Searching the countryside for a place to hide three tents and three very conspicuous bicycles, we finally found the perfect spot: Deenethorpe Village Green. As well as being surrounded on all sides by the mansions and meticulously tended gardens of the local gentry, we were also clearly visible to anyone passing through the tiny village. Despite Andy’s complaints, Mark and I decided that the green was absolutely ideal. A fantastic find – I’d been looking forward to wild camping for so long.
‘We’d be looking for two tents,’ I’d said. ‘We basically need to be independent, because we’re thinking we might ride separately for some of the time. And obviously we’d each like a bit of privacy from time to time!’
With a few months to go before departure, Andy and I had found ourselves selling our grand idea to an outdoor equipment retailer. We’d got as far as their meeting room by cold calling every outdoor equipment manufacturer and retailer in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. After weeks of rejections or non-responses, I’d become frustrated by how little interest these companies seemed to take in our project. I couldn’t understand why any marketing manager would pass up on the publicity our journey would generate for the sake of a few quid’s worth of gear.
Then one day, Andy – who had been emailing sponsorship proposals to companies for weeks – received a reply from an outfit who asked us over for a chat. We designed a logo, ironed it onto a couple of cheap T‑shirts, printed out some important-looking lists and rolled up to their office in Coventry.
‘Well, lads, I have to be honest,’ said Jeremy Burgess, leaning back in his chair with a squeak of leather, ‘when I first heard about this from Martin, I thought you guys must be complete idiots.’
The two of us smiled nervously.
‘But I think you’ve convinced me that you might actually do this.’
Finally somebody was listening to us – the managing director of an on-line outdoor gear retailer, no less! A simple contract was drawn up: we’d wear their T‑shirts, put their logo on our website, sticker the heck out of our bikes, and plug their brand whenever we could. We’d also send them a monthly report by email, which they would send out to their subscribers to demonstrate how generous they were with support for noble expeditions like ours. And, in return, we’d be given essential items of equipment – tents, camping mats, sleeping-bags and various small accessories – free of charge, which of course was what we wanted to get out of the whole thing.
At this point we still didn’t have any actual bicycles to ride. But we’d finally got our sponsorship drive out of the starting blocks, and we felt sure that other companies would follow in this supplier’s footsteps. We set a departure date for the early summer, put a bundle of leaving party invitations in the post, and I set to work on publicity for the project, which by now we’d branded Ride Earth after a brainstorming session with Andy. Playing to the circumnavigation, the cycling and the off-road nature of the journey in one catchy slogan, Ride Earth rolled off the tongue far better than Pedalling To Purgatory, Circum Gravitation, and A Wheelie Long Way, which had been some of his other ideas.
Physically extracting the equipment from Jeremy and his merry band of outfitters proved easier said than done. With only a few weeks to go until the big day, I was parking the Astra outside Andy’s house, having just returned from Coventry where I’d had an unexpectedly brief encounter with the company’s marketing manager, Dominic. But I had managed to retrieve what I’d gone for, and, dumping a big cardboard box on the lawn in Andy’s back garden, I ripped it open and began inspecting our haul.
‘Did you see anyone apart from Dominic?’ asked Andy, pulling a bundle of tent material from its carry sack and sniffing it curiously.
‘No,’ I said. ‘I didn’t actually go into the office at all. No Jeremy, no nothing.’
‘You’d think they’d be a bit more enthusiastic.’
‘I dunno. I don’t understand either.’
‘Bloody hell!’ exclaimed Andy, wrestling with the elasticated tent-poles as they unravelled. They seemed to have taken on a life of their own and were now in danger of causing serious facial injuries to his dad, who had come to watch from the safety of the kitchen doorstep.
‘That’s absolutely ridiculous!’ I laughed, ducking out of the way of the whirling mess of poles. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it! Is it fibreglass? Or some kind of bizarre metal?’
‘Metal, I think. Aluminium or something, with a bit more spring in it. Bit of extra elastic!’
‘Now, that’s good, isn’t it?’ remarked Andy’s dad as the poles clicked together and began to behave. He was a mechanical engineer and loved all things functional and cleverly designed. The family’s little garage had not contained a car in several decades; instead it was filled to the brim with arcane machinery and projects in stages of semi-completion, stinking of rust and oil, every surface littered with drill bits and bolts and jars of important-looking coloured fluid.
‘My god – I feel rough,’ I muttered, coughing. I’d caught a cold and was trying my best to ignore it and continue ploughing through our ever-growing stack of to-do lists.
‘Yeah, I noticed that on your Facebook,’ said Andy. ‘Oh yeah – I started a group for Market Harborough Swimming Club …’
‘Yeah, I saw that.’
‘… and loads of people I used to know started joining it!’
Andy had always been a natural athlete. I had not, and this was slightly concerning. I worried that as a dismally below-average sportsman I’d be unable to keep up; that I’d drag the ride down by being slow and unfit. But these were small hurdles. We’d find a way round them, just as we’d find a way round anything else that got in our way. Once we set off, we’d have no choice.
Returning to the task at hand, we inspected the semi-constructed tent, smooth and humpbacked like a fat green slug. It was my first encounter with this stratum of outdoor equipment, the type that gets displayed prominently in shops like Millets’ and Blacks’ with price tags that make you feel guilty for even looking at them.
‘You have to bend these quite a lot, don’t you?’ said Andy, having consulted the instructions, now clipping the tent’s body onto the naked pole structure. ‘I mean, it’s quite spring-loaded. But it is very straightforward. Hopefully.’
‘Andrew, did you want this ice cream and peaches?’ called his dad from the doorway.
