In May 2015 Tim Millikin and Finola Hensman pedaled their bikes through the Berkshire city of Reading and onto the roads beyond, leaving their homes in the dust behind them to take on the nomadic life of the long distance cyclist.
These were the first tentative kilometers of what will eventually become a journey of epic proportions, taking them through Europe, Central Asia, China and ever onward to a town on the other side of the world- the town of Reading, Pennsylvania. I catch up with the cycling duo as they cross from Europe, and head east into the wild steppes of Asia.
“I’m currently in Turkey in a town called Arhavi”, says Tim. “We are approximately 40 km from the border of Georgia, which we will cross today. I’m writing this from a field next to a go-cart track where we were allowed to sleep last night.” They began their trip over three months ago, and now, with 6200 kilometres under their well trodden tires, they’ve made it to the Caucasus. An achievement that Tim is understandably ecstatic about in his email to me from a Turkish field.
Tim and Finola left their home in Reading to take on the challenge of cycling the world- from ‘Reading 2 Reading’. “Reading, UK”, says Tim, “is my hometown. If you ever get the chance to visit please do…It is a special place-the people are so friendly, the River Thames runs right through the middle and you are only five minutes cycle from beautiful nature”. Being their hometown, they saw it as the ideal starting place.
“We wanted to cycle from Reading to Reading since it ties in with our love for our home town and it gave the trip a nice title. It also means we have a finish line”, explains Tim. With a catchy trip title and a goal to aim for thousands of miles away, it was time for them to hit the road.
But living in what they see as such a glorious English city, it’s a wonder they decided to leave it all for the unpredictability and instability of what is an undeniably long, long road ahead of them.
For both of them though, they’ve always been into long distance cycling. “It began in Australia where we both cycled the Sunshine Coast-from Noosa to Brisbane. I then wanted to cycle home from Australia but Finola thought I was crazy and said no”.
Not so crazy an idea that they didn’t eventually take it on wheels first, but they haven’t done it just for the cycling- “In terms of this cycle we wanted to show that the world is actually a really good place. You hear so many scare stories sat at home-the news, the papers- that it would make it sound that the best idea is to live in your bubble. But people are friendly, you will not get robbed if you sleep outdoors, help is always there in any language and if you get lost someone will show you the way”.
And from their field next to a go cart track, over 6200 kilometers from the bubble of Reading, they back this up by reminding me: “We have traveled all the way through Europe and Turkey now without any issues at all and the hospitality we have received so far is nothing short of brilliant…someone is always out there to help us…I mean we had only been in Turkey one day before we were staying in a family home, eating dinner with our washing in the machine, drinking beers and sleeping in the main bedroom!”
When they make it to Reading- the American Reading that is- Tim and Finola will have powered their way over 40,000 kilometers. From Turkey they are heading to Georgia, then onto Azerbaijan for a ferry ride across the Caspian Sea and onto the Stans. By winter they aim to be in China, before heading south to the more tropical climes of South East Asia. If they can, they will find a way to take a boat to Darwin, Australia before riding the long and empty outback. When they make it Adelaide, another boat, this time to New Zealand. Then a flight to Santiago, Chile and north through the Americas, to Reading. And finally back home to Reading in Berkshire. All in 2 years.
Each country will bring with it different challenges and climates. Tim says that “…the most dangerous place [will] be somewhere like Honduras or Guatemala, I have heard from lots of people that there are lawless areas in the larger cities and crime is rife”.
“But we will have to see if that is really true”, he adds with the optimism of a true long distance adventurer. “I have found that when you talk to people they are always telling us stories of how the next country over is dangerous. In Czech Republic they told us Romania was dangerous, in Romania, Turkey and in Turkey we were told that Uzbekistan is dangerous… and so far we have been greeted with positivism and friendliness everywhere we go.”
“The hardest physical challenge is going to be climbing the Himalayan pass from Kyrgyzstan to China. It is going to be at the beginning of winter and we are looking at climbs of around 3500 m in temperatures of -20 Degrees Celsius!! This is the hardest physical challenge but one we are both looking forward to since this will mark the crest of our endurance, but we need to buy our winter gear first!”
With some hefty climbs, you’d think some intense training was completed before the journey began, but Tim emphatically denies this was the case, which makes their ride even more compelling to follow.
“Training!! We are not super human nor are we even that fit! To cycle long distance you train as you go, the first two weeks we averaged about 80 km per day and it is in these two weeks that we became fitter and stronger. No, no training was done. Finola did cycle the 3 miles to work every day and I cycled if I was going somewhere out of town but that was it. Our preparation was mainly mental, getting ourselves in the right head space to begin”.
With 2 years ahead of them on the road, they had to save hard working their day jobs to have enough cash. But cycling is a leisurely way to see the world on a budget. “I wanted to travel by bike”, says Tim “since for me it is the perfect method of travel. It gives you time to interact and stop if you choose. You go slow enough that people will warm to you and invite you for drinks and food and that is how you really get to know a country. The people. We cover about 70km a day so we are not in a race and it means we can stop whenever we want. Cost wise I believe this is the cheapest way to travel. Our set up cost was minimal-Fin’s bike was £120 and I built mine for just under £300, and on the road we spend about £5 per day per person, so much cheaper than any bus tickets or flights”.
Even more astounding, they are doing this entirely independently, off their own backs: “We are not sponsored, we have done everything ourselves. This means our trip remains completely ours and we do not have to rely on anyone else”.
As well being their own personal challenge, they are hoping to give something back along the way too. “We are raising money for two charities”, explains Tim. “The Royal Berkshire Hospital and SOS Children’s Villages. We wanted to support a local and international charity…The Royal Berkshire Hospital is the perfect local charity since it is the main hospital for Berkshire, lots of people have been through there and it has been helping people for years. My father had a stoke in the lead up to this trip and their help and support was wonderful. SOS Children’s Villages is also a great cause and they work to re-home orphans around the world following disease or war, and we intend to visit some of their support homes. I think it is important to raise money for good causes along side a large trip like this since if someone else can benefit then why not”. The pair will be fund raising throughout their two years, and have a link for contributions on their blog.
Tim and Finola have a long way to go, but they insist that they still have time to sight see. “This is definitely a sightseeing trip but there are times when we will have to push on. We are currently in the midst of getting our visas for the Stans and we need to ensure entry and exit dates are correct so we may sometimes have to rush to meet them. Otherwise we want to see as many interesting side trips as possible. Some of the most interesting places are off the beaten tourist track and this is what this trip is about”.
And will they make all the way to Reading in the USA?
“Of course we will make it! So far so good and no mechanical problems have occurred other than a few broken spokes and punctures. We have the drive and motivation to complete our trip but we don’t expect to be home until at least the middle of 2017 so we have some more cycling to do!!”
Looking ahead, Tim points out that they do have a finish line helping to push them on each day…even if it is still a long way off…”so in theory once we have reached Reading, USA it is time to go home”.
And before they’ve even finished this challenge, they are looking at the next one, or at least Tim is anyway. “Perhaps we can continue this trend for other cycles like East London 2 East London, South Africa or Pole 2 Pole…If Finola lets me!”
Thanks to Tim and Fin for taking the time out of their mad round the world cycle to get in touch from their field in Turkey. You can follow their adventure all the way to the finish at www.reading2reading.com
All photos in this article by Tim and Fin!