“Did you ever think that this would become your life?”

I received an email the other day from another long-term traveller about a project I’m currently working on. At the end of the email was the following:

“P.S. When you set out on that first trip, did you ever think that this would become your life?”

A damn good question with more scope than befits a private email exchange, I thought. (Thanks, Jamie!)

First, what is ‘this’, exactly? Well, this blog, I suppose, and all else that it directly supports, for that is all most people see. But I spend more time working on this blog and projects derived from it than anything else. So blogging is the closest thing I have to a full-time job, and it’s a fair enough representation of what occupies the majority of my time, and thus my ‘life’.

It wasn’t always so: my ‘full-time job’ used to be wandering the world’s back-roads on a bicycle, with the blog playing a distant second fiddle. If you dig back into the site archives to 2006, you’ll find articles posted when the site was known as Ride Earth, the name of a rather naive attempt to circumnavigate the world by mountain-bike, which quickly went off the rails and let to all else that has happened.

The site has been redesigned six times, moved domains twice, at one point was shared with someone else and thus had two writers, and for a long time did nothing more than serve as a trip blog on which I scribbled in internet cafes about my ongoing bike trip round the world, but it has gradually developed alongside my own changing ambitions (and route).

Now, the site brings in a steady stream of new readers, most often searching for help and advice with various aspects of bicycle travel. Although much of Ride Earth‘s original readership has long since moved on, this reflects new priorities on my part, and over time it has created a solid base from which to soundboard ideas and get immediate feedback.

And, as well as providing hundreds of thousands of words of useful information, the website serves as a platform for letting people know about the paid-for projects such as Janapar that help to support the time I spend on it all. (On that note, there’s a new ebook coming very soon.)

Why a blog, exactly? Why did I not become a paid travel writer, or simply put my book out and go back to my previous line of work? Why bother continue writing long after the ‘big trip’ finished? Let’s face it: I did four days of actual cycle-touring in 2013, and only a two-month trip in 2012. Do I even still have the authority to maintain this blog?

There is sometimes – not always, but sometimes – an air of desperation around ‘post-trip’ blogs; a feeling that the writer continues to recycle the same old material, interspersed with “and for my next trip” announcements, out of an unwillingness to let go of a once-supportive readership and move on.

I don’t mean to say that every such trip blog is like this, but it does happen. It’s easy to become dependent upon the continuing affirmations of responsive readers, or to feel that by ending a blog you are doing your community a disservice or letting something valuable slide into decline. And my own blog, at times, could have gone that way.

But a large part of my motivation to stop travelling full-time was because I had more creative energy than life on the road permitted the opportunity to use. In part, that was because I didn’t travel with laptops, mobiles and the like. (Others in my shoes would have happily taken a laptop and integrated creativity into their days on the road that way. I was too stubborn and wanted no such distractions from the experience of travel.)

The point is that over several years of riding I gathered so much raw material that I am still drawing from it on a daily basis today, and the process of change I underwent during my time on the road somehow unlocked a creative vault in my head that had previously been shut. I still have an endless backlog of headlines on points of information and advice that I have not yet written into articles. Not writing something for more than a few days actually makes me feel uncomfortable.

In other words, I stopped travelling by bicycle full-time so that I could write about travelling by bicycle full-time – and in a more substantial form than blog posts alone.

There’s slightly more to it than this. Before Ride Earth I had made a brief attempt to become a professional website developer. These were skills learned partly through my Computer Science degree, partly through taking on the job of redesigning the university radio station’s website (oh, the glamour), and partly through – in typical geek fashion – spending too much time in rapport with computers because they seemed friendlier and more interesting than most of the people in the world outside. (Travelling cured that one, needless to say.)

And so it made complete sense to begin a website, because not only did I have the creative drive to publish regularly on a topic close to my heart, but I could look after the technical side of the site as well (HTML, CSS, JQuery, PHP, Apache & MySQL – you get the idea) — work that would otherwise over time have racked up thousands of pounds in professional fees. And both of these things are still true.

