Later this week, Vancouver firefighter and cancer survivor Rudy Pospisil will unpack his Giant Seek bicycle on the coast of Portugal, clip in and head for the Middle East. The road ahead stretches 9,000 miles, the distance between him and his goal of circumnavigating the globe on two wheels for charity. He knows he can do it, because he already has – between 2009 and 2012, he logged 9,000 miles completing the first half of his epic quest, surviving armed bandits, eating grass and riding one brutal 100-mile slog after another.
The 51-year-old’s day isn’t over after 10 hours on the bike. When he arrives at a destination, he’s often expected at a local fundraiser, has blogs to write and letters from cancer survivors to answer. This is Pospisil’s vacation – he takes off work six to eight weeks at a time to keep climbing this personal mountain, fighting a disease that has affected nearly every member of his family, including a dog.
Before his wheels started spinning in Europe, he talked to Gadling about Guinness Book of World Records requirements, why he’s not allowed to get a new bike and the trick to surviving machete-wielding bandits.
First, how is your health?
Health is good. I lose about 20 pounds on each ride, and I’m fit and trim from training before I go. But health can change the next day after a scan or blood test. You never know.
When you say circumnavigating the globe, what do you mean?
The Guinness people have rules that qualify as a true global circumnavigation. You must use the same bike, always go the same direction (I go west to east), cross the equator twice, travel at least 18,000 miles and cross two antipodal points (exact opposite points) on the earth.
One bike for 18,000 miles?
Yes. I have to get lots of repairs after and on each leg. I ship it, trusting a bike shop to accept it and assemble it. Another cost and logistics issue. Portugal customs just seized (their translation was “arrested”) my bike and equipment early this week. Wanted 600 euros, duties, import fees, “ransom,” etc. Then possibly more to process it. They wanted me to arrive in person to release it. It was unfounded, as the declaration stated it was “personal used items leaving the country.” They would not budge. I contacted my consulate and federal government in Ottawa. They then released by stuff. No apology.
Have you figured out what your antipodal points will be?
Portugal and New Zealand.
How does one apply for a Guinness world record?
You must provide passport stamps and pictures and video with you in them. I do that, plus Google Maps plots my GPS along the way. It won’t be a world record – only a record that I accomplished the global cycle and followed all the rules to qualify.
What kind of numbers have you logged?
Nine countries and 160,000 vertical feet of elevation. That’s enough to get to space, and halfway around the globe. I just can’t wait to get going again. It’s so hard to stop, go back to the fire station, then train all over again for the next leg.
Where have you been so far?
In 2009, I cycled from Munich to Budapest along the Danube River, through five countries, and started annual fundraisers in Prague and Budapest. In 2010, I cycled from Vancouver to Mexico along the Pacific coast. In Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, I met police and firefighters outside the city and rode into town together to a cancer fundraiser. In San Francisco I had a full police escort. They even stopped the traffic. In 2011 I was asked to circle Oahu with the Hawaiian Bicycle League to raise funds for a safer cycle network after an 18-year-old boy was killed by a hit-and-run driver. I stopped my global ride to go, and it was worth it. In 2012 I crossed the southern U.S. from San Diego to St. Petersburg, Florida. It was a complete adventure that included a robbery, a shooting, getting struck by a car and Mexican bandits that let me live because they like Canadians.
Um, what? How did you get entangled with them? And more importantly, untangled?
It happened near a town called Guadalupe. The town was a rundown place with closed-down stores. Everyone was looking at me, like the stranger that rides into town in a Western movie. About five miles outside of town, these two guys in a lowrider-type car pulled up beside me and offered to carry my saddlebags up the forthcoming hill. I politely declined and said that three police officers riding with me, about 3 miles back, would help me. This was BS, but they weren’t sure. They turned around, likely looking for the officers. I turned it on as fast as I could but there were no side roads – nowhere to hide, just desert and scrub. The lowrider shot past me about 15 minutes later and parked on the side of the road. One guy was waving a machete. They said they would now help me with the bags. I said that I could just give them my wallet instead and save them a lot of room. I have what I call a dummy wallet with an expired credit card and some bills, just for situations like this. I was remembering the turkey vultures all along these roads I had seen, eating dead carcasses, and wondered if I would be next. They saw my small fundraiser Canadian flag with the globe and bike pictured on it. They talked together about it for some time. They looked further through my bags and drove off, just like that. I guess they figured that I was okay to go. My second chance at life after cancer.
How often are you in danger?
Many times. I was hit by a car in central Oregon. Forced off the road by rednecks in Texas. Had my front tire shot out in L.A. – either they were a bad shot and completely missed me, or a great shot and hit the front tire rim. Cramped so bad in Hungary I could not move for 12 hours. I have a small rearview mirror that sticks out a few inches from my handlebar. Three have been clipped off by passing cars. And I have met many scorpions and rattlesnakes in the desert.
What happened in Hungary?
I was in the country and really pushing, trying to make it to Budapest. I was exhausted, out of water, dehydrated and kept getting slight cramps in my calves. So I stopped to rest my legs. I started cramping in my hamstrings and was rolling around on the ground in this field. It got so severe I could not do much other than lie there. I knew I had to get water. I started chewing on grass, hoping I could get some liquid out of it, but that only cramped up my stomach. I drifted in and out of sleep, or maybe consciousness, only waking to cramp up. I must have been there at least 12 hours, until the next morning. I managed to get on my bike and get to a farmhouse. They made me scrambled eggs. I think it was the best meal in my life.
What’s your average day?
Eat, sleep, ride. Eat, sleep, ride.
