Philosophy Of Travel

How Has Cycle Touring Changed In The Last 10 Years?

Picture, if you will, the classic young middle class white male embarking on a heroic journey of self-discovery, straight out of the modern liberal all-about-me mould. Ten years ago, now… wow. Was that really me?

Today I’m tweaking the gears before embarking upon the latest chapter of my life as a serial bicycle traveller. And from the comfort of this air-conditioned coffee shop in Hat Yai, Thailand, it hasn’t escaped my attention that the world I’m setting out into is very different to that of a decade ago.

Much of the basic stuff of cycle touring is timeless, as even a cursory leafing-through of Thomas Stevens’ 1896 travelogue will demonstrate. But has anything fundamental changed in that blink of a cosmic eye?

I’d argue that it has. And I’d be very interested to hear what you think of the following observations.

You’re Not So Special Any More (Not That You Ever Really Were)

Once upon a time, bicycle travellers were amongst the farthest-flung outliers of the independent travel community.

I don’t mean people going on bicycle holidays, which has been mainstream enough for — ooh, a good century or so. I mean people traipsing across the planet, indefinitely and in search of nothing in particular, on heavily-laden bicycles.

These people used to be true pioneers; mostly of the kind nobody had ever heard of because they did it for the hell of it and couldn’t ‘share their experiences’ even if they wanted to, at least not until back home, and even then rarely beyond a token positive story in the local rag.

Now, cycle touring is so utterly commonplace that everyone knows someone who’s doing it (or thinking of doing it).

There’s nothing wrong with this. I for one feel privileged to have watched cycle touring merge into the mainstream of independent travel, for a host of reasons I won’t prattle on about. And I hope that I’ve been able to contribute to that change in some way.

But my point has more to do with the enduring myth that the journey of pedal powered self-discovery is somehow special.

10 years ago I was just about able to (weakly) argue my case.

But now, in a world where cycle tourists become A‑list celebrities and career TV personalities?

Nope. Cycle touring is now firmly in the realm of normal things to do.

It Isn’t Just ‘Us’ Doing This

The white middle class male stereotype is dead, too. I’m not talking about more women cycle travellers, either; they’ve always been there despite perennial gender-based concerns. This is something else.

It began while idly trend-spotting among my blog’s visitor statistics, which at some point became a fascinating thing to do when I was really bored. Turns out that a good chunk of new incoming readers now hail from Eastern Europe, the Indian subcontinent and Latin America.

It’s a very rough measure, of course, but hey, this site’s pretty popular, and the trend seems to show that cycle touring is increasingly a pursuit about which the global middle class — educated, connected, and English-speaking — is searching for information.

Beyond a few small zones where Western freedom of movement privileges still apply (Europe, the U.S.), the same pattern plays out anecdotally on the roads of the world, where I’ve noticed a plateau in the number of white-faced Westerners packing panniers and bar-bags, and a significant rise in frequency of riders from ‘other’ places, of whom I now meet far more.

In short, the white post-colonial cycle touring demographic is morphing into something else — in fact, there’s plenty of evidence that it might be shifting elsewhere, as newly liberated populations begin to embrace leisure travel in a world of post-survival meaninglessness.

Perhaps this would be a good time to get my ebooks translated into Hindi.

Adventure Is An Attitude, Period

The maxim that ‘adventure is just a state of mind’ has been hammered so long and so hard that it’s finally come true. In terms of experiential value, cycling round the world is equivalent to bivvying on a hill in Berkshire in every aspect other than duration.

Taken along with the fact that everyone’s best mate and their dog has cycled round the world, this makes doing such a thing even less noteworthy than ever — which means you’d better be doing it for reasons that have little to do with what anyone else thinks, because fame and fortune or indeed any bragging rights whatsoever are forfeit. Anyone with an adventurous attitude who can string a sentence together is now equally worth paying attention to, because that’s all adventure consists of these days.

In fact, if recognition or ‘personal brand building’ in the adventure world is your goal, travelling a really long way by bicycle is a hugely inefficient way of going about it. Go bivvy on Scafell Pike and give a talk about it instead.

What’s left, then? Oh, just all the other stuff… time, real time, to get to know your own mind; a way to put your redundant body to task and get to know that too; a teacher of self-reliance and interdependency whose lessons will serve you forever; a first-hand context for the various truths and fiction spun by humanity about itself; and of course something fun and totally pointless to do without having to tell anyone about it because, well, why not?

Your Bags Are Smaller (Like That Matters)

Technology in general is progressing at a rate nobody can keep up with. Narrowing the field clarifies things a little, but my reluctance to publish tech-related cycle touring articles for reasons of shelf-life has only been magnified in the last decade.

Of particular note are developments in the fields of outdoor equipment and digital communications. Last year, for instance, I received from Alpkit a three-berth tent that was lighter and smaller when packed than the MSR Hubba one-berth tent that just five years ago was Cascade Designs’ most minimal offering.

