Ewan Kirk is not the sort of person who needs a low-cost summer holiday. After 13 years at Goldman Sachs, where he led the quantitative investment strategies group, and after founding quant hedge fund Cantab Capital Partners, he could undoubtedly afford a private jet to a private island full of jet skis if he wanted. But Kirk is just back from his 2022 vacation, and it was a lot more low-key.
Kirk cycled 1,750km from London to Warsaw on a bike he built himself from components he bought on the internet for less than £1k. He had two rest days, and cycled an average of 146km a day for the other 12. It wasn't for charity, nor was it a race or an organised cycling sportive like the Mallorca 312. "It was a personal challenge, I wanted to push myself a bit," he tells us. "It was self-regulated. I hadn’t booked a flight back. If I’d wanted to, I could have taken four hours a day and stayed in nice hotels and it would have taken twice as long, or I could have nearly killed myself and done it in 10 days instead of 14. 14 days was still hard.”
For Kirk, the ride was about cycling as transportation. It was also about travelling through Europe entirely on his own. “For 14 hours a day, I wasn’t speaking to anyone. I was able to be completely selfish: if I wanted Chinese food, I could have Chinese food. If I wanted to eat something else I could eat something else. There *is* something liberating in that,” he says.
Kirk retired from Cantab in 2019 and now runs a family foundation and has multiple non-executive director and chairman roles. Spending two weeks cycling alone through Europe was an "unusual and precious thing to do" and a "rare luxury." - “I’m not a misanthrope, but I like my own company and I didn’t want to cycle with other people," he says. "I have more than enough friends and I don’t need any new friends. Sometimes I would see the same people on the road a couple of times and I'd have to stop for a coffee or take a detour so I didn't end up stuck with them.”
While he thought the ride would provide time to reflect on work, Kirk says it was actually a complete escape from everything. “I had all these things I thought I would think about – the business things I am involved in, start-ups I run or the philanthropy that I do. I thought I’d have nine hours on a bike each day when I could think deep thoughts but it wasn’t like that. Instead, what I tried to do was to absorb the experience and the landscape and to fix things in my brain. I was riding through little villages in Poland that I would think ‘I will never see them again,’ and I would try to fix them in my head. There wasn't a huge amount of time for any other thoughts, I was spending my time just being.”
Kirk set off with no fixed plan other than to keep cycling east to Warsaw along the EuroVelo 2, and booked a new hotel every night using his phone. "The flexibility was one of the joys of the trip.”
While Kirk doesn't want to proselytize for cycling holidays above beach breaks, he says bikes are amazing machines and that using them for transportation instead of exercise is a different kind of experience. “As a machine to convert human energy into forward motion, the bike is incredibly efficient and it liberated people when it was invented in the 1880s," says Kirk. "Bikes enable a human being to travel 4-5 times the distance they usually travel, with the same amount of energy. The idea that a not very fit middle aged man can get on an incredibly simple machine and power it 200km a day is kind of magical.”
Now that he's back, Kirk is supplementing his ride with a holiday in Spain, and adjusting his dietary intake. "One of the great joys of the past 14 days was that as a man of my age I got to eat like a teenage boy again," he tells us. "I needed to eat 5,000 calories a day and it’s going to be a real challenge for me to revert to eating a reasonable amount of food.”
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