19 September 2019

Hairy Encounters

What it’s really like to cycle over 6,000 miles from London to Tokyo

Almost six months ago, Ben Cook and George Cullen (aka The Hairy Handlebars) set off from Covent Garden, London on a 6,000-mile bicycle ride to raise funds for Movember. Now, as the boys reach their final destination in time for the Rugby World Cup, we recap some of their most bizarre experiences from the road to Tokyo.
The Hairy Handlebars have just finished their self-sustained cycle from London to Tokyo and have reached their goal of raising £30,000 for Movember, with 10 per cent going to The Ian Williams Foundation - a charity aimed at alleviating cardiac issues in young sportsmen. 
Ben, 24, and George, 26, from Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire, committed to the massive challenge in the name of Movember more than 18 months prior to their start date on January 21, 2019. The hairy pair pedalled tirelessly every day towards ‘the land of the rising sun’ in time for the Rugby World Cup.
Ben, a former Royal Marines Captain, said: “Neither one of us had ever had much interest in cycling prior to this trip. It was fuelled less by a love for bikes than a thirst for adventure.

“The prospect of visiting the most remote parts of Central Asia and China was super exciting so in turn we both quit our jobs and began preparing for what has been an epic experience.” 
Having passed through 19 countries since March, The Hairy Handlebars experienced more than a handful of different cultures on their cycle to Japan.
Their meticulously planned route took the pair through mainland Europe, following the Danube River to Istanbul, across Central Asia and into the Kazakhstan desert. They ticked off another 2,500 miles through China before flying over to Osaka and cycling to the finish line in Tokyo.
But no amount of planning could have prepared them for what they would encounter along the way.

at the great wall of china

Uzbek Wedding
Three months into the ride, the duo found themselves in the Uzbek city of Bukhara, where they were invited off the street to join two full days of wedding celebration – and even managed to get on the stag do. Attending the official wedding breakfast the next day and main party that night, Ben and George immortalised themselves in the family’s wedding photos.

Watch out: Landmines
While cycling along the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border, The Hairy Handlebars came across some rather concerning signs. With the war-torn Afghan region just over the river, the road was lined with notices warning of landmines just off the track. Most of us would find the warnings slightly troubling, but the Afghan villagers waving at them on the other side of the river didn’t seem too concerned.

Straight roads, isolation and wild horses
For a large part of the Central Asia leg, the pair found themselves buried deep in scarcely inhabited desert. While cycling through 1,700km of arid Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan land, temperatures flirted with the 40C mark. And if the terrain and heat weren’t enough to challenge their endurance, straight roads with no buildings for 140km at a time really tested their nerve. The 300km-long Bartang Valley in Tajikistan remains the wildest place The Hairy Handlebars ventured to date, where they saw nobody but a single shepherd for three days. Riding at 4,000m elevation with 7,000m peaks around them, the feeling of isolation was intense. The pair spent their evenings sleeping out under the stars with wild horses running around close by.

George said: “That was physically one of the most challenging parts of the trip. It was really hot, we had to carry about 10kg of water each, and it was just quite bleak. Knowing that each day, you wouldn’t see virtually anything different for 140km was fairly demoralising. But it was amazing to be in such wilderness. It was quite nice to be so isolated for a bit.”

“That was physically one of the most challenging parts of the trip. It was really hot, we had to carry about 10kg of water each, and it was just quite bleak. Knowing that each day, you wouldn’t see virtually anything different for 140km was fairly demoralising.”

Georgian hospitality
Not long into their journey, the pair were taken in by a random family during their first night in Georgia in a beautiful little mountain village. They ended up being force-fed homemade cognac and wine by the dad who didn’t speak a word of English, and spoke with the mother who was the local English teacher. George slept out in the corridor and then found himself a little worse for wear in the school playground the next day after being invited in to meet the kids. 
Cops on their heels
Possibly the most unexpected thing Ben and George came across was their less-than-pleasant welcome from the Chinese police force. They were followed the whole way through the Xinjiang Province, where police kept a close, suspicious eye on them. And they were forced to sleep in motorway underpasses as it’s illegal to camp and they couldn’t afford the hotels set aside for travellers. But it wasn’t all bad, with one cop offering to carry their bags for a section of the journey.

The Hairy Handlebars aim to raise £30,000 for Movember. Visit thehairyhandlebars.co.uk for more information on their trip.
You can also recap each stage of their journey via video blog on their YouTube channel.