Budgeting & Finance Equipment Inspiration

How Far Can You Go On A Scrapyard Touring Bike? (Short Answer: A Very Long Way)

A few years ago I was invited to be a guest on the 2nd episode of The Cycle Show, which aired on July 15th 2014 at 8pm BST on ITV4.

(ITV billed me as ‘comedian Tom Allen’, which is actually another Tom Allen entirely. I’d just like to take this opportunity to confirm that I possess absolutely no sense of humour whatsoever.)

Anyway. One of the other guests on the show was James Cracknell, former Olympian rower turned cyclist and endurance-athlete-adventurer extraordinaire.

When my segment came up, I talked about the beauty and freedom of bicycle travel; about how it’s one of the most accessible and fulfilling ways in which to explore the world.

Then James (quite rightly) asked me how it could be truly ‘free’, given that bicycle touring still costs money. Doesn’t the cost of gear and the travel expenses put it out of many people’s reach?

Excellent question, James. Allow me to elaborate…

Getting Geared Up For The Price Of A Round Of Drinks

The previous year I’d done something that had been on my to-do list as a writer and adventurous traveller for a long time. I put together an experiment to see just how cheaply I could assemble all the gear I’d need for a long, low-budget bicycle journey, to try and debunk the myth of expensive gear being a non-negotiable part of cycle touring.

It proved the point better than I could possibly have hoped: the total bill for the bike, luggage, tools, spares, accessories, camping gear and cooking gear was £25.14 – or, as I put it at the time, the price of a round of drinks.

I wrote a detailed article about the experiment, and then made an actual bicycle journey in the same spirit, using that same equipment that I’d sourced from scrapyards and friends’ sheds and recycling networks and all the rest of it.

That journey went beyond simply proving that the bike and kit was up to the task, and inadvertently ended up proving that not only do you not need money to get geared up for a cycling journey, but that you can actually travel entirely without money as well.

Seriously – I’d have been happy if I’d pulled off the ride for less than £100. But the total bill for my trip from Land’s End to Edinburgh – including train travel to and from the start and finish – came to £0.25.

Yeah… that’s not a typo. My three-week adventure cost me twenty-five pence. That’s what I remember a packet of crisps costing when I was at school.

In another post I’ve explored exactly how this worked. But in this one I want to talk about the trip itself, which was designed to put this next-to-nothing haul of equipment to the test.

How Did The Free Bike Actually Fare?

I boarded the train for Penzance wheeling a hybrid bike which I found discarded at a household recycling centre. It was missing a front wheel, pedals and grips, it had no luggage-carrying features, and it was utterly filthy, but these were quickly remedied with a scout about for free parts and a few hours’ tinkering.

Then I set off. I pedalled hard. And if you’re hoping for tales of mechanical misdemeanour, either for entertainment or to bolster your brewing argument that nobody could possibly, seriously, actually go touring on a junkyard bike and enjoy it, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed to hear that the bicycle ran reliably well for the 700-odd miles, needing little more than a bit of chain lube after the rain.

But then there is no reason why it shouldn’t have done. The moving parts were all basic, rugged and reliable ones, made by Shimano before they joined the arms race of perpetual upgrades and diversified product lines, back when a derailleur was just a derailleur. It’s a perfectly good bike. Just because someone had decided it was trash doesn’t change that.

Few would choose integrated shifter-brake levers for a long tour, but these particular ones (no longer made, of course) were described by the professional bicycle renovators at Life Cycle UK (whose mechanics see thousands of second-hand bikes passing through their workshop) as among the most reliable ever made by Shimano.

The 7‑speed cassette with a triple chainring provided standard gearing for a hybrid, and while yes, some smaller gears would have been nicer, it was ultimately my legs that got me up the one-in-five Cornish gradients and over the Lakeland and Midlothian passes, not the tooth-counts of my sprockets. (You’re going to sweat sometimes, regardless of what drivetrain you’re running. And it’s all good training.)

