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Wednesday September 19, 2012

Cycling for charity

Few people would be crazy enough to cycle from London to Sydney to raise funds, but Andy Madeley and Matt McDonald did exactly that.

IT’S never a welcoming sight to see images of war, particularly its casualties. And heartbreakingly, according to statistics, two-thirds of these innocent victims are often children. It was one of those scenes that would stop anyone dead in their tracks, and it all began innocently enough for Andy Madeley. He was scouring the Internet for sponsorship for an ultra marathon he was organising when he stumbled across those graphic images on the telly.

“There was this scene from the second Iraq war and this old man was holding a dead 12-year-old girl in his arms, questioning a US Marine of the girl’s crime. It was like a punch in the stomach and I began asking myself as to what the girl could’ve possible done wrong. She was 12. She hadn’t done half the things I’ve been privileged to do, and now she’ll never get that chance,” Madeley revealed during a recent interview in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.

At a time when many of us are so caught up in the rat race and the rigmarole of everyday life, the Briton took stock of life and decided to do something.

<b>Men on a mission:</b> Friends Andy Madeley (left) and Matt McDonald put aside more than a year of their lives to travel the world and promote awareness of the impact of war on children. Men on a mission: Friends Andy Madeley (left) and Matt McDonald put aside more than a year of their lives to travel the world and promote awareness of the impact of war on children.

He roped in his friend of 15 years, Matt McDonald, and they decided to go on a crusade to promote awareness of the atrocities of war, especially the death of innocent children caught in the crossfire. The duo then identified and aligned itself with War Child UK, which is part of a family of independent humanitarian organisations that helps children and young people affected by the conflict of war, and worked out a charity drive to raise funds for the organisation.

Parent organisation War Child International, which is supported by the work done by its offices in Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, Ireland, Australia and the United States, aims to create conditions which will help fulfil the protection, development and survival rights of children.

“War Child works in places no one else goes to. They also stay there till the job’s done and not leave once the press and TV crew have left,” Madeley shared.

Madeley and McDonald’s method to educate, while noble, was still a ride on the wild side. The duo embarked on a 21,000km bicycle ride, beginning from London in August 2011, through Europe, the Middle East and right down to Asia. They are currently enjoying Malaysian hospitality and will be pushing off to Australia next – to Perth tomorrow, before pedalling to their final destination, Sydney.

The original plan was to take buses, trains and boats. But on a night out at the pub – where all good plans are devised – one of the boys had an epiphany. So, whose crazy idea was it to bike it? And did the other want to strangle him?

“I frequently thank and curse Matt. The times when it’s tough, I keep asking myself, ‘Why did I listen to him?’, but when we’re travelling downhill and meeting people, I’m reminded that this is really the best way to travel,” Madeley said.

Although he had not really cycled in 15 years, McDonald was still daring enough to suggest such a mode of transportation, though he’s questioned that decision nearly every day since embarking on the journey.

“I think I just took Andy’s idea of going on an adventure and rolled with it. I thought it would be fun to go on a bus or train, but it would be way more challenging and interesting to do it by bicycle, because you might meet more people and see more things,” McDonald shared, insisting that Madeley had never threatened his life at any point in the journey for his crazy idea.

The guys have certainly gleaned what they’ve wanted to from this journey and are pleased as punch about it.

<b>Frozen out:</b> Not even sub-zero temperatures could wipe the smiles off
the faces of Madeley (left) and McDonald and
prevent them from achieving their goal. Frozen out: Not even sub-zero temperatures could wipe the smiles off the faces of Madeley (left) and McDonald and prevent them from achieving their goal.

“Before we set off, there were three things that we wanted to achieve – have a great adventure, take up a challenge and raise as much money as we could for War Child. I think we’re definitely on the road to achieving these things,” McDonald informed, adding that the target is £50,000 (RM250,000).

Their method of raising funds runs the gamut of the ingenious to the utterly nutty, but the guys take it all on their chins. From growing mullets and moustaches, to disgracing themselves as a challenge, and sending postcards to people from their travelling locations for a small donation, no method is discounted.

“We raise funds any way we can. People like seeing us humiliated,” McDonald shared, singling out (very much loved) friends as meanies waiting to have a laugh at their expense. “It’s about having a wider range of events and getting as many people involved because we can’t do much while we’re travelling, which is why we did five events before we left,” he added.

From the biting cold of Europe and China through to the warmth (they went from below freezing temperatures to 40°C in three days at one point in the journey) and humidity of Asia, there was one constant they learned – the human spirit is the true universal language of the world. Wherever they went, they were welcomed with open arms.

“Some of the hospitality we received was quite unbelievable, especially in Iran. Imagine two dirty, smelly cyclists who were covered in dirt and mud, and looking lost. At the most, you’d probably go over and help them with directions, but they took us in, fed us and showed us around the city,” Madeley enthused, as McDonald echoed: “People generally think the world is a dangerous place with the bad things we see on TV, but the vast majority of people are good.”

The response to their campaign was great, even if some people found their endeavour difficult to fathom. Unfortunately, awareness of war’s destructive powers is still lacking in many parts of the world.

“We just do the best we can by spreading the word, talking to as many people as we can. Ultimately, if you make a point with enough passion, people will respond,” McDonald assured.

Madeley, an IT administrator, and McDonald, who works in the food and beverage industry, are both in their 30s and describe themselves as fairly sporty; but riding bikes around the world for 400-odd days is still a Herculean task, by any standard.

Fortunately, both men are into running. To prepare for their gruelling challenge, they embarked on a few warm-up rides, the most significant being their trek along the English coast, from Land’s End in the south-west to John o’ Groats in the north-east, a popular cycling route which spans a little over 1,400km.

To make sure their bodies were able to withstand the extreme elements, London-based Balance Performance Physiotherapy calibrated their hardy, tough-as-nails Dutch-made Van Nicholas bicycles for optimum performance and provided sports science advice. “They made sure we did things right, taught us techniques for recovery, hydration, nutrition and stretching, and set up the bikes so that we wouldn’t hurt our backs,” McDonald explained.

Prior to their departure, the guys doubted their ability to see the journey through, but once they completed the ride on the English coast, they realised it was possible. “Our friends kept cautioning us that we didn’t have the money to do this, and they were sure we’d be back by tea time,” Madeley revealed some of the mocking offered by their friends back home.

Terrain, not unlike the surface of the moon (in Turkestan), and bad food, were some of the toughest obstacles both men had to deal with, but it was a bat that gave them a real scare. “I think I was bitten by a bat in Montenegro. My face swelled up really badly,” McDonald recalled as Madeley countered comically: “It wasn’t that bad.”

However, the greatest stumbling block was the acquisition of visas. There were times they were just rushing from one country to another to beat their visa expiry dates.

Traversing the world naturally subjected the duo to a variety of cultures, and the one culture shock that stood out was a dance.

“We went with this guy into the desert in Isfahan, Iran, for a bike ride with 15 to 20 of his friends. On the way back, the support car in front of us stopped and I feared the worst, thinking someone was hit. But it was just a good song that was playing on the radio, so they turned it up and danced for half an hour in the desert,” Madeley related.

For people looking to emulate Madeley and McDonald, the boys advise taking heart in their own achievements.

“If we can do it, so can anyone else. If you’re passionate about something, it will happen. Just commit to what you want to do,” McDonald offered his vote of confidence.

To keep track of Andy & Matt’s journey, visit thecyclediaries.com and to make donations to their fund-raising blog, check out justgiving.com/thecyclediaries. For more info on War Child UK, visit warchild.org.uk.

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