Freedom — or the sense of it, at least — is the one thing that keeps bringing me back to cycle touring. I have all practicalities whittled down to a slender routine; there is nothing more to learn from the act itself of travelling by bicycle itself. Yet back to it I come, year after year, because of the sense of boundless liberation that comes from simply being on the road.
At least, I thought it was freedom. Then someone pointed out that my adventures had all involved using money to get where I was going — just another tourist with slightly different priorities. I’d still had to earn that money beforehand. That’s not real freedom. I’d escaped, yes, but sooner or later I’d been recaptured and bound by the same old shackles.
So this year I decided to pedal the length of my home country without any money. I pronounced my plans with swagger. All that experience must’ve toughened me up by now. But I was sweating, boarding that one-way train to Penzance with not a coin, note or bank card on my person. What had I let myself in for?
On balance, I was fairly confident that I wouldn’t die (a consideration I’ve long used to weigh up new trip ideas); ergo I would find ways to survive. Still, I sweated. I sweated through Cornwall and Devon and Somerset, and each night some friend or family member would call to say they’d found someone nearby who’d shelter me for another night.
In the West Midlands, my contacts dried up. I reprised an old routine of sleeping behind hedges. I got hungry. Really hungry. Then I discovered bin diving, and that carrots alone can sustain a man for days. I’m not much of a freegan, but hunger, apparently, turns you into one.
I set to work on infiltrating communities — something cash would have allowed me to bypass, now a necessity. Down-to-earth farmers laughed at my pleas to work for food, invited me in and fed me anyway. Campsites dished out chores for leftover croissants. Rural pubs providing on-the-spot pot-washing work for meals. Cyclists bequeathed new innertubes and good wishes, with one or two raised eyebrows thrown in for good measure. And in this way the exuberant North embraced my itinerant quest, my fears a distant memory.
When I arrived in Scotland, it’d been weeks since I’d even touched a coin. And writing this now — cappuccino beside laptop — my urban lifestyle seems shallow. Every handover of coinage represents a missed opportunity to befriend a stranger, and every paid writing gig will only facilitate more such lazy, anonymous transactions.
It’s the way things are, of course. This penniless ride through the values of a nation will change nothing. My tours will continue as they always did. But I’ve seen another way, now. Counterintuitive though it may seem, perhaps true freedom in travel (and in life) really does only come when you take money out of the equation altogether.