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The YouTube star pedaled the globe inspiring thousands with his joyful bicycle adventures. Then his world unraveled.
Anyone who has ever straddled a bicycle has felt it—the delight that comes with riding away from the drab moorings of everyday life, the joy of motion, the splendor of rolling past trees and rivers and lakes.
We all need to get away sometimes, and Iohan Gueorguiev got, arguably, more escape time than perhaps any other cyclist on earth. The endearing, soft-spoken star of his own wildly popular YouTube channel, See the World, Iohan spent most of six years—2014 to 2020—tracing a circuitous path south from the frozen hinterlands of the Canadian Arctic toward, but never quite reaching, the southern tip of Argentina.
Calling himself the Bike Wanderer, he slithered over ice roads in the Arctic on a fat bike whose frame bags were laden with camping and camera gear. He communed with bison in Wyoming, got frisked by cops at the Mexican border, crossed the Darién Gap with his bike in a kayak, and then moved on toward the salt plains of Bolivia.
If Iohan were even a little bit aggro about the whole thing—if he were inclined toward neon-bright spandex and chest-thumping Strava posts—he surely would have stirred some jealousy and spite among his nearly 100,000 YouTube followers. But no, Iohan was humble. He was sweet. In nearly every one of the 40 episodes he released, there’s a moment when he’s plaintively cooing to a stray animal. One, set in northern Argentina, opens with footage of an aggrieved, braying donkey trotting out of high grass onto a dusty red road, spoiling to charge. Iohan throws up his palm. “No, no, no, no,” he tells the donkey as we get our first look at the high red buttes surrounding him, and the wispy white clouds in the blue sky. “I come in peace!”
Iohan taught himself cinematography after studying the documentaries of German filmmaker Werner Herzog. His work is expert, involving strategically placed tripods, a thoroughly loved Mavic Mini drone, a GoPro 7, and a Sony superzoom bridge camera. His narration is understated and wry, so that when he finds himself chatting to an indifferent beef cow in rural Colombia, he tries to sell the animal on meat eating, saying, “Everybody loves burgers.” But even in their funniest moments, his films never dissolve into lark, for Iohan was at bottom a mystic intent on showing us that life is huge, the possibilities endless. When he visited the Puna de Atacama, an arid high plateau in Argentina, he stayed up all night to track the arc of the stars across the dark night sky. He shot with such care that as you watch the time-lapse sequence you can almost feel the cold stillness of the dry land in your bones.
Iohan’s fans regarded him as almost holy, his life a validation that happiness can be found in shucking all responsibility to just live in the moment.
Iohan kept a detailed blog, and a mantra he taped to his handlebar bag distills its essence. “See the world,” it reads. “Follow a map to its edges and keep going. Forgo the plans and trust my instincts. Let curiosity be my guide.” He appeared to be simple and pure. His fans, most of whom were cubicle rats resigned to making do with the odd weekend gravel ride, regarded him as almost holy, his life a validation that freedom and happiness really can be found in shucking all responsibility and plans to just live in the moment.
“Perhaps if more people did what Iohan did, this would be a better world,” muses Jeffrey D. McPartland in a recent Facebook comment.
To the faithful, the Bike Wanderer was leading an optimal life. The reality was very different. Iohan’s story is a testament to the need for balance—for a mix of bland routine and wild adventure. It’s also an allegory about the pain of celebrity, loved by thousands but known by almost nobody.
Iohan Gueorguiev was always an outsider. He grew up in Bulgaria, an Ohio-sized former Soviet ally of seven million in eastern Europe, in a working-class neighborhood in the nation’s capital, Sofia. His father was an immigrant from Vietnam. The details of his dad’s story are now lost, but he was likely part of a wave of North Vietnamese émigrés who began trickling into Bulgaria in the late 1970s, most of them to take part in a guest worker program that saw the Vietnamese laboring, generally in construction, for very low wages.
