How Has Cycle Touring Changed In The Last 10 Years?

Picture, if you will, the classic young middle class white male embarking on a heroic journey of self-discovery, straight out of the modern liberal all-about-me mould. Ten years ago, now… wow. Was that really me?

Today I’m tweaking the gears before embarking upon the latest chapter of my life as a serial bicycle traveller. And from the comfort of this air-conditioned coffee shop in Hat Yai, Thailand, it hasn’t escaped my attention that the world I’m setting out into is very different to that of a decade ago.

Much of the basic stuff of cycle touring is timeless, as even a cursory leafing-through of Thomas Stevens’ 1896 travelogue will demonstrate. But has anything fundamental changed in that blink of a cosmic eye?

I’d argue that it has. And I’d be very interested to hear what you think of the following observations.

You’re Not So Special Any More (Not That You Ever Really Were)

Once upon a time, bicycle travellers were amongst the farthest-flung outliers of the independent travel community.

I don’t mean people going on bicycle holidays, which has been mainstream enough for – ooh, a good century or so. I mean people traipsing across the planet, indefinitely and in search of nothing in particular, on heavily-laden bicycles.

These people used to be true pioneers; mostly of the kind nobody had ever heard of because they did it for the hell of it and couldn’t ‘share their experiences’ even if they wanted to, at least not until back home, and even then rarely beyond a token positive story in the local rag.

Now, cycle touring is so utterly commonplace that everyone knows someone who’s doing it (or thinking of doing it).

There’s nothing wrong with this. I for one feel privileged to have watched cycle touring merge into the mainstream of independent travel, for a host of reasons I won’t prattle on about. And I hope that I’ve been able to contribute to that change in some way.

But my point has more to do with the enduring myth that the journey of pedal powered self-discovery is somehow special.

10 years ago I was just about able to (weakly) argue my case.

But now, in a world where cycle tourists become A-list celebrities and career TV personalities?

Nope. Cycle touring is now firmly in the realm of normal things to do.

It Isn’t Just ‘Us’ Doing This

The white middle class male stereotype is dead, too. I’m not talking about more women cycle travellers, either; they’ve always been there despite perennial gender-based concerns. This is something else.

It began while idly trend-spotting among my blog’s visitor statistics, which at some point became a fascinating thing to do when I was really bored. Turns out that a good chunk of new incoming readers now hail from Eastern Europe, the Indian subcontinent and Latin America.

It’s a very rough measure, of course, but hey, this site’s pretty popular, and the trend seems to show that cycle touring is increasingly a pursuit about which the global middle class – educated, connected, and English-speaking – is searching for information.

Beyond a few small zones where Western freedom of movement privileges still apply (Europe, the U.S.), the same pattern plays out anecdotally on the roads of the world, where I’ve noticed a plateau in the number of white-faced Westerners packing panniers and bar-bags, and a significant rise in frequency of riders from ‘other’ places, of whom I now meet far more.

In short, the white post-colonial cycle touring demographic is morphing into something else – in fact, there’s plenty of evidence that it might be shifting elsewhere, as newly liberated populations begin to embrace leisure travel in a world of post-survival meaninglessness.

Perhaps this would be a good time to get my ebooks translated into Hindi.

Adventure Is An Attitude, Period

The maxim that ‘adventure is just a state of mind’ has been hammered so long and so hard that it’s finally come true. In terms of experiential value, cycling round the world is equivalent to bivvying on a hill in Berkshire in every aspect other than duration.

Taken along with the fact that everyone’s best mate and their dog has cycled round the world, this makes doing such a thing even less noteworthy than ever – which means you’d better be doing it for reasons that have little to do with what anyone else thinks, because fame and fortune or indeed any bragging rights whatsoever are forfeit. Anyone with an adventurous attitude who can string a sentence together is now equally worth paying attention to, because that’s all adventure consists of these days.

In fact, if recognition or ‘personal brand building’ in the adventure world is your goal, travelling a really long way by bicycle is a hugely inefficient way of going about it. Go bivvy on Scafell Pike and give a talk about it instead.

