Two Russians Cycle the World

A round-the-globe tour aims to return to Kazan in time for July’s international student games

On The Town | Alexei Korolyov | February 2013

Alen Khairullin (l.) and Pavel Grachyov can travel up to 200 km in one day (Photo: UNODC)

Circumnavigating the world is hard work however you do it, let alone on a bicycle. But for two Russian cyclists in Vienna last month en route on a 21,000-kilometre tour of the globe, it was the mission that kept them going.

Alen Khairullin, 26, and Pavel Grachyov, 47, pedaled off in November last year from their home city of Kazan in central Russia, hoping to return in time for the kick-off of the Universiade, or the world student games, there in July.

It will take them across 13 countries on three continents – all of it dedicated to another Russian adventurer, Onisim Pankratov, who became the first cyclist to travel around the globe in 1913.

Having a target date means that they travel day and night, often covering up to 200 kilometres in a single 24-hour ride.


International bike politics

True to their mission of spreading the word about the upcoming Kazan games – one of the biggest sporting competitions in the world, with students taking part in some 15 types of sports – the pair’s route includes the cities that previously hosted the games. While Vienna is not one of them, Khairullin and Grachyov were glad to stop in to see the city.

"It is beautiful and unusual," Grachyov, who is a a schoolteacher back home, told The Vienna Review. "The contrast between Austria and Russia is all the more striking for us because it is our first time abroad."

They also praised the city’s cycle-friendly infrastructure. Vienna’s traffic lights designed specifically for cyclists were particularly impressive, said Khairullin, who works in IT. "I have never seen anything like them – they are such a big help!" he said, adding that while it could not compare with Copenhagen, Vienna still boasts a cycle network that would be the envy of any city in Russia. "I like it that people here understand that a car is more of a burden than anything else if you live in a vibrant city. Regrettably, very few people in Russia entertain such thoughts."

Travelling on two wheels means a life on the road, with only short breaks for food and sleep. And while it was easy enough to find accommodation in Vienna, they were not so lucky in some of their previous ports of call, including on the Russian leg of their journey.

"We often had to spend the night in a tent in some forest," said Khairullin. "Camping is a nice thing, of course, but you can imagine what the weather was like in Russia in November."

The pair faced other dangers. "In Poland, for instance, we were nearly killed by a truck on a highway. Maybe the driver was having a bad day, or maybe it’s the Polish mentality. Even in Russia, motorists are more tolerant towards cyclists," he said.


No support team

In addition to sports, the two are also promoting efforts to tackle global drug use, a major problem in Russia, where hard drugs claim some 30,000 lives every year, according to official statistics. While in Vienna, Khairullin and Grachyov visited the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), to share their experience and find out more about the organisation’s efforts to combat narcotics.

Mirella Dummar Frahi, the UNODC’s civil affairs officer, commended the pair’s mission, saying children across the world "look to their teachers as role models".

Unlike some of the previous round-the-world journeys, the Russian cyclists had no back-up team in case of an emergency.

"It is risky, but also gives you some extra incentive," Grachyov confessed. Their tickets for two trans-ocean air trips were also non-refundable, and time was pressing.

"Got to move on," said Grachyov, as the two pedalled away to their next destination.

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