24 hours on the road with World by Cycle

I had spent 6 days with Nic and Kristina in Italy, filming as they rode South through Pescara where, in addition to their on average 150km a day, Kristina had casually taken part in an Ironman competition. During that time I learnt that not much fazed the intrepid duo, the last 24 hours were no exception.

We were packing up camp on the Adriatic coast with Kristina deftly loading up her trusty bike and setting off in advance of Nic and I. We would drive ahead to the next stop so that he could catch up on the escalating piles of bill paying and admin. You’re not supposed to ride your bike on the highway so we took the B road – the SS16. I’m not really one for remembering road names but this one I fear may be permanently embedded on my previously naïve mind.

I had just interviewed Nic on camera, getting him to talk about the difference between a male and female’s thought process while riding a bicycle (Women – where they’ve just been; where they’re going now/ tomorrow/ in a week; who they need to contact when they stop riding; who they should have contacted before they started; what to blog/tweet/Facebook; when they should next eat; what they should next eat; the state of the world. Men – riding) and so it took us a little while to catch up with Kristina valiantly pedalling away in a bid to become the first woman to cycle around the world.

As we overtook her we tooted encouragingly and pulled into the next layby to say hi. Calmly and with dignity, as is Kristina’s way, she pulled up alongside the car and told us that a man had just undone his shorts and waggled his genitals at her from the side of the road. Shocked, we heard how he had calmly got back into his white van and gone on his way. Fortunately an Italian racing bike team appeared on the horizon and escorted Kristina to where we had converged. They were keen to make conversation, proudly telling us of how far they were going that day. They asked Kristina how far she was going, to which she nonchalantly replied 30,000 kilometres. I’m not sure it’s often that Italians are lost for words, but that did the job.

Undaunted by the flasher, Kristina got back on her bike and the Italian bike team, full of admiration, continued to escort her along the SS16. We drove ahead, keeping an eye out for a white van, but mainly just passing rather a lot of trucks. Which surprised us – we couldn’t understand why long distance truck drivers would take a slow B-road as opposed to the fast highway. And then we learnt why. As we powered along the barren sun-scorched uninhabited landscape, we started to pass young women wearing mini-skirts and bras, standing alone, one per lay-by. Initially I thought, ‘how odd, can’t be many buses coming along here!’ And then the penny dropped – SS16, it turns out, is synonymous with prostitution.

Now I’ve been to Amsterdam, I didn’t think much could still shock me, but seeing these young women selling themselves in broad daylight, under a fierce sun, on a main road, shocked the shit out of me to be quite frank. I just wanted to scoop them all up but something told me they wouldn’t thank me for it. Anyway, it started to make sense why a sex pest would randomly be displaying his goolies on a bit of tarmac at 10.30 in the morning.

Occasionally we’d pass a truck that had pulled into a layby and the truck driving behind us would toot its loud horn as it passed in what I could only guess was a ‘go on my son’ kind of way.

I love a bit of exaggeration but I won’t here, I promise, there were at least 30 or 40 of these, girls, young and not so young women along that stretch of road.

We stopped at a service station to consider how concerned we should be for Kristina. There was something so dangerous, seedy and mental about the service café in the middle of nowhere that I felt sick to my stomach. Pimps smoked next to their flash cars, obese sweaty truckers flopped on plastic chairs drinking bottles of Pepsi and a very odd looking redneck type with no teeth leered at me while guarding a back room where they kept the gimps. I’m making that bit up. But the point is it was foul and although I normally smile at everyone it was all I could do to not throw up all over the place.

It was a busy road, with police cars driving up and down, completely blasé to the prostitution, and although poor lovely Kristina got flashed by another ‘waggler’ as she called them, she insisted on staying on the bike, eventually making it to the city of Foggia and out the other side where the Ladies of the Day slowly decreased in number.

It was 9pm when Kristina rolled into our base camp for the night in the pretty castle town of Barletta. After we’d revived her with beer and pizza I got the camera rolling and captured her describing how she had smiled at one sex worker that she had cycled past and in response the seated girl had parted her knees by way of a cynical invitation. So there you have it, World by Cycle making friends on route SS16.

The next day the couple get back on their bikes for another average stint of 12 hours riding and I drive off on a location recce, searching for a spot for my final interview with my friends, and heroes, Nic and Kristina.

Keen to leave a slightly more salubrious final mental image of Italy, I find the glorious coastal village of Bisceglie. Its castle and cathedral proud amongst centuries old architecture overlooking a ridiculously picturesque marina where fishing boats and yachts bob up and down in the aqua marine sea. This is more ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ like it, I thought. The sun beats down and sparkles on the water as tanned Italians frolic at its shore.

After we had found each other I capture Nic and Kristina against the wonderful backdrop, explaining the highs and lows and realities of such a mammoth undertaking as the World by Cycle project. Not only is it a physical feat that most of us couldn’t even imagine, it’s a huge emotional strain. They have invested all that they have in this project which asks questions of vital importance about sustainability and dying trades and cultures. Their hearts are so in the right place, I defy anyone not to admire them. They’re fun, kind, generous, determined wonderful people, and I am richer for knowing them.

We pack up the gear and they escort me to Bari airport where I have to drop off my rental car and hope that they don’t charge me the 1000Euro excess for the damage inflicted on the little Fiat while parked in Pescara. But that’s another story.

I’m let off the hook and the three of us – me; weary with no right to be, them; upbeat if not exhausted – have a final dinner and glass of wine at Departures where hundreds of passengers forget all about checking-in and instead watch Italy v Croatia on the airport’s TV screens.

Nic and Kristina are in two minds, stay in Italy and wait for their replacement credit cards which were previously lost, or stick to the schedule and board the ferry for Greece. There are various connections they have to make to Turkey, Iran and Mongolia in time to avoid winter.

I think about how I would deal with the mission they have in front of them. I would no doubt take on the enormity of the task like Kristina, letting the logistics weigh on her sunburnt shoulders. And although I don’t doubt Nic does focus on the riding, on his performance, I know that at the end of each day his to-do list has multiplied and that it is taking its toll.

They walk me to my gate and after we hug, Kristina slips a card into my bag which I open on the aeroplane. I hate flying, my iPod’s broken and I’m toying with the idea of being cranky. But I open my card and their sentiments are so heartfelt that I’m once again inspired by their tenacity and spirit. My fuel guzzling journey is a doddle in comparison.

I pray that they are able to finish, safely. But even if financially they can’t, what they have achieved to date is monumental. Massive respect to you Nic and Kristina and your awesome baby, World by Cycle.