What’s left, then? Oh, just all the other stuff… time, real time, to get to know your own mind; a way to put your redundant body to task and get to know that too; a teacher of self-reliance and interdependency whose lessons will serve you forever; a first-hand context for the various truths and fiction spun by humanity about itself; and of course something fun and totally pointless to do without having to tell anyone about it because, well, why not?

Your Bags Are Smaller (Like That Matters)

Technology in general is progressing at a rate nobody can keep up with. Narrowing the field clarifies things a little, but my reluctance to publish tech-related cycle touring articles for reasons of shelf-life has only been magnified in the last decade.

Of particular note are developments in the fields of outdoor equipment and digital communications. Last year, for instance, I received from Alpkit a three-berth tent that was lighter and smaller when packed than the MSR Hubba one-berth tent that just five years ago was Cascade Designs’ most minimal offering.

My sleeping bag, also from Alpkit, is a third of the size and bulk (and warmer) than the massive Snugpak thing I lugged away with me in 2007. Same with mattresses: my Exped Hyperlite M was the lightest full-length mat on the market in 2015 and has almost certainly been bettered in the time since. It’s about the size of a small cycling water bottle.

All this gear would have once occupied a large pannier and a rack-top drybag. Now it occupies barely half the capacity of a single pannier. The cost is about the same overall, and the companies’ warranties show how much less of a concern is durability when it comes to ultralight gear.

So you almost might as well minimise your luggage. (It’ll make getting fit that much less important.)

Then there’s communications technology. Smartphones long ago served redundancy notices to laptops, DSLRs, video cameras, voice recorders, GPS receivers, cycle computers, guidebooks, paper maps, dictionaries, diaries, MP3 players (remember them); the list probably goes on.

(Even the Luddite typing this blog post is doing so on a smartphone with a Bluetooth keyboard and a 4G SIM card.)

Compare this to the now ludicrous prospect of setting off with an entire pannier full of media production equipment, including a DSLR with two lenses and a charger, a MiniDV video camera with an external microphone and a charger, three spare batteries and 40-50 spare tapes (tapes!!!), a tripod, and special cases and straps for all of the above.

Ten years ago this seemed totally normal, indeed necessary, if I wanted to make a film of and take photos on my journey. So did posting a box of tapes back to England every few weeks and spending hours in internet cafes typing up blog posts.

Today I could take one smartphone with a mini lens kit and mini tripod, charge it off the front hub of my bicycle, and not just shoot but also edit and publish Janapar, in 4K, with the whole thing backed up to the cloud as I went. And nobody knows what an internet cafe was.

Discovery Is Now The Fringe Option

As we give over more and more decision-making responsibilities in our daily lives to computer algorithms – where to spend our time and money, how to get there, what to expect when we arrive, which friends and strangers are available to meet us there, etc – so it is increasingly the case that we carry these behaviours over into the frame of travel.

Given the ever-increasing quality and comprehensiveness of the information available, and the ubiquity of being connected, it is understandable why. There’s no need to be afraid of the unknown when the cloud and its various interfaces already appear to know everything we might ask. Indeed, this perceived safety net may be one of the factors in making international travel more accessible and therefore popular.

This goes equally for cycle touring, even if we consider that it mainly involves being in places other types of tourism leave out, because these systems are agnostic regarding who they serve. If you’re off the well-worn trail, the information will instead serve the locals who live there and with who your ideals have led you to want to hang out. So it’ll be translated into your language and served up to you instead.

And whether you use Google Maps or OSM, you’ll probably have received an innocuous invitation or two to contribute to all of this; either overtly with reviews and photos, or discreetly in the background, as measurements such as when and for how long you’re at a given location, together with the content of the messages you send and the photos you automatically back up while you’re there, help bring the digital representation of the world closer to reality.

It is, of course, possible to opt out of all this, perhaps for ideological reasons, or perhaps because you’d rather travel blind and instead feel the profound sense of peace and confidence that comes from being in motion with neither knowledge nor expectations and being totally OK with that.

