Moving Forward From Vanilla Cycle Touring

Five years ago, I invented cycle-touring. After rejecting backpacking out-of-hand as a fulfilling post-university form of escapism, I eventually hit upon the idea to ride a bicycle – a bicycle! – from England, all the way to Croatia. The loose motivation for this was to visit a friend, but having a cool adventure in exotic, faraway Europe was the key.

I thought I’d single-handedly hit upon a brilliant and novel way to travel that ticked all the boxes – the great outdoors, sleeping rough, the physical challenge, and using my own initiative to get to my destination.

In short, I was embarrassingly naive.

Planning and preparation

I soon came to realise that, on the whole, all good ideas have already been thought of. My ever-growing travel plans and long hours scrutinizing world maps were entirely insignificant. Thomas Stevens cycled round the world more than 120 years ago. Thousands more have done so since. Hundreds of books had been published, online communities created. My trip was a drop in the ocean.

I never cycled to Croatia. I decided I was going to cycle round the world, and started, but I didn’t go through with that either. What I have done since then is try to follow my heart and mind, balancing their quibbles as best I can. Often this has been difficult. More than once I’ve determined to jack in the whole shebang, call it quits, hang up my handlebars and settle for an easier, more comfortable life. The deeply personal path I’ve followed has conflicted, and continues to conflict, on many occasions with those of the people I hold most dear. So far, at least, it’s been worth every trial and tribulation.

But things change when you’re on the road. Not just the short-term mood-swings that hit you when you’re alone and vulnerable, but in the long term as well, if you’ve been away for long enough to put past concepts of ‘home’ firmly behind you. The folly of following a huge, pre-planned route round the globe hit me early on. Why was I using a bicycle to conduct a one-dimensional race across the continents? I’d never travelled before. Everything was new and exciting. The freedom afforded by the bike was second to none. But I felt walled in by obligations of distance and destination, which I realised I simply did not want to be bound by. Loss of pride was nothing.

Since those early days I’ve seen a staggering array of landscapes and cultures, and put myself deliberately through highly arduous experiences. I overcame a huge fear – travelling alone in Africa – and emerged stronger from doing so. But as time has gone by, the experience has become less and less fulfilling. Why? What alternative is there, after all this?

Evening campfire

One day in northern Mongolia, Andy and I sat around the campfire to thrash out the intricacies of it all. His experiences, alone and as one of a pair, were comparable to mine. It seemed, from talking to him and to other long-term bikers, that my feelings were not unusual. One thing that emerged was that constant movement was better tempered by periods of stability. It is difficult for the mind to digest its experiences when it’s concentrating on riding and on the day-to-day practicalities of touring, in contrast with backpacking where actual travel is an inconvenient aside to multiple city breaks. This is why urban hosts are surprised when I arrive and want to do nothing other than crash on the sofa and watch movies for a few days.

Related to that was the feeling of being part of something bigger. No matter how many blogs I write, or how many photos I take, I usually feel that I’m shooting my creative output into the vacuum of cyberspace, failing to connect with anything in the real world. Occasionally I get an email thanking me for the encouragement and inspiration someone has taken from my modest offerings. But to be part of a society is a desire that more and more often raises its voice.

Solo travel, while undoubtedly offering unrivalled opportunities for personal challenge, also proved itself problematic. Mostly these problems were self-inflicted. Being alone for six months in the toughest parts of the world I can imagine cycling had a profound effect on my behaviour. I became single-minded in my determination to get through the tough bits, at the expense of the fun bits. I forgot how to think multi-dimensionally. I became fixated on whatever target I had set myself and lost the ability to think laterally and to recognise potentially-more-rewarding options. It became a grind.

It need not have been like that. Sometimes I think that I didn’t give it enough of a chance, and that a mere half-year wasn’t long enough to let my brain settle into what should have been an enviable level of freedom, alone and unconstrained by finances, ease of access to the world, transport or accommodation. Or maybe it was simply that the girl was more important than the trip.

I also realised I was becoming increasingly frustrated by the superficiality of cultural encounters. There are only so many varieties of hot beverage you can be offered, so many shapes of family dwelling, so many languages in which you can understand the questions “where are you going?” and “are you married?” before you realise that in all reality people’s lives aren’t so different. Food, family and laughter are the simplest and most common preoccupations, unaffected by linguistics or longitude. That’s not to say I haven’t relished the process of getting to this point; it’s been the greatest adventure of my life, and there would have been no substitute for doing it.

