Sea to Summit: In Conversation with hand-cyclist Michiel Desmet

We are in conversation with Belgian hand cyclist Michiel Desmet as he rides from the sea in Gujarat to summit Umling La in Ladakh…

Belgian hand-cyclist, Michiel Desmet, is currently in India to set a World Record on his hand-bike. The 38 year old began with a small team in early May, from sea level in Khambhat, Gujarat. His final destination is the highest road in the world at Umling La, Ladakh. 

Michiel already holds the Guiness World Record for undertaking the longest journey by hand-cranked cycle (8556 km). He achieved this by travelling from Alaska to Mexico in 2022.

hand cyclist michiel desmet with his team in india
The team from left to right: Benson, Sam, Michiel & Chris

Hand Cyclist Michiel Desmet

At the time of writing, Michiel had reached Manali, Himachal Pradesh and was well on his way into the high mountains…

This is his inspiring journey of grit.

How did it all start?

I was in Thailand in 2013, when I met with an accident. I broke my back, and my legs were paralysed. Not long after that, I got my first hand-bike and started riding. I wasn’t into sports that much before, but I mostly wanted to move my body. Especially after being stuck  in the wheelchair for that long.

Professionally, I am trained as a social worker.

How did you get the bike?

I got my hand-bike with a grant from Fonds Emilie Leus. It is an organisation which supports people with physical disabilities.

At Kherwara, getting ready for an early morning start

Why did you decide to start with wanting to break a world record?

I had been toying with the idea of breaking the world record for the longest distance ever done on a hand-bike. Honestly, it wasn’t so much about the record as it was about continuing to travel, and to push myself.

Tell us about your first journey on the hand-bike.

In 2022, I went to Alaska with my then girlfriend. We cycled from Alaska to Mexico over a period of around 6 months. I broke the record for the longest distance covered by a hand-bike. The previous record was 5421 kms, and I cycled 8559 kms.

Any particular reason you chose that route to break the record?

I chose it because it had good facilities – good roads and places to camp. I also needed to regularly ship boxes with medical catheters. It was easier on this route; I contacted camping places and it got sent there directly. I was also interested in that part of the world; there are a lot of National Parks there. I wanted to see that land — the western part of the USA and Canada.

Day 1 in Ahmedabad – Sam and Michiel having a team talk, the team realises the heat is going to be a big problem

What were some of the challenges and experiences you had on that trip?

One of the biggest challenges was doing the route as a disabled person. I had to wash myself in rivers, by the lakes, and so on. There were no shower facilities at the camps, at least in the beginning. It is a lot more work for a person with disabilities; simple things like taking my clothes off and putting them back on was very difficult.

We encountered mosquitoes from the very beginning. Then, there were bears. You can’t eat in the tent, because bears can smell it. So you have to eat outside, and get swarmed by mosquitoes. That was definitely challenging.

Another challenge was shipping my catheters. Catheter is a long sterile tube that I use to pee. I need about 5 of those a day. Since the trip was 6 months long, that added up to a lot of catheters. It got complicated at times — I had to ship them along the route, sometimes the parcel got lost, sometimes it got stuck with customs etc. 

So what brought you to India on this trip?

After the Alaska-Mexico ride, I continued looking for ways to keep pushing myself and setting new goals. In India, I am looking to set the record for the highest altitude reached with a hand-bike.

hand cyclist michiel desmet in Udaipur
Sunrise at Udaipur

Where did you start, and what is your tentative route?

I had to leave from 0 metres at Khambat, Gujarat, and  head towards Ladakh to reach the highest point. The reason I picked this route is because the highest  motorable route is in India, and I wanted to break the record.

Besides that, I also wanted to see Ladakh and other parts of North India.

Is this your first time in India?

Last time I came to India was almost 20 years ago. That was a long time, and I wanted to experience it with a cycle, which has a very very different feel. This way you are more connected to the people, to the land. You move through towns, through every street, and really end up connecting to people. And I really like this mode of travelling, compared to say, with a motorbike or a car or a bus.

How has it been so far? Any challenges that you have faced?

On this trip, the biggest challenge has been the heat. We used to start at 0900 hrs but it would get hot very quickly. So, we changed plans and started riding earlier — waking up at 0430 hrs and starting by 0530 hrs or so. We cycle till 11-12 and take a break of 2-3 hours, and cycle for a couple of hours after that.