But that’s my point. Today you have to make that choice.

As I set out from my home in England ten years ago, Steve Jobs was still rehearsing the launch of the first ever iPhone, Google Maps was still blank in several nations of the world, and not knowing where I was going was taken for granted, rather than an optional extra.

This, I think, is the strangest and most significant observation of all the things in this list.

The World’s Running Out Of Space To Shrink

In the same vein, expensive smartphones, cheap credit to buy them with, and the data-obsessed culture that has sprouted from their ubiquity have had a visibly homogenising effect on humanity.

Yes, hanging out with the inhabitants of isolated villages in conservative cultures may make you feel – occasionally – that you’ve outrun the rising tide. But only if you kid yourself that the absent majority of each family isn’t living in a nearby city with a Facebook account and a phone full of selfies.

Some adventure-seeking travellers are reacting to this with a pattern of behaviour well-established in the face of change: firstly denial (“wow, I must be the first white person these village kids in Chelsea football shirts with satellite TV have ever seen!”), followed by outrage (“global free-market capitalism is destroying my right to fulfil an outdated romantic notion of world travel!”), followed by grudging acceptance (“right, well, I’m going to buy a bikepacking rig and get really off the beaten track next time!”).

Others just get on with it. Yes, society is changing at an incomprehensible rate, and yes, these changes are visible to those passing through on two wheels, even if they would rather close their eyes to it.

Personally, I feel that it’s an opportunity to watch a major upheaval of human history taking place on a global scale, and at the same time go for a nice bike ride.

Couchsurfing Is Dead. Long Live Airbnb

On a slightly different tangent, I’ve noticed that hospitality exchange networkssuch as Couchsurfing and WarmShowers have changed in a couple of respects.

This mainly concerns the spirit of the whole endeavour. When I opened my Couchsurfing account, there were just a few tens of thousands of members worldwide. As I used that network to find people to meet and places to stay on my first big trip, there was a definite sense that we were part of a revolutionary movement; the connecting power of the internet harnessed in a stroke of genius to the age-old travellers’ tradition of mutual hospitality. Hosts and guests alike were positively excited that the chance encounters with strangers that bring such unforgettable sparks of humanity to the travel experience had been made accessible.

Oh, the good old days, eh? Long gone, of course. Couchsurfing.org now has well over 10 million members, mostly signed up through marketing campaigns rather than word of mouth. The ease of doing so has resulted in an ocean of noncommital or inactive members for whom it is or was just another brief fad; at best a search engine for free accommodation.

All that seems left now is a hard-core of jaded veterans plus a disunited scattering of idealistic youngsters. The savvy have put their spare rooms on Airbnb instead, figuring they’d prefer the extra income than a constant stream of freeloaders.

So the machine might still be functional, but the spirit has evaporated. Which means you can still use it to find a host, just as you can still use a bicycle to travel the world – you just can’t claim it as part of some bleeding-edge countercultural identity. Which is fine. Just different.

You’re Ten Years Older (And That Probably Makes You Terrifyingly Old)

Finally, I performed a quick calculation today while wandering around Hat Yai’s shopping malls looking for a cheap cotton shirt:

If I was born in 1983, almost half of all people alive today are younger than I am.

It won’t be long before most people don’t remember the world I was born into. In other words, my view of recent history is going to become more and more irrelevant to the future.

This assumes, of course, that the cultural trends that value youth over experience and data over intuition will continue on their current trajectory. But it is a humbling thought that what you think and what you do will likely matter less and less as time goes on.

Not that this has anything to do with cycle touring other than serving as a reminder that I am considerably older now then when I started out, and perhaps the world looking different is as much to do with the way I see it as with things actually changing.

One cannot expect to grow and learn and for the same habits and strategies to produce identical results. For this reason, it’s important to continually and critically reassess the decisions you make and the actions you take, from moment to moment and on a broader scale.

