This article is from Edition 12: Ride the Change - Cycle to COP26
James Levelle
Written by James Levelle
Published on 18th October 2021
4 min read

James Levelle's films have not only taken him to some of the most extreme environments on the planet, they demonstrate the power of film and its potential to change people's perspectives. James shares more about his experience cycling to the previous COP25 in Chile (which changed location last minute to Madrid), and his 'Race For The Future' project and climate youth activism that followed.

Last time the United Nations got together for a global climate conference, I had a crazy idea… race halfway across the world from the UK to Chile – fossil fuel free – on a mission to see the climate crisis through the eyes of the next generation and then amplify their voices by videoing their climate messages and delivering them in a film to the UN Summit in Santiago.  If I could get there in time…

The climate conference was scheduled to run first week of December which left me just over three months to travel 9,000 miles.  Time was not on my side. Racing through Europe and South America was one thing but sailing wind-powered across the second biggest ocean on Earth, the Atlantic, was another.  The crossing would take two whole months and the tall ship sailing me there departed from southern Spain in only three weeks. 

So, on a bright and beautiful morning in late August, me, my shiny new Genesis touring bike and over 40 kilos of kit, set off on the greatest adventure of my life.  First off, I needed to sail the English Channel to France.  I cycled to the south coast of England and grabbed a lift on a 30ft sailboat heading for Cherbourg. Thick fog filled the English Channel and after a slightly nerve-racking zero visibility voyage through the world’s busiest shipping lane I arrived in Normandy and jumped back on my bike.  Thanks to a cool combination of pedal power and electric trains I whizzed through France without a hitch.

“Emission free travel’s a doddle,” I mused to myself as I approached northern Spain and the Pyrenees Mountains.  

The Pyrenees are crisscrossed by a network of nice winding well-maintained roads and if you stick to them, it’s a decent climb but easy to navigate.  Unfortunately for me Google Maps had other ideas.

I checked my phone as the mountains loomed ever larger ahead.  I flicked open the app and was swiftly served a lovely looking route that climbed up through a forest, past a monastery and up to the summit.  So, as the summer sun dipped low and evening approached, I cycled on excited for my scenic ascent.  

However, shortly after entering the forest my nice smooth road suddenly downgraded to a dirt track.

“No biggy,” I thought, “a little off-roading will be fun!”

I chugged on cheerfully until, less than a mile later, the dirt track terminated and transformed into a steep, impossible to cycle, boulder-strewn footpath.  This was disappointing.

I had two choices; either backtrack and find a nice normal road up the mountain, or stubbornly push on because I refused to be beaten by a bunch of bloody boulders.  I picked the latter because that’s how my strange brain works.

Fully loaded with the weight of a small person packed into my panniers, I began to carry my bike over the boulders and slowly inched my way up the mountain.  It was one of the most exhausting and insane endeavours I’ve ever undertaken.

Then my phone died so I didn’t have a map.

Then night fell so I couldn’t see.   

“F#%& sake!” I thought, “I’ve really done it this time.” 

Sweat-drenched, shredded by brambles and covered in dust I hauled my bicycle over boulder after boulder.  The bike was indestructible, but I was a mess.   I needed to find a place to hunker down for the night and as I felt my way for a flat spot to camp, I got some long overdue luck.  I’d stumbled upon what looked like a logging road. 

Left, or right? I jumped on the bike and went right.  My giro lights fired up illuminating the track ahead of me, and whilst I had no idea where I was going, at least I was cycling again and that felt great.  

I rode cluelessly into the night wondering where on earth I’d end up next.  A light glimmered through the trees ahead.  I raced towards it and minutes later I arrived at a monastery.  Was this the monastery that Google Maps had mischievously misdirected me to?

A young couple exited the old building and headed for their car. 

“Good evening,” I said, “Where I am please?”

They looked at me like I’d just stepped out of a flying saucer.  

“Why are you cycling your bike and all those big bags through a forest in the dark?” they enquired.  

I explained the mishap with the map and the whole boulder debacle.  Shaking their heads in disbelief they explained that I’d just carried almost 60 kilos worth of bike and bags up and over one of the toughest stretches of the legendary Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail.  

“Not a cycle route then?” I queried.

“No,” they said.

“Right,” I said.  

However, they confirmed this was the Google Maps monastery.  I was back on track.  

We wished each other well and I rolled on into the dark up a nice winding road to the top of the mountain.  I found a wild camping spot, zipped into my bivvy bag and quickly conked out.  

The next day I woke up to a spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean, brewed a coffee, packed up my bivvy and raced down the other side of the mountain into northern Spain whilst pondering what lessons I’d learnt from this cycling adventure.

There are, in fact, multiple morals to this story.  ‘Always bring a map’ is a good one.  ‘Carry a power bank for your phone’ is another.  But ‘make sure you plan ahead’ is the clear the winner.

I’m happy to say that I made it the southern Spanish coast in time to board the sailboat for South America, and 6000 miles of ocean later I became the first person to drive an electric van west across Argentina and concluded my emission-free mission with an epic high-altitude cycle up over 12,500 feet of Andes Mountains into Chile.  

However, I had been thrown an almighty curve ball.  I’d made it to Santiago, but the United Nations Climate Conference hadn’t.  Massive public protests in the capital had led to the UN relocating the summit to Madrid.  

How on Earth I could still make good on my promise to all the young people and deliver their video climate messages to the leaders and politicians at the UN, I didn’t know.  I would need nothing short of a miracle… 

The ‘Race For The Future’ youth climate messages film can be seen here (link to Race For The Future website).
The full documentary series is due for release early next year.