“You need something to keep you honest”: Virtual Cycle Malawi participants on virtual challenges

This year was set to be a stellar year for Transaid cycle challenges, with two events scheduled in the UK and Malawi. However, 2020 had other plans. Instead of boarding a flight bound for Lilongwe or getting on a train to Land’s End, our cyclists – like most of us during the past year – were stuck at home.

Bryan Semple was one Transaid cyclist due to be on the Cycle Malawi ride. When he found out the event had been postponed due to COVID-19, he decided to take on his own challenge instead, setting up a virtual Cycle Malawi event and encouraging others to take on the 535 km journey – the same distance as the in-person route – in their own time.

Speaking about what encouraged him to create his own ride, Bryan said: “Obviously the cancellation of the Malawi challenge due to Covid was the major factor. It was very disappointing to me and all the others who were due to go in September.

“We have a very active WhatsApp and Strava groups and it is easy to see that many people were still getting out there and riding. However, a few people seemed to have fallen off the radar and lockdown was preventing them getting out as regularly as they might.”

Inspired by other virtual events he had seen, Bryan decided to create the virtual Cycle Malawi event: “I approached Florence [Head of Fundraising] with the idea of doing a virtual challenge in order to keep the Malawi group motivated and to keep the profile of the Transaid programmes in people’s minds.”

Taking on the challenge

In total 21 people took on the virtual challenge, walking, running, and cycling to cover the 535 km distance. Some, like Transaid Ambassador and veteran cycle challenger Guy Heywood, took the opportunity to complete Cycle Malawi challenge without the usual time commitments an in-person challenge entails: “I originally planned to ride the actual event in Malawi, however work commitments made this impossible so when I heard we had a chance to ride the route virtually and raise some funds for Transaid, I had to join in. This event offered a win for Transaid through the funding and for the participants through getting some needed exercise after lockdowns and also reconnecting with old riding buddies from the previous rides in Africa.”

Transaid Ambassador Simon Weeks completed the challenge with his partner, Kat. They saw the challenge as a way to stay fit in winter. “Moving into winter is the hardest time of year to keep exercising. Overlay the pandemic and it is easy to find yourself not being active at all. So this challenge came along at the perfect time. Plus we get to pledge money for our favourite cause.”

Simon and Kat ran and cycled the distance

Walking, running, cycling to 535 km

One of the advantages of a virtual challenge is that you can complete it in your own way, in your own time. For Guy, that meant teaming up with fellow Cycle Zambia participant Marcio and finishing the whole distance in 5 days. “We had limited time due to work commitments and also travel plans, so we agreed to ride 110 Km per day and finish in 5 days, trying to match as closely as possible the distance and climbing of the real planned route,” Guy explains.

“It was pretty intense as we started our first day after flying in from a business trip so we ended at 1 am and then had to ride into the nights for the rest of the week. We definitely earned all of the generous sponsorship we received for this challenge!”

Others took a more relaxed approach to the challenge. For Transaid Ambassador Paul Hickey, the hardest part was “making sure I covered more miles than my wife!

“I am not a cyclist or a runner, but I do have a cross-trainer, a dog and a wife! I clocked up the miles on the cross-trainer and on dog-walks and I recruited my wife who ran in the local fields and woods.”

Simon and Kat completed the challenge on bike and on foot: “As we decided to complete the 500km over three months rather than the one week, like it would be in Malawi, we decided to make it harder by trying to do 50% of it on foot rather than doing it all by bike.

“It turns out that running is a lot slower than cycling; who knew? So we have had to be committed to getting out a few times a week rather than just jumping on the bike once each weekend.”

They also took the opportunity to clock up the miles whilst on holiday in Greece. This produced an unexpected challenge for Simon: “Running in a mask!

“In Greece, you have to wear masks in all public spaces; indoors and outdoors. But we didn’t let that stop us and managed to run up a hill to get great views over the city of Athens.”

Simon and Kat took on the challenge in Greece

Communication and camaraderie are the best motivation

Bryan was inspired to set up the virtual challenge as a way to keep in touch with fellow Transaid cyclists during lockdown. “The experience I had in Zambia in 2018 was one of the most memorable times and I made a number of great friends. Being in such as different environment and seeing Transaid’s work at first hand was a great motivation to keep going across the rough roads in the heat of rural Zambia. Virtual challenges like the one we did in September are a great way of keeping in touch with a great bunch of people and helping to continue to promote Transaid’s work.”

This camaraderie was also great motivation to stay active: “Whilst not the same as being physically in Malawi, it was great to generate a level of camaraderie amongst the participants and also a certain amount of competitiveness… It definitely encouraged me and others to get out and knock off the miles over a fairly intensive 30 day period.”

Guy also found motivation through his online interactions with others on the challenge. “Indoor riding is much tougher than outdoors, you normally get very hot and it can be very monotonous so mentally tough. We had to ride for 5 hours or more each evening to complete the distances and climbing so this was really a tough challenge both physically and mentally. It was made more tolerable by regular visitors to our virtual rides to chat and ride along with us for stretches of the challenge. Also Marcio and I spoke throughout even though he was in Cambridge and I was riding in Frankfurt.”

Can it compare to a real-life challenge?

A seasoned cycle challenge participant, Guy compares the two experiences: “I would say it is impossible to recreate the experience of the real cycling challenge or adventure in Africa. The smells, sights, people, culture, food and the network of fellow riders and support staff make the in person challenges a unique experience…

“It is not possible to recreate this virtually, however this challenge was made more real by setting out the virtual route to follow the planned physical cycle route, having the network of riders involved, photos of the actual route and sights on the tracking app”.

Whilst nothing compares to embarking on an in-person cycle challenge, virtual challenges have their own benefits, according to Bryan. “The Virtual Challenge can be taken on by anyone and just requires a commitment to walk, run or cycle of a regular basis with your own friends, colleagues and families or solo if you prefer. Hopefully we will be running future Virtual Challenges in 2021 and can encourage individuals and teams to join in the fun to support Transaid and to keep themselves fit.”

Guy completed the challenge in five days on his static bike

Could a virtual challenge help you beat the January blues?

A common theme amongst the challenge participants was how much they enjoyed having something to get them active every day. Setting yourself a goal and finding a group of people to motivate each other is a great way to stick to any fitness goals you might have set yourself this New Year.

“You need to set yourself a challenge,” Simon says. “Unfortunately it is all too easy to postpone to tomorrow because the weather isn’t great, you didn’t sleep well, or you’re still tired from last time. But with a goal in sight, it is amazing what you can achieve.”

Guy agrees that setting yourself a challenge is a great way to stay motivated. “You need to commit to do something to keep you honest, when the weather, fatigue, and dark nights give you excuses not to go out and do something active. My advice is to sign up for a challenge in the New Year which you know you need to prepare for physically and tell all of your friends and family you are doing it. This way when you open the curtains at home and it is raining or cold, you have an answer for the voice in your head which says ‘stay in bed’”.

What advice does Paul have for anyone looking to get active this January? “Do it! I found it set me up for the day when I exercised first thing in the morning and certainly feel better in body and mind.”


Transaid is offering a range of fundraising challenges for all ability levels. Click here to see more, or contact nicola@transaid.org.