A few years ago I was invited to be a guest on the 2nd episode of The Cycle Show, which aired on July 15th 2014 at 8pm BST on ITV4.
(ITV billed me as ‘comedian Tom Allen’, which is actually another Tom Allen entirely. I’d just like to take this opportunity to confirm that I possess absolutely no sense of humour whatsoever.)
Anyway. One of the other guests on the show was James Cracknell, former Olympian rower turned cyclist and endurance-athlete-adventurer extraordinaire.
When my segment came up, I talked about the beauty and freedom of bicycle travel; about how it’s one of the most accessible and fulfilling ways in which to explore the world.
Then James (quite rightly) asked me how it could be truly ‘free’, given that bicycle touring still costs money. Doesn’t the cost of gear and the travel expenses put it out of many people’s reach?
Excellent question, James. Allow me to elaborate…
Getting Geared Up For The Price Of A Round Of Drinks
The previous year I’d done something that had been on my to-do list as a writer and adventurous traveller for a long time. I put together an experiment to see just how cheaply I could assemble all the gear I’d need for a long, low-budget bicycle journey, to try and debunk the myth of expensive gear being a non-negotiable part of cycle touring.
It proved the point better than I could possibly have hoped: the total bill for the bike, luggage, tools, spares, accessories, camping gear and cooking gear was £25.14 – or, as I put it at the time, the price of a round of drinks.
I wrote a detailed article about the experiment, and then made an actual bicycle journey in the same spirit, using that same equipment that I’d sourced from scrapyards and friends’ sheds and recycling networks and all the rest of it.
That journey went beyond simply proving that the bike and kit was up to the task, and inadvertently ended up proving that not only do you not need money to get geared up for a cycling journey, but that you can actually travel entirely without money as well.
Seriously – I’d have been happy if I’d pulled off the ride for less than £100. But the total bill for my trip from Land’s End to Edinburgh – including train travel to and from the start and finish – came to £0.25.
Yeah… that’s not a typo. My three-week adventure cost me twenty-five pence. That’s what I remember a packet of crisps costing when I was at school.
In another post I’ve explored exactly how this worked. But in this one I want to talk about the trip itself, which was designed to put this next-to-nothing haul of equipment to the test.
How Did The Free Bike Actually Fare?
I boarded the train for Penzance wheeling a hybrid bike which I found discarded at a household recycling centre. It was missing a front wheel, pedals and grips, it had no luggage-carrying features, and it was utterly filthy, but these were quickly remedied with a scout about for free parts and a few hours’ tinkering.
Then I set off. I pedalled hard. And if you’re hoping for tales of mechanical misdemeanour, either for entertainment or to bolster your brewing argument that nobody could possibly, seriously, actually go touring on a junkyard bike and enjoy it, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed to hear that the bicycle ran reliably well for the 700-odd miles, needing little more than a bit of chain lube after the rain.
But then there is no reason why it shouldn’t have done. The moving parts were all basic, rugged and reliable ones, made by Shimano before they joined the arms race of perpetual upgrades and diversified product lines, back when a derailleur was just a derailleur. It’s a perfectly good bike. Just because someone had decided it was trash doesn’t change that.
Few would choose integrated shifter-brake levers for a long tour, but these particular ones (no longer made, of course) were described by the professional bicycle renovators at Life Cycle UK (whose mechanics see thousands of second-hand bikes passing through their workshop) as among the most reliable ever made by Shimano.
The 7‑speed cassette with a triple chainring provided standard gearing for a hybrid, and while yes, some smaller gears would have been nicer, it was ultimately my legs that got me up the one-in-five Cornish gradients and over the Lakeland and Midlothian passes, not the tooth-counts of my sprockets. (You’re going to sweat sometimes, regardless of what drivetrain you’re running. And it’s all good training.)
It was extremely tempting to make a concession for the purposes of comfort by swapping the existing saddle for my Brooks. I am glad I didn’t: not only would it have been ‘cheating’, but the original saddle turned out to be surprisingly comfortable, even after 80-mile days — which just goes to show that even the most basic assumptions about what gear is ‘best’ for touring can be wrong (I’m guilty of banging on about Brooks saddles as much as the next person).
