Chris Pountney has achieved what most of us would consider impossible, or at the very least, highly implausible: cycling around the world.
He’s made his home on the well-groomed cycle paths of Europe. He’s cycled along the rugged Pamir Highway through Central Asia and spent time meandering through rarely visited parts of Southeast Asia. He crossed the Pacific Ocean before riding south through the Americas. His journey ended after riding to the Southern tip of South America, where he boarded a boat heading back to Europe. He met his girlfriend while cycling through Mongolia and she would go on to accompany him for much of the epic adventure.
The challenge? To circumnavigate the globe using no land-based motorised transport, although he did permit himself to travel in powered boats when it came to crossing those pesky oceans.
Chris has written three books about his journey, each of which is a rollercoaster ride of emotions. If you read them and don’t have the overwhelming urge to jump on your bike and go for a ride, there’s something not quite right…
But there’s no need to read me summing up Chris’s adventures. Let’s hear from the man himself. In this interview, we chatted about what drove him to take on this challenge and what it’s like travelling such an epic distance on a bicycle!
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Chatting With Chris Pountney
1. Could you tell us a little about yourself and what you’ve been doing for the last decade?
Well, cycling, mostly. I first set off to see the world by bicycle in May 2010 from London. That first trip lasted about two and a half years and was mostly spent in Europe and North America. I absolutely loved travelling by bike, but wasn’t really happy with how the trip panned out, so I started again in 2013 from Paris, this time with an ambition to go around the world using only my bicycle and boats.
Seven years later and I am back in Europe and ready to finally settle down with my girlfriend in Denmark, having actually cycled around the world not once, but twice (the first time alone, the second with her). Altogether I have cycled somewhere in the region of 150,000 kilometres in about 90 countries.
2. What inspired you to take up cycling around the world?
I’d always wanted to travel and to see the world, something that, if I really think about it, can be traced back to watching Around the World with Willy Fog as a child, a 1980s animated version of the Jules Verne classic, in which the lead character was a surprisingly well-dressed lion – if you’ve never watched it, I highly recommend you do!
It was always a question of how I could travel. It always seemed to be prohibitively expensive. Then I found out it was possible to travel by bicycle. I’d always been quite fit and enjoyed challenging myself physically, and the fact that it was so cheap to travel by bike tempted me to try it. Once I started I just fell in love with bicycle travel, and the rest is history.
3. What are the advantages of travelling by bicycle?
I think it’s the perfect pace to move through the world. It really brings you into contact with the country in a much more genuine way than other forms of tourism. You are really out there in the landscapes, passing through small villages, and as a result, you end up having real interactions with local people. Going by bike has a special way of breaking down barriers.
There are other advantages too. It can be a very cheap way to travel, of course, especially if wild camping, and there’s also the considerable advantage of being able to eat literally whatever you want with not the slightest possibility of getting fat.
4. What are the disadvantages and challenges of travelling by bicycle?
In certain situations, it can be a little dangerous. I’m not talking about bad people – although there are some bad people in the world, in ten years of travelling by bicycle and wild camping, I didn’t meet any. I was mugged, robbed, beaten, raped, and murdered a sum total of zero times.
The time when people really become dangerous is often when they get behind the wheel of a car. So I recommend wearing bright colours, a helmet, and especially to have a mirror on your bike and use it. As far as wild animals go, you are far more likely to be attacked by a dog than anything else.
But there are many reasons why cycle touring can become a challenge. It can be too hot or too cold, there may be a lot of mountains or a massive headwind, your bike may break or you may pick up an injury. It is a very rare occurrence indeed when everything is going right while travelling by bike. The trick is to know that beforehand and embrace everything that is thrown at you as part of the adventure.
5. How do you keep going when things get tough? What is it that keeps you motivated?
For me, it was the challenges I set myself that really kept me going. Before I restarted in Paris in 2013 I wrote down a list of goals, the most important of which was to circumnavigate the planet using only my bicycle and boats. Once I’d set myself that target, I didn’t want to quit going for it for anything.
In 2008 I tried to swim the Channel but failed, and on the first bike trip I had also quit on part of the ride and ended up flying it instead. After each of these failures, I felt a deep sense of disappointment in myself. I decided I didn’t want to have that feeling again. So no matter how much my legs burned on a mountain ascent, I knew that pain was absolutely nothing to how I’d feel if I quit.
