From wild dogs to wild drivers, Tom Davies met them all while cycling around the world for charity.
Student Tom Davies wanted a wheely good reason to take a gap year – and found it pedalling through 21 countries in four continents, raising funds for three charities. By Colin Drury
When Tom Davies is asked why he did it, his reply is unexpected, to say the least.
‘I’m not actually sure,’ he shrugs after a pause. ‘I keep getting asked this and I don’t really have a satisfactory answer. I don’t know. It seemed like it might be a challenge.’ Quite. The 19-year-old has just completed a 30,000km bike ride that took him through 21 countries in four continents over 174 days. He set off from his home in London on January 17 and – except for the odd break day – rode roughly 160km a day until August 9.
In doing so he became what is thought to be the youngest person ever to cycle around the world.
His mammoth ride took him from snow-peaked tops in Europe to the sun-kissed coastal roads of Goa, India; from steaming forests in South East Asia to the great lakes of North America, from bustling cities like Mumbai and Istanbul to a road that runs about 145km – from Balladonia to Caiguna in Australia – without a single turn, curve or bend. ‘Kind of dull,’ reflects Tom of the last one.
Along the way he had to face monkeys and wild dogs chasing him (Thailand and Albania), food poisoning (Italy) and – arguably most dangerous of all – the famously, um, cavalier drivers of India (‘some of the worst I’ve ever known’). That’s as well as the usual cyclist issues – chafing, crosswinds, saddle soreness and tyre troubles. ‘I had my first puncture in Albania after 3,000km, which wasn’t bad going,’ he says. ‘Except while I was fixing it, I drew a small audience, including a woman who got a plastic chair out to sit and watch me.’
And, while he did it all, he raised some Dh350,000, through sponsorship, for a trio of charities: Prostate Cancer UK, The Sohana Research Fund (which supports studies into skin disease Epidermolysis Bullosa) and Carney’s Community, a London charity for disadvantaged young people.
Right now, though, he’s still thinking about that first question: why?
‘I’ve spent six hours a day on a bike on my own for seven months,’ he muses. ‘I know I should have a better answer. I just love cycling and wanted to see the world.’
It was while he was thinking about what he’d like to do with a gap year before university that Tom came up with the idea of biking round the globe.
He’d been a keen cyclist since his barrister dad, Huw, introduced him to the pedalling pastime when he was 14. Father and son cycled from London to Chamonix in the French Alps in 2011, instilling in the youngster the sense of adventure that would lead him to circumnavigate the earth four years later.
‘There are lots of places I fancied biking – the Dolomites in northern Italy, the Great Lakes in North America, the New Zealand coast,’ he says. ‘And I just sort of thought I could combine them all in one trip.
‘My mum [Alison, a music industry professional] asked me one evening what I wanted to do with my gap year
Along the way he faced MONKEYS and WILD dogs, food POISONING, and – arguably most DANGEROUS of all – CARELESS DRIVERS
and I said I’d like to bike around the world, and it sort of went from there.’
His first day saw him cycle from London to Portsmouth on the English south coast. From there he powered through (deep breath) France, Italy, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, Greece, Turkey, India (6,000km down the west coast and up the east), Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, the US, Canada, Portugal, Spain and finally back into England.
He took flights across Iran (where he couldn’t get a visa) as well as Pakistan and Bangladesh (which the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office advised him against cycling through). Both skip-overs were allowed under the terms set by Guinness World Records for an officially accredited cycle around the globe.
Highlights included the Indian landscape (‘every time you turn your head in some regions you see something stunning’), and looking up one day in Australia to find himself being accompanied by an emu.
‘It ran alongside me for maybe 10 minutes,’ recalls Tom. ‘I had no idea they could go so fast and I had no idea why he wanted to come with me. It was quite confusing but also pretty amazing; like this moment where you feel a bond with this strange animal. I was sort of sad when he stopped.’
He also had his fair share of human accompaniments. In India especially people would ride alongside in slowed-down vehicles to ask where he’d come from and where he was going.
