To whom it may concern,
I would like to lodge a formal complaint please, about the wind. Long, tough days with howling head winds were definitely not advertised in The Long Way Home trip brochure. I never really thought about the tough days before we left, instead just envisaging warm sunshine and the wind at our back day after day as we rolled through glorious countryside (with a Bruce Springsteen soundtrack playing in the background of course). The reality is there have been some moments, especially of late, where I just want to drop the bike, fly away, have some beers with friends and sleep in my own bed. And almost always these moments of feeling really down are closely linked to a day of being beaten up by the elements.
Everyday on the bike we get exposed to the weather. We’ve had everything thrown at us: snow on the Simplon Pass as we left Switzerland wearing all the clothes we had; rain so heavy in Turkey that we literally couldn’t see to ride and my seemingly waterproof odometer stopped working; sun so hot that the road was melting under our tyres, and we started to develop strange circular tan marks on our foreheads from the holes in our helmets. But the wind, oh oh the wind....its by far the biggest determinant of how enjoyable our day on the road will be.
Anyone who has gone for a bike ride knows the wind can either be your best friend or worst enemy. On the flat with a decent head wind we sit at around 13km/h, on the other hand with the wind at our backs we can sit easily at 40km/h. Let’s not even chat about headwinds uphill where we go so slow we’d be better off walking. Over 90km, this can mean the difference between spending 7 hours in the saddle, or as little as 2.5 hours. We have been battling with head winds for the last 10 days straight through Turkmenistan in 40deg temperatures, and even stronger winds in Uzbekistan. Imagine endless flat plains, nothing but sand, dirt and shrubs to look at, and the wind in your face like a hairdryer, hour after hour. It’s been a test of our resilience for sure. Our panniers either act as sails in a tail wind, helping us to catch the wind, or they act as brick walls, only adding to the misery. Trucks going past offer a very brief respite as the wind pressure they generate gives us a little push in the right direction.
Sitting behind someone on a bike means you do about 25% less effort than the person out the front. You can totally feel the difference, and can sometimes even stop pedalling for a bit of a break whilst maintaining speed. Check out the guys in a Tour de France peloton, most of the guys at the back are just cruising. This is why we labeled Emma the wind blocker, and why we were so distraught to see her go (of course we also miss her witty banter). Being stronger than SVB and I she could sit out front of the group and absorb the wind like a sponge, while we thankfully tucked in behind doing far less than our fair share, telling ourselves we were doing her a favour in her training for Tokyo. When Emma left, SVB and I started a routine of taking turns doing 5km each out the front. It’s been working super well, and helps to break up the day as we count down the number of rotations. But the dangers of sitting closely behind someone are if they go down, you’re more than likely to ride into them and go down too....hence our small incident in Iran, subsequent hospital visits and week off the bike!
We’ve probably had 80% of our days since leaving Lausanne with a head wind, making the long way home just a wee bit longer. We constantly look anxiously at flags and trees, even at grass on the side of the road, trying to figure out which direction its blowing, then check the map and the layout of the route, trying to determine the answer to every days biggest question: tail or head. Even then its not that simple as it often changes direction depending on valleys, hills, buildings or just because it wants to. We downloaded a wind direction app, but in the end deleted it, deciding that it is what it is, we cant change the weather or the direction we are travelling.
Actually, in all honesty, I probably need to withdraw this complaint...all of this was definitely listed in the very fine print of the terms and conditions of the trip that I very quickly clicked « accept all » to back in April. The great stuff on this journey is far outweighing the bad days, we are having the absolute most incredible and memorable experiences, and the weather hasn’t won on any of the 100 or so days we’ve been on the road...we’ve always managed to knock off our planned km. Let’s hope we can keep that up as we head towards some 4000m passes in the Pamirs and then Chinese winter....
R . Wardell
We are sitting on a ferry crossing the Sea of Marama that will take us into Istanbul, after being advised not to try and cycle in with the crazy big city traffic. The five hour boat ride gives some time to reflect on the past 5 weeks since we left Lausanne, especially now that we have hit Turkey, which for some reason all of a sudden feels very far away from Switzerland, its not somewhere you would normally drive to let alone arrive by bike.
