This piece was originally written for The Ride Journal, created to share personal stories from people obsessed in one way or another with bikes. You can download past issues for free from TheRideJournal.com, and connect with the project on Facebook and Twitter.
The gates swing back with an affirmative bleep and I wheel my bike onto the platform. I hunt through the hordes of hurried commuters to scan the departure board. It’s a lonely old place, a railhead at rush hour; no talking, just mis-matching footfalls, heads down, like marching to prison or war, and I feel like the one man who’s leaping the ring-fence of riches for freedom through poverty.… oh — there it is: the 09:13 to Penzance.
I prop the bike up by a small branch of Café Ritazza, stuffed panniers pressed against coffee-stained graphics. One or two nine-to-fivers glance sideways; not at me, but at it. It’s a symbol of sweet liberation for those few sad split seconds on the morning commute; a sudden awareness of the boundless potential of two wheels and pedals carrying all of one’s worldly possessions… but no: let’s get back to the grind.
The crowds diminish, and soon the point of no return announces itself through hidden loudspeakers. The train sidles in, the engine goes past with a hiss and a diesel-fuelled growl; I join in the jostle to bagsy a bike space and depart for the far end of England. Each day a few dozen folk do this; there’s nothing strange there. It’s the manner that’s making me twitch: for I, in my infinite wisdom, have left every tie to the cruel world of money at home.
Yes; cash-free and card-free on Britain’s old end-to-end ride. Just another of Tom’s silly experiments, they’ll think, those few of my friends and my family who’re still in the loop. Shirking ‘real’ work again! Just how has he done it this long?
I’ve somehow become known for it: pedalling, peeling back layer after layer of fabric of places and people. This inventive mythology gives comfort and meaning as I struggle with the truth that to everyone else I’m a crazy young guy on a bike. Last time it was language learning in Persia; before that, an ill-advised trip to the Arctic. Mongolia; a mind-shift to riding through lands without roads, where I trundled by compass through yurt-studded steppes. And the biggest of all: that round-the-world ride, sidetracked quite drastically by the surprise intervention of love — now my wife!
She’s probably thinking the same, right now, as I sit watching Devon and Cornwall roll past from my seat at the end of the quiet coach. Why, just why, would a right-minded man leave his home and his loved one, tasked by himself to seek hardship and toil in a meaningless quest for obscure-sounding truths?
Catch me at a particularly reflective moment and I’d mutter something about simplicity in motion, the beauty of true self-sufficiency, the undeniable power of transformative personal journeys, the endless potential for using a bike trip to reimagine life in as many new ways as people on bike rides. I’d bang on about discovery; of self and society; of the dazzling way that spacetime and consciousness expand when each day on the road is a self-contained story — and one worth telling too. I’d evangelise an existence so diametrically opposed to ‘everyday life’, that thing so unremarkable it can be summed up in just two depressingly well-understood words.
Ask me right now, though. Just try it. I’ve nothing to say. I’m terrified; paralysed. I have set into motion a chain of events that will prove utterly fascinating in hindsight, but the train is approaching the end of the line, and all that I have in my once-useful pockets is a ticket back home from a very long way north on a date three weeks hence and until that day comes I must fend for myself, use all that I’ve learned, strip life back to basics and simply survive.
In the days that await, I’ll go hungry and suffer; get lost in the woods, eat food out of bins, make friends with hard workers and wasters and farmers and wannabe vagabonds en route up through England. I’ll work for my meals; I’ll work for the hell of it, no purpose but helping a person in need. I’ll lend a kind ear and be fed in return for my presence alone. I’ll ride… I’ll ride! I’ll ride this old bike, seeing all that it brings; I’ll soak up the sun on a hot summer’s day; I’ll soak up abuse and I’ll laugh at it later as sunset descends and I spend one more night — of countless since past — sleeping rough on the side of the road.
But right now — as I take the first downstroke — I am plunging into a world of unknowns, going too fast to stop.
It is not the first time. And nor will it be the last.
Want to find out what happened? Start reading the blog series on this no-money cycle touring experiment here.