To do that, you need thinking time, of course – or perhaps non-thinking time, depending on your perspective and your powers of self-reflection.

And that’s something that cycle touring certainly hasn’t lost its ability to provide.

So what do you think?

18 Responses to “How Has Cycle Touring Changed In The Last 10 Years?”

  1. Wokulski

    Thank you for this post Tom, it gives food for thought. You can sense some nostalgia in it, but wisdom that comes from 10 years of travelling prevails 😉
    I’t s great that you’re writing again!

    Reply
  2. Adventurelaus

    How much of this is just you getting older? Memories always seem more glorious (or worse) than it really was.

    Keep in mind that when you first ventured out you didn’t have any expectations and were a blank page to draw upon. Now things are different, you knew what it was like, have expectation, and a page that isn’t blank anymore.

    Maybe the word “continues” in your last post showed that you hang to much on past memories and want to relive them. Don’t! That won’t work. Just enjoy the memories and make new ones that will be different and just as grant.

    BTW, your Trans Caucasian Trail project is pretty awesome and kudos for enabling it to live on as you pursue new adventures. I’m looking forward to hearing more about your bicycle tours and what else might come up.

    Reply
  3. claude marcoux

    “If I was born in 1983, almost half of all people alive today are younger than I am”… Imagine if you were born in 1953, like me…

    Reply
  4. Widsith

    Great to see you back online!

    Reply
  5. Graeme

    Hi Tom. As usual you’re very perceptive and notice things that most of us don’t…until it’s pointed out to us! I’ve only read the first 3 sections of your blog so far,but you’re spot on!
    Long distance cycle touring now is the replacement for going on a kibbutz in Israel or grape picking in France were in the 1970s/80s(the former of which I did as a young guy!) Long distance cycle touring sounded incredibly adventurous,exciting…and scary! I first really recall it in tgh mid 1980s,when I read Nick and Richard Crane’s books..’bicycles up Kilimanjaro’ and ‘journey to the centre of the earth’. There was also Dervla Murphy’s book ‘full tilt’ about her journey in the winter of 1963 from London to India on a single speed bike, carrying a revolver in her saddlebag! They seemed to be the only people doing that sort of thing back then…whereas now it seems almost mainstream! The world is a smaller place though. When I first went to Israel with a friend in 1979 as teenagers,neither of us had ever been out of the UK before! We waited a month for airmail letters from friends and family and it was frustrating at times but incredibly exciting. Now we can keep in touch with people and places so easily that it’s taken some of the romance out of travel imo perhaps,but it’s made the world a much less intimidating place I guess too….G.

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  6. David Stys

    Thank you for that, Tom. I like reading your thoughts. Makes me think that cycling touring has given you a lot of time to refine and master them.

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  7. Gregory Yeoman

    I would always encourage anyone to get out and explore on their bike, whether on a long-distance continental journey or a weekend jaunt, just as long as they were mainly doing it because it is a fun and exciting means of seeing somewhere beyond their own backyard. Freedom to go where you want, on your own timetable, with little impact; to arrive somewhere quietly without being the centre of attention; to gain personally from the experience. With or without technology to back you up (paper maps with a highlighted route work for me).

    Reply
  8. Frank Burns

    Tom, you seem to very cleverly leave your true feelings hanging in the balance: whether you are nostalgically wanting the old times back, or whether you embrace the new times with enthusiasm. 6 years ago, I celebrated getting my touring kit down to 10kg, including camping kit, stuffing it into a 23 litre Carradice Super C and a small barbag, and heading Down Under for 2 months. Now I regard that as being top heavy. My recent foray around Cuba (without tent) happened with only 6kg…..then I decided to give my bike to a needy local, so returned home superlight.
    But I understand some of the sentiments you dwell on. 30-40 years ago, cycletouring was such a rare phenomenon, I felt like a big fish in a little pond……now, everyone has a friend or relative who has ridden a bike some gut-bustingly long distance…..but not so much in the touring context, but more in the organised charity-ride environment or super sportif.

