You’d think that embarking on a three-year trip cycling round the world would involve a huge amount of planning, training and continuous dedication to the sport …
You’d be surprised then, to hear that in Jonathan Kambskard-Bennett’s case, his passion for cycling resulted in him to cycling round the world completely by accident! Jonathan and his bike had never traveled over 10 miles together, and barely knowing how to mend a puncture, he set off to see how far East he could ride and ended up doing 50,000 km cycling round the world.
Jonathan’s sheer determination allows him to share a host of tales of being invited to Easter lunch with a Romanian Granny and hanging out with the Kazakh military, to wild camping on the Tibetan Plateau in temperatures of -20°C.
We got the opportunity to ask Jonathan about his trip cycling round the world.
- What kind of cyclist were you before you left on your trip? Did you enjoy cycling?
I grew up in a cycling family. Not a crazy ‘road-racing on the weekends’ type one but my mum is Danish and so we had quite a Scandinavian bike-friendly attitude to travel. I have always used a bike to get to school and work wherever I have been.
For me, cycling has always been for function. I never used to ride for pleasure or for exercise, it was just a convenient (and cheap) way to get around. When I was cycling round the world people often laughed when I told them I didn’t really like cycling that much. I loved the way in which cycling enabled me to see the planet, but I never really cared that much about the actual act of sitting on my arse and pedaling all day.
- What pre-journey planning – if any – did you do? How detailed were your plans, or did you have a go with the flow approach?
When I left the dream was to cycle to Australia. In hindsight, I’m not sure how serious I was about that plan. I think I just chose the furthest away country that was ‘almost’ connected to us by land. That said, I did think about a general route stretching pretty much the whole way before leaving…
Most of it was pretty ‘go with the flow’, but you’d be surprised how much of it makes itself up for you when you start looking at the map. For example: crossing from Europe to Asia isn’t straightforward. Riding through Pakistan/Afghanistan isn’t very safe and you’ll probably be forced to take a police escort. So, if you want to ride every metre (like myself) it’s not an option. But if you want to ride across Russia you’ll find getting the visa and freedom pretty tough.
There are lots of cases similar to this. Generally, I would plan just the next section at a time. I’d usually have a good idea about a month ahead of schedule but the actual route from ‘a to b’ was normally just done a week ahead of time MAX.
- Can you tell us a little bit more about the gear you packed when planning your cycling trip round the world? How did you decide on what essentials you would bring, considering the limited space?
Initially, I threw a lot of stupid stuff into my panniers. When I say ‘stupid’ I mean stuff like jeans (heavy and take a long time to dry), a smart shirt (that I would only wear once in a blue moon) and a monstrous coat which was my mum’s old one (I should have invested in a lightweight, compactable down jacket). Over time my possessions became a lot more streamlined and I learned what items that I could get rid of while still feeling comfortable.
Jonathan provides more information on the gear he took on his journey cycling round the world here – https://jkbsbikeride.com/gear
- Your initial plan was just to head off east. At what point did it transform into a journey cycling round the world?
I’m not entirely sure, to be honest! I think I probably started thinking about it just after I’d been on the road for a year (when I was in China). It was around that time that I realised I definitely had it in me to reach Australia and so I think I started wondering – ‘what next after that’? I recall Googling what counted as an ‘around the world journey’ but I didn’t commit to the idea until I took a break in Australia to earn some money.
‘Cycling round the world’ was never that important because once you start adding flights in spoils the romantic side of just riding a bike across long stretches of a landmass. When I left Australia I really wanted to visit New Zealand and after that, I didn’t fancy leaving the English-speaking world – I was enjoying chatting with people in my mother tongue too much! So, I decided to visit the USA and from there it just seemed logical to cycle back home…
- Did you ever just want to stop? What kept you going day after day?
Not really! There were difficult times, don’t get me wrong. There were moments when I felt wildly out of my depth, scared, lost and homesick but usually I knew that there would be light at the end of the tunnel if I just kept cracking on. The positive times always massively outweighed the bad ones.
