Inspiration Philosophy Of Travel Touring Advice

Where Is It Possible To Travel By Bicycle?

Here’s another wonderful thing about travelling by bike: you are no longer restricted to anyone else’s idea of a place worth going to. You have an enviable degree of freedom from the usual structures of tourism.

And you get to decide on your own focus for travel, rather than feigning interest in what guidebooks assume everyone should be interested in.

Pedalling requires no refuelling facilities other than a grocery store every few days. Unlike motorists, you can easily carry enough ‘fuel’ for weeks on end while you follow your nose.

Carrying a tent means that, rather than worrying about finding a hotel or hostel each day, you can sleep anywhere for free – the further away from hotels and hostels, the better.

And bus routes become things to be actively avoided, rather than impositions on where your explorations take you.

Sure, you’ll spend most of your time riding a road or trail of some description, because roads and trails were built to connect people. But the range goes from smooth asphalt all the way to winding singletrack. Your options are almost limitless. Choose a good all-rounder of a bicycle and there’s almost nowhere you couldn’t go.

Alternatively, choose a specialised off-road touring bike – such as a fatbike or bikepacking rig – and reap the rewards in that particular niche. Common touring wisdom holds that the smaller the road, the more rewarding the experience, and the further from the tourist trail, the more authentic the local welcome.

Amaya Williams spent years on the road before fully embracing this. “We’ve been sticking to a lot of back roads in the past couple of years and our level of satisfaction has increased immensely,” she says. “Sure, it takes longer and it’s rough going at times, but the rewards are well worth the effort.”

Then there’s the act of cycling itself, which encourages you to take pleasure in your surroundings. The details of the landscape and the slow evolution of nature and culture become your personal sightseeing attractions, missed by those who pass overhead at 30,000 feet or overtake you at 60mph.

Whether you’re riding through the green and pleasant lands of England, the towering peaks of the Himalayas, the rainforests of South East Asia, or the deserts of Saharan Africa, bicycle travel invites you to hunt down intrigue on the roadside the world over.

So the question of ‘where to go’ bicycle touring is a whimsical one to which the only real answer is ‘anywhere you like’.

There are very few nations on Earth in which it is impossible to travel by bicycle. Read enough blogs and trip journals and you’ll realise that cycle travellers have explored pretty much everywhere.

Visas and bureaucracy may complicate things a little bit, but this will rarely prevent you from going altogether, and there are fewer excuses than ever for not making a trip to that place you’ve always wanted to visit, or simply sticking a pin in a map. If you’re reading this, chances are you have a useful passport to travel on, and it’s worth remembering that this makes you far more mobile and unrestrained a traveller than the majority of Earth’s population, and that any additional paperwork is a relative doddle by comparison.

Amaya is a good example of what’s possible – she is midway through a mission to cycle every country in the world. “Sounds daunting,” she says, “but little by little, I’m confident we’ll realise this dream.”

Inspiration can also be found in the story of Jumber Ledzhava, a man who, aged 52, set off to cycle every nation on Earth, and visit every capital city. He spent 12 years achieving this dream, mostly alone, ticking off all but five of the more than 200 countries in existence at the time and setting a new record for the world’s longest continuous bicycle journey, with over a quarter of a million kilometres of pedalling beneath his wheels.

What’s remarkable was that he did this as a citizen of the tiny former Soviet republic of Georgia. Without the luxury of a Western passport, he pulled off this feat by persuading diplomats the world over into granting him visas and permits through sheer determination, persistence and charisma.

Something to remember, perhaps, next time we in the West are tempted to complain about having to apply in advance for a tourist visa!

(Photo courtesy of Eric Fiala.)

Inspiration Philosophy Of Travel Touring Advice

When Can You Go Cycle Touring?

The ‘when’ of setting off on a bike trip is an easy one: as soon as you would like.

That might be next summer, when you’ve got the the equipment sorted, the route planned out, and the weather is optimal.

It might be in a couple of years’ time, when you’ve saved a huge chunk of cash, quit your job, sold your house and are ready to begin your brand new life on the road.

Or it might be tomorrow, because you’ve got a bike, you need to get away, and you can think of no genuine reason not to do so right now.

How soon you can go on a bicycle adventure depends only on how complicated you want to make it.

Many assume that bike trips are restricted by season, climate and weather. But there’s almost nowhere on Earth in which it’d be impossible to do a bike trip at any time of year.

