Two men are cycling more than 20,000 kilometers in order to deliver the referee's whistle for this September's opening match of the Rugby World Cup in Japan.

Ron Rutland and James Owens left London in February from rugby's hallowed ground at Twickenham Stadium and plan to pass through 27 countries and territories before their arrival in Tokyo at the end of the summer.

(James Owens, left, and Ron Rutland cycle past the Houses of Parliament on Feb. 2, 2019, after departing on their 20,000 km cycle ride from London to Tokyo)
[Photo courtesy of Ben Fisher]

Their epic 231-day ride will see them cross the Himalayas twice and attempt some iconic cycling routes. The duo is one of a number of pairs attempting the trip on two wheels in an effort to raise money for a children's charity.

Speaking from Bulgaria, Rutland joked, "We've been tasked with delivering the whistle, so we need to be on time."

The whistle will be used in the match between Japan and Russia on Sept. 20, marking the start of the World Cup. Rutland added, "We carry it everywhere with us."

(James Owens, left, and Ron Rutland in Sofia, Bulgaria, on Feb. 27, 2019)
[Photo courtesy of DHL Express]

Rutland was working for the Hong Kong Rugby Union in 2017 when he decided to get on his bike for this year's tournament.

He said, "There was so much excitement that the World Cup was going to be in Asia. I got caught up in it all."

Rutland is no stranger to this kind of challenge.

In 2013, the former rugby player sold all his possessions and spent two and a half years cycling from his native South Africa to England to watch the 2015 Rugby World Cup, arriving the day before his beloved Springboks were beaten by Japan.

Rutland said, "I'd never done anything like that in my life. It was quite an audacious thing to do but it was a life-changing experience."

But this year's ride could be more of a challenge for Rutland, 44, as he recently underwent hip replacement surgery. He insists it is a matter of willpower.

He said, "It's amazing how quickly your body adapts to cycling seven or eight hours every day. I am a month into the greatest adventure I could imagine, and all because I made the decision to do it."

The pair aims to cycle approximately 600 km per week.

The two men agreed sharing the trip with each other made it more enjoyable. Rutland said, "It turns out we complement each other very well. I think we make a good team."

His 28-year-old cycling partner is also his doctor's son.

Hong Kong-born Owens said, "It's such a great way to explore the world and see places you would otherwise never get to see. I've already visited eight new countries."

In the next few months the two men will cross some of the world's most unstable territories. Owens, who has also played rugby, explained that getting all the necessary travel permits for their trip presented quite a challenge.

He said, "We still have a couple of visas that we need to pick up when we reach Istanbul, but thanks to Ron's organization we're mostly set."

Rutland and Owens are currently pedaling their way through Turkey, which they estimate will take them around a month. They will travel through Iran, India, Laos and China and take a flight from Shanghai to Kansai International Airport.

If all goes to plan, the duo will arrive in Japan a week before the World Cup begins. There, they hope to be joined for their final five-day ride from Osaka to Tokyo by other keen cyclists and supporters.

The pair is raising money for the ChildFund Pass It Back charity project.

The program, which is based in Southeast Asia, aims to teach children life skills such as teambuilding and leadership through playing rugby.

Owens worked for the charity before he and Rutland departed on their seven-month quest. He says rugby is the ideal vehicle for boosting skills because it remains relatively unknown in the region, meaning it is not perceived as a male-dominated sport and therefore appeals to both sexes.

The program is a charity partner of the 2019 World Cup and the pair is aiming to raise its profile further. This year marks the first time the tournament will be held in Asia, something Rutland and Owens hope will bring attention to other sporting projects in the region.

Rutland commented, "I suppose you could say that our trip takes a certain amount of courage but it pales in comparison with the work done by ChildFund."

(James Owens and Ron Rutland pose for a photo with Alan Gilpin, left, the chief operating officer and head of Rugby World Cup, at Twickenham Stadium on Feb. 2, 2019, ahead of their 20,000 km cycle ride from London to Tokyo.)
[Photo courtesy of Ben Fisher]