On The Road Philosophy Of Travel

Why It’s Friendliness, Not Defensiveness, That’ll Keep You Safe On The Road

If there’s one question that I can guarantee will come up in a post-film Q&A, it’s the one about safety.

“Didn’t you ever feel threatened by people?”, someone will ask me of my 32-country bike trip. “What was the most dangerous situation you had to deal with?”

Films Other People's Adventures

How This 2‑Minute Clip Won The ACA’s Bicycle Travel Video Contest

This year I was asked to be a judge for the Adventure Cycling Association of America’s first Bicycle Travel Video Contest.

Like many of the other judges (whose number included Dom, Alastair, Friedel & Andrew, Russ & Laura, Michelle, and Ryan), I watched a lot of videos that were kind of OK.

I watched a few that were quite terrible.

I watched a handful that were really good.

But Stefan’s winning 158-second clip was far ahead of the pack. Watch it and see why.

What was it about this video that I found so compelling?

Budgeting & Finance Equipment

How I Got A Touring Bike, Gear & Luggage For The Price Of A Round Of Drinks

Lack of cash is a common reason to delay, duck out of, or otherwise procrastinate on committing to a big bike tour. But being on a tight budget is a ‘poor’ excuse indeed. No pun intended.

Rather than fill a thousand words with rhetoric, though, I decided to prove it’s possible by means of an experiment.

In this post (which I’ll warn you right now is going to require at least two cups of tea), I’ll demonstrate how I gathered everything necessary to set off on a big bike trip, for the price of a round of drinks.

And by a round of drinks, I mean £25.14. (Three pints, two glasses of red wine, and an orange juice — or thereabouts.)

Introducing The No-Budget Bike Tour Experiment

Here’s the two ground rules I put in place at the start of this experiment:

  1. Do not use any methods to which most people wouldn’t have access, and
  2. Do not use any existing belongings besides those that would be found in most households.

And here’s what I got for my £25.14:

I carried out this experiment alongside my normal daily life. It did not require any special knowledge, nor any major outlays of time or energy.

So if you are willing to give it a go, you can put these ideas into practice immediately. Stop using a lack of money as an excuse not to go on a cycling adventure, and start doing something about it.

Free Wheeling

Ho hum. Let’s begin. Where would you find a free bike?

Where would you find a free anything?

Freecycle and Freegle immediately came to mind — online networks in local areas for giving away and getting hold of pretty much anything of use. I signed up to my local groups and kept my eyes open for relevant goodies.

But that’s not where I found the bicycle that became my no-budget tourer. I needed a starting point sooner than it would take for a suitable bike to simply turn up. Surely I could salvage a discarded bike and re-purpose it?

Walking past a bike shop in Leicester one day, I popped in to ask where I might find such a thing. The owner mentioned that the UK’s household recycling centres (a.k.a. tips or dumps) send usable goods elsewhere for resale, and that most of the shop’s recycled bikes came from such sources.

A little googling turned up a place called Recyclemart, which existed for the sole purpose of reselling dumped and discarded household goods. I took a trip as part of a visit I was making to the enchanted town of Corby anyway (my parents live nearby), and there I found a huge pile of discarded bikes. The staff said they got through hundreds every week.

Most were just tangled rust, but I spotted what looked like a reasonably intact adult road bike among them. The front wheel was absent, the bike had no grips or pedals, and was covered in a thick layer of black filth. But I negotiated £10 for the carcass, chucked it in the boot, and went about my day.

At home I began cleaning it up. And what I’d actually brought home was a steel-framed men’s hybrid, made some years ago by British manufacturer Ridgeback, who make the very popular and well-respected Panorama touring bike.

(It seemed fitting that the model of this particular bike was called the Adventure.)

A sticker suggested that it had once been supplied by a Cambridge bike shop, and judging from the lack of wear on the drivetrain it had been used little, years of grime obscuring the fact. I pictured some hapless student returning to his locked-up bicycle one day, finding the front wheel stolen, and abandoning it to the city council — who would cut the lock and take it to the tip.

And so one man’s trash would become another’s treasure. A solid, 21-speed, rack-ready steel hybrid, with V‑brakes, fenders and even a dynamo & lights — for just ten of my hard-earned pounds.

That’s 0.8% of the price of a new Kona Sutra.

Lesson: There are unloved but perfectly usable bicycles hiding everywhere. Keep your eyes open, do some detective work, and one will turn up eventually. Use Youtube, the Park Tool website, and that friend who knows about bikes to learn how to get it back on the road, and you’ll get free bicycle maintenance practice into the bargain.

