How to cycle 18,000km together and still stay friends – Rebecca Wardell interview

Kiwi heptathlete explains to the Olympic Channel Podcast why it's easier than it sounds.

Imagine cycling over 18,000 kilometres. Nearly 12,000 miles. Virtually half the circumference of the globe. Across 18 countries. From Switzerland to New Zealand on a bike.

Olympic heptathlete Rebecca Wardell is currently one third into such a mission.

Having taken part in Beijing 2008, Wardell was six weeks away from competing at London 2012 when she picked up an injury. It ended her athletic career.

“I think you learn more from that kind of disappointment than you do from success,” she said to the Olympic Channel Podcast.

"It has stood me in good stead in these years. Especially when we are cycling through the desert in 40c degrees (110f)."


The 40-year-old has put her past behind her and is sharing the epic trip with two other friends from New Zealand.

Olympic rower Emma Twigg took a break from Tokyo 2020 training to join her to Istanbul.

And she also has keen marathoner, Sarah van Ballekom, with her until China.

Despite the long hours on the road, camping, and a crash, they've managed to stay friends.

Olympic Channel caught up with them as SVB and Rebecca prepared to leave country number 11 - Uzbekistan.


You ended up in hospital in Iran after a crash. How did that happen?

SVB: It was all my fault to be honest. Even to this day, I still feel guilty about it. So, we had a really nice time on our bikes, exploring southern Iran and then got back on. Eight kilometres into the ride, and it had been raining, and unfortunately, I fell, which is not good.

RW: We try to and drift behind each other because it’s easier with the wind, which is fine, but if the person in front crashes then you are more than likely to hit them.

SVB: Becs hit me quite hard, unfortunately, she landed in a huge puddle. I actually started laughing from shock, I think, and poor Becks was there, covered in mud. (both laugh)

RW: There was a bit of blood and we ended up visiting four different hospitals that day. Just to make sure we had the right kind of treatment. We were seeing different people who were all saying different things. In the end, at about 9 o’clock in the evening, I was stitched up a knee specialist. I had four stitches in my knee.

Have you fully recovered?

SVB: I think I am about 96 percent recovered.

RW: I had my stitches out in Turkmenistan and I am probably about 90 percent recovered. So, we are doing pretty well. It’s been pretty flat since we left Iran which has been a good way to recover.


Let’s go through exactly where you’ve gone through for someone who has no idea. So, you left Lausanne in Switzerland. And then just take us through that route to where you are now?

RW: The first country that we visited was Italy. We climbed the Simplon Pass out of Switzerland and into Italy with a big group of friends which is a pretty cool way to visit our first country. And then we made our way into Slovenia and down into Croatia, then into Bosnia and Serbia before heading into Bulgaria. We then crossed into Turkey which is where Olympic rower and friend Emma Twigg left us, unfortunately. So, one of our trio was sent home to do some training for the Olympic Games (in 2020) which is a good excuse.

We left her in Istanbul so then SVB and I continued through Turkey. And then from Turkey we crossed into Iran where we had another month. Then into Turkmenistan and now into Uzbekistan where are we now.

Emma isn’t the only Olympian that you have met, the plan is to meet up with as many Olympians as possible. Who have you met?

RW: We’ve met an Olympian in almost every country that we’ve been to which is very cool. We’ve had biathletes in Slovenia. We had a cyclist who cycled in the Mexico 1968. He was in his 70s and he cycled with us for 30km which was awesome.

I did see also on Instagram – possibly my favourite post from you guys – when your physio was making chicken kebabs… what was happening there?

SVB: In Iran, we were absolutely blown away by the hospitality and the generosity of the people that we have met. People did our washing and made us meals. People even paid for our hospital bills. Absolutely crazy. We will never forget that kindness in our hour of need.


Obviously, not everyone is a nice person. How have you been dealing with that?

RW: I think just to stay aware, taking up offers of local people to help us along the way. We have been super-fortunate and that we have contacts for the National Olympic Committees, who have been helping us with places to stay, people to talk to, and at a minimum, someone we can call if we get into trouble. We certainly feel a lot safer with their support.

What’s it been like as women travelling alone?

RW: It’s been interesting, a lot of people, especially in Turkey and Iran, they ask us, 'Where are the men?'. As in like, what are you doing, are you crazy?

Sarah van Ballekom: Someone asked, ‘Who is your leader?’ We’re like, ‘We are the leaders. You’re looking at them.’

RW: I think especially in those cultures it’s probably more bizarre than when we’re cycling through Italy. Women cycling is pretty much the norm there anyway.

Can you explain a little bit about your charity and where the money is going when you get back to New Zealand?

RW: We are trying to raise funds for an organization called Forward Foundation. It’s basically trying to get young woman opportunities to play sports. So young women, between 12 and 18 years old, can play sport but also be leaders in their community around sporting events or clubs. It’s not just giving them cash to compete but also so they can set little projects in their communities.


Rebecca, your Olympic moment in 2008 where you competed in the heptathlon must’ve been special but you missed out on London 2012 with an injury just six weeks before the Olympic Games started. How hard was that to swallow?

RW: If you don’t enjoy the journey, then the destination doesn’t really mean as much. And it’s tough – is that four years wasted because you didn’t get to the Games? I don’t think so. I think you learn more from that kind of disappointment than you do from success. It has stood me in good stead in these years. Especially when we are cycling through the desert in 40c degrees (110f).

It’s always rude to start talking about people’s ages but I had to have a look. I couldn’t help but notice that you turned 40 this year. Was that a factor?

RW: It is not a midlife crisis – let’s just say! Was it a factor? No – I think this is something that if the timing had been right when I was 30, I think I would have done it but it’s a good way to celebrate your 40th year – isn’t it? Get on a bike.


What would you say to someone considering doing a mission like your one?

RW: It’s definitely not as hard physically as you might think. People are like ‘Ah, you must be so fit’. But to start with – we go quite slowly. It’s not like our heart rate is screaming and we are puffing all day. We are cycling at a pace where you can chat very easily. Once your butt is used to it!

Probably the most difficult part is making sure your visas line up so you can get into one country to the next without any trouble but, other than that, if you can navigate – it’s fine.

SVB: You probably want to know how to change a tyre. I still don’t think I have quite nailed that but luckily Becs is very good at changing tyres.

RW: If you roll with the punches by sleeping on a basketball court, wedding hall or in a five-star hotel, which happens every now and again, it’s no worries. And if you have a sense of adventure and are quite happy to be flexible.

SVB: It’s just not that hard.

And if there’s one thing that you wish you had packed and it’s not with you?

RW: I wish I had a little summer dress that you could put on in the evenings. Because I have got about three outfits – two of which are for cycling and the others hanging out in. It would just be nice to feel like a lady. SVB literally got a dress made.

SVB: I would pack some peanut butter. We haven’t found peanut butter for a long time.

Rebecca Wardell was this week’s big interview on the Olympic Channel Podcast_. Each Wednesday we find someone Olympic to go in deep about the biggest talking points.

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The interview and questions were shortened to make them easier to read.


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