My sleeping bag, also from Alpkit, is a third of the size and bulk (and warmer) than the massive Snugpak thing I lugged away with me in 2007. Same with mattresses: my Exped Hyperlite M was the lightest full-length mat on the market in 2015 and has almost certainly been bettered in the time since. It’s about the size of a small cycling water bottle.

All this gear would have once occupied a large pannier and a rack-top drybag. Now it occupies barely half the capacity of a single pannier. The cost is about the same overall, and the companies’ warranties show how much less of a concern is durability when it comes to ultralight gear.

So you almost might as well minimise your luggage. (It’ll make getting fit that much less important.)

Then there’s communications technology. Smartphones long ago served redundancy notices to laptops, DSLRs, video cameras, voice recorders, GPS receivers, cycle computers, guidebooks, paper maps, dictionaries, diaries, MP3 players (remember them); the list probably goes on.

(Even the Luddite typing this blog post is doing so on a smartphone with a Bluetooth keyboard and a 4G SIM card.)

Compare this to the now ludicrous prospect of setting off with an entire pannier full of media production equipment, including a DSLR with two lenses and a charger, a MiniDV video camera with an external microphone and a charger, three spare batteries and 40–50 spare tapes (tapes!!!), a tripod, and special cases and straps for all of the above.

Ten years ago this seemed totally normal, indeed necessary, if I wanted to make a film of and take photos on my journey. So did posting a box of tapes back to England every few weeks and spending hours in internet cafes typing up blog posts.

Today I could take one smartphone with a mini lens kit and mini tripod, charge it off the front hub of my bicycle, and not just shoot but also edit and publish Janapar, in 4K, with the whole thing backed up to the cloud as I went. And nobody knows what an internet cafe was.

Discovery Is Now The Fringe Option

As we give over more and more decision-making responsibilities in our daily lives to computer algorithms — where to spend our time and money, how to get there, what to expect when we arrive, which friends and strangers are available to meet us there, etc — so it is increasingly the case that we carry these behaviours over into the frame of travel.

Given the ever-increasing quality and comprehensiveness of the information available, and the ubiquity of being connected, it is understandable why. There’s no need to be afraid of the unknown when the cloud and its various interfaces already appear to know everything we might ask. Indeed, this perceived safety net may be one of the factors in making international travel more accessible and therefore popular.

This goes equally for cycle touring, even if we consider that it mainly involves being in places other types of tourism leave out, because these systems are agnostic regarding who they serve. If you’re off the well-worn trail, the information will instead serve the locals who live there and with who your ideals have led you to want to hang out. So it’ll be translated into your language and served up to you instead.

And whether you use Google Maps or OSM, you’ll probably have received an innocuous invitation or two to contribute to all of this; either overtly with reviews and photos, or discreetly in the background, as measurements such as when and for how long you’re at a given location, together with the content of the messages you send and the photos you automatically back up while you’re there, help bring the digital representation of the world closer to reality.

It is, of course, possible to opt out of all this, perhaps for ideological reasons, or perhaps because you’d rather travel blind and instead feel the profound sense of peace and confidence that comes from being in motion with neither knowledge nor expectations and being totally OK with that.

But that’s my point. Today you have to make that choice.

As I set out from my home in England ten years ago, Steve Jobs was still rehearsing the launch of the first ever iPhone, Google Maps was still blank in several nations of the world, and not knowing where I was going was taken for granted, rather than an optional extra.

This, I think, is the strangest and most significant observation of all the things in this list.

The World’s Running Out Of Space To Shrink

In the same vein, expensive smartphones, cheap credit to buy them with, and the data-obsessed culture that has sprouted from their ubiquity have had a visibly homogenising effect on humanity.

Yes, hanging out with the inhabitants of isolated villages in conservative cultures may make you feel — occasionally — that you’ve outrun the rising tide. But only if you kid yourself that the absent majority of each family isn’t living in a nearby city with a Facebook account and a phone full of selfies.

Some adventure-seeking travellers are reacting to this with a pattern of behaviour well-established in the face of change: firstly denial (“wow, I must be the first white person these village kids in Chelsea football shirts with satellite TV have ever seen!”), followed by outrage (“global free-market capitalism is destroying my right to fulfil an outdated romantic notion of world travel!”), followed by grudging acceptance (“right, well, I’m going to buy a bikepacking rig and get really off the beaten track next time!”).

Others just get on with it. Yes, society is changing at an incomprehensible rate, and yes, these changes are visible to those passing through on two wheels, even if they would rather close their eyes to it.

Personally, I feel that it’s an opportunity to watch a major upheaval of human history taking place on a global scale, and at the same time go for a nice bike ride.

Couchsurfing Is Dead. Long Live Airbnb

On a slightly different tangent, I’ve noticed that hospitality exchange networkssuch as Couchsurfing and WarmShowers have changed in a couple of respects.

