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A Life by Bike: Around the World in More Than Eighty Days

Words by @peteskilebowski Photos by @becycling

Camping during the BeCycling project

At what point does a trip become a journey; a journey become life? For the cycling couple Daniele and Simona of BeCycling, a globe-spanning project to ride to the top of the seven highest passable mountain passes of the world, the road was always home. “It’s been life since the beginning,” explains Daniele, phoning in over Skype during a few days off-saddle in Mexico. “From the very first day, we knew it was not going to be just a short trip.”

Short is an understatement. Daniele and Simona departed Rome’s Piazza del Campidoglio in 2014. Four years and several thousand kilometres later, they have already crossed France’s Col de la Bonette (2,802 metres), Turkey’s Ilgar Dagi Gecidi (2,550 metres), the lofty Himalayan Tro La Pass (4,900 metres), Australia’s Mount Hotham, (1,830 metres) and Mosquito Pass in the US Rocky Mountains (4019 metres).

And all the while fundraising for World Bicycle Relief, an organisation that provides bicycles to entrepreneurs, healthcare workers and students across rural Africa through sustainable work-to-own and study-to-own programs.  

The Pedaler caught up with the plucky duo in February, before they departed Mexico City to weave their way towards all 5,130 metres of the Abra Azuca in the Peruvian Andes, the highest peak of their journey.

 

What you're doing must seem like something from another planet when you meet people that have never really cycled? 

Daniele - Generally, they can't believe it. Recently though, we spent three months passing through the US, and we didn’t attract much attention. That’s probably because of the route we're following now - the classic Alaska-Patagonia - there are so many cyclists doing that, so people are more used to it.

Simona - In places like Central Asia, they still move around a little bit, and they think about us as foreigners coming from the western world. They would never imagine that we would do something similar - moving around, living on the road. They think you live a regular life, with money at home, with your office job. They expect dollar tourists; then they see two people living out of panniers.

Cycling across fields BeCycling

I guess in the west, we’re guilty of stereotyping. It's quite refreshing to hear that you're getting stereotyped right back.

D - Especially when we say we are from Italy. You hear all kinds of things, from pizza to mozzarella of course.

  

Looking back now at when you started, do you want to tell yourselves, "Don't pack that. What are you doing? You don't need that." Has it been a journey of learning about how to do what you're doing, of discovery?

D - We actually changed so much in these four years. Everything from bicycles to setups, to the kind of bags and the stuff we carry. It's all changed so much. But I would never go to somebody and say, "Don't do that." Or, "Do that," because everybody has to make their journey. At the beginning though, yeah, we were carrying 80 kilogrammes each on the bike

 

That’s an awful lot of weight.

D - For sure. But we’ve shaved it so much; it's less than half that weight now. For example, in the beginning, I was carrying three long trousers and eight different T-shirts!

S - But that's because as we said before, our mind was set up for living our whole life on the road. So what we were doing was just, moving everything from the regular life, to the road life.

 

So you hadn’t yet adapted to the minimalism of the road?

D - That's been a big lesson for us. I'm cautious with my kit. I'm always worried about breaking things or wearing stuff out. And when you're on the road like us, you learn that sooner or later it will break up or wear out, sooner or later it will happen, so you don't need to carry too many things. It's better to focus on less stuff - less stuff, fewer problems.

 

Your initial route took you east out of Europe. What was it like cycling to gradually less familiar places?

S - I think there have been two big steps.

D - Eastern Europe was very quick. But the first time we felt outside of our comfort zone, or familiar region was in Turkey. Once you leave Istanbul and you head inland, you just go through villages and towns - it's a different culture and a different language. They don't speak English at all, so it's your first big barrier to another world.

S - Pretty soon though you learn a little bit of Turkish. You can speak a bit of Turkish in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, as they all have the same root. So you manage to communicate with people. Central Asia would still be part of that first step.

D - Then you have the second huge step, and that was China. China is a completely different planet. So, I think we can sum it up with two steps: The first was Turkey and the second one was China. 

Camping in a clearing

What was the reception like in China?

S - They were crazy about us. We were just like, the biggest attraction ever. But the problem is that you can't explain to them what you're doing because we don't speak Chinese. We'd love to, but we don't.

D - And they don't speak English.

S - Right, I don't know if they did understand what we were doing. We have no idea.

D - The other thing is that there are a lot of Chinese people travelling around the whole country by bicycle. We met so many; like a guy who has been cycling for two years.

S - It's difficult for them to get out of China and China is so big. There’s a lot of variety, so they just stay in their own country, and they travel by bike.

 

Mountains are central to your project ride, and you’ve got one coming up in Peru, pushing five and half thousand metres?

