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On December 1, Laura Massey-Pugh and Stevie Massey, both from the UK, cycled through a blizzard into Brandenburg Gate in Berlin approximately 180 days after setting off on a journey to become the fastest cyclists to circumnavigate the world on a tandem bicycle.
The husband and wife team, who began their grueling challenge on June 5, traveling for around 18,000 miles (28,968 kilometers) through 21 countries, were greeted by thrilled friends and family, who’d been anxiously awaiting their arrival in the rather brutal weather conditions.
“It was dark. It was also snowing. They [their friends and family] were absolutely frozen, but they still got their banners out and everything,” Massey-Pugh tells CNN Travel.
“So it wasn’t quite how we’d envisioned it, where we’d arrived in a blaze of glory – it was more of an absolute battle right to the end. But I think that’s just made us even more proud of our achievements.”
Taking on a record-breaking tandem bicycle journey wasn’t something the veterinary surgeon would have thought was on the cards for herself before she met Massey at a beer festival in 2015.
While they were both keen cyclists, Massey-Pugh says she was more of a “day-to-day commuting cyclist,” while Massey was an experienced long-distance rider who’d been using tandem bicycles since he was a youngster.
“He regaled me with his stories of long-distance bike rides, and riding from Land’s End [mainland Britain’s most southwesterly point] to John O’Groats [a Scottish village located on mainland Great Britain’s northeastern tip] and back again,” Massey-Pugh says of their first meeting.
During their second or third date, Massey took her out on a two-seater bicycle, and the experience “almost brought her to tears.”
“Little did she know that she would have become a super stoker,” he says, explaining that a ‘stoker’ is the person who stays at the rear of the tandem, while the person at the front is described as the ‘captain.’
While the pair, who were married in 2018, have been on many solo bike rides together, they “really clicked on the tandem,” although it took Massey-Pugh a little while to adapt to it at first.
“The actual tandem is not that hard to get used to, particularly if you’ve ridden bikes before,” she explains.
“If you’re in the backseat like me and you’re used to riding and steering your own bike, I think it can almost be harder to suddenly relinquish all that control and not see where you’re going.”
Back in 2020, the couple read about two women, Cat Dixon and Raz Marsden from the UK, who’d broken the world record for the fastest time circumnavigating the globe on a tandem bicycle.
Although they were incredibly impressed by the achievement, Massey-Pugh says she couldn’t help thinking “we could go faster than that,” and decided to look into things further.
They quickly discovered that while there was a current record for the fastest women and the fastest men to complete this challenge on a tandem bicycle, there was no record holder for a mixed male and female team.
In order to achieve the record, they would have to meet a number of requirements from Guinness World Records, including cycling for a minimum of 18,000 miles in the same direction, pass through two antipodal points, locations on opposite sides of the planet, and start and finish at the same point.
Once they’d contacted Guinness and committed to the task, the couple began what turned into around 18 months of “hard planning,” and training.
The couple, who’d ridden thousands of miles on a tandem together by the time they began their six-month trip, say that just getting to the start line felt like half the battle.
Getting a tandem suitable for a trip such as this proved to be one of the toughest challenges.
“It’s a very niche thing, a tandem,” explains Massey. “So it was [a case of acquiring] parts from all around the world to get exactly what we wanted for the job we had to do.
“We found the best people in the business who knew the best to advise us. And it bore fruit in the end.”
According to the couple, their custom made tandem bicycle, which is equipped with specially engineered couplings that allow it to split into two parts so that it can be packed into separate bike boxes for airplane journeys, cost somewhere in the region of £8,000 (around $9,900).
The bike was built by the Tandem Experience & Tandem Shop in the UK town of Telford, while the frame was constructed by US company Co-Motion Cycles.
After setting off from Berlin, they made their way through the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey. The couple, who chronicled the journey on their travel blog, say they cycled for an average of around 10 hours every day.
“It was a full solid day from first light,” says Massey. “As the light got shorter, we were going into the dark every single day for at least two hours, normally.”
While they’d initially planned to go through Azerbaijan, they were forced to change their route due to the border restrictions in place, and flew directly to India from Turkey, before cycling down to Malaysia.
They tried to minimize plane journeys, taking a total of six, as much as possible, as the process of boxing up the bikes, along with the duration of the flights, cut into their cycling time massively.
