Interview with Dr Ian Walker

Words & Images: Fergus Coyle

Dr Ian Walker is an environmental psychologist who has written in-depth studies of why we drive cars and of the behaviour of drivers overtaking bicycles. He’s also an endurance cyclist and winner of the 2018 North Cape 4000. This summer saw Ian return to the northernmost tip of Norway to begin a new challenge: an attempt at the world record for crossing Europe north to south by bike.

Fergus Coyle caught up with Ian in his home town of Bristol to talk about bad drivers, cycling and breaking records.


May I start by congratulating you on last year’s impressive race win? How did you first get into endurance cycling?

I got into endurance cycling through endurance running. I got into the running through long-distance walking. And I got into that completely by chance.

I was in my late thirties and was doing pretty much nothing physical. I’d succumbed to the comfortable sloth that hits so many people at that stage in life. Then, out of the blue, I read about the Long Distance Walkers Association and got fired up with the idea of taking part in their annual 100-mile walk. Somehow the idea of walking 100 miles burrowed into my brain – it felt so utterly inconceivable to walk that far. I just had to discover what it would be like to do something so immense. It turns out that it’s really, really hard.

Later that year, a friend sent me a link to a YouTube video with footage of the Transvulcania Ultramarathon – a 75 km run up and down a massive volcano in the Canary Islands. The scenery and the event looked absolutely stunning. “If you can walk 100 miles,” he said, “I reckon we can do this.”

I immediately became a runner. I trotted out my first 5 km run the next day, and within three months I’d run my first marathon. A few months after that I managed to finish the Transvulcania race – and despite an hour spent collapsed in the gutter a mile from the finish I still finished in the top half of the field.

The next few years saw me doing more and more ultrarunning. I took part in the de facto world championship of mountain running that is the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, and back in the UK I became one of a small number of people to run the full 102 miles of the Cotswold Way in under 24 hours.

And then I learned about the Transcontinental Race and dropped running overnight.

The Transcontinental Race covers distances of over 4,000 km across Europe, taking a different route each year. It seemed so much bigger and more challenging than anything I’d done before. Once again, the idea of taking on such a massive challenge burrowed into my brain – I couldn’t think about anything else for days. This was so much bigger than anything I’ve ever attempted and I just had to know how that felt. I bought a bike and started training.

What motivates you to compete at such a level?

There are many reasons I ride long distances. It keeps me fit, and I’ve discovered that I am also reasonably competitive – something I would never have suspected about myself before I started to take part in races.

But perhaps above all, the reason I ride across countries and continents is to put myself in difficulty.

I think it’s really good for us to experience some difficulty from time to time.

By doing ultradistance bike rides I put myself in tough situations – but at a time of my own choosing. This lets me build self-reliance and coping skills. By doing that, I become more confident and better equipped to handle difficulties off the bike as well as on it.

At its simplest, whenever I have a tough day at work, I can always ask myself “Is this as bad as that time I was stranded in a Serbian motorway construction site at 3am with no functioning inner tubes? No? Well then, let’s get on with it . . .”

How do you train to be on the bike for up 20 hours a day?

There’s no substitute for time in the saddle. Last year I rode over 25,000 km in 1,000 hours. I have to do those sorts of distances to toughen me up and make my body adapt.

But on a day-to-day basis it’s pretty easy. A big proportion of this distance was on my commute to and from work. It’s an 82 km round trip, which is a great way to get the distance into my legs as part of my daily routine.

The current record for cycling north to south across Europe stands at 6,300 km in 21 days, 14 hours and 23 minutes. How many days do you hope to complete your challenge in and what will your strategy be?

I don’t want to give away too much in advance, but I do have definite strategy and tactics for this record attempt that I hope will see me come in below the current record.

Above all, I want to be more disciplined than I have been in the past. Last year, on the North Cape 4000, I averaged over 360 km a day – but it was really variable as I didn’t have any strategy other than ‘ride as fast as possible’. Individual days ranged from just under 300 km to one memorable day where I cranked out 565 km across the Baltic States to establish myself as the race leader.

This time I want to keep the days a lot more consistent.

Does being on the road ever get lonely?

Strangely, no – not really. Riding long distances during a race is quite different from riding those same distances in a more leisurely way, such as on a touring holiday. When I’m racing, a big part of the day is spent thinking about how I can best keep moving, and where I’ll find the basic elements of existence: water, food and shelter. Or perhaps I’m thinking about the running repair I’ll attempt when I next stop, and how I can do this as quickly as possible with the tools at hand. There’s almost always something to think about, to plan.

So individual moments might drag on, and a climb over a mountain pass might seem interminable, but in the bigger picture time passes like the wind. I don’t think I’ve ever known weeks go by so fast as when I’m absorbed by the process of moving as quickly as possible from A to B.

You must be burning an astronomical number of calories each day. Is there a science to what you eat or do you just smash down anything in sight?

Yes, it can easily be well over 10,000 calories a day. But ultradistance cycle racing is a world away from the controlled, scientific world of professional sport. It’s still an underground, ghetto sort of event. On top of this, races like the Transcontinental, the North Cape 4000 and the Trans Am Bike Race insist on riders being entirely unsupported. All of this means that you’re living on whatever you can find quickly and easily along the road. And that basically means a lot of junk food from petrol stations. This isn’t an event for people with finicky digestive systems.

