At the beginning of the story, it’s just a guy on a pushbike, going as far as he can.Steve Abraham, tootling around Milton Keynes, sometimes doing a circular route, sometimes going further afield and staying the night with a stranger.
Then you realise it’s one man – and a small but extremely committed army of enthusiasts – trying to break a record nobody has challenged since 1939: the longest distance cycled in one year, set by Tommy Godwin, who cycled 75,065 miles, an average of 205 a day, and had to learn to walk again afterwards.
“It’s like the opposite of the sprint,” Abraham says, “it’s really slow but it never ends.”
I was warned by a large number of Abraham’s fans beforehand: don’t listen to him. He is extremely modest, and you will find it hard to get a sense of the scale of his achievement by crediting his own words. By the time I catch up with him, at 8.30pm on a typical Milton Keynes estate, 13 and a half hours after he began his cycling day, I’ve been following him in a car since Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire, up to Stratford-upon-Avon, across and back down to MK.
He has done 190-odd miles at speeds that make me think my speedometer is dodgy. My original intention was to cycle alongside him; “He won’t go slower than 16mph”, said his “lead enthusiast”, Idai Makaya. It sounds manageable, and then I see him go; I couldn’t have kept up with him across a zebra crossing. He breaks at 1pm, eats two steak and kidney pies and hops back on his bike. The man is a machine.
Steve Abraham is already famed on the Audax circuit, where men who look nothing like racers go hundreds of miles on bikes that look nothing like racers, either. “I got my personal best in a 24-hour period on a 500 quid bike,” he says, before revealing that he’d borrowed a set of wheels that were worth two grand. “It’s the wheels that make the real difference. Weight only matters when you’re going up mountains. People have been misled by the marketing. Racing along flat roads, always invest in the wheels.”
He arrives home on a high, ready to talk, fired up, saying he could have gone further but he didn’t want to fall asleep while he was riding. He only wants to talk about bikes. I draw him into a conversation about cycling socks; he does not want to talk about his feelings.There’s a man, Dave, waiting to cook his dinner, one of a team of maybe 50 helpers doing bits and pieces for Abraham on his journey. Worship is a strong word, but it’s not, I don’t think, unlike the awe and privilege any other sports fan would experience when meeting a hero; except they get to make a meal for him and talk about ball bearings in the 20 minutes he has left awake.
Abraham says this is the way with Audaxing and club cycling: “We run events that are spread over days and it costs 10, 20 quid to enter because it’s all done with volunteers. If you did it professionally, it’d cost hundreds.”
“Sportives [more expensive mass participation events] are run by professionals, and they’ll just take all your money. The worry is that they’ll price people out.”Abraham was 15 when he heard about Godwin’s record, and he’s been thinking about taking it on ever since. He’s now 40, and he started on New Year’s Day. I ask him what had finally made him do it, and he says, modestly: “Well, I had a year off work.”
“But you asked for the year off work, right?”
Jo Wood, a fan I speak to on the phone, says: “That’s one of the things I like about the culture of Audax: it’s stoic, understated, ‘Let’s just get on with it and do it.’”
Abraham will just about concede that he’s known for his ability to withstand pain – he once tried to get his own wisdom tooth out with a screwdriver, because he didn’t want to miss a time trial the next day – but what he will not do is admit to the magnitude of this undertaking.
“He comes across as being a very unassuming, ‘what’s the big deal?’ person but clearly he must be incredibly driven, to be able to cope,” Wood observes.Across the Atlantic, a different kind of cyclist – Kurt “Tarzan” Searvogel (the clue’s in the name) – is making the same bid. It’s billed as a hare-and-tortoise affair, with Searvogel surrounded by a semi-professional team, on a carbon bike, and Steve on his own.
“He’s basically copying what I do, and going one up. I want to see how he reacts when I start to do a few crazy moves.” “What like?” “You’ll find out when I do them,” he says, discreetly.
I’m fascinated by what Abraham thinks about all day – whether it’s just the road, or anything but the road. He considers this for a moment. “I keep seeing these signs everywhere saying, ‘we sell manure and eggs’. I don’t know what it is with these farmhouses: if you ever need shit and eggs, you know where to come.”