Categories
Philosophy Of Travel

The Curious Truth About How Bicycle Touring Extends Your Life

I was over at the Adventure Pedlars bunkhouse the other day, chatting with the owner Pete about all things long-distance cycling, when he told a story that really resonated with me.

When he and his wife Alice were nearing the end of their big honeymoon ride from the UK to New Zealand, and were crossing Australia with not an awful lot to do, he said, they’d gone back over the journey that had got them there and found that they could mentally ‘re-run’ the entire trip, remembering each and every day’s events: where they’d cycled, who they’d met, what they’d eaten and where they’d slept. Amazingly, they’d been able to do this with no memory cues whatsoever.

It reminded me of similar experiences I’d had while writing Janapar back in 2012–13. Next to my writing chair I’d had a stack of hand-scribbled diaries to refer to whenever I wanted. Not just that, but I’d had thousands of photos to look back on, and hundreds of hours of video footage to play back in search of things I’d forgotten.

But I barely touched any of them. Instead, the 3½-year journey played itself back in my mind’s eye with sparkling clarity. I wrote the vast majority of that book from memory alone. Only later in the process did I fact-check a few things against the records I’d taken at the time. Practically all of it was bang on.

Now, in case you’re under the impression that Pete, Alice and I are blessed with remarkable memories, consider this possibly more familiar scenario:

I have been attempting to learn the Armenian language for over ten years. While I’m able to understand the gist of most conversations, I still cannot quickly recall simple words such as ‘before’, ‘after’, ‘give’, ‘take’, etc. There are still several letters in the Armenian alphabet which I get mixed up and, try as I might, simply cannot commit to memory.

Why exactly is that? Why is it that can I recall the minutiae of a million roadside encounters that I made no attempt to fix in my mind, yet hours of diligent study and practice are unable to make a permanent register of the association between a shape on a page and the sound of a simple consonant?

This question has been bubbling away in my head for a long time, but I think I’ve arrived at a speculative answer – with curious implications for the bicycle traveller. (You might want to get a cup of tea at this point.)

Road kill

Your Memory: An Evolutionary Perspective

When it comes to understanding why things are the way they are, especially in the case of our species, it’s often useful to turn to evolutionary principles.

We humans have evolved this fantastic capacity to conscript our past experiences for an internal record we call ‘memory’. Memory is the foundation of our identity, underpins our every daily decision, and is drawn into all our future planning. Since too little time has passed to make us biologically distinct from the last era of hunter-gatherers, it makes sense to assume that our memory evolved to serve the needs of that primitive type of society.

What kind of memory would offer the best chance of survival to our forebears, whose lives depended on finding food and identifying hazards?

It might sound obvious, but it would probably be one that was adept at spatial and visual learning – in other words, remembering where things were and what they looked like.

A thought experiment clarifies the point. Imagine visiting a friend’s house for the first time, and being given a couple of minutes to visit every room in the house. Would you recognise that house the next time you visited? Would you be able to remember your way to the bathroom? I’m willing to bet that you probably would, because even with the most limited exposure – and without any conscious effort – we are incredibly good at committing places and images to memory.

You might argue that you’d struggle to pick out any particular one of a row of Victorian terraces after a single visit, which is why we invented house-numbers rather than typing ‘the house with the dark blue door and the recycling bin perched on the wall to the right and the pink fairy lights in the living-room window’ into the delivery address form on Amazon.

And you’d be right, because we evolved to live in an environment carved by geological processes; one without our modern sense of orderliness imposed upon it, and one in which almost every landscape was in some way unique.

No stopping here

The Parallels Between Bike Trips & Memory Palaces

So it should be no surprise that I can still clearly remember the nameless Romanian gypsy village in which I stayed the night in a small house belonging to a one-eyed lady with a side-parting and her mushroom-hunting husband with a huge mural of Christ crucified on the wall and a badly-tuned television blaring the most awful Balkan Pop long into the night – but that I can’t remember how to pronounce Զ.

With the slowness and awareness engendered by riding a bicycle, I had plenty of time to take in the hugely varied landscapes through which I passed, and the never-ending stream of unique faces, places and happenings that I encountered every day.

These are precisely the things that my memory evolved to store – not the abstract sounds of a second language or writing system, or the even greater abstraction of random strings of numbers that telephones, calendars and credit cards have given us.

It might also explain why my memories are less pronounced in the emptier, not-so-visually-exciting places. Much of the Nubian desert has blended into a compact series of sandy, rocky and rather warm impressions, and northern Scandinavia has become a much more succinct tract of spindly pine trees, vast snowfields and frozen lakes than the month-long ride actually encompassed.

Joshua Foer writes in Moonwalking with Einstein* about the vast and ancient body of knowledge surrounding the limitations of our memory – and, more poignantly, how it might be worked around.

Many of us will have heard of the ‘memory palace’ concept, perhaps through the mainstream media. The original BBC series of Sherlock had Benedict Cumberbatch depicting our favourite sleuth’s descent into a memory labyrinth from which he was able to pluck the most archaic of facts. The mentalist Derren Brown cites it in Tricks Of The Mind* as one of his most commonly-used devices for committing abstract information – numbers, dates, lists of words, an ordered list of every English king or queen together with the dates they reigned – to memory. Tony Buzan has built a megalomaniac’s empire based to a large extent on these ideas.