This mainly concerns the spirit of the whole endeavour. When I opened my Couchsurfing account, there were just a few tens of thousands of members worldwide. As I used that network to find people to meet and places to stay on my first big trip, there was a definite sense that we were part of a revolutionary movement; the connecting power of the internet harnessed in a stroke of genius to the age-old travellers’ tradition of mutual hospitality. Hosts and guests alike were positively excited that the chance encounters with strangers that bring such unforgettable sparks of humanity to the travel experience had been made accessible.

Oh, the good old days, eh? Long gone, of course. now has well over 10 million members, mostly signed up through marketing campaigns rather than word of mouth. The ease of doing so has resulted in an ocean of noncommital or inactive members for whom it is or was just another brief fad; at best a search engine for free accommodation.

All that seems left now is a hard-core of jaded veterans plus a disunited scattering of idealistic youngsters. The savvy have put their spare rooms on Airbnb instead, figuring they’d prefer the extra income than a constant stream of freeloaders.

So the machine might still be functional, but the spirit has evaporated. Which means you can still use it to find a host, just as you can still use a bicycle to travel the world — you just can’t claim it as part of some bleeding-edge countercultural identity. Which is fine. Just different.

You’re Ten Years Older (And That Probably Makes You Terrifyingly Old)

Finally, I performed a quick calculation today while wandering around Hat Yai’s shopping malls looking for a cheap cotton shirt:

If I was born in 1983, almost half of all people alive today are younger than I am.

It won’t be long before most people don’t remember the world I was born into. In other words, my view of recent history is going to become more and more irrelevant to the future.

This assumes, of course, that the cultural trends that value youth over experience and data over intuition will continue on their current trajectory. But it is a humbling thought that what you think and what you do will likely matter less and less as time goes on.

Not that this has anything to do with cycle touring other than serving as a reminder that I am considerably older now then when I started out, and perhaps the world looking different is as much to do with the way I see it as with things actually changing.

One cannot expect to grow and learn and for the same habits and strategies to produce identical results. For this reason, it’s important to continually and critically reassess the decisions you make and the actions you take, from moment to moment and on a broader scale.

To do that, you need thinking time, of course — or perhaps non-thinking time, depending on your perspective and your powers of self-reflection.

And that’s something that cycle touring certainly hasn’t lost its ability to provide.

So what do you think?

Personal Updates

Tom’s Bike Trip Continues

A couple of years ago I had a big idea. I felt compelled to realise that idea, and it quickly consumed my life. One of the side effects was that I stopped writing this blog. Suddenly all my time and energy was being channelled into something new which had very little to do with cycle touring. This wasn’t planned, but it happened anyway. Circumstances dictated it.

I’ve had mixed feelings about this. For many years my blog was the focal point for my creativity, my means of contributing to society, and the source of a large portion of my income. On the other hand, I’ve never seen life as a steady-state endeavour. Progress and change and the continual renewal of ideas seem to either follow me or pull me along. So in a way it felt natural to leave this blog behind. I didn’t even notice when the 10-year anniversary of the departure of Ride Earth – my first big transcontinental trip – ticked over on the 17th of June last year.

But this wasn’t just a blog, was it? It became a community project, built around a shared, romantic notion of exploration by bicycle and all the many topics that spiral outwards from that simple concept. As time went on, the proportions and the focus swung towards the contributors, the riders, the shared ideals and the debates, and the blogger became a guide.

Hence my mixed feelings. Is my disappearance having the unintentional effect of disbanding that community? Of course the words and ideas are still here, but what’s a museum without a curator? Judging by the contents of my inbox, I could easily fill these pages with paid advertorials disguised as guest posts for the sake of having new content, but wouldn’t that undermine the personal and nonpartisan foundation on which it’s all been built?

Anyway. This is all a long-winded way of getting to the point, which is that my ‘big idea’ has grown wings and is learning to fly, leaving space for me to drift once again towards the two-wheeled life I used to know. There are huge parts of the world I have never been to; times are constantly changing; the allure of discovery for its own sake has never diminished; and I feel it’s about time I let the winds of travel take me somewhere new again.

So the bike has been dragged from the basement, the panniers patched up, and a mental map of potential adventures is once again beginning to form. Because I can, and because it makes me feel alive. And with a return to the bike – and I can feel this tangibly – is coming a return to writing about it.

On a more selfless note, I was wrong about that ‘big idea’ having nothing to do with cycle touring. Working on the hiking trail in the Caucasus has shown me how I can marry the love of bicycle travel with an intimate knowledge of one small corner of the world to create opportunities for other riders. I can see this blog evolving in that direction too.

These aren’t New Year’s Resolutions. I’m not promising anything, making public commitments to create false accountability, or anything like that. I’ve only ever done this out of love, and if that’s not enough of a motivator, I probably shouldn’t be here.

So yeah.

But most of all, it’s just nice to be back.