Among European ultracyclists, the 7Days pre-packaged croissant has achieved almost legendary status: it’s a massive slug of sugary calories that will slip into a jersey pocket but which you can find in almost any petrol station across the East for about 50 cents.

This record attempt will be self-supported. What will you be carrying and is there anything unique about the bike you are taking?

Guinness don’t distinguish between supported and unsupported world record attempts, so I could in theory do this ride with a crew who would massage me and prepare my meals. But, if I’m honest, I’d rather do it by myself. This way, it’s a ‘purer’ event. If I succeed in beating the record, anybody who comes along later to try and take the record from me can choose to take me on in a fair and equal contest by going unsupported themselves.

I’ll be carrying the absolute minimum that I feel comfortable with. Spare parts and tools, obviously, but zero spare clothes – I’ll sleep naked, or in the kit I ride in. I’ve got my kit down to such necessities that, apart from a sleeping bag and bivvy bag, I’d take pretty much the same stuff on a long day’s ride as I would on a transcontinental adventure.

Travel light, move fast.

My bike is nice, but nothing unusual or unattainable. It’s designed to be comfortable over long distances, and I feel at home on it in a way I can hardly describe. On good days it’s like it’s part of me.

Your study into drivers overtaking cyclists was met by some criticism over its findings. Particularly controversial was the finding that drivers tend to pass closer if a cyclist is wearing a helmet. Can you tell me a little about the experiment and your findings?

Back in 2006, in my job as a psychologist, I fitted a bike out with instruments and spent a few weeks riding around, measuring how close motorists got as they passed me. That study threw up quite a few things that have largely passed without comment, not least that drivers got closer to men than women when overtaking – a finding that’s since been repeated in a few other countries.

But one finding from that early work upset quite a few people, which was the discovery that drivers tended to pass a bit closer when I cycled wearing a helmet than when I didn’t wear one.

It’s hard to say why people got so exercised about this finding. Perhaps the idea that wearing a helmet ‘solves’ danger is just very entrenched in our culture, to the extent that people aren’t comfortable with my questioning something they have always just taken on face value.

I should stress, incidentally, that I’m not saying that it’s a bad idea to wear a helmet if you bang your head. Obviously, cushioning is going to have some value if you do. The point of these studies was to show that there might be unintended consequences of wearing one, and that your choices as a cyclist don’t happen in a vacuum – they’re part of a bigger, more complex system, and we need to consider all its parts.

But, more widely, I’d argue quite strongly that safety equipment shouldn’t be seen as a solution to dangers that other people force upon us against our will. It’s one thing for me to put on a gas mask because I’ve chosen to use some noxious glue for a repair; but it’s quite another thing for somebody else to demand I wear one because they’ve decided they want to blow smoke in my face.

In exactly the same way, it’s one thing for me to wear a helmet in case I lose control of my bike and fall over, but quite another if I’m expected to wear one because other people have chosen to drive machines next to me without due care, or because politicians can’t be bothered to make our roads safe. And even then, I’m being very charitable in assuming the helmet would help when somebody drives their car into me . . .

In 2017 the cycling world was rocked by Mike Hall’s untimely death whilst competing in a race across Australia. Given your research and first-hand experience, do you think there is a point in competition where endurance cycling becomes too dangerous?

No. If riding legally on a road that is open to bicyclists is too dangerous then the only acceptable solution is for the road to be fixed, not for legitimate road users to get off it.

As a culture we have somehow sleepwalked into the situation where we are comfortable with the idea that outdoors is deadly. We act as though the danger from motor traffic is something we can’t control, like the weather.

Around the world, 1.3 million people die on the roads every year. These deaths are almost all avoidable – but only if we throw off our blinkers and realise that this danger is not like the weather. We could stop it tomorrow, if our priorities were straight. Indeed, we would probably do exactly that, if it were aeroplanes that were killing people rather than cars and trucks. But because it’s cars and trucks, we choose not to fix the problem because we’ve all grown up in a world where dying on the road is seen as normal.

Future generations will think we were ridiculous.

Are you hopeful to see a shift from driving in the coming years with more people choosing to cycle?

Go out into the street and look at all the cars driving past you. Do you notice how most of them have just one person in them, yet are taking up a huge amount of space, putting you in danger and polluting your air? Well, assuming you’re here in the UK, I can tell you that a quarter of those cars are travelling under two miles. The majority of them are going under five miles. A lot of those people you see – probably most of them – could be walking or cycling those trips.

So why don’t they? Because driving everywhere – even short distances, all by yourself, within the heart of a city – has been made to feel easy, cheap, normal and safe.

We need to change this, and change needs to come from both ends. Our leaders and civic officials need to stop making short-distance urban driving feel so easy, cheap and normal, and need to start making alternatives to the car meet those criteria instead.

And we as individuals need to take some responsibility too. We need to be a lot more mindful of how we travel. Driving, especially through a city, is never a harmless activity. To do it does impose harm on others – whether that’s noise pollution, the risk of collision, or whatever.

I’m not saying nobody should drive ever – of course I’m not. But we should be a lot more sparing and thoughtful about when we do it.


This interview first appeared in Conquista 22.