D - Yeah, we're still investigating which one we're going to cycle because maybe there's something even higher than that.

S - Surprisingly, it's not easy to find it out. Every time we do one, people say, "Yeah, but I know another one that is higher."

D - Okay, so let's do that one as well!

S - But when we approach one of our mapped goals, it's one of many passes we’ll climb; there are so many in the middle. So in a way, they're the storyline, but we’re still doing others. It's just that they’re the connecting points to make sense of the journey.

 

So far, what have been the best and worst days of the trip?

D - The worst was probably the extreme cold up north in Canada. Now if I think back, that was the hardest, for sure. I don't know if it was the worst because we didn't like it. No, that's not true. It was the worst because it became so hard to keep going and survive.

S - We even considered skipping the section at the time. "Okay let's catch a ride.” Because it was getting late into the season, so we were going to be stuck there for a while.

D - Especially because we came up from Sydney, Australia. We went from 40 degrees to minus 30 degrees. So it was not a good idea from that point of view. 

Water under the ice

And for your bike and your bags, you’re way out of normal operating temperatures.

D - Yeah, we had some brake issues. And then everything you have, like panniers, they get stiff in the cold. So you're afraid that you're going to roll them and they'll break apart.

S - Worst was the exhaustion from cycling in minus 30. It was exceptionally tough for us, at least to camp. We aren't used to that. We are from Rome, the sun city!

 

You were still camping, even in those temperatures?

D - Yep. We decided to include it in the route because it was the last chance to cycle on an incredible stretch of highway that goes over the Arctic Ocean. The ocean is actually frozen. And the town was only accessible via a 200 kilometre stretch of pure ice; you can see the water beneath your wheels.

 

That sounds a bit...scary.

S - Trust me, it's really beautiful.

D - And for that particular stretch of ice road, they've just finished building the new highway that will go through the mountains. So last year was the final chance to ride it before it falls into disrepair.

S - What we learned though, is that at -30, you can’t stop. Your heating system is the act of cycling. You keep cycling; you keep producing heat. Once you stop, your hands, your feet, your everything starts freezing.

 

You’re riding with a couple of Cinelli’s Hobootleg bikes - how have they performed?

 D - The bike has been perfect for the whole four years. We haven't had many issues. The only thing at the beginning was that the spokes were longer than they needed to be, so the wheels were slightly off. We started breaking spokes around the 10,000 kilometres mark. At the end in Australia, we replaced the wheels, and these are now very rugged. We haven’t had any spokes break so far on the new ones.

The bike is very simple, and when you’re touring, that’s exactly what you need; nothing fancy, so it's easy to repair. You can find spare parts pretty much everywhere. I've been working as a mechanic so, I know how to work with my hands, so bikes are okay.

 

You're going through South America now, and then I read that you're going to jump off at Brazil and fly to South Africa. Is that the plan? And then cycle up through east Africa on the way back to Europe?

 D - We don't know about that. We'll see. The plan for sure is to go from the tip of South America to the tip of South Africa and ride back north. But the way we'll choose once in Africa, I have no idea. But yeah, we'll see at the moment.

A beautiful view of a dirt road, stretching out into the distance with a bike in the foreground

Living on the road and travelling, do you tend to stop for a few weeks at a time in one place? Perhaps do a little bit of work locally and reacquaint yourselves with off-bike life?

 D - Yeah, we do that. We've had one big stop in Australia. We stayed in the same place for five months, working there, and saved up some more money. Apart from that five months break, we've had a lot of one-week breaks. But not often more than that.

 

What's the best thing about travelling by bike?

 S - One of the most beautiful parts of travelling by bike is that we go slowly. We don't care about timing. The best thing is knowing people, knowing their culture and making friends. It's amazing.

 

If anyone is reading this and thinking of doing a similar ride, can you offer any advice on daily budgets?

 D - I think you can do it with any budget you want. If you have money, it’s no problem. But if you don't have much, you can be very cheap. We try to spend no more than 5 to 10 dollars per day as a budget. You can do it. Maybe in the United States, it might be harder to travel with $5 per day. But then you get into Mexico, and you can be below that budget. Because this is a pretty useful topic, I created a statistics page on our website, so you can see all of our expenses with no filter or anything.

Using the tool, you can calculate for yourself how much we’ve spent in almost four years - it’s something like $15,000 per person. So, anybody who owns a car can just sell it and travel for four years!!

S - But anyway, it's possible. You can travel on a low budget. We don't consider ourselves as being extremely low budget because we still now and then have a shower in a hostel!

 

Thank goodness for that

D - You just have to switch your brain. And maybe don’t buy as much olive oil as we do. We are still Italian, after all.

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To follow Daniele and Simona's adventure, visit:

http://www.becycling.net/