Former world triathlon champion Felix Bergmeister decided that his own ’neighbourhood’ wasn’t big enough, so he decided to circumnavigate the planet and is currently in Namibia, riding to raise awareness of, and funds for UNICEF.
It’s hard to imagine just how fit you have to be to compete in ’ultra-triathlons’ such as the 10 times Ironman event, which Felix won in 2004. This back-to-back event alone consisted of a 38 km swim, followed by an 1800 km bike race and a 422 km run. Only a select handful of athletes could ever contemplate even entering an athletic event such as this, but 29-year-old Felix Bergmeister believes it was great preparation for his around the world tour, which started at the UNICEF Info Centre in Vienna, Austria, last October.
On a BMW R 80 GS, Felix has crossed Europe through Switzerland, France and Spain and has travelled through Africa from Morocco following the west coast all the way to Namibia, where he has been visiting several education and HIV/Aids projects organised by UNICEF. Surprisingly, it took Felix nine years to fulfil his dream of an around the world ride. Obviously, it wasn’t fitness that was the problem, so why did it take so long?
"I believe that luck favours the prepared," said Felix. "As an ultra-triathlete, racing distances 10-times those of Ironman events, good preparation has always been crucial. It became even more important for a motorcycle trip around the world. Alone on the bike there is no security, so preparation is important: assess the risk, figure out what could happen, and find a possible solution in advance."
Of course, there were other more pressing objectives and Felix is acutely aware that, in many aspects of his life, he has been lucky. His fame as an ultra-triathlete is very rewarding but humanity is more important than personal objectives.
"We should share our luck," said Felix with some intensity, "especially with those that need it the most - the children of Third World countries. That’s why I support UNICEF. After years of competing I have good connections in the media and they write about me. That way I can help people understand how much help is needed. I act as a spokesman and try to persuade individuals and companies to support UNICEF."
Practical preparation included finding the right bike. Felix wanted a "strong, sturdy and reliable machine" and bought a BMW R 80 GS Basic from a woman doctor in Vienna. Felix explained: "The flat-twin engine is extremely reliable and its two-carburettor set-up is simple to repair. A good rear shock and forks were already standard. For the worst roads around the world 50 hp does the job perfectly. I just added an oil cooler - centrally mounted behind the forks. I also changed the beautiful-looking gas tank for a 32-litre version. This gave me a range of 500km."
Once he had the bike, Felix needed to become as proficient at off-road riding as his aptitude allowed. He immediately signed-up for BMW’s training course at the company’s off-road facility at Hechlingen in Germany.
"With the help of great instructors I quickly saw my weakness at close-quarter manoeuvring," Felix admitted. "After only two hours I developed a new feeling for the bike... you often get into critical situations on a motorcycle but a rider who knows how to handle the bike will always get there in the end."
And get there he did. "Crossing Europe was beautiful but the roads of Africa were the biggest fun," said Felix. "Traffic is unpredictable but people take care not to hit you. The secret is communication. People look at each other, use their horns, and shout!" Congo and Angola were different. Felix explained: "You can end up going round a ’motocross track’ not able to circumnavigate obstacles because land-mines beside the road force you to ride in a rut."
However, Felix prefers to remember beauty rather than banality: "To see the changes of landscape all the way from the Sahara to the rainforests in equatorial Africa, and the Kalahari Desert in Namibia, was unmatchable."
What advice would he give anyone considering a global trip? "Do they really want to do it? It takes commitment to turn the key and ride the long way round. It might be the experience of somebody’s life but it also means leaving comfort behind. Things like solitude or fear have to be coped with. When you are ready to face these things, then it is time to go."
Felix’s trip will last for two years and from South Africa, he will cross the Atlantic Ocean and travel through Argentina, Chile, Peru and Colombia. Then it’s across Panama, Mexico, USA and Canada before returning to Europe.