Long road to fitness – and a new perspective

Ben Cunningham and five friends cycled through the Americas and he’s written a book about their adventures

Ben Cunningham, who cycled the Pan American Tour. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Ben Cunningham, who cycled the Pan American Tour. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons


Before Ben Cunningham set out on an arduous 22,000km cycle from Alaska to Argentina along the Pan-American Highway, he didn’t even own a bicycle. Now aged 27 and working as a barrister, Cunningham was a 22-year-old graduate of Trinity College when he and five friends decided to undertake the massive cycling challenge in aid of Irish NGO AidLink. Cunningham’s account of the journey , The Longest Road: An Irish Pan-American Cycling Adventure was recently published by The Collins Press. The Pan-American Highway, the world’s longest continuous land route, is actually 25,000km but the cyclists shortened the trip by not going to Colombia.

Looking back on the incredible and sometimes dangerous adventure that saw the six men, average age 22, cycle up to 80 miles a day, Cunningham says, “the challenge was more of a mental one than a physical one. It was 95 per cent mental. Anyone can cycle 80 miles in one day but could you do it every day for nine months as we did? To get into the right mental state, you can’t think of the whole journey. You have to narrow it down and have short-term targets. It’s all about hitting small goals.”

Before the journey, Cunningham’s level of fitness “was good. I was playing rugby up until the time of leaving for the trip. My physical build probably wasn’t appropriate for cycling. I’m broad and I played rugby as a forward. I wasn’t overweight but I was heavy. The ideal build for cycling is to be light and strong. I was carrying weight on my upper body but you don’t need bulk for cycling. I lost that bulk pretty quickly through cycling. I stopped using my arms so much and the muscles in them seemed to disappear. I lost about a stone on the journey.”

In America, Cunningham bought a Trek 5.20 steel touring bicycle. Before getting on his bike, he had his teeth checked and polished “as teeth can be problematic on long journeys”.

He didn’t go for a medical check-up and was the only member of the cycling crew that didn’t get sick at some point on the journey.

As Cunningham says, he and his friends had a tough introduction to their adventure. The first 500 miles is along the Dalton Highway, an unpaved gravel road infested with mosquitoes – and there were bears.

“It’s in the middle of the Arctic circle in Alaska. We could see bears in the distance. The important thing was not to get close to them. The mosquitoes were a greater concern. They’d savage you all day long. They were massive things that would pierce your skin. The repellents that we brought with us just didn’t work. We managed by wearing head netting and getting on our bikes. Movement was the best way to keep the mosquitoes off. But it was pretty torturous.”

Dehydration was “a massive concern. We were worried initially about hydration, diet and clothes. But when you’re on the bike for months, looking after these things becomes automatic.

“We were careful about what we ate initially, but after a while, we didn’t care and ate whatever we wanted. We always carried water with us which we’d get from rivers and taps.”

The lads got tired of putting up tents and tended to sleep “under bushes, in hostels, in garages. We just wanted to lie on the ground.” Cunningham admits there were times when he wondered why he had embarked on the trip.

“It was physically challenging at different points, depending on the terrain. Everyone’s mood seemed to ebb and flow. Some would be doing well, others not so well. We had occasional rows.”

Cunningham remembers Patagonia as particularly difficult with its “vicious winds. The trip is normally done in such a way that you have the wind behind you and you just sail up South America. But the way we did it, there was an unrelenting southerly wind hitting us in the face for about two-and-a-half months.”

By the time the lads got to Patagonia, they were “like prunes. When you’re on the road for a long time, you forget about putting on sun screen. You just get out there and take on the sun and the wind. We were all battle-hardened.”

The Baja Desert in Mexico marked the peak of the cyclists’ fitness. “We had lots of energy and were zipping through the miles nice and quickly.” However, the temperature was 40-50 degrees.

At the end of the cycle, Cunningham’s shape had changed, “but not enormously. My legs were like steel. My upper body lost muscle. There was wear and tear on my back, my neck and my elbows.”

Cunningham has since cycled on trips taking in Norway, France and Spain. He says the Pan American Highway cycling adventure “puts other things in perspective. Everything you learn from it is transferable, even in business.”

The Longest Road – An Irish Pan-American Cycling Adventure, by Ben Cunningham, is published by The Collins Press, €14.99.

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