By the mid-’90s, when Iohan was a little kid, the Bulgarian economy was in shambles, thanks to the breakup of the Soviet Union. Annual inflation sometimes topped 300 percent. Building construction all but ceased, and the Vietnamese, suddenly out of work, became key players on Sofia’s black market. Vietnamese street gangs tangled with gangs of ethnic Bulgarians, and anti-Vietnamese prejudice was rampant. “They swear at us,” one Vietnamese man told the New York Times in 1990, referencing the Bulgarians. “They accuse us of not wanting to work or of just wanting to steal things to sell them. They don’t know our problems.”
In elementary school, Iohan was reserved, but he was also a quick learner and gifted swimmer. He was likely the only Vietnamese child among roughly 1,000 students, and he was sometimes singled out in an uncomfortable way. Other students called him Yoshi, which they erroneously believed was a common Vietnamese name. “He didn’t respond,” says his close childhood friend, Ivo Georgiev. “In school he was quiet and kind. He never said anything nasty. But I’m sure that name bothered him.”
When Blackburn released a promotional video starring Iohan, the film introduced to the cycling world a new, charming character.
Regardless, Iohan seemed disconnected from his Asian heritage. His father left home early, possibly before Iohan was even born. The boy took a Bulgarian surname, likely his mother’s, but early on she, too, faded from his life. She may have suffered from mental health issues. “She screamed and cried a lot,” Georgiev recalls. “She would get grumpy for no apparent reason. She dressed strange and was incoherent.” When Iohan was small, she’d disappear for periods of time. She rarely appeared at school. It was her brother, a handsome, clean-cut computer programmer, who came to parent-teacher conferences.
Mostly, though, Iohan was raised by his grandparents in an eight-story concrete apartment building. The relationship was fraught. At their advanced age, they had trouble disciplining the teenage Iohan. “His grandmother wanted him home for meals at certain times,” says Georgiev, “but she was too old to control him, and he had no respect for her. He yelled at her; he acted violent. He hated following rules.”
Even back then, Iohan had artistic inclinations. He read and wrote poetry, but his friends never saw a word. He was better known for his love of video games. Without telling his grandparents, he’d sneak off to internet cafes to play World of Warcraft and Diablo for days on end. “He seemed depressed, very closed,” says Georgiev. He went without sleep and skipped school until one of his teachers visited him, beseeching him to return.
Iohan’s uncle emigrated to Toronto when the boy was about 11. Soon after, Iohan developed a fixation on all things Canadian. “He brought a catalog of Canadian bicycles to school and he wouldn’t stop showing it to people,” Georgiev remembers. “It was really annoying.”
Bikes became Iohan’s obsession. His grandparents bought him a cheap mountain bike on which he made regular rides to Vitosha, a 7,500-foot volcanic mountain more than 30 miles from his apartment. He would take a ski lift to the top, and then ride down on hiking trails punctuated by boulders and steep dropoffs. There was snow on Vitosha deep into June sometimes, and Iohan liked to ride over it. And he kept riding farther from home. “At a certain point we grew apart because I didn’t want to go with him,” says Georgiev. “I didn’t want to get in trouble.”
From Toronto, though, Iohan’s uncle was keeping tabs on him. He wanted Iohan to follow him to professional success, and in 2003, after both of Iohan’s grandparents died, his uncle flew the 15-year-old boy to Toronto to live with him. “They ran into conflicts right off the bat,” says Georgiev. “As soon as Iohan was 18, he moved out to live on his own. He worked a series of dead-end jobs, barely scraping by.” On and off, he’d return to his uncle’s place and float vague plans of becoming a civil engineer, a designer of bridges.
In 2013, at age 25, Iohan finally agreed to enroll in McMaster University, near Toronto. He was a spectral presence there. His housemate, Matt Vukovic, remembers Iohan as a nomadic type. “He was always on the move,” says Vukovic. “It was difficult for him to build relationships that involved intimacy or sharing confidences.” Iohan was fluent in the basics of engineering, Vukovic says. “But academics were a necessity to him. Mostly, he wanted to be on his bike.”
Iohan’s full-time job, suddenly, was to follow maps to their edges—and to make poignant films about his adventures.
