Cycling the Taklamakan Desert, China:Q&A with Jonathan Parker Back to top
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Cycling the Taklamakan Desert, China:
Q&A with Jonathan Parker

On 24th April 2019, Jonathan Parker is going to attempt to break the world record for cycling across China's Taklamakan Desert. He's going to need to ride 550km in less than 28 hours through potentially extreme weather conditions: the desert sees temperature ranges from -30°C to +40°C and wind speeds over 150mph. Oh, and there will be nearly 4,000m of climbing (for comparison, Alpe d'Huez requires just over 1,000m of climbing).

Local legend has it that once you go into the Taklamakan Desert you never come out.

Jonathan has form as a time triallist, but this is by no means his day job. He's taken on this impressive world record attempt to raise money for the charity Cyclists Fighting Cancer. You can donate here.

We caught up with Jonathan to find out more about what has motivated this incredible record attempt and how preparations are going.

Part 1: What's involved?

1. Give us an overview - what, where and why?

The ride is an attempt to set a new world record for the fastest solo cycle across the Taklamakan Desert in China. The desert is a similar size to Germany and can see temperatures range from -30°C to +40°C, and wind and sandstorms can reach over 150mph.

There is a 550km road through the centre. 

The first ride across the desert was by two guys on touring bikes in 48 hours, which they later described as the worst two days of their lives. One wore a face mask that froze to his beard and didn’t thaw for hours, making it impossible to eat.

The motorcycle TT racer and cycling world record holder, Guy Martin, later set a record of 28 hours for the crossing.

I will try to beat Guy Martin’s time in order to raise money for Cyclist Fighting Cancer, a charity that helps children affected by cancer.

Map of route for Taklamakan Desert world record attempt

A map of the route and elevation profile


2. Why the Taklamakan Desert?

In simple terms, the desire to raise as much money for the charity as possible.

If I did a 5km run or a sportive, I might have been able to raise £300. It seems the more you punish yourself to help a cause, the more people are prepared to donate. So when I saw the TV coverage of Guy Martin’s ride, it seemed perfect.


3. How tricky are the logistics?

The logistics have been far more difficult than I had bargained for. A real headache at times.

For example, we’d expected to hire a minibus and the crew use that, but it transpires that you can’t use foreign driving licenses in China. A three month temporary licence can be obtained in China with various documents in Chinese, but if we arrived and ran in to any difficulties with paperwork, that would have stopped the attempt.

We managed to find someone locally to drive, but then found out that hire companies won’t allow their minibuses to go in to the desert because of the harsh conditions.

The result is that we have had to hire a 4x4 along with a driver. That reduces the number of support crew – allowing for the Chinese guide and bikes, sadly it means Shane Guinan will be left with the support role. The 4x4 has also led to other complications like needing to find somewhere in Urumqi to leave the bike boxes to give us as much room as possible for the 500km drive to Luntai for the start.

Cyclist beside West Bay skyline, Qatar

Jonathan training in Qatar


4. How much info have you been able to get on the route?

Information is not so freely available in China, so Strava and the likes are not available. Most information has been obtained through a host of kind people we have found through various sources. Invariably, those people have been both very generous with their time, and incredibly helpful. 

In fact, the a event couldn’t have gone ahead without all the help people have given, in particular, people like Shawna Garrett who has been helping with everything from social media to organising flights; Shane Guinan who will crew for me and has been making sure everything is ready and Ollie Tindall who is giving his time for pictures, social media and helping out with a lot of kit.


5. Tell us about your kit choices

The aim is to be as fast as possible, so I'll be in my full TT racing kit. I'll ride a Giant Trinity Advanced Pro with Lightweight disc and Enve front wheel, Drag2Zero extensions and Revolver arms rests. I'll use an SRM power meter fitted with a custom 58 tooth carbon chainring.

The position is well optimised from wind tunnel testing to be as quick as possible.

Giant TT bike for use in Taklamakan Desert world record attempt

The Giant Trinity Advanced Pro, as set up for the record attempt


6. What are you most worried about?

Weather. In particular, the wind and the cold.

I have a lot of metal in my body from a fairly serious accident, and the cold can cause pain. 

Unfavourable wind can change the ride dramatically. The time difference if there is a 15kph head wind or tail wind for just half the ride will be 2 hours 40 minutes.


7. Have you ever done anything like this before?

I set the world record for cycling from London to Paris in 2016. My time from leaving London to arriving in Paris, including the ferry crossing, traffic, and so on was 12.5 hours. However the conditions were nowhere near as harsh as I will face in China - London to Paris was more like a super long distance time trial. 


8. How are you preparing for the event?

The focus has been on endurance, so although I have still been doing turbo sessions they haven’t included so much top-end work.

Recently I have been doing a 250-300km solo ride each week at over 40kph average speed in the desert in Qatar. The temperatures are getting high for that now, so the last one meant setting the alarm for 3am, but that was over 300km at more than 42kph.

Jonathan Parker at a training evening at the Lusail International Race Circuit

Jonathan at a training evening at the Lusail International Race Circuit


9. How will you organise your nutrition during the record attempt?

An awful lot of research and work has gone into the right nutrition plan.

At the target power output I could expand 16,000 calories on the ride (we can calculate the use per hour, but don’t know how many hours because of the difference the wind can make).

If I don’t fuel well, I won’t finish the ride. Just using glucose means the body can only oxidise around 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour, but using the right combination of fructose engages a different transporter mechanism, which means the body can use around another 30 grams of carbohydrates per hour.

We have a very strict plan about what I will take and when to achieve this.


10. Not long to go now - how are you feeling?!

Tired, but great otherwise. So much time and effort has gone in to the training and organisation that I now just can’t wait to get stuck in.

Time triallist in aero tuck position

A lot of strength and conditioning work has gone into being able to hold this position for as long as possible


Part 2: Why are you doing it?

11. What has motivated you to take on this enormous challenge?

I lost both parents and two uncles to cancer and I try to do as much work for cancer charities as possible to help other families affected. The London to Paris ride raised £12,000 for the charity and we are hoping to raise a similar amount again.


12. Does all the money go to the charity? What will they use it for?

It is important to me that every single penny raised goes to the charity, so I am paying all of the expenses myself.

The money we raise is used to provide bikes or custom trikes to children affected by cancer who may suffer from issues such as muscular dystrophy, balance problems, etc. In addition to helping them to exercise and develop, a bike means they can have fun too.


13. How is the fundraising going?

Great! I am so grateful to every single person who has donated.

As I am writing this, we have raised 90% of the target £12,000. I’d love to beat the target to help more children though.


14. How can people donate?

Donations can be made online at www.justgiving.com/desertofdeath


Final thoughts

We're hugely impressed by Jonathan taking on this massive challenge and wish him the very best of luck. You can follow the event as it unfurls on Jonathan's Instagram account.

We hope to catch up with Jonathan after the event to get the lowdown on how it went, so watch this space. In the meantime, if you've got any questions for him, add them in the comments below and we'll do our best to get answers for you.


Donate to Cyclists Fighting Cancer

Cyclists Fighting Cancer helps children in the UK that are living with cancer by giving them new bikes, specially adapted trikes, tandems and other equipment and support. You can find out more about the charity on their website, here.

If you can manage a donation to Cyclists Fighting Cancer, it would make a huge difference to them. You can donate here.

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