Microadventure: Naivety, Uphill Battles & Small Victories in Adventure Travel (Part 3)

This is Part Three of an account of touring the Netherlands and the UK by recumbent bike. Start at the beginning.

Inside the Hennessy Hammock

In pitch darkness I pedalled away from the port, waving goodbye to the three Londoners I’d met on the ferry.

Decked out in woefully inappropriate attire – tweed, a trilby, a tie-dyed T-shirt – they had been cycling around the Netherlands on clapped-out old bikes piled high with cheap supermarket-bought camping equipment. Not a Brooks or Ortlieb logo could be seen among them as they wobbled off, and I felt suddenly jealous of them for reasons that I could not identify until later, riding alone through the dark and misty streets of Harwich.

Because for those three, ‘cycle touring’ did not exist as it did for me. They had no context for what they were doing. They had simply set forth one day in whatever manner worked: borrow a crappy old bike, buy a tent from Tesco, pack a spare set of underwear, set off in the clothes they stood up in, and figure the rest out later – which they had done, just as anyone else would if they had no other choice.

Their trip, in fact, was adventure at its most pure. Not only were they travelling light, but they carried no institutional baggage either. What bike should I be riding? How should I pack my panniers? Which clothes should I wear?

In other words – what should a bicycle adventure be like?

These questions were irrelevant to my Brick Lane-dwelling compadrés. And anyway – should? According to whom?

I envied them, I realised, both for their naivety and for their getting away with it. So if you have within you the burning desire to travel by bicycle: do it. Now. Stop reading this and do everything within your power to leave without any further delay, before your journey becomes about ‘cycle touring’ instead of about you and the allure of adventure – for then it is already too late.

NCN 13

Though there was barely a car to be seen on this quiet Monday evening, I was acutely aware of the novelty of the bicycle I rode. After two days of Dutch cycle paths this would be the first time I had shared a British road with motorised traffic on a recumbent bike. The makeshift flag and reflective patches, I hoped, would be sufficient to pick me out in the headlights.

I rolled past suburbs and cul-de-sacs and into the night, scanning the hedgerows, remembering how stressful it used to be to find a spot to sleep rough. Inevitably the day would always come when I would misjudge the time of day or mistakenly pass up a good spot in search of a better one, and I’d be struggling to locate a place of sufficient seclusion in pitch darkness, head torch switched off in an effort to conceal my whereabouts.

But with the passing of time and an accumulation of experience, the idea now worried me less. And so as I left Harwich behind, riding West along a deserted country road towards Manningtree, it was not with trepidation but with a kind of childish thrill: where am I going to end up sleeping tonight?

The place I eventually found was perfect. I slept soundly. I lay in my hammock alongside souls who’d lain there for years, decades, even centuries, and come to no harm. Yes, I could have been discovered easily, and at any moment – but who in their right mind goes wandering around graveyards at night, let alone poking at motionless bodies discovered therein?

Cemetery campsite

It was also coup against thirty years of tyranny. On the ferry I’d been reading an early draft of a book manuscript for a friend when it was suggested that – just for the hell of it – the reader spend the night in a cemetery. I’d already continued reading for a few seconds when I became aware that the suggestion had provoked some kind of emotional response, and that my first instinct had been to suppress the response and discard the suggestion out of hand.

As I thought it through, I realised that this one innocuous suggestion had unearthed a deeply buried aversion towards graveyards that had never undergone proper inspection. It had been planted there as a child during too many sombre Sunday services in bleak stone buildings situated in fields full of dead people, whizzed up later with a cultural horror-movie diet of zombies and ghouls and other undead figments of the imagination. (I’m certainly not alone on this!)

Having identified it, I decided to put this irrational fear to bed – excuse the pun – and force myself to see the place for what it really was: a convenient and concealed piece of roadside grassland, dotted with stones and fertilised by buried organic matter, featuring a number of stout trees ideally positioned for hammock-rigging, and in which the chances of being disturbed by a mortal were extravagantly low.

I slept soundly and departed before dawn. And in doing so I scored a small victory over the tyranny of irrational fear.

Cemetery camping

This anecdote may seem trite. But I recount it because – despite this trip being a mere four days – it is the culmination of these small experiences that defines what it means to undertake a journey of months or years, too.

You will never foresee the moment when you are given the opportunity to confront some aspect of yourself. But at the speed of a pushbike – far slower than that of a rat race – it is far more likely that you’ll notice it when it happens. And it is only gradually that the road reveals to you these tiny discoveries, so you’d better have your eyes peeled, because there is no distant point at which some pristine nugget of enlightenment will be found, and certainly no prize for crossing the finish line: it is in the here and now that the reward resides.

Strange church in Suffolk

Britain’s drivers did not know what to make of my vehicle, slowing to a crawl behind me to take a closer look. I supposed that their first impression would be of a wheelchair user with a missing wheel and an orange flag flying six feet above their head, occupying the full width of the lane.

I would casually manoeuvre in this way upon hearing the approach of an engine, rather than cycle apologetically through gutter detritus as many cyclists feel obliged to do, and this meant that I was given a wide berth by all drivers of all vehicles, not just particularly considerate or bicycle-owning ones.

It had only been three days since I’d left Menno’s house on the other side of the Netherlands, but I’d already discovered that many of the typically voiced concerns over riding recumbent bikes were misplaced. There was no doubt that I would continue to ride this bike long after my short Dutch microadventure was over. So it’s a shame that the uphill battle faced by any evangelist to popularise recumbent cycling is one I fear will never be won.

Low perspective

Speaking of uphill battles…

Hills.

The other great bugbear of the recumbent-suspicious cyclist.

