The next time you’re tempted to complain about a sore backside after an hour in the saddle, spare a thought for Jeremy Scott. The inspirational New Zealander, who was born with a hole in his heart, rode 52,000km through 29 countries on his last ride. Scott raised thousands for the British, Australian and New Zealand Heart Foundations on the way – and now he’s sizing up another epic in the Americas.
We caught up with him between adventures to talk about the joys of Japan, keeping one eye on your panniers in Uzbekistan, and the loneliness of the long-distance cyclist.
Where was your last trip?
That two-and-a-half year journey from London to New Zealand.
Where is your next trip?
Nothing planned, but I’m doing more and more research into a pan-American ride from Alaska to Ushuaia. If I was to set off on another one, that’s going to be it.
What is your first travel-related memory?
I was about eight years old when I first went abroad. My father got a job in the mines in Australia, so we lived over there for about six months in a wee little town called Dysart near Mackay, Queensland. It was the sort of place where you had to lift the toilet seat to check for snakes. If you were playing cricket and the ball went into the long grass, it stayed there.
Aisle or window seat?
Aisle. If it’s short haul, I’d go for window. But if it’s long haul I like to be able to get up and go for a walk.
If bike is your favourite form of transport, what’s your second favourite?
Walking. If I can avoid using a car, I’ll do it. I love being able to get from A to B under my own steam.
Do you have any travel habits or rituals?
I’m pretty laid-back about my journeys. But for the bigger trips I lay out all my gear, test stuff like cooking equipment, tyres, brakes, and so on, and then go through everything else I might need ensuring it’s all in good nick. It’s easier to sort it out while you’re at home. I do wear a good luck charm as well – a jade fish-hook necklace, which means ‘prosperous journey overseas and a safe return’ to the Maoris.
Most bike-friendly countries?
As you might expect, the Netherlands is incredibly well set up. Cyclists have got right of way at intersections and there are so many incredible cycle paths. But because it’s quite densely populated it’s hard to find places to camp. Japan is probably my highlight for the purity of the experience. It’s got spectacular scenery, fantastic roads and surprisingly good camping. You can pitch up next to beautiful lakes where there’s a natural onsen (hot spring) at one end. The South Island of New Zealand is also a stunning place to cycle.
Most challenging biking?
Some coal-mining towns in China where there’s pollution billowing out of these factories and dirty old trucks pumping out diesel. When you’re going up hills, they’re not going much faster than you and they just pump fumes into your face. After half a day, you can scrape gunk off your skin. That wasn’t a great deal of fun.
Ultimate tips for someone contemplating a trip of this type?
The fitter you can get beforehand, the more you’ll enjoy it at the start. Make up some dummy packs and go for a trial ride to get used to the weight. Also, practise packing your gear – on the road, you’re always refining what goes where in a pannier. At the end of the day though, you’ll learn lessons along the way and they’re the most valuable of all. Also, don’t be afraid to change plans; if you meet someone interesting, have the mindset to spend time with them.
How do you deal with the loneliness?
Loneliness was only a problem for me in the first few weeks when I was feeling overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge. But loneliness forces you out of your comfort zone because you have to be open to meet people. Even in places like China, I would just yell hello to strangers. And that led to a lot of adventures.
There were many. One that springs to mind: I was riding through the middle of nowhere in Uzbekistan when this shepherd appears at the side of the road, rubbing his belly as if he was hungry. So I stopped to help him, reached into a pannier for food, and before I knew it he had his hands on my camera and we were wrestling for it. It was just surreal. He didn’t have a getaway vehicle – perhaps he was planning to jump on a goat and hightail it up the road.
What is your best travel souvenir?
A dirty old Kiwi baseball cap that I wore for the entire round-the-world journey. I threw it away at the end of the ride because the New Zealand Heart Foundation gave me a new one, but my auntie saved it without my knowledge. She had it framed in secret and gave me that cap as a present the following Christmas. That gesture really touched my heart.
What’s your biggest travel fail?
Chasing girls around the world. I once met a girl in London and had the hots for her. She invited me to Spain to travel with her two female friends, who I’d never met. But they were a nightmare – we travelled in completely different ways and the whole episode was just a disaster.
Quick, an asteroid is going to hit the earth in one week! Which is the one travel dream you’d rush to fulfill?
I’d go to India. Send me into the madness for a week of absolute chaos. That’s a good way to go.
What advice would you give a first-time traveller?
Don’t be afraid of giving it a go. If you’ve got a dream, get over the fear, stop making excuses, set a date and make it happen.
Find out more about Scott’s epic ride in his new book, A Long Road from a Broken Heart (giftshop.bhf.org.uk/the-long-road-from-a-broken-heart.html), follow @jeremyscott007 or visit jeremyscott.com.au.