Sports fans are known for their devotion. They’ll paint their bodies and stand shirtless in for hours in freezing stadiums, and proudly wear blocks of faux cheese on their heads. Just two Sundays ago, a Philadelphia Eagles fan assaulted a 6-foot-8 professional athlete for wearing the wrong jersey to a tailgate.
But that’s American football. A pair of English rugby fans have taken their fandom to another level, cycling more than 9,000 miles from London to Japan for the Rugby World Cup, which kicks off Friday.
Ben Cook and George Cullen started their ride on March 21, 2019, braving parched deserts, high mountains, camel cheese and the “tunnel of death” as they journeyed through 21 countries. Along the way they’ve raised nearly £30,000 ($37,500) for men’s health through the Movember movement, aided, no doubt, by their traveling name—the Hairy Handlebars—and their hirsute charm.
They’re currently riding east along the Japanese coast toward Tokyo, which they plan to reach Friday in time for England’s opening match against Tonga. The mustachioed duo caught up with Adventure Journal from a wifi hotspot in a Family Mart outside Nagoya.
AJ: Where did you get the idea to do something like this?
Ben Cook: Initially it was just us wanting to go on a big adventure, and cycling always appealed. It’s faster than walking, but you’re more in the environment than if you were in a car. It’s a great way to go to see the world.
We didn’t say outright we wanted to go from London to Tokyo. We just wanted to go and do a big ride. The rugby world cup in Japan gave us a good goal, and a fantastic route.
You weren’t big cyclists before you started, though?
BC: This was our first trip. We did do one warm up ride from London to Paris, which was only three days.
What surprised you along the way?
George Cullen: Everything. That’s the beauty of it. You don’t know anything about what’s in store. At the start there were some anxieties and apprehensions, like what if my bike’s going to break, what if this, what if that. You start to think of so many problems that can go wrong but actually you sort of surprise yourself, because on the trip those are quite easily dealt with. Problems like that aren’t necessarily negative. They’re actually quite positive because they’re a learning experience.
Do you have an example?
BC: Well, loads of broken bikes and broken bike parts. Because we weren’t cyclists, during the start of the ride George and I would name different parts of the bike slightly differently to what they’re actually called. We’d just do our best to fix it with cable ties and duct tape.
You find you’re a lot more resourceful than you think, and you also realize that you’re not alone. That was the big one. You think you’re going to be just out in the middle of nowhere on your own and if you can’t sort something, you’re dead. But we’ve had times when the bikes were broken or we needed water or shelter, and we just asked people.
Does a trip like this restore your faith in humanity?
BC: Yeah, definitely. Going through the Central Asian countries, which we didn’t know much about beforehand, you might build up a picture of them being a bit dodgy. But what we found is that these people who have next to nothing would give you everything. That was really humbling. So yeah, it really has given us that faith in humanity.
What was the hardest part of the trip?
GC: Going through the desert was pretty tough. There’s one road in Uzbekistan that’s 140 kilometers without a bend, and no water that whole time. That was that was quite a challenging day, because it was very boring and very hot. We were carrying 12 liters of water each so the bikes were weighed down. Everything was just sticky and difficult, and we just had to get to the end.
BC: In terms of challenges we were offered by Mother Nature herself, we were in the Bartang Valley in Tajikistan. That’s the most remote way across the Pamir Mountains, and we spent six days traversing that valley. We reached maximum altitude of 4,350 meters (14,270 feet) cycling on gravel and shale—not even gravel road, just a natural track. With the conditions we encountered it was amazing and difficult in equal measure, which was really good fun.
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I love that you describe the toughest part of the trip as ‘good fun.’ Is that the secret of your successful trip?
BC: We’re both quite upbeat and optimistic people, so in any situation we’ve been quite good over the course of six months finding the fun and finding the positives in different things. If it’s snowing, we’re laughing and asking ‘How shit can it get?’ We’re quite good at finding cheerfulness in the face of adversity. And I suppose we’d be lying if we said in the moment that we didn’t have our wobbles, cursing the world and the cycling gods for giving us this shit situation. But hindsight’s always different, isn’t it?
