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Personal Updates Philosophy Of Travel

It was a summer’s day in 2006

It was a summer’s day in 2006 — was it really eight years ago? — and I was driving my dad’s Vauxhall Astra to my very first job interview. The position in question was for a database designer in a software house in Barnstaple, Devon. I was 22 years old with a good degree in Computer Science. Getting a proper job was exactly what I was supposed to be doing.

It was a summer’s day in 2007 — was it really seven years ago? — and I was about to ride my new bicycle for the very first time. My best mate Andy and I had finished building it that morning, still hung-over from the previous night’s leaving party. I was 23 years old, and job applications had long been shelved. Cycling round the world (starting today) was exactly what I was supposed to be doing.

It was a summer’s day in 2008 — was it really six years ago? — and I was sat on a bench beside a crumbling walkway in a park. Tenny was supposed to be on her way, but sneaking out without raising her parents’ suspicions had never been easy. I was 24 years old, and I’d pedalled across 13 countries to meet her. Living in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, was exactly what I was supposed to be doing.

It was a summer’s day in 2009 — was it really five years ago? — and each breath was like inhaling fire. The first cool hours of the morning had been luxuriant, but the infernal headwind was back and the mercury was approaching 60°C. I was 25 years old, and I had no idea when I’d see her again. Cycling alone across the Arabian desert was exactly what I was supposed to be doing.

It was a summer’s day in 2010 — was it really four years ago? — and my feet were throbbing with cold-aches as I stood dripping by the fire. The lake was still frozen over, and finding a decent swimming spot had been tough. I was 26 years old, and I was sharing the road with my best mate Andy for the first time in 3 years. Riding across Mongolia together, just like old times, was exactly what we were supposed to be doing.

It was a summer’s day in 2011 — was it really three years ago? — and I was sitting in the window of a coffee shop on Komitas Avenue. The park opposite was where we’d used to meet, back when Tenny still had to sneak out without arousing her parents’ suspicions. I was 27 years old, and I was sat at my laptop once again. Writing my first book was exactly what I was supposed to be doing.

It was a summer’s day in 2012 — was it really two years ago? — and I was perched, shivering, on that same saddle I’d set out on a half-decade previously. The deep red columns of the Golden Gate Bridge reached up into the insidious fog like giants’ fingers. I was 28 years old, and my wanderlust showed no sign of abating. Riding the Pacific Coast with my younger brother was exactly what I was supposed to be doing.

It was a summer’s day in 2013 — was it really a year ago? — and I was cowering in an eddy, having come within a hair’s breadth of being swept away down a swollen river in full flow. I’d never felt more afraid; never more alive. I was 29 years old, and I was alone in a packraft in rural Iran on the most difficult journey of my life. Two months of total immersion in a foreign language and culture was exactly what I was supposed to be doing.

And now?

* * *

When you duck out of the midstream and begin to pick your own line through life, you quickly find alternative currents too numerous to count.

The best direction to choose is rarely obvious and never easy. Life becomes a strange, shapeshifting journey. Boundaries change constantly, drifting in and out of sight. Sometimes you’re hemmed in, hanging on for dear life. And sometimes you’re becalmed, motionless, and every direction looks the same.

One thing never changes, though: You’re the only one at the helm.

(River metaphors for life are as clichéd as it gets. But I struggle to think up alternatives — particularly this soon after the end of a long river journey.)

Rarely a day goes by during which I don’t question whether or not this life I’ve forged for myself is the ‘right’ one; whether the choices I’ve made have been the ‘right’ ones.

I have, however, settled on a handful of principles by which I can evaluate every decision I do make. When your direction is unclear, I’ve found that it’s useful to review these principles, as they’re usually resilient and independent of circumstance, mood, bank balance, or any number of other influences. What follows is an attempt to articulate a few of them, for no particular reason other than to remind myself of what they are and why I’ve come to follow them.

