The funny thing about long distance bicycle travellers


There’s definitely something funny about them (us?). And I’m quite not sure what it is.

The thing is that bicycle travel is actually a totally sensible thing to do. It allows you to travel with an incredible level of independence. And by that I mean independence from planes and public transport, agents and brokers and guides, hostels and hotels and campsites, infrastructure and industry of all kinds — in short, almost all of the tie-downs and costs and restrictions associated with consumer-based travel.

Cycling with a tent allows you to go anywhere, sleep anywhere, meet more of the ‘locals’ (it’s all you ever do), and travel far longer on a far smaller budget. You’ll get fit. Ridiculously so. And contrary to popular belief, cycling doesn’t take a long time; it in fact gives you back the time that modern life stole from you, and in doing so creates a kind of freedom often missed entirely. It’s an exercise in meditation, rediscovering humanity and living in the present. In fact, I really struggle to think of a compelling argument against the bicycle, assuming the goal of travel is adventure, intrigue, freedom and — ultimately — satisfaction.

So why (though its popularity is undoubtedly on the increase) does bicycle travel largely remain the domain of loners, eccentrics, outcasts and hippies?

I use all of these terms descriptively, not insultingly. Because you wouldn’t believe what I’ve come to know about some of my co-conspirators in two-wheeled escapades to far-flung places. I’ve met scores — hundreds — as a result of my trips and this blog. And it seems that what we’ve often got in common is that we’ve all been knocked off course. Something has happened to cause us to trade in conventional insanity for the only sensible option left; yet the one which leaves us stranded in the leftfield.

Take last week’s overland travel festival, HUBB UK, opened up explicitly this year to pedal cyclists alongside motorbikes, 4x4s and other expedition vehicles (including a mint condition Citroen 2CV, an ambulance, and an ice-cream van). 700 people were registered to attend, the event took over an entire hotel complex and campsite for almost a week, and from the looks of the camping fields, pretty much everyone turned up. I spent 2 days signing books with Ted Simon on my left and Chris Scott on my right — by which I mean I was entirely out of my league. Ted Simon, for goodness’ sake.

And how many cyclists turned up?


Perhaps it wasn’t publicised enough, or in the right places. Or perhaps it’s in a cyclist’s nature to be uncomfortable amongst motorists.

And perhaps there’s something more. Both riders played this role perfectly, drifting about individually, dipping their toes into a few seminars and events, saying little, and otherwise making themselves anonymous and invisible.

To my knowledge, there is no dedicated, regular adventure cycle-touring event in this country. I am not surprised. Organising cyclists is like herding cats. Take Critical Mass, the biggest mass bike ride on the planet, whose founding principle is based on participants going where they damn well please with no central organisation whatsoever. No other group of road users blatantly flaunts traffic rules so habitually as cyclists. Watch them during a London commute. You’ll lose count.

Yes — there is something about the bicycle magnetic to mavericks, counter-culturalists and hyper-individuals. That very fact still makes it a source of suspicion to the mainstream in the UK. And it’s weird, because the bicycle makes so much bloody sense, as even our politicians are beginning to understand.

I think an annual HUBB UK-like gathering for long-distance cycle travellers would be great fun. But I suspect that it wouldn’t work. I think that too many of those who’d ideally be billed as presenters would pass it by it as an affront to the pure, individualistic indulgence of the off-grid man-powered journey. Someone who stuck their neck out and attempted to organise one, let alone charge for tickets, would be shouted down for encroaching upon the sacred anti-conformist image of the cyclist. Besides, many of us use bicycle travel to escape the crowds, and so it’d just be another one to avoid.

So an event like HUBB UK, for cyclists alone, would become at best a meeting between the ‘celebrity’ cyclists who enjoy the attention, and those who give it to them — not a big, egalitarian love-in such as the motorcycle-dominated one I attended and enjoyed last week.

And that’s a shame, because the gradual mainstreaming of all types of bicycle use — including for these long, personal journeys — can only be a good thing.

Maybe one day…

What do you think? Am I too skeptical? (Should I stick my neck out and organise one, perhaps?)

Comments (skip to respond)

13 responses to “The funny thing about long distance bicycle travellers”

  1. Was I one of the two?! Probably not, but I was there! And for what it’s worth I was delighted to find that it doesn’t matter a jot, motor or no motor — the sheer lust and love for exploring the planet is the same. Thoroughly enjoyed meeting non cyclists so I think it’d be great to keep it all as one event. Cheers for the talk you gave — really useful.

  2. Suzanne McIntosh avatar
    Suzanne McIntosh

    Ooops I had not actually finished that.…
    We think that it may be a need for more advertising, somewhere like the CTC mag, On your Bike in Lonely Planet or seasoned travelers blogs (hint).
    I think a lot of the stuff at Horizons translates across all modes of transport, after all its about the adventure and the travel more than how you do it. :o)

    1. Hi Suzanne. Really glad you found the talk interesting.

      I am completely with you — most of what I saw at HUBB UK was relevant to all overland adventurers, no matter what form of transport. That’s why I think it’s a shame that so few cyclists turned up! (I have since been informed by the organiser that our number totalled a massive ten, when you count the people who didn’t stick around!)

      You may be right that advertising was one of the issues. I really hope that next year’s event will attract more pedal-powered travellers, and I’ll be doing what I can to ensure this happens.


  3. Suzanne McIntosh avatar
    Suzanne McIntosh

    Hi Tom,
    My partner and I where at the HUBBUK meet in Doncaster, we cycled up from Basingstoke.
    We enjoyed your talk and film very much, as we are very eager to learn of others experiences and gain advice around the trips they have already done, our aim, in the not too distant future is to go of traveling for ourselves, more than likely by bicycle.
    I believe that there was at least five bicycle travelers at the show, whilst I can not speak for all of them, I can speak for two, whilst HU is initially geared up (pardon the pun) for motorised transport we did not feel at all uncomfortable

  4. At least you don’t travel by skateboard…those lot are the true loonies.

    1. So I hear 😉

  5. How many books did you sell?
    Two at least, I hope!

    1. More than two. But a lot fewer than I took with me!

  6. Hi Tom! This is Rebs — my boyfriend Sol met you in Kensington to pick yor brains before we left the UK. We’re cycling around Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador, discovering new ways of life, ways of living, and radically changing our points of view, with a lot of help from the bikes!

    We love the idea of a giant bike-centred love-in, and the more people who start using a bike (for whatever reason the better!), but would an organised event like this in someway dent the anti-system, rebellious streak of a bike? Could it be organised more like an exchange? Instead of paying, attendees have to contribute time / food / space / organising skills to put on the event…?

    1. It’s the anti-system, rebellious streak that worries me — I don’t think the bicycle should represent that. But there are a lot of cyclists who’d sooner defend their identity than see it become mainstream…

  7. loners hippies outcasts… dont forget freaks 😉 I think a meeting would work, but would take more than a year for some people to get where it would be held. that being said. if you are planning I should be in the UK by 2015 😉

    1. I originally wrote ‘freaks’ but then decided it was too harsh!

      1. Sarah Stark avatar
        Sarah Stark

        Deffinetly not too harsh! That’s the way the world sees us and that is what we are. I’m proud to be a loner, outcast, freak, and entirely bonkers.

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