Failure while daring greatly: Miles Smith’s year record attempt is over … for now

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Earlier this year we took a look at Miles Smith’s attempt at the year cycling distance record. Unfortunately Miles experienced some major health issues and faced other hurdles during his record bid, all of which eventually ended his campaign. In this follow-up piece Craig Fry catches up with Miles to hear what happened.

2015 has been a big year in ultra-endurance cycling. There have been recent record attempts in the Australian Audax Fleche Oppy 24 hour team time trial, Jesse Carlson’s Trans Am bike race win, a new 24 hour circuit record set by Christoph Strasser at the Berlin Templehoff, and Drew Ginn’s new Australian 24-hour record on an outdoor track.

Back in April, Miles Smith started his journey in an audacious attempt to break Tommy Godwin’s 1939 year distance record (75,065 miles / 120,805km). He was upbeat, seemingly well prepared and organised, and had a good support group around him.

But in ultra-endurance cycling the best-laid plans don’t always come to fruition. Things can and do go wrong. It’s not all gold medals and records. You don’t always get what you want on the bike.

The margin for error gets very small indeed when you’re racing the clock, especially when you’re taxing your physical and mental capacities. The impact of even small things can be magnified when you’re operating at limit.

Tough Times

Since we last spoke in May, Miles has had some tough times on and off the bike. So much so that he actually stopped and re-started his year distance record attempt twice in those six or so months.

Miles’ last ride was on November 12, the day he decided to end his record attempt for 2015.

The task of riding to a schedule of more than 330km a day for the entire year is taxing enough. But on top of that Miles encountered a string of hardships that included:

– An enforced rest by doctor’s orders due to a partially collapsed left lung at the end of May.
– Ongoing disputes with the Ultra-Marathon Cycling Association (UMCA) over verifying his daily distances, and frustrations over inaccurate UMCA records.
– An unusually cold and wet Melbourne winter.
– Being hit four times by vehicles and ‘doored’ once.
– Family relationship strain.

In the end, the cumulative effect of these challenges was too much, as Miles explains:

“I had caught myself not checking every parked car driver’s door mirror that I passed, and I was getting angry at those things that happen every day to every cyclist, such as cars overtaking and then pulling an immediate left turn into a side road right in front of you. Riding angry is a sure sign you’re going to get hurt.”

“Then, upon learning that Audax rider Jimmy Chant had been killed by a motorist on a dead straight road in excellent conditions, the risk-reward ratio was brought into sharp relief. Given all of the above challenges it just didn’t stack up – [it] wasn’t worth the risk.”

Remarkably, even though Miles ‘failed’, he managed to ride just over 48,479km between April and his last ride, with 19,400km over the last 48 days (i.e. just over 400km per day) – a phenomenal physical effort by any measure. But the undertaking took more than just physical energy.

Worth it?

It’s fair to say there aren’t too many individuals that would even contemplate a huge challenge like this, let alone actually go ahead and try it – three times.

This year distance record goal has already exacted a big toll on Miles. His health has been impacted. He has been in life-threatening situations while riding. And it is very clear from speaking with him that his family life and relationships have been impacted too.

When I ask why he persisted in the face of what most people would see as obvious reasons to stop, Miles doesn’t respond with deep philosophical words of wisdom. Instead, he simply tells me “I do it because it’s fun. I love riding my bike.”

To be honest, I was expecting a tale of redemption, or of honouring loved ones lost to illness, or of a meaningful personal quest. Without such a backstory, Miles’ attempt on this record is a struggle to understand.

It may be that Miles simply prefers to keep his motivations and rationalisations to himself. At one point in our catch-up over coffee he mentions his dying father saying to him “Just don’t spend your life in an office”. Perhaps it’s a hint at what drives Miles, but he doesn’t elaborate.

Whatever his motivations, it would be a mistake to simply dismiss Miles Smith’s efforts as ‘crazy’ or foolish. As hard as it is to comprehend, there is still something strangely compelling in a story like this – where a very ordinary and likeable person such as Miles decides to back himself in a challenge so immense.

Remember, Miles only started ultra-endurance cycling just a little over two years ago. As far as I know he has no extensive history of cycling. He is not an ex-Olympian, and never has been nor will be an elite level cyclist. He has never won a gold medal, and has never been a world champion.

Is Miles Smith obsessed? Yes. Has this year cycling record done him more harm than good? It certainly appears so from the outside looking in. Is it rational for Miles to make another attempt at the record after his experiences so far? Of course not.

‘At least he fails while daring greatly’

At the end of the day, what the rest of us might think about Miles Smith’s year distance record attempts probably matters not. In the words of past US President, Theodore Roosevelt:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, because there is not effort without error and shortcomings…”

I’m not saying Miles Smith is a hero of the type Roosevelt was probably referring to. And only Miles himself can judge whether or not these last six months on the bike have been worthwhile.

There is certainly more to life than riding a bike. And ultimately, mere cycling records and goals (even those as monumental as Godwin’s 120,805km) should take second place to living when the costs of striving to reach them mount too high.

But despite the obvious costs of attempting the year distance record for him personally, it must at least be said that Miles Smith has dared greatly. There is surely some inspiration to be found in that.

About the author

Craig Fry is a Melbourne-based researcher, writer and amateur cyclist. His cycling articles can be seen here at CyclingTips, at The Conversation and The Age. He was a member of Team Pane e Acqua who won the 2014 Audax Australia Fleche Opperman National Shield by riding 730km in 24-hours on the open road. You can follow Craig on Twitter.

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