Where to begin… literally! And how do you plan a route around the World? How do we avoid getting lost, pick the best roads, avoid mountain ranges and potholes and still see the best sights all in record breaking time?!
The answer is not of course a straight forward one.
Where to start the ride was actually not that tricky, as tempting as it is to ride from the front door, the need for speed means that extra delays in crossing the channel make mainland Europe a safer bet, and we have spent plenty of time cycling all over the UK already right?!
In a nod to the rather fantastic Jenny Graham, who arguably has been one of the greatest inspirations for this ride, the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin seemed a great place to start our adventure too; and with Stevie’s brother Michael living nearby it will make it a great hub to depart and (hopefully!) arrive back 6 months later. We have finally settled on a departure date for the ride too of Sunday 5th June 2022 which is conveniently at the end of the Platinum Jubilee Bank Holiday, giving us time to get pack and any well-wishers the chance to wave us off.
So we just head East from there right?! As much as some World cyclists have been known to navigate by compass alone (mentioning no names @TimMillikin…) we need to take a more structured approach and for this ride at least will need to stay ON the beaten track and make good progress. There are also stipulations from Guinness with which we must abide to qualify for the record:
a) Start and finish points must be the same location. Check.
b) The journey should be continual and in one direction i.e. we will travel West to East, as many have before. This tends to favour prevailing winds. Any considerable distance travelled opposite to the direction of the attempt will be discounted from the overall distance. (So we can’t just fly back to the start of the same piece of flat road and cycle that repeatedly!)
c) The minimum distance travelled by the chosen means (e.g. bicycle) should be 18,000 miles (28,970 km), and the total distance travelled by the participant (e.g. by public or chartered transportation), should exceed an equator’s length or ‘great circle’, i.e. more than 24,900 miles (40,075 km). Land’s End to John O’Groats was about 1000miles…
d) The participants must pass through two antipodal points on direct opposite points on the globe. So we can’t just cycle around the North pole in circles too!
We aren’t the first people to have this idea, and Mr Mark Beaumont has done it twice! Maybe let’s just follow him…
Well, he did go a different way the second time, and the first time was still in the era of paper maps and planning. His account of the first attempt highlights some of the difficulties of route planning and logistics where through Pakistan he needed a police escort to cross the country safely and at many borders needed support from home and the British Embassy to ensure crossings were smooth. It is worth taking into account border crossing will likely cost us valuable time, but nowadays many visas are available online, streamlining the procedure somewhat.
His second record was intensely researched and planned to allow for the fastest route- just the logistics of this are mind-boggling, and yet he still had to take “public” flights so have a team set to make sure he was straight off the plane and straight on the bike with as little time as possible lost. Having roadside support, even though he avoided drafting, undoubtedly had benefits though in terms of having a bed, shelter and food wherever he chose to stop instead of being tied to the next village or town for supplies. He was able to travel incredibly light and have spares and kit transported for him. Guinness World Records do not distinguish between supported and unsupported attempts because it is too much of a grey area- where does the line fall? No one can carry everything they need to circumnavigate the World but if you are unsupported can you accept the help of friends or must you pay for and resupply everything yourself? Can you accept a night’s shelter from a stranger or must you camp in all weathers and terrain?
We would be delighted to go for a fully supported attempt, akin to the absolutely astounding achievement of Mark, we just need a tiny bit of sponsorship money to cover the wages of a support team of 40 people, so drop us a line if you are interested…
What I believe to be another benefit of the support vehicle is protection. Jenny Graham pretty much followed Mark Beaumont’s route and it obviously worked well for her too, with what arguably is just as much of a feat of endurance as she was completely unsupported for her 124days. Her account of cycling through Russia is pretty terrifying though, to the point where she felt it so dangerous she switched her body clock to ride at night to avoid the lethal trucks and traffic.
I do feel that a support vehicle would have provided some protection for a lone cyclist and having spoken to Jenny, have reservations about whether the risk is worth the benefit of this route. It may appear the quickest and most direct on paper, but I do wonder if the psychological aspects. Russia is a VERY big country and I think the motivational impact of checking countries off the list quickly should not be underestimated. I think an extended period in Russia (likely a couple of months) could have a negative impact on morale, whereas crossing more borders and cultures will give the impression of making more positive progress; it is similar to an audax where we focus on riding the next control point, not the end destination. I really would have liked to go to Mongolia though… maybe next time!
So, where next? A route through Europe and Turkey seems very amenable, and many round the World cyclists will then opt to cross the Caspian sea into the ‘stans and ride the famous Pamir highway and Silk Road routes. These exotic sounding locations, and amazing views are certainly tempting and I have spent a fair bit of time wistfully flicking through the amazing images taken by @pedallingtheplanet photos from their ride which are available in a rather beautiful photobook raising money for World Bicycle relief.
They made a choice, as many do with time on their hands, to take the rather infamous boat from Baku to Aktau. This legendary boat has no time table, no booking system and you can only buy your ticket the day the boat leaves…Bit of a conundrum there!! The boat usually goes once or twice a week but as this could risk us a 3-4 day wait. It is just not feasible; every day lost is >100miles we need to make up on other days so the thought of tagging 400 extra miles on is not great.
So, we avoid the Caspian sea (or at least save it for next time!) and look into other routes. In 2008 Mark Beaumont’s route took him through Turkey, Iran and Pakistan to get to India and this creates a nice solid line across central Asia. However, as I mentioned the political situation in some of these countries caused set backs and as much as the reports of riding through Iran are that they are the most friendly and welcoming country on a cyclists trip (some travellers have left with more food and money than they entered the country with thanks to the immense hospitality of the Iranians). Unfortunately the impossbility of us getting visas has put paid to any ideas of visiting. Even though the risks of visiting these countries should be taken seriously, I have now read so many accounts of wonderful experiences that I can’t help but feel there is a Western bias against them due to a small mislead minority that do not represent a nation of good people. I suspect we will actually be at more risk in more Westernised countries, in built up cities, than in the countryside of the Middle East and the most horrific incident I have heard of happening to a cyclist was when Verdangi Kulkarni was intentionally knocked off her bike, held at knife point, robbed and left unconscious on the side of the road! This was in Spain!! Sadly, there are bad people all over the World, but happily they are greatly outweighed by the good.