Plus, it wasn’t like I had any very good reason to quit. I loved travelling by bike, and I didn’t really have anything better to be doing with my time. The bike journey was my whole identity, so I actually had no motivation to stop doing it.
6. Would you define yourself as a cycle tourer or bikepacker?
Bike packing vs cycle touring: There’s a ton of differences between the two disciplines but the most striking is how much gear you need. Cycle tourers tend to have many panniers and bags full of gear. Bikebacking is more minimalist with only a few strategically placed bags dotted around the bike. You need to forgo some comforts when bikepacking!
I’m definitely in the first category. I’ve always used front and back panniers, plus an extra bag or two on the back and a basket on the front. I can certainly see the advantages of bikepacking though.
Being able to take tougher off-road routes to escape traffic, and to get up climbs a bit easier are the obvious ones. But I’ve always prioritised comfort over speed. When travelling for so many years I want to have more than one set of clothes, to be able to carry a variety of food, and also to have all the spare parts and tools I need to fix my bike myself.
I’ve also ridden in some places where it’s been necessary to carry large amounts of food and water, which is obviously much easier when you have a lot of bags. Bike packing is becoming a lot more popular and it’s something I might try at some point, but for me, it would be just something for shorter trips. On the long journeys, I still think panniers are the way to go.
7. Did you find yourself camping out a lot or finding accommodation whenever possible?
It has mostly been wild camping, although I’ve used guesthouses and cheap hotels more in some places, such as Southeast Asia and South America, where it is so cheap. I’ve also used Warmshowers and Couchsurfing to find hosts to stay with, but the vast majority of nights have been spent out in the tent.
Wild camping is one of the things I really love about travelling by bike, but it’s definitely easier in some places than others. In most of Asia, North America, and Australia, it is really easy to find places as there is a lot of free land. It’s harder in Europe and Latin America, where a much higher percentage of the land is farmed, but it’s always been possible one way or another.
8. How much gear do you take with you, do you know the weight of your total set up?
I have a lot of gear by most people’s standards. I’ve never thought of having extra weight as a major issue because I’ve never been out to break any speed records and I like having everything I need with me.
I had it all weighed once, and it was around 50 kilograms for everything, including the bike itself, but that really varies a lot based on how much food and water it’s necessary to carry at any given moment.
9. Has there ever been a moment where you thought: “Oh man, I really wish I had X item with me right now” and if so, what was the item?
Not too much, because I’ve always tried to carry everything that I might need. But there have been a couple of times when a crucial part on my bike has broken when I didn’t have a spare with me, and because of my determination to do it all by bike and boats, to not use motor vehicles, I’ve had to walk. Luckily it was never too far.
10. What do you do for food and water on the road? Stock up or buy as you go?
These days, I like to stock up and have all that we need. When I travelled alone I ran out of water a couple of times in the desert, and I don’t really recommend trying that, so since then I’ve always been sure to carry plenty with me. Dea, my girlfriend, and I have a whole pannier each that we dedicate to food, so we usually had plenty in there to keep us going. Carrying more food means more variety, which I think is also important for keeping spirits up when travelling for such a long time.
11. What route did you take through South America?
We started in Cartagena and rode down through Colombia on a mixture of dirt roads and highways, the highlight of which was perhaps the Trampoline of Death road, which disappointingly involved no trampolines but did go up through some spectacular mountain scenery.
After Colombia, we rode a bit of the TEMBR (Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route) in northern Ecuador, which was beautiful but very challenging on our heavy bikes. It would be a great bike packing route, but we were getting pretty tired by that point and chose to head down to the Amazon and take boats to get south into Peru. We really enjoyed this as a break from the Andes and to see another side of the continent.
We got back on our bikes in Pucallpa, Peru, and rode back up into the mountains there. Peru is of course a fantastic country full of beautiful scenery and a lot of interesting culture. We crossed briefly into Bolivia at Lake Titicaca but then quickly headed into Chile.
Because of political problems at the time, and the rainy season, we missed out on most of Bolivia, but actually our detour through Chile was surprisingly perhaps the best part of South America for us. The Ruta de las Vicunas was a stunning high mountain dirt road, very remote through beautiful mountains. We then went down to the awesome Atacama desert before climbing back over the Andes via Paso Sico, which was another stunning route past high-altitude salt lakes, that I would highly recommend.
