It should come as little surprise when Ron Rutland says that the biggest emotion he will feel when he arrives in Paris on 7 September is relief.
Rutland visited World Rugby House in Dublin on Thursday as he continues the final leg of Race to Rugby World Cup 2023, the fourth time he has undertaken a mammoth cycle to the showpiece tournament.
Next month, Rutland will deliver the referee’s whistle to be used in the opening match between hosts France and New Zealand at Stade de France, and he has endured an epic journey since leaving Eden Park on 12 November.
By the time he reaches Paris, Rutland will have cycled approximately 22,000km through New Zealand, South America, Mexico, the USA and Europe – much of it on his own.
Impressive by any standard, but especially so when you consider that he began this odyssey just 35 days after he completed Race to RWC 2021, in which he cycled 16,500km from Japan to New Zealand.
“It’s so good to be back in a familiar part of the world and in particular, a part of the world that is as excited as anyone for the World Cup,” Rutland told World Rugby.
“Also, I'm getting on a little bit now and I've been on the road for close to 20 months, pretty much continuously. So, the end is in sight, but it definitely gives me a spring in my step to be on European soil.”
Incredible landscapes, tough challenges
Although, this is the fourth Race to Rugby World Cup that Rutland has undertaken, cycling through South and North America has presented challenges that he had previously never faced.
His expedition through South America started in the Andes of Chile and Argentina, but it was in Bolivia and Peru where the mountain range became particularly difficult.
Rutland spent a week cycling through the Himalayas to get to RWC 2019, but as he travelled along the Andes in Bolivia and southern Peru, he was required to scale similar heights, around 5,000 metres, but for nearly seven times as long.
“It’s remarkable,” he said. “It's one of the most incredible landscapes and human interactions… it almost feels like ancient cultures that you cycle through.
“But, you know, that comes at a price. It's pretty tough, the altitude and some of the wild weather that happens at those altitudes.”
Moreover, Rutland had to change his logistical plans on one occasion to avoid severe floods and an earthquake in Ecuador. “When natural disasters happen, I think the last thing that the local services need is a tourist on a bicycle,” he said.
Rutland’s journey through North America was accompanied by extreme heat, but throughout his ride so far, he has encountered unbelievable acts of kindness.
In northern Mexico, for example, the South African was gifted a crucifix by a passer-by as he rested under the shade of a tree on his way to the border with the USA.
And no matter how remote the places he visits, Rutland attempts to make contact with local schools and rugby communities.
“Sometimes I almost forget that I’ve got the whistle on me. Don’t tell the referee!” Rutland admitted.
“I’ll go a week and you’re in the middle of absolutely nowhere and there’s no one to share it with, and then I’ll get to a school and through a translator I’ll do a bit of a talk about the journey.
“I’ll pull the whistle out and just the enthusiasm on the young people’s faces when they see the whistle, it’s absolutely priceless. I realised in some small, little way I’m bringing the tournament to the world.”
“I set out to finish this journey”
There have been times too when the strain of his latest adventure has almost become too much. In those situations, though, he has been inspired to keep going by charity he is peddling for, ChildFund Rugby.
Rutland raised US$15,000 on his ride from Japan to New Zealand last year and having visited the programme in countries around the world, he is keen to raise an even bigger amount this time.
“I got really sick in Costa Rica and had a couple of weeks off the bike and was really starting to fall behind. I was starting to think, ‘Oh, things are starting to go a bit wrong’ from a physical health point of view,” he explained.
“That was the first time in all my journeys, in all the challenges that I’ve had that I really doubted that I would get to the end.
“I guess it’s my journey and my adventure and there’s nothing to actually stop me throwing my hands up in the air and catching a flight straight to London and sitting it out for a few months before cycling onto Paris.
“But I made myself accountable to myself, I set out to finish this journey. Honestly, I had a few calls with Chris from ChildFund Rugby and shared some of my concerns, and that I was having a bit of a wobble.
“It’s hard to explain but it was just a reminder of how important this journey was to the people I’m trying to support, the young people at ChildFund Rugby. The messages that I get direct from them and through Chris just really [makes] you go, ‘How can I not finish this thing properly?’”
The South African’s adventure is scheduled to continue on Sunday when he will head north from Dublin to Belfast accompanied by a local cycling club, Sandymount Dodder Wheelers.
“The welcome that I have received in Ireland has been incredible. There is a real buzz here ahead of the Rugby World Cup. With 60,000 fans set to travel to France from Ireland, it will be a special tournament. I am also looking forward to the ride up to Belfast on Sunday and Monday accompanied by the Sandymount Dodder Wheelers. It will be fun.”
Ireland is the fifth country Rutland has visited on his current journey – following New Zealand, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay – that has qualified for RWC 2023, and he will take in four more before his race is run.
Rutland is scheduled to visit Scotland, Wales and England before a final leg that will take him from Twickenham to the Stade de France as part of a group ride.
Asked how he will feel when he reaches his final destination, the South African said: “It’s a cliché but it’s going to be a relief of having pulled this journey off with all the challenges; of COVID initially and the physical challenges and all the close shaves.”
Rutland added: “To be tasked with delivering the match whistle, I still pinch myself.”