In early 2010, Leon McCarron set off from New York on a solo, unsupported bicycle tour in the direction of Hong Kong. His plan was vague but ambitious; to ride across the world while shooting a documentary about his travels, raise money for UNICEF and satisfy his passion for cycling.
The first 6,000 miles would see him travel across North America to Vancouver and down the west coast to Mexico. A 2,000-mile journey across both islands of New Zealand would be followed by 2,500 miles along the east coast of Australia and a flight to Bangkok. A ride through Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and China would take him to his planned destination (which would later be altered by a final ride from Paris to London).
An aspiring cameraman and filmmaker, 24-year-old Leon, from Northern Ireland, had dreamt of an adventure like this for a long time. “Bicycle travel is such a draw for me, and I couldn’t think of a better way to travel the world – I spent many hours with glassy eyes imagining life on the road,” he told BikeRadar. “And I really wanted to take control of my fledgling career, and thought a good way to do that would be to make a documentary, which fitted in perfectly with a solo expedition.”
Leon on the road to Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Trying to come up with an original idea, he settled on The Cycling Reporter – a combination of his love for social justice documentary films, a passion for cycling and an interest in sharing the experiences of others. He aimed to combine interviews of people from different cultures about their own passions with his own experiences of bike travel.
Leon spoke to people from different walks of life, from a multi-millionaire lawyer in New York and a homeless trombone player in Michigan to a Filipino Elvis in Cambodia and a Japanese artist in Paris walking around Europe in flip-flops. He slept in luxury five-star hotels and roadside ditches, none of which he paid for, and overcame threats, including, but not limited to, bears, tornadoes, drunk mid-western Americans with rifles and knife-wielding Chinese motorists.
The idea evolved naturally the further he travelled. “The original interest was always in stories that otherwise wouldn't get heard, and that gradually developed into following peoples passions in life,” he said. “Mine is sustainable transport, so it seemed that instead of asking people about unrelated stories, I should tell them what drove me in life, and ask them what passions and interests they had that may do the same. People and stories are always my focus. I hope the finished film captures the essence of some of these amazing people, and that my own journey provides a link between all these stories.”
Arrival on Lantau Island, Hong Kong
As well as trying to develop as a cameraman and filmmaker, the challenge of riding 14,000 miles on a heavily weighted touring bike was a test and for over a year, he lived on around £3.50 a day. Never paying for accommodation, he carried a tent on his four-pannier Santos Travelmaster and was able to find a safe place to camp in almost any situation. He bought food in bulk – breakfast cereal, milk powder, rice and lentils, which made for a very simple but cheap life.
His story is a great example to anyone who's thought of taking on an adventure like this but assumed it would be too expensive, too dangerous or too difficult. “I try to cycle everywhere I can and believe that sustainable transport is very important to all of us,” he said. “The ironic thing about this ride was that I tore a muscle in my chest only three months before leaving and was out of action right until the last minute. So I lost all of my fitness, and had to find it again on the road.”
Of the many obstacles he faced, almost all were mental. “Riding the bike became second nature, and I felt like the pedals were just an extension of my legs,” he said. “But spending hours and hours in the saddle became a real struggle in tough environments. The hardest were Iowa and the mid-west of America in general, where horrendous headwinds buffeted me relentlessly all day. The roads were long, straight and sparse – cycling into such a tough wind with nothing to distract me, day after day, was a real test of my mettle. But I overcame it, mainly just by turning off my brain and focussing on my next stop for food – food is amazing like that!”
South East Asia, and Vietnam, was another testing period. “Highway 1, in particular, was in a bad condition with crazy traffic, and I found the language barrier very tough,” he said. “I’d loved that area up until that point, but Vietnam was where my isolation felt greatest.”
Vietnam's Highway 1: "This is a pretty accurate representation of what I saw for seven days – rain spray and the back end of trucks"
Expeditions like Leon’s – in his case, up to 130 miles a day on uncompromising roads, in testing weather and a with bike packed with everything needed for a year on the road – can become a struggle. But the more he went on, the more his experiences told him that, while things could get tough, they’d never stay that way for long. “The great thing about bicycle travel is that you go slow enough to take in all your surroundings fully," he said. "If they're depressing or uninteresting, there’s a good chance the scenery will change again soon. It was really tough, but a lot of the time, the places, people, sights, sounds and beauty of seeing the world by bicycle are all the motivation you need.”
Having arrived back at St Paul’s Cathedral in London on 5 March, Leon intends to get to work on his documentary. He says he'd like to make a feature-length film to take round the film festival circuit, but feels it would be equally suited for television. He’s also considering developing his experiences into a book after receiving interest in the idea. “Perhaps the two can go hand in hand some way,” he suggests.
Reaching St Paul's Cathedral marked the end of Leon's journey
So what advice would he give to anyone thinking about taking on such a challenge? “Just do it,” said Leon, emphatically. “All the tough times and hardships pale in significance to what I’ve learned and enjoyed along the way. Most of the hardest parts of my trip were in the waiting to leave. I've never been as scared as on my first day out of New York with no fallback option should things go wrong. But I’ve never been as happy as when things didn’t go wrong – life on a bicycle offers delights beyond anything I could have imagined.”
To learn more about Leon’s expedition, visit his website, www.leonmccarron.com.