The motivation behind all of this is, of course, a rampant form of idealism. I believe that long, personal journeys by bicycle have a transformative effect upon the riders and their subsequent interactions, and that the effect is a net benefit to the world at large. (See this month’s earlier article on reciprocal hospitality.)

Even if only a very small nudge towards an ideal, it’s better than any number of more lucrative careers I might have chosen (there’s that idealism again). And so through storytelling (inspiration), the sharing of knowledge (information) and attempting to serve people’s needs (creating action), my aim has simply become to get more people out travelling by bike – and to have fun doing it.

(I’m getting there with this.)

So in respect to the original question, it’s a similar one to what people used to ask on the road: “What will you do when you get home?”

My answer for many years was that I had no idea, but that I hoped that whatever it was would emerge naturally out of the trip itself.

And, though the route to get here has often been unclear and with a few wrong turns along the way, this is a pretty accurate description of what’s happened.

Happy New Year!

How did you get to where you are right now? Is it where you envisaged yourself five or ten years ago? If not, how can you change things in 2014?

21 Responses to ““Did you ever think that this would become your life?””

  1. Alex

    I have what I consider to be ten wasted years behind me. Last summer is when I did my first cross-country bike trip, and it helped a lot in making this year a turning point in a positive sense. But it was just a trial for the journey I have planned for next year. All I can say right now is that what you are doing now, writing on this website, is of much help for someone like me. I hope your new year will bring you many creative possibilities, and it will also bring you one more account of a first-time long distance bicycle traveller, if I succeed in my endeavour. Cheers!

    Reply
  2. Menno Dekhuyzen

    Hello Tom,

    All the best for 2014!
    Reading your blog is refreshing and puts my mind to think of the subjects you write about.
    I enjoy this very much!
    I am going on a new trip this year. Starting in 7 months in a different way than last time 6 years ago.
    I have a situation of a job who allowed me to save for traveling and this trip will be the last one I can do with saved overtime hours. (Paid leave!)
    So doing long cycling tours this way will change after the trip this year,.
    How I will solve this in the future, I don’t know yet. But it will work out, one way or the other. (just like on a tour “everything will work out fine”… in the end!)

    Every new tour you make will be different, due to your own thoughts and views of weblogs and journals (like yours Tom).
    So, I will take my laptop with me to have easy access to the web to update my blog and Skype with my family when ever possible.
    I did make this choice because I read too often that people are losing to much time in the search of a place to enter the web, losing time to enjoy the cycling / traveling experience!

    I have postponed the real long trips until after retirement.
    There are several opportunities of shorter trips before that.

    There is another “problem” I have, my wife doesn’t like these kind of holidays; tenting (no shower) cycling every day, hardship (this way sometimes)
    Also she doesn’t like to be from home that length of time, also flying large distances isn’t her thing.
    I have to deal with this, I love my wife and we try to find a way together.
    I’ll manage and I am not complaining.

    Keep the words coming Tom, Love it!

    Menno

    Reply
  3. Stephen Lambert

    Tom,
    All the best to you and Tenny in 2014. Hope this finds you happy and healthy.
    Just a note to tell you how your blog inspires me to dream and hopefully do more.
    I have only had a week of fully self supported saddle time, and a couple of overnights, but I really feel a need to do more, much more.
    I really appreciate your writing style, as its easy to read and you keep the topics fresh and entertaining.
    I have learned a lot from the blog, and of course reading and watching Janapar. Your cycle touring advice page contains so much good info.
    Just a couple ideas for future topics. As a full time bicycle mechanic, I’m of course interested in the mechanical side of your trip, any problems, and solutions, as well as bike shops or mechanics you came across.
    Also as a foodie, what you ate along the way really interests me. I spent a couple weeks in Dubai and the differences in food from my American palate was so fantastic. Just a couple of ideas.
    Its currently 9 degrees and snowing outside my window, but I wont let 2014 start without a bike ride.
    Keep up the good work,

    Best to you,
    Stephen

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Cheers Stephen. It’s on my list to compile a database of touring-friendly bike shops in further-flung lands, as well as some on-the-road repair techniques (the chain-round-a-chair-leg technique for cassette removal, for example!).

