What Happens When A Non-Cyclist Spends 3½ Years Travelling The World By Bicycle

When I tell people I rode a bicycle 15,000-odd miles across Europe, Africa and the Middle East for fun, but that I’m not a cyclist, I get some funny looks.

I try to explain that it wasn’t thunderous thigh-muscles I wanted but visceral life experience, fresh out of university with a head full of theories and not a job opportunity in sight. No commitments, no prospects, and no desire to grab a backpack and bus the planet’s roads: the combination of bike and tent would allow unmatched freedom, and screw the wild-camping laws while I still rode in countries that had them. I scrimped and saved and stretched it out as far as possible. With pedal-powered transport and pop-up accommodation, my only remaining costs were calories.

I try to explain that while there were gruelling climbs in the Alps and switchback descents in Romania, swooping panoramas on Turkey’s coasts and vast orange vistas in the Sudanese Sahara, these views have faded beside the faces I’ll never forget: the Swiss newspaper editor who flung open the doors of his mountain chalet, the gypsy villagers and that forest mushroom breakfast, the Middle Eastern petrol-station attendants leaving their pumps to provide company and kebabs, the Nile-side Nubians and their unconditional desert hospitality. And let’s not forget back gardens and bacon sandwiches in Cambridgeshire, nor fresh eggs and animal sanctuary sleepovers in Suffolk. I could never have bought such memories.

I try to explain that – while I’d planned out a rather hopeful off-road route away from my Midlands home and across Europe – the route had been ditched within days in favour of going where the tailwinds took me. Following maps in the early days had earned me the confidence to travel without them. Faced with the choice of two roads, I’d take the smaller. When lost, I’d ask directions, or enjoy being lost. For bearings, I’d guess the time and look to the sun, or when raining sit in a bus stop and look at my compass. This was a brand new lifestyle, not a Sunday-morning bike ride.

I try to explain that when I met a girl in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, it was the freedom and flexibility of the open-ended bicycle journey that allowed me to stop and change tack. I had no onward plane ticket or pre-planned itinerary, no date reserved for my heroic return home; setting up shop was a matter of handing over £80 worth of banknotes each month to the landlord of my former-Soviet apartment. My girfriend and I set off riding together; another non-cyclist taking to the road to experience freedom. And her transformation was incredible to watch.

I try to explain why I had to leave her behind; explore the world alone again. It’s even more difficult than explaining why I don’t consider myself a cyclist. But crossing one continent was just the initiation. My bike had opened a door to reality, a world of faces and sounds and emotions, a world out of doors, living simply, getting on with it, rough and smooth, and I’d experience it right here and now from the seat of my bicycle in all its beauty and imperfection.

Riding to Africa, the continent that scared me most, put the stories and images of the planet we live on firmly in context. Crossing Mongolia rewrote the rules of the road completely: there weren’t any roads at all. Cycling to the Arctic Circle in midwinter proved that climate and season were pitiful barriers to adventure. And riding the Pacific Coast of America with my younger brother brought two adult siblings back together again. I learned new languages and alphabets, to write from right to left, gained a second passport, and forgot where I was from.

Now, years later, I’ve married the girl and we’re exploring new roads together. These travels by bicycle have shaped my life more than anything else, and continue to this day. I don’t regret a moment of it.

And all too often I try to explain all this to the people who ask about my journeys. But it’s difficult. No — it’s impossible.

All I really feel able to do is encourage as many people as I can to rethink cycling – not as a sporting discipline, a hobby or a fashion statement, but as a way of experiencing the world and its people that is second to none, no matter where or for how long you go.

I hope that you will consider giving it a try. Even if, like me, you’re not a cyclist.

The full story of this journey is told in the award-winning film Janapar: Love on a Bike, as well as in the book of the same name.

A version of this piece originally appeared in The Sunday Times. Header photograph by Andrew Welch.

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