Interview :: The Sidecar Guys

Matt and Reece are just a couple of young blokes from the UK who circumnavigated the globe on a scooter and sidecar, setting a Guinness world record for their feat along the way. Neither had ridden a motorcycle or knew anything about overlanding. Yet, they decided to drive one of the world’s most uncomfortable and ill-suited modes of transit to see the world.

From London’s Ace Café to Cape Town, Africa, north to Hyder, Alaska, and across Siberia mid-winter, the pair’s mission was to illustrate their belief that the world is, in fact, a friendly place. Did their presumptions ring true? A jar of homemade pickles in Siberia suggests that, indeed, people will journey from the most remote places on the earth to support a seemingly impossible, if not downright outrageous, dream. Read on to learn more about Matt and Reece’s round-the-world trip and why they undertook their latest project, the Armchair Adventure Festival.

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In 2015, you both were freshly out of university and working nine-to-five day jobs. Neither of you had ever ridden a motorcycle. Why did you decide to circumnavigate the globe on a scooter with a sidecar?

Reece: We always wanted to do something like a big trip, or you know, like a big challenge we’d never done before, but we never really had the impetus or the drive to do it. Then the Calais migrant crisis happened over here in Europe, and there were thousands of people at the border between France and the UK. They were getting so much stick in the press, like, Don’t let them in! They’re a bunch of murders from other countries!” And we thought, this is just garbage media that’s full of bad news stories. We believed the world was a friendly place, so our idea was to find out if it was or not. The scooter and sidecar thing came from that because we decided if we could take the most inappropriate mode of transport imaginable, then the people of the world would have to help us do this unachievable task that had never been done. So that’s why we ended up with the kind of Wallace and Gromit ridiculous scooter and sidecar look.

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Which route did you take on your round-the-world trip?

Matt: We went from London to Athens, and then we shipped to Egypt. From there, we drove to Cape Town by the east coast of Africa. We airfreighted to Santiago, Chile, because that was the cheapest way to go over to South America, and drove straight up to Cartagena, Colombia, because we were chasing down a dream of going to Alaska for the winter. That was a horrendous idea that didn’t work out. Then we shipped to Mexico because there were protests in Nicaragua at the time. We didn’t fancy any more off-roading after the Lagunas Route, which was a really gnarly stretch in the [Bolivian] Andes. So, we drove straight up through Mexico state and then got about 500 kilometers away from Hyder, Alaska. We broke down, so we had to turn back, go to Vancouver, then shipped to Vladivostok and took the Trans-Siberian home back to the UK.

sidecar guys

sidecar guys

One goal of the trip was to raise money for a group of charities working to fight human trafficking across the globe. What inspired you to dedicate your trip to this cause?

Reece: We wanted to raise money for charity through the stupidity of the trip because we knew we would get press coverage. We picked a group of charities supporting the people who had inspired us—the people of the migrant crisis. There was essentially a big migrant jungle in Calais, which is still going on, where loads of people from Africa and the Middle East (especially from the war in Syria) ended up. So that’s where the human trafficking modern slavery stuff comes in because those people were really at risk of human trafficking.

Matt: It was interesting because when we were on the trip, we went to refugee camps in Paris and Athens, and everywhere we visited had the same story about the same thing happening in their country. Either people were leaving to go somewhere, or there were loads of people trying to get into another country to escape war.

You were sitting in your London flat in 2015 when you decided to circumnavigate the world by scooter and sidecar. How long did it take to leave?

Matt: Two years. We always say we spent two years planning and 90 percent of the things we actually did were completely irrelevant because we didn’t know what to plan for.

Reece: The main thing we did at that time was getting a sponsor because we had no money at all to do [the trip]. We just managed to get Flight Centre, who we were working for before, and they said they would sponsor us—which is probably what made the whole thing happen. We went to them with a deal and said we would put £5,000 in to buy the sidecar if they put £5,000 in to buy the bike. They said yes, and we couldn’t believe it. We were buzzed, but we didn’t have five grand to buy the sidecar, so we put the bike on a credit card.

