So you’re dreaming of life on the open road on that epic long-distance cycle tour. Yet you’re doing nothing proactive about it, because (among other reasons) you think you’re not fit enough. The odd commute or day-ride isn’t enough; it’s waaaaay too big a leap from your current lifestyle to the kind of physical fitness required for that big bicycle-mounted adventure.
Well, no, actually.
The truth about training for long-distance cycle touring is this:
Training yourself mentally will serve you far better than attempting to train yourself physically.
The best physical training for a big cycle tour is to ride a really heavy bike a really long way. Obviously. Guess what? You can do that by going on a big cycle tour. Start off gently. In less than a fortnight you’ll be as fit as you’ll ever need to be.
It’s the lifestyle that’ll prove the real departure from the norm. This is probably worrying you more than you realise. But you can train for it too.
Here, then, is an alternative kind of training programme for you; one that’ll take you on a gradual psychological adjustment towards the daily routine of the long-distance bicycle traveller.
This training programme will also allow you to keep your home and your job until the very last minute — and won’t involve pedalling pointlessly around in circles in an attempt to ‘train’ for a Big Trip.
Some of my suggestions may surprise you. Many of them are rather tongue-in-cheek. But do try implementing a few of them; perhaps one new exercise per week. In just a few short months, you’ll be ready to roll right out the door. Promise.
(Now’s a good time to go and put the kettle on. You’re going to need at least two cups of tea for this.)
1. Start hanging out with other bicycle travellers
Assuming that you don’t live in the back of beyond, you’ll start to receive emails from wandering cyclists looking for a place to stay and some company for the evening.
Invite them to stay. Encourage them to stay longer. Spend as much time as possible with these people. They are your best friends now. Hear their stories; learn from their experiences.
You’ll soon realise that they are, on the whole, just like you, except that they’re doing what you’re still dreaming about. You’ll get inspired, certainly — and you’ll get jealous, inevitably. And that’ll soon motivate you to start taking your own plans seriously. It’s a cruel hack, but it works.
As a side benefit, you’ll build up a list of testimonials from people you’ve hosted, which will come in very useful when you’re sitting in a smoky internet cafe full of small boys playing astonishingly violent video games, trying to find the right key on the keyboard to produce an ‘i’ with a dot on top of it in order to email other hosts with requests to stay the night yourself.
Nobody biting with Warmshowers? Try Couchsurfing, Hospitality Club or Global Freeloaders. Or all of the above. It’s a game of numbers. However you achieve it, start hanging out with other bicycle travellers.
2. Reduce your intake of social media
Just sign out, that’s all. I’m not going to tell you to delete your Facebook account. Just sign out. And uncheck the ‘Remember me’ box next time you do feel compelled to sign in.
Most bicycle travellers are happy to stay in touch with friends and family back home occasionally — in proportion to being connected with the ground beneath their feet the other 99% of the time. And when they do hit up social media, they’ll be perfectly happy to make it a one-time effort, negotiating dodgy keyboard layouts and virus-infested computers before getting back outdoors and back to reality.
Signing out of social media prevents one thing: the compulsive ‘checking’ behaviour so many of us now exhibit to check our social media accounts every few minutes, meaning our brains are in two places at once, causing us to walk out in front of moving vehicles and into each other while ‘checking’ what’s happening in the world.
Bullshit. You don’t need that. Your friends and family are getting on just fine, and if they aren’t, they’ll call you or come and see you. Instead, start using that spare headspace to think more seriously about your upcoming trip. Read books, stare at maps, or just sit and daydream. The possibilities of cycle touring are endless — if you’ve got the presence of mind to give it some real consideration.
As an additional step, uninstall the smartphone apps for these networks and use the mobile browser versions instead. This’ll get rid of all those little ‘alerts’ you get every few seconds; further instant-hit distractions from reality. Better still, put your smartphone on airplane mode. Or on eBay.
3. Disconnect from the twisted world of mainstream media
And the money you’ll reclaim on your TV license — put that in too. The earlier you chuck out the telly, the bigger the rebate. Do likewise with the money you’re about to save each month on the satellite/cable subscription. If you buy a daily or weekly newspaper, stop that right now. It’s doing nothing but making you anxious about a world that’s as safe as it’s ever been to travel in.
Aside from the logistical hurdles associated with taking a television on a bike tour, bicycle travellers don’t need to be permanently connected to whatever the international news media is spewing out about ‘the world’.