Massey-Pugh took on tasks such as working out their route and “sorting out the food” in order to remove some of the pressure from her husband.
“Holding the front of the bike itself, and steering was more mentally tiring,” she explains. “So I tried to kind of plug the gaps as anything else to make the ride go smoother.”
Due to their significant difference in height and build, swapping positions on the tandem bicycle was not an option.
The duo were beset with challenges throughout the journey, and had to completely set aside any thoughts of taking time to enjoy some of the destinations they were riding through.
“The trip of a lifetime part went out the window on day one,” admits Massey, citing “injury, accident, sickness, delays, and visa issues” among their many setbacks. “It became solely about the challenge.”
In Malaysia, they were knocked off the tandem by a “motorbike going too fast,” which brought about “a few scrapes and scratches and some quite badly bruised ribs.”
“It came so close to ending the entire trip,” says Massey-Pugh. “We were very lucky, we had a soft landing. But it could have been a lot worse.”
Not only did the accident cause considerable damage to their pannier bags, which had to be replaced, the experience made them seriously question whether it would be safe to continue on.
“Once the bike was largely okay, it was actually having the nerve to go back into the motorcycle traffic for the next four days,” admits Massey. “So that was bad. Very bad.”
However, they ultimately decided to persevere, making it across to Singapore in August.
Despite the numerous hitches along the way, they received plenty of “help and assistance” from others throughout much of the journey, and were incredibly touched by the lengths people went to support them.
“Once everybody found out what we’re doing, people were so kind,” says Massey-Pugh. “They fed us, they watered us and helped us get our clothes clean. That generosity was something I’ll never forget.”
From Singapore, they flew to Perth, Australia, and cycled the length of the country to Brisbane, before flying to Dunedin, New Zealand.
“It was a bit bittersweet, because we kind of flew through New Zealand in eight and a half days. So we had no time to stop anywhere,” adds Massey-Pugh.
Next, they took a plane ride to Vancouver, Canada, and made their way across the country to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Riding through the long high passes of the Rocky Mountains was one of the standout moments of the trip for Massey.
“We’d avoided hilly routes where possible [before,]” he says. “But starting from Vancouver, we almost literally couldn’t avoid going over the Rockies. And the weather was good there.
“We got the back end of summer and sort of autumn. but it was still warm. That was pretty special.”
Once they’d covered Canada, they flew back to Europe, arriving in Lisbon, Portugal in November, before cycling through Spain, France, Belgium and Holland and back into Germany, where they reached Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate just in time to make “that magical number 180.”
“It was just a massive sense of relief,” says Massey-Pugh. “To finally be able to stop riding and to see certain friends and family loved ones that we’ve not seen for six months was absolutely immense.”
Aside from reaching their target, they also managed to raise £10,000 ($12,379) for three different charities, mental health charity Mind, independent charity Vet Life, which provides emotional, financial and mental health support to the veterinary community and Sustrans, a UK charity that supports sustainable transport.
The couple have been thrilled by the support they’ve received since arriving back in the UK earlier this month, and are currently enjoying some downtime and “having other people to chat to.”
“We probably spent more time in six months, literally together, than most people do in their entire relationships,” says Massey, who left his job as a mechanical engineer before the challenge.
They’re currently waiting for Guinness World Records to verify their new record for fastest circumnavigation by tandem bicycle with a mixed team, but note that their time was considerably faster than both the current records for a male team — 281 days – and a female team – 263 days.
“I think the biggest thing was working as a team and being stuck with your husband for six months on the same bike,” says Massey-Pugh, admitting that they’d often almost run out of things to talk about during their time on the road.
“You have to be focused on your goal, and you’ve got to really look out after each other. That’s absolutely crucial to your success.
“You can’t have a barney halfway round ride off on separate bikes. You’re stuck together by the frame [of the bike].”
Now that their feet are firmly back on the ground, they say that they’ll keep riding the tandem bicycle together, but have absolutely no plans to take on any major cycling challenges in the future.
“It was such a massive investment, physically, mentally and financially, with the expense and the time off work,” says Massey-Pugh. “So I think this is our Everest. What more can you do than cycle around the world?
“We will definitely keep riding the bike and we might do some shorter challenges in the future, once we’ve recovered, but we’ll never do anything like this again.”