I say ‘we’ because I started with two friends. They left yesterday (May 21) morning and are headed back to England. I have another friend who is waiting for me in Manali.

hand cyclist michiel desmet
Breakfast in Rohtak… with personnel from the BSF

Any other notable issues that you have faced?

Lodging has been difficult to find, at times. Because not all hotels take foreigners. That ends up being an issue. For example, today I had booked a hotel online. When I arrived, they told me they don’t accept foreigners. Then, I had to go find another place.

Now that I am alone on the road, it complicates the situation. Once I arrive at the hotel, I have to leave the bike unattended. Often, I have to climb up two flights of stairs to get to the reception and ask if they have space. Then, I have to find people to help me get the bike up as well. Getting food and water is also a hassle when I am alone. Although, it has been working out fine so far.

How much have you been cycling everyday? What does your day look like?

We started out doing shorter distances, around 70-80 kms. Over the last four days, I have been doing around 100 kms daily. To break it down — it’s about 90 mins or so before the first meal of the day. Breakfast is usually some food and chai. I try to cover around 90 kms before lunch. After that, I sleep or rest for a bit.

The second half starts around 1500 hrs once the heat reduces a bit. I cover 10-20 kms and start looking for a hotel or something around 5-6 pm. It often takes time to find a hotel.

So, I do around 110-120 kms in the entire day. But these are the plains. Once I start climbing, the distances will get shorter.

Your bike must be customised for your specific needs. What equipment do you use?

The bike I am using is Tiarrow. It’s a Swedish company which builds wheelchairs. They also make some hand bikes. It has a titanium frame with a couple of carbon fibre pieces. It is very light.

I have a 12-52 SRAM Eagle cassette on it, the derailleur is a SRAM Eagle as well. On the front I have a chainring with 30 teeth.

I have got hydraulic brakes from Hope Technologies, as well as the front wheel. And tubeless systems on the front and rear, with a Continental tyre at the front and Schwalbe at the rear.

I use a Wahoo Elemnt Roam to track my rides. I am also using Ortlieb bikepacking and regular touring bags as well.

Benson and Sam hanging out with kids near Udaipur

How did you prepare for this trip?

Most of my prep was done in Belgium. I tried to cycle as much as possible. I went swimming as well. You know, just keeping fit in general! Even my time in India so far has been sort of a  training period. Cycling till the mountains has – kind of – prepared me for what is to come.

And how has your experience been in India?

My experience in India has been great. People have been nice and supportive. They honk in support or pull up to me while I am on the road. I can’t always stop for a picture or talk to them because it would break my pace. But their reactions have all been positive.

Apart from breaking the record, what do you hope to achieve with your journey?

It is not so much about inspiring, but I want people – with and without disabilities – to see what is possible for them. I am not saying they should all break world records. But they can definitely set difficult goals for themselves and explore their possibilities. Even for people without disabilities, I feel it would be good for them to find ways of pushing themselves, and get out of…what is the word I am thinking of? complacency, yes!

Keep moving higher and higher, and connect with nature as well.

Sam poses with a grain truck in Nathdwara

Before we let you go, tell us what you like about cycling.

Personally, it lets me keep pushing my boundaries by setting tough goals for myself.  When I do that, it distances me from my disability. When I do difficult things, I don’t feel so disabled anymore. 

I find cycling to be a simple mode of travelling. It is very satisfying. I like the independence it provides, instead of depending on other modes of transport, which I personally find to be quite tedious.

I also get to experience new things, meet new people, and see the world in a different way.

Chris shows off his team jersey, with the others close behind
hand cyclist michiel desmet being cheered by locals in India
Michiel and Benson after a 95 km ride into Bandanwara
Final picture in Panipat, before Benson and Chris return to the UK and Michiel sets off solo for a week to Manali
hand cyclist michiel desmet in India
Michiel at Sunrise in Rajsamand

Photos Courtesy: Michiel Desmet and Team.

Follow Michiel’s journey on his Instagram Page.

Thanks to Sirus Libeiro for putting together this story for CyclingMonks. Sirus, a Mumbai-based cyclist, is an ardent commuter in that bustling city, as well as having undertaken a few tough bicycle tours in the Himalayas himself.

One Reply to “Sea to Summit: In Conversation with hand-cyclist Michiel Desmet”

  1. Brilliant story of human courage, endurance and the indomitable human spirit. Stuff for Readers’ Digest, had it still been in print.
    BTW it is not a grain truck, but one carrying the chaff after the grain has been removed

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