After last week’s rather vocal debate on the ethics of commercialism in adventure, I figured it was time to get firmly back to what we all love: travelling the world on two wheels. (Less talk, more action, and all that.)
Now, as long-term readers will know, I’ve never had any particular fascination with touring bikes themselves. Though I’ve written the odd blog post on the topic, this has mainly been in order to get people here via search engines so that I can talk to them about how getting on a bike and going somewhere is a far better use of their time than endlessly googling touring bikes. (This works pretty well.)
But in the years since I started this blog, I’ve inevitably accumulating a certain amount of wisdom — both from first hand experience on the road in 40+ countries and from literally hundreds of other equally experienced riders — on what it is that distinguishes the ‘ideal’ world travel bicycle from… not just other bikes in general, but other touring bikes too. For not all touring bikes are created equal. Not by a long shot.
(Ironically, my lack of interest in equipment led me to write an entire handbook on choosing gear for cycle touring — the theory being, of course, that by doing so I would never have to answer another question on cycle touring equipment ever again. This has largely worked.)
Since relocating to Bristol earlier this year, I’ve also discovered something else, which is that I actually really enjoy working on bicycles. I enjoy getting my hands dirty. I enjoy the process of taking something that’s falling to pieces and — with just my hands and a selection of basic tools and parts — intuit and experiment with how to bring it back to that state of mechanical equilibrium in which everything just works.
It’s also slightly reminiscent of long-term touring. Everyone who’s done such a tour will know of the evolving mental to-do list of bicycle maintenance jobs. The rear derailleur could do with a tweak on the second sprocket down. There’s too much slack in that barrel adjuster. What’s that tick on the drive-side downstroke — pedal bearing, chainring bolt, bottom bracket or loose shoelace? Without wanting to get too Pirsig, there’s a certain zen to the art of bicycle maintenance.
I’ve rediscovered the simple yet therapeutic nature of bicycle rebuilding by volunteering at the Bristol Bike Project, spending one afternoon a week taking donated rust-heaps that’ve been sitting in people’s garden sheds for god knows how long and making them roadworthy again. These bicycles are often museum pieces. Not a day goes by at the Bike Project when I don’t learn something new about some long-forgotten piece of bicycle engineering technology.
Anyway. It got me thinking: if I were to build another bicycle from the ground up for the specific intention of travelling the planet, ultra long term, wanting insane levels of durability, maximum versatility in where I could take it, ultimate ease of maintenance, the greatest possible chance of finding compatible parts, and with comfort under load as a top priority… what would such a bike look like? What parts would I choose? What would my priorities be for the build, with all that experience to draw from? And how would it be put together?
It would certainly differ greatly from my first attempt at building an expedition bike. While certainly unique, that bike only really came into its own in Outer Mongolia and the most challenging parts of Africa. It was massively overbuilt for long-distance touring, slowed me down immeasurably, and in retrospect was a bit like taking a sledgehammer to a picturehook. It got me where I was going, of course. But there’s a lot I’d want to change.
Well, I’m excited to announce that I have now designed and built such a bike.
While the chances of me attempting to cycle round the world in one go (again) are slim, being happily married and having otherwise got it out of my system, this bike is the one I’d like to think I’ll spend the remainder of my touring days riding, wherever in the world I choose to go.
Vast amounts of thought and research have gone into its design, and I’ll be sharing the complete build process on this blog in the next couple of weeks.
But for now, I could use some help. Because the bike still doesn’t have a name.
So here’s the point of today’s post:
If you were building the ultimate heavy-duty world touring bicycle, what name would you give it?
(Ideally, something other than ‘Tom’s Expedition Bike’ — though that is a fairly accurate description!)
Answers in the comments. Whoever comes up with the name I choose gets a mystery prize. Just for fun 🙂
To get your creative juices flowing, here are some of the suggestions that have come through on Twitter and Facebook so far:
Thinking hats on! I need a clever & appropriate NAME for a heavy duty world touring bike. Best idea gets a mystery prize. Full blog 2moro…
It was a summer’s day in 2006 — was it really eight years ago? — and I was driving my dad’s Vauxhall Astra to my very first job interview. The position in question was for a database designer in a software house in Barnstaple, Devon. I was 22 years old with a good degree in Computer Science. Getting a proper job was exactly what I was supposed to be doing.
It was a summer’s day in 2007 — was it really seven years ago? — and I was about to ride my new bicycle for the very first time. My best mate Andy and I had finished building it that morning, still hung-over from the previous night’s leaving party. I was 23 years old, and job applications had long been shelved. Cycling round the world (starting today) was exactly what I was supposed to be doing.
It was a summer’s day in 2008 — was it really six years ago? — and I was sat on a bench beside a crumbling walkway in a park. Tenny was supposed to be on her way, but sneaking out without raising her parents’ suspicions had never been easy. I was 24 years old, and I’d pedalled across 13 countries to meet her. Living in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, was exactly what I was supposed to be doing.