The memory palace is not a fad. Records of the technique exist from Ancient Greek society almost 2,500 years ago, at which time — with writing still being at a very early stage of development — it appeared to be such a fundamental part of of every thinking person’s toolkit to the point that it was barely worth mentioning.

The point of bringing up the memory palace concept is the astonishing parallel it has, in my view, with bicycle travel.

The user of the technique begins with a location that they are familiar with – a direct play to our innate skills with spatial memory – and then scatters unique, often outright bizarre, occasionally provocative, and therefore memorable images at particular spots, thus taking advantage of our excellent visual memory.

This journey, of course, is one of the imagination, but by virtue of imagining this palatial sowing and reaping as a full three-dimensional multi-sensory experience – featuring not just sights but sounds, smells, textures and tastes – the resulting memory is just as strong as if the journey had happened for real.

A journey by bicycle – or, for that matter, by foot, or any other slow and engaged style of travel – leaves precisely the same impression. We become intimately familiar with our surroundings by virtue of our ambling and exposed mode of transport. In them, we encounter an endless string of new and unique faces, landscapes, cultural artefacts and random occurrences. Simply put, a cycle-tourist’s daily routine is practically identical to a well-realised journey through a memory palace.

Is there any wonder our experiences stick in the mind so stubbornly?

In a society where memory has long been marginalised in favour of external records in books, websites and other directories, which can be accessed at any time through any number of ever-more invasive devices, we now pay little attention to how our memories are actually set up to function. We use them increasingly little, and when we do, we use them badly. We repetitively hammer our brains with foreign vocabulary in an attempt to bludgeon it into sticking there. Our education system blasts our children with facts to remember, but gives them not an ounce of guidance on how to remember them.

Above the treeline

Live Longer. Ride Bicycles.

Modern society places the preservation of life at the very peak of its objectives. Authorities plough countless millions into health and safety. We have never been more obsessive about diet and fitness. The institution of medicine is constantly looking to cure yet more killer diseases in order that our physical longevity might be extended yet further.

In my view, our subjective sense of longevity has much more to do with richness of memory than with candles on a cake. We are all aware of how a month (or a year) can seem to zip by in a flash, and how, conversely, a week or two of the right kind of activity can feel like it lasted for months (or years).

Especially as we grow older, we look back and consider the way in which we’ve spent our lives. It’s doubtful that we’ll spend much time counting our birthdays. More likely is that we’ll think about the places we’ve been, the people we’ve met and the things we’ve done.

I have no problem with the belief in the value of living longer. Life is the greatest privilege of all, and has the potential to be endlessly fascinating. But I want to question the unit of measurement. What is the point of living a hundred years if the memory of it has become a blur of routine interspersed with brief moments of respite?

I have come to the conclusion that the 3½ years on the road that became Janapar lasted longer than the previous 23. This is my subjective truth. I cannot imagine how short the same few years might have seemed had I followed an office-bound career as a web developer.

It hasn’t been until recently that I’ve been able to put my finger on just how the life I chose had such an effect, and there must be countless other ways in which to achieve the same thing.

If nothing else, though, I hope I’ve convinced you that travelling by bicycle will, in a very real way, extend your life.

Categories
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.

Categories
Philosophy Of Travel Planning & Logistics

Как отправиться в кругосветное путешествие на велосипеде: три простых шага

Шаг 1. Раздобудьте велосипед.
Какой именно — не имеет значения. Главное, чтобы он был удобным и исправным. В любом случае, без велосипеда вы далеко не уедете.

Шаг 2. Увольтесь.*
На путешествие потребуется несколько лет, так что напишите своему начальству в заявлении на увольнение о том, что вам, конечно, очень жаль уходить с работы, но у вас есть более важные дела.

* если вы студент, пенсионер или безработный, то этот шаг можно смело пропустить.

Шаг 3. Отправляйтесь в путь.
У вас не получится объехать весь свет, если вы никуда не поедете. Поэтому закрепите на велосипеде палатку и спальный мешок, попросите соседей приглядывать за вашим котом и начинайте крутить педали.

Как только вы пройдете эти три шага, все остальное получится само собой.

Хорошей дороги!

* * *

Необязательные дополнительные шаги

Изучайте.
Вы можете потратить несколько месяцев, изучая информацию о правилах пересечения границ, визах, необходимом оборудовании, временах года, бюджете и прочем. С тем же успехом вы можете отправиться в путь прямо сейчас и день за днем узнать всё, что нужно, по дороге. Поверьте, собственные инициатива и интуиция (и бесплатный Wi-Fi) послужат вам большим подспорьем, нежели энциклопедические познания в международной бюрократии.

Тренируйтесь.
Вы можете записаться в тренажерный зал с персональным тренером или получить членство в местном велоклубе и потратить несколько месяцев, чтобы, как говорится, «прийти в форму». Так делают все настоящие спортсмены. С другой стороны, вы наработаете такую же (или лучшую) форму в первые несколько недель путешествия, если будете ехать на велосипеде каждый день целый день.

Экономьте.
Вы можете сэкономить десятки и сотни тысяч рублей (долларов, фунтов, евро и т. д.) и положить их в банк — это создаст чувство некоторой защищенности. А можете продать все, что вам не нужно, прямо сейчас и ничего больше не покупать. Конечно, иногда придется ночевать в спартанских условиях, питаться хлебом, водой и фруктами с деревьев, заниматься поиском жилья на различных couch-surf сайтах (и принимать любые приглашения). Да, еще придется отказаться от экскурсий по достопримечательностям — займётесь этим, когда выйдете на пенсию.

