What Happens When Two Strangers Trust The Rides Of Their Lives To The Magic Of The Universe?
Bicycling South Africa|September/October 2020
Once upon a road in Kazakhstan, two men converge in the desert. Strangers born an ocean apart, riding bicycles burdened like camels, they emerge from either horizon, slowly approaching a common point. Day by day, hour after hour, they make their way through the land as flat and featureless as a page without words. Thousands of kilometers spool out behind them. Thousands more lie ahead.
Kim Cross
One rides east. The other, west.

For months now, each has been pedalling, alone, through sun, wind, rain, and snow, climbing mountains, crossing plains, and loading his bike onto boats to float across minor seas. Now, on a Sunday morning in August, they soldier down an unpaved Soviet road that never seems to bend. The only sound is tyres crunching on gravel; and now and then, the lonely roar of a truck hurrying between two somewheres.

The earth spins. The sun rises. Long shadows shrink into puddles of shade beneath their spinning wheels. From dawn to dusk, in every direction, the landscape looks the same.

The only thing that changes is the angle of the sun.

Then, through the shimmering heat, a blur appears on their common horizon and gradually comes into focus: a simple white box of a building on the edge of the dusty road. Next to it, a metal shipping container marked by a hand-painted word, Translation: chai khana, a teahouse, where travellers can find water, food and shade. The nearest city, on the Caspian Sea, is 380km away.

Here, under a noon Kazak sun, two sagas, by chance, eclipse.

The American is tall, 1.8m-odd, 90kg, smiling through the scraggly beard of a traveler who hasn’t seen a shower in days. He is 27 years old.

The Brit is shorter, 65kg, smiling through a blue bandana and a slightly darker beard. He is 26 years old.

“What the hell are you doing here?” says the American.

“What the hell are you doing here?” says the Brit.

It’s the first time in days they have opened their mouths to speak their native tongue. When had they last encountered a fellow traveler on two wheels? Each ogles the other’s bicycle – two wildly different animals beneath the same desert dust. The strangers introduce themselves.

“I’m Noel,” says the American, who is riding east.

“I’m Leon,” says the Brit, riding west.

LEON

LEON WHITELEY HAD been meandering west for 309 days and 18 203km. His journey began in Gumi, a South Korean city where he’d spent the year teaching English. When his tenure ran out, he came up with the boldest, darlingest overland voyage he could fathom: riding to England by bike – solo. So far, the trip had not gone as planned. But Leon thrived on a misadventure.

Leon did not fancy himself a ‘cyclist’, at least not of the Lycra-clad, leg-shaving sort. When he was a boy growing up in Yateley, a town in southeast England, a bicycle was his primary means of getting from here to there. He had never had a driver’s license.

When he was older, the bicycle became a vehicle for exploration. He once pedalled 1 400km from the northern edge of the British Isles to Land’s End, the southernmost tip. Riding with a friend for those 11 days, he tasted glorious freedom. No trains to catch, no rooms to book. As Leon wrote on his 323-page blog, “We fell into our own rhythm, generally dictated by how much pedaling our legs could take between sunrise and sunset.”

Now, after years of traveling the world with a backpack and hunger to stray as far as possible from the ever-beaten path, he cycled “to avoid the herd”. He craved an epic adventure, a trip that was “more akin to a quest”. His dream? “To ride from one edge of the map to the other.”

A proper touring bike was well beyond Leon’s budget. So he settled on an aluminum Gary Fisher hardtail mountain bike with V-brakes, a triple chainring, and a heavy fork. It cost around R6 000. It was better suited to a spin around the block than a hemispheric odyssey, but it would do. He added bar ends, four waterbottle cages, rear saddlebags, and a handlebar bag. The nicest thing about the bike was the Schwalbe Marathon tyres.

Leon took pride in this make-do bike, in the R300 Gore-Tex jacket he found on sale, and in the discounted two-man tent that looked a little less like a “vulnerable caterpillar” than a lightweight one-man bivvy that would “leave no illusion that I was a singleton if happened upon by forces of ill intent.” He whittled his belongings to the barest necessities and mailed everything else home.

One Saturday in October, Leon embarked a day past schedule, wheels rolling at 10 am. The first few kays out of the city squandered about 100 kilometers’ worth of patience, but soon he was passing red peppers drying on the side of the road, a man threshing grain with his feet, and an official highway sign pointing the way to the ‘Grave of a Loyal Dog’. (He paid respects.)

Leon loved the motto of the British Special Air Service: Who Dares Wins. He lived by this tenet, embracing the price of authenticity: the risks, the fear, the unknown dangers of sketchy places, and dodgy strangers. He believed in the “Tao of travel, where things just flow and you’re carried by randomness through a string of highly fortunate and unlikely experiences.”

