The 23-year-old Londoner has completed the epic 4,000km bike ride despite being jailed in Romania, attacked by dogs and rescued by Hungarian construction workers
In 1889, the original Orient Express train made the breathtaking journey from Paris to Istanbul for the first time.
Growing up, Connor Kelly from Hampton Court, near Twickenham, dreamed of navigating the iconic railway line to enjoy breathtaking views across the continent.
Instead of boarding the six-day luxury train journey, which costs £15,500 for a room in the Grand Suite, the young rugby player opted instead to tackle the mammoth 3,870-kilometer journey a little more strenuously – on a bicycle.
From being locked up in a Romanian jail cell to being attacked by stray dogs, the 23-year-old battled injuries, inclement weather and loneliness as he traveled across Europe on behalf of charity in less than two months.
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Connor started at the foot of the Eiffel Tower on World Mental Health Day (October 11) and made his way east through Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria – before ending in Turkey’s cultural hub of Istanbul, which became one epic journey of self-discovery.
This motivation raised money for the Charlie Waller Trust, a mental health charity, and kept it going during difficult times.
Speaking to MyLondon, the University of Edinburgh geography graduate said: “It’s imperative that mental health needs more sunlight, more openness and more outrageous conversations. Whether an illness affects your heart, leg, or brain, it’s still an illness, and there shouldn’t be any difference.
“It was about raising awareness about mental health. That was always the main priority. It’s a big problem, especially among young men, with suicide being the leading cause of death for men under the age of 25.”
While charity was undoubtedly the focus of the trip, Connor made no secret of how he enjoyed breathtaking views of countless European hot spots along the way.
From an evening at the opera in Vienna to enjoying a cold pint in Ulm, Germany, on the banks of the Danube, Connor says: “It was amazing to explore these cities from a cyclist’s perspective – so different compared to go on a city trip”.
However, the journey was anything but smooth – on the contrary.
Averaging about 100km a day on his bike, struggling consistently with frigid weather conditions and rocky terrain, Connor hit hard times at various points – almost spending a night in a Romanian jail cell after crossing the border on his bike.
Connor, who played for London Irish Rugby Club in his youth, recalled the horrific ordeal, saying: “In Romania I had some difficulties with stray dogs which I found really difficult to deal with.
“It got to the point where two Alsatians were chasing me and attacking me. They were on my chest so I had to defend myself.
“Two minutes later I was stopped by a couple of Romanian police officers. They started asking me for my passport in broken English, it was quite a scary situation to be honest.
“I was thrown into the back of a police car and ended up spending seven hours in a Romanian prison cell. Luckily I was able to get a translator who could help me.”
It turned out that Connor’s passport hadn’t been properly stamped, but he was able to rectify the situation the same day.
Around this time the weather also began to deteriorate. Connor had to fight his way through snow storms and in some places even had to get off his bike and push it through deep snow himself.
It reached the dizzying height of 6,000 feet – significantly higher than Ben Nevis – and took 15 days to cross Romania and finally arrive in Bulgaria.
At the beginning of the journey, Connor recalls falling off his bike after going over an extremely deep pothole in Hungary.
He added: “I flew off the handlebars and walked about 20 meters down the street in front of about a dozen Hungarian construction workers.
“They came over and helped me up. The bike was beyond repair with the tools I had available and I was covered in deep cuts and bruises.
“They drove me about 10km to the nearest bike shop where a paramedic was waiting for me.
“I had three stitches and the shopkeeper fixed my bike for free when he found out I was doing it for a good cause. They encouraged me to keep going, it was amazing.
“For me, one of the highlights was the sheer friendliness of random strangers I encountered throughout my trip. From free coffee to people helping me with my bike when I fell off it or it got damaged – they got me so willingly helped.”
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Driving through the countryside for a long time without passing through traffic became isolating at times, but Connor never forgot the purpose of his mission.
Though the language barrier often proved difficult, he was encouraged each time he checked his donations page to see if more people had donated.
With donations still pouring in, Connor has now raised over £50,000 for his chosen charity – an incredible achievement.
He added: “The idea of taking on this challenge on my own has always appealed to me. I try to travel purposefully.
“The things you learn when you’re alone, how to adapt to certain situations. I learned so much about myself on this journey.”
Arriving in Istanbul on December 4, he was overcome with exhilaration and adrenaline as he cycled to the Hagia Sofia Mosque – one of the city’s most famous landmarks near the Grand Bizarre.
Connor added: “When I cycled into a city of 15.5 million, I passed thousands of people but there were no cyclists.
“It’s not exactly a bike-friendly city, so it was pretty daunting.
“My family was waiting for me at the finish line. It was a pure exhilaration and I had to pinch myself again and again. I couldn’t believe it was real.
“I always told myself that I would keep a smile on my face and I ended up smiling. It was a surreal moment.”
At the finish line, he was greeted by his parents, his identical twin brother Josh and the rest of his siblings, as well as his best pal Richard.
Connor decided to raise funds for the Charlie Waller Trust, established in 1997 in memory of Charlie Waller, a young man who took his own life while suffering from depression.
The Trust raises awareness of depression and other mental health issues and provides training for schools, colleges, universities, workplaces, GPs and nurses.
Connor added: “I’ve been pushing myself out of my comfort zone and I feel like being forced into somewhat uncomfortable situations teaches you so much more about yourself.
“To know that this money will help so many other people is the most amazing thing.”
To learn more about Connor’s incredible fundraising journey, visit his Instagram and GoFundMe pages.
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