One relatively common ‘serious’ breakage on a loaded touring bike is the broken spoke, always on the rear wheel, always on the drive side. I recently finished reading Julian Sayarer’s book about his round-the-world record attempt, in which he was, on one particular day, riding across the eastern States with eight broken spokes clattering around in his rear wheel.
I suffered just the one; the first in all my years of adventuring. Bang… halfway up the hill between Kendal and Windermere. I rode the rest of the way to Edinburgh with a slightly wonky rear wheel. Big deal.
Punctures… yep, I had a few. More specifically, I had two ‘normal’ punctures (pretty much inevitable) and two complete innertube blowouts (very unusual).
These blowouts, it transpired, were the fault of the front wheel I’d found and fitted; an old steel-rimmed specimen. Apparently such old rims don’t get on well with modern high-pressure tyres. On both occasions the edge of the tyre fell off the rim altogether, causing the innertube to bulge out — and go bang. The second time, the explosion was sufficiently powerful to physically buckle the wheel.
The remedy? New innertubes. Given that I had no money, these were kindly donated by Rockin Bikes in Yelverton, by Tom at Biketreks in Ambleside, and by a passing cyclist near Dartmoor whose name I never learned. (Thanks, guys!)
In the longer term, I clearly needed to find another free front wheel that wouldn’t send my innertubes to oblivion every few days, and, so after the journey ended I visited the Bristol Bike Project, who donated a wobbly but fixable second-hand front wheel that was a little better suited to the bike. They also let me use their truing stand to straighten it out. I took the opportunity to replace the rear wheel’s broken spoke at the same time.
Oh, and some of the bolts worked themselves loose. I tightened them. Same as I’ve done on every other tour.
And the brake pads eventually wore down. I replaced them. Like everyone else did, on every tour, ever.
Look: the bottom line is that the maintenance and repair demands of my scrapyard bike were no different to those of bikes I’ve ridden in the past costing over a hundred times as much. Price-tags have no relationship to reliability, ease of maintenance, comfort, or indeed anything, save perhaps for shininess and wow-factor in front of people whose opinions shouldn’t matter.
Of course you could convince yourself that there’s a real, perceptible difference to be felt when you’re riding the thing, and that you’ll absolutely, definitely notice this difference every second of your ride. But I’d wager you’d mostly just be believing the story you’ve previously convinced yourself is true.
This is, of course, a great thing to know if you have been delaying your pedal-powered adventures in the belief that only an expensive bike with cutting-edge components is sufficiently comfortable and reliable for a long bicycle journey. I’m very pleased to be able to report, with evidence, that not only is the opposite true, but that by riding a cheap, old, reliable, comfortable bike that fits you and is appropriately shaped and specced for riding all day every day, you also won’t have to worry about your expensive bike getting nicked either.
The Truth About Cheap Camping Gear
I’ve used some pretty high-end camping gear in my time, too. I once believed it necessary to match the ‘serious’ nature of my undertaking with equally ‘serious’ equipment.
This time, I took with me a tent, sleeping bag and roll-mat that had cost me a combined total of £6.
Tesco, as you’ll probably agree, aren’t particularly well known for their ultralight 2‑man tents. It wasn’t just that there was nothing wrong with the tent, it was also actually nicer to sleep in than many of the other tents I’ve used. It was bigger. Simpler. A single wall design made it ultra-easy to put up. It was well-ventilated, with a mesh door and a mesh panel in the roof. And it was waterproof, with nylon walls, taped seams and a floor of the same coarse-woven nylon that tarpaulins are made from (no expensive ‘footprint’ required). Yes, it rained, so I did get to put it to the test, and no, I didn’t get wet.