The most important guiding principle to me has become the proactive working-towards of a change in the world that I believe will bring about a greater good, which sounds utterly preposterous when I read it back but is a principle embodied in any number of well-worn quotes, none of which I’ll reproduce here for fear it may appear I’m attempting to draw parallels between myself and their originators.

The change I want to see, of course, is an increase in cross-cultural understanding and therefore of mutual respect and trust and ultimately love between people. The means of accomplishing this change that I devote my energies to promoting is open-minded (some might say ‘adventurous’) travel — particularly by bicycle for the way in which it naturally encourages this. Hence the existence of this blog.

It’s wildly idealistic, of course. Many will continue to tell me I’m wasting my time. No — I’m under no illusions that my contribution is anything more than a drop in the ocean. But it definitely beats sitting on my arse playing Angry Birds.

Tied up with this is the practice of being helpful in a regular and meaningful way — or in other words, taking an abstract belief and turning it into concrete action. With each article I write for this blog, with each reader email or comment I respond to, with the guide I’ve just published (an admittedly tedious and time-consuming thing to write), and with everyone I speak to at real-world events, I try to make whatever I have to offer of maximum usefulness and helpfulness to the people on the receiving end.

Being helpful feeds naturally into the goal of advocating bicycle travel and breaking down barriers to doing it, because it changes behaviours by opening doors which were previously closed. The knowledge that my work is helping people is motivation enough to do what I do.

I don’t expect it, but the positive feedback I do get is a bonus and an encouraging reminder that my primarily internet-based work has a real effect in the real world (incidentally a place I’m looking forward to doing more work this year).

The third big principle I try to keep in place is the setting aside of time and space to re-evaluate everything. I usually do this during what’s become my ‘annual’ adventure or expedition, when I hugely prefer to let myself drift than set a clear course and power towards some distant goal. By doing things this way, I find these journeys give me the opportunity to stop; to find a vantage point or two and take a good look and where I’ve come from and where I’m going.

People close to me think of my journeys as extended holidays or ‘jollies’. They’re actually an integral part of my well-being that I cannot do without. (I might also add that re-evaluating everything does not necessarily imply that I like the conclusions I come to.)

The final key concept around which I try to arrange my time on this planet is to allow myself space to express myself creatively and to play with the form and process of these creative things. This article is a prime example. By deliberately scheduling nothing at all for the days that follow the launch of a big project, I’ve found myself writing about a collection of ideas I hadn’t even realised had been sitting there in the background all along.

I explore all of this today in a shamelessly self-indulgent way because I have an eye on the perpetual question of “what’s next?”. My goal this spring was to revise and expand the resources section of this website to be more useful, and to create a genuinely useful and timeless resource on a specific topic. I also hoped that putting a fair price on the new resource would give me some financial breathing space in which I could make headway with a new film project. (It’s early days yet, but it looks like things stand to be successful on both of these fronts.)

Principles are only useful if you act on them. And even if you’re not sure what the ‘right’ decision is, you’re usually better off doing something than doing nothing. So while whatever comes next may not yet be clear, I’ve got a decent bit of dry land to set out from.

Better start paddling…

Categories
Bikes Equipment Gear Reviews

Kona Sutra 2014 Touring Bike Review & Detailed Photos

Disclosure: I asked Kona’s UK rep to send me a demo model of the 2014 Sutra for review, to which he obliged. It was returned after the testing period was over.

The Kona Sutra 2014 reviewed in this article has been positioned by Kona as a mid- to high-end steel-framed adventure touring bike with significant potential for being used as a commuting/utility/fun-having bike on a variety of terrain.

Categories
Equipment Other People's Adventures

15 Veteran Cyclists Share Their Favourite Non-Essential Luxuries On Tour

One of the central tenets of my new eBook Essential Gear for Adventure Cycle Touring (released this week!) is that there’s no right or wrong way to ‘do’ a bike trip.

This is a truism, of course; I’m far from the first person to point it out! Each one of us has different priorities when we saddle up and hit the road, and the scope for doing things our own way is truly vast. This is one of many qualities that makes the bicycle such a superb choice for long, personal journeys that deeply satisfy the soul.