It was extremely tempting to make a concession for the purposes of comfort by swapping the existing saddle for my Brooks. I am glad I didn’t: not only would it have been ‘cheating’, but the original saddle turned out to be surprisingly comfortable, even after 80-mile days — which just goes to show that even the most basic assumptions about what gear is ‘best’ for touring can be wrong (I’m guilty of banging on about Brooks saddles as much as the next person).

One relatively common ‘serious’ breakage on a loaded touring bike is the broken spoke, always on the rear wheel, always on the drive side. I recently finished reading Julian Sayarer’s book about his round-the-world record attempt, in which he was, on one particular day, riding across the eastern States with eight broken spokes clattering around in his rear wheel.

I suffered just the one; the first in all my years of adventuring. Bang… halfway up the hill between Kendal and Windermere. I rode the rest of the way to Edinburgh with a slightly wonky rear wheel. Big deal.

Punctures… yep, I had a few. More specifically, I had two ‘normal’ punctures (pretty much inevitable) and two complete innertube blowouts (very unusual).

These blowouts, it transpired, were the fault of the front wheel I’d found and fitted; an old steel-rimmed specimen. Apparently such old rims don’t get on well with modern high-pressure tyres. On both occasions the edge of the tyre fell off the rim altogether, causing the innertube to bulge out — and go bang. The second time, the explosion was sufficiently powerful to physically buckle the wheel.

The remedy? New innertubes. Given that I had no money, these were kindly donated by Rockin Bikes in Yelverton, by Tom at Biketreks in Ambleside, and by a passing cyclist near Dartmoor whose name I never learned. (Thanks, guys!)

In the longer term, I clearly needed to find another free front wheel that wouldn’t send my innertubes to oblivion every few days, and, so after the journey ended I visited the Bristol Bike Project, who donated a wobbly but fixable second-hand front wheel that was a little better suited to the bike. They also let me use their truing stand to straighten it out. I took the opportunity to replace the rear wheel’s broken spoke at the same time.

Oh, and some of the bolts worked themselves loose. I tightened them. Same as I’ve done on every other tour.

And the brake pads eventually wore down. I replaced them. Like everyone else did, on every tour, ever.

Look: the bottom line is that the maintenance and repair demands of my scrapyard bike were no different to those of bikes I’ve ridden in the past costing over a hundred times as much. Price-tags have no relationship to reliability, ease of maintenance, comfort, or indeed anything, save perhaps for shininess and wow-factor in front of people whose opinions shouldn’t matter.

Of course you could convince yourself that there’s a real, perceptible difference to be felt when you’re riding the thing, and that you’ll absolutely, definitely notice this difference every second of your ride. But I’d wager you’d mostly just be believing the story you’ve previously convinced yourself is true.

This is, of course, a great thing to know if you have been delaying your pedal-powered adventures in the belief that only an expensive bike with cutting-edge components is sufficiently comfortable and reliable for a long bicycle journey. I’m very pleased to be able to report, with evidence, that not only is the opposite true, but that by riding a cheap, old, reliable, comfortable bike that fits you and is appropriately shaped and specced for riding all day every day, you also won’t have to worry about your expensive bike getting nicked either.

The Truth About Cheap Camping Gear

I’ve used some pretty high-end camping gear in my time, too. I once believed it necessary to match the ‘serious’ nature of my undertaking with equally ‘serious’ equipment.

This time, I took with me a tent, sleeping bag and roll-mat that had cost me a combined total of £6.

Tesco, as you’ll probably agree, aren’t particularly well known for their ultralight 2‑man tents. It wasn’t just that there was nothing wrong with the tent, it was also actually nicer to sleep in than many of the other tents I’ve used. It was bigger. Simpler. A single wall design made it ultra-easy to put up. It was well-ventilated, with a mesh door and a mesh panel in the roof. And it was waterproof, with nylon walls, taped seams and a floor of the same coarse-woven nylon that tarpaulins are made from (no expensive ‘footprint’ required). Yes, it rained, so I did get to put it to the test, and no, I didn’t get wet.

