Breifne Earley – from the depths of despair to World Cycle Race champion
In 2014, Irishman Breifne Earley took part in the World Cycle Race, a 18,000 mile non-stop ride around the planet. Overweight and never having been on a bike tour, he was not an obvious candidate to cycle round the world, but motivated by the breakdown of his relationship, his career stalling and a wish to take his own life, he signed up. Against the odds, Breifne won, and returned a new man. His story is included in my book, Pedal Power, along with stories of others for whom the bicycle has helped them get through life’s difficulties.
There simply wasn’t space in Pedal Power to include the full interview with Breifne, so here it is.
Were you a cyclist before deciding to take part in the World Cycle Race?
I hadn’t been on a bike from the time I got my driving licence at 17, in fact I had barely exercised at all through my mid to late twenties. My first attempt at getting back on the bike happened in the gym in late 2010, before hitting the roads in early 2011. It was a swift learning curve through sportives, group rides and some simple duathlon and triathlon events.
What attracted you to cycling?
I was attracted to the cycling out of the triathlon choices mainly due to being a very weak swimmer and having a lack of love with the open water environment. Also my attempts at running had resulted in way too much pain and issues in my joints, my ankles, knees and hips. I found my time on the bike to be enjoyable, fun and made me feel fantastic both physically and mentally.
Have you always suffered from poor mental health?
Through my late twenties my mental health deteriorated in the main due to a poor working environment. Spending 60-70 hours a week sometimes under the very watchful eye of a bad boss or bosses can be devastating to your mental health. As the environment became more hostile on a day to day basis, I found myself struggling to function in other parts of my life. It affected my relationships with my family, my friends and my ex girlfriend.
Was there a ‘crunch’ moment in your life or a time of mental breakdown?
In early October 2010, I made the decision to take my own life. Before I had an opportunity to act on that decision, a text message inviting me to a memorial service for a cousin’s anniversary and watching the movie, The Bucket List, prompted me to set my own list of challenges. As my cousin’s anniversary was the 10th / 10th / 2010, I chose this as my start date. Over the next thirteen months until the 11th November 2011 (11/11/11) I lost five stone, went on fifty blind dates, learned to swim and cook, changed career, performed in ten open mic nights, saved 10% of my salary, cycled around New Zealand, finished open water sea swims, triathlons and a marathon.
The word ‘depression’ is very all-encompassing but probably doesn’t give an accurate picture of your personal situation. How else would you describe the state of your mental health?
I was at the lowest imaginable point the evening I made the decision to take my own life. Now I enjoy every moment I have to give. I spend it in the company of my family and close friends, doing the activities I want to spend my time doing. My mental health and my mental strength have proven to be in good shape time after time. Setting myself and achieving challenges like cycling around the world, recording an album, writing a best selling book amongst other things since have allowed me to increase my mental capacity to deal with everything that life can throw at me.
How does cycling make you feel? Why do you think it’s a good antidote to mental health issues?
Having tried running, walking, hiking and swimming as methods of exercise, it was the cycling that really raised my happiness levels. The idea that I could actually travel meaningful distances under my own steam whilst getting fitter, solo or with great company alongside me really appealed to me. The freewheeling down a hill having cycled up the other side is the best feeling in the world. Cycling is like an drug, but with only positive side effects.
Once you had decided to take part in the race what was your preparation window?
I had established a reasonable base fitness through my initial set of challenges but I started to prepare specifically for the event in early September 2013, a six month leading time with two daily sessions from Monday to Thursday. The morning session consisted of a two hour strength and conditioning session, focusing on my joints, ankles, knees, hips and lower back, sandwiched between two 1 hour cycles to and from the gym. The afternoon / evening session might be a run or a high intensity 40 / 50 km cycle. Each Friday saw me cycle the 170km distance between my apartment in Dublin and my parent’s home in Leitrim. Saturday was my rest day where I’d catch up with family and friends before making the return 170km journey to Dublin. I tapered off about two weeks out as I got my final preparations together.
What were your top 5 challenges during the race?
My top five challenges were finding a place to stay each way along the journey, trying to find the funding to continue the journey when cash was low, dealing with mechanical issues as they arose hundreds of kilometres from any bike shop or mechanic, having to keep moving on from places where I made friends or would have liked to explore a little more and finally the motivation to keep moving forward when all the other participants had withdrawn or been disqualified.
Top 5 best moments
I could probably pick five top moments from each and every day on the road. Overall the top five moments were: climbing Baldwin Street, the world’s steepest street in Dunedin, New Zealand; cycling across Tower Bridge for the second time, 490 days and 18,000 miles after the first time; crossing the Great Divide while cycling along Historical Route 66 in New Mexico; speaking at numerous different events about my journey, including Irish consulate offices, in front of over 22,000 spectators at a Major League Soccer fixture and in countless schools and colleges around the world; meeting so many people who offered me places to stay, food, drinks, company and conversation. Being treated identically by people of all races, creeds, nationalities, colours and religions was a refreshing reminder of the goodness of the entire human race and the manufactured differences between us all.
How has your life changed since completing the race?
My life is completely unrecognisable since finishing the race. I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore – people and things that used to get under my skin, upset me and leave me stressed now don’t take my attention from the important things in life: my family, friends and passions. I put a lot of this down to the self therapy during the hundreds of hours with only my thoughts rattling around in my head in the wilderness of the Nullarbor Desert, the Rocky Mountains and along the many miles of coastline in India, South East Asia, Australia and the Pacific Coast Highway.
What was your feeling on arrival back in London/Ireland?
While it was a little bit anti climactic to have finished the journey, the lessons and friends I picked up along the way have combined to leave me feeling very much a stronger and more confident person. The arrival back in Ireland and my hometown in Leitrim in particular left me speechless. The warmth and support from my community was phenomenal.
The full story of Breifne’s incredible journey is told in his book, Pedal the Planet.