One of the most striking things for me about the journey so far is that time seems to pass so fast on the trip. I think its because nothing is constant, except for the bike you are sitting on, the km clock ticking over, and the two friends I am with. At home almost everything was constant, the bed I slept in, the alarm clock, the work chair, the supermarket, the routine of coffees and meals. Now every bed is different, the only one that stays the same is the air mattress that lies in the tent, that is pitched on the side of the road or a random camping ground found at the end of the day. Every meal is had at a different place, each hour the view and scenery changes, and then every week or so the culture changes, the language changes, the currency, the vibe. And its for all these reasons that each day, each week seems to go past in a flash, because the constants of home that you normally use to anchor your day and your life are gone. Instead we look to other anchors such as keeping in touch with friends and family, who keep us grounded in the real world. It’s so hard to describe on the phone what its like and hopefully the photos and stories we share give a glimpse. We find routine in the way we pack our panniers each morning, the 30km in between stops, the « jobs » we have settled into, be it finding a rest stop, finding a place to sleep, or navigating our way from place to place. We have learnt to appreciate the small things in life. A shower at the end of the day, a coffee, a hot meal, and most of all a comfortable bed. These simple things that we took for granted before we started are now reasons to smile and whoop! We say cheers at the end of every day, to celebrate the day and the km completed on the road.
We have all agreed that the most interesting parts of the trip have been those spent with locals - family of friends who have so warmly welcomed us into their homes, cooked incredible local fare for us and even given up their beds for us. Their generosity and hospitality has blown us away and we have all vowed that we will return the favor to any travellers who need hospitality in the future. Equally, we have been incredibly fortunate to have had the assistance of the community of National Olympic Committees and Olympians along the way supporting us with accommodation and meals. They have also provided invaluable advice about roads to take (or not take) places to eat and even ridden some of the day with us. Although many people speak good English, many great conversations have been had not by speaking but in sign language. We learn things about the way other people live every day that make you appreciate what you have. People who have lived with bombs being dropped on their street, people for whom international travel is a distant dream. To say we are grateful for every little bit of assistance we have received is an understatement...from providing a roof over our heads to simply being passed a banana out the car window by a random stranger, everyday we are thankful to so many for giving us a hand, making our journey so much more enjoyable.
We have also been incredibly lucky to have some lovely familiar faces come to visit us along the way. Starting with the big crew who rode with us on day two up the Simplon Pass, Bonnie in Sofia, Helen and Stefan in Plovdiv (who even braved the trucks to ride with us for a few km) and Dave and Rebecca who will come to Istanbul. All little snippets of home that have helped us to be able to better share what the journey is about with our friends, but also have provided a much welcome boost to the morale with familiar laughs, chats and bear hugs.
We are all a little quiet sitting on the ferry right now. Mixed emotions of making it as far as Istanbul, feeling smashed after some long days riding in the sun, but mainly it marks a huge stage of the journey for us as sadly today was our last day riding with our wind breaker, ET or Emma. She will fly back to NZ from Istanbul to start her campaign for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on Thursday. SVB and I will miss her enourmously, not just because she sat out the front making our lives easier as we battled head winds pretty much from Croatia to Turkey, but because she’s just a very special human being and I feel privileged to have been able to get to know better and share part of this journey with. We can’t thank you enough for joining us for part of the journey ET, you’re an inspiration to all of us and we wish you every success on the road to Tokyo, and hope you can ride a bit of the final leg in New Zealand next year!
We were on our fifth day of cycling when I found myself in an Olympian sandwich. Facing a brutal headwind and running out of steam from my fading Haribo gummy bear supply, I was starting to seriously lag behind the girls. 10 metres turned to 30 metres which turned to 50 metres behind. 'What on earth have I signed up for, we're not even a week in' - many negative thoughts circulated in my head. They slowed down and waited while I thrashed on the pedals to catch up. 'SVB start riding in the middle of us, you’ll find it a lot easier.' ET called out. And so I did and so it was - managing to finish the final 10km of the day in - what I now call - the 'Olympian sandwich'.
Fast forward to day 17. We were cycling in pouring rain somewhere between Starigrad and Sibenik in Croatia. It was not possible to get any more drenched (stunning scenery though!). We pulled over for a quick pit stop and ET yells out 'There’s no such thing as bad weather' - 'just a bad attitude!' Becs finished. How could I even think of complaining about the rain after this?! Luckily for us the sun came out within the hour.
The above are small examples illustrating how wonderful my Olympian teammates are.