It was a summer’s day in 2009 — was it really five years ago? — and each breath was like inhaling fire. The first cool hours of the morning had been luxuriant, but the infernal headwind was back and the mercury was approaching 60°C. I was 25 years old, and I had no idea when I’d see her again. Cycling alone across the Arabian desert was exactly what I was supposed to be doing.
It was a summer’s day in 2010 — was it really four years ago? — and my feet were throbbing with cold-aches as I stood dripping by the fire. The lake was still frozen over, and finding a decent swimming spot had been tough. I was 26 years old, and I was sharing the road with my best mate Andy for the first time in 3 years. Riding across Mongolia together, just like old times, was exactly what we were supposed to be doing.
It was a summer’s day in 2011 — was it really three years ago? — and I was sitting in the window of a coffee shop on Komitas Avenue. The park opposite was where we’d used to meet, back when Tenny still had to sneak out without arousing her parents’ suspicions. I was 27 years old, and I was sat at my laptop once again. Writing my first book was exactly what I was supposed to be doing.
It was a summer’s day in 2012 — was it really two years ago? — and I was perched, shivering, on that same saddle I’d set out on a half-decade previously. The deep red columns of the Golden Gate Bridge reached up into the insidious fog like giants’ fingers. I was 28 years old, and my wanderlust showed no sign of abating. Riding the Pacific Coast with my younger brother was exactly what I was supposed to be doing.
It was a summer’s day in 2013 — was it really a year ago? — and I was cowering in an eddy, having come within a hair’s breadth of being swept away down a swollen river in full flow. I’d never felt more afraid; never more alive. I was 29 years old, and I was alone in a packraft in rural Iran on the most difficult journey of my life. Two months of total immersion in a foreign language and culture was exactly what I was supposed to be doing.
* * *
When you duck out of the midstream and begin to pick your own line through life, you quickly find alternative currents too numerous to count.
The best direction to choose is rarely obvious and never easy. Life becomes a strange, shapeshifting journey. Boundaries change constantly, drifting in and out of sight. Sometimes you’re hemmed in, hanging on for dear life. And sometimes you’re becalmed, motionless, and every direction looks the same.
One thing never changes, though: You’re the only one at the helm.
(River metaphors for life are as clichéd as it gets. But I struggle to think up alternatives — particularly this soon after the end of a long river journey.)
Rarely a day goes by during which I don’t question whether or not this life I’ve forged for myself is the ‘right’ one; whether the choices I’ve made have been the ‘right’ ones.
I have, however, settled on a handful of principles by which I can evaluate every decision I do make. When your direction is unclear, I’ve found that it’s useful to review these principles, as they’re usually resilient and independent of circumstance, mood, bank balance, or any number of other influences. What follows is an attempt to articulate a few of them, for no particular reason other than to remind myself of what they are and why I’ve come to follow them.
The most important guiding principle to me has become the proactive working-towards of a change in the world that I believe will bring about a greater good, which sounds utterly preposterous when I read it back but is a principle embodied in any number of well-worn quotes, none of which I’ll reproduce here for fear it may appear I’m attempting to draw parallels between myself and their originators.
The change I want to see, of course, is an increase in cross-cultural understanding and therefore of mutual respect and trust and ultimately love between people. The means of accomplishing this change that I devote my energies to promoting is open-minded (some might say ‘adventurous’) travel — particularly by bicycle for the way in which it naturally encourages this. Hence the existence of this blog.
It’s wildly idealistic, of course. Many will continue to tell me I’m wasting my time. No — I’m under no illusions that my contribution is anything more than a drop in the ocean. But it definitely beats sitting on my arse playing Angry Birds.
Tied up with this is the practice of being helpful in a regular and meaningful way — or in other words, taking an abstract belief and turning it into concrete action. With each article I write for this blog, with each reader email or comment I respond to, with the guide I’ve just published (an admittedly tedious and time-consuming thing to write), and with everyone I speak to at real-world events, I try to make whatever I have to offer of maximum usefulness and helpfulness to the people on the receiving end.
Being helpful feeds naturally into the goal of advocating bicycle travel and breaking down barriers to doing it, because it changes behaviours by opening doors which were previously closed. The knowledge that my work is helping people is motivation enough to do what I do.
I don’t expect it, but the positive feedback I do get is a bonus and an encouraging reminder that my primarily internet-based work has a real effect in the real world (incidentally a place I’m looking forward to doing more work this year).
The third big principle I try to keep in place is the setting aside of time and space to re-evaluate everything. I usually do this during what’s become my ‘annual’ adventure or expedition, when I hugely prefer to let myself drift than set a clear course and power towards some distant goal. By doing things this way, I find these journeys give me the opportunity to stop; to find a vantage point or two and take a good look and where I’ve come from and where I’m going.
