Hell in the desert: The story of Matthieu Bonne’s one-week cycling world record

How Matthieu Bonne battled his mind, body and the elements to make history in the Arizona desert

After nearly 130 hours in the saddle and 2,230 miles of riding, with the minutes ticking down on a one week deadline, Matthieu didn’t know if he could break the world record. He’d been beaten and battered by wind and rain and hallucinations in a sleep-deprived state. He’d put his body through a greater hell than few people on earth will ever know. And there was a good chance he wouldn’t even hit the damn mark.

“I was really like, ‘What? How can this happen?'”

Bonne took on an ambitious goal: To ride farther than anyone ever has in a week. And he didn’t just want to break the record; he wanted to smash it. Roughly four months before Bonne’s attempt, British cyclist Leigh Timmis set the world record at 2,230 miles, or just shy of 3,600 kilometers. Bonne was aiming for a nice round number: 4,000k.

There were times I was really crying because of the wind.

“I love to cycle and I love to cycle long distances,” Bonne says. “And then I was looking up what records are there and then I stumbled upon the seven-day record, I was like, ‘Hmm, I think I can break this one.'”

He laid out the perfect plan. He’d head to Arizona where the weather would be warm at the end March, and predictable. There could be some wind on the desert flats outside of Phoenix, but not much elevation gain to worry about. And mercifully, almost no chance of rain.

Bonne’s ride of choice was the Trek Domane, a speedy-yet-comfortable road bike made with distance riding in mind. He also had a Trek Émonda on hand for whenever he encountered a climb that necessitated a lighter bike. For everything that would ultimately go wrong — and a lot did — his equipment never let him down.

“The Domane was just a perfect combination of being able to go long distances, and even when I had to go uphill it was also a very good bike,” Bonne says. “We had one flat tire. It was really the best bike to do such a thing.”

Arizona's long flat desert highways were supposed to be the perfect place to set the record. | Photo: Amandine Grulois Phototherapy

Mother nature, however, had no intention of cooperating with Bonne’s ambitions. On Day 2, the skies opened up with rain in the Arizona desert. Bonne didn’t think to pack a rain jacket or overshoes, and he finished his ride soaking wet. As the sun set, he felt he was on the verge of hypothermia. On Day 3, he set out riding at 2 a.m., and one hour in the sky burst on top of him again. Rather than ride through the bad weather, he sheltered in a gas station for three hours. When Bonne finally got back on the road, he knew that his dreams of 4,000 kilometers had been dashed.

“Those were definitely the hardest moments. There were times I was really crying because of the wind,” Bonne says. “The wind was constantly changing direction. Headwind is OK if you know you’ve got a tailwind going back, but there was a time when I was cycling three hours with headwinds and then I turned around and then the winds changed with me.”

To attempt the challenge, Bonne had to commit to a reckless sleep schedule, sometimes getting fewer than two hours of proper shuteye in a night. (It should be stated for the record: Do not try this at home.) But Bonne rode on, even though it would ravage his mind and body to do so, and with the knowledge that he wouldn’t be breaking the record comfortably, if at all. He rode on because that’s what Bonne does best.

Feeding time. | Photo: Amandine Grulois Phototherapy

Bonne is used to pushing his body to unreal lengths. His journey as an endurance thrill seeker began five years ago. He was an avid basketball player then, but found that the sport no longer brought him joy. He lost motivation. He felt listless, and entered what he calls a “transition period.” So he took a trip to Indonesia.

“Lombok is an island in Indonesia, and I climbed a 3,700-meter volcano without any training or preparation,” Bonne says. “And I don’t know, the suffering and everything that came along with that suffering — the emotions and the views and the thoughts — it was such a great experience that I wanted to do more of that.”

Bonne found more mountains to climb. He scaled Mont Blanc in 2017, the Matterhorn in 2018 and the Eiger in 2020. He completed the six-day, 156-mile Marathon de Sables in the Sahara Desert in 2018. In 2020, he became the first person to ever swim the 42-mile coast of Belgium, and he did it under 24 hours. In 2022, he completed eight Ironman-distance triathlons in eight days across each of the eight Canary Islands.

“Every challenge just adds oil to the fire,” Bonne says.

Matthieu remaining upbeat through adversity. | Photo: Amandine Grulois Phototherapy

On the seventh and final day of his world record attempt, Bonne was still roughly 320 miles short. He took a gamble in the final eight hours of his ride, riding the first four hours into a headwind knowing (hoping) that when he turned around he’d have a tailwind at his back that could spur him to history.

But as his final hours ticked away, he still didn’t know. The team surrounding him — composed of his girlfriend, stepfather, mother, agent and best friend — were level with him. Around 3 p.m., as Bonne was mentally preparing himself for his final push, they told him, “Matt, there’s a real possibility you will not make it today.” As the sun set, Bonne willed his legs on, somehow surfacing never unearthed stores of energy.

Bonne broke the record just before 11 p.m., shrouded in darkness on a dusty and lonely road. He’d continue biking until midnight and ultimately break the previous record by approximately 19 miles. A week later, he still hadn’t fully processed the accomplishment.

I really want to tell people that you need a good team around you because you're never alone.

“It was an emotional moment because it really came down to just an hour,” Bonne says. “I set a goal of reaching 4,000, but sometimes things don’t go as planned and that’s the beauty of it. 

“So much happened during that week that it’s hard to process everything even now.”

If there’s one thing Bonne wants to stress, something he feels with absolute certainty, it’s that he couldn’t have broken the record without a team of loved ones around him. They prepared his food, monitored his safety, maintained his bikes and planned his routes as best they could in unpredictable conditions. 

“I still haven’t found the words to describe what my team did for me,” Bonne says. “They deserve as much credit as me. I’m just the one who rides my bike. 

“I really want to tell people that you need a good team around you because you’re never alone.”

Matthieu's team. | Photo: Amandine Grulois Phototherapy

After the ride was over, he told his team the next day that “I will never do this again.” A week later, he still maintained that he has no plans to attempt the world record again, though that 4,000-kilometer mark still feels agonizingly within reach, especially now that understands what he could improve for a second attempt.

On the other hand, his week in Arizona also reinforced how flimsy even the most seemingly-ironclad plans can become against the forces of nature. “Everything has to happen perfectly … but we don’t live in a perfect world.”

Besides, Bonne has other ideas. He’d like to attempt two other world records in 2023 — one a swimming challenge, and the other a running challenge. (He’s keeping the details quiet for now.) Meanwhile, he’s discovering that he’s growing an audience for his endeavors. And to all of his brand new followers, he’d like to send a message.

“In the beginning I did those challenges for me, for myself,” Bonne says. “But the last few challenges, I really want to inspire people. I want to wake them up and tell them it’s OK to go crazy sometimes, to do something out of your comfort zone and just go for it. Go for your dreams and do what feels real in your heart.”

Job done. | Photo: Amandine Grulois Phototherapy

Bonne hopes that following what’s “real” to him will spread some of his adventurous zeal into the world. Bonne has a lot more plans, all of which he knows will inevitably go awry. Such is life when you’re exploring the outer bounds of human capacity. In fact, those lows are the point. It’s those moments when mind and body are crying out that humans discover new limits within themselves.

With every challenge, Bonne is betting on himself to come out the other side not only intact, but stronger and more alive.

“If everything works according to plan, that’s not interesting,” Bonne says. “We need adversity. We need those moments, those hard moments. And when we overcome those moments, it gives us so much more.”