If you didn’t already know, I've been obsessed with the Olympics since the Sydney 2000 Opening Ceremony. Rob Waddell and Cathy Freeman's gold medals remain a vivid memory 18 years on, and before this adventure, I worked for the International Olympic Committee for four years. So it's fair to say that I will never pass up any opportunity to rub shoulders with Olympians. Especially 6 months on the road travelling the world by bike with these two kiwi Olympian legends.
I wanted to dedicate my first blog to Becs and ET and reflect on the kindness and patience these two have shown me over the past 23 days. Not always an easy task for them dealing with someone who is incredibly impractical. Thank you ladies.
Becs Wardell - she’s always packed and ready to roll out before I have brushed my teeth. She can put up her tent and get the water boiling on our camp stoves before I have put the tent poles together. This adventure was her brainchild, and she is one of the bravest people I know. She shows no fear on the roads when trucks hurtle past and she always has a smile on her face even after a big day of riding. Although I struggle to use Google maps (so I am obviously no help on the navigation front), she never seems to get annoyed when I constantly ask her which way we are going. Patience of a saint! She welcomed me with open arms on this trip and believes that I'll be able to make it all the way to China with her no problem. Let's see!
Emma Twigg - she’s been saving my bacon (and my legs) by sitting out front for hours on end in nasty headwinds and pouring rain. When I try and relieve her of this duty we go at a considerably slower pace, and she gets back on the front again. But ET is more than just physical strength. She’s incredibly practical (and kind) - and has spent a significant amount of time teaching me how to tie knots, put tension on a tent, grease my chain and rearrange my panniers for easy racking on my bike.
So here's to the best thing since sliced bread - ET and Becs - I couldn’t wish to be part of a better Olympian sandwich.
The tents are pitched, my underarms smell fresh and all remnants of the days’ salty residues have been washed away. It is only day 9 and we already appreciate the simple things in life - a warm shower and roof over our heads. Today we crossed our second border and waved goodbye to Italy. Becs and I are very pleased with our progress and our early arrival in Slovenia. We are a day ahead of schedule. SVB on the other hand is tearing her hair out as we ruin her plans for her ‘warm shower’ hosts at every stop and make her ride for hours on end. There has only been one call for HARIBO gummy bears... STAT!
Day one seems like an eternity ago. For Becs and SVB, pedalling away from the office after almost 4 years was an emotional goodbye. A huge group of our colleagues waved us off as we pedalled down the side of Lac Léman on what felt like just another lunch time ride to Chexbres. The only difference was we were loaded with an extra 25kg worth of kit, our homes and clothes in four panniers, and absolutely no idea what we were getting ourselves into. We were hooting and cheering with a stonking tail wind at our backs. That day we had planned to do 100km and sleep in Sion. Becs and I decided in Aigle (50km) that this gig was easy and we would be silly not to push on to Brig. 100km turned into 160km and with 37km to go, the wind changed direction. Safe to say the last couple of hours on day 1 have been up there with the hardest. Our spirits were saved by our amazing ‘warm showers’ host Mark who took us in, fed us and kept SVB’s spirits alive that we would not have to ever sleep in a tent.
Day two was always going to be a challenging one - the Simplon Pass and our first border crossing. Becs and I were patting ourselves on our backs that we had knocked off an extra 60km the previous day. We looked up at the 2000m snow-capped climb that we were about to endure, collected a group of friends from the Brig train station and set off up the mountain. A steady 6km an hour average had us at the top two and a half hours later. Who knew climbing with the equivalent of a 6-year-old strapped to our bikes would be so tough? Nothing a bit of croûte de fromage and some frittes couldn’t fix at the top of the col. We descended in sleet and snow, and all survived with all fingers and toes intact and a tick of approval for the newly purchased wet weather gear. It was an emotional goodbye in Domodossola for SVB as she waved off Dave (her Hugh Grant) who she will miss over the coming months. I convinced the girls that we should continue another 10km up the road before pitching the tent for the night. SVB’s heart sank when she heard the word tent, but was upbeat by the prospect of an Italian pizza before bed. Turns out there is not a pizzeria around every corner in Italy as my memory had thought, and the road past Domodossola just goes straight up. Our first lesson was that we should always listen to gut instinct! We did and called it a day soon as the gradient was looking ominous. Pitched our tents for the first time ever above the road, in the rain, fired up the camp stove, made some porridge and pasta with a touch of salt, and crawled into our sleeping sacks.
