I read Andy’s message from my spot beneath a tree. In my lap was the copy of The Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook that I’d just put down – a book which explained, in detail, the practicalities of cycling round the world.
I’d bought the book whilst browsing in a store that morning, not knowing it would become one of those twists of poetry that sometimes emerge from everyday life. As I sat under the tree, the future came into focus. Job applications had long been shelved. Shunning the temp-job circuit in favour of eking out a living as a freelance programmer in my bedroom, I had no ties that couldn’t easily be cut. I’d been stashing every penny I could in a savings account, and with nothing else to lose, the idea could not have made more sense. Yes! My best mate and I were going to cycle round the world!
The idea thrilled the heck out of me. Cycling round the world! It was such a delightful little combination of words. It undermined the status quo so wonderfully. A bicycle was for short journeys, and for eccentrics, fitness freaks and the financially challenged. What better way to blow people’s expectations out of the water and cement my maverick reputation?
Since graduation, my university friends had developed a habit of donning backpacks full of expensive apparel and credit cards and Lonely Planet guidebooks and setting forth into the unknown. They’d go for months at a time, wandering the Planet’s well-worn paths in – I scoffed – a Lonely kind of way. But they inevitably came back with curiously similar photos, stories, bank balances and signs of premature ageing brought on by heavy drinking and sunburn. Then they would leap back into the rat race as if the mind-expanding experiences they’d yarned about in the pub had turned out to be nothing but a long holiday, a temporary escape from reality and responsibility; an obligatory part of being Western and middle class and in one’s early twenties and having money to spend and an easy passport to travel on. And all too often their stories seemed to involve starting out poor and itinerant and hard done by, becoming enlightened as to the folly of Western materialism, and then putting those new Eastern philosophies into practice by getting a high-powered career in a multinational corporation.
I could certainly see the appeal of full-moon parties on South-East Asian beaches, of performing improbable yogic stretches at sunrise in Goa with the aroma of fish curry still lingering in my dreadlocks, of pretending that sleeping in a hostel was poverty redefined. But I was always held back by a feeling that there must be more to it than those recycled clichés; than bus journeys, bedbugs, touts, temples and the company of other rich young white people on unique journeys of self-discovery. And so I never bought a seventy-litre backpack or a pair of ultra-light zip-off trekking trousers, and I never danced the night away in Thailand or pulled a muscle one morning in India.
No. I wanted adventure and authenticity, bewilderment instead of beauty, challenge rather than charm. I wanted my preconceptions dashed against the rocks of reality. I wanted to discover how little I knew.
With a similarly deep distaste for conformity, Andy had also avoided the backpackers’ trail. The difference was that he’d found an alternative, rather than sitting on his backside like me. While I was moping about in my East Midlands village and my mates were elephant-trekking in Thailand, he’d been working as a mountain-bike guide on the small Croatian island of Korcula. Through his experience and passion for riding, Andy had taught me everything I knew about bicycles. There was no way I would be able to get my act together without him. I thought his idea a stroke of genius, taking mountain biking to its natural conclusion.
The ball was soon rolling. Both being far more interested in off-road than on-road cycling, we quickly hit upon the idea to attempt the round-the-world journey on dirt roads alone. It would be done for the thrill of adventure, of course, rather than to break records, though in all likelihood it would be the first journey to be carried out in such a way. What could be more worthwhile than doing what we loved, mountain biking across a vast range of landscapes for the next few years? And we would learn so much about life outdoors. Given the terrain we were likely to cover and the laughably small budget on which we would need to do so, bushcraft skills would be needed simply for day-to-day survival. I mail-ordered a set of brass rabbit snares and a pocket-sized copy of the SAS Survival Guide in preparation.
A route plan was soon under way, and I dropped an email to my old university mountain-biking buddy and housemate Mark, who had recently lost his job at the owl sanctuary in Dorset and was labouring away unhappily as a mortgage analyst for a building society.
‘I was going to email you to see if you were interested in the first bit of next year’s bike trip,’ I wrote. Though it would still be more than six months until we departed, I was excited and I wanted to share it. I’d been scouring maps and books detailing long-distance walking routes, pilgrimage trails and cycling paths across Western Europe, and my efforts had strung together a fascinating-looking tour of France and Spain, heading as far south as Gibraltar before looping back up via the Alps to Geneva, where some friends had offered to put us up. Between bouts of heroic biking, the plan featured a healthy menu of medieval and religious history, cutting-edge continental culture, gastronomic wonders, and spared time for the beautiful women we would meet along the way. About two and a half thousand miles in length, it had been designed to gobble up maximum distance and variety before we left Western Europe, and I guessed that it would take us two or three action-packed months to complete it. From Geneva, Andy and I would head east towards Turkey, offering Mark an easy route back to England via Belgium. Having a girlfriend to think about, Mark only wanted to spend a couple of months with us, rather than choosing freedom, ditching the relationship and becoming a fully signed-up member of our team.
Mark had been a good friend throughout our days as a student; a bookworm, sceptic, passionate eco-warrior and Bob Dylan enthusiast, tall and skinny, with a floppy blond mop and a thoughtful-looking goatee. The fact that, like me, he was not particularly athletic was comforting, although I noted that he had become a dab hand on a unicycle. Studying for a degree in English meant that he’d spent a lot of time reading, usually without getting out of bed. And, when he wasn’t devouring literature, the house that Mark and I had shared with five other students had become the venue for debates of great philosophical significance, as well as Mark’s occasional fire-juggling performances. After graduation, he’d spent a week with me and Andy on a spur-of-the-moment bike trip through the Scottish Highlands. The two had hit it off and a great deal of hilarity had ensued. Despite the trip itself being ridiculously ill-planned and thus the coldest, wettest and most miserable week of our lives, we returned home with the strange conviction that it had been the most fun we’d ever had. The trip had sown the early seeds, and so Mark was the obvious third rider. Our combined intellects would surely be able to find novel answers to many of life’s great questions as we undertook our unprecedented mountain-biking odyssey.
I liked Mark because he would never back down from a debate. He held strong opinions and extolled them with passion, particularly when they involved science, religion, or – heaven forbid – both. He was quick to point out flaws in others’ arguments, and I considered him the kind of ultra-rationalist who’d be able to defuse disagreements between me and Andy, helping us to work logically through the challenges we’d face. As well as this, Mark managed to be laid-back to an almost fatalistic degree, and his relaxed and candid demeanour would help me avoid taking myself too seriously. The trip, after all, was supposed to be enjoyable. Mark’s company would make it all the more so.
‘Ever thought about just heading south from Spain to cycle down through Africa?’ he wrote in response to my email.
I didn’t want to go to Africa. It was too dangerous. There were far too many problems in Africa – it was all I ever seemed to hear about in the news. A terrible place for a bike ride. In any case, Mark was treading on my toes: I’d spent ages coming up with these route plans, investing weeks of my time in the creation of intricate off-road routes. Mark wasn’t even coming with us all the way – he was just going to tag along for a few pleasant weeks in Western Europe, at my invitation!
Eventually I suggested that we cycle to Gibraltar and hop on the ferry to Africa for a day or two before continuing on our way, and returned to my route-planning for Eastern Europe and Turkey. It’d be easier to find off-road routes from that point on, because paved roads would obviously become rare once the developed world was behind us. Mark’s enjoyable and provocative company would be welcome during those first months in Europe; the months that would be the testing ground for our equipment, and where we’d toughen up for the hard riding ahead. We would depart as a group of three, and setting off from my front door seemed the natural way to begin.
It’s Friday, which means the comments section is open for questions about this week’s instalments. Fire away!