one of the most traversed and should in theory be the fastest and safest. It’s incredible researching the speed of development and infrastructure projects in some parts of Africa. When I was route planning I was particularly fascinated by Sudan; you can track on satellite images new roads popping up through the desert, that don’t yet appear anywhere on paper and online mapping.
On such a long and remote ride, could you give us an idea of what could go wrong and how you prepare for these eventualities?
It is one of the draws, that you can’t be prepared for all eventualities! The important thing is how you react to a situation, a change or a problem and I get a lot of satisfaction from that element. Of course there is a lot that you can prepare for; my route for this ride is all set out on Ride With GPS and I used the tools on that software to pick out likely places to source water and food in the more remote parts of the route. The other aspect is keeping the bike on the road. Unlike the Americas or Europe, there are very few opportunities to source bike parts if they were needed, so I’ll be travelling with more parts that I usually would.
What other geographical challenges will you face in terms of mountains, deserts, etc? How do these compare to what you have faced before?
Since I’ll be aiming for speed, my route isn’t particularly mountainous; it’s a quite different concept from my usual route planning where I generally try to follow mountain ranges. Starting out in Cairo, you are cycling straight into desert which should become increasingly harsh down through Sudan. I’ve had to give this part of my route the most thought, spending a lot of time with satellite images trying to scope out realistic points where I can stock up with water. That will be the most important factor to consider. I remember when crossing areas in Patagonia, where the distances between stops were even more vast, that rivers that you’d hope would be flowing were all dried up.
The wildlife in Botswana is something that many of us found mesmerising in Mark Beaumont’s attempt, what kinds of precautions will you need to take?
The wildlife is always one of the highlights for me out on these long rides, so Botswana sounds like it is going to be incredible. I’m not intending to take any special precautions for Botswana; it’s just a case of respecting the surroundings and wildlife. The key area which I will be giving some thought to when I am there is where to camp up and where it is going to be safe. To be honest though that is always important whether it is because of wildlife or more often, people.
You completed a PanAmerica, 3x Transcontinentals, and have a Trans Africa in your sights. Having traversed so many continents, when can we expect to see you string these all together into an unsupported Round The World record attempt?
I thought there wasn’t a differentiation for an unsupported attempt??! (officially anyway!).
I would love to see a differentiation between supported and unsupported as both are incredible feats, but also very different prospects. [Official DotWatcher edit: we absolutely agree with this, and we always differentiate here, even if Guiness doesn’t!]
What are your expectations for this year in terms of who will win races? Who’s one to keep an eye on? Which races are you most excited to race or dotwatch?!
It’s hard to be drawn on one person to watch! There is such depth in the quality of riders at the moment and increasingly seeing ex- and current WT pros racing, there are sure to be some stacked races in 2021. I can’t wait for racing in 2021; it’s going to be really interesting after last year to see how everyone is going. There will be a mix of some people who raced multiple times in 2020 and some who couldn’t race at all; if/how that influences how people are going should be a cool dynamic. I’m stoked about the races that I’ll be lining up at this year; first up will be Poland and I want to use that to get the legs turning and back in the swing of racing.