Когда у вас нет денег — пользуйтесь навыками, о наличии которых у себя вы даже и не подозреваете, чтобы заработать хоть что-то там, куда вас занесло.

Купите крутое снаряжение.
Можно потратить очень много денег на самый совершенный туринг-велосипед, легчайшую палатку, надежнейшую походную печку, самые непромокаемые вещи и т. д. и т. п. С тем же успехом можно найти велосипед на помойке (буквально), взять палатку в дар по объявлению, сделать горелку из пивной банки и купить все что нужно в местном супермаркете (кстати, таким образом вы сэкономите денег на огромное количество хлеба и воды, см. предыдущий пункт).

Спланируйте маршрут.
Потратьте некоторое время на планирование маршрута, штудируя дома карты и атласы. Так вы будете точно знать, куда вам надо ехать каждый день. Или поезжайте куда глаза глядят, ориентируясь только по компасу и примерному направлению — ведь вся прелесть велопутешествия заключается именно в свободе выбора.

Зарегистрируйтесь на фейсбуке, в твиттере и создайте свой сайт.
Вы можете поведать всему миру о своем путешествии в режиме онлайн: на сайтах, в блогах и социальных сетях. Но точно так же вы можете не пользоваться интернетом и наслаждаться своей жизнью на Земле. Свою историю вы всегда можете рассказать, уже вернувшись домой.

Найдите спонсора.
В безрезультатном обзвоне компаний и написании просьб о спонсорстве можно провести несколько месяцев. Те же несколько месяцев можно поработать сверхурочно (или на второй работе — как будет угодно), чтобы заработать те же самые деньги. Вот только без спонсора вы сами вольны принимать решения в дороге: куда ехать, как ехать, ехать ли вообще. Можете даже влюбиться и сыграть свадьбу по дороге — все зависит только от вас.

Озадачьтесь освещением путешествия в прессе.
Подробностями вашего планируемого приключения можно поделиться с местной (а то и национальной) прессой. Но опять же, подумайте о той свободе, которой вы достигаете, когда никто за вами не наблюдает (и когда вам не надо посылать отчеты о поездке из своей палатки, а можно спокойно почитать книгу перед сном).

Сожгите мосты.
Вы можете продать свою квартиру, уволиться со скандалом, развестись, бросить семью и детей и уехать, послав всех и вся далеко и надолго. Но можно попробовать так изменить свою семейную и рабочую жизнь так, чтобы пережить путешествие без потрясений и вернуться к ней когда (если) оно подойдет к концу.

Стремитесь к рекордам.
Никто не запрещает поставить новый мировой рекорд в кругосветном велопутешествии. Еще никто не запрещает вспомнить о том, что вы не спортсмен, а сама суть вашего начинания — независимость и свобода выбора. Возможно, стоит задуматься о том, что в путешествии надо радоваться дороге, а не планировать закончить его как можно быстрее.

Собирайте статистику.
Каждый день можно пытаться записывать сколько вы проехали, какая средняя скорость была достигнута, какое изменение высоты накопилось… Или можно понять, что количество километров в день примерно так же важно для успешного путешествия, как цвет вашей все сильнее и сильнее запотевающей и пылящейся футболки. Без цифр в голове гораздо проще сконцентрироваться на своих ощущениях от проделанного пути.

Назначьте дату возвращения.
Для того, чтобы вернуться домой к определенному времени, стоит обозначить некоторые промежуточные цели на своем пути. А еще стоит осознать: всё, что вы узнаете в дороге, скорее всего как-то повлияет на вас, и все цели, так скрупулезно расставленные, в какой-то момент перестанут иметь смысл. Возможно, даже сам факт возвращения потеряет смысл. Или — какой ужас — вам напрочь надоест крутить педали.

На самом деле совершите кругосветное путешествие.
Вы и вправду можете целенаправленно завершить свое путешествие (так наивно названное «кругосветным» за несколько лет до старта), объехав весь мир. Это будет потрясающим примером торжества идеи над здравым смыслом. А можете позволить дороге заводить вас туда, куда, казалось бы, вам совсем не по пути. И ваш путь по глобусу будет напоминать детские каракули, нежели красивую линию, проходящую через все континенты.

* * *

Существует множество способов сделать долгое путешествие много более сложным, чем оно является в действительности.

Для кого-то все сложности могут быть вполне осязаемыми. Например, мне самому семь лет назад казалась полностью очевидной необходимость завести блог: я хотел писать, блог был тем средством, которое помогало мне бороться с собственной ленью и чувствовать значимость моих заметок.

На данный момент, я пишу именно потому, что мне нравится сам процесс. Я вдохновляюсь путешествиями. Мне полюбилась каждая минута тех двух лет, которые я писал свою первую книгу (и даже когда мне, казалось, надоело всё это, в глубине души я всё равно наслаждался моментом). Наверное, даже если бы интернета не существовало, я все равно писал хотя бы в простой бумажный дневник.