At this point I decided to put Central Asia on the back burner and focus on the rest of the World. If we weren’t going through Russia and Mongolia, India, Myanmar and South East Asia would be a possibility and an infinite number of possible routes through Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia, but these would be dependant on distances completed on other legs.
Australia was always going to be a necessity and having heard so many accounts of riding across the arid Nullabor plain and the infamous 90mile straight it seemed inevitable we would head this way too. We figured Mark was going to have this route down pat now having crossed Australian twice and nabbed his route, which is handily widely available online and on Strava.
New Zealand is a lot of flying for not a lot of miles and also a ferry between South and North Islands, but contains our antipodal point at Wellington. There are surprising few of these points, direct opposites on the planet, that are on land so we were actually quite limited in out selection. The other “side” will be near Alaejos in Spain. Again Mark’s routing came in handy for this stretch excepting that he made some diversions for road closures on his trip and we are avoiding some busier roads nearer to Auckland. We may encounter similar issues nearer the time in terms of changes to the route and as much as we are determined to get a solid basis for where we will go, we accept that there may be many revisions and reviews before we set off and on the road. Most of the planning so far has been done using a combination of Ride with GPS and Komoot, two great route planning platforms which allow for uploading and downloading routes and planning your own with features that pick out routes best for cycling and give distance and elevation. Ride with GPS I have found easiest to get a broad outline of routes and also to find routes that others have planned and used and Komoot is great for details, right up to including terrain and barriers to cycling. Komoot have kindly sponsored us with a premium package which will allow us to download offline routes to navigate by and is also really easy to work on a mobile phone to make route adjustments as you go, it is perfect for more leisurely rides, runs and walks too!
Back to routing… at this point we are over half way around the World! And the next stop is America.
I spent a long time toying with the idea of South America, a continent I would love to visit again and tales such as Alastair Humphries “Thunder and Sunshine” have done nothing to quell my wanderlust, but the practicalities and safety aspect finally got the better of me. Many of the South American countries are not exactly flat, and although many do cycle tour there (Colombia for example has recently become one of the top cycling destinations in the World!) we need to prioritise speed and safety on our trip. Tandem WOW, the awesome female record holders went South through the USA whereas Mark and Jenny started in the North, riding from Alaska to Canada to the Northern USA. Jenny has also released her route recently on Ride with GPS too, so it’s easy to “borrow” that too!
However, there are some considerations with this route: firstly bears! Listening to Jenny Graham hiding in a toilet whispering in case the bears hear is just gold:
But I feel more of a reflection of her state of absolute exhaustion having cycled most of the way around the planet, by herself and unsupported for hundreds of miles a day than proportional to the actual risk. Alaska and Canada are more isolated places though as when supporting yourself you need to take into account getting supplies and shelter along the way, the weather will be colder too which would mean we would end up carrying more kit.
I have a strange bias against the USA, as it seems statically this is the country in which Round the World cyclists are knocked off their bike, robbed or both (Sean Conway, Mark Beaumont, Tim Millikin…etc) and although I suspect more coincidence that statistically fact, the thought still sticks with me… But with Stevie having travelled in the States before is certainly excited to go back and I conceded crossing the US of A is the most sensible route- there’s still some epic climbs though! We looked at numerous routes but eventually settled on the TransAmerica Trail cycle route.
This is a route designed for cyclists, meaning not only should the roads be smooth and safe, but also that there should be good facilities for cyclists along the way. As much as this is a challenge and we will be pushing our limits to get around the World in record time, this is only going to be made easier by having beautiful and amazing routes and food and shelter close to hand.
And then with a few tweaks to the route to get us to New York, a hop across the Atlantic to Lisbon, Portugal, a skip across Spain, a hop across France and we’re there! Around the World in 180 days!!
We must be careful not to underestimate this last stage, about 2000miles long and Spain will be one of the hilliest countries we pass through. I cannot begin to imagine how we will feel by the point in the ride, but I doubt we will feel like we are on the home straight until the Brandenburg Gate is in sight…
And so much can happen along the way, already a major stumbling block in our planning process is a huge military coup in Myanmar and a year long state of emergency! UK national have been evacuated and it is certainly not safe to travel at the moment and we fear it won’t be by the time of our trip. This is a very sad turn of event as TandemWOW were lucky enough to ride through the country and had some fantastic experiences doing it.
So our dilemmas over routing through Asia still remained and now we had even more miles to factor in. And then I had a brainwave: if we can’t go across and under the Caspian sea, why don’t we go over it? That way we will go from Georgia, avoid Azerbaijan which was looking slightly dodgy in terms of visas, into Russia and then through Kazakstan to Biskek in Kyrgystan. We might even meet Borat! On a serious note cycling in the ‘stans is becoming increasingly popular and with events like the Silk Road Mountain Race these lesser-known destinations are becoming better suited to intrepid cyclists. What’s the worst that could happen…
So, that is the bare bones of our route.
There will be undoubtedly many more tweaks, adjustments and full on reroutes to come, and we are keenly aware that COVID may still have an impact, but at this point we are keen to continue as planned and as Mark Beaumont says, ” just ride the road in front of you”.
Do you have any thoughts on where we should or shouldn’t go? What would be your dream cycling destination? Where do you think we will have the best time? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!