So you want to cycle round the world? Great idea! Here’s how:
1. Get a bicycle.
It doesn’t matter too much which one, as long as it’s comfortable, but you won’t get far without it.
2. Quit your job.
You’ll need a few years for a lap of the planet, so write to your boss explaining that you’re sorry but there’s something you have to do. (Skip this step if you are a student/unemployed/retired.)
You can’t cycle round the world without starting. So strap your stuff to your bike, ask your neighbour to look after the dog/cat/goldfish, and pedal away from home.
Once you have accomplished the above three steps, the rest will work itself out.
Not satisfied? Okay – here’s another 14 optional, additional steps:
4. Do research.
You could spend several months collecting information about border crossings, visas, routes, seasons, budgets, timescales, maintenance schedules, etc.
But equally you could leave now, take it day by day, and figure everything else out on the road, trusting that initiative (and free WiFi!) will serve you better than an encyclopedic knowledge of international bureaucracy and transport infrastructure.
5. Get fit.
You could get a gym membership and a personal trainer and join a spin class and spend several months building up fitness, just like real athletes do.
Alternatively, you could attain an equal (or higher) level of fitness by cycling all day, every day, during your first few weeks on the road, realising that the best way to train for cycle touring might not even involve a bicycle.
6. Save money.
You could put tens of thousands of pounds/dollars/euros in the bank to create a feeling of financial security.
Or your could sell everything you own right now, set off at the end of your notice period, and then simply avoid buying anything. You’ll wild camp for free, eat bread and jam, glean fallen fruit, maximise your WarmShowers membership, accept spontaneous invitations, and avoid tourist hotspots and sightseeing (you can do that when you retire). When you’re low on cash, simply use the skills you didn’t know you had to earn more locally.
7. Buy equipment.
But equally you could salvage a bike from a scrapyard, get a tent from a charity shop, and make a camping stove out of a beer can, saving several years’ worth of travel funds in the process.
8. Plan a route.
You could spend a very long time looking at maps so you’ll know exactly where you’re going every day.
Alternatively, since the beauty of the bicycle is in the freedom it affords its rider, you could simply see where the road takes you, since it doesn’t really matter where you go as long as you’re moving.
9. Share it all on social media.
You could use social media to tell the story of your journey in real-time from the road.
Or you could take this rare opportunity to reduce your digital obligations to near-zero and experience life on Earth instead. Trust me – you’ll tell a better story afterwards.
10. Get sponsorship.
You could spend months dredging LinkedIn, drafting proposals, and cold-calling companies in search of sponsorship.
Or you could spend the same amount of time working to buy the same stuff. Then, when you change your plans or fall in love, it won’t matter to anyone other than you.
11. Ride for a cause.
You could decide to fundraise for charity, possibly for a good reason but probably to justify taking time off being a responsible hard-working taxpayer.
Or you could decide that travel needs no justification and that the long-term benefits to yourself and to society can’t be measured, least of all financially.
12. Get media coverage.
You could contact the local and national press with details of your epic undertaking in order to validate your desires.
Or you could realise that the freedom you wanted from cycle touring feels more real when nobody is watching, meaning you won’t have to send out press releases from your tent when you’d rather be reading all those new books on your e‑reader.
13. Burn your bridges.
You could sell your house, screw over your boss, divorce your family and leave with a gigantic middle finger attached to the back of your bike.
Alternatively, you could transform your domestic life into something that can be sustained long-term on the road, not to mention continued when your big ride comes to an end.
14. Break a record.
You could attempt to set some kind of record for cycling round the world, perhaps based on distance, speed, or form of transport.
Or you could remember that you were never an athlete anyway, that the reason you chose the bicycle was for the independence and flexibility it’d give you, and that you’d rather enjoy each day than plan for your ride to end as quickly as possible.
15. Gather data.
You could aim to keep a daily count of your distance, altitude, average speed, air pressure, etc, perhaps to validate your efforts in front of your Strava followers.
Or you could decide that the distance you’ve pedalled has as much relevance to your personal definition of success as the colour of your T‑shirt, and that without numbers to think about you can better concentrate on how you’re actually feeling right now.
16. Set goals.
You could plan to hit a series of global milestones in order to arrive back home at a premeditated point in time.
Alternatively, you could acknowledge right now that if you learn anything meaningful on the road it’ll probably change you; that your milestones might one day not make sense any more, that ‘coming back’ might become an irrelevant concept, or that you will in some way end up with an irreversibly altered perspective on life.
17. Actually cycle round the world.
You could actually finish what you foolishly started all those years ago.
Or you could stop being so stubborn and allow your journey could grow in unpredictable ways, resulting in your route looking less like a neat line across continents and more like a nice big bowl of spaghetti. (Mmm… spaghetti.)
As you will now realise, there are many ways to make long-distance bike touring more complicated than it could be.
For certain individuals, some of these added complexities may be relevant. To take my own example, it made sense to start a blog, because I wanted (needed!) to write. The blog provided a creative outlet, and my readers became a means to hold myself accountable and keep on writing.
As a result of having that outlet, I’m still writing 15 years down the line, because that blog is the one you’re reading right now. I’m endlessly inspired by the subject of bike touring. I loved every minute of the two years I spent crafting my first book, Janapar (and even when I hated it, I loved it), and find it hugely rewarding to have published a beginner’s guide to cycle touring with over 100 five-star reviews on Amazon. Even if this blog didn’t exist and all I had was a diary, I’d still keep writing.
But for every would-be bicycle tourer for whom extra steps are relevant, there are a hundred others who’ve kept it simple. You’ve never heard of any of them. They don’t have blogs or Instagram accounts. They just privately message their loved ones every few days to keep them in the loop.
These invisible riders, happily doing their own thing and beholden to no-one, constitute the majority of long-term touring cyclists, though you’d hardly know it from surfing the web.
And that why surfing the web, for a would-be long-distance bike tourer, is fraught with danger.
The biggest danger of taking those 14 optional, additional steps is that they each introduce spiralling complexity and thus diminish the chances of your dream coming to fruition.
Part of the problem is the nature of the Internet itself. It’s easy to have an idea, Google it, and get so lost in the details of the way Insufferable Influencer X did it that the original idea is lost.
I see this every November, when I spend a weekend hanging out at the Royal Geographical Society’s annual expedition-planning conference in London. My official job at the event is usually to chair the workshop on cycling expeditions. My unofficial job is to ensure a roomful of would-be adventure cyclists understand that they don’t need to come to a conference to plan their bike tours. Most of them just need to take steps 1 to 3.
It’s a bizarre and circular arrangement, but it seems to work. I invariably get emails from people on the road, months down the line, saying thanks for advice which was just a restatement of the time-honoured KISS principle.
It’s also been difficult to ignore the number of high-profile cycling expeditions that – according to their own definitions of success – fail. Institutions are built, grand achievements are pointed to… and then the concept fails to live up to the experience of bike touring, which in reality is about as simple as life ever gets.
Most of those journeys start as simple dreams to go and let loose on a bike for a while and see what happens. Unnecessary complications too often bring them down.
Worse still, unnecessary complications often mean they never start at all.
So for god’s sake don’t imitate what you see on social media.
If you’ve got the dream, take steps 1 to 3, then enjoy the ride. Only take extra steps if they really, really, really make sense to you.
And if, one day, you realise you’re still talking about cycling round the world but you’ve never actually started?
Perhaps it’s time to discard a few of those optional, additional steps.
You might just find that – when it comes to planning a round-the-world bike trip – the “less is more” mantra is true.