This dark blue free-standing monstrosity — bought and put on a shelf at the back of someone’s garage, never used, eventually discarded in a clear-out and bought by me from the local tip for £3 — is absolutely all you’d need for a pleasant summer of camping on a bike tour. I’d probably give it a miss in heavy rain or high winds, given the choice, but then you’re not really obliged to wild-camp unless you’ve committed to doing so. Rare is the evening there isn’t an alternative, as I was reminded on this trip.

And as for the sleeping bag and roll-mat? When the temperature is in the mid-teens and the weather fair, how complicated do you need a slice of foam and a bag of fluff to be? Needless to say, given how knackered you’ll be after a day of cycle touring, the only two things you’re likely to care about are being warm and being horizontal. At least, these were the only things I cared about as I slept behind hedges on my way up the country.

I didn’t do much cooking. Cold food has as many calories as hot food. When I did want to heat something up, though, I used the trusty DIY stove made from a Russian gin & tonic can that I’d been given in Armenia. The resulting instant coffee was just as mediocre-tasting yet strangely satisfying as it would have been if I’d used a swanky Jetboil or Whisperlite stove to make it.

Though I was treated to a spell of fantastic summer sun at the beginning of this trip, the weather wasn’t always on my side. The second-hand TK Maxx waterproof jacket proved as rain-proof as a sieve, and the trousers I’d got from Freecycle (complete with full-length broken zip) weren’t any better.

But it turns out that a black plastic bin bag — with the addition of three head- and arm-sized holes — makes for a stunningly effective overcoat. Totally waterproof, lightweight, well-ventilated; and when it wears out you can get a new one for free by simply asking someone for a bin bag.

(Mildly entertaining side story: I filmed my friend Armen making the stove and posted the video online. It’s been watched 3.5 million times and become a minor viral sensation. Seems good ideas are worth sharing!)

No Money? No Problem.

What’s the point of me relating all of this to you? Well, I spend an inordinate amount of time telling tales of bicycle adventures, encouraging people to try this liberating lifestyle out for themselves, and helping out those in the planning stages of trips great and small. It’s basically why I exist. In doing so, I come across many people who seem convinced that this kind of journey is beyond them, and one of the main excuses is a lack of available cash.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I think it seems ironic that — for all the arguments in favour of a free-market economy and a consumer-driven society — there are so many people who think they can’t afford to go and ride a bicycle somewhere and have fun doing so. You might not be one of them, but the phenomena is very real.

It’s ironic, but it is also easily explained. Every sport, hobby and leisure pursuit you’d care to mention is courted by commercialism. We’re surrounded, daily, by runners running in expensive running gear, cyclists cycling in expensive cycling gear, hikers hiking in expensive hiking gear. This has nothing to do with available cash, and everything to do with us seeing a new and unfamiliar activity and assuming that there must be a mountain of expensive gear involved. The assumption that we can’t afford to do it follows logically.

Yes, it is nice to ride an expensive touring bicycle. I rode one down the West Coast of America two years ago: a Kona Sutra with my trusty Brooks mounted atop its seatpost.

It was nice.

But I can promise you that I had no more or less fun on that bike than I did riding the length of England on the bike I rescued from the tip.

Why? Because the enjoyment of bicycle travel has nothing to do with the bike, and everything to do with the spirit in which you engage with it.

This reminded me of something else James Cracknell said. His chat with Matt on The Cycle Show ranged widely, but eventually touched on the original appeal of riding a bicycle in the first place.

“For most people,” he said (and I paraphrase here from memory), “riding a bicycle is their first taste of real freedom.”

This, I think, encapsulates perfectly the beauty of travelling by bicycle. The stabilisers are off, the reins are cut; the world is yours! You are unbound, unrestricted by time and space; free to go where you want, do so at your own speed, experience of life on the road entirely on your own terms.

You don’t have to ‘be a cyclist’, or model your trip on anyone else’s experience.

You don’t have to spend money on equipment, or even spend money on the trip itself.

Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise – or that there’s a ‘blueprint’ or some kind of standard formula for wandering the world on a bicycle – is a liar and a fraud. And that’s probably the single best piece of advice I have for you about bicycle travel.

