For McKenzie Barney, cycling the world was never about chasing a record, or even adhering to all of the Guinness Book of Records parameters to qualify for an “official” time. But after an introduction to bike touring in Vietnam and learning about the 18,000-mile goal post for a “Cycle the World” completion, she was intrigued. For the next few years she planned, scrimped and saved between trips while pursuing her own Cycling the World project. Earlier this year, she completed the project after having ridden 18,000 miles, in 28 countries, and on five continents. Read on for Part 1 of her journey download, where she writes about moving from thru hiking to bike touring, gaining solo experience in Europe, and then putting it to the test on a ride from Cairo to Cape Town with her partner James. Plus, don’t miss the trailer to her upcoming self-documented, self-edited film!
Reality unfolds alongside daybreak’s haze, rippling into an endless honeycomb moonscape. I clench my brakes. Time shrieks to a stop. Out here in Bolivia, on the final continent of my 18,000-mile Cycle the World project, silence absorbs every corner of the Earth. Time and space and distance all melt away as Earth’s carefully crafted enigma sprawls before me. It’s exactly what the doctor ordered today— on the planet’s largest salt flats— to make me pay attention. This simple act of being present is something I often romanticize about in the paradoxical real world — where reality is so easily blurred. Riddled with distractions. Possessed with possessions. Fatigued focus. Limited patience. In a hyper-connected, information-overloaded world, I sometimes feel mindfulness is being hijacked as fast as the Earth’s resources are depleting. Out here it all makes sense. A two-wheeled alien lost in this other planet of Salar de Uyuni, I find that my brain has no choice but to focus on the present moment: traveling across an unfamiliar landscape ion a foreign continent, continuing this path I’ve set to cycle the world.
So what exactly is considered cycling the world? This is a quasi-arbitrary metric that I adopted for my adventure on two wheels after crossing paths with the now-fastest married couple to cycle the world. They mentioned their record-breaking attempt that would entail riding a minimum of 18,000 miles (29,000 kilometers)—as stated by Guinness Book of World Records—along with various other rules including a continuous direction and two antipodal points. Although I wouldn’t be winning any speed records, I was transfixed by this idea of a finish line for my world tour, hoping to arrive at a harbor of contentedness after my voyage through a sea of never-ending logistics and route planning. So I extracted the 18,000 mile benchmark and left the rest of the rules for the record setters. For years I had been pedaling the planet without a means to an end. Now I had a number to pedal towards.
South America is my fifth and final continent to travel this planet by bicycle. My self-made finish line of 18,000 miles may be visible now, but this voyage was never premeditated. It slowly accumulated one trip at a time. The seed was planted long ago, on a little trip to Vietnam.
Novice Beginnings: Saigon to Hanoi
There’s no instruction manual for how to start a world bicycle tour. And my story by all means began unscripted and unhinged. In the dusty corners of a Southeast Asian bookstore I found my next clue to human-powered travel. Rewinding back to a few years prior, my life changed forever when I stepped onto my first dirt footpath. Many trails and countries traversed later, I craved the next evolution of long distance travel. If only I could continue self-propelled, without reliance on vehicles and man-made destruction, but still explore vast distances and faraway corners of our planet. That’s when I found the book about traveling Vietnam by bicycle and my inner wheels started spinning.
In 2019 I flew into Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam with only the clothes on my back, camera and minimal creature comforts. My visa would expire in 30 days, so time was ticking the second I landed on Vietnamese soil. Without a bike or gear, I immediately hopped on a scooter taxi headed to the local cycling shop. One used mountain bike, an overstuffed 10-liter saddle bag, a rudimentary top tube bag, helmet and two water bottles later, and it was time to ride north. My route was intentionally unplanned. I took a vagabond’s approach toward the path unseen, choosing to listen to my legs and local suggestions for my navigation.
We are all novices at some point. To be a beginner and stranger to an unknown land is to be stripped of our version of ordinary and hurtled into direct experience. Our senses try desperately to make sense of cryptic languages, intensified traffic rhythms, and a myriad of uncontrollability. Our festival headliner announces “antidote to comfort” in a kaleidoscope of dazzling tastes, smells, sights. We awake to a luminous new framework that creates never-before-understood connections in our brain. The beginner’s mind immobilizes our task-natured life back home.
