I get to speak to some pretty impressive people each year. But this guy might just take the biscuit. I wrote the following article for Bicycling Australia magazine earlier this year. It profiles a pretty incredible kiwi guy by the name of Jeremy Scott who a few years ago decided to ride home to New Zealand. From London. http://bicyclingaustralia.com.au/2014/06/hearten
Charities and cycling. They go together like Cavendish and Renshaw. Chains and sprockets. Derrieres and chamois cream. While many riders will pedal hundreds if not thousands of kilometres this year for a range of hugely worthy causes, chances are few will attempt anything quite like the ride recently completed by ex-pat New Zealander Jeremy Scott. Thanks to The Heart Foundation, I had the privilege to learn more of his remarkable journey; one which saw him travel almost 50,000km and flirt with death for the second time in his life.
In 1973 a Kiwi lad by the name Jeremy Scott was a little boy with a big problem. At the age of just two, doctors discovered his heart had a hole in it. Whilst potentially life-threatening, Scott was considered too young for correctional surgery and spent the next two years trapped within the limitations of his own body; specifically a heart unable to pump the blood a young boy needs to do the things young boys do – things like running, jumping, climbing and, yes, riding their bikes.
“I was pretty small as a baby. But as I got older my mum and dad noticed I couldn’t keep up with the other kids. I’d start but always have to stop,” remembers Scott. “Turned out there was a huge hole in my heart – as soon as my heart rate went up it couldn’t get enough blood to my arms and legs.”
After 24 months in medical limbo, Scott finally underwent open heart surgery at Auckland’s Green Lane Hospital in 1977, paving the way for him to live a largely normal and active life. But while he would go on to travel far and wide in the ensuing decades, Scott never forgot the brilliance of the surgeons who changed his life. When the opportunity presented itself to say thank you by raising funds and awareness for The Heart Foundation, he jumped at the chance. Or more precisely he jumped on his bike and rode it for more than 800 days and 50,000km from his adopted home in London to his childhood home in Auckland; a journey he completed earlier this year.
“I first got the idea back in 2004,” says Scott. “It was a way of linking my two homes on opposite sides of the world. Originally the plan was to set off in 2010 but I ruptured my anterior cruciate ligament and had to undergo a knee reconstruction. After six months of rehabilitation I went to the Lakes District in the north of England and rode up and down hills to test out the knee. It felt okay so I resigned from work the following day. One month later I was on my way. That was October 2011.”
Clearly Scott is no fan of long-haul economy air travel. But surely there are easier ways to return home after 10 years working abroad as an architectural draftsman? For however you dissect it on Strava, 50,000km is a gargantuan amount of riding. It’s roughly the equivalent of doing 15 Grand Tours; attempting Sydney-to-Perth repeats a whopping 12 times; or well over triple the distance Lotto Belisol’s Adam Hansen raced in the entire 2013 season (approximately 15,200km if you’re wondering). Throw in the added complications of traversing war zones, extreme weather, unscrupulous locals, language barriers, mafia gangs, treacherous roads and drivers of such dubious ability they make Sydney cabbies seem like angels, and clearly this was not a journey for the faint of heart.
The more we talked and the more I read of Scott’s meticulously kept travel blog, the clearer it became just how extraordinary this ride was on virtually every level imaginable, starting with his experience as a distance cyclist. He had none.
Unlike many who read this magazine, Jeremy Scott was no cycling tragic. He had no state-of-the-art carbon road bike. He boasted no Audax-inspired palmares. In fact, his ‘training’ consisted almost exclusively of commuting on a custom-made Koga Miyata Signature aluminium bike he picked up quite by chance, when a Canadian friend was returning home and couldn’t squeeze it in his packing crate.
“I’d never consider myself a cyclist. I rode a bike to and from work but I wasn’t very fit,” Scott recalls frankly. “In fact I’d go so far as to say I was unfit when I left London.”
It wasn’t just his fitness and cycling experience that was lacking as he pedalled into the great unknown in October 2011. Scott was entirely bereft of support crew. “The trip was totally self funded and I cycled solo the majority of the way,” says Scott. “Occasionally I crossed paths with other cyclists and we’d ride together for a way – I met an Aussie along the Silk Road on the Kyrgyzstan border, we did about 4,000km together – but part of the challenge was to do it unsupported. The day I set off from my flat in London was the first day I’d ridden with all the panniers on the bike. I was shocked to feel how heavy it was, but there was no turning back.”
Perhaps not surprisingly Scott says the early days were the worst, physically and mentally. Doubt continually plagued his thoughts. “From the very start I was riding over 100km a day on a regular basis. I was shattered. I’d get off the bike, eat then pass out. The reality of what I was attempting really hit me. I wouldn’t see friends or family for a long time. But eventually I found a rhythm and the confidence began to grow. After a few weeks I really noticed the increased strength and endurance. Thankfully my first countries were France, Belgium, Holland then into Germany. Most of this was flat so I had time to build strength on easier roads. But I’ll always look back to those first few days and think the hardest part of the entire journey was simply having the courage to try.”