Why? Because we bicycle travellers are far too busy actually experiencing ‘the world’ for ourselves to bother with what the media want to tell us what’s happening in ‘the world’ that we’re supposed to care about, think about, and more importantly be afraid of.
And guess what? The world consists mainly of tea and charades. If you want to know how human society really works, read a good history book, make peace with the fact that every bad thing happening today is a repeat of a bad thing that happened yesterday, that you have no influence over anyone else’s fate so you might as well take hold of your own, and then go and cycle a lap of the planet to get a measure of the rest of it.
While you’re using the time freed up by your new low-information diet to set up the monthly standing order into the Adventure Vault that’ll eventually fund your journey, add in the accumulated cost of your daily latté and start brewing your own coffee in a camp-stove-friendly espresso pot.
4. Re-wallpaper your home
If there’s one thing we adventure cyclists spend almost as much time staring at as all the stunning landscapes this planet has to offer, it’s maps.
Maps, before a journey begins, infest every aspect of our lives. Usually this is less for practical route-planning and more to remind us just how much road there is to explore. Whether a blow-up globe or a 10K topo, maps are fail-proof fuel for wanderlust.
You too can tap into this unlimited font of motivation simply by visiting the Stanford’s website (or their stores in London or Bristol) and ordering a selection of maps of places you fancy cycling in* — whether that’s regions, countries or continents — and putting them up on your walls. (Can’t decide? Simply get a world map* or two.)
Find yourself gazing longingly at them for several hours a day, mentally planning routes, realising how much damn choice there is, that you’ll never actually be able to claim to have ‘seen the world’, and that it therefore really won’t matter too much where you go as long as it’s somewhere new.
5. Cook one-pot meals
No truly self-sufficient cycle tourist rides without the means to cook a hearty and delicious hot meal at the end of the day. Far from being bushcraft maniacs capable of lighting, using and extinguishing a cooking fire in 10 minutes flat (though such people do exist), we have instead mastered the art of getting breakfast, lunch and tea (and coffee) ready over a single burner.
You can imitate this easily. If your stovetop is a gas-burning model, simply remove three of the four flame spreaders, thus rendering all but one of them inoperable. If, on the other hand, you have an electric hob, you’ll find that the temperature knobs will come off with an enthusiastic tug (they’re designed to be replaceable; I take no responsibility for broken hob-knobs). For the ultimate in authenticity, ensure that the one remaining hob is the smallest available.
You’ll find that — while your recipe range is somewhat reduced — you’ll nevertheless be able to create all manner of delicious meals with creative use of that single hob, along with a few unorthodox cooking methods and some clever tricks involving two or more cooking pots and careful timing.
Once you have mastered this, feel free to abandon the stovetop altogether and switch to the more purist approach of a using an actual camping stove and cookware to prepare your meals, preferably on the living room floor.
6. Sell your fridge
Fridges have been the default in homes for less than a century. The food in your fridge, however, is unlikely to actually need refrigeration; society has just developed a supermarket-assisted obsession with hoarding food for longer. (My mother-in-law even refrigerates flour.)
As adventure cyclists without fridges, we’re all-too aware of this, happily carrying butter, cheese, yoghurt, cured meat, pastries, fresh fruit and vegetables, jars of jam and chutney, and mayonnaise inside our non-refrigerated panniers for a few days at a time and suffering no ill effects whatsoever.
So sell your fridge. Raid all those mystery jars. Quit hoarding food for weeks, stop generating leftovers, and only buy what you can eat before it perishes — which includes more types of food than you might think.
7. Turn out your wardrobe
Your average common or garden bicycle traveller will possess a maximum of two sets of clothes: one set for riding in, and one set for not riding in. This makes a lot of sense, since time spent travelling by bicycle is generally divided between — you’ve guessed it — riding, and not riding. You can replicate this today with incredible ease.
To figure out what clothes to wear for riding, imagine you’re going hiking on a sunny day, then add a pair of padded cycling shorts and a set of waterproofs. To figure out what clothes to wear for not riding, imagine that you’re choosing a single outfit that you’d just about get away with wearing for a night in on your own, a night out with friends, a dinner invitation with your in-laws, and the wedding reception of a distant relative.
You may now sell the remainder of your clothes on eBay, or perhaps take them to a nearby charity shop.
8. Move out of most of your house
We bicycle travellers have the luxury of almost unlimited space in which to play, restricted only by the planet’s landmass and a handful of slightly inconvenient border crossings. When it comes to a temporary dwelling, however, the best we can usually hope for is a two-berth tent, a spare room, or a diplomatically-judged amount of space immediately surrounding a sofa.