This dark blue free-standing monstrosity — bought and put on a shelf at the back of someone’s garage, never used, eventually discarded in a clear-out and bought by me from the local tip for £3 — is absolutely all you’d need for a pleasant summer of camping on a bike tour. I’d probably give it a miss in heavy rain or high winds, given the choice, but then you’re not really obliged to wild-camp unless you’ve committed to doing so. Rare is the evening there isn’t an alternative, as I was reminded on this trip.
And as for the sleeping bag and roll-mat? When the temperature is in the mid-teens and the weather fair, how complicated do you need a slice of foam and a bag of fluff to be? Needless to say, given how knackered you’ll be after a day of cycle touring, the only two things you’re likely to care about are being warm and being horizontal. At least, these were the only things I cared about as I slept behind hedges on my way up the country.
I didn’t do much cooking. Cold food has as many calories as hot food. When I did want to heat something up, though, I used the trusty DIY stove made from a Russian gin & tonic can that I’d been given in Armenia. The resulting instant coffee was just as mediocre-tasting yet strangely satisfying as it would have been if I’d used a swanky Jetboil or Whisperlite stove to make it.
Though I was treated to a spell of fantastic summer sun at the beginning of this trip, the weather wasn’t always on my side. The second-hand TK Maxx waterproof jacket proved as rain-proof as a sieve, and the trousers I’d got from Freecycle (complete with full-length broken zip) weren’t any better.
But it turns out that a black plastic bin bag — with the addition of three head- and arm-sized holes — makes for a stunningly effective overcoat. Totally waterproof, lightweight, well-ventilated; and when it wears out you can get a new one for free by simply asking someone for a bin bag.
(Mildly entertaining side story: I filmed my friend Armen making the stove and posted the video online. It’s been watched 3.5 million times and become a minor viral sensation. Seems good ideas are worth sharing!)
No Money? No Problem.
What’s the point of me relating all of this to you? Well, I spend an inordinate amount of time telling tales of bicycle adventures, encouraging people to try this liberating lifestyle out for themselves, and helping out those in the planning stages of trips great and small. It’s basically why I exist. In doing so, I come across many people who seem convinced that this kind of journey is beyond them, and one of the main excuses is a lack of available cash.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I think it seems ironic that — for all the arguments in favour of a free-market economy and a consumer-driven society — there are so many people who think they can’t afford to go and ride a bicycle somewhere and have fun doing so. You might not be one of them, but the phenomena is very real.
It’s ironic, but it is also easily explained. Every sport, hobby and leisure pursuit you’d care to mention is courted by commercialism. We’re surrounded, daily, by runners running in expensive running gear, cyclists cycling in expensive cycling gear, hikers hiking in expensive hiking gear. This has nothing to do with available cash, and everything to do with us seeing a new and unfamiliar activity and assuming that there must be a mountain of expensive gear involved. The assumption that we can’t afford to do it follows logically.
Yes, it is nice to ride an expensive touring bicycle. I rode one down the West Coast of America two years ago: a Kona Sutra with my trusty Brooks mounted atop its seatpost.
It was nice.
But I can promise you that I had no more or less fun on that bike than I did riding the length of England on the bike I rescued from the tip.
Why? Because the enjoyment of bicycle travel has nothing to do with the bike, and everything to do with the spirit in which you engage with it.
This reminded me of something else James Cracknell said. His chat with Matt on The Cycle Show ranged widely, but eventually touched on the original appeal of riding a bicycle in the first place.
“For most people,” he said (and I paraphrase here from memory), “riding a bicycle is their first taste of real freedom.”
This, I think, encapsulates perfectly the beauty of travelling by bicycle. The stabilisers are off, the reins are cut; the world is yours! You are unbound, unrestricted by time and space; free to go where you want, do so at your own speed, experience of life on the road entirely on your own terms.
You don’t have to ‘be a cyclist’, or model your trip on anyone else’s experience.
You don’t have to spend money on equipment, or even spend money on the trip itself.
Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise – or that there’s a ‘blueprint’ or some kind of standard formula for wandering the world on a bicycle – is a liar and a fraud. And that’s probably the single best piece of advice I have for you about bicycle travel.