x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Briton cycles 8,000km from London to Dubai for charity

Ben Smith found the journey a hard slog but was impressed with the friendliness of Iranians, even if he was questioned by the military after cycling past a nuclear facility.

Ben Smith in Dubai with his trusty Fuji Touring bicycle, which he is now planning to sell. Satish Kumar / The National
Ben Smith in Dubai with his trusty Fuji Touring bicycle, which he is now planning to sell. Satish Kumar / The National

DUBAI // Ben Smith was about 80 kilometres from his home in London when he started to question his motives.

The 27-year-old Briton had decided to cycle more than 8,000 kilometres across Europe and North Africa to Dubai for charity.

He left his parents’ house on the morning of August 13 and stepped off a ferry at Port Rashid on Wednesday morning, after a seven-hour journey from Iran’s Bandar Lengeh port.

His ultra-marathon bike ride took 125 days – but there were times when he very nearly quit.

“I lost count of how many times I asked myself what the hell I was doing,” Smith said. “I had that thought for the first time on day one, when I was only 50 miles from home.

“The first week was really hard because it was a realisation of how big a task it was, and that I was basically on my own.

“It’s tough to carry on cycling when you’re tired, cold and hungry, when you remind yourself that you could be at home, in the warm, with family and friends.”

He cycled from the UK, across northern France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey and, finally, Iran.

He survived on meagre savings, taking his tent, sleeping bag and other provisions with him in saddle bags that weighed about 45 kilograms.

He was chased by savage street dogs in Serbia and Bulgaria, cycled mountain passes that were 2,500 metres above sea level in Turkey, and camped in the desert in Iran.

Smith was inspired to undertake the challenge after reading a book by Mark Beaumont, a Scottish cyclist who pedaled around the world in 194 days. He quit his job in the commercial department of News International, in central London, bought a touring bike and applied for visas for his journey.

His initial plan was to cycle through Pakistan to meet his brother in India for Christmas, but he was refused a visa for Pakistan and so came via Dubai instead.

He also applied for a visa to Iran, but that was declined soon after he set off from the UK. He was delayed for two weeks in Turkey while reapplying, and was successful on his second attempt.

The Iran leg of his journey was one of his favourites. “People were so hospitable. They would come out of their house as you were going past and hand you food,” he said. “They would drive past and start passing food out of the back window.

“I was invited to stay at people’s homes about five or 10 times a day. That was amazing, but you can’t accept every offer, otherwise you wouldn’t get anywhere.”

His experience with the authorities in Iran was also positive, even though he was once stopped and questioned by the military after unwittingly cycling past a nuclear facility.

The hardest part of the journey, he said, was in the mountainous area of northern Turkey. Smith said it was only the fact he had agreed to undertake the journey for charity sponsorship that he carried on.

“It was a real tough slog,” he said. “If I was just doing it for myself, I might at some point have just thought that I had done as much as I wanted to do.

“The fact that I was doing it for sponsorship and for charity meant I had a bit of an obligation to grind it out. It was a physical challenge, but probably more of a mental challenge.”

Smith was aiming to raise Dh30,000 for a British charity, the Multiple Sclerosis Trust, but so far is Dh9,000 off that goal. He said donations from all corners of the world had poured in through his charity page, www.justgiving.com/Ben-Smith28/3.

Before he heads to India, he needs to sell his faithful bike, a Fuji Touring cycle, for Dh1,800, because he could not afford the freight cost to send it home. Saying goodbye would be hard, he admitted.

“It’s something that carries you every day, you have your highest and your lowest moments on it. You spend most of your time staring at it. You get very attached to it. When it’s finally time to part with it, it’s going to be a very sad moment.”