Usually I am up at sunrise. I try to cook a nutritional breakfast. I try to stop every two hours to stretch and maybe eat an energy bar. I need to try to shower and clean the bacteria and salt from my skin. If there is no water I use antiseptic wipes. If you leave the salt on the skin, it will be like sandpaper and rub you raw the next day; it’s so bad it has stopped Tour de France riders as a result of infection. Then it’s time to eat. You must try to ensure the proper percentage of fat, protein and carbohydrates, as that’s your fuel. It’s very hard to do this in desolate areas. I have dehydrated meals sometimes. I eat a lot, then after an hour or two I’m always hungry again. I sleep between five and eight hours a night.
And you’re alone?
Yes. It gets extremely lonely.
How do you occupy your mind?
I try to think that I am never alone. My nephew, who died at 15, and my dad, who died last year of cancer, are with me a lot of the time. I look for animals in the fields and hills. I think about my blog and what I will write that night. How I will answer emails I got from sick people who had some hard questions. Sometimes I think a long time about what I might eat that night. Sometimes I get really lonely and sad and just want to go home, especially if it’s my birthday or Thanksgiving. So I spend a lot of time on positive, happy thoughts, as sadness and negativity are very draining and defeating.
When you plot your route, what do you consider and what do you avoid?
You might not think this, but one of the biggest challenges is water. It’s heavy, and you can’t carry too much or not enough. You must know for sure where you can get more. If you make a mistake, you might get dehydrated, delirious and possibly die. Where I go there are usually no cellphones, cars or people for long stretches. In the deserts, I have encountered temperatures up to 120 degrees. I have been in sandstorms, thunderstorms, the edge of a hurricane and freezing temperatures. I find the desert the hardest, as I’m from Vancouver and we have streams and shade. Here, I could survive easily.
I don’t avoid hills or mountains. I avoid cities. A big city you’ve never been to is a real minefield. Texas was pretty bad with 85 mph speed limits and very aggressive drivers. In sections I had to go on the interstate. Blown tires and steel belt wires from tires caused numerous flats.
Tell me about your charity work on the road.
My goal was $50,000. I have raised just under $20,000 in Canada. I’m not sure how much has been raised in the other countries. I contact firefighters in cities ahead, or the area’s cancer agency. For example, in Switzerland I will cycle from Basel to Zurich with the Swiss Cancer Association and firefighters from Zurich. We will have an event in town where the mayor comes out, media, etc. I raise funds for their charity, The Race Against Cancer. I try to write a blog each day on firefightercycle.com. People follow me, as I have a GPS. I go on Vancouver radio shows each week, and sometimes newspaper reporters track me down. It’s very draining, writing each day after riding, answering letters (sometimes sad ones from cancer patients) or attending an event when all you want is a shower, a meal and to sleep.
Logistically, how do you arrange something like this?
Logistics is a huge job. I have to try to avoid cities but yet get to cities for fundraisers. I have to arrange fundraisers, try to find a deal on gear, flights, food, etc. It’s extremely expensive to do this, so I do what I can to economize. I wish I had a major sponsor. I have filmed the entire journey and have over 25 hours, some amazing footage. I’m hoping a producer might contact me to make a documentary. That would be huge for awareness and fundraising.
What were some places you’d bike again, and some places you hope to never see again – at least on a bike?
Cycling the Danube from Munich to Budapest was great. It was all on a trail, and there was plenty of food and water. The people were great. Mexico and the Texas border were terrible. There were people crossing into the U.S., border patrol chasing them day and night, and everyone seemed to carry a gun there. The heat was extreme, and west Texas was as barren as the moon.
What are some of the most cycling-friendly places you’ve been?
Western Europe, likely Hungary. There is a great cycling infrastructure in Europe. Cycle paths are built alongside roads to make it safe and get bikes away from cars. Also, there are not a lot of fences at the side of the roads, so you can go into a field and rest or camp and feel safe. The food is quite good and easy to come by.
How does a leg end? Do you have a traditional celebration?
The last leg ended at the Atlantic Ocean. I dumped in water and sand from the Pacific, then I jumped in and swam. I had an inflatable globe, added my website and sent it out to sea. Finishing a leg is usually quite emotional, as I have gone so far and had so many experiences and close calls. It all comes out. Sometimes I cry.
It’s one thing to start something epic with good intentions and some resources, but it’s quite another to finish it. Life tends to get in the way. What keeps you going?
I think of Terry Fox, who ran halfway across Canada, a marathon each day, on one leg. He died from cancer halfway through the journey. He grew up in my city and was my age. Rick Hansen pushed himself in a wheelchair around the world. But mostly it’s the letters from people telling me to keep going and the donations. Sometimes I find the poorest people give the most. A girl working at the counter in McDonald’s in Washington state donated $50 to the Cancer Society when I stopped there. That really inspires me.
A lot of people want to have an adventure, but they don’t know where to begin. How can someone take that first step?
So many people tell me that at events, “I wish I could do what you do.” Fact is you can. You don’t have to ride around the world. Join a charity and help them. It will grow on you, and you will meet the best people of society in these organizations and will just want to do more.
What is your ultimate goal?
That my global ride will inspire many other people to start fundraising efforts around the world. To get pharmaceutical companies to all try to work together and share information to find a cure rather than a profit. I am sure that within 10 years almost all cancers could be a treatable chronic illness, not a deadly disease with limited survival rates.
When do you expect to wrap up?
I may finish the global circumnavigation within 24 months, but I will never wrap up. I will still continue either by riding, giving talks or joining other ongoing efforts worldwide.
You can follow Pospisil’s progress through Europe to Iran and find his scheduled fundraisers on his website, firefightercycle.com.
[Photos courtesy Rudy Pospisil]