Interview with Mark Beaumont

We talk to the long-distance cyclist and documentary-maker about swapping pedals for academic robes

March 31, 2016
Mark Beaumont, University of Dundee
Source: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

Mark Beaumont is a world-record breaking long-distance cyclist, television presenter and documentary-maker. He first became famous for an 18,000-mile round-the-world bike ride, where he beat the previous world record by 82 days. In January, he was announced as the next rector of the University of Dundee, taking over from actor Brian Cox.

Where and when were you born?
Swindon, New Year’s Day, 1983. Nothing against Swindon, but I do consider it a bit of a scar on my passport, since I have spent the rest of my life living in Scotland.

How has this shaped you?
I grew up in rural Perthshire, on a farm, and didn’t go to school properly until secondary school. Being homeschooled was definitely a huge part of shaping me. I would spend most of my time working and playing on the farm, which gave me a great freedom from a very early age. And it undoubtedly gave me the experience to build a career in expeditions and adventure. The transition to high school was tough, as I hadn’t had much social interaction until the age of 10, but after a number of years I found my feet and confidence. 

You’ve led quite an adventurous life thus far, where does being a university rector sit in your experiences? Are you challenged by the position?
Yes, absolutely. This is the city where I went to high school and where I have kept close ties and so I am very proud of the role. The main challenge, which is being faced by all universities, is funding cuts and restructuring and how this affects the student experience. I plan to be a lot more than just a public face for Dundee and so my challenge will be to represent the student body effectively. I already work a lot with students in Scotland through Scottish Student Sport and the Saltire Foundation, but this is a much bigger and complicated role.

You’ve undertaken many gruelling challenges in your cycling, the pinnacle being the world-record breaking cycle around the world. Did that prove your toughest assignment?
Interesting that you see the round-the-world cycle as the pinnacle – that was the very start of my career! It was the furthest world-record cycle, but it certainly wasn’t the toughest. In the past decade, I have come a long way in terms of skills and experience, so the Cairo to Cape Town world record in 2015 was the fastest that I have gone and in my opinion, the pinnacle and the toughest, so far, on the bike. While I am best known as a cyclist, I have spent half of my career so far as a television presenter, ocean rowing, climbing and [taking part in] in Arctic expeditions. The toughest expedition would have to be rowing across the Atlantic. 

What got you into long-distance cycling?
When I was 11, I read in the local paper about a man who had cycled Land’s End to John O’Groats. I have no idea who he was, but he certainly inspired me. My parents suggested that I try a smaller cycle trip first, so I asked a friend and we cycled across Scotland. I was 15 when I soloed the End to End. From there, the ambitions got bigger and bigger, until I turned it into my job.

Have you had a eureka moment?
Yes, many. But the biggest turning point in my career was mid-Atlantic, when rowing from Morocco to Barbados. I had always thought that I took part in sport to push myself mentally and physically to my limits. I completely discounted how important the world around me was. But 1,000 miles offshore, in the never-ending monotony of the oceans, I realised that I had lost the passion to be there. I realised very clearly that I was motivated by people, landscapes, cultures and change. And so from that point I decided to come back to land, rather than carry on to row the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans. 

What did you want to be when you grew up?
A ski instructor, which I was, for a while, in Italy. But that wasn’t the right job for me for ever. I don’t think any job should be for ever, it’s healthy to have a life with different chapters.  

What advice would you give to your younger self?
I would push my younger self into more social situations, because while I am very comfortable on stage and in conversations with small groups, I always find myself shying away in big groups. 

What advice would you give to students?
Have confidence in your ideas. The hardest part is getting to the start and having the conviction to try.  

Tell us about someone you admire.
The late [film-maker] David Peat, a man who I met in my final year as a student, who became a great mentor and friend for the first five years of my career. In 2011, he was given a Bafta Scotland award for outstanding contribution to his craft and was one of Scotland’s best known and respected documentary-makers. He instilled in me a love of capturing people and stories for television. 

If you were a student facing £9,000 fees, would you apply or get a job?
Going to university is not for everyone and we need to be careful not to push all school-leavers in that direction. But on the grand scale of life, £9,000 fees are nothing if that experience gives you something of value and becomes a stepping stone into your career.


Julie Mennell has been announced as the next vice-chancellor of the University of Cumbria. Professor Mennell, currently deputy vice-chancellor (development) at the University of Sunderland, will be the first woman to hold the position. Professor Mennell said that although the university was not yet 10 years old, “many of its component parts have, for many years, played a significant role in the cultural and economic life of the region”. She added: “The challenge…is to continue to build on this legacy, creating a vibrant institution of high academic merit that provides opportunities for all those who have the potential to benefit from the experience of higher education, with reach and impact across Cumbria, Lancashire and beyond.” Professor Mennell takes up her position on 1 August.

Simone Buitendijk has been appointed vice-provost for education at Imperial College London. Professor Buitendijk, who will take up her position in August, joins Imperial from Leiden University. She will lead Imperial’s vision for education and student experience. Professor Buitendijk is currently vice-rector magnificus at Leiden with responsibility for education and student affairs. During her five-year tenure, she has led strategies to enhance students’ educational experience, promote innovation in teaching and grow support for students.

Teesside University has appointed Steve Cummings as dean of the School of Science and Engineering. He previously held the role of associate dean (academic) and professor of microbiology at Northumbria University.

Nigel Alcock has joined Coventry University as deputy vice-chancellor for group development and resources.

The University of Leeds has appointed Lisa Roberts as deputy vice-chancellor for research and innovation and Tom Ward as deputy vice-chancellor for student education. They take up their roles in August.

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