Q&A Sam Wood, Bike Odyssey

The Roman archaeologist, TV presenter and cycling adventurer Sam Wood tells Cyclist about his unique background, Bike Odyssey’s new tours in Japan, and what it was like following in the steps of ancient general Hannibal and his 37 elephants

Sam Wood
In addition to its 28-day Shogun Odyssey tour throughout Japan, Bike Odyssey runs a five-day tour in Ehime, which Cyclist recently had the pleasure of visiting

Interview Jack Lynch
Photography Andrea Illescas, Nick Esser

Cyclist: Hey Sam. You have quite an unusual background for a bike tour operator. Tell us a bit about your experience both on and off the bike?

Sam Wood: Yes, I’ve been lucky enugh to lead a pretty diverse life! I’ve always loved the bike, but I originally trained and worked as a Roman archaeologist around Europe.

I’d travel, often by bicycle, from excavation to excavation, from Italy to Greece, across UK and even to Ukraine (almost two decades ago… and I didn’t ride to that one!).

I’d direct excavations in places like Pompeii in southern Italy or Chersonesos in Crimea for big US and UK universities. It was a great life.

Then I took a job at the British Museum in London, another lovely place, but soon got itchy feet.

So, I proposed to the BBC, with my two brothers (one a BBC journalist) the idea of a TV documentary cycling in the footsteps of historical figures, while chatting about the history, travel and biking.

In 2010 the BBC took us on and we made On Hannibal’s Trail, a six-part mini-series.

Unfortunately, they dressed us up like The Wiggles in red, green and blue respectively.

But it was great fun and was sold to over 70 countries worldwide, including coming here to Australia on the Nat Geo channel.

The BBC was setting us up for our second series following Napoleon from Paris to Moscow when all three of us brothers decided to have children.

Although, it is still on the cards for a future date! With this transition from archaeology to cycling grew Bike Odyssey.

I realised I loved being on the bike and developing epic cycling journeys with a historical tilt. This historic angle surprises many of our riders, and fits remarkably well alongside a challenging day’s riding, adding atmosphere and genuine context to a cycling adventure.

It’s always very relaxed history (no serious lectures!) over a drink pre-dinner or while riding along.

For example, Hannibal took an army and elephants over the French Alps into Italy when he invaded Rome 2,200 years ago.

So, as we climb up haute categorie climbs like Col d’Izoard or Col Agnel – Tour de France regulars – it’s pretty amazing to think about and tell the story of 30,000 men and 37 elephants from Spain and northern Africa pushing through the snow on the same mountains, without roads or paths, all the while being attacked by local tribes, marching across Europe to take revenge on Rome.

It gives one a different perspective on the Alps and a cycling experience.


Cyc: When did you start Bike Odyssey and how does it embody your own philosophy towards cycling travel?

SW: I’ve been running tours since 2012 but founded Bike Odyssey in 2017.

Bike Odyssey is all about a balance between a challenging ride (ranging from 50-140km a day depending on the tour), great food, wine and hotels and also an insight into the culture and history of the countries you’re travelling through.

We love a great day’s riding but feel you can get so much more than just a riding experience out of cycling in a foreign land.

We’re a boutique tour operator specialising in epic cycling adventures and we consciously only run seven to nine itineraries a year in locations across the world from Europe to North Africa, Japan to South America, Tasmania and of course across Europe.

All tours are expertly guided and have a historical context, and we have guides who aren’t just mechanics but also local experts, sommeliers, historians, mechanics, linguists and of course soigneurs – after all, what would a grand tour be without a masseuse on board?

Sam Wood
While filming On Hannibal’s Trail, Sam and his crew make their way over the Col de la Traversette on the Italian-French border – the site of Carthaginian general Hannibal’s legendary alpine crossing

Cyc: You’ve probably been to too many incredible places to list here, so let’s keep it simple: what and where have been the three best cycling adventures you’ve experienced, and why?

SW: One: for decadent cycling, the Greek Islands are just magic. We run a trip called ‘The Odyssey’ where we travel and sleep on gulets (luxury wooden yachts), which take us from island to island in the Dodecanese.