‘There was one day when I must have had 30 separate conversations with people in cars,’ he remembers. ‘It was lovely – although, when you’re cycling 160km having to talk so much can be kind of energysapping. But it really made me realise how hospitable people are. I got asked out for drinks, to cricket matches, to people’s homes for dinner. I very rarely accepted because I was on such a tight schedule, but it was nice nonetheless.’
And nicer certainly than the rather less civilised welcoming offered by wild dogs in Albania.
‘I heard them before I saw them,’ he says. ‘Barking and howling. I don’t know how they knew I was coming – I’d been on a bike all day so maybe they smelt me – but when I saw them coming over the horizon running at me… it was pretty terrifying. There was a pack of them – about five or six – and they were a good size, and fast, and I was going uphill at the time. They were trying to bite at my legs but I just kept pedalling. It was all I could do. And eventually, thankfully, they couldn’t keep up.’
Asimilar experience occurred in remote southern Thailand – with a monkey. ‘I saw a lot of them, but one sat on a fence, let out a scream and started following me,’ he says. ‘Again, all you can do is pedal and pray, and that’s what I did. He soon lost interest.’
It wasn’t all adventures, accompaniments and animal attacks, though.
When you cycle 30,000km – even through some of the world’s most jaw-dropping scenery – the overwhelming feeling is often, says Tom, ‘well, kind of boredom.’ He explains: ‘I don’t think there’s a better way to see the world than at 25kph, but it can get lonely. You have a lot of time to think. You go over everything you’ve done in your life, everything you might do. Triumphs and mistakes too.’
It was also physically painful. He was shattered each day but often struggled to sleep. ‘It was only a fear of failing that kept me going sometimes,’ he says.
By night, he would sleep in cheap B&Bs and hotels or camp in a tent he carried with him. Once or twice he stayed with friends of friends, but that was a rare luxury.
By day, he would eat whatever he could get his hands on that was cheap and would keep his energy levels up. Crisps and biscuits from service stations, street food in India, inexpensive dinners at roadhouses and occasional evening meals in town restaurants. Making the most of a hotel breakfast became a big thing. In Alexandroupoli, in Greece, his pre-ride morning meal included ‘two bowls of
‘I don’t think there’s a BETTER way to SEE the world than at 25kph, but it can get LONELY. You have a lot of time to THINK, to go over everything you’ve ever done’
cereal, 3 mini doughnuts, one puff pastry, one Nutella crepe, mini sausages, chips, cooked tomatoes, three pain au chocolats, three croissants, a slice of cake, a slice of strawberry tart, a fried egg and an omelette.’
On his back and in his bags, he carried camping equipment, spare clothes, wet wear, wash-bags, a laptop, chargers, spare parts and a lamp. Cycling round the world, it seems, doesn’t come light.
The stretch home, he says, felt like it started in Australia – when he was still 15,000km from the UK.
‘But after that I was travelling through countries that felt more familiar, either because they spoke English or, on the last leg, because I was back in Europe.’
He knew then that no matter how difficult things got, he should be able to complete the journey. And that’s what he did.
‘Arriving back in Europe after the US and Canada was massive,’ he says. ‘And then the very final stretch from Poole to London was incredible. How did it feel to have done it? ‘Tiring, but also exhilarating and overwhelming.’
Some 100 family, friends and well-wishers had gathered in his home neighbourhood to welcome him back. Overcome with emotion, he told one reporter on the scene: ‘I am delighted the three charities will benefit from my trip, and cannot express how grateful I am for all the support from almost everyone who has heard about it.’ What has he done since? Taken a couple of days off, of course – then back on the bike.
‘This trip hasn’t diminished my love of cycling,’ he enthuses. ‘If anything it’s made me more passionate. My next big challenge is university, but after that I’ll maybe think about doing something similar again.’
Tom on the home stretch… about a hundred family, friends and well-wishers gathered to welcome him back