Now, it is true that pedalling uphill is significantly more difficult on a recumbent bike. If it is not obvious why, let me explain:

When a steep incline is encountered on a traditional bike, the rider has the option to get ‘out of the saddle’ and employ his or her entire bodyweight in the act of depressing a pedal located directly beneath the rider, and so gravity is a welcome and effective addition to the forces at work in this routine.

The recumbent rider has no such luck. With his or her feet generally above the level of the rest of the body during a climb, it is muscle alone that must propel the bicycle forwards. So, given an average bodyweight and touring load on a steep and slow incline, each pedal stroke might require propelling uphill a weight of 100+ kilogrammes with the strength of a single quadricep.

It’s impossible to deny that riding a recumbent bike uphill is more difficult without making significant modifications to the basic laws of physics, which I am afraid you are not allowed to do. Which leaves only the question of whether or not you consider difficulty a bad thing.

(I don’t. “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty”, said Roosevelt – which doesn’t mean I agree with anything else he said.)

Let’s face it: everybody who takes up bicycle travel will encounter a greater or lesser degree of hardship while adapting to the routine of riding a fully-loaded bike, all day, every day. The adaptation required for a recumbent bike may well be a more painful one, but it’s still just an adaptation. We exist today as a species because of our forebears’ ability to adapt. This means that we are very good at it. And so the phrase “recumbent bikes are more difficult to ride uphill” should always be followed by “…to begin with.”

Coffee break

I rode 130km that day with 48 hours’ experience on a recumbent and no physical training. And the day was a casual one.

Seems adaptation happens fast.

Convinced to give recumbent cycling a try yet?

Click here for the final part of this mini adventure →

7 Responses to “Microadventure: Naivety, Uphill Battles & Small Victories in Adventure Travel (Part 3)”

  1. Ingrid

    A couple of years ago I tried a recumbent as well, a Flux. While riding that bike on a 4 month tour around Germany and along the Rhine, I never had sleeping hands, back pain nor a sore butt. I had no pain or discomfort at all. Instead I had a great view, got a lot of attention and enjoyed myself in general.
    Unfortunately I discovered some inconveniences: uphill riding was too exhausting for me, particularly unexpected, short but steep climbs, the frame doesn’t offer as much space for water bottles as a “normal” bike, push or carry the recumbend is not comfortable at all. But the most important point for me is not, that drivers do not see me, it is more the other way arround. If I come to an intersection (let’s say a T-junction) and I have to wait and a car stops next to me, I can not see over or through the car. I only can start together with the car (if we take the same direction) and hope, that I am fast enough to reach the other side of the street safely.

    I also detected a change in your post. It is logical so far, but anyway. As you were travelling, you wrote stories about your experiences, what you see, what you discover, what you think. Now you give more advices, even when you travel from the Netherlands back home. This is of course not as exciting for us readers.

    I should not forget to tell you, that we camp in graveyards too: http://bikeaway.info/reisen/wild-camping/wild-camping/

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Back when I was a full-time traveller and a relatively inexperienced blogger I had little else to write about except myself and my stories. Eventually I began writing ‘useful’ (as opposed to ‘exciting’) articles in response to the number of questions I got by email asking for advice. That helped me to find a style and topic that resulted in the blog as it is today. The majority of readers now come here seeking advice, not travel tales, and being able to pass on what I’ve learned is actually one of the greatest rewards of running it.

      I still enjoy writing ‘exciting’ stories when I am on the road, but this is not as often as it used to be – and there’s only so much excitement a writer can inject into a 4-day bike trip from the Netherlands to England!

      (Might I take this opportunity to suggest reading my book? No shortage of excitement there, I can promise you!)

      Reply
      • Ingrid

        The remark because of the change in your writing style was not meant as criticism. I supported you on Kickstarter, wrote an article about your project (see link). Meanwhile I have seen the film several times also with friends. Of course, I also read the book. I am a big fan. 😉 What I really miss is information about Tenny. It seems she is not with you all the time?

        Reply
        • Tom Allen

          Aha! Tenny is indeed with me (as in marriage). But she somehow manages to remain perfectly happy without going on pointless adventures and sleeping outside when there’s a perfectly good bedroom nearby. I wish I knew how she did it…

          Thank you for your ongoing support 🙂

          Reply
  2. Dan

    Right with you on sleeping in the graveyard. Recently slept in a cemetery in northern Spain and realised all that rubbish in the head is taught and learned thinking, no need to go there at all! I had a perfect nights sleep with the assurance of not being disturbed and also great to reflect on the fact that I am truly alive and living 🙂 keep pushing the boundaries!

    Reply
  3. Crawford

    Hi Tom, don’t know if you’ve worked it out yet but hills on a recumbent simply expose the new muscles you need to get the best out of riding a recumbent. For the first 6 months of my recumbent ownership I viewed hills with some trepidation and wondered if it would ever get better, then the muscles developed and now hills are a breeze. The ‘you can’t stand out of the saddle’ myth then also disappears. Stand out of the saddle and maximum force equals your body weight plus a bit from pulling on the handlebars. On a recumbent you have a solid seat at you back, no power limitation and soon discover that the limiting factor is ‘will I break my chain’ yup it happens! So to avoid this you just spin a lower gear and this also offsets the slight mechanical disadvantage of a longer and somewhat unavoidably flexible frame. The extra weight of most recumbents (three lengths of chain for a starter) means that I am a little (5-10%) slower on hills that I was on my lightest upright racer but on the flat, or into a headwind, or downhill, it’s miles faster. I did the ‘Phil and Friends’ CTC challenge on a recumbent and was about halfway down the pack over an interminable succession of brutal peak district climbs (not bad since I’m pushing 60yrs old) and on the descents I left everyone for dead – good brakes are essential!!!

    Reply

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