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Cycling the Silk Road: we chat to the teens about to embark on a 10,000km ride

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Two teenagers from the UK are about to embark on a 10,000km cycling challenge completed by fewer people than have climbed Mount Everest.The Silk Road route, which stretches from Beijing to Tehran, is considered to be the longest, hardest, hottest and coldest in the world.

We caught up with Charles Stevens and Will Hsu before they boarded their flight to China to find out how they have prepared for the expedition and how they’re feeling about the epic journey.

The pair are cycling to raise funds for A Child Unheard. Donations are being collected via the pair’s official JustGiving page and 100% of funds raised will go directly to the charity. So far, they have raised more than £12,000 towards their goal of £25,000.

Cycling the Silk Road
The route commences in Beijing and ends in Tehran, via Mongolia, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

What prompted you to choose the Silk Road route out of all the courses you could have taken?

There are so many places I want to travel but Silk Road is definitely one of the most fascinating. Not only is it steeped in history and culture but it has become so foreign and unknown to all of us in Europe. We rarely hear about Central Asia and visit these countries even less. So it will be a chance to visit, places, cultures and peoples which are so detached from our own.

We also both share interests in history and economics, and this route will be fascinating with regards to the history of the Silk Road, previously the centre of civilisation up until the 16th Century, as well as its recent economic development through China’s New Silk Road Policy where they are investing in connecting Central Asia with Europe and China. The cultural atavism of the region will not survive forever and we want to see it before it disappears.

How have you been training for the expedition? When did you start training?

We started serious training at the beginning of the year and it has gradually increased in intensity. Training has consisted of a mixture of indoors gym-based work – spin sessions, core and strength training – along with plenty of hours in the saddle on long cycles and interval training rides. But also nutrition has been important, making sure we’re eating lower fat and higher carb diets to get us in good shape for the challenge. We have also been taking amino acid based energy drinks and zinc, magnesium and potassium supplements to help with muscle fatigue.

What bikes will you be riding along the Silk Road? Tell us about them.

Charles has chosen a Condor Disc Heritage, a real classic for British tourers, whereas Will has chosen the Surly Disc Trucker from America, an equally respected brand amongst cycle tourists, and there has been much debate between the two of us on who has made the better choice, the jury is still out on this one.

Cycling the Silk Road
Charles and his classic custom-built Condor Disc Heritage.

We both had our bike’s custom built for the ride and we’ve tried to use the same parts as each other where possible so we can share parts. For example, we’ve both gone for 27C rims, and a set of 28″ tyres for roads and 35″ for off road sections. We also both chose disc brakes as we think they’re more durable than rim brakes and also perform better.

Cycling the Silk Road
Will has opted for the Disc Trucker from American cycle brand Surly for the ride.

What support will you have along the Silk Road route, if any? Have you been brushing up your bike maintenance knowledge?

We do have basic support, where we are met every evening and have the luxury of a hot meal provided and things like that. It’s quite similar to the way the Marathon Des Sables works, where you’re self-reliant during the day with regards to navigation and any minor problems, but you have the safety net of knowing you won’t be left stranded in the Gobi Desert if you end up passing out (but hopefully nothing worse). So we do have to have some bike maintenance knowledge, which I was severely lacking in before this trip. But we’ve been brushing up, so we know how to change tyres, fix punctures, clean and change chains and brake pads.

What kit will you be taking on the Silk Road challenge? What brands/favourite items do you rely on for comfort and performance in the saddle?

Space is at premium on a trip like this, so the kit list is quite minimalist. My favourite kit that I’ve used are my Assos bib and leg warmers. Although Assos kit is pricey, I’ve been glad to have really good cycle shorts (lots of padding). The best shorts I’ve used at a more sensible price are from First Ascent, which is actually a South African brand I would also recommend.

The saddle is so important when your sitting on it for the amount of time we will be and I can’t speak highly enough of my Brooks leather saddle for comfort. However, when I have had any chafing Lucas’ Papaw ointment has saved me more than once!

One of the biggest challenges on long multi-day rides is saddle discomfort. What is your strategy for staying comfortable on your bike over the course of the Silk Road?

People always say prevention is better than cure. So investing in a good pair of cycling shorts and using chamois cream will hopefully do the trick. But having a good saddle really helps reduce my concerns about discomfort.

What speed are you aiming for? Will you be taking it easy, or do you have a schedule you plan to stick to?

We do have a schedule but we’re not trying to kill ourselves by racing from Beijing to Tehran; we really want to be able to enjoy the experience and have time to interact with our surroundings. So our average daily distance is between 100-130km but we do have longer days, as well as rest days. Our longest day is over 200km. Our speed will be really dependent on roads and climb for the day. For instance, when we’re climbing the Pamir Mountains up to 4,600m it will be slow going but as long as we finish the day’s riding before dark we’ll be happy.

With only a week to go before embarking on the Silk Road adventure, how do you feel?

It’s really a mixture of nerves and excitement. I can’t wait to set off and start exploring but I don’t think it has completely sunk in: the idea of being on a bike for the next 4 months. It’s still quite surreal to find something that we’ve been planning and dreaming about for so long finally becoming reality. But we definitely feel ready and we’ve had the time to deal with any minor setbacks and injuries. Our concern now is staying motivated and focused during the trip as we know it isn’t going to be easy to adapt to our newly chosen lifestyle of cycling, wild camping, and living more basically.

You can learn more about Charles and Will’s challenge at www.beijingtotehran.com. You can also follow their progress on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.