Try he most certainly did; and trying it most certainly was. The absence of support meant virtually everything Scott required including water, food and spares had to be sourced and then carried in one of his bike’s four bulging panniers; two on the back wheel, two more on the front.
“There were a few times I found myself short of water, but it was never critical. Once in the Taklamkan Desert (in north west China) I started running out so I just waited on the side of the road. Within minutes a truck pulled over and gave me five litres – plus a cold ice tea,” he recalls gratefully.
Occasional hydration issues aside, Scott found being unsupported a hugely liberating experience. “I camped in my tent the majority of the time; it gave me so much freedom,” says the Kiwi. “In parts of China where every bit of flat ground was used to cultivate crops or rice, I often slept in abandoned or half-completed buildings. I would sneak in when the builders finished for the day and leave before they started again the following morning. I slept in Mosques, restaurants, prayer rooms, Buddhist Temples, police stations, petrol stations, on park benches, in local’s houses; toilets in Japan were also a great place to get shelter and warmth. There weren’t many places I wouldn’t have considered sleeping.”
While the early weeks may have been the hardest, other challenges lay in wait for Scott with each new day bringing new problems to solve. Yet overall he suggests he’s been very fortunate, starting with his bike.
“The bike has been brilliant. I’ve had to replace things like pedals, brake pads, cables, chains and sprockets – but no break downs. When I arrived in Australia the gears on my Rohloff Hub started slipping but it never stopped me from riding. I actually met the distributor who quite fortuitously was holidaying in Yeppoon. He stripped it down, gave it a full service then sent me on my way. His work didn’t cost a cent. Not bad after two years of cycling and around 40,000km under the belt! I also had a small lug break off the frame, but some friends made a bracket for me and it was as good as new. I’m on my third set of tyres – Schwalbe Marathon Plus – and they’ve been fantastic. Touch wood I haven’t had a puncture since July 2012. In fact, there have only been four punctures in total – three within a week as I rode through some polluted cities in central China. The steel from shredded truck tyres caused me all sorts of grief.”
While Scott’s bike held up well, what about the impact on his body, particularly given his general lack of preparation and previous riding experience?
“Look, I’ve been really lucky,” he admits. “I had the occasional saddle sore but nothing serious. Whenever I spent long days in the saddle (Brooks B17, if you’re wondering) my neck and shoulders would get a bit tight. But there were only a few occasions where the heat and fatigue really got the better of me. Sumatra was particularly tough as I had to cycle long distances over a short period. The roads were poor, the hills were steep and it was incredibly hot and humid.”
Over such an extended passage of time and distance, heat wasn’t the only climatic phenomena Scott had to cope with. “The European winter was cold but thankfully dry. Most of central and eastern Europe was below freezing 24 hours a day. Turkey had their worst winter in 50 years. Travelling through the mountains in eastern Turkey temperatures plummeted to minus 40 degrees overnight; I remember cycling in minus 20 degrees. It felt wrong to cycle past ski resorts, seeing people sliding playfully down the slopes while I pedalled further up into the mountains.”
Continuing east into Iran the wind posed its challenges for Scott astride his heavily laden and not overly aerodynamic bike. “I had days where I was actually blown off, the wind was so strong,” he recounts. “Then in China’s Taklamakan Desert it soared to over 50 degrees; no shelter, just blistering heat and numerous sandstorms. There were also typhoons when I reached the east coast of China, Korea and Japan.”
Beyond the weather itself, Scott’s riding conditions were also influenced by the vagaries of local roads and the drivers who used them. “In Turkmenistan the roads were so bad in places it was better to cycle in the desert. The roads in China, Kyrgyzstan, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were also rough in places. But Iran had brilliant roads, as did Japan.”
As for drivers? “China and Indonesia had appalling drivers, coupled with heavy pollution-bellowing traffic. They were definitely the worst. But places like Belgium and Holland were well set up for cycling. Japanese drivers were also very considerate and patient.”
Scott then begins to catalogue some of his many near misses, the causes of which may seem more than a little familiar. “I had a really close call in Turkey where I nearly went over the hood of a car that cut me off. A car in Sumatra actually bumped into me as it attempted to overtake in a stupid place. Another guy in Sumatra opened his door on me; somehow it just missed me but it ripped my rear pannier clean off the bike. That would have done damage, I was rolling pretty quickly.”
“I had a few crashes too, mostly the result of my own carelessness. The worst occurred on a mountain pass near Matsumoto in Japan. It was night and snowing with visibility about one metre. I hit a patch of ice. The landing was okay but the bike slid into me and the pedal cut into my Achilles tendon. I didn’t think too much of it at the time. But when I woke in the morning and discovered how much blood was in the bottom of my sleeping bag I realised how deep the cut was. I was lucky not to sever the tendon.”
The other considerable challenge of Scott’s journey was the sheer isolation of it all. Over 800 days in the saddle provides an eternity for personal reflection. What did he think about for hour after hour, day after day?
