The day my life changed - A transglobal bike ride aboard 'Shirley' made me a new man

11th June 2010 at 01:00
A teacher-turned-'green' champion set off on the journey of a lifetime and changed his perceptions

I was struggling to make the subject of Chembakolli, a rural village in India, as exciting for the kids as it was for me. When you're eight years old it is hard to imagine another life existing in stark contrast to our own. There was only one thing for it: I was going to go out there to put myself in the picture - live in a mud hut in the village, collect water, wash in the local stream, and make the long journey to school each day.

When I told my class, one astute boy, fully aware of our school's green awareness policy, asked how I was going to get there. Fly? Train? Bus? Contradict everything I had taught them this year? I couldn't.

A shiver ran down my spine. I said: "I'm going by bicycle." Thousands of miles to India. On my own. Carrying everything I need on my steel-framed bicycle, affectionately known as "Shirley".

I had dreamt of cycling around the world for charity since my 11th birthday. Now my chance had come. I would like to say it was meticulously planned to the Nth degree, but it wasn't.

I was arrested twice, chased by wild dogs, beaten by the mafia. In Russia, a man in uniform walked up to me and pointed his AK-47 in my face. My legs went weak - I'm not afraid to say I almost wet myself with fear. My throat tightened and I couldn't speak. He was thrusting something at me but I couldn't see what. My eyes were trained on the barrel of his gun. He was screaming in Russian but I couldn't understand a word. His friends were laughing. I wasn't. Again, he thrust his other hand towards me. I glanced down. It was a shot of vodka. He was insisting I drink with him before I go on my way.

I was also wined and dined by gangsters, propositioned by ladies of the night and attacked by bandits. On my last day, I was cycling through Bandipur wildlife park. With a high concentration of tigers and a large number of Indian elephants, this wasn't a place to stop for a picnic. My flowery bike wasn't great camouflage and startled a number of elephants I was passing. So they charged.

The standard advice is that if an elephant charges, you should stand your ground and bow your head to show respect. I, however, dropped my bike into third and floored it.

The greatest memories are of so many wonderful people I met in every country, who invited me into their homes to celebrate local festivals, play music, dance, sing, eat and share each other's culture - all of which I described on my blog for the children back in the UK.

I was raising money for ActionAid. The children at my school in Richmond, Surrey, had raised vast sums of money, and the children in the school in India were looking forward to my arrival. How could I let them down?

After six months cycling, with a fat lip, tattered clothing and a bike that looked as if it had been run over by a tank, I rolled into the village on my 31st birthday. I was greeted by a carnival of people playing drums, singing, cheering, waving flags and banners saying "Happy birthday". I wanted to thank them for all they had done and tell them of my adventures, but all I could do was crouch down and cry tears of joy.

When I went back into the classroom the children still saw Mr Bent, but beneath was a different man - a man devoted to a cause more important in my eyes than any other: to make sure every man, woman and child in the world is given the opportunity not only to dream, but to make that dream a reality.

To donate to his ActionAid appeal, go to

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