On breaks from school, Iohan traveled to Alaska, the Yukon, and British Columbia, shooting the first YouTube episodes. In 2015, Blackburn Design, which makes fenders, racks, and other bike parts, named him a Blackburn Ranger, giving him a one-year stipend. Soon after signing with Blackburn, Iohan left McMaster. This irritated his uncle, and Iohan increasingly dodged their conflicts. “At one point he told me that he hadn’t talked to his uncle in over a year. I told him this was disrespectful,” says Georgiev, who by then was living not far from Iohan, in Detroit.
Iohan responded, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Whenever we communicated,” Georgiev says, “he didn’t give me much information.”
When Blackburn released a promotional video starring Iohan, though, the three-and-a-half-minute film seemed to tell the Bike Wanderer’s whole story—and it introduced to the cycling world a new, charming character. In the video, Iohan pedals along an ice road in winter as a caption announces the locale: “The frozen Mackenzie River, Northwest Territories, Canada.”
A giant 18-wheeler rolls by, and the driver opens the window to ask Iohan, “Where did you come from?”
“Ontario,” Iohan says, his English accented and redolent of his native land, “but I’m going to Argentina.”
“On your bike?” says the trucker, astonished.
“Yeah!” Iohan shouts.
“Oh man,” says the trucker. “I love you!”
Love for Iohan soon went global. The ice road clip would garner nearly 2 million views and, when he launched a page on the fundraising platform Patreon, more than 300 fans stepped forward to underwrite his world travels. Iohan Gueorguiev’s full-time job, suddenly, was to follow maps to their edges—and to make poignant films about his adventures.
How do we make sense of those magical six years, that glory run during which Iohan pushed out one dazzling video after another as he seemed to transform himself from a sullen outsider into an adventurous, lighthearted explorer of the earth’s enchantments? Was the whole gambit destined to unravel?
Yeah, probably. Like Jimi Hendrix or Kurt Cobain, Iohan was a complex and fragile virtuoso. But let’s linger first on his achievement, which shines most in episode 30, during which he spends 10 days riding 250 miles across the rocky, treeless moonscape of Argentina’s Puna de Atacama with a French Canadian companion named Sylvain St-Denis.
The cyclists meet at dusk outside a windblown stone hut sitting at 14,750 feet, and the film’s stark grandeur only deepens from there as the two friends ford knee-deep raging rivers, cook in wind shelter caves with firewood (to save fuel), and lie in their tents at night, beside cliffs and beneath a full moon, as they listen to a mountain lion cry in the darkness. At one point, a white flamingo flies in slow motion as a song on the soundtrack extols “how rare and beautiful it is to even exist.”
“Traveling with Iohan was like cooking with the greatest chef on the planet,” says St-Denis. “He was always planning the next episode in his head, and he always found the best angle for filming his journey—and of capturing the landscape, the nature, the animal life. I told him many times that he was a poet. And he was a calm, patient, and respectful travel mate. He was always joking and staying optimistic. He was happy, and very strong mentally and physically. When things were tough, he helped me.”
In a shuttered world, would he ever be able to resume the traveling that had afforded him both his livelihood and his raison d’être?
But as he traveled with St-Denis, Iohan was silently suffering. Six years earlier, in 2013, he’d told his friend Ivo Georgiev that he was experiencing severe insomnia. The affliction would only grow worse and eventually, scarcely able to sleep, Iohan would receive the diagnosis of central sleep apnea, an uncommon disorder rooted in the nervous system and distinct from obstructive sleep apnea, which involves an upper airway blockage.
Very few people knew of Iohan’s insomnia, but his videos suggest a certain vulnerability. In the first episode, he carries his loaded bike—a weight of at least 90 pounds—through untrodden new snow as he ascends a wind-scoured Arctic mountain. In a quiet voice-over, he asks, “Why am I doing this?”
