Our ambassador Percy is grabbing his gap year by the horns and spending the year cycling across the world with his best friend Charlie. Having started in Europe and ventured across North and South America, the boys expect to have wracked up a total of 18,000km (about 11,185 miles) by the time they finish. Whilst still on the road, we caught up with Percy to find out more about his motivations and how the journey has been so far!
Whilst many people choose to spend their gap year travelling the world and experiencing new cultures and sights, Percy wanted something a little bit different to the average transport-heavy experience, “Although this sort of gap year is undoubtedly good fun, I thought I would get a more rewarding experience by cycling across these continents.” The appeal being that as well as seeing the tourist hotspots, you get to see all the bits in between that you would normally miss; gritty industrial suburbs, the remotest of remote mountain villages and landscapes virtually untouched by humans.
As well as the beauty and adventure, Percy also loved the idea of the trip testing him both physically and mentally. Having lived very much in the “North London Bubble”, he was keen to get out and test himself, “I thought that if I could cycle 18,000km at the age of 19, then perhaps the tasks ahead of me in life wouldn’t be as tough.” And it’s certainly been a test! Particularly as neither him nor Charlie were cycling aficionados before they began, with Percy having only been on a couple of cycling holidays when he was younger, but otherwise being virtual newbies to the cycling game!
Unfazed by their impending adventure, the pair only did a couple of “practice rides” before they left, neither longer than 50km (31 miles), particularly impressive when you realise they’re cycling 60-100km (37-62 miles) a day now! Fortunately both enjoy being active and keeping fit so were not in bad shape when they began.
Their plans for the trip were similarly casually prepared, with a start and end point drafted and loose waypoints in between, “We of course had a general idea of our route but the exact roads are usually only planned a week or so in advance.” This has led to them having to use their navigation skills on the road, using apps (Google and maps.me) as well as drawing out their own routes in locations with little cycling infrastructure.
Their bikes (which Percy calls their pride and joy) were, on the other hand, very well thought through. Custom built for their individual needs, the bikes were made on the south coast by Simon Stanforth of Stanforth Bikes. Percy and Charlie aren’t the only ones enchanted by their bicycles Percy tells us, “A bicycle fanatic in the States tried one of ours out and said it rode like a rolls-Royce. So since then we’ve considered them a cross between a tank and a rolls Royce.”!
Highs and Lows
A cycling tour of such magnitude obviously has its highs and lows. One of the ultimate highs for Percy has been seeing the incredible landscapes and natural beauty, with the deserts of Texas and New Mexico being particularly mind-blowing, like something out of a Wild West film- ranches the size of London, 10 feet tall Cacti and vast stretches of emptiness. He also remembers cycling into Sante de Valle high up in the Andes in Peru and being amazed by its beauty, “Looking like The Shire, it was surrounded by flowers, waterfalls, mountain streams, cattle, alpacas, thatched huts and people in traditional Peruvian dress.”
Along with these highs have been difficult lows that the two have weathered together; one such time Percy recalls early on in their journey after taking a wrong turn and ending up knee deep in mud. The pair decided to carry on regardless and ended up pushing their bikes up an entire mountain in the Pyrenees, “Although only around 10 km, this ordeal took us 8 painstaking hours. It couldn’t even be completed in one day and we had to camp on the side of the mountain and continue the next day without food or water.”
A similarly demoralising moment occurred later on on what was supposed to be the last leg of their tour in the US. After battling in storms for 3 days, the pair started trekking up the mountains in the Angeles National Forest. 2 hours in they reached a ‘road closed’ sign but, not wanting to turn back, they carried on only to be greeted by a literal wall of snow another 2 hours later, forcing them to completely retrace their steps!
So how do the friends keep their spirits high when they run into these kind of tough times? “For me it’s about distracting myself and staying positive.” Percy explains, “I now have a repertoire of memories, imaginary scenarios, and other things that put me in a good mood. That’s where I go to when the day gets long.” Whereas Charlie has a more unique take on the tough times, preferring to use Dory’s advice from Disney’s Finding Nemo of “Just keep Swimming”! And for distraction he makes up David Attenborough style documentaries about his surroundings in his head!
The pair had done their research about what challenges they would face on the road so were prepared for the difficulties of the basics such as finding food, water and accommodation, but the mental challenges of the trip have come as more of a surprise. Apart from the obvious daily grind and missing friends and family, the feeling of alienation when arriving in new places has been a difficulty that they hadn’t anticipated. “Riding in we often feel a bit of not so much hostility, but bewilderment and curiosity from the locals. When you have people staring at you all day, it can get quite annoying.” Percy tells us, something they felt particularly strongly in South America in areas where white tourists are rarely seen. “This is usually only the case though when we are simply riding through,” he adds, “When we stop and are able to communicate, the barriers are broken down and they become much more friendly.”
Finding accommodation in the USA was also an unexpected challenge. With hostels being unexpectedly high, the friends often had to camp outside but found that the majority of land is privately owned. This left them in the position of either trying to work out who the owner was and asking for permission to camp or trying to discreetly stay on the land without being found (a feat that can be surprisingly easy due to the enormous size of some of the pieces of land).
When it comes to packing regrets it was more about packing too much, with excess clothes being the main thing that they’ve got rid of along their way, including a pair of non-cycling shoes. “As for what I wish I’d packed, there isn’t really much.” Percy says, “You learn to live with the bare necessities, although there are some things I wish I had an infinite supply of since they always break - iPhone cables and earphones being the top ones.” Inner tubes and puncture patches being another one and something they seem to be constantly running low on, “We always seem to be on our last ones when we reach a town with a bike shop. Luckily we have never fully run out.” And if there’s any extra room in his panniers? The answer is clear- “It’s all about the snacks” Percy tells us, “ I’m never truly content unless all my 5 panniers have snacks in them.”
A few final questions...
We’ll round things up with some ‘Desert Island Discs’ and some ‘would you rathers’. A la BBC Radio 4, we asked Percy what he would take with him if he was only allowed to take eight songs, one book and a luxury item on his journey. Here's what he chose.
“As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee”
His luxury item:
“A football” (too luxury for their current tour - they can’t fit one anywhere!)
And his preferences…Percy, would you rather:
Stop the trip tomorrow or turn around tomorrow and cycle the whole way you’ve been so far in reverse?
“I think, although very tough, it would have to be stop tomorrow. There have been a number of times on this trip where we’ve had to retrace steps and it’s one of the most demoralising feelings. I couldn’t think about doing 7 months of it”
Cycle the rest of the trip over gravel or on a single speed bike?
“Single speed no question. Cycling on a bad road is the worst”
Eat only ceviche for the rest of the trip, or only steak?
“Only steak. Ceviche can get a little bit sickening”