Interview: The Hairy Handlebars Cycle from London to Tokyo

Photo: @thehairyhandlebars

On March 21, 2019, Ben Cook and George Cullen — aka The Hairy Handlebars — set off from London on their journey to Tokyo.  The idea of “seeing the world on two wheels” took hold of them two years ago. Whimsically, they decided that reaching Tokyo in time for the 2019 Rugby World Cup was a good target. This would involve 10,000km across 21 countries on bikes.

From London, they pedaled across Europe to Istanbul, on to Central Asia and across the steppes of Kazakhstan. They are currently reaching the end of their 4,000km ride through China and about to enter their final country: Japan.

Their route from London to Tokyo. Photo: thehairyhandlebars.co.uk

They are documenting their journey on instagram [@thehairyhandlebars] and have a website where you can track their progress.

ExplorersWeb caught up with Ben Cook about their journey.

How did you come up with the idea to cycle from London to Tokyo?

Like any good idea, it was born in a pub. Then it all just sort of fell into place. I think we told so many people, we couldn’t go back on our word.

We both wanted to see the world from a bike, although neither of us had cycling backgrounds. We’re also blessed to have sponsors for the ride, and we have affiliations with the rugby world, so the World Cup was a fitting end point — especially since we’re raising money for the rugby charity Movember.

Has it been fun?

Absolutely life changing.

Wheeling through Uzbekistan. Photo:@thehairyhandlebars

Your plan was to go through 21 countries. Has it been difficult to stick to that route?

Not really. We bypassed a few countries for speed reasons, but we’ve been through pretty much every one that we wanted. The only challenging place has been China, because of border issues, and these have continued throughout.

ExWeb: Have the challenges in general been what you expected?

You can adjust to the physical aspects quickly. But mentally adjusting to life on a bike is harder. The lack of comforts that come with such limited space, and long absences from friends and family, are challenging. I’m not I’m not ashamed to say that I miss my girlfriend.

And there have been a few days when we just struggled. For example, we were crossing Uzbekistan when we realized that we were stuck in the desert for 140km with no water or food stops. We had to carry 10 to 12 litres of water each and cover ground quickly. The hardest part there was the boredom: a long straight road, sun beating down, the drinking water boiling hot. Not fun.

Clowning around in Xinjiang, China. Photo: @thehairyhandlebars

How far do you travel each day?

It really varies depending on the terrain and other things. Today, we’re doing 200km because we’re so close to Beijing now and we’re just sort of done with China. So we decided to take a giant stride forward for morale’s sake. On average, we do about 100km a day, but through the desert we hit 130 to 140km. On the other hand, when we were in the Bartang, the most beautiful valley in Tajikistan, we were probably doing about 50km per day because it was all on shale and rock. Roads didn’t really exist there, and we were cycling at 4,600m above sea level.

You mentioned that neither of you have done much cycling before. How did you prepare?

George is a former professional rugby player and I was a captain in the Royal Marines, so we both have very physical backgrounds.

We did do a London-to-Paris ride, which took us three days at about 160km a day, but that was really just to get a feel for the bike. I also have this weird process where I like to do the hardest thing that I possibly can, so I can look back and say okay, nothing is going to be as hard as that day. So I cycled 375km from Calais to Amsterdam in 18 hours for my first big ride. After that, you know you can put in a really long day.

Planning the route. Photo: @thehairyhandlebars

What’s been the highlight?

Definitely the people. The kindness of strangers is something we’re not used to back in the West. We’re really quite detached from the wider community.  The togetherness and unity in Central Asia was profound. And everywhere, the people with the least give the most.  We were in the middle of nowhere in Tajikistan and stumbled across this tiny village. A girl with very limited English invited us into her home. We woke up in the morning for breakfast and we had our nails painted by her younger sister. It’s been a very humbling experience.

Photo:@thehairyhandlebars

What’s next for you both?

I think I’d do another cycle trip, although not this long. George wants to cycle in between the Three Peaks in the UK and then climb each of those. I want to either to run across New Zealand or go by horseback across Mongolia. I’ve never ridden a horse before.

Beijing at last. Now onto Tokyo.

About the Author

Rebecca McPhee

Aspiring sports and travel journalist based in the UK.

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