LONDON: With a little under seven months until the Rugby World Cup kicks off in Japan, most fans intending to be at the tournament are just about finalising their travel plans, but South African adventurer Ron Rutland set off for Tokyo on Saturday.
A little early, you might think, until you discover that Rutland, 44, is cycling all the way from Twickenham to Tokyo - an epic 19,000-km journey through 27 countries and crossing the Himalayas not once, but twice.
As well as the usual survival rations, spare parts, a tent, and clothing to survive extreme cold and tropical heat, Rutland will have something precious in his panniers.
He will deliver a whistle engraved with "Japan versus Russia, Sept 20 2019", which will be blown by the match referee to start the opening game at Asia's first Rugby World Cup.
"RWC has entrusted us with the commemorative whistle and we will present it to the match referee at the opening game," Rutland told Reuters on the eve of his adventure.
"It's a great honour and an extra bit of motivation to make sure we reach Tokyo."
Rutland rolled off from English rugby's HQ on Saturday along with co-rider James Owens and a 40-strong peloton of well-wishers on the initial leg to Canterbury.
After that, he and Owens will cross into France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Romania and Bulgaria before tackling Turkey, Iran, China, Tibet, Pakistan, India, Laos and Vietnam - a list Rutland reels off as if it were a Sunday ride to the seaside.
"People say I'm a bit mad," Rutland, who will be raising money for the Rugby World Cup's official charity Pass it Back, said.
"I'm an ex prop forward with a hip replacement but I just drew a line on the map six months ago and said to James, we're doing this."
LIFE ON A BIKE
The intrepid duo will cover 600km a week for 33 weeks, though that journey pales in comparison to the 42,000 solo jaunt Rutland completed to reach the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
That took him from Cape Town to England through every country in mainland Africa - a two and a half year odyssey inspired by a desire to leave behind his mainstream life.
"I love the simplicity of life on a bicycle, it allows to you focus," the former amateur player said.
"My reward last time was to reach Brighton and see South Africa lose to Japan in the biggest shocks of all time. Hopefully that won't happen again."
It was Owens' father who performed Rutland's hip replacement while he was working for Hong Kong Rugby.
Owens, 28, works for Pass It Back, the charity that empowers under-privileged children across Laos, Vietnam and the Philippines through rugby.
"I wouldn't be riding 20,000km if it was wasn't something believe passionately in," Owens, a cycling rookie, said. "I've worked closely with the children and see the positive impact."
Of the challenge ahead, he says: "I've never even crossed a border on a bicycle before so this is very exciting. It's on a different magnitude to anything I've done before."
Loaded down on bikes Rutland describes as "more tractor than Ferrari" the pair will travel through some wild country, more often than not camping by the roadside.
Rutland's previous experiences in Africa reassure him.
"Even in places like Congo where all you hear of is the crap stuff, when you drill down a bit most people are good," he said.
Rutland and Owens are supported by logistics firm DHL, a Rugby World Cup partner, and can be tracked at the website To follow Ron’s journey please visit: http://www.dhl-in-motion.com/ en/rugby/race-to-rwc/
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)