“Often I was completely lost in the moment,” he reflects. “I’d listen to birds, animals, trees blowing in the wind. At other times I’d think about family and loved ones. I thought about times where I have hurt people and where people have hurt me. Time has allowed me to bury some demons, let go of grudges and move on, focusing on what I can do with my own life in the present rather than dwelling on the past or things I can’t control. Sometimes my mind was completely blank, almost as if it was some form of meditation. I would ride many kilometres and not recall a single moment of where I’d just been.”
“When things were really tough I’d be completely focused on getting through that moment. The mountains in the east of Turkey were incredibly hard, as was Sumatra. I simply focused on getting through the day, as I knew I was then one day closer to more enjoyable times. It was best to break it down one day at a time, otherwise it would all have seemed too overwhelming.”
Overwhelmed was something Scott never became in more than two and a half years of riding. But plenty of the people he met thought he was certifiably crazy. “Some were excited and inspired,” laughs Scott. “But many couldn’t even fathom what I was doing, no matter how many times I tried to explain. In a lot of countries people wouldn’t consider cycling two kilometres so the idea of riding around the world was beyond the realms of comprehension; some of their reactions were hilarious!”
One thing that was far from hilarious, however, was the night Scott spent in an Iranian roadhouse fearing for his life in 2012. It was the darkest hour of his entire journey, and one that would, figuratively, put his once fragile heart to the ultimate test.
“Sadly the most dangerous incident occurred in my favourite country – Iran,” reveals Scott who at the time still hadn’t mustered the courage to tell his mum. “It was about 5pm and I stopped for water in an isolated truck-stop restaurant so I could camp for the night. I was invited inside for some tea and food; completely normal in Iran. After a while several men – one with only three fingers and a lot of facial scars – began asking about my valuables. I also noticed other people were coming and going but they weren’t buying food. Bags of money and white powder (I assumed it was cocaine but never asked) were changing hands. Turned out they were drug dealers,” he says, before revealing they weren’t just selling the contraband narcotics. “They were using the stuff too.”
Scott’s anxiety levels were rising rapidly. But they would soon soar higher than the region’s revered Zargos mountain range when his semi-wasted hosts made it clear he wouldn’t be going anywhere, with or without his bike. They also had his passport. “They were making no attempt to stop me from seeing what was going on. In a country where drug offences carry the death penalty, I realised I was in big trouble – particularly when one of the men disappeared into the adjacent kitchen and returned with a cache of guns. He started spinning a pistol on a table and kept stopping it aiming directly at me.”
The mind games continued as the night dragged on, and the men began to argue in what Scott unnervingly believes was a negotiation over his life. “Eventually they came to some kind of arrangement and a large sum of cash was exchanged, again right in front of me. The three-fingered guy disappeared into the kitchen and I all I could hear were knives being sharpened. At the same time, one of the other men approached me: ‘you sleep now’. I remember thinking ‘sorry mate but I’ve never been wider awake in my life’. I believe he’d been paid to cut my throat as I slept.”
It sounds like fiction. But it was anything but for the terrified Kiwi. “I’d never been in a situation like that before. I genuinely thought I was going to have to kill at least one of these men to get out alive. Then suddenly they left the room, possibly thinking I was asleep. While they were gone I managed to grab a knife and my passport from a nearby table. I remember thinking if I could attack one of the men as he returned to the room, I might have a small window, say 10 seconds, to disappear into the darkness – or that would be it.”
As luck would have it Scott didn’t need to. At around 11pm two trucks rolled into the roadhouse each with two passengers. They entered the restaurant and to Scott’s relief they ordered dinner, not drugs. “I knew that was my chance; with four witnesses I had maybe thirty minutes to get out of there,” he says. “I told the men ‘I’m going now’ and began to wheel my bike towards the door. At first they put their hands on the frame to stop me, ‘no, you stay’. But I kept pushing and eventually I was outside. I didn’t look back.”
Six hours after stopping innocently for water, Scott sped off in complete darkness. “I saw a policeman at one stage, but didn’t know who I could trust, so I just kept riding.” In the end he sought shelter in a Red Crescent Ambulance Station some 40km away. “I guess one way or the other the ambos were going to see me that night!” As the sun rose the next morning Scott realised the terrifying ordeal was over. But his confidence had been shaken to the core. Despite the encounter, however, Iran remains his favourite part of the entire journey.
“It was such a shame, because the people of Iran were incredible; the most beautiful, friendly, welcoming people I met on my travels. Time and time again I was offered food and shelter by locals. I danced with shopkeepers in their humble shops or strangers in the street. People went to amazing lengths to show their hospitality or help me. It was incredibly humbling to have some of the poorest people on earth giving me what they have when they owned practically nothing. In the West we could learn a lot from Iranians on how to treat a stranger.” Gun-wielding drug dealers aside, of course.
We’ve only scratched the surface of this ordinary Kiwi’s extraordinary journey. Part of me thinks Jeremy Scott is an inspiration. The other thinks he’s completely insane. As the conversation draws to an end, Scott offers some words of advice for others contemplating such an epic challenge, be it for charity or any other reason.
“I spent hundreds of hours researching the different countries. But I only rode about 30% of my planned route. If I undertook a similar journey I’d simply turn up at a decent time of year, chat with the locals, then start riding. Local knowledge is far better than any research you could ever do.”
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