    Reply
  9. Isabelle

    Hi Tom, wow I haven’t put it into written words but that totally sums up what my husband and I think. We also cycle From Hong Kong back to the UK following a very convoluted route (trying to pack in all of the wild and mountainous places- Mongolian, Altai range- Karakoram Highway, Himalayas, Pamirs etc) the planning and research was really vague, there was two informative blog/webpage that help us a bit (Mark and Jude comes to mind) but that was it. I remember planning to go across Mongolia East-west and thinking that if Ewan Macgregor and his friend could do it on a motorbike we could cycle it but that was the extent of our planning. Apart from Alastair Humphreys who we met in Hong Kong, we had never met anyone going for a ”long ” bike ride. Along the way, we met a handful of quite eccentric people like the biciclown and Frank Van Rijn that made us look like normal wusses. We discovered warm showers through a Couchsurfing host in Iran and that was such an exciting thing. The world is somehow so much smaller now but like you said there are still lots of adventures out there. We now have a son and we have been lucky to been able to tour extensively with him( From the South of Norway to the North when he was 6 months old-The Carretera Austral in Patagonia when he was 1 years- Pacific Northwest when he was 2 years- Eastern Tibet at 3 years old. Taiwan etc.) and I really think that the internet has enabled us to it, there is still not most info about family touring but (especially young baby) but the rest of the logistics is so much easier and reasuring for young parents knowing that there will be a small town in the middle of nowhere so our little one doesn’t suffer the pain of starvation, at the end of the day I can tolarate small bit of suffering but as areaponsible parent I do not want my son to throught it. Anyhow, now we use warm showers to meet family to give our son a bit of social time on tour and us the chance to meet parents that also like cycling, we host here in Malaysia to help of course but also that our son meet people from all around the world and learn about hosting and sharing. The demographic has changed there are lots more very young adults (18-20) wanting to do something a bit different than everybody going to Thailand, which is nice and positive in my view but you are right, althought I never thought that unsual, touring is not really special anymore, I think that one of the main difference is that now the real ” hardcore ” go for a very extended period and distance, which is much more doable now because there is more info available, getting visas is much easier that it use to be, lots of the roads have much improved( Think of all the roads the Chinese are building) it is much easier to find somewhere to stay and because of the internet it is much easier to ”manage” finances but also there is the possibility to earn money on the road and keep in touch with family and friends almost on a daily basis (we have just come back fron Nepal and they now have Wifi all around Annapurna. Anyways we talk about this with lots of the very naive and surprise young tourers that we host in our house, some are baffled by the ways they get turned down by sponsors or where very surprised to find dozens of other on the Pamir highway. Touring, travelling, hiking and general adventures will always be great but like you sometimes we go on an easy pancake trail trail, or we go out of season or we go in places that are a bit out of the ways for more of a challenge, the world is much more open but the adventures still exist.Thanks for your thoughts.

    Reply
  10. Chris Klapheke

    You seem jaded, Tom, and that feels unfortunate. While I’ve not traveled in the same ways you have, my experience has taught me that cultures still have much individuality, despite the interconnectedness of it all. And, if I concede your points to the contrary, then please take a moment to consider that generations past also said the same of our generation, that the new generation has no sense of adventure, that the world isn’t what it was, that it’s all too easy to do ____ these days, and so on, repeating in history ad nauseam.

    I also feel it may be your circle that influences your opinion about the commonality of ’round-the-world cycle touring. Take a step out, my friend, and see that it’s still quite a feat, despite lighter gear and more capable electronics. Better things do not a trip make.

    This isn’t meant as a criticism of your opinions; the contrary, I readily understand with the sentiments you express, for I’ve felt them myself. However, the world remains very large, and corners of it are so labeled for their isolation from the beaten path. Cycle touring, even on a much smaller scale, is one such corner. Keep pedaling.

