Thunder, lions and headwinds: How to cycle the world through a pandemic

Caroline Soubayroux and David Ferguson have spent the past six months riding around the world. This is their story.

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Cycling around the world is one of those undertakings that tends to elicit a simple response: “Wow”. Everyone’s seen Mark Beaumont’s documentary about his circumnavigation of our planet, or happened upon a stunning Instagram account documenting a cyclist pedalling across vast continents, and it’s hard to not imagine yourself on their saddle.

But what’s the reality of an 18,000 mile (29,000 km) jaunt to the ends of the Earth and back? Do you have to be as fit as an ultracyclist? Do you need a big sum of money saved up to pay your way? Do people come back in one piece?

Caroline Soubayroux, 33, a project manager in investment banking in London, and her husband David Ferguson, 35, a hospital trauma & orthopaedic registrar, are two people who have just finished such an expedition, with one caveat: they did it through a pandemic.

In late September last year, the couple set off for Canada, making their way south to the United States and then east to Florida, before beginning a South American stint across Bolivia. The next leg was from Cape Town, South Africa, up to Mombasa in Kenya. A European stint followed before the couple flew to Australia, ticking off yet another continent. 

Theirs has not been the classic route – which often threads together Australia, China, “the ‘stans”, Europe and the Americas – as Caroline and David undertook their trip amidst the chaos of Covid. Beginning in Yukon, the rest of the route was mostly designed off the cuff as they monitored the lockdown restrictions in various countries. When Australia opened up, for instance, they quickly hopped on a plane from Mombasa to tick off yet another continent.

If anyone’s going to know how to cycle the globe, it’s two riders who’ve done it through a pandemic. After climbing off after another day in the Outback, and between dinner and a glamorous clean with a wash cloth, they called up CyclingTips to impart the wisdom of how they’ve managed to pull off such a feat.

‘We were either going to be eaten by a lion or risk getting hit by lightning’

The first question that springs to mind when leaving the safe enclave of your home armed with little more than a bike and a pair of bib shorts is ‘will I make it back here in one piece?’

“The world is big and it can be a bit of a scary thing,” Soubayroux begins, “but in general 99 per cent of everyone we have met has been nice and helpful.” And even on the rare occasion they’ve met the one per cent of rogues who may try and do them harm, they just brush it off and tell themselves that person is in a minority: “the world is safe out there,” she insists.

“People are unbelievably helpful,” Ferguson continues. “You speak to people, get advice, everybody wants you to succeed and do well. That’s a huge beneficial factor as well.”

When asked about the lowest moments they’ve had on the trip, they both laugh, remembering dark moments when they would have probably preferred to be tucked up in bed at home.

“The overriding factor is there has been a tremendous headwind for probably about 70 per cent of the ride,” Ferguson says, which is something that definitely sends shivers down the spines of a cyclist. “But obviously that’s there for so long it just becomes a part of it.”

More specifically, he remembers one bone-chilling moment in Botswana.

“A thunderstorm had set in … and it’s amazing because for 70 kilometres you can see the whole thunderstorm system working and you have lightning that’s just being hurled all around you. But also, you have lions and elephants that are loose because it’s just a natural park.”

The advice for riding through a thunderstorm is to climb off your bike and get somewhere safe. So they moved off the road and sat on camping mats on the grass.

“We realised at that very moment we were literally the biggest amount of sitting prey for any hungry lion rolling around,” Ferguson said. “[The lions] weren’t far off, maybe 500 metres away in the bushes, so that was probably one of the scariest points. We were either going to be eaten by a lion or risk getting hit by lightning.” Luckily, they emerged unscathed with quite an anecdote for when they got back home.

Everyone in the world eats and sleeps, so you’ll always find food and water

Of course, you don’t plan to be choosing between being struck by lightning and devoured by lions, so what can you plan for?

Planning itself requires a lot of time and dedication, which if you’re working up until the evening before you fly out, you won’t have very much of.

So, for the six months leading up to their departure date they scoured Google Maps and contacted people who had ridden through certain regions and countries for route advice. Another couple had done London to China before Covid; a retired army officer offered tips about riding in Pakistan, in case they went there. Soubayroux also spent time sourcing sponsors (which we’ll get to later). Covid, and the accompanying uncertainty of where they would be able to ride, also meant there wasn’t much point making a detailed itinerary or amassing a lot of the equipment they would need until closer to leaving. And even when they did start investing in items, they often weren’t the right ones. Soubayroux has a background in ultracycling and bought things she would take for those expeditions, like a super-light sleeping bag, which turned out to be much too light for this kind of trip.

