Going back to the start
The taxi driver eyed me quizzically. We were heading towards Rio de Janeiro Airport for our flight home and he didn’t seem to believe my English/Portuguese account of our 14-month, cycle ride around South America. Suddenly, a look of recognition washed over his face as he said, ‘You were on TV’.
He wasn’t the only one to recognise us after our appearance on Brazilian national TV which showed us returning to the start point of our trip on Ipanema Beach. We were spotted on the metro and congratulated by a passing motorist in the centre of town, an odd feeling but an amusing three minutes of fame.
Our last day on the bikes, though, started more quietly. The night before we’d checked into a hotel in Niteroi on the other side of the bay from Rio. Initially delighted that the room was cheap, we soon discovered it was another sex hotel, this one particularly seedy, so barricaded ourselves into the room for the evening.
Understandably, it wasn’t the best night’s sleep and we were up early, packing our panniers for the last time. They were considerably lighter than when we set off as we’d been ditching clothes and other items over the past few weeks. Escaping the hotel, we pushed the bikes past the burnt out cars outside and headed to the ferry terminal.
A grey mist covered the bay and we couldn’t see any sign of Rio. So, we ate our breakfast of pao de queijo, staring into a mist hoping for the view to clear, whilst politely trying to avoiding a self-proclaimed Austrian Prince with his 1bn Euro Rolex. There’s something about the bikes that attracts odd characters.
At the ferry terminal, we were met by a crew from SportTV, the Brazilian equivalent of Sky Sports. We’d agreed with the British Embassy to do interviews with national press but the plans had escalated to being followed by cameras all the way to Ipanema Beach. We were concerned that this might distract from the moment, but as everything seemed to be organised we decided to go with it and see what happened.
The four-man crew had arranged an escort onto the ferry, so we were led onto the boat past crowds of commuters wondering who the grubby-looking cyclists were. After a short crossing, we arrived into the centre of Rio. For the first in a long time, we were in a familiar place having visited when in the city originally.
Rio has some of the best bike lanes we’ve seen in South America. From the ferry you can cycle almost all the way to the end of Ipanema Beach without hitting the road. Yet, the TV crew were unable to follow us that way, so for the first ten minutes we found ourselves racing along the main highway at 30kmph trailing their car with the cameraman hanging out Tour-de-France style.
We were obviously too slow as they pointed us off in the direction of the cycle lanes and we were left to enjoy a beautiful ride around the winding coastline of the city; around sweeping bays, through landscaped gardens and under the view of the Cristo Redentor statue high above.
Before we knew it we were pedalling along the red, cycle lane running the course of the Copacabana Beach where familiar coconut stalls started to appear. Too soon, the strand ran out and we reached the point where the Copacabana and Ipanema meet. Here, we were to meet the Embassy staff and TV crews after which we would head on alone to our official start point at the end of Ipanema.
It was school holidays in Brazil and with three news crews around us we soon attracted quite an audience. They watched as we answered the reporters’ questions, cycled up and down the promenade and received t-shirts from the British Consul with the slogan ‘SPORT IS GREAT Britain’ emblazoned across the front.
The fuss was a little embarrassing. Although cycling around South America is an achievement, it pales in significance to cycle tours around the world. It made us feel better though to learn that the attention wasn’t all for us. One of the reporters turned out to be the principle journalist on the main Brazilian news and people were lining up for his photo, not ours.
The filming turned out to be lots of fun and we ended up with some good clips to remind us of our final day.
Yet, we weren’t quite finished. So we waved goodbye to the crowds and headed off alone to cycle four kilometres to the end of Ipanema Beach. It looked just as we remembered it and as we rode the principal feelings were unbelieving that we had made it back to the start and numbness that the trip was coming to an end.
Our official start/finish point overlooks sunbathers and swimmers and is where we took our leaving photo 14 months and 12 days before. Arriving back was a moment of pure joy.
That morning, we’d tucked a bottle sparkling wine into our panniers and celebrated our achievement by spraying ourselves F1-style. It was actually quite tasty and after finishing the bottle we raced into the Atlantic Ocean for a celebratory swim.
It was a special moment and there wasn’t much to be done after but turn around and cycle up to a beachfront stall for a caipariha. There’s been a fair few cocktails on the trip, but none so much anticipated or enjoyed. In truth, when we left Rio all that time ago I don’t think either of dared believe we would ever make it all the way back.
The first day we left Rio we were flagged down by a German, Manfred, who had cycled around Europe and who invited us to stay in his house that night. On our final evening we met up with him and his family for dinner to look back on our adventures. A perfect start and end to the trip.
It’s going to take a while to realise what we’ve done. We need to look back at the photos and take it all in. Cycling through Argentina in the snow or struggling at altitude in Bolivia seems like a lifetime ago.
In many ways the trip doesn’t seem that big or crazy to us anymore having made it all the way around. But, we had a good reminder as we waited for our plane, that perhaps it was a slightly mad idea. You have to think the England Football Manager must know something.
Somehow, we ended up sat next to Roy Hodgson and his team from the FA at the airport and spent half an hour talking about our trip. They seemed genuinely interested and bemused by stories such as us sleeping in a room with a tarantula. They even said they’d read a book about a trip like that.
With no idea about what to do next, maybe we should do that, write a book. Perhaps we will.
For the moment, we’re back in the UK getting used to the weather and enjoying the Olympics. If we’d ever forgotten what Britain stands for the Opening Ceremony sure reminded us. At some point we’ll think about jobs, setting up the house and updating the website.
Slowly, slowly, though. There’s no rush, as every cycle tourist knows.