Inspiration Philosophy Of Travel Touring Advice

How Does Cycle Touring Actually Work?

This post is part of a series of inspirational short essays exploring the who, what, when, where and how of cycle touring and bikepacking.

Like all adventures, bicycle travel’s basic requirement is one of the modern world’s most scarce and valuable resources: time.

Create time for a bicycle journey and you have already set the stage for a unique and unforgettable experience.

And we all know what must happen for time to be created: 

It must be reclaimed from other parts of our lives.

Work is the biggest time-eater of all, of course. So some of us will use our annual leave to get our adventure fix, some of us will arrange a sabbatical, some of us will quit our jobs altogether, and a few of us won’t have a job to quit in the first place.

But all of us can make time for a bike trip if we choose to. This, really, is the biggest part of ‘how’ to do a bike trip: simply make time for one. If all it amounts to is blocking out a few weekends for two-wheeled adventures close to home, there’s nothing wrong with that. And if those adventures spark off a bigger dream, there’ll be a way to make it happen.

It’s natural to assume that equipment has a large part to play in how cycle touring works. And you do need, at the very least, a bicycle that fits you so you don’t end up crippled at the end of a day’s riding.

Camping gear may expand your overnighting options. A stove may make life on the road more homely and reduce long-term costs. Technical clothing may help in challenging weather conditions. Spares and tools will allow you to be more self-sufficient when it comes to mechanical issues. And gadgets may help you stay in touch, navigate more easily, or help you share your journey.

Gear like this gives you independence in dealing with varied situations and providing for your needs, enabling you to do more than you could by relying on outside services, yet there’s no real standard kit list. You’ll find examples at every extreme, from credit-card tourers (bicycle plus credit card) to ultra-heavyweight tourers (bicycle, four panniers, handlebar bag, trailer, guitar/surfboard strapped on top, dog, children, etc).

Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum you’ll find the classic two-pannier or four-pannier setup, which is a good balance for most, which you’ll most often see on the road, and which is as close to an equipment ‘formula’ as it gets. But the bicycle is the only true common denominator, and it ultimately boils down to what gear is relevant to you. Start small. Keep it simple.

Equipment need not be expensive either. Splashing out on top-end stuff is fun if money is no object – why not? – but if you’re financially challenged, money doesn’t have to get in the way of your adventure. Get resourceful in other ways, both when procuring cheap or free gear and when dealing with situations on the road. Beg, borrow or steal; find free stuff on Freecycle or Gumtree; raid charity shops and car boot sales.

A well-fitting bike is important, as a badly-fitting one can easily cause pain or injury, but a Tesco Value sleeping bag will keep you just as warm as a top-of-the-line The North Face one when you’re camping on the banks of the Danube in the middle of summer. Tune your gear choices to match your budget, and don’t get bogged down in online gear research. This is adventure, and unpredictable things will happen, so it’s better to rely on your wit than on your kit.

Money may also be a concern in answering the ‘how’ of cycle touring. And just as when equipping yourself, the only real answer to the question of how much a bike trip costs is “as much as you want it to”. Feel free to take that literally. If you want your bike trip to cost you nothing, then go right ahead.

A weekend of riding from and to your front door might be cost-free by default if you take all your food and camp wild overnight. In 2014 I cycled the length of my home country for a total cost of less than £1 to prove that in the longer-term, no-budget travel isn’t just rhetoric (not that I’m the first to do so).

Buy food, rather than bartering or bin-diving, and you’ll add a few pounds to your daily budget. Pay for campsites or hostels and you’ll add a bit more. Get restaurants and sightseeing into the mix and you’ll bump things up again. And on long-term trips, flights, ferries and visas might come into play.

But in general you will find it’s totally possible start with the resources available to you and work from there, rather than letting the imagined cost of a bike trip stop you from doing it. If you’re planning something grander, you may well benefit from a little more cash in the bank. But the process is no more complicated. Break down the costs, set a realistic saving goal, find a way to get the money, and then go.

