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Adventure Talks: Rob Penn
Rob Penn gave up his City job to ride his bike around the world. Forty countries and five continents later, he has lost none of his enthusiasm.
At the age of 27, everything was going swimmingly for Rob Penn. With a flourishing career in a City law firm, his life was very much mapped out in front of him. And he didn't like it one bit. Deep down, he had an urge he could no longer ignore - an urge to get on his bike and pedal around the world. When he resigned soon afterwards, his boss was furious, convinced he was leaving to join a rival firm. When he discovered the real reason, he simply thought Penn was crazy.
That was back in 1997. Over the course of the next three years, he cycled over 40,000km across America, New Zealand, Australia, Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Travelling the world was the long-term goal but, for Penn, it was more about getting on the road than reaching the finish line. 'It's not about riding fast,' he explains in his weathered, gravelly voice, 'it’s not about getting there; it's about the journey to get there. It doesn't matter when you get there or indeed even if you ever do, but keeping going on the road - that's the bit that counts.'
Penn's passion for the bicycle is deep-rooted. He has an almost spiritual connection with cycling, describing it as 'meditation with movement'. He cycles for what he calls a 'broad church' of 'physical, practical and emotional reasons'. Since his dramatic career about-turn, cycling has formed the backbone of his career as a journalist, broadcaster and author. 'I've always enjoyed trying to interpret what a bicycle means to me, so that means writing and riding a bicycle have always gone hand-in-hand,' he explains. 'How you interpret that experience and how you make it resonate for as long as possible after you've got back is a really important part of the journey.'
Penn has written several books on his passions, including the 2010 bestseller It's All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels, which was also made into a documentary, Ride of My Life. It explored the history and social significance of the bike and followed his quest to build the 'perfect' one. He currently owns 13.
Before setting off round the world, Penn read Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle by Dervla Murphy. Now 83, Murphy left her home in Ireland to cycle to India in the early 1960s. An extraordinary achievement, it gave him the final push necessary to set off on his own journey. He enthuses that the real message of the book is that you don't need anything special to go on an adventure, just a bicycle and a flair for getting on with people - which he certainly has. 'I'm a great believer that you don't want to get too tied up with planning and logistics - sometimes you just have to go. The best journeys start with an urge, a need to move, a desire to see new things.'
These days, Penn has settled into domestic bliss in the Brecon Beacons with his wife, three children and dogs. The 'urge', however, is never far away, and it's clear that his great journey ultimately shaped the course of his life. While it would be difficult to distill such a monumental experience into mere highlights, Penn is philosophical on what travelling over 40,000km alone taught him. He says: 'I learnt that kindness is innate within human beings. That you're better off travelling on your own because you're more sensitised. That you can communicate without language very powerfully, and that friendship is achievable within a remarkably short space of time.'
Penn has a gift for storytelling, and his wit and jovial nature are in evidence throughout his writing. His humour also helped cement an unlikely friendship with ex-England cricket captain Freddie Flintoff, when the pair teamed up to cycle 1,200km across the Trans-Amazonian Highway in Brazil in 2013. The ensuing two-part documentary, Flintoff's Road to Nowhere, was such a success that a second series was aired earlier this year. Flintoff: Lord of the Fries saw the duo opt for a more leisurely and whimsical excursion across the UK in a fish & chip van - Flintoff's boyhood dream.
Armed with a cache of witty anecdotes and a slideshow of envy-inducing photographs, Penn has also carved out a niche as a motivational speaker. Describing himself as 'a bit of a connoisseur of landscapes' since his round-the-world journey, his photographs depict myriad scenes, from ancient cities to tortuous Himalayan paths, as well as a plethora of curious locals. It's enough to make anyone want to hand in their notice and follow his example.
With this in mind, Penn has recently poured his energy into another venture: a bicycle-holiday website, Bikecation.co.uk. Though he extols the virtues of solo travel, he is also enthusiastic about the social side of cycling, and these days enjoys riding with his children and - more reluctantly on her part - his wife.
"Cycling is a very social activity, go on a journey by bike with a friend or family member and share the same experience and come back with a smile on your face."
Rob Penn spoke on behalf of Belstaff’s Adventure Talks series at the South Kensington Club.