‘Yeah, in a minute,’ he replied, not looking up. He draped the waterproof flysheet across the tent and it finally began to resemble the illustration on the front of the booklet. He groped through the fabric for the pole structure and lifted the entire thing off the ground with one hand. It seemed to float weightlessly into the air like a pointy green wind-sock: my home for the next few years.
‘That’s pretty damn light!’ he said, putting it back on the grass and stooping to unzip the door. He crawled in on all fours, lay face down with his socks sticking out of the doorway, folded his arms by his sides, and ceased to move altogether.
‘That feels good!’
‘Nice.’ A sudden image came into my head of this exact scene played out at forty degrees below zero, deep in the Siberian tundra.
‘Did you want these peaches and ice cream, then?’ came his dad’s voice.
‘Yes, for god’s sake!’ snapped Andy, irritated at having his crowning moment disturbed by a parent.
‘Do you want it in the tent?’
‘No …’ replied Andy, wearily, extracting himself.
‘Aerodynamic!’ remarked his dad, stepping out onto the lawn. ‘If the wind’s blowing, which way d’you pitch the tent?’
‘Erm … well, that way, don’t you?’ replied Andy, drawing a line in the air from the rear of the tent to the open door.
‘Well, yes, I would say so. I mean … basically, that’s how it’s designed,’ continued his dad, going into demonstration mode and pacing about on the grass, gesticulating at the construction, ‘because you’ll be camping in hurricanes sometimes, and obviously – if the wind’s blowing this way – it’ll make it calm here, won’t it?’
Andy seemed embarrassed at his dad’s sudden display of interest. He pulled another plastic wrapper from the box and shook out the contents. ‘I guess this is the floor protector,’ he said to me. ‘Does it go underneath the tent or inside it, d’you think?’
‘I’d guess it went underneath,’ I replied. ‘But then I’m only a novice at this kind of thing.’
‘Well, I’m only a novice as well. I don’t know any more than you.’
‘I love how it comes in its own special “sac”.’ I pointed at the little bag on the ground.
‘Everything comes in a “sac”, doesn’t it, when it’s to do with the outdoors?’
‘It’s never a bag, either. It’s always a “sac”.’
‘A “sac” with a drawstring.’
Andy unrolled the groundsheet on the lawn in his parents’ back garden. ‘This’ll be nice for picnics. In the Himalayas.’
Of the many reasons why I was happy with the idea of working with Andy on this epic mission, foremost was his off-the-wall sense of humour – the ideal temper to my hard-headedness and ruthless sense of justice. If anyone could keep spirits up when the going got tough, it would be him, and for that I was thankful.
He’d always been a creative mind – a maligned genius, holed up in his bedroom until the early hours, producing artwork and musical compositions of marvellous complexity that nobody could understand. On one occasion, answering an unexpected knock on the door late in the evening, I’d been confronted by Andy, who’d run several miles across the fields in the dark, taking shortcuts through people’s gardens and hiding in their hedgerows to avoid being seen, for no other reason than his own amusement. He had just popped by for a cup of tea and to ask if I wouldn’t mind giving him a lift back home.
Andy cared little what anyone else made of his behaviour. He had once turned up for a big night out in his mother’s horse-riding jacket, insisting that it was perfectly appropriate attire, yet to this day I’m not sure whether he was being ironic. For Andy, the world was a place in which to experiment and to defy convention, and he was just the sort of lateral thinker you’d want along on a journey round the planet.
As Ride Earth grew in scope and ambition, respectable brands from the cycling and outdoor industries became attached to the project, and we found ourselves attending a series of newspaper, radio and television interviews. Sponsors expected to have their brands promoted in return for the freebies, so we were obliged to seek the kind of attention that would keep them happy. Our crowning achievement was a short feature at the end of the regional news on BBC One, in the slot that would normally be filled by some feel-good tale of local eccentrics and their quaint little projects.
The significance of what we were about to do was confirmed when we were invited to a meeting with one of the owners of Kona Bikes, a long-established manufacturer of bikes for true cycling enthusiasts. The meeting would be in Switzerland, naturally, in a posh chalet overlooking Lake Geneva with a cracking view of Mont Blanc. Andy and I flew out one morning, touched down to find central Europe bathed in an unseasonal warm spell of weather, and spent an enjoyable day chatting on a sunny balcony over wine and pizza, impressing our prospective sponsors with the detail and subtlety of our research. Finally, we were offered whatever we liked from the company’s product catalogue, driven back to the airport, and arrived back home in Northamptonshire in time for tea. Even though Kona didn’t actually make off-road expedition bikes, we’d chosen two bicycle frames upon which to build our own, together worth several hundred pounds! The meeting’s organiser had asked if Mark was coming too, but – without bothering to mention this to Mark himself – I’d told Kona that he wasn’t part of our core mission, so there wasn’t really any point. I didn’t want someone piggybacking on all of my hard work if they were only coming along for the easy bit of the ride.
Following Kona’s involvement, interest in Ride Earth snowballed. Although we thought we knew exactly what we were doing, we decided to attend an expedition-planning weekend within the ornamental halls of the Royal Geographical Society in London. There we sat as part of a small audience in a workshop dedicated to the planning and logistics of long-distance bicycle journeys. A woman and two men sat in a row at the front, looking laid-back and unimposing. They almost looked normal. This was not the kind of impression I’d expected from three celebrated expedition cyclists who, having collectively pedalled several times round the planet, were clearly anything but normal. One of these two guys had recently wrapped up a four-year epic of more than forty thousand miles, yet now seemed more interested in doodling on his notepad than impressing the budding adventurers who positioned themselves expectantly before him.
And I wondered just what these three individuals had been through on their adventures, and how their experiences seemed to have humbled them, rather than helping them to grow confident and outgoing. My own return to England, of course, would be far more heroic.