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    • Tom Allen

      Hi Chris, and thanks for your comment. A few people seem to have interpreted the observations above as jadedness, so I’d better set the record straight and say that I’ve never enjoyed cycle touring so much as I do today, nor been so clear about the reasons I love it. I can see that a fair bit of (habitual) cynicism may have crept into the unedited piece I originally dashed off, but be assured that the feelings behind it are of thankfulness and enthusiasm for this continuing journey. I know few long-term tourers who don’t look upon the learning curve of their first big trip with nostalgia, and the same is true for me for the tough, unrepeatable apprenticeship it served me. But the way ahead is limitless, and while I remain able-bodied and there remain new roads to be ridden, I can’t see any reason to stop, nor to feel jaded.

      Now, I’d better get back to sweating my way over these tropical mountains… 😉

      Reply
  11. cliff

    I think we just learn the lessons that countless people before us learned during their lives. Things change, all things. Along the way we get choices, if we’re lucky nice choices to have. Freedom to make those decisions is what gives pleasure. But forced circumstances can bring surprisingly positive lessons too. Peoples attitude to their lives is what fascinates me most, cycling or not. Be well good people.

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  12. Dave

    A friend currently in Goa says that the big change there is that every road user from scooter riders to lorry drivers are now using smartphones at the wheel. This will definitely make the world a more dangerous place, especially for cyclists. Have you noticed this too on your travels?

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      I can’t say I have, personally, but in any case we’ll soon be in the age of self-driving vehicles, which will surely make things a whole lot safer…

      Reply
  13. Lassi

    Hi Tom! This is a really interesting topic. I was born in 1982 and I still dont carry laptop or a smartphone when I’m on a bike tour. Just paper maps and a Nokia cellphone from 2005. I even went back to v-brakes.

    I believe its because one of my best travel memories are from the late nineties. We made an interrail trip then without interrail tickets (fare dodging in english? )and with very little money. And we obviously didnt have phones. For a seventeen year old guy from Finland that was a really big thing. I can still get that same sensation of freedom simply by leaving all the hi-tech stuff home and just start pedalling.

    One thing that comes with age is that we went from 100 to 80 km per day. For me this seems to be the limit where I dont have to count kilometres even when the roads are in a terrible condition. With 100 km per day we had to do 40 before lunch, 40 before dinner and then 20 searching for a place for tent. when I ride alone I tend to go 130km per day but that’s not smart at all…

    In short: if it aint broken, dont fix it.

    Good luck on your trip!

    Reply
  14. James

    Hey Tom,

    Thanks for sharing these observations.

    This is a really great post. Bang on the money as always.

    I started to formulate a reply then realised I was just proselytising about the similarities between bike travel and mindfulness. Bear with me folks…

    Here’s a few words on ‘How Cycle Touring Could Change You In The Next Ten Years’.

    I’ve been home from my first big solo trip (Vietnam to UK, sort of) for about 14months. The most important gift from that journey was the discovery of Vipassana meditation. My guest post here on your blog shares that story (Enjoy The Silence; Meditation By Bike). Long term bike travel is really a course in the art of living. The less we rely on small devices connected to the internet, the more we trust one another, the more we feel connected to the Oneness.

    I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve become a walking cliche; ‘Man cycles through India and finds Spirituality’. The book could be called ‘The Hippy That Cycled Home’. It’s funny because it’s true.

    To cultivate Self awareness and to discover who you really are there is no better method than a Really Big Bike Ride. To succeed on a long bike tour you must learn to be humble, to have gratitude and to cooperate with other human beings. Sometimes you have to ask for help. You must learn to accept help when it’s given. Learn that it’s OK to let go, to change the plan, to be kind, to smile, to live in the moment, to be fully present… The list is long.

    *NEWS FLASH* The World Is Safe And People Are Good.

    Long live the art of living by bike!

    Enjoy your trip.

    Safe roads,
    James

    Reply
  15. David

    Great post, Tom. Thanks for helping to keep it all in perspective!
    I absolutely loved reading this!
    My son and I are doing our first tour this summer and it’s a cross-country one! This puts my mind at ease about a lot of concerns I had.

    Thanks Much!

    Reply

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