To really get across the point that one size does not fit all, I asked 15 of the guide’s 50+ contributors to share their favourite personal items they carried with them on their longest tours — items you’re unlikely to find in any prescriptive kit-lists.

“An MP3 player for music and nowadays podcasts. I do not listen to it 24/7, but sometimes it has a magical power to kick in with great motivation, or calm me down when being solo for too long. And a pen & paper to put thoughts down and to draw what I need/want when the language barrier is too high.”
Marija Kozin / Slovenia to China & back

“My favourite bit of kit was a pair of Leatherman pliers for grinding fresh peppercorns into my food at night. I also carried popcorn kernels and made a pan of salty popcorn each evening while I wrote my diary before dinner.”
Alastair Humphreys / Round the world

“My favourite piece of non-essential kit is definitely my Kindle (and all the free e‑books people gave me along the way). I never saw the point of them until I was on the road, but now I couldn’t imagine travelling without it. It was wonderful to be able to sit in my tent in the evening and browse through a whole virtual library, rather than relying on whatever dog-eared paperback I’d had in my panniers for the last six months, and I ended up reading more books on the road than I usually do at home. Of all the many things I carried with me, the Kindle was the most enriching.”
Emily Chappell / London to Japan

blanketcompletesthepicture

“We bring a big cotton blanket that is totally impractical – it’s relatively heavy, not waterproof, a doozy when wet, and takes up space. But we use it almost every day. It’s home!”
Ramona Marks / All over Europe

“My favourite non-essential item is my camera. I travel by bicycle because of the slowness, and with a camera I can enjoy a country and its people in a more extensive way, with an eye on the small things – like flowers or insects or frog babies. And when I get home I can relive my travels again and again.”
Blanche van der Meer / Round the world (in progress)

“Easy – my inflatable Mammut Air Pillow!”
Ken Roberts / Round the world

“My favourite thing was a 5 Euro tripod stool bought from Decathlon. The trick was to keep it on top of the gear so I could grab it for any rest stop, and it was really great for the evening camp. I also had it in Morocco with a friend who was on his way to South Africa, and I gave it to him before I flew home. I think he carried it all the way to Cape Town!”
Tim Brewer / UK to Australia

“My favourite non-essential piece of gear was a box of beads, needles and thread. I am not a person who can sit around doing nothing, and those rainy days when we were crammed into a tiny tent or hotel room would have driven me nuts if I hadn’t had my beads to occupy my time. Yes, it weighed a couple of pounds. Yes, it took up space. Yes, many people think I was crazy for carrying them. But I know myself, and I would not have made it through our four years on the road without them.”
Nancy Sathre-Vogel / Alaska to Argentina (with kids)

IMAG0192

“A compact, durable, lined notebook is something I’d always find room for in my panniers. A handful of notebooks provided a frame for capturing each day in restrained one-page diary entries which tracked our progress across Europe and Asia. The back pages are covered in scores from rainy day card games, hand drawn maps and the logistics of route planning and visa restrictions. There’s stick-figure sketches used for bartering train ticket prices, and the addresses and names of people I met on the side of the road. The filled notebooks I posted back home every few months are by far the best souvenir from my long cycle tour.”
Emma Philpott / London to Bangkok

“Obvious I guess, but no less important, is a book. I was happy with one and desperate without one. When I had no company for days or weeks, the characters in the book became my friends, and I would spend all day cycling wondering what they’d get up to once I’d set up my tent and snuggled into my sleeping bag. The funniest of my literary experiences was reading Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey” whilst cycling across the Mongolian steppe. I’d got it from a friend in Ulaanbaatar and so Austen’s dainty and agreeable set of characters were my companions as I cycled across the plains and mountains into Russia.”
Kim Ngyuen / Australia to Denmark via Outer Mongolia