Day three was one to remember and one to forget. Some stunning scenes as we climbed from Domodossola over to Lake Maggiore. It rained relentlessly all day and we had planned on staying in Como overnight. With high spirits after lunch, we set off towards Lugano; after all, “there is no such thing as bad weather, just a bad attitude”. 10km down the road we came across a very, very big hill. The iPhone told us to go up. We did not. Next lesson learnt was to always look closely at a topography map when planning routes. We turned around, tails between our legs and followed Maggiore towards Varese on the flat. In the sunshine this would have been spectacular, but the views were blurred by raindrops. Como started to look more and more unrealistic, and after another unplanned climb, I called on my old FIFA Master Prof and his wife in Gavirate who took us in with an hour’s notice, saved us, and treated us like their daughters. Amazing hospitality, food, wine and a bed. Day three still remains Bec’s pick of toughest to date.
Day four had us on the undulating roads around Lake Como. The views were something else; day one’s hooting and cheering reared again. With ample pizza and gelato as fuel, we dried out along the way and made it to our next ‘warm showers’ host Mateo, another win for SVB. We were treated to a local brew and managed to dry our tents ready for the next couple of nights sleeping under the stars. After 536km in four days we were ready for a couple of light days.
Day five and six were relatively cruisy, some flat, lovely lakes, a night at the campground in Sarnico, lunch in Iseo and another stunner camp spot and a few Saturday night aperols beside Lake Garda. Refreshed and ready for the onslaught.
Day seven and eight have almost merged into one. Many long straights and trucks, broken up by some quaint little towns. We have made the most of the flats and put in a few big days to spend some more time in Slovenia. We have settled into a nice routine of waking up, packing up (which takes one of us longer than the others), and hitting the road. A morning coffee stop, a lunch stop, another coffee/coke stop, depending on the temperatures, and the final slog to the line. It doesn’t seem to matter how long we set out to do every day, whether it is 70km or 140km, the last 20 always seem to be a real mental challenge. Something we may need to work on. We rested our tired bodies in Cittadella, a very cute fortressed town, and the next night in Udine, another Italian charm and with another friendly host.
And so ‘Long Way Homers’, the gravity of the challenge is slowly setting in, more so for the one member of the peloton that is actually going the whole way home. We are all coming to terms with tent life, hand washing and packing our panniers. There have certainly been some challenges, but all in all the scales are tipped heavily in favour of all of the laughs.
After a week in the saddle, we have had enough time to contemplate what we have all signed up for. The good news is that we are all still here, still talking to each other and pretty chuffed with our first week.
SVB and I are a little concerned by the number of people contacting us and expressing how excited they are to welcome us back to New Zealand next year, so we feel compelled to clear up the ‘fake news’ that has been circulating. The real star of The Long Way Home is Becs, who will indeed, endure every km of the mammoth journey and make it the whole way home.
In keeping with the cycling theme, I liken our trip to a track cycling ‘sprint trio’ where I am the lead out rider, pushing the pace and getting the team as far across Europe as possible before peeling off after the ‘first lap’ and handing over to SVB. With my sights set on another attempt at an Olympic Games, I need to get back into a boat and regain some rowing fitness ASAP.
Sarah will continue the journey out front across Central Asia and after 6 months will peel off after the ‘second lap’ at the Chinese border when she has to be back in Switzerland to keep her work permit and rejoin her very handsome and forgiving boyfriend.
That will leave the ‘last lap’ to Becs, who will take it home, crossing the finishing line on the shores of Lake Hawea in front of her adoring fans, parents, friends and, all going well, the other two members of the trio. We each had very different motivations for signing up to the trip, hence the discrepancies in our levels of commitment.
Becs can navigate, pitch a tent, clean her clothes in a sink and grit her teeth through the toughest of times, so the only knowledge that needs to be transferred before SVB leaves her in October is how to do an Instagram story.
When we all committed to this adventure, we had no idea that it would be received with so much enthusiasm. We have been humbled by the donations and offers of help that have come our way and can’t wait to connect with as many of you as possible as we ride.
It seems a little surreal that this blog is being written from home. The ‘home’ that is the end point of a ride that will take us across mountains and borders, down coastlines, past lakes, and through many, many, towns that are called ‘home’ to people we are yet to meet.