NOEL

ONE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-SIX DAYS and 8 671km before meeting Leon in the desert, Noel Kegel pulled bike parts out of a cardboard box and reassembled them on the floor of the airport in Lisbon, Portugal. He imagined the endless road across Eurasia, the world’s largest landmass.

Noel had dreamed up this bike, part by part, before knowing where it would take him. Its soul was a Rohloff Speedhub, a weatherproof constellation of planetary gears as precise as a luxury timepiece. It drove a lugged steel Waterford frame custom-made near his home in Viroqua, Wisconsin. Each wheel he had lovingly built by hand, adjusting the tension of 32 spokes so the circle was perfectly true.

Raised in his family’s bike shop, Noel could repair a flat tire by age 10. During high-school summer holidays, he earned money by wrenching, and he rode his bicycle 1 450km to university in Montréal – three times. As a young man, he felt a wanderlust. His dream? “To ride ocean to ocean.”

His own continent seemed too easy, too tame. So he ran his fingers over a globe, searching for the longest ride. The one he found spanned 19 countries and 130 degrees of longitude. One side of the globe to the other.

He wasn’t driven by any of the reasons that have inspired other long-haul travelers. He wasn’t doing this to escape a dud job, to heal from a break-up, or to mourn a loss. He didn’t need to find himself. This wasn’t about raising money for a cause. He didn’t want sponsors, or even attention.

“I just wanted to see a few more corners of the Earth, at 15 kays an hour,” he said.

People told him he was crazy. The world, they warned, is a dangerous place. Noel believed otherwise. “If you listen to people, you’ll never go anywhere,” he said. “It’s best to go out and explore, and realize the world is a good place.”

In Lisbon, Noel rattled over cobblestones, rolled by a 145-year-old arch, and climbed a hill to a 15th-century castle. Before heading east, he rode west to the coast, where he stood on the edge of Europe, watching the sun melt into the Atlantic. Before falling asleep, he thought of the woman waiting on the other side of the water. Then he rose with the sun, turned his back to the sea, and pedaled towards the Pacific.

LEON

FROM KOREA, LEON planned to cross the Yellow Sea by ferry, then ride due west through China. His plans were immediately thwarted: the Beijing Olympics complicated the visa process. He would have to ride around China, a circuitous detour of island-hopping through the Philippines and Indonesia, stuttering up through Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia, entering China from the south.

This detour would take 99 days.

Leon pedalled north to Seoul, where airport officials treated his bike as if it were made of uranium. In Manila, he reassembled it before a captivated audience of janitors, who passed him tools like surgical nurses and asked, “Don’t you have any friends?”

He wove through Manila with one loose pedal, dodging mopeds, rickshaws, and Jeepneys as gaudy as carnival floats. “I felt just like another clown in the circus,” he wrote, “and even started to enjoy it.” On a glorious descent along the coast, distracted by the view, he missed a turn and wound up three bays and 60km from where he needed to be. He had no GPS – only a compass, a map, and his gut. (They were right more often than locals.)

Leon loved the idea of setting off every morning not knowing where he’d sleep that night. This dream became a recurring nightmare. Many towns had no hostels, just hourly rooms. Wild camping had its charms and jinxes. As he set up camp in the woods by the side of a road, a murmuration of starlings “danced in great swirling flocks” above his tent, “then proceeded to poo all over it.”

One very long night in Borneo, he lay wide-eyed in his tent as a gathering drumbeat filled the jungle. It was joined by moaning and human screams, then howling dogs and a woman shouting words in some exotic tongue. Afraid to draw attention to himself by turning on his lamp, he crawled out of his tent in the dark and stood, half-dressed, in the full-moon light, armed with a ballpoint pen (“the most dangerous weapon I could find in the dark”). The devil’s symphony crescendoed with a blood-curdling scream, and then – silence. Only the sound of a coconut crashing to the ground.

He often awoke, dog-tired, to endless climbs that disappeared into the mountain mist. He was honked at by lorries, mocked by locals, stoned and cursed by children, and stymied by bad directions. Some days the road only seemed to go up, and no matter which way he turned, it was always into the wind. Caught in a monsoon, he struggled through water that lapped at his pedals. But when strangers offered him a ride through a sandstorm, he resisted.

“I would’ve been able to hail a lift if I was fighting at Stalingrad or halfway up Everest. But no, I had to be born at the first point in human history when adventure must be sought out and contrived and isn’t just thrust upon you.”

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