GC: Resilience is the main thing. There are definitely times when you think, ‘Fuck this, what did I get myself into?’ But then in an hour or the next day it’ll be something amazing again. I guess it’s the same in everyday life. There are ups and downs, right?
I’m glad you brought up resilience. Your ride is raising money for the Movember movement. Broadly it’s about men’s health, but it’s really about the suicide epidemic, isn’t it?
BC: George and I both have friends that suffered from mental health issues and they have relied on our support during the course of this trip. People who called and said, ‘I’m in a really bad place.’ Those people had the courage to speak to us because of the message that we’re carrying. That is a motivating factor and that helps us to stay to stay focused on getting to the end of this trip. But it’s hardly like we’re saving the world. We’re just doing the small bit that we can.
GC: We’re also giving 10 percent to the Ian Williams Foundation. Ian was a good friend who passed away suddenly due to cardiac issues while playing rugby. So for me personally that’s been quite a big motivation.
You guys are great ambassadors for the Movember movement because you each have truly magnificent mustaches, but on this trip you were sometimes out of your league. What’s the best mustache country in Central Asia?
GC: Turkey. Absolutely. They seem to have a bit of a mustache culture. There were some absolute brutes.
It’s all good fun, but did you ever fear for your life?
GC: I wouldn’t say so. The scariest thing was probably traffic. Going into Istanbul was pretty hectic. There’s one road going in and it’s a three-lane motorway with no hard shoulder. That was a bit sketchy.
BC: And going into Dushanbe in Tajikistan there was the ‘Tunnel of Death.’ That’s what they call it. We got to the top of this mountain pass and we’re confronted with two options. One was to go through this five-kilometer tunnel, which had no ventilation and no lighting. And the other was to climb over the pass, which could take another 10 hours or so. So George and I put our buffs over our faces and plunged into the abyss. It was this big smoking tunnel, like you can imagine dragons in there. We came out the other side about 20 minutes later, and we both had black all over our faces from the fumes.
GC: We got to the other side, and like George said, we loved it. It was so stupid, but we started high-fiving. We were just on sort of a high from that, and then we descended down into Dushanbe. It was good fun.
Any close calls with the food?
BC: Oh yes. The food culture in Uzbekistan is absolutely dreadful. All they really did was eggs on stale bread, or this kind of soup with knuckles of meat and potatoes. We ended up getting a few of these broths that had a nugget of meat which could have been absolutely anything. We didn’t ask.
GC: In Kazakhstan, a guy offered us this horrible hard cheese. It was like a rock—the kind of cheese that when you touch it with your tongue it immediately prunes. This is in the middle of the desert and we’re absolutely parched. The guy was very nice and he was watching us with this big smile, so we couldn’t just throw it away. It was fermented camel cheese. They use it as a good source of energy, and I suppose we looked like we needed a bit of a pick-me-up. The people really have been the highlight of the journey.
What would your advice be someone who is thinking about doing a trip like this?
GC: I think just commit to it as early as possible. We started telling people about the trip and creating our social media pages before we’d even really done any planning. We just thought, ‘Bugger it, let’s just go for it.’ And once you start telling people, you don’t really have a choice. You just take the plunge, realizing that although there are fears and worries, they just kind of melt away once you’re on the trip.
What’s next for the two of you?
BC: The Hairy Handlebars, which George and I have kind of branded ourselves as, are going to set up some sort of an event for other people to get involved and continue to raise money for men’s health on an annual basis.
And we’ve got some more adventures in store as well. We’ve had six months to come up with all sorts of ideas, and we’ll share those on Instagram (@thehairyhandlebars) when the time is right.
England plays the United States in a week’s time. You’re both huge rugby fans, and George you played professionally. So how do you rate the U.S. team’s chances?
GC: I think England are probably pretty firm favorites.