When Elspeth Beard took off on a solo motorcycle journey around the world, she had a few thousand dollars and the faintest idea of a plan. Two years later—after experiencing a miscarriage, several crashes, on-the-road motorcycle modifications, broken bones, and broken hearts—Beard pulled back into her family’s driveway. And even after reading Lone Rider, I’m still not fully sure how she did it.
(Welcome back to the Jalopnik Race Car Book Club, where we all get together to read books about racing and you send in all your spicy hot takes. In honor of being trapped indoors, I’ve made the reading a little more frequent; every two weeks instead of every month. This week, we’re looking at Lone Rider: The First British Woman to Motorcycle Around the World by Elspeth Beard, a memoir about riding that goes well beyond the confines of your standard long-distance motorcycle journey.)
I apologize to the countless people who have recommended me this book over the past year, both because it took me so long to read this book and because I never thought to write down your names. But rest assured that Lone Rider is one of my new favorite books. I devoured it in two days, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.
Beard was 23 years old when she decided to ride her BMW R60/6 around the world. It was one of those plans that never really seemed possible but that you talk about so much that you end up talking yourself into it. She had ended a whirlwind romance that still haunted her, and she found herself in a new sort-of-relationship with someone she thought was nice enough. She had completed the first part of an architectural degree that she was only somewhat passionate about. Her friends were starting to settle down into the routines that would come to define the rest of their lives.
After a while, the thought of driving around the world seemed far more appealing than trying to settle down in London. She set a date and saved up money working in a bar. She cobbled together a possible work opportunity in Sydney, Australia. She packed the smallest amount of clothes. And in 1982, she set off, shipping her bike to America to begin the first leg of her journey.
You’ll have to read the book yourself if you want to get the specifics of her journey, but the thing that impressed me was the fact that she never seriously entertained any setback as a reason to go home.
In America, she miscarried a baby in a hostel, then got back on her bike and kept going.
In Australia, where she had arranged a six-month stop to earn money, she discovered that the man she’d been counting on to get her a job just wanted her for the free grunt work. Later, when she was crossing the country, she crashed and spent two weeks in the hospital.
In Singapore, all of her travel documents were stolen.
In Thailand, she crashed into a dog and impressed the women of a small town by showing them that she could repair her bike herself. A family allowed her to stay with them, in part because they used the dog she’d killed as meat.
In India, she forged travel documents she needed to travel through the war-torn Punjab region.
And those are only the highlights. Along the way, she was approached by strange men who presumed she was interested in having sex with them. She stayed in hotel rooms that had peepholes for men to watch her. She tried to drum up support for her journey before she left, and when she received responses from motorcycle magazine editors, they were condescending at best. She fell in love with a Dutchman that she saw as her soulmate. The Turkish police ransacked her hotel room and her bike searching for the drugs they believed she was trafficking. She cobbled together modifications and repairs for her BMW along the way. She drove through monsoons and deserts.
Even one of those things would have been enough to have anyone packing up and heading home. But she just kept going, absorbing each blow and using it to power her forward. And over two years after she departed, she had made it back home.
I almost wish the story had ended there, but Beard would have been remiss to avoid talking about the aftermath. To put it in her own words: “After I got back and nobody was interested in what I’d done I just shoved everything into the back of the garage. I just kind of moved on with my life.” Her family was chronically uninterested in her trip. She and the Dutchman, Robert, broke up, and she got back together with Mark, the man she’d initially left behind but who had travelled around the world just to spend time with her. She finished her degree and began working as an architect. She bought Munstead Tower, a decrepit former water tower, and began renovating it. She got pregnant and gave birth.
Then, while she was suffering from postpartum depression, she and Mark broke up. She raised her son on her own, working in London and traveling to her water tower in Godalming. Later, she learned that the Dutchman she’d fallen in love with had died. Despite insisting that they break off their romance because they lived in different countries, she learned that he never moved on. People remained uninterested in her story.
It was an incredibly jarring end to the book, although I have to admit that it did slot in nicely with Beard’s candid description of her journey. I think I was hoping that her journey would have resonated with more people, that it could have become a part of her legacy. But I get the sense that, until Lone Rider was published, most people knew Elspeth Beard as an accomplished architect, not an accomplished rider.
I think there are aspects of Beard’s story that we can relate to. I saved my money all through high school so I could take a solo two-month trip to Europe when I turned 19. It was an absolute disaster, and I had the time of my life. But coming home, it’s not really the kind of thing you can interest people in. You feel that you’ve been transformed in some way, but there’s no real way to make people care.
Lone Rider is an incredible book. I feel like I grew as a person just reading it. Do yourself a favor and add this one to your bookshelf.
And that’s all we have for this week’s Jalopnik Race Car Book Club! Make sure you tune in again on October 18, 2020. We’re going to be reading My Greatest Defeat: Stories of hardship and hope from motor racing’s finest heroes by Will Buxton. And don’t forget to drop those hot takes (and recommendations) in the comments or at eblackstock [at] jalopnik [dot] com!