      Reply
  4. Martin

    Hi Tom,

    A lot of what you say and write about resonates with me and my own (same same but different) experiences. It’s funny how projects that we create to find freedom can take on a life of their own and end up becoming our own masters. Frighteningly easy to build a cage from our dreams over time.

    It’s that of year I suppose but I’ve just written a post on my own experiences and plans to shake off some of the heavy dust of previous projects and start looking ahead to new things again. I thought you might be interested.

    Your blog is one of my favourite places to go on the internet – keep it up!

    Reply
  5. Oliver

    Retain your idealism Tom! It may appear like the longer or stonier way, but in the end it will be the memorable one and probably also the one which shaped you most in return… It’s really great to see you sharing your thoughts and some of you inner monologues and how people can relate to it incredibly well!
    The core idea or better say question reminds me a bit of the “letter to self” thingy. It may sound a bit odd, but writing a letter to your future self is quite an experience! When first going abroad years ago we were supposed to write such a letter as part of a seminar for the European Voluntary Service and the supervisor sent on the letter to you pretty much towards the middle of your stay. No matter what expectations, ideas or thoughts make it to this letter it can be a powerful “monologue” as well. One may also write such a letter and give it to family before setting off onto a journey and retrace the self-transformation upon return or something or even make it yearly occurrence around New Year’s Eve…
    Happy New Year again and keep at it Tom!!

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      That’s a great idea. I recorded a video diary when I was 23 and it was suggested I make one prediction to my future self. That thing was “this journey is going to be nothing like you think it’s going to be”. Pretty much the only thing I did get right!

      Reply
      • Oliver

        Thanks for the smile your reply left on my face Tom! 🙂
        True to the motto “travel light”: Leave your expectations behind and take curiosity instead, don’t bring home souvenirs, but rather memories…
        Most of the video material you mentioned probably made it into the Janapar movie, right!? It’s still on my list once I finish the book, so let’s see. I actually quite like the idea of video diary! Probably even more intense in retrospective when you not only have a “snapshot of your mind” but something more vivid…

        Reply
        • Tom Allen

          Not that clip exactly! I shot about 300 hours of footage; 79 minutes of it ended up in Janapar the movie…

          Reply
          • Oliver

            Holy moly, so there must be quite a lot more bundled thoughts lingering on some hard drives I suppose. How about turning the remaining material into sort of a “Janapar Podcast” and releasing snippets as Vine episodes on Twitter or something like that!? Well, in case you are keen to publish the other material at all…

          • Tom Allen

            These are thoughts that I’ve been having for some time!

            It would be possible to make any number of films from that 300 hours of footage. But it’s already taken 3 years of more-or-less full time work to produce and publish the uber-distilled 79 minute version! The fact is that to produce any kind of short video series would involve going back to full-time work on it, and I suspect it’s all too far in the past for that to be a healthy use of my time. Plus, the results would never do justice to the feature film.

            At some point it would be nice just to watch through it (I have never re-watched 90% of what I shot), but in terms of film production I’m more excited about exploring new stories now…

  6. Frank Burns

    I always look forward to your weekly updates. I am a retired cycle adventurer so, for the moment, I don’t have to juggle between job and touring. But I admire those who have such constraints but manage to organize their lives to get in a couple of weeks/months riding somewhere in the world.
    Continue to inspire us Tom, and a happy new year to you.

    Reply
  7. Time, Lessons, Reset, 4 words. | Vague Direction - A bicycle-powered project about people.