Alastair Humphreys and Rob Lilwall found themselves in Siberia in midwinter, camping at temperatures down to ‑40ºC and passing through Yakutsk – the coldest inhabited place on Earth – on the way.

Helen Lloyd more recently repeated the feat, except in colder temperatures, on her own, and with just a bivvy bag.

A few summers back I rode across the Danakil Depression in East Africa – the hottest inhabited place on Earth – encountering 56ºC temperatures, AK47-wielding tribal warriors, a fierce headwind, and no roads whatsoever; one of the most memorable, treasured, and brutal experiences of my life.

People have ridden the Canning Stock Route across the Australian outback carrying a month’s food and several gallons of water, pinning their hopes on old colonial-era wells for survival.

Janne Corax crossed the roadless Chang Tang plateau of Tibet on bicycles, seeing no other humans for weeks, and almost dying of starvation in the process, but nevertheless making it to his destination (only to be arrested by the Chinese authorities for doing so without the proper permits).

It takes a certain level of experience to feel confident taking on such challenges, of course.

But each and every one of those riders, at some point in their lives, was a novice too, taking their first tentative pedal strokes.

The point is that you are pretty much free to ride whenever the fancy takes you, up to and beyond the edges of your comfort zone – and one day you might look back and be surprised to see how far that’s taken you.

Remember always that the perfect circumstances for your dream tour will never exist. “You will never simultaneously have infinite time, money, freedom and mojo,” says Alastair Humphreys. “So the best time is now.”

Approaching the question from a different angle, when would you actually want to go cycle touring?

Most short trips, particularly first short trips, generally seem to take place when the weather is nice. Not too hot, not too cold, not too wet or windy, and with sufficient daylight hours to get the requisite miles done before dark.

On short trips there’s more emphasis on having fun during the limited time available. Riding through a fortnight of cold rain doesn’t feature on many bucket lists.

Most long trips, particularly first long trips, generally seem to begin in the exact same manner: leave when the weather gets nice. These days, the number of long-haul riders setting off from Europe towards Asia between May and August each year probably ranks in the thousands.

For these riders, it makes sense to hit the road in time for the reliably warm European summer, where some sub-standard weather here and there doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things, and they’re heading for warmer climes anyway.

Some set off in more challenging seasons, either because they just can’t wait to get going, or because they’ve learned the basics on previous trips and don’t mind a little extra hardship.

But the general rule is that the best time to go cycling somewhere is likely to match the best time to go there on holiday.

And in colder climates where cycling in shorts and a T‑shirt won’t be comfortable, your range can be greatly extended through careful choice of clothing and equipment, plus a few simple tips for cycling and camping in winter.

(Photo courtesy of Peter Gostelow.)

Inspiration Philosophy Of Travel Touring Advice

Who Can Go On A Cycling Adventure? (Hint: Not Only Cyclists)

It is sometimes assumed that cycle touring is the exclusive domain of the lean and lycra-clad. Since when did a ‘normal’ person get on a bike and routinely crank out between fifty and a hundred miles a day without breaking a sweat?

That requires fitness, and therefore training, and therefore a passion for sport and competition, and determination and pain. Which seemingly only describes a talented and slightly masochistic elite of cyclists.

Except those baseline assumptions are false.

Study the demographics of those actually out there wandering the world’s back roads on bicycles and you’ll find that very few are in it for the physicality or the challenge, or even for the cycling.

Athleticism is a beneficial byproduct of a mode of travel that creates fitness as it goes. The only requirement is the ability to ride a bike without falling off – something we all learn at an early age, and for most of us our first real taste of freedom. It’s that same freedom that attracts fully-grown adults back to their bicycles later on.

Sure, if you’ve spent the last few years indulging a little too heavily in sofa- or office-based activities, you’re not going to hit the ground running, so to speak.

But you don’t need to hit the ground running.

Nobody’s waiting for you at a finish line with a stopwatch. You can take all the time you need to get where you’re going. Who’s going to know how long it took (except you), and does it matter if it takes a little longer? You’ll only see more of the world as you go.

You see, it won’t be long before you shift your attention away from your lacklustre mileage and towards the ever-changing landscape, the opportunities to explore, and the people and oddities you’ll stumble upon. You’ll find that slowness actually amplifies the intrigue of exploring new roads. Pedalling along, beholden to no-one and nothing, you’ll start to wonder:

Why would anyone take the freedom afforded by the humble bicycle and squander it on a mad dash to the finish line?

