Escaping court for the open road:
Why has the 28-year-old left his cushy job at a London-based corporate law firm and subjected himself to months of tiring physical exertion, camping out in barren landscapes, and sleeping in churches and on the floors of random strangers?
"I’m not entirely sure," he says with a laugh. "For me, travel needs to have some sort of overriding objective, and the idea of a super-long bike ride appealed to the side of me that likes a challenge."
Aside from the thrill of it, he’s putting rubber to road for a charity called Opportunity International, which provides small loans to people in developing countries – including those in South America – who would not otherwise have access to credit.
"I've had an itch for quite some time to do something a bit different that I can be proud of in later life … I also felt that there had to be more to life than the four walls of my office," he says.
"I also knew that I might not always have the opportunity to come away and do something this selfish," James adds. "It certainly wasn’t a sense of altruism – the motivation for my journey was, and remains, personal first, charitable second."
His adventure follows in the footsteps of a growing number of elite endurance cyclists who have taken to covering countries, continents, and in a few cases, the globe, on their bicycles.
The most famous case of long-distance cycling is that of Mark Beaumont. In February of last year (2008) the Scotsman completed his 29,000km round-the-world journey in 195 days, beating the previous world record by 81 days.
In May of this year, Beaumont embarked on a tour of the Americas. His new cycling project will take him from Anchorage, Alaska to Ushuaia, southern Argentina – the exact same place James intends to finish his gruelling journey.
But he and Beaumont aren’t the only ones currently cycling the Americas. James has met a handful of other people also touring South America and beyond. In Colombia he met a couple from Bogota who like him are also cycling to the tip of the continent, then plan to pedal back through Brazil.
Speaking of the land of samba and white sand beaches, James has also met Valdo, a 65-year-old Brazilian priest. With official ‘dispensation’ from the Pope himself, Father Valdo is cycling around the planet in an attempt to spread world peace – a venture that will keep the padre on the road until 2013.
After meeting so many intrepid cyclists like himself, he jokes that maybe he set his sites too low.
"[Meeting other cyclists] puts my rather paltry efforts to shame really," James writes in a blog entry on his website. "Kind of makes me feel I should have been more ambitious … just kidding, mum!"
It’s no wonder then, that he takes a break from the road to relax in a hostel when he reaches a major city. He uses such times to enjoy more than a few beers and chat up more conventional-type travellers.
Does his mode of transportation win him any points with the ladies?
"My social and sex life is about is good as it ever is, although I’m not sure the sweaty spandex is doing me too many favours," he says, blushing slightly.
Though cycling 100-plus kilometres a day and enduring the unknown are pushing his physical conditioning to the limits, James says the most difficult part of the journey is mental.
"Being away from family and friends can definitely grind you down at times, particularly when you find yourself in a place where you don’t make any sort of connection," he says, but quickly adds: "But I didn’t set out on this trip lightly so I’m not going to quit lightly either."
Making connections with people is getting easier as he petals his way south. That’s because the ‘survival’ part of so-called ‘Survival Spanish’ for travellers can be literal in James’ case. When he finds himself in the middle of nowhere and needs directions, a place to sleep or supplies, knowing a few phrases in Spanish is essential.
Some of his favourite experiences have happened when his rudimentary Spanish came into play, like the time in southern Colombia when he stopped at a roadside bar to ask if there was a place to stay for the night. A group of guys ended up getting James drunk and he was invited to say at one of his impromptu drinking buddy’s houses.
"I ended up tottering off up the road with them, with them driving and me on my bike, to one of their houses where I met the family, had some dinner and ended up sleeping for the night," he says with another boyish chuckle.
Eight More Months to Go
With eight more months, four more countries and thousands more kilometres still to go, James, doesn’t know what to expect, or even how he might feel when he reaches the end.
And despite achieving something few others have ever done, he thinks reaching the end of the road at the southern tip of the continent will be a quiet affair.
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