Imitate this in your own home by moving your entire domestic life into a single room — for example, the living room, or a ‘living kitchen’ if you have one. Yes, you may visit the bathroom when you need to. No, the remaining rooms are not to be used for anything except temporary storage of all the furniture and belongings you never knew you didn’t need and which are now earmarked for immediate eBaying, Freecycling or the next community jumble sale.
Soon enough, you’ll wonder what the point of all of those extra rooms was in the first place — at which point you can start to think more seriously about selling your house and using the proceeds to pay off the rest of the mortgage and hit the road once and for all. Alternatively, consider enlisting the services of a letting agent and paying a property management company 10% of your monthly rental income to look after everything on your behalf, allowing someone else to pay off your mortgage while you cycle round the world.
And in the meantime, you can host random travelling cyclists in all of those spare rooms you’ve freed up. You could even go all the way and operate an open-door policy, turning your private home into a much more useful travellers’ commune.
9. Quit electricity
Homes were originally electrified in order to provide lighting after dark, which — let’s face it — has achieved little more than disconnecting your modern lifestyle from the natural cycle of day and night. But the daily schedule of us touring cyclists is set around just these cycles; one of the many things about the lifestyle that imparts a deeply satisfying feeling of connectedness with nature.
Yes, we do use electricity now and again — specifically for charging the batteries that power the headtorches we use exclusively for reading books at night, and perhaps the occasional phone or laptop charge if we’re feeling particularly futuristic.
You too may take up this routine by restricting yourself to these applications alone. Removing all other electricity use is actually very simple, by the way. You’ve already graduated to using a camping stove on the living room floor for your culinary needs, so taking the fuse out of the oven and stovetop won’t be an issue; nor will whacking the ol’ kettle on eBay.
Unscrew and sell all of your lightbulbs on eBay too. Carry a headtorch in your pocket at all times. Wash clothes by hand inside a drybag from this point forth (surprisingly effective; they don’t make ’em waterproof for nothing) and take only cold showers (seriously invigorating; proven health benefits). Dishwasher? HTFU!
Now divert the money you’re saving on your electricity bill into that ever-growing Adventure Vault. Magic, innit?
On the whole, adventure bicycle travellers tend to spend a heck of a lot of time sleeping outside. Oftentimes this’ll be in a tent, the closest thing we have to a home; on particularly sumptuous nights it might well be beneath the stars in just a sleeping bag.
We’ve learned through experience to do this comfortably: warm, dry and undisturbed. And most of us love it. There’s little you really need to do to follow suit, of course: simply swap your traditional bed and bedding for a camping mat and a sleeping bag, and begin a brand new routine of sleeping on your living room floor with the doors and windows wide open. Not enough space? Sell your three-piece suite and turn your*.
If you’re lucky enough to possess a garden, balcony or terrace; even better! You truly can sleep al fresco on a nightly basis without leaving home, starting tonight. Just add a tent, bivvy bag or tarpaulin when the rain comes in.
Once sleeping outside has become the norm, simply take this practice out of town on a regular basis. Woods, hilltops and riversides are all good bets for wild camping. Closer to home, sleeping in parks and other green spaces is often easier and more fun than you might think — yes, even if you live in central London.
11. Become an observer
Bicycle travel not being a remotely destination-centred way of doing things, we adventure cyclists develop the ability to engage constantly with our surroundings in an intimate and observant way in order to make our experience ‘interesting’.
While it can be difficult to see what’s worth staring at in a big town or city, especially one you’re familiar with, it’s usually just a case of making space in your head and time in your routine to actually, actually look at what’s going on around you. Not just to glance about sometimes while you’re thinking about something else, going somewhere else, but to pay attention to the details and the seeming insignificances, for these all add up to something just as interesting in reality as any of the stuff we’re told is interesting to look at, like architecture and billboards.
One easy way to train yourself to do this is to take up street photography (or, if you live in the countryside, nature photography). Take a camera everywhere — not your phone; an actual camera — and start seeing those old familiar sights with new eyes.
It’s much easier when you’ve got a purpose, so hack yourself one by committing to a Photo 365 project, training your eye and your brain to see the world as we long-term bicycle travellers do. Soon enough you’ll wonder why the majority of people seem to be wandering around staring at the ground or at smartphone screens when there’s just so much else to see!
