A Slinfold man who cycled more than 32,000 miles across the globe for charity has returned to Sussex.
Neil Churchard braved deserts, mountains, lightning and bear country during his adventures pedalling through 42 countries to raise awareness for UNICEF.
It took the former businessman three years, nine months and 13 bike-tyres to complete the trip, but he made it home for Christmas.
“It was brilliant, it was a good learning experience to not just see things on the news but actually see things for myself,” said Neil, 42.
“I’d go to countries knowing nothing about them or having any preconceptions, but still be surprised when I got there.”
Neil left everything to make the trip, closing his business and renting his flat out before leaving in March 2012.
He said: “I just made up my mind to go. I had never done anything like this before.”
Neil’s typical day included cycling up to eight hours a day, or making friends with people he met along the way.
“Generally speaking people are nice and friendly and curious,” Neil explained.
“I managed to cycle across the USA from the east to the west coast without paying for accommodation. They’d invite me in, buy me a drink and that.”
Hostels were also full of people happy to band together to see sights and share stories round a campfire. But the road was not always so smooth in more remote areas
Neil said: “I had at least 50 punctures in the trip, quite often in the desert or just mountain roads in China. I’m used to fixing them.”
Dealing with the weather was another issue. Neil had run two London marathons for children’s charities before, but camping was something new to him.
“Minus 20 in a tent, that was fun, the inside of the tent was full of ice.
“The bottles of water would freeze over, so I’d have nothing to drink and I’d have to put them in the sun,” Neil recounted.
“There’s no luxuries when you’re on your bike in the back of beyond. If you’re in the middle of the desert you won’t find a five star hotel.
“It will be a truck stop with bed bugs — or a cold water supply, if you’re lucky,”
Being up a mountain with a metal bike in a thunderstorm is a risky business, but it was in Cambodia that Neil came close to being struck by lightening when it hit a telegraph pole just metres away.
Hearing noises outside his tent in Canadian woodland was also a novel experience.
Neil said: “I’d assume it’s definitely a massive bear that’s come to eat me instead of a squirrel.
“I would have trouble sleeping in bear country because I was constantly having to listen out for things, making sure I’d taken all the precautions.”
Despite the difficulties, Neil certainly enjoyed the trip.
“I didn’t miss [home] so much because I was having a good time,” he explained.
“Every day was just enjoying myself. It’s like being on holiday except I could just keep on going.”
His highlights include the food (Thailand is best, but the Argentian’s do a mean steak), mountain biking down ‘Death Road’ in Bolivia, and a four month trip across Australia.
Neil said: “One of the nice things was riding into Sydney, to arrive to see Sydney Opera House and think, ‘I’ve just ridden here from England and last time I was here it took 24 hours on a plane.’
“That was pretty special. Even just having ridden there from Perth was a big deal.”
Brief stops of a week or two provided a well-earned rest, but Neil is not one to stay still.
He said: “I was in a hostel for a month [in Argentina] waiting for bike parts to arrive from England.Two weeks is a nice break, but after a month, I‘m itching to get back on the bike.”
His trip raised £5,000 for the children’s charity and reached people all over the globe, but more impressively, Neil still likes cycling.
The biking enthusiast is now looking for work abroad as a cycling tour guide, ideally in south east Asia, so he can have a job doing what he loves.
“Towards the end, riding up through France when it was just raining, I thought, ‘I just want to get home and take a break’,” he said.
“Now I just want to get away again.”
Neil’s father Patrick has said he is ‘immensely proud’ of his son’s achievements.
UNICEF supports children in 190 countries by providing food, clean water, healthcare and education.