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How did you decide which scooter to buy?

Reece: We approached sidecar manufacturers in the UK— there are only one or two. When we told them what we wanted to do, they weren’t interested in helping. By then, we were running out of options. Just by chance, my stepmom was working in a bank in my hometown, and this guy walked in, and she ended up chatting with him about the trip. He said he used to build trial bikes in the ‘60s. We went over to visit him, just to have a conversation, but he and his brother were creating plans to build us our sidecar within five minutes. They said if we were going to do [the trip], we should buy a Honda SH300i as it was the only scooter that would have a chance of doing it. “And we’re building the sidecar,” he told us.

Matt: We came back two months later, and they had given it to us and didn’t even charge us for it. They built it from scratch. He said, “I don’t want your money, boy. I’m just pleased to see a couple of lads from your generation not watching the telly.”

You now had the scooter and the sidecar, but neither of you knew how to ride.

Matt: We had both failed our motorbike tests the first time around. We were awful bike riders.

Reece: Eventually, we got our motorcycle licenses. But even a month before we went on the actual trip, we took the scooter and sidecar to the overland expo in the UK and were too scared to ride it, so we put it on the back of my dad’s truck.

Matt: And we had our licenses!

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You gained confidence with riding over time. How long did it take?

Reece: There were times during the first few weeks when I remember the handling was really shaky. It’s a weird thing on a sidecar because the slower you go, the handlebars shake, and to level out, you need to go faster, and it smooths out. It doesn’t really sync up right in your head because your instinct isn’t to go faster; it’s to stop. So that took us a few weeks. I reckon by the time we were in Greece, we felt pretty good.

Matt: It was the mechanics where we slowly had to improve over time because we knew nothing about mechanics when we left. Charlie [the sidecar builder] was our main guy. Meaning, if we’re calling back to base like, how do we fix the bearing? [he had an answer]. If we were Long Way Up, he would be our HQ.

Did you make any modifications to the scooter?

Matt: There were pretty much no mods to the scooter, but then plenty as we went around the world. Biker groups were saying, “No, you need to do this.”

Reece: It was really wobbly on the front end in the States because we ruined it over the Andes, so a guy called Roger in California cut up one of our old pieces of suspension and the springs and put them on the leading forks. We had a skid plate fitted in Texas. For about 10,000 miles, we were riding with no protection on the bottom, and the engine and the batteries were spewing out.

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You drove through Siberia in the winter. How did this come about?

Matt: It was unintentional.

Reece: We were very naïve.

Matt: We just wanted to get around the world, and there was a visa problem getting into Iran, and the Himalayas were shut the other way, so the only way to get home as Brits was to drive the Trans-Siberian. We had to keep going to do this Guinness World Record thing, so we just had to keep going.

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What was the experience like?

Reece: I guess the feeling for a large part of it was regret because we were so far out of our depth. Whenever we got into hairy scenarios with difficulty before, during the Lagunas Route, or when we broke down in Ethiopia, it was like, oh, that was dangerous. Whereas with Siberia, we realized that it was dangerous, and we still had about 5,000 miles or six weeks to go.

Matt: It was so intense because it was just ice roads and blizzards the whole time, and we were never really in control of the bike. Our back wheel was always slipping, and we’d go past trucks that were lying in the ditch. Quite often, they would overtake us, and we knew that if we slipped at the wrong moment, we could slide into the backside of a lorry.

We didn’t have any snow chains or winter tires. It was like eight hours a day, riding every day for six weeks, and temperatures dropped to -40°C. It was just fricking freezing. We just had big coats and it got really, really, really cold. There were long distances between coffee shops or anywhere, so there was a lot of pulling over, doing star jumps, and trying to drink coffee.

Reece: It was scary because the sidecar is on the wrong side of the road, and the lorries are coming and literally circling right next to your head. You sit there and let ice freeze over your visor, because otherwise, it’s just freezing your face. We really thought we were going to die and were angry at ourselves.