Allow days and weeks to pass by, and you’ll find that something even stranger happens.

The aches and pains subside. The saddle actually starts to feel rather comfortable, as though you’re ‘becoming one with the bike’. You’re no longer thinking about the cycling itself or how hard or strange it is, because it’s getting easier and more natural by the day as your experience grows, and you’ve got more interesting things to think about anyway. And the moment will come when you realise you’ve got on a bike that morning and cranked out a hundred leisurely miles without even noticing.

Because you, as a human, by applying yourself to something new, will have done what millions of years of evolution have optimised you for.

You will have adapted.

And so cycle touring – far from demanding a level of skill and strength available only to the chosen few – is in fact one of the most egalitarian types of adventure there is.

Try it. Take this simple man-powered machine, combine with your naturally curious spirit, and see where you end up.

(Photo courtesy of the Sathre-Vogel family.)

Inspiration Philosophy Of Travel Touring Advice

What Is Cycle Touring (aka: Bikepacking)?

Getting on a bicycle and going somewhere new is perhaps the most accessible way to have an adventure.

It doesn’t need to involve quitting your job, spending years planning, or embarking upon an odyssey of self discovery. It doesn’t need to look heroic. It doesn’t require “epic” days in the saddle, or energy gels, or Strava, or lycra. Nor does it have to involve physical hardship, highway traffic, vast mountain ranges, or continental crossings on a dollar a day with only pasta and stock-cubes for sustenance.

It can involve all of these things. But sometimes it can simply mean going somewhere new, exploring your surroundings for long enough to unwind, and coming home refreshed. That could be achieved in a weekend, or over the course of a year or more on the road. It’s totally up to you.

A bicycle adventure can be whatever you want it to be. And you can call it whatever you like – cycle touring, bikepacking, adventure cycling, cyclo-camping, travelling by bicycle; these are all different labels for the act of getting on a bike and seeing what you find. The rest is detail.

While a short trip is enough for many, some choose to take things further. The number of people who have cycled round the world is certainly in the thousands. And there are limitless adaptations you can make to the basic formula. Joff Summerfield has so far made three attempts to circle the planet on a penny farthing. Tom Kevill-Davies based a transcontinental bike trip on sampling and recording local recipes, which he later published as a series of travelogue-cookbooks. Emily Chappell found her adventurous calling by cycling across Alaska in the depths of winter on a fatbike. Ed Pratt spent several years riding round the world on a unicycle, becoming a YouTube sensation in the process.

Dig deeper and you’ll find dudes building custom surfboard-carriers and riding coastlines in search of the perfect break. You’ll find people building off-road bikepacking rigs, loading them up with home-made frame luggage and charting the unmapped dirt trails of South America and Central Asia. You’ll find tribes of modern-day hippies forming bands and roaming Europe on busking bike trips. You’ll find families cycling across continents with children of all ages, home-schooling in their tents and taking them on the best geography field trips imaginable every single day.

You’ll find people recreating cultural rite-of-passage journeys in traditional costume, people earning a living on the road by selling hand-made jewellery on exotic beaches, people riding from farm to farm as they work their way around the world. You’ll find cyclist photographers who spend months exploring on the profits of roadside postcard sales. You’ll hear of people serving bicycle-powered smoothies, not for money but just because they could. You’ll find people who travel money-free, bartering, dumpster-diving and volunteering their way across countries and continents. Whatever kind of eccentricity you might imagine, be sure that someone is out there doing it on a bicycle.

Yes, you’re allowed to have fun on a bike trip. Not the type of fun you later convince yourself you had. Actual, real fun. Sit by the riverside and read your favourite book. Wallow in a state of post-lunch, post-beer tranquillity for hours every afternoon. Cook elaborate meals. Eat ice cream. Brew coffee. Occasionally, ride your bicycle.

Sleep in wonderful, wild places that only you will ever know. Sleep in terrible, ill-advised places where no-one would dream of looking. Meet new people every day. Ride across deserts in a state of utter solitude. Ignore everything except what’s happening right here, right now. Daydream until you can’t remember where you are.

Leave your phone and laptop at home. I dare you. I double-dare you. Throw out your calendar. Spontaneously change your plans, your flights, your future. Travelling by bicycle can feel like the closest thing to freedom you’ll ever experience. Embrace it!