На каждого будущего велопутешественника, которому действительно нужны дополнительные шаги из списка выше, приходится сотня-другая тех, кто шел по простому пути и никогда об этих шагах не думал, тех, у кого нет блогов и аккаунтов в твиттере и инстаграме, тех, кто раз в пару недель пишет своим семьям из интернет-кафе.

Эти незаметные путешественники, идущие по своему пути, в действительности составляют основную массу всех «велодальнобойщиков». О них не узнать в сети. И именно поэтому для каждого будущего путешественника интернет в какой-то мере опасен.

Собственно, основная опасность всех этих дополнительных шагов заключается в том, что они часто упоминаются в сети, тем самым обманчиво усложняя суть приключения и делая каждое конкретное путешествие мечты все менее и менее возможным.

Часть проблемы — сам интернет. Так просто загореться идеей долгой дороги! И точно также просто отказаться от нее, потому что какой-то из именитых велосипедистов очень красочно пишет о том, как же всё это было сложно.

Всё это я имею честь лицезреть воочию каждый ноябрь на неделе, которую я провожу на конференции под названием «Explore», посвященной планированию экспедиций Королевского Географического Общества в Лондоне. Моей неофициальной работой на этой конференции является необходимость рассказывать всем будущим велопутешественникам о том, что для начала путешествия им не стоит посещать эту конференцию. Им надо просто брать велосипед и ехать.

Это кажется несколько фантастическим и даже гротескным, но такая работа приносит свои плоды — я периодически получаю письма благодарности от людей, которые уже несколько месяцев находятся в дороге. Мне говорят спасибо только за то, что я лишний раз повторяю проверенный временем постулат KISS-принципа1.

Также мне сложно не замечать всё большее количество очень серьезно подготовленных и оснащенных велоэкспедиций, которые оказываются провальными (по их собственным критериям успешности). Создаются общества, намечаются великие цели… и сложная концепция всё равно разваливается и оказывается менее жизнеспособной в реальных условиях, чем обычный жизненный опыт и понимание того, что путешествие может быть не сложнее повседневности.

Большая часть успешных путешествий начинается с мечты и ее немедленной реализации: сели на велосипед, поехали — по пути разберемся, что делать дальше. Ненужные усложнения слишком часто не позволяют мечтам сбыться.

В общем, не пытайтесь повторить в своей жизни то, что вы так часто видите в интернете. Если у вас есть мечта, пройдите шаги с первого по третий и радуйтесь дороге. Дополнительными шагами озадачивайтесь только в том случае, если они правда-правда-правда кажутся вам осмысленными.

Categories
Bikes Equipment Philosophy Of Travel Planning & Logistics

What’s Really The Difference Between Bikepacking & Cycle Touring?

Over the last few years we have seen the rise of a new sub-discipline of bicycle travel.

It’s called ‘bikepacking’, and it’s become such a hit that almost every mainstream bike manufacturer now produces at least one ‘adventure bike’ or ‘bikepacking rig’, or includes the word in their marketing spiel for bikes that might fit the bill.

Specialised bikepacking luggage, too, has proliferated, from a few cottage industries turning out bespoke, hand-stitched frame bags to pannier giant Ortlieb launching a line.

Someone I know who helps run a bikepacking website told me they get over one million hits per month. (For comparison, this blog has been getting a steady 50,000 monthly pageviews for the last several years, or about 5% of that.)

So today, unlike in days gone by, I think it’s a fair bet that when a newcomer happens upon the idea of going on a bike trip, one of the first things they find is a dichotomy between ‘cycle touring’ and ‘bikepacking’.

In this piece I want to explore the difference, as I see it, between these two different versions of the same basic idea. Because while the difference seems to be portrayed mainly in terms of equipment, I don’t think it actually has anything to do with bikes or luggage at all. And I want to help those newcomers who get sucked into all that stuff about bikes and gear to understand what’s actually going on beneath it all.

(At 2,942 words, you might want to get a cup of tea for this.)


Some context.

I’m a mountain biker first and foremost. Back in 2006, when I was 22, me and my mates bought 1‑berth ultralight tents from Lidl, threw them in army-surplus backpacks and set off on full-suspension mountain bikes to ride across the Scottish Highlands.

After a couple of days we strapped our luggage to the bike frames to lighten the load. So we were mountain biking with stuff strapped to our bikes. But we weren’t bikepacking. That hadn’t been invented yet.

(It’s funny how similar this photo from 12 years ago looks to what bikepackers are doing today. Check out the Gaffa Tape seat-pack.)

I was inspired. And a year later I set out to cycle round the world. By now I had come across ‘cycle touring’. People had, I discovered, been going cycle touring for years. Decades. That’s why it sounds slightly old-fashioned. ‘Touring’. So Victorian.

At this point it is customary to mention Thomas Stevens’ bicycle odyssey across America and Eurasia of 1896. But preceding that by some 18 years was the founding in 1878 of the Bicycle Touring Club of Great Britain (now Cycling UK).

That point is that ‘cycle touring’ – the phrase, and the activity it described – has been established for at the very least 140 years.

How long has ‘bikepacking’ been around?

To take a crude measurement I looked at Google Trends. This tool uses the entire history of Google’s indexing of the contents of the internet to calculate the relative interest in any given phrase over time.

It gives the term ‘bikepacking’ a rating of zero as recently as April 2010.

