Headline photo by Phil Coates
“I used to hate in when people called me mad, but now I’ve learnt with these kind of things to think about the positives, so now when someone calls me mad, I kind of think of it as making a difference.”
Kate Leeming makes a difference by riding her bike. Over the past 22 years Kate has ridden the distance equivalent to twice around the equator. Turning the pedals on her bike, Kate has raised funds for various aid agencies and organisations, all the while maintaining her career as a professional tennis player.
We caught up with Kate to find out more about what drives her to ride such enormous distances, and the challenges she faces along the way.
Kate started cycling in the same way that many of us did: in order to keep fit. The difference is in the distance. Kate soon became interested in cycle touring, in particular, spending a great deal of time cycling in Europe clocking up 15,000 km before her chance meeting with Polar Explorer Rob Swan, the first person to walk both the North and South Pole.
Up until that point, Kate had simply been riding for the sake of riding – it was Rob who helped her realise the importance of what she was doing.
“He made me understand there was a lot more value to what I was doing than simply riding a bike.”
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Trans-Siberian Cycle Expedition
Rob and Kate’s friendship was the seed for what would become her first expedition by bike, the Trans-Siberian Cycle Expedition. Kate’s adventure would take her across new Russia, raising funds for 800,000 children affected by the Chernobyl Disaster.
The journey took five months and covered 13,400 km from St Petersburg to Vladivostok. Kate spoke about a huge number of hardships endured along the way: suffering a broken rib crossing the Steppe, struggling through 1,500km of swampland in Eastern Siberia, having to follow the railway line because there were no roads.
'''Did you ever want to give up?’ It’s the question that I get all the time. And I think the answer is ‘no’…I’ve never on any of my expeditions wanted to give up, because I’m very sure at the start of my mission of what I’m doing…”
The hardest part of any of her missions is simply getting to the start line. Finding a support crew, organising security, and getting the permissions from local governments; finding a film crew, funding, training for the ride, funding, logistics, funding….
An expedition can fail before it even gets off the ground. But after completing three of the world’s biggest supported expeditions by bike, Kate has a pretty good model for getting things done.
(Europe, Russia and Australia, apart from the Canning Stock Route, were all unsupported – Africa and BTC South Pole were / will be supported).
Crossing the Victoria River, NT
GRACE – Great Australian Cycle Expedition
Ten years after Russia, Kate set her sights on her homeland, planning to ride 25,000 km throughout Australia. The Great Australian Cycle Expedition would be Kate’s greatest challenge yet, a massive 7000km of which would be on rutted, sandy, desert roads. In doing so, Kate was the first women to ever ride the 1,850km Canning Stock Route: the longest stock route in the world.
Kate’s expedition in Australia was what inspired her to tackle an even bigger challenge – the main focus of her presentation at Mt Buller – her world first ride across Africa, from Senegal to Somalia.
Breaking the Cycle in Africa
In 2010, Kate rode her bicycle over 299 days, from West to East Africa, traversing 20 countries.
Kate sought to not only connect with the communities visited, but also to link up a number of aid projects along the way, the whole idea being to investigate ways that we can give people “a leg up, rather than a hand out.”
The decision to link up with these projects forced her to take some pretty long detours. “I didn’t just get lost”, she assured us after displaying a map outlining her route, as laughter breaks out around the room.
“Cycling gives a great sense of place and perspective of how the world fits together.”
It's about much more than riding big distances, or setting records. After all she didn’t have to travel through 20 countries in Africa. Kate discovered that when you cycle with purpose, (like Rob first explained to her) you can achieve so much more than just getting from A to B.
As an ex-teacher, the organisations she focused on were those working to improve education throughout Africa. Education, Kate believes is the key to providing that leg up; problems like HIV/AIDS and poverty could be better tackled if community leaders became educators themselves. In particular she was interested in the education of women, noting that literacy and numeracy rates in women were much lower in many African countries.