This excerpt is taken from the introductory chapter of How To Hit The Road: A Beginner’s Guide To Cycle Touring & Bikepacking. Find out more about the book or get the Kindle edition from Amazon.

Header photo courtesy of Jamie Bowlby-Whiting.

Inspiration Philosophy Of Travel

The Best Way To See The World Is On A Bicycle, And Here’s Why

When you get into a car, or onto a train or plane or bus – even when you leave the house on foot – you do so almost always with the intention of arriving somewhere. You have a destination in mind, and your chosen mode of transport is simply how you’re going to get there.

When you pack a suitcase, buy a ticket, plan an itinerary or open a guidebook, you are participating in a kind of travel that casts experiences as individual options, and places as destinations to go to and return from. Time spent actually in motion is something to be endured, and preferably minimised.

Yet in order to see the point of travelling by bicycle – and to understand why I and many others believe that it is the best possible way to see the world – you must abandon this contemporary understanding of travel completely.

I’ve tried to explain this in so many ways. I’ll say that when I left England and cycled to Istanbul, I was… no! Too late. He cycled from England to Istanbul! That’s a really long way to ride a bicycle. I could never do that.

Yes, I cycled to Istanbul. I rode a bicycle across a continent.

But what really happened was this:

I woke up every morning, usually in my tent or on someone’s couch.

I had my breakfast.

I began riding, usually in the general direction of Turkey (i.e. south-east).

And one day, many months later, I arrived in Istanbul.

In the same way, I cycled to Yerevan, to Cairo, to Djibouti and Muscat and Tehran and Ulan Bator and Tromsø and Vancouver and San Francisco and Bandar Abbas and Ranong.

I’ve spent years of my life in the process of getting to these and other destinations.

Why did I bother spending all this time just to get where I was going?

Because I travel by bicycle for everything it offers besides arriving at a destination.

The point – always – is being here, not getting there.

The act of arrival anywhere is little more than the pressing of a ‘pause’ button on a scrolling, living tapestry; a fly-on-the-wall reality documentary with no beginning and no end and no meaning other than what you choose to ascribe to it; one that unfolds as you pedal, right there before your eyes and ears and nose and mouth, beneath your feet and at your fingertips, every waking second.

Bicycle travel is a call-to-arms to engage with life – and to learn to accept and tolerate it all; for how is one anonymous and transient figure on a pushbike supposed to wreak her particular brand of change upon the strangers she meets with any kind of objectivity or understanding? Better just to watch.

The road is a cruel teacher, hurling bad decisions back in your face without mercy. But it is also one that rewards those who exercise patience and trust and openness with fuel for the soul of the kind that’s fast becoming one of the world’s most scarce natural resources: that of real, meaningful, spontaneous contact at an intensely human level.

You will be changed by the experience of open-ended, freeform bicycle travel, because if you choose to participate in it, you must be seeking a change. You cannot be content in order to want to do this. You’re feeling a faraway call.

It may not be obvious why the bicycle, specifically, is so enormously well-suited to delivering this all-encompassing experience of travel, as compared to, say, travelling on foot, or by motorbike.

The reasons are pretty simple.

There’s the momentum delivered by the machine itself – the fact that you release the brakes and stop pedalling and yet you continue to roll forward – that sets in motion that scrolling tapestry of life. The is what makes the bicycle beautiful and timeless. Our legs will never evolve into wheels.

Then there is the exquisite participatory nature of the experience. There is a direct correlation between effort and reward. You get out precisely what you put in. Each gruelling climb delivers a matching descent that you may spend at your leisure, whether you’re the type to blow it all in one go for a quick shot of adrenaline, or canter relaxedly down, savouring each tree and flower and blade of grass and friendly wave. In the same way, a long day’s pedalling will be rewarded by sleep of a depth to rival the dead. No motorised form of transport can deliver this.

Then there is the immediacy of your engagements with those you meet on the roadside. Your strongest memories will be of time spent with friendly strangers who became friends in a the space of a smile and a handshake. You will feel guilty that you ever viewed people through other eyes.

But of all the reasons “why” one should travel by bicycle, perhaps the most important for me is the stripping-back of life to its absolute essentials – mentally, physically and spiritually. Because to my mind, the greatest freedom one can have is to be self-directed, able-bodied, responsible, and fully aware of what matters most in life for each and every waking second.

Travelling by bicycle offers a rare and precious opportunity to be all of those things.

So, at the end of all of this, my question to you is:

Why on Earth would you not choose to see the world by bicycle?