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The Russian people eventually found out about your journey. How did this change your experience?

Reece: Eventually, word got out via Russian Facebook (VK). They got our Spot tracker, and in every town and village after a certain point, biker groups were standing on the side of the road in -30°C or -40°C waiting to welcome us in. People were flagging us down to take selfies in the middle of nowhere. They were like, “Can you come in? Can we give you loads of vodka and dumplings or salted fish? Do you want to get warmed up in our (fully nude and always full) Russian banya?” People were giving us gifts. We always talk about the guy that drove 70 miles at six in the morning to give us a pot of pickles his mom had made for us, to send us on our way. We say they carried us along the Trans-Siberian because we just couldn’t have done it on our own.

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You traveled together for 15 months through stressful and trying situations and came out the other side not only as friends but as business partners. How did you make it work?

Matt: I definitely understand why people travel solo. I think you’ve got to be a certain kind of person to travel with someone you both have got to have certain compatibility. I think our thing is that we’re both very chilled out and relaxed. We never really had a big argument or anything like that.

Reece: If someone had an idea, we were like, Great!Let’s try that! We were in the same boat of being completely and utterly clueless that there was just no way for there to be friction because neither of us had a clue what we were doing. So, it was very easy. And then obviously, if you’re on a motorbike, you just turn the headset off.

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How did the Armchair Adventure Festival come to be?

Matt: We just got back and came up with loads of crap ideas, and none of them stuck. Then we tried to make a film but realized that we didn’t shoot a lot of the stuff. So, I wrote a book. I never intended to write a book, but I was asked to write a lot of articles for an overland mag over here. People liked them and said, “You should write a book.” Sam Manicom hooked us up with Roseann and Jonathan Hanson from Overland Expo, who funded the book through theChange Your World Fund, which was a fund to get people under 30 to do adventurous stuff. So, Roseann and Jonathan worked on the book, so it’s actually good. We had proper editors and real designers.

We were going to take the book on a mini tour, but Covid hit, and there were no book festivals, so we thought, Could we do our own festival? We had nothing to do anyway. Everyone talked to us, even the celebs of this world—we were on a call with Charley Boorman the day after we decided to do this thing. Three weeks later, we launched the Armchair Adventure Festival, and I think 40,000 people tuned in over the weekend. We were live for 20 hours on YouTube, and people talked about their trips and were putting up tents in their living room and adventure bikes in their back gardens. We raised more for charity on that weekend than we did on our whole trip around the world.

Reece: Since then, we’ve been absorbed by running the Armchair Adventure Festival. We did our first physical in-person one in September. We also did a boot camp which is an online course with workshops and master classes. The idea was that we spent two years planning our trip, and if we had done something like this, we would have saved so much money. If we had just an hour with Sam Manicom or Simon and Lisa Thomas to tell us, “Don’t take that,” we’d have saved so much cash.

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Editor’s Note: The Armchair Adventure Festival Bootcamp runs from February 25-27, 2022, and the Armchair Adventure Festival 2022 takes place from September 22-25, 2021, at Mount Edgcumbe Country Park, Cornwall. Early Bird tickets are now on sale. To learn more about the Side Car Guys and the Armchair Adventure Festival, visitasseenfromthesidecar.org andarmchairadventurefestival.com.

Ashley Giordano completed a 48,800-kilometer overland journey from Canada to Argentina with her husband, Richard, in their well-loved but antiquated Toyota pickup. On the zig-zag route south, she hiked craggy peaks in the Andes, discovered diverse cultures in 15 different countries, and filled her tummy with spicy ceviche, Baja fish tacos, and Argentinian Malbec. You can usually find Ashley buried in a pile of travel books, poring over maps, or researching wild medicinal plants. Ashley is a co-founder of Women Overlanding the World and crew member of Expedition Overland. You’ll find this Canadian-born couple exploring a different continent in 2021, and sharing their trip every step of the way at Desk to Glory.