On a normal Saturday in South East London, you’d probably find Boru Pratt McCullagh coaching at Herne Hill Velodrome. He’d be standing trackside with a smile on his face, encouraging riders to keep digging, ringing the bell as they storm past for the final lap, cheering as they sprint for the finish. McCullagh has dedicated the last couple of years to this vocation: helping others discover a love for two wheels.
August 27, though, will not be a normal Saturday for the 23-year-old. It’s on this day that McCullagh is embarking on his own, personal challenge. And there will be no coaches there to guide him on his way. He will press start on his Wahoo head-unit for a ride spanning 34,000 kilometres. His route will take him around the world. He will pedal from Europe to the Balkans to Bulgaria to Turkey to Iran, India, South East Asia, Australia, New Zealand, South America, Morocco, Spain, Paris and back.
“My bike will be my home,” McCullagh tells me. On it he will carry a tent, stove, bivvy and a tiny selection of clothes and kit. Such a simple existence doesn’t scare the young Brit though: “Nowadays, there is a huge weight on being materialistic and having loads of things. I really look forward to only having the bare necessities,” he explains.
Image: Rupert Hartley
Speaking to McCullagh a few days before his Grand Départ – which will fittingly be a lap of Herne Hill Velodrome as an homage to the place which inspired his project – I wonder how he’s feeling before taking on such a huge challenge. Excited? Nervous? Regretful? The ride undeniably has risks attached, be it injury from the number of kilometres he’ll be riding or his own desire to visit remote places where mechanical or medical aid could be minimal. Generally, it’s a journey deep, deep into the unknown. The world is vast and, fundamentally, can be a dangerous place.
“For so long I’ve been like setting up these dominoes, climbing up these huge stairs and this whole thing is like a waterslide that I’m going to send it down,” he says. “I'm excited for it but with that comes a huge amount of nerves because so much of it is unknown. I've got a route, but that's going to change because I'll hear things from locals and they'll be able to give me a better sense of direction.
“I've got to figure out life on the road, but I'm really looking forward to living this nomadic existence. The most beautiful parts of the world aren't always on tarmac. I want to go into the middle of nowhere in the wilderness. Spend a few days at a time off the grid, then come back to come back to civilisation.”
While I can understand McCullagh’s desire to explore new corners of the world and his hunger to soak up new experiences, there is one thing that strikes me about his endeavour: loneliness. The South Londoner will spend hours with just him and his thoughts.
“I think I will meet other travellers on the road, or have friends come out at points to meet me. But, to be honest, to me it isn’t lonely, it's an opportunity for some solitude. So much of my life is fast paced, it's all about being social and being super-connected. Being alone can be helpful at times,” he says.
It’s clear from his answers that McCullagh is a deep-thinker and that his ride around the world will be as much a psychological challenge as a physical one. So much so that he’s named the project ‘Mind Map’ and he will be using the ride to raise money for Mind, a mental health charity which aims to ensure that no one has to go through a mental health battle alone.
“For me, it all fits together,” explains McCuallagh. “When I was racing competitively, cycling basically put me into a massive pit of depression. It became a burden as I felt like I kept letting people down. I still loved it, but competing was just the last thing I wanted to do.”
“A few years later, it completely brought me out of that. Just before COVID lockdown, my resolution was to ride once a month. I realised I really missed it. I kept on pushing and found this long distance riding quite therapeutic. I was at my worst when I wasn’t exercising and I wasn't on my bike.
“That's why I wanted to do it for Mind, because no one should be without mental health support. Being active and doing something that you're passionate about can hugely help bring you out of a hole in my experience,” he explains.
So far, the donations to McCullagh’s GoFundMe campaign are nearing three thousand pounds. “When I'm in the middle of nowhere in Australia, or in the Andes and I think: why did I do this? I will look at the fundraising page and be like, okay, that’s why.”
Image: Rupert Hartley
The Brit will no doubt have a number of moments where he will be questioning his choice to undertake the mammoth ‘Mind Map.’ As we speak, McCullagh’s lighthearted, jokey demeanour and his considered answers make him appear laid back about the challenge, but even he admits that as the day he leaves approaches, the anxiety is beginning to build despite his excitement.
“Getting a bike fit today and seeing it fully built up for the first time, sending the route to the guys that make the dot tracking, waking up yesterday and releasing this my last weekend in London, I’m still in disbelief that it's happening,” he says.
I ask if his research and preparation has been meticulous and time-consuming, and his response surprises me. “I've not read a lot about other people's experiences doing this sort of thing. I want it to be unknown, to experience it myself for the first time. So I can kind of see that for myself in an unbiased way.”
McCullagh is keen to point out that he hasn’t been able to plan his feat alone, mentioning the sponsors that have contributed both financially and with kit to help him with his ride: Specialized, Albion, Quoc and Hunt. He also admits to dipping deep into his personal savings to make it possible. “I've saved up. Some people think that saving that for a house is a what you should be doing, but I put these experiences ahead of the pursuit of slaving away in London for a house.”
‘Mind Map’ is a sort of rejection of everything that the British rider knows. It’s leaving behind his job, his home, friends and family, and any sense of routine, comfort or the safety of doing things you know. “I remember I was talking to Josh Ibbett [winner of the 2015 Transcontinental Race] about this stuff I wanted to do but I was saying I’d never be able to get the time off work to do it. He said to me: you can always get the time off work. That stuck with me,” says McCullagh.
Returning to his normal life after months on the road seems like a strange proposition to McCullagh. How will this experience change him? How will he be different when he returns to the concrete pavements of his hometown?
“I joke with people that I'm going to come back speaking in haikus and proverbs and have a really big beard,” he says with a smile. “But if I'm honest, I don’t know and I don’t want to expect anything because I don’t want to be let down, you’ve got to go into it with an open mind, right? Then everything's a good surprise.
“I can't say how it's going to change me. But I know I need to open my eyes to a world that we don't get to see from our living room in London and the lanes of Kent.”
Cover image: Naomi Cousins