Two months ago I ran into Colin Pyle and fellow co-founders of Cru Kafe on their way out of a successful fundraising meeting at Seedcamp in London. Aside from an appreciation of good coffee, it turned out that we shared a keen interest in travel, particularly in Asia, where in 2010 Colin and his brother Ryan undertook a Guinness World Record setting round-China motorcycle ride to document the vast and diverse Middle Kingdom. We recently caught up over coffee (naturally) to learn about the challenges of travel in the Middle Kingdom, and how his new brand is challenging Nespresso with organic coffee in compostable capsules.
In 2010 you’d just sold your first business and had time to ponder your next move. What was the driver behind the trip?
After several intense years building a brokerage company in Canada I felt life had become too boxed in and there was a whole world of places and experiences to be discovered. My brother was working in China as a photographer and looking to pivot into film. One afternoon in New York’s Central Park we were talking life and the universe and the idea for the Middle Kingdom project came together.
At the time did you know this would be a Guinness record? Did you maybe underestimate the challenge?
I’m an entrepreneur and optimist therefore believe that with the right team you can overcome most challenges. The Pyle brothers are a very complimentary team; he speaks Chinese (pretty critical for this trip), knows China, and is a genius behind the camera, which meant I could focus on logistics and financing. Although I was confident we could make it all happen, I did perhaps overlook how tough those bad days could be when your bike breaks, you feel exhausted, and are miles from anywhere. It's at those times the strength of your team gets really tested, and luckily we are pretty good at pulling through adversity together. With the wrong partner along these challenges would have been much harder to overcome.
So you both brought immediate value to the project?
Actually no. Although my brother had mapped out a great route and shooting ideas, I’d raised no money. Zero. It’s actually much easier to raise money based on a business plan with revenue projections, a long-term strategy, team and possible exit than it is a documentary film project. Most people thought we were just going on holiday.
What made you think of using bikes?
There was an obvious need to cover vast distances, but we wanted to experience the elements and environment through which we were travelling. A motorcycle is best suited to this. A car is too isolated, and a bicycle wouldn’t have been fast enough. There’s something very raw about motorcycle travel - you really do feel part of the landscapes through which you travel.
I’ve travelled extensively around China where the driving can be pretty hairy. Was that not a concern?
I had little experience of China and to my brother, riding or driving there was second nature, so we didn’t really consider it. Our plan was to ride the more remote areas - Inner Mongolia, Gansu, the Tibetan Plateau, rural Yunnan - sparsely populated places where the pace of life much slower than in Eastern China. That said we did experience some acts of driving suicide that would have captivated reality TV audiences in the west.
This sounds very much like Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman’s trips. Was that part of the inspiration?
To a degree yes, but Ewan and Charlie rode across multiple countries and covered longer distances. We very much wanted focus on going deeper into a single country, albeit one that’s as large and diverse as China. My brother spoke Chinese so this really helped us get closer to the people we encountered and get under the skin of the place without the need for a huge support crew.
You went on to ride around India. How did that trip differ to China?
India is more congested, there are people everywhere and the infrastructure is less developed. China can be chaotic, but India is on another level. It’s also very hot, and eating is like playing Russian Roulette with your stomach. In the end I stopped eating lunch, it was only way to ensure the afternoon was spent riding not squatting. I lost 10 kgs on the India trip. Although the chaos and constant sickness in India could get me down, I was able to speak directly to people we met, whereas in China I relied on my brother which was at times frustrating.
Best places to ride in China?
Where to start! We had an amazing ride along the Mongolia border. The border is divided by a strip of earth where no grass grows. Theoretically this stops the Outer and Inner Mongolian livestock mingling. We rode for days along that border staying with local herders or camping under the clear skies. It was amazingly remote. My absolute favourite experience was probably riding across the Tibetan Plateau where you experience miles of open spaces populated by the odd nomad tent and thousands of yaks. It’s often relatively flat and open but there's always a backdrop of snow-capped peaks in the distance. This gives the place an added sense of drama and grandeur - you really feel like you’re on the roof of the world, and of course you are.
Tell us a little bit about CRU.
It started three years ago after the patent on Nespresso capsules ran out. We wanted to take the positive developments in the coffee industry - concerns about provenance, sustainability and ethics – and put them into capsule format. Our coffee is all fair trade, organic certified and “speciality” grade. We are also currently working on making all our pods fully compostable, something we hope to achieve in the next few months.
After travelling through some amazing parts of the world the need to preserve areas of natural beauty is perhaps the most strongly in-grained lesson from my travels, that and the importance of a good coffee and a warm yak wool sweater!
To learn more about Colin and Ryan’s adventures visit Tough Rides.
CRU capsules are available through their online store.