As I set out that day from Ho Chi Minh, weaving my way through the hive of Vietnamese traffic, I smiled a grin so wide that tears broke open down my face. Fresh onions had been cut in my mind, and my helpless reaction flowed uncontrollably. Maybe it was the sweet sense of solitude, or starting something so grand and beyond comprehension, but those silver droplets told me I was right where I needed to be.
Twenty-two days after departing from Ho Chi Minh, I arrived in Hanoi. My journey was bahn mi (Vietnamese sandwiches served from food stalls) and pedal fueled. The Dalat Mountains slowed my progress, but I quickly missed the quaint and quiet hillside country once I hopped on the main highway. My longest day was spent slowly climbing up the famous ‘mountain in the clouds’ only to zip past tourist buses on the slippery downhill. I pedaled for eight hours a day and devoured audio books. Thematically speaking, the heart of this journey was in being a dirtbag. I imagined myself as a dharma bum, living on the fringe of society, so my get-up was the opposite of lycra-clad clipless pedals. I rode the entire 1,200 miles in my sandals and the same threads. I sipped pho at local hole-in-the-walls, the ones with steam pouring out of the buildings in the real life nightmare of western world restaurant code violations. Daily thunderstorms were my opportunity for a break from the rigid saddle, under a patch of shelter or, if lucky, at a roadside tea stall, cluttered with old men and seats tall enough for a toddler.
It was only once I passed a fellow cyclist – with a shiny gravel bike and bags that stuck to the frame – that I realized I might not have chosen the right direction pedaling northbound in this season. Sure enough upon further investigation, I learned my first lesson handed down to me by the cycling gods: study weather patterns like your life— or ride enjoyment— depends on it.
From the Bridge of Asia to the Bike Capital of the World
After Vietnam I was convinced that more bike travel was on the horizon. The only problem was a little hiccup that we now neatly call the pandemic. A long time ago I chose to make movement my normality. Call it slow travel or living with no fixed address, but my chosen lifestyle is calling the road home. So when the world shut down and travel ceased, my dreams of continuing to see the world by bike were shattered. Feeling like a ship forced to stay in harbor, I tore through travel books, especially any two-wheeled explorations that I could get my hands on. Alastair Humphreys’ four-year tale and Charlie Walker’s rambles through Asia and Kate Harris’ Silk Road voyage — these books became my adventure bibles. Somewhere in between flipping pages and opening atlases, I hatched a plan.
As the world started to reopen for travel, there were two things/objectives I was hell-bent on. The first was that I wanted to travel the length of the African continent with my partner Jim, on the trans-continental route of Cairo to Cape Town, by bicycle. The second was that I needed some more bicycle touring experience beforehand, preferably solo, to prove to myself that I had what it took to face Africa.
To bolster my confidence and touring know-how I headed to Europe as a precursor journey to the centerpiece Africa voyage. I flew into Istanbul, Turkey with six weeks up my sleeve. The only Eastern European countries were open to foreigners, but by the time I landed, Western Europe had fortuitously opened its gates for my tour. Afraid to announce my ambitions to anyone, I kept my idea of reaching Amsterdam hidden at the bottom of my pannier, alongside emergency ramen noodles. The bike capital of the world would be my personal aim , but I didn’t want to announce my ambitious goal of arriving in six weeks and “fail” at my first solo tour.
Looking back now this was my first realization that I was doing this for myself, and didn’t owe anyone an explanation of my intended route or destination. There’s a freedom in this approach, staying flexible to wherever your inner compass points, and not bending plans to please egos from the peanut gallery. So I just set off north from Istanbul, taking each border and country at a time. Many plans changed — my original idea was to enter Greece, but that border didn’t seem to be open, so I pivoted to Bulgaria. I raced against a few horse-and-buggies and was lost in the time capsule of an old Soviet republic. The gray skies matched the hue of nearby dilapidated buildings that I would pass, spooky remnants on dirt roads that became my wild camping home. I continued through Northern Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro and Bosnia.