Running total: £10.00

Sleeping Cheap

I’d previously asked at Recyclemart if they’d got any camping gear. “Not right now,” they’d said, “but come back after festival season’s over.”

I dutifully returned in the autumn to find a military-grade 3‑season sleeping bag and a closed-cell foam mat on the shelf, just like the ones I used to ride from England to Turkey. The big sleeping bag was probably overkill, and had no stuff sack, but I’d find one for it somewhere.

“Three quid’ll do it.”

A third visit to Recyclemart yielded a Tesco Value 2‑man tent, weighing just under 2kg, which had never been removed from its packaging.

“That’ll be another three quid.”

Lesson: Places like Recyclemart exist all over the country — you just have to look for them. Stock changes constantly, so combine visits with journeys you’re making anyway. You’ll be surprised how quickly bits and bobs begin to accumulate. And we all know that recycling is a Good Thing.

Running total: £16.00

Friends Are There

Needing a front wheel, grips and pedals for my shiny new tourer, I did what anyone in my position would do, and put out a message to my Facebook friends (few of whom are cyclists), asking if anyone had a spare front wheel, grips, and pedals — oh, and anything else that might be necessary for a bike trip.

Sure enough, a friend replied to say that his dad probably had a 700C front wheel lying around in the shed. I popped over for a cup of tea and fetched it. Result.

(Everyone has a friend whose dad has stuff lying around in the shed.)

Another friend gave me a water-bladder backpack, and a third sent a stainless steel water bottle (plus bottle cage) she’d got for Christmas but didn’t want.

Lesson: Ask your friends and family if they’re able to help you out. More often than not, people are glad to see unloved and relatively worthless items going to a better home. (Especially just after Christmas.)

Running total: £17.74

Gripping Stuff

I was just a pair of grips and pedals short of a complete bicycle when I got an email from a family friend asking for some help ordering bike parts online.

I assembled an order with Chain Reaction Cycles (who I’ve used for parts for many years) for my friend. Then I checked out some voucher code websites to see if I could get any kind of special deal. Sure enough, I found a code for £10 worth of free stuff!

Checking with my friend first, I spent the free tenner on some cut-price handlebar grips (sorting the ‘Grips’ category by ‘biggest discount’, of course), with enough left over for a bottle of chain lube and some self-adhesive puncture patches too.

Just a pair of pedals to go…

Lesson: Help people out, and you may occasionally reap rewards in other ways. (Also, never buy anything online without checking for voucher codes!)

Running total: (still) £17.74

Free Exchange Networks

One day, an email came through from a nearby Freecycle group advertising a “box of bike stuff” that was no longer wanted. Since I was going in that direction later in the week, I wrote back and bagged the box, collecting it a couple of days later.

Most of the contents were not particularly useful. But it did contain a few key items, including the long-sought pair of pedals (yay!), as well as a rear pannier rack, a kickstand, a rear-view mirror, and a significantly more comfortable saddle than the bike’s existing one.

The rack didn’t want to fit the frame at first; the mounting points didn’t line up. A pair of pliers and a bench vice later, I managed to bend it to fit it nonetheless.

And the pedals constituted the final missing component: I was now in possession of a complete touring bike!

Next stop: luggage…

Lesson: Local free exchange networks such as Freecycle and Freegle are great things to keep your eyes on, especially in January. Sign up for instant email notifications for the best chance of grabbing what’s on offer. If you happen to live in an area popular with outdoor types, keep a particularly close eye on them in autumn/winter.

Running total: (still) £17.74

Attracting Attention

I decided that I’d tell everyone that I was looking for donations of bits and pieces for a bike trip, and the worst that could happen would be that people would ignore me or think I was a bit weird.

I extended this to everything. I put a little postscript at the end of every email, even to people I hadn’t met in person.

This is how I ended up with a pair of panniers, two stuff-sacks and a handlebar harness.

It was a routine eBay sale I was making of some piece of clutter. And the buyer, who I have never met and whose name I am not even sure I know, put two panniers, two stuff-sacks and a handlebar harness in the post to me. Just like that.

Along with a handful of plastic bags from under the sink, and a bin liner to waterproof the tent and rollmat, that was my luggage sorted.

For 0% of the price of a new pair of Ortlieb Back-Rollers.

Lesson: If you’re scouting for freebies, you might as well tell everyone about it, as you never know what might come your way.

Running total: (still) £17.74

Cooking On Cans

I posted this video a few weeks ago, but what’s the harm in repeating a good idea?