After that, we rode across the Argentinean pampas to Uruguay and then south to Buenos Aires. The roads we had to take to cross Argentina were dangerous without a shoulder, but Uruguay was another pleasant surprise – a country that is maybe overlooked as a cycling destination but was actually really nice and full of friendly people.
12. Is there a community of cyclists on the same routes a lot of the time? If so, do you spend time cycling with these folks or just bump into occasionally?
Yes, but we were surprised by how few cyclists we met in South America. This was perhaps because we were a little bit late in the season and because there’s a lot of routes to choose from, although we did find other cyclists when we stopped at Casa de Ciclistas.
It wasn’t quite the same as crossing Central Asia when every cyclist riding across Eurasia ends up being funnelled onto the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. There’s a real sense of community among cyclists there. I’ve crossed there twice and both times have made some very good friends along the way, some of whom I’ve ridden with for weeks, and am still very much in contact with to this day.
Casa de Ciclistas: As the name suggests, these are homes for cyclists. They are usually run by cycling fans who have opened up a portion of their home or premises to let cyclists stay. Sometimes they’re free but sometimes they may cost a few dollars a night.
There is no one resource for finding Casa de Ciclistas in South America but this website has a few listed. Generally, you’ll learn about the whereabouts of Casa de Ciclistas from other cyclists. Be they folks you meet on your ride or people you follow online.
13. Can you mention any standout amazing moments from your trip?
There are so many! But for me personally, the most amazing moment was surely when I got back to Mori, a small town in China, where I had finally completed an entire circumnavigation of the planet using only my bicycle and boats. It was a goal I’d been working extremely hard towards for many many years and that moment when I actually achieved it was the most surreal, amazing moment, a feeling I’ve never had before or since, a once-in-a-lifetime feeling.
But you don’t have to go around the world like that to have amazing moments cycle touring – I think I had them every day. Seeing things you’ve never seen before, meeting new people, there is a lot of magic in travelling by bike.
14. How much does it cost to circumnavigate the world by bike?
It’s difficult to say because you really can travel by bike on any budget. When I first started travelling by bike I did so on £25 ($35) per week, which involved never paying for accommodation (wild camping or Couchsurfing every night) and only eating the cheapest supermarket food (bread and biscuits have the highest calorie-to-money ratio).
Over the years the budget has increased gradually as I’ve felt the need for more comfort, and also to prevent scurvy. My average spend has been somewhere between £3,000 and £4,500 per year, which is on the cheaper end of things. Most countries in South America were pretty cheap, but that just meant we stayed in hotels and ate in restaurants more, and spent about the same as anywhere else.
15. How have you financed your travels?
When I first started, I had a couple of thousand pounds saved up, which lasted me a year, then I worked a season (three months) as a tree planter in Canada, which kept me going another year. I then worked a few months as a pedicab (bicycle taxi) driver, first in Edinburgh and then in Australia, which was work I felt well trained for and kept me financed for quite a while longer.
So for the first seven years, it was about working very hard for a few months when I could and living very cheaply on my bike the rest of the time. In 2017 I wrote my first book about my travels, No Wrong Turns, which luckily sold quite well and together with the sequel, Into The Sunrise, which I wrote the following year financed the rest of mine and Dea’s travels.
16. How do you navigate?
For the first six years, I didn’t have any electronics to help me such as a phone or GPS. I would sometimes get hold of paper maps but usually it wasn’t so difficult to navigate without them. I would make a plan of where I wanted to go when I did get online somewhere, and in a lot of places in the world, there aren’t actually that many roads to choose from (through Central Asia there is the Pamir Highway, across Australia there is the Nullarbor).
In Europe, there are signposted cycle routes and so many roads I could sometimes find my way on the small roads just by navigating with the sun. Of course, this was quite an adventure but I did get lost once or twice, and when I started travelling with Dea we began using a smartphone. Maps.me came along and was what we used most of the time, which did make things a lot easier.
17. What bike do you use?
Surly Long Haul Trucker. 150,000 kilometres. One careless owner. Not for sale.
18. Do you have a favourite company for buying panniers or other gear?
I do have some favourite items I’ve bought again and again in terms of bike parts. Always SRAM pc951 chain, I wouldn’t use anything else. Schwalbe Marathon Plus are the most durable and versatile tyres that I’ve used.
