A world record, one bike and ‘two blokes just having fun’

December 19th, 2016

“We were,” chuckles John Whybrow when asked if he and his partner in their Guinness World Record attempt, George Agate, are best mates.  Known as ‘The Tandem Men’, these two Englishmen are halfway through attempting to become the first to cycle around the world on a tandem bicycle. BQ caught up with the boys in Brisbane, their final stop in Australia.

There’s no hiding The Tandem Men have spent the last 180 days in the saddle. Epic tan lines everywhere and super lean physiques are obvious testaments to the thousands of kilometres in the saddle while battling the Aussie sun. “I’ve taken my nose off a few times and my bottom lip goes as well,” John says matter-of-factly.

But what most people don’t know about these unflappable Englishmen is that neither John nor George were keen cyclists before this challenge. Both were unfit, preferred golf and cricket, worked 40-50 hour weeks and John was a smoker. Almost 200 days later, they’re fit, smoke-free and alcohol is on the way out too.

This incredible 30,000km journey started as a plan to ride from London to Paris over a few days. After watching a three-part documentary following the cycling adventures of British comedian John Bishop from Sydney to Cairns, the Tandem Men decided cycling to Australia was far more appealing than riding to Paris. But since cycling to Australia would mean riding halfway around the world, the boys pondered, why not just keep going? 

That’s when talk of a world record took over. “It’s quite a difficult thing to define,” John says when they were considering just what constitutes a circumnavigation of the globe by bicycle. A few hours on the Guinness World Record website and one letter to Guinness World Records later, the boys were floored to hear they would be the first to attempt this world record. Guinness decided The Tandem Men must cycle a minimum of 18000 miles. So their journey matches the circumference of the earth, they can make up the remaining miles on planes or boats.

George and John are doing this trip the hard way, travelling alone without any support crew and carrying all their supplies. Their bike has seven water bottle holders and all up, including the riders and equipment, weighs about 200kg. Every gram counts on such a long journey. Even their nutrition hasn’t escaped weight constraints. To save precious grams, the boys try to eat foods providing over 300 calories per 100g and which don’t use much water to prepare. Only when they are close to towns do they treat themselves with ‘heavy’ canned food like baked beans.  

Adelaide marked the halfway point on their ride and their tales of adventure so far would make Lonely Planet jealous. From soaking up the sunset and sunrise from the same beach on the southern tip of India to being fed like long lost grandchildren by the Grey Nomads on their Australian travels, life on the road has been quite welcoming. They’ve received loaves of bread, bottles of wine, chocolate and warm beds to sleep in from people they’ve met along their travels.  Even the Aussie wildlife has joined in. “We’ve had a few races with emus along the way. They seem to run at about the same pace we ride,” George quipped.

Fun times aside, there have been brushes with disaster too. Within the first eight weeks, they’d had a run in with a bus in Austria, been caught up in a military coup in Turkey and within 10 minutes of entering Bulgaria saw a man get stabbed. “We’d been warned about Bulgaria but in Europe every country likes to warn you about the next one,” George said. 

But as cyclists, hair-raising encounters with bad road conditions have also been seared into their memories. While for Australians Sydney might be infamous for being less than cycle friendly, George and John offer some perspective. “Cycling into Sydney is a breeze compared to riding into Istanbul! There’s only one road in and it’s this five-lane motorway where people park their cars, opening car doors onto you. There’s no shoulder to cycle on and there’s no other way into the city. It’s just horrendous!”

Another five-lane highway experience saw them cycling to the airport at night in Georgia while desperately hanging on to a cardboard bike box as it flapped about in the traffic beside them. Australia too scores a mention on their ‘infamous list’ but for a different reason – punctures. They doubled their number of punctures for the entire trip in just 10 days cycling from Canberra to Brisbane via Sydney.   

Even if the boys avoid bad luck and successfully cycle all the way back to their starting point in Cambridge, there’s no guarantee Guinness will grant them the world record unless strict rules are followed. “There’s rules like we’re not allowed to get private transport or chartered transport” George says. “We have to get on a regular flight and the time that we’re waiting at airports still counts for the record, so the clock never stops.”

Days have ticked over on that clock just waiting inside airports, especially when flying around the Middle East conflict zones. “Going from Georgia to India is not exactly a common flight path. It took four flights in five days,” John says. 

The Tandem Men are also not allowed to double back on their route to make up miles, as only miles covered in an easterly direction count, and their route must pass through two antipolar (opposite) points on the globe –  Wellington, New Zealand, and Madrid, Spain. Complementing the rules is a three-part physical verification process for their ride. There’s a GPS tracker mounted on the rear of the bike (aka the ‘Orange Brick’), a wired computer on the front wheel and a Garmin. The data from all three needs to match up for the boys to be successful. 

The ‘Orange Brick’ also doubles as one very expensive emergency beacon. Normally given to explorers on Antarctic missions or other equally dangerous locations, the average call out cost each time the button is pressed is over $1 million. “We had to take out an insurance policy on the SOS button in case it was pushed at the wrong time,” John grins.  

Beyond emergency call outs, there’s another serious side to their ride. The Tandem Men are trying to raise £100,000 for three charities – Porchlight, WaterAid and the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital. The boys were fortunate to secure famed English explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes as their patron. Sir Ranulph was the first to cross Antarctica on foot and was once named as the greatest living explorer by the Guinness Book of World Records. As of early December, The Tandem Men had raised about 50% of their target with Sir Ranulph’s help. Anyone can contribute to their cause by sponsoring The Tandem Men online via the ‘donate’ link on their website.  

So what’s next after Australia? Next stop is New Zealand and the men are well aware of Australia’s rivalry with the Kiwis. “The hospitality (in Australia) has been incredible but you know, the Kiwis might do it better,” John quipped. After New Zealand, they’ll cruise through the Americas from San Francisco to Columbia, before flying to Morocco and heading home via Spain and France.

And what of life beyond their world record attempt? “(We) think there’ll be a few months not riding bikes!”

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