The stove is free. The raw materials are probably in your recycling bin. The tools are in your kitchen. A bottle of methylated spirit costs about £1.50. Borrow a spoon and a knife from the cutlery drawer, and repurpose your smallest saucepan as a camping pot (or a tin mug if you have one).

Cooking on the road: sorted. For the price of a can of beer.

Or 1.4% of the cost of an MSR WhisperLite International.

While we’re rooting around in recycle bins, find yourself a couple of empty 1.5l mineral water bottles. They’re lighter than normal bike bottles, hold twice as much water, wedge perfectly into bottle cages, and are completely free.

For added smugness, find a couple of those hinged ‘sports cap’ bottles and swap the tops over. Now you can ride one-handed whilst swigging.

Lesson: Not everything needs to be bought. Some things can be made. Get creative!

Running total: £19.14

Super Cheap Retailers

I had a bike. I had panniers, cooking gear and camping gear. But I still needed a few essential tools and spares.

Now, as we all know, Poundland is a mainstay of the expedition fraternity. A quick visit to my local branch yielded a headtorch, a tyre pump, cable ties and gaffa tape, batteries for said headtorch, and a mini toolkit with tyre levers and allen keys and spanners for the most common nuts and bolts found on a bicycle.

The observant amongst you will have deduced that these six items from Poundland, by the laws that govern this universe, can not possibly have cost more than £6.

Or 4.1% of the price of a Petzl Myo RXP headtorch, a Topeak Alien II multitool and a Road Morph G pump.

Lesson: Expensive kit might well be lighter, last longer, need less fettling, and be more immediately convenient and practical (and shiny). But the difference is a small slice of the huge adjustment to life on the road. Basic stuff can be readily replaced, whereas posh gear can’t. You’ll learn more by relying on your wit than on your kit.

Running total: £25.14

Keep Them Peeled

Bicycle: check. Luggage: check. Camping gear: check. Cooking gear: check. Tools & spares: check.

Oh… a rear light might come in handy.

Something shiny caught my eye on a fast downhill. I stopped and backtracked to see what it was.

It was, of course, the reflective inner part of a rear bike light. The front shell and black plastic body were strewn across the road nearby. The light had obviously fallen off the bike of someone taking that particularly fun long right-hand bend at speed. The find finished off my gear hunt with a lovely touch of poetry.

It even came with batteries.

Lesson: Keep your eyes peeled — things you need might turn up in the most unlikely places.

Running total: (still) £25.14

Use What You’ve Got

Don’t you need special cycling clothes? Well, no, actually, assuming the climate isn’t too cold or wet (in which case you’re probably best off taking a break anyway).

Long sleeved cotton shirts keep the sun off your arms, and an upturned collar will do the same for the back of your neck. Any knee-length shorts or outdoor trousers will do. A smart-casual change of clothes will be useful when you get invited to a wedding. Underwear is a consumable item.

What about cycle-specific clothing, though? Won’t a pair of padded cycling shorts take the edge off an uncomfortable saddle? Well, yes, but on the other hand, you could just HTFU. Special waterproofs? Pah! Grab the one you got from TK Maxx or Lidl a couple of years ago. It’ll get you to the next cafe in a downpour. Warmth at night? What, you don’t already have a fleece, a woolly hat and a pair of winter socks lying around? Sure. Whatever.

Lesson: Technical clothing is for sports cyclists and extreme conditions. Most long-term tourers wear comfortable ‘normal’ clothes. So you’ve probably got everything you’ll need already. Two sets clothes is fine — one for riding, the other for not-riding.

Grand Total: £25.14

So here it is: everything you need for a typical one-day ride and overnight camp, for £25 (or $38, or €29).

By extension of logic, that’s everything you need to continue across a country. And once you’ve crossed one, you can cross another. You’ll be ticking off time-zones before you know it.

What has surprised me most about this experiment is just how easy it has been to get all of this gear together, simply by keeping my eyes open for opportunities, asking for help to achieve something slightly silly that raises a smile, and tapping into a few time-honoured frugality techniques.

Believe it or not, it has actually occupied far less time and energy than wading through the monolithic world that is the bicycle and outdoor industry, in which I remember going around in circles trying to figure out which of the gazillion options I should spend my money on to get the best value for money.

Standing outside my flat with the bike, a compulsion passed over me: I really could just swing my leg over the top-tube, ride off down the drive and begin an entirely new adventure right now.

I really did have everything I needed, and with the world spread out before me, I felt a sudden urge to leave everyone and everything behind and do just that.

So I did.