But increasingly I want to get deeper into society, to understand attitudes, histories and politics, and not just from educated English-speaking urbanites. It all points to one thing: Language.

What options does this present? Either I must learn a language in enough detail to communicate abstractions (difficult), or I must travel in places where English is a main language. The anglophone world is substantial, so that’s a good start. Armenian isn’t particularly useful outside the country itself, with the notable exception of Los Angeles, where it is said that one can get by without learning English at all. (I often ask myself why I didn’t learn Russian while living in Armenia, but the answer is simply that my wife’s family don’t speak it.)

Farsi would be handy in Tajikistan, parts of Uzbekistan and let’s not forget Afghanistan, though I’m told that now is not a particularly ideal time to cycle there. My French could improve quickly if I was in the francophone world, which includes large swathes of Africa. Spanish may prove easier with one Romance language studied in the past. So I have a few options. Most of them would require real dedication to studying, which I am afraid will be difficult, given my track record of foreign-language-learning failures.

Finally, as my time in Mongolia beautifully demonstrated, I am beginning to tire of formulaic cycle-touring. It’s Western doctrine to crave variety – we’re brought up to believe that anything is possible (usually with the convenient assistance of consumer products) and that the ‘daily grind’ alone as a lifestyle is somehow below us. This has led to generations of the permanently unfulfilled, which I pray I don’t end up joining.

For this reason, I’ve started to look into ways to introduce variety into the act of movement. Fossil-fuelled travel is not an option. The appearance of navigable rivers on my journeys never fails to set off a craving to somehow float off downstream for a few days, and while the romantic notion of lashing a few logs together and launching Huckleberry-Finn-style into the unknown holds great appeal for the big kid within, there are a few more practical and exciting options available.

Pump station on the Nile at dawn, Luxor, Egypt (HDR)

I’m yet to know where all of this is leading, but the next ‘standard-issue’ leg of this elusive beast of a bike trip is likely to be my last. In a couple of weeks, if all goes to plan, I’ll be on my way to Italy – overland, as usual – to begin a late-summer/autumn ride through Southern Europe, final destination Middle England, with the hope of arriving back at the very point I began from more than three years ago, just in time for Christmas.

After that… well, I’ll just have to wait and see.

6 Responses to “Moving Forward From Vanilla Cycle Touring”

  1. Alastair Humphreys

    Really great piece. Well done.

    Whilst I imagine there are aspects of this that really won’t float your boat, you may be interested in one of my favourite essays. Ignore the train-till-you-puke stuff and see what you think of the rest:

    Al

    ps- glad you are seeing life after bike!
    Time to buy a packraft…

    Reply
    • Tom

      Great link. That’s one heck of a kick in the teeth for the ‘easy option’. After a couple of wasted years I went through something like that in order to start the bike trip – nothing ever clicked as fundamentally as the decision to make it happen. Thankfully wandering the globe hasn’t made me pine for a desk job one bit, though having a ‘base camp’ of sorts would be nice!

      Reply
  2. Andy

    Good link there alastair, just what I needed especially:-

    Give up this renaissance man, dilettante bullshit of doing a lot of different things (and none of them very well by real standards). Get to the guts of one thing; accept, without reservation or rationalization, the responsibility of making a choice. When you live honestly, you can not separate your mind from your body, or your thoughts from your actions.

    and

    In Dune, Frank Herbert called it “the attitude of the knife,” cut off what’s incomplete and say “now it has finished, for it has ended there.”
    I wondered why I loved that book so much.

    Reply
    • Tom

      Not quite sure that it’s worth being so fundamental as to focus entirely on one thing alone, though. Surely a few complementary things are OK? Photography and filmmaking? Biking and paddling?

      Reply
      • Andy

        I think that it’s important that you time manage well to be able to focus enough on each thing you do in order to be able to do it properly. Some things can be done in bits and some things require deeper thought that requires time and no distraction or multi-tasking.
        Blah blah, you told me that anyway I think!
        Some aspects of David Allen’s Getting things done are quite good for managing your tasks.
        For me, there is a core bunch of stuff which I’ve always been interested in. It’s not that I don’t want to try other things, it’s just that I love some things more than others.
        Sometimes you have to be ruthless about what is more important too.

        Reply
  3. BICYCLE TRAVELING THE WORLD

    thanx for this great post and keep on spinning..

    Reply

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