Elspeth Beard: a pioneer in adventure motorcycling


On the 18th February I had the pleasure of meeting Elspeth Beard, the first British woman to ride her motorcycle around the world. I sent an email to the info address of her architectural firm suggesting a cheeky interview for my University project and she personally responded and suggested I book a ticket for the Carole Nash Motorcycle Show at the Excel Centre in London. I rode there with a friend of mine and as I rode across Tower Bridge in the glorious sunshine, I couldn't quite believe that I was about to meet the woman whose book resounded with me on almost every level. Despite the sensory overload of the Excel centre which, even as an Advertising student I found slightly offensive, it was cool to see the beautiful old bikes that my Dad and Grandpa have shown me pictures of and told me about. 

I've been riding for almost two years now and have always been fascinated by the structural beauty of motorcycles- there's something magical about a naked bike and teaching yourself how each and every function works, which is a challenge I've taken on with my Suzuki Gn 125. After listening to Elspeth's interview on the Adventure Stage, I went over and introduced myself to her whilst she was selling her books. We couldn't quite justify her missing a book sale for my interview, so instead I stood next to her and attempted to help sell her books wearing my Dark Side of the Moon t-shirt and leather jacket. I'm going to go ahead and pretend I looked like some sort of protégé...

Elspeth Beard in Pakistan. Image by Elspeth Beard

Elspeth Beard in Pakistan. Image by Elspeth Beard

Kelly: Throughout your book you mention proving others wrong about your ability to complete the journey. When you returned did this matter as much?

Elspeth: I suppose it didn’t really, I think I wanted to prove it to myself more than anything 

K: My project is focused on women feeling empowered to take on an adventure alone. What would you say to someone facing hesitation? 

E: I think one of the hardest things is to leave, you will always come up with a load of reasons convincing yourself it’s not the right time for whatever reason. I always used to procrastinate even during my  journey, when I had stopped somewhere for a period of time I would find it difficult to move on. It’s never easy taking yourself away from what you are familiar with and out of your comfort zone but unless you do you will never grow and learn about yourself. Get out there, it’s important in life to face and overcome your fears. 

K:Do you think that the world is more accepting of a solo female traveller nowadays?

E: Yes, definitely. 35 years ago it was considered very odd for a woman to travel alone almost as if there had to be something wrong with you!    

K: What are the biggest changes within yourself that you felt after the trip and perhaps still do?

E: When I got back I felt as if there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do or a problem I couldn’t solve. I learnt to think out of the box and never to give up until you have found a solution. There wasn’t anything anyone could throw at me that I wouldn’t be able to deal with. This is very empowering and something that has stayed with me for the rest of my life. It has shaped the way I live and work allowing me to have the confidence to take on other challenges in life with no fear. On the downside it has also made me a fairly restless person, always looking for the next project or challenge so I can push myself even further.    

Elspeth’s guides. Image by Elspeth Beard

Elspeth’s guides. Image by Elspeth Beard

K: In your book you mention feeling disappointed and disheartened by your family's opinions of the trip. Would you say this made it more meaningful for you or less so? 

E: I suppose this has changed over time, it meant a lot to me when I got back and I felt hurt that they had so little interest but at the same time I realised that you have to do things in life for yourself and not to satisfy others. Now 35 years later my journey has taken on a whole new meaning and seems to be an inspiration for others especially women, this isn’t something I ever expected.   

K: Your strength and resilience before, during and after the trip is incredibly admirable. What do you think kept you going?

E: I honestly don’t know but the more I was told it can't be done or ‘You’ll be back in a month’ just made me more determined, the condescending chauvinistic letter from the editor at Bike magazine also helped! I was also never a quitter and always finished what I started no matter what but I have no idea where this comes from.

Elsbeth’s bike in Thailand. Image by Elsbeth Beard

Elsbeth’s bike in Thailand. Image by Elsbeth Beard

K: The negative feedback and lack of support from publications is relatable for me within women's football. In terms of being told you're not good enough by men, what would you say to women who frequently hear this?

E: Actions speak louder than any words. If we want true equality we have to earn it which starts by earning respect, not by winging but by getting out there and doing it. Ignore the negative comments and snide remarks they will only be a distraction, it’s important to stay focused.    

K: What would you say to anyone worried about what others think of their ambitions?

E: I never took much notice of what other people thought but it’s important to listen. Understanding your opposition is key to finding the best way to deal with it. Believe in yourself and your abilities and try and enjoy the process, don’t waste your energy getting angry. When I came up against prejudice I always considered it their problem not mine and just carried on doing my own thing.  

K: What do you think was the most mind-altering moment of the whole trip? Was there a point where you felt your mindset change?

E: I can't think of a specific ‘moment’ it was just a gradual process. I think Australia was probably the country where I changed my attitude to how I travelled and learnt just to take each day at a time. India taught me never to believe what you’re told and always question everything and trust my own instincts.     

K: Lastly, where are you going next and can I come with? 

E: Ha! No plans yet this year as I have so much going on with my book.

I could easily say that if you're looking for a book that you can't put down, then read Lone Rider, but rather than sounding like everyone else when they recommend a book I'll just say that I found so much of myself within its pages. It made me realise that yes, people will tell us we aren't good at things or capable of achieving something that we feel we can, but it's about how you prove them wrong that matters. In Elspeth's case, riding her bike around the world was her way of putting her middle finger up at those who doubted her.

Kelly Macbeth Mackay