Iohan was a bit like Christopher McCandless, the protagonist of Jon Krakauer’s 1996 book Into the Wild: a restless soul in need of shelter from his own gonzo, self-destructive impulses. And in April 2014, when he traveled to Canada’s Northwest Territories with plans to camp out and throw himself at the mercy of subzero nights, locals worried about him and offered shelter. He ended up sleeping indoors night after night. A photo montage mid-episode pays homage to his various hosts.
Matt Bardeen, an American expat in Chile who hosted Iohan at his home several times over the years, says, “Iohan felt a little like a son to me, even though I’m only 15 years older than him. And when I talk to others who hosted him, they also say he was like a son. He took a lot of risks. You wanted to reach out and help him.”
As Bardeen sees it, Iohan was not quite settled in the world. “He was catlike in nature,” Bardeen says, “He would visit. He would be friendly to everybody, but he would never go deep, and you never knew if he really liked you. His support network was very compartmentalized. I never knew who his other friends were.”
To Bardeen, Iohan appeared emotionally challenged at times. Once, when the two men were in the mountains, they met a group of hikers who were panicking because they’d just lost one of their party. Iohan’s initial response was blasé. He just said, “Oh, okay,” which led Bardeen to wonder about his capacity for empathy.
In February 2020, Bardeen and Iohan spent 10 days driving into and then hiking the Argentine Andes. When Iohan flew back to North America afterward, headed to Colorado to get bike parts, he expected just a quick respite from bikepacking. It didn’t work out that way.
Iohan landed in Colorado Springs on March 17, 2020. By then, the streets of every city in the country were empty. News outlets would soon circulate ghoulish photographs of patients in crowded Italian hospitals, their straining faces encased in transparent plastic bubbles as they succumbed to Covid-19. In New York City, white medical tents dotted Central Park.
Most people were hunkering down at home. But Iohan didn’t have a home. When one friend suggested he stay with his uncle, he said, “That isn’t an option.” He didn’t have a romantic partner, and he’d been out of touch with his mother.
Somewhat randomly, Iohan found an Airbnb in Calgary, Alberta, and began isolating there.
Returning from a long bike trip has its challenges, even in times of health. The sense of being unaccountable—free—becomes a memory as unpaid bills and petty interpersonal conflicts return to the fore. The pandemic dealt Iohan an additional worry: In a shuttered world, would he ever be able to resume the traveling that had afforded him both his livelihood and his raison d’être? He had doubts. “I look at everywhere I have been and everywhere I want to go,” he wrote to his old traveling partner, Sylvain St-Denis. “I don’t think it would be the same after Covid.”
There at the Airbnb in Calgary, Iohan tried not to think. He played video games just as he had long ago in Bulgaria—addictively, for days at a stretch. As before, generous strangers came out of the woodwork, offering him help. This time, Iohan’s saviors were a middle-aged couple based in Cranbrook, British Columbia, four hours from Calgary. Dan and Melanie Loseth “fell in love with Iohan watching his videos,” says Melanie. “It was his mannerisms, his voice. He reminded me of our oldest boy.”
Iohan moved into the Loseths’ basement in June 2020, and at first he seemed comfortable. One evening, he treated them to a special meal of Bulgarian cabbage rolls.
But by January 2021, Melanie said recently on the podcast My Back 40, “his mood had really changed. He was way more sleep deprived, and he’d just stay in the basement. He would hardly ever eat meals with us. He’d just come up and grab some leftovers.”
When Melanie gingerly stepped into his lair, she found him racked with self-doubt. “He said he couldn’t concentrate,” she remembers. “He couldn’t stand the sound of his voice, so he couldn’t put out a full-length video. He pointed to his computer screen and said, ‘I’m not that Iohan anymore.’”
Iohan saw no hope of continuing as a filmmaker, and he was anxious about his future. “He didn’t know what he could do,” Dan says.
Meanwhile, Iohan’s conscience gnawed at him. He was taking his fans’ Patreon money and not producing any significant films in return. That didn’t sit well with him, and he had deeper, seemingly baseless worries. “He told us he had a drinking problem,” says Dan, “and for proof he showed us five beer cans that he’d emptied over two days. It was very unconvincing.” In a note to Bardeen, he made vague reference to having fallen from grace.” Had he actually done something heinous? The Loseths, aware of his comings and goings, saw nothing untoward.