As for panniers I’ve had a lot of problems with Ortliebs in terms of parts breaking off although they have been pretty good at replacing them within the warranty. I’ve also used Arkel panniers, which have a more robust clipping system than Ortlieb but have given me problems with losing their waterproofness, so I guess I’m still looking for the perfect pannier.
19. How do you keep your bike safe and secure when you are not with it?
It’s pretty rare that I’m not with it! When travelling with Dea, one of us would always stay outside when the other went in to shop, and we insisted on bringing the bikes into hotel rooms with us.
When I was alone I used to lock it with a motorcycle chain lock as well as a cable through the wheels. At night we put the cable through the bikes and then into the tent where I lock it to a pannier so no one can move the bikes without waking us.
20. Have you found it hard to ship your bike between continents and do you have any tips to make this process as smooth as possible?
Well, cruise ships have generally been very accommodating about allowing us to take our bikes onboard. Sometimes they ask us to box them, other times they allow us to roll on and roll off.
When I used to fly I made sure to check the airline’s policy on bikes and how much it would cost, as some airlines make it very expensive to take a bike, perhaps even more than the ticket in some cases, so you need to work that out before you book. Most bike shops will have spare boxes they’ll let you take for packing the bike, and if you fold it down it is even possible to carry on the back of a loaded bike with enough bungee cords.
21. What is the largest “Oh shit, I cannot believe this has broken, how the hell am I going to carry on” moment?
My rear derailleur broke on the Pamir Highway, a very remote high-altitude road in Tajikistan, and it really broke, it twisted and I think went into the spokes, a screw flew off somewhere and it was completely mangled. I didn’t have a spare with me so my bike was completely unrideable.
I’d passed through a rare village seven kilometres back so I walked back with my bike. I remembered a little shack I’d seen that had been selling all manner of things, so I went back and asked if they had a rear derailleur. The man there reached back behind a shelf into a parallel universe and pulled out a rear derailleur. It was just a cheap piece of Chinese plastic but it worked well and got me out of a tight spot.
22. You’ve been quite outspoken in your books about the detrimental effects of cars and motorised transport. Is this something you realised after discovering you really can cover massive distances by bike or were these thoughts already a part of you?
It was something that developed more and more as I travelled by bike. Initially, when I first began it was just because I wanted to travel and bikes seemed like a good way to see the world, and I didn’t really have anything against cars, but over the course of that first two-and-a-half-year trip I grew to dislike motor vehicles more and more.
This was probably partly because that first trip took place largely in North America, where there are so many oversized vehicles and the average carbon footprint is astronomical. But going by bike also made me feel the advantages over motorised transport more and more. Cars are dangerous, expensive, anti-social, etc, whereas going under your own power is good for your health and your wallet, as well as the planet.
I think one of the good things about the Coronavirus crisis is that it gave us a bit of a taste of a world with fewer motor vehicles and more human-powered journeys. Pollution was down, cycling was safer, wildlife came back, I’m sure road fatalities must have been down. Hopefully, it’ll be something to learn from, because the majority of motor vehicle journeys are short and could easily be done under human power, and the world will be better for it.
23. For people with less time to spend on their travels, would you advocate cycling for a few weeks instead of rushing between places in buses or planes?
Yes, because I think it makes for a more rich travel experience. There is value in it besides ticking off exotic faraway travel destinations, and if you’ve never done it before you might be surprised how different your own country or continent looks from the seat of a bicycle.
24. Do you have any advice for people looking at starting a cycle tour or bikepacking adventure?
Do it. Don’t overthink it, just go. There are very few things you need to start. A bike, obviously, a tent, some means of carrying your things, that’s about it. You can tour on any old bike, just get out there and give it a go. You’ll figure everything else out on the way.
After ten years on the road, Chris has settled down in Denmark with his girlfriend, Dea. But the adventures haven’t stopped. He’s currently training to conquer the highest mountain in Europe, swim the English channel and complete an Iron Man triathlon.
He’s also spending his time writing and reminiscing about previous adventures. Check out his book, Lost In Europe to relive his short but sweet hitchhiking trip through the continent back before he discovered cycling.
If you want more from Chris, you can follow his adventures on his website: https://chrispountneyadventures.com/