We dock each evening in the islands’ villages and you swim as the crew cook beautiful fresh dinners onboard.

Mornings you rise early for coffee and brekky then roll out on tiny, quality roads (EU funding!) with lots of climbing and amazing views across the Mediterranean.

The riding is challenging but hugely rewarding. As you ride, the gulets sail to the other end of the island and await with lunch as you roll in.

Then swim, eat and sail on to the next island – and repeat! Two: for a unique cycling experience, Morocco is amazing.

Big, long climbs with low percentage gradients over the Atlas Mountains followed by long descents where you’ll drop from the orange desert landscape into gorges cut through the landscape, filled with lush green palms, snaking rivers and ancient villages – it’s genuine adventure riding and the local people are delightful making it such a great cycling destination.

And three: a more personal favourite experience was cycling from France to Italy over the French Alps.

This may sound quite standard, but all the riding was done at night time! For sections of our Hannibal documentary we were forced to ride when the sun went down as daylight was prioritised for filming.

So, one night we found ourselves screaming down a beautiful banking, winding road at around midnight.

We couldn’t see beyond the barriers so we knew nothing of what was out there besides the white line of the road and a few metres either side of it in the glow of our lights.

It was an amazing descent and the whole ride was surreal and beautiful in the dark.

We got into our campsite and the film crew, who had dashed ahead, were super happy to see us and were saying how scary the road was.

We couldn’t see anything more than the road directly ahead so we laughed at them. Then a couple of years later I was running Hannibal as a bike tour and we were scouting.

We came to a road which was terrifying – steep and windy with 200-metre drop-offs on one side into a steep gorge.

I started to have flashbacks and quickly realised that night I was a lot luckier than I thought!


Cyc: Bike Odyssey recently added Japan to its growing list of routes. Why did you choose to launch your next tour in Japan?

SW: There are so many reasons why Japan is a perfect cycling destination. Amazing-quality quiet backroads with options both comfortable and very challenging.

Beautiful, generous people and the most courteous drivers anywhere in the world.

A vibrant, fascinating culture and history to explore, high-quality and unique hotels such as traditional ryokan inns, and magnificent fresh food everywhere.

We’re hugely looking forward to this Odyssey and Japan is very accessible for Australians, considering a minimal time difference and relatively short flight when compared to Europe.


Cyc: The 28-day Shogun Odyssey sounds incredible. What are the highlights and why should a travelling cyclist consider this for their next adventure?

SW: The Japanese cycling experience is genuinely unique, from the Rindo ‘forest’ roads – some of the roads do not allow cars, and they’re often perfect pavement – to the onsen hot spring baths at the end of a day’s ride for a soothing soak to recover those cycling muscles.

There’s so much to love about the riding experience in Japan! There are a lot of highlights in our 28- day trip so I’ll keep it brief!

From a purely cycling point of view, setting off from the slopes of Mt Fuji is certainly an epic start and the view on day one of the revered mountain as we climb over Misaka Pass is unforgettable.

For hotels, we stay in a lot of great places, but staying in Ozu Castle in Ehime stands out as unique, historic and luxurious – it’s just beautiful.

For culture, when we head to Koyasan in the Kii Peninsula, south of Osaka, we stay in an 800-year-old functioning Buddhist Temple on the edge of one of the most atmospheric ancient sites I’ve visited anywhere, the Okunoin Cemetery, and of course the monks take us for a tour through the graveyard that night!


Cyc: We recently visited Ehime, which features not only in your 28-day itinerary but also as a separate five-day itinerary for those with a little less time on their hands. What makes Ehime so special?

SW: Ehime captures in one small area so much of what makes Japan great. In the five-day itinerary we ride from the famous Shimanami Kaido, which bridges six islands to the mountains on dedicated bike paths and tiny forested mountain roads.

We have historic castle hotels, temples to visit and the city experience too. It is a great window into Japan and its unique culture, but also just cracking riding for those short on time and keen for a break on two wheels.


Cyc: Could you give us a few hints on what else might be in the pipeline for Bike Odyssey in future years?

SW: We have an ever-growing list of ‘Odysseys’ we are looking to develop, but giving you a hint… not a chance!

Cyclist Australia/NZ