Really, though, the ‘how’ question is a red herring. Every dyed-in-the-wool cycle tourist you’ll meet will wax lyrical about how the beauty of cycle touring is in its simplicity – in the fact that all it really involves is getting on a bicycle, riding it, and responding appropriately to what rolls over the horizon.

Why, then, does ‘how’ to do something so simple demand such an elaborate answer?

It’s because, of course, the real concerns about cycle touring are psychological.

What if something goes wrong? What if I get lost? What if I run out of money? What if I can’t do it? Basically, what if I die?

These, amongst many others, are questions that rise consciously and unconsciously. They play to our deepest fears. Left unanswered, they are capable of preventing us from following our dreams.

And so they are questions I have spent the last decade answering, free of charge, on the now-famous absolutely massive advice and planning page.

Header photo courtesy of Max Goldzweig.

This is a modified excerpt from my beginners’ introduction to cycle touring and bikepacking.

How To Hit The Road is a low-priced newcomer’s guide to every aspect of planning and surviving your first bike bike trip. Available as an ebook (Kindle/ePub) or print-on-demand paperback.

Inspiration Philosophy Of Travel Touring Advice

Where Is It Possible To Travel By Bicycle?

This post is part of a series of inspirational short essays exploring the who, what, when, where and how of cycle touring and bikepacking.

One of the most wonderful things about cycle touring and bikepacking is this: 

You are no longer restricted to anyone else’s idea of a place worth going to. 

In fact, you have an enviable degree of freedom from the usual structures of tourism.

And you get to decide on your own focus for travel, rather than feigning interest in what guidebooks and travel blogs assume everyone must be interested in.

Pedalling requires no services or facilities other than a grocery store every few days and a regular supply of drinking water. Unlike motorists, you can easily carry enough ‘fuel’ for days – even weeks – while you follow your nose.

Carrying a tent means that, rather than worrying about finding a hotel or hostel each day, you can wild camp anywhere for free – in fact, the further away from hotels and hostels, the better.

And bus routes become things to be actively avoided, rather than limitations on where your curiosity might take you.

Sure, you’ll spend most of your time riding a road or trail of some description, because roads and trails were built to connect people. But the range goes from smooth asphalt all the way to winding singletrack. Your options are almost limitless. 

Choose a good all-round touring bike or a hardcore expedition bike and there’s almost nowhere you couldn’t go on the world’s road network. Alternatively, build up a bikepacking bike and reap the rewards of off-road bicycle travel. 

Common cycle touring wisdom holds that the smaller the road, the more rewarding the experience, and the further from the tourist trail, the more authentic the local welcome.

Amaya Williams spent years on the road before fully embracing this. 

“We’ve been sticking to a lot of back roads in the past couple of years and our level of satisfaction has increased immensely,” she says. “Sure, it takes longer and it’s rough going at times, but the rewards are well worth the effort.” And she should know: as of the time of writing, she’s pedalled 220,000km across 118 countries and counting.

Then there’s the act of cycling itself, which encourages you to take pleasure in your surroundings. The details of the landscape and the slow evolution of nature and culture become your personal sightseeing attractions, missed by those who pass overhead at 35,000 feet or overtake you at 60mph.

Whether you’re riding through the green and pleasant lands of England, the towering peaks of the Himalayas, the rainforests of South East Asia, or the deserts of Saharan Africa, bicycle travel invites you to hunt down intrigue on the roadside the world over.

So the question of ‘where to go’ bicycle touring is a whimsical one to which the only real answer is ‘anywhere you like’. 

There are very few nations on Earth in which it is impossible to travel by bicycle. Read enough blogs and trip journals and you’ll realise that cycle travellers have explored pretty much everywhere.

Visas and bureaucracy may complicate things a little bit, but this will rarely prevent you from going altogether, and there are fewer excuses than ever for not making a trip to that place you’ve always wanted to visit, or simply sticking a pin in a map. If you’re reading this, chances are you have a useful passport to travel on, and it’s worth remembering that this makes you far more mobile and unrestrained a traveller than the majority of Earth’s population, and that any additional paperwork is a relative doddle by comparison.