For anyone that is not a kiwi, my 30+ hours of travel would be described already as a ‘long way home’. I must admit, as I sat in my cozy, cramped airplane seat and watched the illustrated plane crawl its way across the world map towards New Zealand, it dawned on me how far we had to pedal. Looking down at the desolate landmasses between Europe and Asia, I had to take a few deep breaths. This is going to be HUGE.
As I left Lausanne, the fabulous people and many friendships that I will always cherish, the sadness was softened by the knowledge that I was going to be back in just 6 weeks. Leaving these faces is certainly going to be the hardest part of our departure on the 30th April.
While I have been sunning myself in the many beautiful landscapes of our final destination, Bec and SVB have been hard at work. Some big milestones have been ticked off. They have picked up our Surly Trucker bikes and already started to mould the leather seats riding through the vineyards of Vaud, they have been ticking off the administrative tasks including applying for Chinese visas. I am not sure who has it toughest?
‘TLWH’ team WhatsApp group has been going off like a frog in a sock! I have reverted to airplane mode so that I can get some sleep while the girls chat their way through the day. I no longer wake in the morning to read the world news. I open my 50+ WhatsApp notifications to filter the ‘banter’ from the ‘requires critical attention’. The chat varies from, “How many pairs of underwear are you taking?” to, “have you had your rabies shots yet?” or “have we ordered those spare spokes and tires?”, and the most asked question without doubt, is SVB asking if every piece of equipment comes in pink. So far, only her ‘spork’ has done.
The excel spreadsheet of ‘to dos’ is steadily turning into a list of ‘done’. We now only have to pick up the tents that will be the ‘roof’ over our heads for the foreseeable future and to decide what clothes we will be pedalling in. When you consider that this will only be a couple of t-shirts, some shorts, underwear and rain jacket, our issue tracker seems to be showing only green lights.
All that is left now is a couple of ‘Day in the life exercises’ and some all important test events. I will leave those up to the northern hemisphere crew. While I continue to work on the tan, I have tasked Bec, who is undoubtedly the most mature and practical member of the peloton, to do some YouTube research on lighting camp stoves. My trip to the outdoors shop to collect our camping equipment didn’t fill me with a whole lot of confidence that we would all be returning with our eyebrows. Avoiding singed body hair is now resting on my trust that Bec’s web browser history contains the words “how to light an MSR bunsen burner safely”.
Signing out for now, but remember - this is an open invite to anyone that would like to commit themselves to a stint riding with us, our smelly armpits, singed eyebrows and pink sporks.
There are easier ways to get from Switzerland to New Zealand than by bike. There is a saying that goes:
“Climbing K2 or floating the Grand Canyon in an inner tube; there are some things one would rather have done than do.”
But what is the ‘done’ without the ‘do’? The ‘do’ is the adventure. The place where challenges, memories and experiences create a story that will inspire and entertain. A story that will be told time and time again, long after it is all ‘done’.
Perhaps you could put cycling 18,000 km through 28 countries into a similar, albeit less extreme, category as a float over the world’s biggest waterfall. A test of our physiology and our minds. For Becs, Sarah and I, the ‘doing’ is what excites us the most.
All of us have different motivations for signing up for the trip. Becs didn’t want to pay for her airfare back to New Zealand, I considered 130km a day as a nice way to stay fit, and Sarah wanted to challenge herself to long periods without talking. Uniting us is our friendship, love for adventure and the challenge of pushing our limits. A desire to see the world and ‘do’, in a slightly less conventional way than many would consider.
Where most people have art hanging on their living room wall, Becs has a laminated world map, stuck to the wall with blue tack and still containing dried wads of toilet paper left over from a recent game of ‘where in the world shall we go for holidays’. This map has been her inspiration for many adventures. We stood in front of it, looked at our route and thought - well that’s achievable! Never mind the 1:50,000,000 scale and no concept of what a road or mountain pass looked like in Kyrgyzstan. Perhaps without this naivety, we wouldn’t be packing our lives in to four bags and pedalling off into what to us, is a completely unknown abyss. This is what it is all about though, right? The unknown.
We can’t wait to document our travels, and share our story, the triumphs and tribulations and all the boring bits in between. This trip will no doubt be the biggest adventure any of us have embarked on. There are certain to be ‘I need to pinch myself’ moments, ‘I want to punch myself’ moments, ‘I want to punch you’ moments and a fair amount of banter in between.
Our website and Instagram is going to be the place to track our 'long way home'. A place to keep you updated while we are doing what we do.