12. Do nothing more
Once the initial trauma of jacking it all in and leaving the status quo has worn off, we bicycle travellers tend to find ourselves with a lot of thinking time. It’s often said that we have too much thinking time, what with all those miles we pedal every day.
The best remedy for this, of course, is to stop treating free time as ‘thinking time’ and instead practice the doing one thing that we in the West have all but forgotten how to do: not think.
There is this underlying cultural trait — so deeply buried that it is near-invisible — that the present passes us by while we’re using the past to inform future plans. The problem is that — as becomes obvious when you stop and think about it (ironically) — the past and the future don’t actually exist. At least, not while ‘exist’ is being used in the present tense, which it is right now, and now, and now, and now.
Repetitive actions, such as pedalling or walking for long periods of time, allow the conscious mind to wake up to this collective insanity, in turn allowing you to retrain your brain to exist in the present. But hanging around in parks doing nothing is another great way to do this.
Don’t think. Don’t think. Just hang around, listening to all the past and future crap flying around in your head. Then tell those voices to stop. Peace. Happiness.
13. Talk to strangers
One of the defining features of life on the road is the sheer number and variety of people you’ll meet. To begin with, it feels a bit strange — we’re used to opening up with people in our trusted social circles, but restricting our interactions with strangers to financial transactions and customer support calls.
Soon enough, though, it becomes normal, and when you return home to find everyone milling around in the street totally oblivious to each other, that’s what feels a bit strange.
You can begin to recreate this frankly enlightened relationship with humankind today. Simply start talking to strangers. One easy way to do this is to offer to help someone who could use a hand with something, whether that’s carrying a suitcase up a flight of stairs, picking up something they’ve dropped, weeding the allotment, or something else altogether.
If this perfectly natural mode of behaviour is still new and uncomfortable and you’d prefer it to happen in a vaguely socially acceptable setting, check out the local Couchsurfing events and meetups and attend them. Use networks like HelpX to meet new people and work together on something constructive. Join a club. Volunteer with a local charity.
Once you’re more comfortable, consider talking to your neighbour on your next long bus or train journey, sitting on park benches chatting away to whoever comes along (commenting on the state of their dogs is a great ice-breaker). The pinnacle of achievement in this field, perhaps, is to go out alone to your local pub, bar or nightclub and ingratiate yourself with the local revellers.
Again, it’s a game of numbers, so if the first few people glare at you for violating their warped sense of normality because you, a stranger, spoke to them without invitation, simply consider it ‘their loss’ and move on.
14. Repack your life into four panniers and a bar-bag
Now you’re living in a single room, hanging out almost exclusively with total strangers and other cycle travellers, wearing just two sets of clothes, cooking your meals over a camping stove, and are sleeping on a Therm-a-rest, you might as well take the obvious next step of packing what few belongings you have remaining into four panniers and a bar-bag.
For the sake of practicality, you might as well use that space left by the TV cabinet to store a touring bike, which will act as a place to hang these five aforementioned bags. No need to move or ride it; just use those handy horizontal rails as natural locations for your luggage to live.
This, of course, is also a good excuse to actually get yourself a touring bike. No need to ride it, but then again, if you do feel like selling your car and starting cycling everywhere instead, feel free to go right ahead.
15. Practice the art of non-verbal communication
Once we bicycle travellers leave the English speaking world, we develop the ability to communicate through more or less purely non-linguistic means. Our miming skills become razor sharp, as do our abilities to scribble incomprehensibly on bits of paper while making ourselves understood, all the while flicking through pocket-sized dictionaries and gesticulating in wild and unimaginably creative ways which people really do understand.
It’s possible to leapfrog this learning process as part of your normal daily life. Simply give up speaking English. Restrict your interactions with members of the public entirely to the aforementioned techniques, plus as many words from other languages as you can muster. Shop exclusively in Oriental and Middle Eastern grocery stores, where this technique may work particularly well.
If you commit wholeheartedly to this principle, you will undoubtedly also find that — as a byproduct of being unable to speak — you get fired from your job.
* * *
At this point, all of your previous preparations will slot neatly into place. For it is now surely a simple case of transferring the contents of your Adventure Vault into your current account, wheeling your touring bike and its ready-packed bags out of your empty house, giving the key to the estate agent, and riding away from your home.
You’ll find that every element of your now-current lifestyle remains the same — save, of course, for physical training to get fit enough for long-distance cycle touring.
And physical training for cycle touring is what you’re going to do right now.
By riding your goddamn bike.