The Great Debate: Supported vs. Unsupported Cycling Records

The current discussion of supported vs. unsupported world cycle records was brought into the spotlight by a couple more recent round-the-world cyclists who have gone with a support team, as opposed to all previous records, involving a few mad adventurers with a couple changes of clothes, a gas stove and a bedroll. As it started becoming as much about breaking the previous guy’s record as the hardcore adventuring aspect, things turned a lot more sophisticated. Saddlebags were packed to a spacial science of bare essentials and minimum weight.
Then along came the recent riders who decided to go fully supported, and it became just about the record. Not surprising, the last verified men’s record was supported. He beat his competition by about a month, or you might say, 25% faster. This percentage more or less summarises the difference between a supported and unsupported race.
When I applied to Guinness World Records to make the first women’s circumnavigation, they summarily informed me that there was no differentiation made between supported and unsupported rides. I thought little of it, primarily because, being an inexperienced cyclist, the difference was fairly meaningless at that point. Having only cycled for eight months, confidence in my new-found pedaling abilities was somewhat shaky, and I began the ride with friends volunteering to partially support me along the way. A few thousand km into the ride, as I gained confidence, I also changed ideas. Going with support was for girls (j/k). All the men had been doing it unsupported, why shouldn’t I? If there was a reason why no woman had gone for this record, the best way to find out was to jump in and fully immerse myself in the experience. I continued on alone, with the remaining 80% of the ride unsupported.
I can definitively tell you, the difference is so great, that it became incredible to me why Guinness has not made a differentiation between what are two very different categories. Stick two cyclists at the starting line of a race, one with 7 kilos of weight and the other with 30. Who do you think will win? No brainer? You would think so, but apparently this conclusion is inconsequential when we’re talking round-the-world cycling records.
Weight disparity is the most obvious difference in the supported vs. unsupported argument, but there are numerous other aspects which may not be immediately obvious to the casual observer. A number of people have asked me to explain these essential differences, so here they are, in no particular order:

Unsupported: a minimalist cyclist may carry anywhere from 20 to 30 kilos, including water, winter extras and supplies.
Supported: the maximum weight of your bike would come to 8 kilos, but let’s be generous to include extra weight for a couple water bottles and say 9.
Conclusion: Double to triple the weight, means a slower speed. During the time I went without bags, I was cycling anywhere from 240 – 270 km a day. After the bags were added, the average dropped to 190 – 220 km a day. That’s around a 20% difference.

Food and water:
Unsupported: lugging more weight, also means burning more calories, which means consuming high quantities of food. You have to find your own food and water, often detouring to search for places to tank up. This takes up valuable time.
Supported: your team find and carry food and water for you, so you never have to leave the road. You can stop for short food breaks more frequently which also means less fatigue.
Conclusion: Not only does weight slow down speed, but the constant search for food and water means longer breaks from pedaling and detours. Having to go longer distances without eating also slows down your speed as energy declines.

This is the primary difference for a woman going supported and unsupported. A man can bivy it like a hobo wherever he pleases. A woman’s primary care is for her safety. In more than 50% of the world it would be considered very high risk for a woman to camp alone, so she must secure cheap accommodation. This means finding a hostel, motel, or couch surfing.
Unsupported: come dark, she must begin searching for a safe place to stay the night. This takes extra time and can be quite problematic as it limits how much distance can be cycled in a day, according to distances between civilization.
Supported: the team finds accommodation ahead of time, or in the case of a campervan support, she can stop and sleep whenever and wherever she wants.
Conclusion: the difference here is huge. It can mean hours of extra pedaling after dark and late into the night for the supported cyclist.

Technical problems:
Unsupported: you figure out your own salvation, change your own tubes, tires and chains, etc. If you break down, you have to walk to the nearest town or hitchhike, after which, you must go back to the point you broke down and start the time again from there. This can cut hours to half a day out of your ride.
Supported: the team have a spare wheel and parts to switch quickly when there’s a puncture or breakdown. If the problem is too serious for one of the team to fix, they can put the bike in the vehicle, drive it to the nearest mechanic and be back to the spot in an hour or two.

A fellow cyclist reminded me of this point, which is an important one. Navigating your way around the world is no easy thing.
Unsupported: you will get lost. It is inevitable. Some countries are just confusing, particularly third world, but also East European countries where the infrastructure is less than ideal and maps or GPS lead you onto off-roads or roads which no longer exist. Having to stop every so often to figure out where you are, or backtracking to the point where you went off course is extremely time consuming. Every night you have to plan the next day’s route and believe me, when you’ve pedaled for 12 hours, that is the very last thing you feel like doing.
Supported: your support team are there to make sure you are always on the straight and narrow. They plan your routes, guide you through detours, or difficult sections, etc. All you have to do is pedal. No difficulties there. You’ll probably save an hour a day this way.

This may not seem important, but it is a crucial factor, because it is usually the mind which gives up before the body.
Unsupported: Days on the road without human interaction, and months spent alone with only yourself for company starts to play tricks with your mind. Priorities can turn upside down from one day to the next. In the 2012 World Cycle Race, only 4 of the 11 riders made it around the world. Most gave up halfway and a number mentioned the struggle with loneliness. It’s difficult being out there for that length of time on your own. You must either enjoy your own company, or be pretty tough in the head.
Supported: With a support crew, you always have someone to talk to, people to encourage you to keep going and daily boost your morale. Just the knowledge that there is someone nearby to help you should something go wrong, can be a huge game changer.

In conclusion:
It is challenging enough finding your own food, water and places to sleep, figuring out your own navigation, dealing with problems as they inevitably arise. But there are plenty of other things that are irrelevant to actual time differences, but which can make or break a record ride. When putting up with the hardships of the road, it really is all the little things which add up to keeping you in a fit state mentally as much as physically. Things like going days or weeks without clean clothes, wearing the same shoes for five months, being smelly and your clothes damp 24/7, not eating a good meal for weeks.

Let’s take out the emotional, human and comfort aspects, the “what-ifs” etc., and boil it down to conservative numbers when adding all the above factors into the equation:

50 – 80% more weight = -15% speed
Searching for food = -1 hour
Searching for place to sleep = -1 hour

Because every cyclist is different when it comes to speed and endurance, we’ll take what could be considered a good ride in one day for a supported cyclist, without exaggerating. Let’s say 250 km, with an easily doable average of 27.5 kmph.

250 – 15% = 230 km
230 – 2 hours or 55 km = 185 km

You see what I mean? From a 250 km average to 185 km, and I haven’t even thrown in the tube changes and breakdowns. For a woman, I should throw on the extra time she could cycle in the dark with a support crew, which would make a significant difference.

Now when we’re talking records, this adds up to a massive difference of at least 25%. It would probably take an unsupported world cyclist circumnavigating the globe a second time supported, to prove this point inarguably. GWR explain that they do not have the personnel or knowledge to adequately adjudicate between a supported and unsupported record. Perhaps they might consider passing along verification of such records to a cycle governing body who have the knowledge, experience and wherewithal to judge such record attempts. I’d be interested to hear other cyclists’ thoughts on this.