When England kick off their opening Rugby World Cup fixture against Tonga on Sunday, two of their fans will be celebrating the completion of a 10,000 mils, six-month odyssey which has already raised a huge amount of money for charity.
The duo from Bishop’s Stortford, dubbed ‘The Hairy Handlebars’, began cycling from London to Tokyo in March and will arrive in the Japanese capital in time to watch the start of the Red Rose’s 2019 challenge for the Webb Ellis Cup.
Their Eurasian trek has taken in 19 countries fuelled by around 12km of noodles, the acquisition of which has often required spontaneous games of charades due to language barriers.
The arduous journey has been taken on to raise money for the men’s health charity Movember, as well as the Ian Williams Foundation, which was created in memory of the aspiring rugby union prop who passed away aged just 27 in February 2018 while training for the Doncaster Knights.
The bikers, Ben Cook and George Cullen, spoke to The Sportsman upon their arrival in Japan, insisting that there were never any moments of regret despite collecting more than 50 punctures between them.
“There was never a moment of ‘Why have I done this?’ Mostly it was moments of thinking ‘I’m so glad we’ve done this,’” explains Ben, who was a close friend of Ian Williams. “There are odd times when you’ve had five punctures in a row and it’s pouring down with rain and you do kind of question yourself. Even then, though, you’re thinking ‘there’s no place I’d rather be’, and an hour later you’re back up and running.
“There are even moments when you just stop yourself along the trip and think ‘Wow, why doesn’t everyone do some sort of adventure?’”
The monumental trip, which Ben and George began arranging around a year before they set out, has so far raised close to £30,000. In the early stages the idea was just to go on “some big old ride”, and as the plan came together they set out on a ‘warm-up trip’ from London to Paris last October in preparation for their ultimate challenge.
The trip went according to plan - mostly - but George has been left cursing the omission of one vital piece of kit beyond an unlimited supply of sunscreen… a Kindle!
“I stupidly brought physical books, which proved to be the biggest pain in the world,” he tells us. “A Kindle would have slipped into a bum bag perfectly!” Thankfully, podcasts previewing the World Cup, the Mecca of their pilgrimage, proved to be a godsend during the long stretches on desert roads which proved particularly testing.
Some of the most difficult moments included heading in and out of Istanbul on horizon-stretching highways with no hard shoulders and journeying down ‘the most dangerous tunnel in the world’, the Anzob.
At the top of a mountain path in North West Tajikistan, this traveller’s nemesis stretches an unventilated, deathly dark 5,000 metres. Its nicknames include the ‘Tunnel of Fear’ and ‘Tunnel of Death’ - take your pick!
“There’s two options: you can go around it and add another day to your journey, or you go into the abyss,” says Ben.
“It was brutal, we came out of it, our eyes were black, we were choking, it was like you had smoked about 1000 cigarettes, but there was still that huge adrenaline high.”
Before the trip, Ben and George had pinpointed Kazakhstan and Georgia as the places they were most looking forward to pedalling through.
“The best thing, despite planning the trip, was not knowing too much about the countries,” continues Ben. “Beforehand we would have been ‘What the hell is Tajikistan?!’ and then we’re getting there and seeing it’s filled with the most incredible people.”
There are several routes to cross the Pamir Mountains, the range that cuts through Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which the pair had to venture. including the famous ‘M41’, and the Bartang Valley.
“The Bartang’s the most direct route but more desolate,” adds Ben. “On it we cycled up close to 4,400 metres. Up there we saw some of the most remote villages with the most welcoming people. And, of course, the scenery was mind-blowing.”
The important thing about such an arduous journey was actually not thinking too far ahead; lunch for the day and a bed for the night were the priorities. Thinking about the next country while on the road was far less important than taking it day-by-day. Their advice for anyone aspiring to do something similar is to “tell everyone about it, burn all bridges so you can’t turn back, and as soon as you’ve got that bike you’re ready to go.”
Ben and George are now planning to spend the next month in the Land of the Rising Sun, spending a little time apart before reuniting in Oita to attend the quarter-finals of the World Cup. And George is buoyant about the odds of their side going all the way: “I think England have got a good chance. It’s one of the most open World Cup tournaments that’s there’s ever been. It’s pretty tough to call it, but we’ve got good players and we’ve got a good chance.”
And for those wondering what’s happening to the bicycles? “Yeah, they’re in the sea.”
Well done boys!
You can donate to The Hairy Handlebars on behalf of Movember and The Ian Williams Foundation here.
England - France - Belgium - Luxembourg - Germany - Austria - Slovakia - Hungary - Croatia - Serbia - Romania - Bulgaria - Turkey - Georgia - Azerbaijan - Kazakhstan - Uzbekistan - Tajikistan - Kyrgyzstan - China - Japan.