“My favourite piece of kit was my trusty flannel. If you think wild camping means going to bed dirty, dusty and sticky, then think again. It took me 15,000km of cycling to realise this, but with 600ml of water, a bit of soap and a flannel you can clean your entire body, almost as thoroughly as you can in a shower. Now, no matter how cold or public my camp spot, I absolutely refuse to go to bed without a refreshing naked flannel-wash.”
Max Goldzweig / UK to South Africa & China

DCIM100GOPRO

“Luddites may rail against this, but a phone or tablet with the Google Translate app is a fantastic communication tool. Downloading languages and foreign scripts to use offline, we spent many evenings passing a tablet back and forth with local hosts learning and sharing so much more than we could have done with hand gestures or a dictionary.”
Tim Moss / UK to Australia (in progress)

“My favourite non-essential piece of kit was my tin whistle! Chicks dig a guy who can play a manly instrument like the tin whistle…”
Leon McCarron / New York to Hong Kong

“My favourite non-essential piece of kit was a vacuum flask. Not only in winter (when I prepared coffee in the evening and had it ready and warm in the morning without even getting out of the sleeping bag), but also in warmer climates, where I could heat water at breakfast time and have it ready for my lunchtime instant noodles. And in China – where they give you hot water in every restaurant and café – I filled my flask before camping and had pre-boiled water to speed up the cooking!”
Francesco Alaimo / Italy to… (in progress)

Big thanks to all of these kind and well-travelled souls for their contributions. You can check out their ongoing projects via the links above.

And as for me? For several months I carried a large metal wok strapped to the back of my bike. Huge, heavy, totally impractical — and absolutely perfect for cooking up the most enormous meals over the DragonFly. (I believe it now resides in a small flat in the Turkish city of Samsun.)

A possibly ill-advised cooking utensil

When it comes to essential items of gear (such as your bike!), the combined experience of these riders adds up to a lot of hard-earned wisdom. If you’re getting kitted out for a tour and you’d like to benefit from their knowledge and advice (plus that of 40+ other veterans), you really should check out the new Essential Gear for Adventure Cycle Touring guide at GearForCycleTouring.com.

Categories
Equipment Guides

Everything you’ll need to know about choosing gear for cycle touring in a single resource

If you missed it back in February, you’ll be pleased to know that my latest eBook, Essential Gear for Adventure Cycle Touring, is now available to the public.

Combining the hard-earned wisdom of more than 50 experienced long-haul cyclists into a single 257-page volume, reading Essential Gear will take the pain out of getting kitted out for a ride of any length, location or budget – particularly if (like most of us) you’re not really a ‘gear head’.

I’ve written this guide to impart you with the broadest range of distilled wisdom about gear choice for a cycle tour, more than any other resource available, taking you a big step closer to getting on your bike and hitting the road.

Check it out at GearForCycleTouring.com →

Even if this isn’t for you, you can still participate by helping it reach as many future bicycle adventurers as possible! Simply share the project’s website, GearForCycleTouring.com, on your social network of choice. It only takes a minute, and will benefit the project no end.

Categories
Budgeting & Finance Inspiration Interviews Planning & Logistics

Don’t Bother With The Whole Sponsorship Thing

A few weeks back I joined seasoned round-the-world cyclist Alastair Humphreys for a coffee in a secret location in central London (OK, it was the British Library canteen) in order to chat about bike trips — specifically, bike trips that could be made for under £1,000 and within the average annual holiday allowance. It’s all part of Al’s excellent #Adventure1000 project for 2014. What follows is an edited transcription of exactly what we discussed. Enjoy…

Alastair: My Adventure1000 interview today is Tom Allen – cyclist and filmmaker – chosen solely because of his beer can stove, about which more later… Could you start by outlining the biggest expedition that you’ve been on?

Tom: The biggest expeditions I’ve been on were cycling from the UK to Armenia over eight months, cycling around the Middle East and Africa for seven months and I’ve also done trips in Mongolia for two months and down the West Coast of the U.S. for two months as well.

Six pannier setup

Stopping for the night in the Nubian desert

Storm coming in...

Alastair: This is the sort of question that’s hard to answer and generally quite irritating when you get asked it, but I think it’s quite important: could you try and give just a couple of the highlights, the sort of things that you’ve really loved about these big adventures?