From that starting point, the data shows an exponential upward curve, from 15% in June 2013, to 49% in 2016, all the way up to the benchmark of 100% it has today (March 2020).

In other words, bikepacking has never been more popular than it is right now, yet less than a decade ago, basically nobody knew what it was.

It gets more interesting when you overlay the popularity ratings for ‘cycle touring’. Taking again April 2010 as the starting point, when bikepacking could be argued to have begun its rise to popularity, the same dataset shows cycle touring’s popularity as a linear line, maintaining more or less steady popularity throughout the decade or so. Bikepacking seems to have surpassed cycle touring some time in the middle of 2015.

(If anything, cycle touring has seen an ever-so-slight decline. I think I know why that is, and I’ll come back to it later on.)

The data would seem to support anecdotal evidence.

Today, my social media feeds are awash with images of happy, tired, mud-splattered faces astride lightly-loaded off-road bikes with big, knobbly tyres, with yearning mountain vistas or forest singletrack in the (slightly out of focus) distance.

They drown out the images I used to see a lot more of – tanned, weathered people astride heavily loaded touring bikes in places entirely unrecognisable – or more often, images that were not of the riders at all but of the people they’d been hanging out with and the curiosities they’d encountered on the roadside.

There is something telling in this, too, which feeds directly into what I think the difference between cycle touring and bikepacking really is. But more groundwork still needs to be done.

Superficially, the difference is obvious. Bikepacking looks different. The bikes look different. The stuff people strap to them look different. The places they ride them often look different.

Bikepacking looks like a different kind of experience.

“Simply put,” says Bikepacking.com’s introductory paragraph under the heading ‘What is Bikepacking?’, “bikepacking is the synthesis of mountain biking and minimalist camping; it evokes the freedom of multi-day backcountry hiking, with the range and thrill of riding a mountain bike.”

Cycle touring is a bit more abstract.

“Cycle touring is whatever you want it to be,” I wrote in the first chapter of my beginners’ guidebook. (I can quote myself, can’t I? Is that OK these days? Just the literary equivalent of posting a selfie, right?) “And you can call it whatever you like – cycle touring, adventure cycling, bikepacking, even simply travelling by bicycle; these are all nuanced terms for the act of getting on a bike and going on a journey with it.”

There’s a formula for how the regular form of cycle touring looks, too. Again, a photo or two makes the difference obvious. On the surface, I mean.

(OK, extreme example. But you know what I mean).

But the popularity graphs – the changing social media trends – even the nuances of the language used in the descriptions above – all of these are pointers, in my opinion, to a deeper motivation for what is essentially the splitting of the adventure cycling community into two distinct camps.

One camp really just wants to go travelling.

The other camp really just wants go biking.

To me, this is what defines the split.

And of course, there is a middle ground between the two, and loads of overlap, and exceptions that prove the rule, because we’re talking about generalisations here, and life’s not really that simple. And I’m not suggesting that the emergence of two camps suggests any rivalry or conflict, and certainly not any mutual exclusivity. The people who inhabit this scene generally aren’t like that.

But this is the internet, and so before anyone starts to formulate an emotionally charged disagreement to post in the comments, let me explain the reasons why I think this is generally true.

The running theme I have seen over more than a decade of being involved in all this stuff is that people who choose the bicycle as a means of seeing the world tend to do so because of the many advantages it confers upon the traveller. It is a tool, and a very good one at that. It is a mode of transport. And the world these people imagine travelling through tends to be that of people and the roads that connect them and the cultures that spring forth when they meet, settle and grow into that thing we call human civilisation.

Cycle touring is about enabling one to practice the art of travel, to live life on the road.

It consequently tends to attract those who see travel itself as the end, to which getting on a bike is the means.

That’s also, in my view, why their social media feeds are not of themselves or their bikes but of what they saw and who they met along the way.

Bikepacking, too, absolutely involves a big element of travel, adventure, exploration, or whatever you wish to call it.

But bikepacking is primarily a way of going on a longer bike ride.

Bikepacking is for bikers – bikers who want to get away from busy roads and the man-made world and ride their bikes in nature, or something approximating it. They always have wanted this. Now they can ride further, for longer and with less fuss. The community’s prime obsessions are bikes, gear to attach to bikes, and riding bikes.

And there is a point to all this obsessiveness. It is to tailor and to optimise the ‘rig’ to deliver the best possible ride under conditions often far more challenging than those encountered on a regular cycle tour. Off-road biking requires skill, and just as in other specialist discipline requiring skill, the tools involved must be designed and honed to allow those skills to be maximised.

This emphasis on bikes and gear has made bikepacking the lucrative niche for the bicycle industry that cycle touring never was. Trek doesn’t noisily launch a 2,500-dollar “bikepacker’s dream” unless the executives think it’s going to sell. And check out the top posts on Instagram for #bikepacking. At the time of writing, the subject of each of the nine featured photos was a either a bike or someone riding one. Manicured. Artistic. Posed. Paid-for.

Touring bikes, on the other hand, tend to stay the same year after year after year; always there, rarely noticed, usually buried under some other ill-fitting category, and probably not making much money.

There is nothing particularly wrong with any of this. Mass consumption funds research & development which in turn makes products more tuned to the priorities of their buyers. And this matches the bikepacking ideal just perfectly. The holy grail is a bikepacking bike with so little baggage that it has basically reverted back to being a mountain bike.