Amaya is a good example of what’s possible – she is midway through a mission to cycle every country in the world. “Sounds daunting,” she says, “but little by little, I’m confident we’ll realise this dream.”

Inspiration can also be found in the story of Jumber Ledzhava, a man who, aged 52, set off to cycle every nation on Earth, and visit every capital city. He spent 12 years achieving this dream, mostly alone, ticking off all but five of the more than 200 countries in existence at the time and setting a new record for the world’s longest continuous bicycle journey, with over a quarter of a million kilometres of pedalling beneath his wheels.

What’s remarkable was that he did this as a citizen of the tiny former Soviet republic of Georgia. Without the luxury of a Western passport, he pulled off this feat by persuading diplomats the world over into granting him visas and permits through sheer determination, persistence and charisma.

Something to remember, perhaps, next time we in the West are tempted to complain about having to apply in advance for a tourist visa!

Header photo courtesy of Eric Fiala.

This is a modified excerpt from my beginners’ introduction to cycle touring and bikepacking.

How To Hit The Road is a low-priced newcomer’s guide to every aspect of planning and surviving your first bike bike trip. Available as an ebook (Kindle/ePub) or print-on-demand paperback.

Inspiration Philosophy Of Travel Touring Advice

When Can You Go Cycle Touring?

This post is part of a series of inspirational short essays exploring the who, what, when, where and how of cycle touring and bikepacking.

The ‘when’ of setting off on a bike trip is an easy one: as soon as you would like.

That might be next summer, when you’ve got the the equipment sorted, the route planned out, and the weather is optimal.

It might be in a couple of years’ time, when you’ve saved a huge chunk of cash, quit your job, sold your house and are ready to begin your brand new life on the road.

Or it might be tomorrow, because you’ve got a bike, you need to get away, and you can think of no genuine reason not to do so right now.

How soon you can go on a bicycle adventure depends only on how complicated you want to make it.

Many assume that bike trips are restricted by season, climate and weather. But there’s almost nowhere on Earth in which it’d be impossible to do a bike trip at any time of year.

Alastair Humphreys and Rob Lilwall found themselves in Siberia in midwinter, camping at temperatures down to ‑40ºC and passing through Yakutsk – the coldest inhabited place on Earth – on the way.

Helen Lloyd more recently repeated the feat, except in colder temperatures, on her own, and with just a bivvy bag.

A few summers back I rode across the Danakil Depression in East Africa – the hottest inhabited place on Earth – encountering 56ºC temperatures, AK47-wielding tribal warriors, a fierce headwind, and no roads whatsoever; one of the most memorable, treasured, and brutal experiences of my life.

People have ridden the Canning Stock Route across the Australian outback carrying a month’s food and several gallons of water, pinning their hopes on old colonial-era wells for survival.

Janne Corax crossed the roadless Chang Tang plateau of Tibet on bicycles, seeing no other humans for weeks, and almost dying of starvation in the process, but nevertheless making it to his destination (only to be arrested by the Chinese authorities for doing so without the proper permits).

It takes a certain level of experience to feel confident taking on such challenges, of course.

But each and every one of those riders, at some point in their lives, was a novice too, taking their first tentative pedal strokes.

The point is that you are pretty much free to ride whenever the fancy takes you, up to and beyond the edges of your comfort zone – and one day you might look back and be surprised to see how far that’s taken you.

Remember always that the perfect circumstances for your dream tour will never exist. “You will never simultaneously have infinite time, money, freedom and mojo,” says Alastair Humphreys. “So the best time is now.”

Approaching the question from a different angle, when would you actually want to go cycle touring?

Most short trips, particularly first short trips, generally seem to take place when the weather is nice. Not too hot, not too cold, not too wet or windy, and with sufficient daylight hours to get the requisite miles done before dark.

On short trips there’s more emphasis on having fun during the limited time available. Riding through a fortnight of cold rain doesn’t feature on many bucket lists.