In Croatia I came across my first bikepacking gravel couple. Their streamlined gear and fast cadence reminded me of the joys of ultralight thru hiking. The less gear you have weighing you down, the more enjoyment of your self-propelled endeavor. Ditching creature comforts means valuing precious daylight hours for riding over camping. I reserved this idea for future rides, but for now I was just getting used to my setup — rear panniers, full frame bag on my steel Surly disc trucker, and a handlebar bag– carrying everything that I intended to bring for Africa, and that included our three-person Big Agnes tent. Overkill indeed, but I wanted to test out each piece of gear before the big expedition ahead.
When faced with the decision of the iconic Alps, I decided to skirt around the eastern side via Austria. My daily progress only hovered around 100 kilometers (60 miles), and I needed a buffer to allow for time up to Amsterdam. So instead of the Italian or Swiss dream route, I rambled through Slovenia and into the Austrian countryside. Western Europe welcomed me with the ease of bike paths, sometimes entirely out of sight from vehicles. I basked in the leisure of not having to worry about being side-swiped by a distracted teenager or enraged truck driver. Seen from afar as an eccentric solo rider in Eastern Europe, I was now part of a massive movement of car-free lifestylers in Western Europe. I had found my people and was now one amongst the crowd of daily commuters, families towing their young to football practice, couples out to get coffee, gravel cyclists training for an upcoming endurance competition, and mountain bikers en route to their favorite neighborhood trail. It’s no wonder bike sales sky-rocketed during the global lull wrought by covid. We all realized the primal necessity to move, and once freed from four walls of concrete, many took to two wheels.
Bike touring in the post pandemic world was exhausting— and not in the normal muscle-fatiguing way. The logistics were overwhelming. I had to carefully plan my approach to ten borders, calculating the distance between testing centers, results, and pedaling to a new country stamp before time expired. This was an additional barrier to my trip, but would continue all the way down Africa. I was forced to take this ‘new normal’ in stride and focus on things that were inside my control.
Germany’s magical forests and riverside pathways blended into the Netherlands’ iconic windmills, and all at once I had completed bike touring Europe solo, from the Asian connector of Istanbul, through 11 countries, and arriving at the bike capital of the world in Amsterdam.
Looking back now I was never able to feel that sense of relief one usually has after a long tour. This, after all, was just the prelude to a much larger, longer voyage on the horizon. With Europe complete, it was as if my nerves had been broken open, combusting with a heightened pulse for what it now meant it was time for: the colossal continent just south.
From the Pyramids to the Land’s End
The prospect of riding down the African continent scared the hell out of me. A rhapsody of the unknown, Cairo to Cape Town’s lyrics have a hypnotizing effect on travelers. Of course, you can still visit Africa as a tourist, opting for safaris or day trips to the pyramids. But I craved a deeper connection to the large continent in the middle of the atlas, flourishing with ancient history and mysterious cultures.
Before this cycle tour I’d undertaken previous long distance journeys in different modes: alongside a group, with my partner and completely alone. For this African voyage, I knew I wanted to share the experience. So a few years prior, I asked my partner James to join, and he agreed wholeheartedly. From a camping perspective, we felt prepared from our thousands of miles hiking and living in the woods on thru hikes. The means of getting there, however, posed a fresh challenge. James’ craftsman approach meant learning the mechanics of the bicycle was first priority. Although I felt comfortable with changing flat tires and fixing basic problems, James took the lead when it came to replacing our chains or diagnosing cable issues. His zen-like calmness in the face of mayhem and sense of realism is something I admire, both of which would become valuable assets along our journey.
Cycle touring solo is drastically different than having a companion along. When you’re alone, you choose your own route. You stop when you’re tired. You eat when you’re hungry. You steer the ship and control your own destiny. But you also prioritize survival, collecting fragments of epiphanies and preserving your moments of transcendence for when you’re out of harm’s way. You look closely at the details, not so much for philosophical observation, but more for clues at how to continue onward. I find that most of the time when I’m alone, I am constantly assessing situations, strategizing solutions and prioritizing efficiency over leisure. When I’m adventuring alongside my partner, that guard drops, leaving space for more imagination and wonder. With my barriers dissolved, I can finally look closely at the poetry of life happening around me. After Europe, I expected Africa to be an unbounded dreamland— a rhapsody of bewilderment and collection of stories through the great Saharan sand and wild beyond of sunset savannas.
That version of Africa was a mirage, fading away for an even more beautiful oasis that my imagination wasn’t capable of constructing. Africa obliterated my old perspective and granted me an entirely new way to see. If there ever was a grand experiment I’ve taken in life it was to cycle down the African continent. It wove new fibers into my tapestry of life that up until this point I had no idea I was creating.