The industry will eventually help deliver something approaching this ideal if people keep pumping money into the machine. This will, in turn, benefit enormously the members of the bikepacking community who spend more time riding bikes than talking about it on the internet.

Cycle tourists, on the other hand, start out in the knowledge they’ll just have to lug a big bunch of stuff around with them, probably in a set of Ortliebs. It’s just as inevitable a compromise of travel as a suitcase or a backpack. And while some may occasionally curse the weight on the way up a big mountain pass, I’ll bet the only people who actually switch to bikepacking for this reason are those who, all along, really just wanted to ride their bike.

Please don’t get the impression I’m pro-cycle touring and anti-bikepacking or taking any kind of partisan stance.

I love bikepacking. Not because I’m also jumping the bandwagon, but because, as I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, I was a mountain biker long before I was a traveller. I spent years hucking bikes off-road through woods and muddy fields in England before I did anything more interesting on a bike. But, as noted above, bikepacking as we now know it didn’t exist back then.

In the meantime I went cycle touring, fell in love with the act of travel and consequently missed the bikepacking boat while I was riding around in far-off lands and making films about my love life.

And today I am discovering the joys of bikepacking retroactively (though I can’t afford the posh gear). It’s not a replacement for cycle touring. It just ticks a different set of boxes which were there waiting to be ticked. I wish it had been invented earlier!

Thanks to Chris Goodman for this one!

I’m hardly alone on this. Look hard enough and you’ll find plentiful examples from back in the day of mountain bikers trying to wrestle cycle touring to fit their priorities.

In fact, one of my inspirations to take cycle touring to places like Mongolia was Cass Gilbert, whose evocative photos of trailer-laden mountain bikes in the Himalaya I remember distinctly from the first edition of the Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook, which I read back in 2006. He went on to become one of bikepacking’s progenitors, doing the same thing before it was even a word, all in pursuit of being able to go mountain biking for longer. (Do they even make the Bob Yak any more?)

Logan Watts, whose travel blog Pedalling Nowhere later became Bikepacking.com, also played an instrumental part in developing bikepacking into a ‘thing’. He too was a mountain biker forced into the cycle touring mould until he started tinkering with options that better suited his preferences. Now he runs what is probably bikepacking’s most successful community website and has written a full-length manifesto on the topic.

And I will never forget reading about Janne Corax’s mountain bike crossing of the Changtang plateau in northwest Tibet, which remains the single most extreme-sounding wilderness bicycle journey about which I have ever read. That was 15 years ago and I can’t find the article any more. (I wonder how such an expedition would look today?)

These and many other bikepacking pioneers are doubtless somewhat baffled at the explosion of bikepacking’s popularity. They probably can’t help questioning whether or not it’s a good thing, and probably come back to the conclusion that it is – a sentiment I share, because it ultimately means more humans falling in love with Earth again at a time when we’re collectively screwing it up.

I think I can offer some thoughts, too, on why bikepacking’s sudden popularity.

Sure, there is today an element of corporate hijacking. (Trek, for god’s sake.) But the wagon was already rolling, and I think at least some of it – at least in the UK – can be attributed to the rise of the microadventure in combination with that of cycling in general. Bikepacking neatly merges both.

These two trends express the yearning of an overworked, overstressed society (with plenty of cash) not to think, say or post on Facebook but to do something to disconnect from so-called ‘reality’ and rediscover what had always been there: a world we can see, hear, taste and smell, and a body that can sweat and strain in order to change its environment from one of dull, nagging discomfort to one which at least satisfies our romantic vision of being at one with nature, however misguided, and if not on the daily commute then at least on a big escape at the weekend.

The focus on gear makes bikepacking a hobby that can be practiced online during lunch breaks and through tinkering in the garage after work. This can be fun.

And the extremely active community – not just discussing gear ad infinitum but proactively developing and sharing new routes – imparts the sense of tribal belonging that so often underscores people’s life choices.

In short, bikepacking ticks a lot of boxes past which traditional cycle touring has tended to swerve around.

Cycle touring will always be there.

There will always be people who want to travel the world, and who figure (correctly) that the bike would be the best way of doing so.

Some will be seduced by bikepacking’s shiny trinkets and end up wishing they had more space for home comforts and noticing none of the advantages they never needed in the first place.

But others will figure that there’s no need to change the tried and tested formula and set off to explore the world on a bog standard touring bike with panniers and a tent strapped to the rear rack, rarely thinking again about their bike or gear because their journey was never about that anyway.

And bikepacking is unlikely to be just a passing trend.

Beyond the commercialisation and the rabble of noisy opinion that comes with anything new and popular, the ability to ride a bike off-road deep into the wilderness with ever fewer compromises holds a deep attraction for a great many people – including me.

But does this fully explain the bikepacking boom?

Not quite. A final suggestion, then. I think the bikepacking obsession with whittling the experience ever closer back towards ‘pure’ biking is also what pushes people who are already cyclists over to bikepacking – people who would never have considered cycle touring because of the many ways in which they feel it would compromise the act of cycling itself.

In other words, I would wager that many of those swelling the bikepacking ranks are, weirdly, cyclists. Bikepacking is a natural step forward from what they already do into something slightly more adventure-tinged. It is now less of a leap for someone with cyclists’ priorities to choose bikepacking over cycle touring – which might explain why cycle touring’s popularity is dropping slightly.