    […] – Tom from Tomsbiketrip recently published a new post and a sentence grabbed me. “There is sometimes — not always, but sometimes — an air of […]

    Reply
  8. Andy Welch

    Happy new year. Nice update there. Having travelled with you, and been a big part of the Janapar film project before it was the Janapar film project, I agree wholeheartedly with what you said here. Everything takes time. I luckily have managed to use technology to keep a record of what I’ve learnt about making a bike trip as well as the on-the-road money making skills – having been inspired when I was about 17 yrs old to learn about website coding from you- I’ve recently posted much of what I kept before as a ‘code-library’ – here http://www.codebloc.co.uk. Website programming is much is demand these days and still offers a potential for footloose money making. I too agree with your comment “Do I have the authority to write this blog?” – well you’ve been on a lot of cycle tours and amassed a great deal of knowledge over time- and you’ve kept thinking about it and processing that information whilst off the bike- of course you have the authority. I recently published my book ‘Weave of the Ride’ ) about cycling across Europe. Why did I choose to write 2 books about my journey to India? Because I feel that cycling Europe is more accessible to most beginners- and a hugely diverse and awesome place to travel. I also only just got round to finishing off a long standing desire to release all my my knowledge in a more accessible form so I created an eBook (Prepare, Pack, Pedal: A Practical Guidebook to Bicycle Touring – on Amazon). Without a continuing journey to learn about ebook publishing and using skills I’ve picked up doing website projects I would have found producing this myself a lot more difficult. Am I getting rich and supporting myself off the back of these projects? No, but I’ve created works that will last as long as bicycle touring itself lasts and hopefully will be used and inspire many people in the future. Equally if I wish to publish about other topics, I will have the necessary skills. Plus, I am learning to navigate a rapidly changing world of publishing one’s experiences to the community using accessible technology and understanding the potential that offers. I remember the author of this post once saying to me (and I quoted him in one of my books) that ‘Idealism is fundamentally flawed’ so I am very happy to see that he is now a fully fledge convert 😉
    I’ve always believed in the transformative potential of this kind of thing and long may it continue.

    Reply
  9. Oliver

    Apologize for writing a new comment Tom, but we obviously already reached the maximum amount of comments in our previous thread. I don’t wanna appear smart-aleck or something and giving you advice what to do or how to do things. I just consider your attitude towards life and your ability to put thoughts and feelings into words exceptional, so I think quite a few people would read through your essays with a constant nod and reaching the end of them with a certain enthusiasm. Or as my girlfriend put it: there’s a lot of beauty and wonder in your writing…
    I understand that the effort for such a video project would probably way too much I suppose. Right now (even though I have no clue what approach your movie takes) I could imagine something like following: Let your followers create sort of a “Janapar manifesto”. People could create short videos with their favourite parts from the movie or even come up with a response to your thoughts or something, sort of making two distant monologues a dialogue. And the new Vine “TV mode” could make this episodes a wee patchwork with tiny pieces from all over the world and as you use to say people from “all walks of life”…
    Sorry, I think I got carried away a bit again and probably just steal some more moments of your time Tom. Bottom line is probably: keep it up! 🙂

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Love the idea! It’s similar to something that Andy came up with in terms of ‘collaborative’ videomaking.

      The film of Janapar was primarily directed and produced by someone else, so it’s not quite mine to do as I please with. But it’s not really about the time and effort — fact is that it’s several years on and this story has already been told. For the next project, it’d be fascinating to explore the “manifesto” idea!

      Reply
      • Oliver

        I understand. Still great to see what your story turned into. However I completely agree that it’s time to “page forward” and start adding a few more chapters to the story called life. I’m already looking forward to your next adventure and considering the fact you are apparently taking Leon onboard I assume you are keen to project even more from your inner screen onto the big one in the cinema once the adventure turned into something visual… 🙂
        Best of luck for all your (ad)ventures and take care! Cheers, Oliver

        Reply
  10. Fraser

    Hi Tom,

    Great post. Your journey has been a very interesting and inspiring one. Reading about it was one of the reasons I found the courage to jack everything in and start cycling around the world. However, go back five or Ten years and my future had nothing of the sort scheduled. I experienced what many do as they get older and realise the goals I had been pursuing were no longer relevant, and worse still, it had taken me years to realise.

    I’m at the beginning of a four year adventure and I’m not sure what the future holds. I would like to hope that I can continue blogging and make a living from creating products related to my experiences.

    Only time will tell. I wish you all the very best on your fascinating journey.

    Fraser

    Reply

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