Most long trips, particularly first long trips, generally seem to begin in the exact same manner: leave when the weather gets nice. These days, the number of long-haul riders setting off from Europe towards Asia between May and August each year probably ranks in the thousands.

For these riders, it makes sense to hit the road in time for the reliably warm European summer, where some sub-standard weather here and there doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things, and they’re heading for warmer climes anyway.

Some set off in more challenging seasons, either because they just can’t wait to get going, or because they’ve learned the basics on previous trips and don’t mind a little extra hardship.

But the general rule is that the best time to go cycling somewhere is likely to match the best time to go there on holiday.

And in colder climates where cycling in shorts and a T‑shirt won’t be comfortable, your range can be greatly extended through careful choice of clothing and equipment, plus a few simple tips for cycling and camping in winter.

Header photo courtesy of Peter Gostelow.

This is a modified excerpt from my beginners’ introduction to cycle touring and bikepacking.

How To Hit The Road is a low-priced newcomer’s guide to every aspect of planning and surviving your first bike bike trip. Available as an ebook (Kindle/ePub) or print-on-demand paperback.

Inspiration Philosophy Of Travel Touring Advice

Who Can Go On A Bicycle Tour? (Hint: Not Only Cyclists)

This post is part of a series of inspirational short essays exploring the who, what, when, where and how of cycle touring and bikepacking.

It is sometimes assumed that cycle touring is the exclusive domain of the lean and lycra-clad. Since when did a ‘normal’ person get on a bike and routinely crank out between fifty and a hundred miles a day without breaking a sweat?

That requires fitness, and therefore training, and therefore a passion for sport and competition, and determination and pain. Which seemingly only describes a talented and slightly masochistic elite of cyclists.

Except those baseline assumptions are false.

Study the demographics of those actually out there wandering the world’s back roads on bicycles and you’ll find that very few are in it for the physicality or the challenge, or even for the cycling.

Athleticism is a byproduct of a mode of travel that creates fitness as it goes. The only requirement is the ability to ride a bike without falling off – something we all learn at an early age, and for most of us our first real taste of freedom. It’s that same freedom that attracts fully-grown adults back to their bicycles later on.

Sure, if you’ve spent the last few years indulging a little too heavily in sofa- or office-based activities, you’re not going to hit the ground running, so to speak.

But you don’t need to hit the ground running.

Nobody’s waiting for you at a finish line with a stopwatch. You can take all the time you need to get where you’re going. Who’s going to know how long it took (except you), and does it matter if it takes a little longer? You’ll only see more of the world as you go.

It won’t be long before you shift your attention away from your lacklustre mileage and towards the ever-changing landscape, the opportunities to explore, and the people and oddities you’ll stumble upon. You’ll find that slowness actually amplifies the intrigue of exploring new roads. Pedalling along, beholden to no-one and nothing, you’ll start to wonder:

Why would anyone take the freedom afforded by the humble bicycle and squander it on a mad dash to the finish line?

Allow days and weeks to pass by, and you’ll find that something even stranger happens.

The aches and pains subside. The saddle actually starts to feel rather comfortable, as though you’re ‘becoming one with the bike’. You’re no longer thinking about the cycling itself or how hard or strange it is, because it’s getting easier and more natural by the day as your experience grows, and you’ve got more interesting things to think about anyway. And the moment will come when you realise you’ve got on a bike that morning and cranked out a hundred leisurely miles without even noticing.

Because you, as a human, by applying yourself to something new, will have done what millions of years of evolution have optimised you for.

You will have adapted.

And so cycle touring – far from demanding a level of skill and strength available only to the chosen few – is in fact one of the most egalitarian types of adventure there is.

Try it. Take this simple man-powered machine, combine with your naturally curious spirit, and see where you end up.

Header photo courtesy of the Sathre-Vogel family.

This is a modified excerpt from my beginners’ introduction to cycle touring and bikepacking.

How To Hit The Road is a low-priced newcomer’s guide to every aspect of planning and surviving your first bike bike trip. Available as an ebook (Kindle/ePub) or print-on-demand paperback.