By the time you read this paragraph, I’ll have embarked on my latest bike trip, riding solo along the lush coast of New South Wales, Australia.
I haven’t tackled a ride of any significance since before the Covid-19 pandemic – and while I’m relishing the prospect of hitting the road, it’s a tempting moment to look back at the evolution of this blog, TomsBikeTrip.com, and my parallel bike touring career.
You could say it began 17 years ago when I signed up for a free Blogspot account and created a blank page entitled “Semi-Coherent Thought Chowder”. At the time, I simply wanted a space for converting ideas into words and dumping them there. The idea that people might read it never crossed my mind.
That changed in the summer of 2006, when my old schoolmate Andy and I came up with the entirely unoriginal idea to try and cycle round the planet. As classic overachieving middle-class able-bodied white males, we decided to brand the fuck out of the expedition, seeking sponsorship and media attention, launching what today would be called a YouTube channel, and generally turning it into a ‘thing’.
It was, in many ways, the antithesis of the attitude towards bicycle travel I would later evangelise. But it did need a professional-looking website. And so my idle ramblings were reinvented as the official blog of Ride Earth, a high-concept, charity fundraising, environmental drum-beating, only-marginally-interesting, very-long-distance bike ride.
Ride Earth fizzled out when Andy and I realised, far too late, and on a wintry roadside somewhere in the South Caucasus, that our reasons for doing it were fundamentally incompatible.
At the same time, as you’ll know if you’ve read or watched Janapar, I met my future wife and realised there was more to life anyway.
In this period of downtime I quietly rebranded the site as Tom’s Bike Trip, which seemed to better reflect what I was actually doing. And I started to write because I wanted to, rather than because my previous decisions obliged me to.
This had the interesting effect of people starting to read what I wrote. Perhaps, in retrospect, there was something more compelling about the story of someone cut adrift on a bike with a lot of time, a vague sense of curiosity, and something worth coming home for. Perhaps – I repeat the word because this is pure conjecture – this stripped-back version of life on a bike resonated more deeply than the chronicles of another privileged adventurer on a pedestal.
I spent the next four years honing my travel writing skills alongside a series of what felt, on a personal level, like ever more boundary-pushing rides. Beyond my first tidy little ride across Europe came the brutal desert crossings, sketchy checkpoints, and tear-jerking hospitality of the Middle East and northeast Africa. Crossing the East African Rift Valley through the tribal no-go-zone of the Afar Desert, I felt I’d reached a place so distant from the pokey little English village of my upbringing that to go much further would bring only diminishing returns. Yet even that proved wrong when I dragged bike and gear to the Outer Mongolian steppe, where all sense of time and place dissolved into a blur of roadless plains, big river crossings, and wild Siberian forests.
In 2012 I found myself at a book launch in Pasadena, CA, at the end of a long ride down the US west coast. The author was espousing his vision of a world in which people took their passions and moulded them into freedom-generating livelihoods. Much of the advice related to implementation, but the most memorable broad concept was that of focusing on what people asked my help with. Lightbulb moment: could my blog’s comments and contact form submissions be the key to doing this sustainably and forever?
Until then, I’d been funding my travels by taking intensive short-term web development contracts and setting up temporary shop wherever I happened to be. Had it been today I would probably be describing myself as a ‘digital nomad’. In any case, I wanted out of that schizophrenic lifestyle, bouncing from feast to famine. I wanted a stable living that rewarded my skills in a principled way and connected directly with what I valued most in life.
I went through every email I’d received through this blog’s contact form, categorised the questions by theme, and wrote long-form answers to the most frequently-asked of them. The result was a pair of ebooks: Essential Gear For Adventure Cycle Touring and Understanding Touring Bikes For Epic Expeditions.
Because these books were extremely niche, I followed with a third, How To Hit The Road, which aimed to cover at a higher level the entire subject of that glorious thing known variously as cycle touring, bike touring, bike trekking, bikepacking, adventure cycling, or simply travelling by bicycle. I put this one on Amazon as a Kindle ebook and print-on-demand paperback.
At the same time, I wrote in extravagant detail on niche topics that didn’t fit into any of these books and published the results freely on the blog, all the while continuing to explore the ever-more obscure corners of my passion for bicycle-mounted adventures. The culmination of this was probably my 2014 experiment to try and ride the length of England without any money on a bike I’d found in a scrapyard.
(A friend suggested that this would make for the most interesting book I’d have written to date, but I never got round to it.)
Then, in the summer of 2015, something happened. I went hiking and came back inspired to build a long-distance trail across Armenia and Georgia. This rapidly snowballed into what is now known as the Transcaucasian Trail. It’s attracted over a million dollars in funding through various channels, yet for the last seven years I have worked almost entirely unpaid to make this dream a reality, living off the modest income now generated by TomsBikeTrip.com. The reasons for doing things this way are complex, but might be encapsulated by a desire to make a living in a principled way. Syphoning donor funds into a full-time job of my own creation doesn’t fit that principle.
All this while, cycle touring and TomsBikeTrip.com have been there as a familiar friend I return to when I’m feeling burned out by the emotional demands of wringing a 3,000km-long international hiking trail out of the combined efforts and interests of the growing number of people and organisations involved in the effort.
That’s what’s happening now. I’m riding my modified prototype of the Oxford Bike Works Expedition bike north from Sydney, Australia, following the New South Wales Coast Cycle Trail as far as I can – at least, until the date of my sister-in-law’s wedding, the main reason I’m in Australia and something I should probably make sure I’m back for!
The jury’s out on how much of this trip I’ll be sharing in real time – but whatever I do make public will probably be in the form of Instagram stories.
Preparing for this trip has also inspired plenty of new material for the blog, which I’ll be sharing here soon.
In the meantime, I’ve been updating and republishing some of the most well-received content I originally wrote and posted on the blog between 2012–2014, including:
There’s plenty more where that came from here.
As for why I’ve chosen this particular route at this particular time – either tune in on social media to find out, or wait and see what pops up on this blog in the coming weeks.
Wish me luck!