A few weeks back I joined seasoned round-the-world cyclist Alastair Humphreys for a coffee in a secret location in central London (OK, it was the British Library canteen) in order to chat about bike trips — specifically, bike trips that could be made for under £1,000 and within the average annual holiday allowance. It’s all part of Al’s excellent #Adventure1000 project for 2014. What follows is an edited transcription of exactly what we discussed. Enjoy…
Alastair: My Adventure1000 interview today is Tom Allen – cyclist and filmmaker – chosen solely because of his beer can stove, about which more later… Could you start by outlining the biggest expedition that you’ve been on?
Tom: The biggest expeditions I’ve been on were cycling from the UK to Armenia over eight months, cycling around the Middle East and Africa for seven months and I’ve also done trips in Mongolia for two months and down the West Coast of the U.S. for two months as well.
Alastair: This is the sort of question that’s hard to answer and generally quite irritating when you get asked it, but I think it’s quite important: could you try and give just a couple of the highlights, the sort of things that you’ve really loved about these big adventures?
Tom: I think the biggest thing is the fact that you wake up in the morning and you have no idea where you’re going to end up at the end of that day, and you have no idea what you’re going to see or who you’re going to meet, that’s kind of what adventure means to me anyway. It’s the unpredictability and the surprises and the unexpected, and the knowledge that it’s very, very rarely a bad kind of surprise. You know, it’s usually pretty positive stuff.
Alastair: So let’s talk about your first big bike trip. Why did you choose to do that? Why didn’t you, say, go for a long walk or climb a mountain? Why did you decide to cycle?
Tom: Well, the reason I decided to cycle was, firstly, because it wasn’t about a physical challenge and I thought that a long walk would be a lot more gruelling than riding a bicycle, and as far as climbing mountains and stuff like that’s concerned, that wasn’t really what I was interested in. I was interested in exploring countries, meeting people, exploring cultures, and I wanted as much versatility in my means of transport as possible, and with the bicycle you can carry everything you need, but it’s not on your back, it’s on your bike, and that’s a lot more pleasant way of doing it.
You’ve also got a massive range of distance that you can cover in a day, from as little as you like to up to, on a really good day, maybe a couple of hundred kilometres.
Alastair: And what were you doing directly before you set off on that trip?
Tom: Before I set off I spent a year planning the first trip, which is way too much planning to be quite honest, but it got me to begin. I was working as a freelance website developer. I’d finished university for about a year when my friend Andy came up with the idea. I was at a bit of a loose end, wasn’t convinced that I was doing the right thing career-wise, and just wanted to do something a bit different while I was still young and uncommitted and had that freedom.
Alastair: Before you went, you had a year of planning and daydreaming. During that year, what were the main worries you had about that trip, and what were the worries that perhaps family were trying to impose on you, and then how did those worries compare to any problems you actually had during the journey?
Tom: I got massively bogged down in the intricacies of bicycle mechanics and what might go wrong mechanically. Massively, I mean ridiculous. And so I spent most of that year researching bicycle parts and deciding what would be the ideal components – you know, the ideal brakes, the ideal suspension, the ideal carrier rack and all this kind of thing. And I didn’t really pay much attention to the routes, I didn’t really pay much attention to the realities of how it would be to be living on the road, and I had no experience to go on in that respect either.
And so I was really just researching something I didn’t understand very well, and I guess the reason why was to try and build up confidence in something which I really didn’t have any experience in.
Alastair: How much training did you do for setting off to cycle around the world?
Tom: I did no training whatsoever. I didn’t even finish building the bike until the morning I left. I didn’t have time, because the last few weeks of preparation were so frantic in terms of getting the stuff, getting the gear together, that I didn’t actually have any time to test any of it.
Alastair: I remember the night before I set off to cycle around the world, my bike pump just arrived in the post, and I undid all the packaging and threw it all in the bin, then realised I’d thrown away the little nozzle bit that does the pumping, and my Dad had to empty the entire house’s bins over the back lawn to find this nozzle. I didn’t do any training either, on the assumption that you can have too much of a good thing and there was plenty of time to get fit along the way.
Tom: Yeah, I think when it becomes a lifestyle, and especially when it’s not trying to do anything particularly athletic, you can afford to go a little bit slowly at the start. You can afford to break yourself in a little bit more gently. The more time you’ve got, the better, obviously. The funny thing is, for shorter trips training makes more sense because you’re more time-restricted and your ability to pull the trip off depends more on your fitness in the first place, whereas if you’re going off for months or years, you’ll be as fit as you’ll ever be within about the first month, regardless of how fit you are to start with.
Alastair: The fact that your bottom hurts for two weeks matters less when your trip’s a year long than if your trip is only two weeks’ long…
Tom: Exactly. It’s a real pain in the ass.