It’ll be interesting to see where it all leads. Perhaps one day every bike will be sold with a tinny bell, a crap saddle, cheap reflectors and an emergency overnight seat-pack. Just in case.

Personally?

Heck, if I’m moving, I’m learning, and if I’m learning, I can make myself useful in the world. The rest is secondary. Cycle touring? Love it. Bikepacking? Love it too. I’m lucky enough to spend much of my time trying out new ways of exploring, and certainly not defined by any one discipline. (Check out that ill-advised packrafting expedition or that snazzy Land Rover I borrowed.)

So what’s really the difference between bikepacking and cycle touring?

I think people ask this question to understand where they fit into this rapidly diversifying collection of adventure cycling subcultures.

But I think a better question is – do you really just want to go travelling, or do you really just want to go biking?

Categories
Country Guides Guest Posts

Brutal Indonesia: Cycle Touring Sulawesi On Folding Bikes

This is a guest post by Marco Ferrarese. I met Marco on the road last year in Armenia and knew a fellow free spirit when I saw one. Turns out his back catalogue of adventures is fascinating, and he’s a damn fine writer too. So when I heard he was off on his first unplanned bike trip – on a folding bike across Sulawesi – and since we’ve been on the subject of cycle touring in southeast Asia recently, I invited him to tell us about it here.

* * *

“I… can… do… it!!!”

Even my thoughts were exhausted. I was pushing up the umpteenth hill, which had come after yet another mountain, in an interminable series of harsh slopes I had to endure on my short bike tour of central Sulawesi: a very hard place for a biker’s maiden voyage.

The day before, as I started cycling from the small town of Ampana, the landing point for most travellers bound for the Togian Islands, I had seen a huge poster advertising a “Tour De Central Celebes”. The route I’d decided to take was the same chosen to host an international cycling race just a couple weeks before. Days later, a local told me that an American cyclist had puked midway, stopping for the day as the ride was too tough.

It became clear as I pushed on my tiny foldable pedals, inching my way up the umpteenth bend, that this wasn’t the best place for a total cycle touring newbie. Especially a total newbie on a tiny folding bicycle.

Why cycling in Indonesia, of all things?

Let me rewind and tell you a bit about myself. I am Marco Ferrarese, a travel writer, and I’ve spent 10 years living, studying and researching in Asia. “Travel writer” sounds quite pompous and fancy, for sure, but among my modest achievements I do have bylines in the Guardian, CNN Travel, BBC Travel, Nikkei Asian Review, Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia and more airline magazines that I can remember.

I’ve lived in Southeast Asia, on the beautiful and historically rich island of Penang in Malaysia, for a decade. I pour some of that knowledge in a series of guidebooks to Malaysia, Brunei and Thailand, which I co-author for the Rough Guides, one of the world’s leading travel publishers.

My wife, Malaysian-Chinese photographer Kit Yeng Chan, was on another folding bike. Kit and I have travelled together for the best part of the above mentioned decade, before we married last year. Since meeting her in 2008, we have visited more than 30 countries together, overlanding from Asia to Europe twice. We have always travelled by hitchhiking or using trains and public transport.

Cycle touring has been at the back of our minds for years, but for one reason or another – i.e. carrying expensive photography gear on assignment – we never really decided to do it. I, like many others I guess, stumbled upon Tom’s three steps to cycling around the world and totally loved the simplistic attitude. As a former metalpunk guitarist and cockroach Asia Old Hand, it was exactly what I had been doing for a decade, sans the bike.

I was lucky enough to cross paths with Tom last year in Armenia as Kit and I journeyed from Iran to Italy overland to get married. After meeting up, my desire for cycle touring grew stronger and stronger. On the eve of yet another research trip – this time to ride a Phinisi live-aboard boat across the eastern Indonesian islands – we decided to do it.

We bought two 14-speed, 20″-wheel folding bikes… and that was it, because we didn’t even have the time to find helmets, let alone panniers. We got some bungee cords, a sun hat in place of a helmet, a few big plastic bags (that’s waterproofing for the real adventurer), and off we went. We thought that, with a bit of willpower and figuring out things as we went, touring on folding bikes should be totally possible. And besides the bloody Sulawesi mountains, it sure was.

Cycling in remote Sulawesi: some important basics

Think of Indonesia and images of Bali’s trash-cluttered beaches or Java’s horrible traffic and mind-boggling temples may come to mind. Sulawesi is an entirely different kind of beast.

Possibly the oddest-shaped island in the world, as it looks like a letter ‘K’ with a very long upper arm, Sulawesi’s beauty is the fact it’s well off the tourist radar. Its people are the most welcoming blend of Christians – particularly in the northern region of Manado – and Muslims, and you won’t find many English speakers here. The good thing is that basic Bahasa Indonesia is pretty easy to master, and you’ll be able to communicate simply in no time. A little bit of language here goes a very long way, and you’ll have a much better experience.

Sulawesi’s nature and topography are its second perk: mountains spread from the centre all over the island, nestling almost all the way to the coasts – which are endless, pristine, and uncontaminated. Hundreds of kilometres of perfect coves, beaches and offshore islands, palm-fringed and inviting, wait for you round all corners. Throw in some endemic monkeys, such as the Macaca Nigra (remember the monkey selfie? Yes, that one) and plenty of birds, and you get a timeless Southeast Asian experience. Forget the 7/11s, clean bedsheets and Wi-Fi: this is another world.

