Hairy Handlebars reach Tokyo for Rugby World Cup after epic 8,700-mile bike ride across 19 countries in six months for charity
From landmines to unwanted police escorts, two Bishop's Stortford rugby club players have experienced hair-raising adventures by cycling 8,700 miles (14,000km) to Japan for the Rugby World Cup.
George Cullen and Ben Cook – aka the Hairy Handlebars – set themselves an immense challenge: to raise £30,000 for charity by riding from London to Tokyo.
George, 26, and Ben, 24, set off from Covent Garden on March 21. On Sunday (Sept 22), the pair finally arrived in the Japanese capital, two days after the Rugby World Cup kicked off.
They have also smashed their fundraising target: they have generated almost £36,000, including Gift Aid, for the Movember Foundation, which raises money to tackle prostate and testicular cancers, mental health and suicide. Ten per cent of the Hairy Handlebars' sponsorship money will be donated to the Ian Williams Foundation, which aims to alleviate cardiac issues in young sportsmen.
The duo's feat was recognised by England Rugby, which tweeted a video celebrating their efforts. This was then retweeted by the official Rugby World Cup Twitter account.
Ben, an alumnus of The Bishop’s Stortford High School and 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.”
The Hairy Handlebars' meticulously planned route took them across mainland Europe, following the River Danube to Istanbul in Turkey, across central Asia and into the Kazakhstan desert. They rode 2,485 miles (4,000km) through China before flying to the Japanese city of Osaka and cycling to Tokyo.
But no amount of planning could have prepared them for what they encountered along the way.
On their first night in Georgia, the pair were taken in by a family in a mountain village and plied with home-made cognac and wine by the father. He was unable to speak a word of English, but the pair were able to talk with his wife, an English teacher.
George, a former Bishop’s Stortford College student and ex-London Scottish player, said: “We’d heard that the Georgians were pretty hospitable and that the wine was amazing, with people offering it to you freely, so we were excited to get into the country. It was incredible that on the first night we were there, everything we’d heard about the country came true.”
Three months into the ride, they were again welcomed with open arms by a family in the Uzbek city of Bukhara. They were invited to join two full days of a wedding celebration. They attended the stag do, wedding breakfast and party, immortalising themselves in the group's wedding photos. However, the number of celebratory vodkas consumed forced them to spend another day in the city to recover.
George said: “We'd just come out of a bar and this parade was going past. So we followed it down the street and eventually they invited us to join in.
“The groom was making the trip to the bride’s house, so we had to join in this bizarre tradition where everyone pretends to beat him up.
“They invited us into the bride’s place and to the breakfast the following morning – it was all quite bizarre. They picked us up in the morning and took us to this wedding hall, and we really had no idea what to expect.
“We ended up taking part a fair bit in the wedding. But we did feel quite bad because we stole the focus a little bit from the bride and her big day.”
The duo's most memorable moments were not always for the right reasons. Riding along the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border with the war-torn Afghan region just over the river, the road was lined with notices warning of landmines just off the track. Afghan villagers did not seem too concerned, however, and waved to the Stortford cyclists from the other side of the border.
George said: “It was something we’d heard about, but it was still a bit of a shock cycling along the road and, rather than a sign for a place, seeing a sign with a stick man being blown up. It was a little bit worrying, but they were off the road so we just had to be a bit careful.
“For about five days we rode along the border, where Afghanistan was just across the river. I guess you build up this picture of Afghanistan in your head, but in reality it’s still just full of normal people going about their everyday lives.
“At one point we reached a heavily guarded bridge over the river and asked the soldiers on duty if we could go into Afghanistan quickly – unsurprisingly, they said no.”
For a large part of the central Asia stretch, the pair found themselves deep in scarcely inhabited desert. While cycling through, 1056 miles (1,700km) of arid Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan land, temperatures flirted with the 40C (104F) mark. And if the terrain and heat weren’t enough to challenge their endurance, straight roads with no buildings for 140km (87 miles) at a time tested their nerve.
The 186-mile (300km) Bartang Valley in Tajikistan was the wildest place the Hairy Handlebars ventured into; during three long days, they saw nobody but a single shepherd. 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 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.”
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.
They were also forced to sleep in motorway underpasses as it is illegal to camp and, by that stage of their journey, they were unable to afford the hotels set aside for travellers.
But not all the Chinese cops were entirely unfriendly, one even offered to carry their bags for a section of the ride.
The pair are now enjoying some well-earned rest and relaxation, plus the electric atmosphere of the Rugby World Cup.
Ben and George are still collecting donations for their causes. To sponsor them, visit https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/Team/TheHairyHandlebars