In Sudan’s morale-melting 110-degree heat, we were revived by two things: sugar-saturated black tea and the kindness from locals. Nightly accommodation was alongside nature– either cowboy camping on a woven cot under the starry night sky or in between earth material walls of a cafeteria. The rustic copper hues and golden Sahara dunes came alive each morning as we set off for the day ahead, stringing together different desert encounters like beads of a story.
About halfway to Sudan we stopped for a mandatory break to escape the sun, and I snapped this image of James resting while a group crowded around the television. It wasn’t until later that we realized this was the moment the military had taken over and were announcing their coup to the rest of the country. This was the beginning of Africa rewiring my reality of the world, especially in the fragility of politics.
Arriving in the eerie capital city of Khartoum, we found the only hotel and waited out a week of power outages. There was no communication to the outside world, as the military had cut off phone and internet, and was only operating one television station. James, in his stoic nature, announced one day that we could always open up a tea shop if we were stuck in Sudan. Eventually the airport reopened and we flew over the closed land border into Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The war being waged in the north had escalated, causing a national state of emergency. Our arrival didn’t make sense to the Ethiopian airport workers, who were used to seeing foreigners flow out of the country. Eventually we made it to the border of Kenya, where our cycling south continued toward Tanzania.
Through Zambia we biked through remote roads lined with thatched roof huts. Many families had never seen a foreigner before and shouted words of encouragement to the two crazy muzungus on a bike. Whenever we could find neighborhood cafes we would stop for chicken and rice, but oftentimes we resorted to cold soaking pasta. Far from the lands of protein bars, our fuel staple rotated between different brands of store-bought cookies.
In Botswana we narrowly avoided a wild African elephant ambush (thankfully it was a mock charge) but the rainy season finally caught up to us. Clouds roared their warning long before drenching us with our first non-bucket shower in weeks.
Traversing across Botswana, we reached the mystical land of Namibia. Known for its wild Skeleton Coast and giant sand dunes, Namibia was an explorer’s wonderland.
Finally arriving in South Africa, exhaustion gave way to astonishment. From the top to the bottom of the continent, we witnessed some of the planet’s most diverse landscapes and cultures. Africa’s north, east and southern regions took us from the morning mosque prayer-soundtrack of Arabic hospitality to keystone species alongside semi-nomadic tribes to sand dunes that meet the roaring-forties seas.
The unknown has a way of making me pay attention. When I’m in a place that’s completely unfamiliar, it shakes up any sense of comfort, throws autopilot into vertigo, and dissolves habit into quicksand. My brain is on fire. Imagination takes flight. Complacency is outraged. This shaky, in-between state of uncertainty is where we feel most alive. The only problem? It’s uncomfortable. It challenges our view of the world and makes us rewire our sense of self, world and place.
Adrenals and funds drained, I traveled back to the US to work. James and I had done it, we accomplished our goal of cycling the African continent. Although we were alongside each other the entire time, our experiences of cycling Africa were radically different. I won’t speak for him, as he’s writing his own book of the tale, but my own internal journey down Africa was perpetually unpredictable, messy, and profound. Nowhere have I ever felt so fragile, exposed, vulnerable. Nowhere have I ever felt so alive. I looked back at my tours in Vietnam, Europe and Africa with a boundless appreciation for where one can explore on two wheels. But something told me I was just getting started…
Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Cycling the World story as McKenzie continues through New Zealand, Australia and South America.
Watch the film trailer link here: CYCLING THE WORLD | Official Trailer
You can also catch McKenzie’s upcoming film tour at the locations listed below, with more dates/locations to come soon!
Cycleast with a Bikes or Death live podcast on October 16 in Austin, TX
Keystone Bicycle Co with RAR on Oct 19 in Philly, PA + a bike giveaway
ZenCog Bicycles on Oct 25 in Jacksonville, FL
Treehouse Cyclery on October 28 in Denver, CO – with Alyssa Gonzalez
Raffle sponsors include The Radavist, Tailfin, Ombraz, Bedrock Sandals, Oveja Negra and others for the Treehouse Cyclery event (Revelate, Chamois Butt’r, SRAM)