In March 2021, Iohan returned to Calgary for three months. “When I picked him up there in June, he started crying,” Dan Loseth says. “He told me, ‘I did nothing but play video games and smoke pot and drink.’” Later, Iohan told the couple, “I went to Calgary to end my life.”
Iohan was so depressed that whenever Melanie told him he just needed to get outside, even for 15 minutes, he refused. He promised he would not kill himself in their house, though. He also began to seek solutions. He visited a doctor and finally received the apnea diagnosis. As he tried to sleep, his brain wasn’t sending the proper signals to the muscles that controlled his breathing. He woke up constantly, so on July 25, his doctor gave him a sleeping mask connected to a device to help maintain his airflow.
It was, it seemed, Iohan’s first step toward healing. Soon, after months of longing for a companion, he bought a puppy, a border collie, and named him Shadow. On August 17, he mounted a Shadow-sized rack onto his handlebar. Encouraged, the Loseths felt they were safe to leave Iohan at home while they visited their son in Saskatchewan. “He seemed to be doing way better,” says Melanie.
Iohan was still tortured by insomnia, though, even with the new breathing mask. He’d begun making middle-of-the-night trips to the emergency room to ask, in vain, for something to help him sleep.
On August 18, Iohan sent Dan a link to a song by the Woods, a country band. One of these days I'll fly to the moon, the lyrics go. One of these days I’ll have nothing to prove. One of these days I’ll get out of this place.
Receiving the text, Dan felt hopeful. “He would often ask for opinions on music,” he says. Dan imagined that maybe Iohan had regained his creative energies and had considered using the song in a video.
A few hours after writing to Dan, Iohan rode through the darkness to the hospital to ask once more for pills. He was rejected. He rode his bike home and fed Shadow. Then at 6:30 that morning, he sent Dan Loseth one last text. “If you get this,” it said, “call the police to get me from the garage. This has been too much. I think I can get some sleep when I’m dead.”
As the news of Iohan’s suicide began spreading over the internet, hundreds of people who never knew him were stricken. “My husband and I spent today, the second day of knowing, in tears, sorrow and heartbreak,” a woman named Marie Schneider wrote on a Bike Wanderer Facebook page. “We fell in love with Iohan in 2014. Social media is such an odd thing that I could love him so much (like family) and feel such heartbreak.”
Shadow has a stable home with friends of the Loseths. Iohan’s internet presence will likely fade over time, however. As his story went to press, only 30 of the 40 episodes he made are still up on YouTube, and the library will likely dwindle more. The musicians whose songs Iohan excerpted in his films got paid, but they’re able to set new terms—and disappear entire episodes—if they desire.
In his wandering, he reminded us that we all need to inject some curiosity, some exploration and risk taking, into our lives. Our souls need it.
But Sylvain St-Denis, the French Canadian cyclist, believes Iohan’s legacy will flourish most off the screen, out in the world, where he’ll continue to teach us how to live. “Just before our journey ended in Argentina,” says St-Denis, “Iohan told me something very important. He said, ‘Sometimes it is good to follow a road without knowing if you will make it to the other side. I think this is the most important thing in bikepacking and in life in general.’”
Iohan wandered, and for several years he found what he so desperately needed out on the road. “Amongst the empty spaces and the endless mountain ranges and amongst the clouds,” he says near the end of one early episode, summing up Alaska, “I found a new home every day and every night.”
The searching wasn’t easy. In Alaska, it was “harsh and beautiful, unpredictable and infinite,” Iohan tells us, and perhaps it was the searching that destroyed him—the hungry depth of it, the way it took him out to the edge of the map and rendered him alone in the world.
It is difficult to think about how Iohan ended his journey in a land of pain and sorrow. But in his wandering, he reminded us that we all need to inject some curiosity, some exploration and risk taking, into our lives. Our souls need it. For don’t we all want to see the world?
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress. Call 800-273-8255.