Kate soon realised that women were the key. Whereas "if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime"; if you teach a woman to read and write, you teach the whole family.
Perhaps the biggest challenge was cycling across Somalia, the final hurdle of the 299 day journey. Somalia is effectively divided into three different regions, Kate explained to us: Southern Somalia (home to the capital Mogadishu), Puntland in the North East, and Somaliland, the relatively stable region in the North West.
Unfortunately for Kate, an area of land between Somaliland and Puntland in the North was at that time disputed by Puntland Government forces, and the Somalian faction of Islamic State, Al Shabaab. This made crossing the border from Somaliland into Puntland difficult to say the least.
But Kate and her team were determined to finish the expedition.
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Kate spent hours negotiating with officials in order to gain their blessing and support. Supported by the President of Puntland’s personal guard (a military unit with 11 soldiers and two fully armoured vehicles), Kate managed to avoid conflict travelling by a secret route secured by a Puntland Government official prior to her travelling the route.
“It was very weird, I’m only on a bike. I was going like the clappers to be honest…the first day I did 190km or something.”
Out of the Frying Pan and into the Freezer
Growing up in Perth, Kate was well prepared for the scorching temperatures in Africa. You might say Kate's upbringing gave her an advantage in those conditions. But this year, Kate is planning to cycle across Antarctica, via the South Pole.
Breaking the Cycle – South Pole is Kate’s most ambitious expedition yet. Covering 1,850km, it might be Kate’s shortest ride to date, but it’s certainly going to be the most challenging. Riding in temperatures plummeting as low as -40 degrees Celsius, Kate will reach 3,000m above sea level at the Pole, the highest point on her journey.
We were lucky enough to check out the prototype version of the fat bike that Kate will ride across the icecap. Kate has teamed up with Steve Christini, one of the early pioneers of all-wheel drive bicycle technology (now an all-wheel drive motorcycle builder) to custom design a fat bike that provides additional torque at the front wheel. Needless to say it turned some heads at the Summit, and we are pleased to have since learned that Christini Technologies will be releasing a limited line of AWD fat bikes inspired by Kate's model.
Breaking the Cycle for Kate is all about encouraging the ongoing development of communities in Africa in order to create a culture that alleviates problems like HIV/AIDS, and poverty by strengthening community leadership through education.
But Kate is at the toughest stage in her expedition — she is still working towards getting it off the ground.
Photo: Phil Coates
This time round, you can be a part of it – and she’s not just asking for random donations (although if you have any leads on sponsorship or want to donate to her cause, we’re sure she would appreciate it). Kate is utilising an app called Charity Miles which enables users to walk, run, or ride, raising money for every mile (1.6km) covered that goes towards Kate's chosen charity, (RED). By simply downloading the app and joining the Breaking the Cycle team, you can do your bit to support Kate’s cause raising money for the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa – and all you have to do is turn on the app during your regular ride / workout session.
Kate will also be working with talented filmmaker Claudio Von Planta, and filmmaker / photographer Phil Coates to create a six part series documenting her adventure.
Before she heads south, Kate is going North to Greenland as part of a preparatory expedition to test her gear, and to test herself. 600km across the frozen icecap reaching and altitude of almost 2,500m, it's surely no Sunday ride, but it will give Kate the confidence and experience she needs for the big one at the end of the year.
Breaking the Cycle South Pole aims to leave November / December 2016, completing the expedition in early Jan 2017. This is the only time of the year the expedition can be attempted – if she fails to find the sponsorship funds, Kate will have to wait another year. But something tells us she is going to make it further than the start line.
Photo: Phil Coates
If you would like to support Kate on her journey, you can follow her on Twitter @Leeming_Kate, on Facebook and at KateLeeming.com. Keep an eye out for Kate's crowdfunding campaign later this year if you want to contribute towards her expeditions.
A big thank you to the team at Mt Buller for putting on a fantastic event and to the Mt Buller Chalet for accommodating us.