A middle-aged couple quit their jobs and cashed in their pensions before travelling 11,500 miles around the world together – on a TANDEM bike.
Sean and Kay O’Toole, both 56, used their £17,000 retirement fund to complete an epic nine-month long global journey which saw them cycle across nine countries.
The adventurous pair both gave up their jobs and began their “gap year” in August last year by getting a ferry to Holland.
Their route saw them pedal across Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Estonia, Russia, Mongolia, China, New Zealand, USA, Canada, before arriving back in the UK on May 4.
The couple battled gruelling desert heat, sub-zero temperatures and language barriers on their journey, which saw them visit the Great Wall of China and Route 66.
And Sean and Kay, of Colwall, Herefordshire, say they have no regrets despite blowing their entire pension on the trip.
Self-employed lorry driver Sean, who also sold his HGV to part-fund their travels, said: “It was such a big decision to go, it’s hard to leave your children for such a long time.
“We have no grandchildren yet so we thought while we could still do it, we would.
“If we waited until we retired, the chance of physically doing this in ten years’ time is slim, physically.
“We thought it’s now or never.”
After Kay’s parents died 12 months ago, she suggested travelling the world, working at farms for accommodation – but cycling fanatic Sean suggested embarking on the trip by bike.
Sean added: “My wife had given up her work to look after her parents – her father had dementia and her mother died first, then her father subsequently passed away.
“Whilst she was not working, she said one day, ‘why is it only young people that travel, why don’t we go and see the world?’
“Her idea was to go and work for your keep on organic farms, moving from place to place but we scrapped that idea.
“Because I am a keen cyclist, I said we could take the bike and travel on the bike between the places.
“We have family in Stockholm, New Zealand and Canada so we thought we could go see them all in one trip.
“It took a lot of organising to buy a tandem and equipment, which took a lot of research.
“I paid into a private pension and we used most of that to fund it and I also sold my lorry. We spent £17,000 on our trip.
“We set off with 40kg of luggage. We had three sets of cycling clothes each and one pair of shorts, jeans and shoes.
“But even before we got to the end of our road we thought, ‘what have we done, what are we doing, are we mad?’”
The couple made their way to Harwich and across to Holland before following the coast through Germany, Denmark and Sweden
They then crossed from a ferry to Estonia before travelling to Saint Petersburg in Russia and down into Mongolia.
Sean added:“As soon as we entered Russia the first person we met was a helpful taxi driver.
“We had no map, we managed to ask him where we could get one and he was concerned we didn’t have a map and went out of his way to help us.
“It went on like that – all we met was good will from helpful people.
“We got to Saint Petersburg but knew we wouldn’t be able to make it all the way across Russia before winter.
“We caught the train to Moscow from there and cycled across to Yekaterinburg.
“By then winter was catching up to us. We cycled round a bit more in Russia and cycled down through Mongolia.
“Each country we went to, the level of hospitality of people just kept stepping up another level.
“By then we were having nights as low as -12 degrees and we were camping nearly all the way.”
The couple then visited China before flying to Auckland and spending three-and-a-half months cycling around the New Zealand.
Sean added: “We then flew to Los Angeles and had a car hire to get us to San Diego and cycled across to Las Cruces, following the Mexican border.
“We turned north-east then and rode up to Amarillo and followed Route 66, but turning off to head into Detroit.
“We crossed into Canada and rode to Toronto. From there we caught a flight back to Birmingham.
“My wife carried a dress and high heels which she eventually gave to a charity shop in New Zealand.
“We had two silly low-speed fall-offs, one when I clipped a gate and we got blown over in terrific winds near Wellington, in New Zealand.
“Our fastest speed was 96km an hour (60mph) down a hill.”
The pair flew back to Birmingham Airport and even decided to cycle 50 miles home, meeting their kids Jennifer, 28, and Kieran, 27, at a café in Worcester en route.
Sean added: “It was very emotional to see our families again, it was wonderful. They organised a really lovely reception.
“Our daughter wanted to pick us up from the airport but it’s only 50 miles home.
“We said that we’d left on a bike, we want to return on a bike.
“As we left to ride on home, all our friends who ride bikes came to meet us and we ended the ride home with about ten other riders.
“We have no regrets about what we’ve done whatsoever.
“I don’t think I’d change anything.”
The pair said they experienced a few “hairy moments” on their trip but that it largely went to plan.
Sean said: “In China we got stopped at a toll booth at 10am and we had a long day’s cycling planned.
“They led us away in official uniform, they wouldn’t let us proceed.
“They took us to this building and made us wait in a room with beds. We thought, ‘this isn’t going well.’
“They didn’t speak any English, they were using Google translate.
“After about an hour, it turned out all they were concerned because we had a long way and we wouldn’t have enough food and they waited until their canteen was open to feed us.
“It turned from a really worrying situation, to a really warm situation.
“We didn’t have a single unpleasant experience, we didn’t have any hostility and at no time felt threatened.”
Kay, who has this week returned to her job milking cows, said: “It was our retirement in nine months.
“Sean was a keen cyclist and I wasn’t, so it was the only way I could keep up with him.
“I felt I had a pretty good deal as Sean did all the steering.
“We will have to work until we drop now, but it was worth it.
“I was a bit anxious about going to Russia, but people everywhere were so nice.
“I think the tandem made us a bit of a novelty, and people found us amusing.
“We arrived in New Zealand in the spring so it was paradise, and we stayed with my niece.
“Spending 24/7 together was quite hard as it was a long, long time, and in some countries where we couldn’t speak the language, so it was just us.”