Tom: I think the biggest thing is the fact that you wake up in the morning and you have no idea where you’re going to end up at the end of that day, and you have no idea what you’re going to see or who you’re going to meet, that’s kind of what adventure means to me anyway. It’s the unpredictability and the surprises and the unexpected, and the knowledge that it’s very, very rarely a bad kind of surprise. You know, it’s usually pretty positive stuff.

Alastair: So let’s talk about your first big bike trip. Why did you choose to do that? Why didn’t you, say, go for a long walk or climb a mountain? Why did you decide to cycle?

Tom: Well, the reason I decided to cycle was, firstly, because it wasn’t about a physical challenge and I thought that a long walk would be a lot more gruelling than riding a bicycle, and as far as climbing mountains and stuff like that’s concerned, that wasn’t really what I was interested in. I was interested in exploring countries, meeting people, exploring cultures, and I wanted as much versatility in my means of transport as possible, and with the bicycle you can carry everything you need, but it’s not on your back, it’s on your bike, and that’s a lot more pleasant way of doing it.

You’ve also got a massive range of distance that you can cover in a day, from as little as you like to up to, on a really good day, maybe a couple of hundred kilometres.

Alastair: And what were you doing directly before you set off on that trip?

Tom: Before I set off I spent a year planning the first trip, which is way too much planning to be quite honest, but it got me to begin. I was working as a freelance website developer. I’d finished university for about a year when my friend Andy came up with the idea. I was at a bit of a loose end, wasn’t convinced that I was doing the right thing career-wise, and just wanted to do something a bit different while I was still young and uncommitted and had that freedom.

July 2009

Alastair: Before you went, you had a year of planning and daydreaming. During that year, what were the main worries you had about that trip, and what were the worries that perhaps family were trying to impose on you, and then how did those worries compare to any problems you actually had during the journey?

Tom: I got massively bogged down in the intricacies of bicycle mechanics and what might go wrong mechanically. Massively, I mean ridiculous. And so I spent most of that year researching bicycle parts and deciding what would be the ideal components – you know, the ideal brakes, the ideal suspension, the ideal carrier rack and all this kind of thing. And I didn’t really pay much attention to the routes, I didn’t really pay much attention to the realities of how it would be to be living on the road, and I had no experience to go on in that respect either.

And so I was really just researching something I didn’t understand very well, and I guess the reason why was to try and build up confidence in something which I really didn’t have any experience in.

Alastair: How much training did you do for setting off to cycle around the world?

Tom: I did no training whatsoever. I didn’t even finish building the bike until the morning I left. I didn’t have time, because the last few weeks of preparation were so frantic in terms of getting the stuff, getting the gear together, that I didn’t actually have any time to test any of it.

Travelling Light

Alastair: I remember the night before I set off to cycle around the world, my bike pump just arrived in the post, and I undid all the packaging and threw it all in the bin, then realised I’d thrown away the little nozzle bit that does the pumping, and my Dad had to empty the entire house’s bins over the back lawn to find this nozzle. I didn’t do any training either, on the assumption that you can have too much of a good thing and there was plenty of time to get fit along the way.

Tom: Yeah, I think when it becomes a lifestyle, and especially when it’s not trying to do anything particularly athletic, you can afford to go a little bit slowly at the start. You can afford to break yourself in a little bit more gently. The more time you’ve got, the better, obviously. The funny thing is, for shorter trips training makes more sense because you’re more time-restricted and your ability to pull the trip off depends more on your fitness in the first place, whereas if you’re going off for months or years, you’ll be as fit as you’ll ever be within about the first month, regardless of how fit you are to start with.

Alastair: The fact that your bottom hurts for two weeks matters less when your trip’s a year long than if your trip is only two weeks’ long…

Tom: Exactly. It’s a real pain in the ass.

Keep reading this interview at alastairhumphreys.com. And join up for #Adventure1000 (free) if you haven’t already!