The part of Sulawesi we cycled, starting in Ampana and proceeding 200km south along the western side of Poso Lake, Indonesia’s third-biggest, has recently recovered from a religious inter-ethnic conflict, which came to an end in 2011. It’s safe again now, but the reputation doesn’t attract many travellers, who usually zoom from famous Tanah Toraja to Ampana and jump on the first boat to the Togian islands. Big mistake, for the Poso region may as well be the hidden gem in Sulawesi’s crown.

One last hint regarding Sulawesi’s food: it’s generally tasty and cheap, but, like eastern Indonesian food in general, it relies heavily on rice and fish. If you are a vegetarian you may have a bit of a hard time finding different options rather than the same tempe (a crunchy soy bean derivate, very delicious) and kailan (local green veggies) every day.

Pros of cycling in central Sulawesi

  1. The biggest plus has got to be the friendly people who are genuinely curious about foreigners, and are always ready to help. We cycled for five days and, even having camping equipment, we always ended up staying with locals. Either we slept in their homes or camped in their gardens, they always had some food and drinks to offer. Which doesn’t mean you should come prepared to exploit the people of Sulawesi, rather that you can be more relaxed in terms of carrying provisions, for hospitality here is very genuine.
  2. Again, speaking a bit of the language is helpful to open more of the doors. We found most people of all age groups to be very curious about us, and open to share what they had. Make sure that, whenever you enter a village, you visit the ‘kepala desa’ (village chief) and explain your intentions. Most of the time, you will be automatically invited to pitch your tent or stay in a local home. If you travel as an unmarried couple, I believe it pays to say you are married, especially in those Muslim villages that may shun you if you don’t. Best keep any Western pride at home and respect local sensitivities.
  3. Point one also means that food is available in most villages en route, and you will never cycle for more than 20km without some sign of civilisation.
  4. There are more ‘bengkel’ than food shops. ‘Bengkel’ are motorcycle workshops, and we used them all the time to check and fix the bikes. I had three punctures, and each time, one of these shops fixed it quickly for a mere 5,000 to 10,000 Rupiahs (0.30 to 0.60 USD). Again, people are friendly, and will go out of their way to make sure you and your vehicle are safe and sound.

Cons of cycling in central Sulawesi

  1. It’s very hot. You will have to start as early as possible and stop by midday, or you’ll risk heatstroke. Sunset comes early at around 6 to 6:30 pm, meaning that riding time is limited to a minimum, unless you scoot out of bed at 5 am like most locals.
  2. The roads are quite well maintained, but turn into gravel the more you proceed around the lake itself.
  3. There are no bicycle shops outside of Manado and Makassar, both hundreds of kilometres away.
  4. You will not learn anything about fixing and maintaining your bike, because people will do it for you!

Cycle touring with folding bicycles

Call me a wuss because I only cycled 200km and then put the bike on top of a shared taxi to get to the next stop. In my defence, I’m pushing 40, and although I’m modestly fit, the terrain of Sulawesi is harsh. We never started this trip with the obsession that we had to cycle every inch of the way – we just wanted to have a good time, trying something we never tried before.

But it turned out that, besides having 10kg of luggage strapped with flimsy cords on top of the rear rack, a 20″-wheel folding bike can do the job quite happily. The bikes (Exitway March and Nevada models) felt quite sturdy, were easy enough to tighten up when the joints felt wobbly, and most important, folded in less than 10 seconds. This last part impressed us as much as the locals.

Also, locals had never seen a folding bike before, and this added to our killer surprise effect. The local kids would follow us on their cranky little bikes as far as the remotest limits of their villages. Village headmen would look at our rides with faces so pitiful; the next thing we knew their wives were coming with hot food and drinks. And the coffee is delicious over there. And of course it was very easy to fold the bikes and transport them on the many boats we took prior to reaching Sulawesi.

Because of pure physics, a folding bike usually means fewer gears, and less mileage because of smaller wheels. I am convinced that, if I’d had a regular touring bike, the task of knocking off those mountain passes would have been more merciful.

But the key, as I anticipated earlier, was embracing flexibility more than anything else: we started our trip in Makassar, took a 4‑day ferry ride all the way to West Papua, and from there hopped on the Phinisi back to the Moluccas. There was so much water in between the land we explored that a regular touring bike would have been a pain in the neck to lug around.

In conclusion

We would have been able to continue on the folding bikes much further if we had had more time and preferably better gear – at the very least a pair of proper panniers. Tying the luggage to the rear rack every morning was such a sweaty waste of time. We will test the folders again in peninsular Malaysia, on pretty flat terrain, to see how far they can actually take us on less taxing road conditions.

Until then, my final message is that I vouch for doing whatever we set our minds to, rather than argue over the superiority of regular or folding bikes. I don’t care, to be honest. I feel fortunate enough to have decided to go, and tested first hand that Tom’s suggestion works: just get a bike and go, and figure out the rest later. Sulawesi proved to be a perfect place, because regardless of the steep terrain, the human element was always there to help.

As for myself, I think that by now, I may be able to change an inner tube – but not like an Indonesian mechanic, oh no. They do it without taking the wheel off, and there’s no way a loser writer like myself will ever master that skill.