When heading out on what will probably prove to be a once-in-a-lifetime trip, it’s hard to prepare when you have zero experience of what it will entail, so why get bogged down in it? 

“If we kept on waiting and preparing, we were just never going to go,” Soubayroux said. “So, let’s just see what happens. And nowadays you have the internet everywhere so you find your way.”

While admitting how clichéd it sounds, Ferguson says the best thing is to just get on your bike and go. “Everything is set up, it just works. Get there on a bike and get going. You’ll always find food, you’ll always find water. Everyone eats, sleeps and transports themselves around.”

Multi-tools: For fitting derailleurs and conducting foot surgery

As much fun as it is to have the romantic image of just rocking up in a foreign land and riding out of Arrivals onto the open road, only the most anxiety-proof individuals can take on such a challenge without extensive preparation. So what do you need to take with you? How much money do you need to make it back home?

Soubayroux and Ferguson have helpfully compiled a detailed list of everything they’ve used, but what about the things they thought they needed but didn’t?

They swear by a good set of lights – they use Exposure – and also a really good multi-tool. “Caroline has been doing some foot surgery this evening and I’ve put a new derailleur on,” Ferguson says of their multi-tool really living up to its name. “A good one will get you out of almost any pickle.”

Good tyre levers were also a necessary investment after suffering a lot of punctures in America, where in hindsight they wish they would have had thicker tyres. Whereas, in Australia, their roadie set-up is perfect.

They also got rid of a boombox, as well as some more visual accessories, having had visions of extensively documenting their trip, making videos to share online, but finding that the reality is that after a day’s riding you are just too tired to stay up in the evening and edit the footage you’d captured. They say they underestimated just how much rest you need. 

“It’s amazing how light you can get it,” Ferguson says of what you actually need to take with you. “It’s probably seven kilos of weight with everything fully loaded on the bike.”

As for money, a pearl of wisdom shared by the couple is that the longer you take to travel, the cheaper it will be. That’s because the less time you have, and the more structured you have to be, you’re forced to rely on things that are more convenient, like a more expensive hotel in the town you have to stay in that night in order to fulifl the requisite number of kilometres that day demands.  If you don’t have to be tapping out 200 km days and can be flexible with where you stop, Ferguson says you can almost always find somewhere to stay for free instead of checking into hotels.

Also, if you ride more in Africa and South America rather than the exorbitantly expensive USA, Europe and Austalia, you can live very reasonably for not much money at all. Also, factors such as the almost-permanent headwind meant their plan to camp everywhere in the USA was scrapped and they usually opted for a motel in the evening, relishing the lighter breeze of an air-con unit.

While both Soubayroux and Ferguson have taken career breaks to undertake this trip, dipping into savings to fund your ride isn’t the only option.

“There are companies out there that do want to sponsor you,” Ferguson reveals. “Perversely, our trip … aspects of it visually may look nice,” he says of Soubayroux’s impeccable Instagram account that documents their journey. “But the reality is, if you were to go slower, you would probably have a visually much more attractive trip than we could ever share. And then, you would probably find people who would want some of that and give you a revenue stream to survive.”

Preparing for the return to real life

It’s all well and good taking six months out of regular life to go and cycle across the world, but at some point, probably, you’re going to have to come home. 

Ferguson found it easy to get the time off. His bosses at the National Health Service at his hospital in London were very supportive of the idea, and are very pro-mental health, wellness and looking after yourself, which is a growing trend amongst employers and society.

But within weeks, they will be back in their 9-to-5s. And this is something they’ve been preparing for.

“We’ve been conscious over the last few weeks of getting into the mindset of coming home because cycling that distance every day and then bang – we land on Sunday April 17 and we’re back at work on the Tuesday,” Soubayroux explains. “It’s going to be a huge shock to the system, so we’re kind of preparing in advance, in anticipation of just going straight back into normal life.”

“I’m excited to go back,” she continues. “But  I know that probably a week in I’ll be like ‘why am I not on my bike’.

“I think where we are very blessed is that we are doing this together, we have shared the experience. So, we’re not in the situation of somebody that does it solo and then comes back and wants to talk to people about it and everybody gets tired of hearing about it. We’ll be able to just talk to each other, saying ‘do you remember this and do you remember that’. That will make it easier, I think.”

Really, the cycling is the easy part – it’s everything else that’s the unknown. Borders, logistics, unforeseen circumstances, are the parts that drag you down. But still, the kilometres tick past and the memories will last, no matter how strong the headwind is.

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