The only time I really wanted to pack it in was in North West China. Winter was arriving quickly – the nights were starting to hit -10C and it was only getting colder. The daylight hours were short and I hated being in my tent for so long out in the desert. I had a lot of trouble from the authorities up there (Xinjiang is a pretty ‘sensitive’ province in China) and I found it hard to engage with the Chinese during my first month in the country. But it would have been such a faff to get home from somewhere like that and so it was actually easier just to keep on riding. Sure enough – things got better once I started climbing up onto the Tibetan Plateau (although a lot colder!) and I ended up loving the country.
- The quote goes ‘difficult roads can often lead to the most beautiful destinations’. Did you find that to be true? Where did you enjoy cycling the most/least?
100%. The only part I disagree with is ‘often’ – I think it is ‘always’! The most rewarding roads I travelled were the hardest to reach and the most strenuous to pedal. They were always the lumpiest dirt roads in the most remote corners of the world.
I love the mountains. The bigger the better. Not easy places to pedal on a loaded bike but the most beautiful places for me. I particularly loved the Pamirs in Tajikistan/Kyrgyzstan, the Tibetan Plateau in China, New Zealand’s South Island and the West of America.
- Are you glad you cycled solo? Did you meet many long-distance cyclists along the way?
I am glad I cycled solo but I didn’t really do it out of choice – I just did so because no one wanted to come with me! I loved the times I cycled with other people but I also realise that lots of wonderful opportunities presented themselves to me because I was riding solo. I think strangers are much more likely to approach you and extend a helping hand when you are on your own.
I met more long-distance cyclists than most non-bike tourers would probably have expected. That said because I got almost every season ‘wrong’ there were long stretches of many months when I never saw another cyclist.
- Traveling on your own can obviously be risky at some points – when do you think you felt most uncomfortable and in danger?
I never really felt that uncomfortable or in any real danger. I met a few ‘dodgy’ people along the way but generally, I was more concerned about environmental issues. For example – getting frostbite sleeping in too cold temperatures or suffering from heat stroke in the desert. I was also aware that at times, in very remote areas, all it would take would be one bad accident and I’d be pretty f*cked (for lack of a better word).
- In contrast to that – what were the highlights of the trip? The memories that you think you’ll share most often?
Probably the most memorable moment was arriving in Darwin, Australia. Despite the fact that I’d taken my first plane of the trip (an hour-long crossing from Dili in Timor-Leste), it was the most important milestone I ever hit. Reaching Australia was the dream when I left home and to make that a reality and put my feet down on Aussie soil was an amazing feeling. There were many times when I thought I’d never make it, so it was an empowering moment. In contrast, arriving home wasn’t nearly as powerful. By then I knew that I was capable of making the distance, so there was nothing surprising about having made it.
There was a bunch of other memorable moments:
Reaching the Pamir Highway (a road I’d wanted to travel for years) and finding myself up above 4,000m for the first time was pretty special.
Making even greater heights a few months later and conquering a 4,800m pass in China (the highest point of my trip) was also pretty amazing.
Arriving at the coast in Adelaide after two months in the desert crossing Australia from top to bottom in the middle of summer was also pretty fantastic.
And, finally, arriving in Istanbul and having made it across Europe was another big milestone.
- What did you learn about yourself and the world during your journey? How did your trip cycling round the world change you?
I suppose I learned that I’m a pretty resilient individual. I have a clear understanding of both my physical and mental limits and I think I am a lot tougher than I thought I was 3 years ago.
It’s hard to say how the trip changed me! We are always changing as life goes on – regardless of what we get up to. I like to think that I have a better understanding of my place in the world. It is neither an important place nor an insignificant one. At the very least my geography is a lot better now!
- How important do you think it is to be willing to embrace the unknown to do something like this in the first place?
Very important! Taking that initial ‘leap of faith’ is the fear that cripples most of our dreams for adventure. Many of us find that we are capable of all sorts once we have stepped outside of our comfort zone but taking that first step is always the hardest part.
- What advice would you have for people who are looking to embark upon an adventure, but are unsure how to take the first steps?
I would say – just go it for it! If my adventure has proved one thing, it was that you don’t need to be an expert to start. There is so much information online so you can be very prepared before you even leave home. Still, no matter how much you read, nothing will totally prepare you for the unknown. Learning on the job is certainly a steep learning curve, but absolutely the most beneficial. You will make mistakes at first – but that is all part of the experience.
You can read more about Jonathan’s fantastic trip online.