People close to me think of my journeys as extended holidays or ‘jollies’. They’re actually an integral part of my well-being that I cannot do without. (I might also add that re-evaluating everything does not necessarily imply that I like the conclusions I come to.)
The final key concept around which I try to arrange my time on this planet is to allow myself space to express myself creatively and to play with the form and process of these creative things. This article is a prime example. By deliberately scheduling nothing at all for the days that follow the launch of a big project, I’ve found myself writing about a collection of ideas I hadn’t even realised had been sitting there in the background all along.
I explore all of this today in a shamelessly self-indulgent way because I have an eye on the perpetual question of “what’s next?”. My goal this spring was to revise and expand the resources section of this website to be more useful, and to create a genuinely useful and timeless resource on a specific topic. I also hoped that putting a fair price on the new resource would give me some financial breathing space in which I could make headway with a new film project. (It’s early days yet, but it looks like things stand to be successful on both of these fronts.)
Principles are only useful if you act on them. And even if you’re not sure what the ‘right’ decision is, you’re usually better off doing something than doing nothing. So while whatever comes next may not yet be clear, I’ve got a decent bit of dry land to set out from.
This is the third and final part, in which I’ll be looking specifically at what 2014 has in store along the various strands of my life. It is worth regularly pausing for thought in this way, even if only to confirm that the direction we’re going in reflects our true priorities. The festive season provides ample opportunity to do so, and I’d encourage you to do the same, taking one final moment to establish where you’d actually like to be a year from now before the world of work sucks us all back in. (This happens to self-employed adventurers too).
Practicing and promoting an adventurous ethos for life is at the absolute core of what I do. In less than a month’s time I’ll be leaving on a brand new journey, and I’ve dropped a number of mildly irritating hints over the last few weeks as to what it might consist of.
I have not yet discussed any ‘official announcement’ plans with my partner for the trip, so please do excuse me once again if I am necessarily vague; however I can confirm that it’ll involve returning to Iran for a fifth time, that the journey will be human-powered but will not be by bicycle, that my core objective is to put last year’s resolution to the ultimate test… and that it’ll be bloody freezing! Here’s a photograph I received yesterday from a friend in Esfahan:
It has to be said that — despite living in the Lake District — 2013 was rather thin on the ground in terms of substantial adventures, and I can feel the effect of this on my mind and body. So during the coming year I’m making a commitment to myself to get out more.
Sod it, let’s put a figure on this: I hereby commit to spending a minimum of 3 of the next 12 months on the road, in whatever form it might take, including at least one respectably sized bike trip.
There. You can hold me to that.
Tom’s Bike Trip
In the Part Two of this series last week I wrote of my objectives for this blog:
“…through storytelling (inspiration), the sharing of knowledge (information) and attempting to serve people’s needs (creating action), my aim has simply become to get more people out travelling by bike — and to have fun doing it.”
My mission for the blog remains this: to get more people out travelling by bike. What’s going to change is the way in which I approach that mission.
The resources section of this site will see a major overhaul and expansion, reflecting the fact that it has grown beyond a mere handful of how-to articles. This’ll be happening sooner rather than later; it’s the time of year when we’re starting to dream up big plans for the summer (apologies as always to the antipodeans amongst you), and I’m keen to get this part of the site ship-shape in good time.
I’ll continue to tell tales of adventure, but I’ll be focussing on doing so in a more sustainable way than simple blogs, photographs and short videos. Longer-form storytelling, in whatever medium, has proved more rewarding and ultimately more effective than ‘trip blogs’ themselves, which tend to be published and then lost forever in the archives. Going forward, the blog will serve the purpose of drawing attention to timeless long-form creations.
Directly complementing the resources section will be the launch of my second book, which will be nothing at all like the first.
It’ll be a guide-style book, focusing in detail on one very particular aspect of bike trip planning — one that I get asked about more than any other. It will be of particular use to those who’ve already got trip plans bubbling away for the coming year, and (if I do my job well) it will also become a very useful resource for newcomers in the future.
Ironically, the topic is one that I’ve often said gets far more attention than it deserves. This digital-only ebook is being written in response to that, offering perspective to those who feel that they’re getting bogged down in a needlessly complicated area of bike trip preparation. The result of reading it will be confidence in decision-making, followed by the ability to move on to more exciting things (such as leaving).
I’m planning the public launch of the ebook for early April, but I’ll be making it exclusively available to members of my mailing list for a very limited time window at the end of January (and at a significant discount — told you there were benefits to joining!).
This is primarily because I will have finished creating the guide by then, and I want it to start being useful as soon as possible, but I’d rather not attempt to administrate a big public launch and all of the emails and questions that come with it while on an expedition in Iran!
If you’re not on the list and you do want to get early access, you’re welcome to sign up now — just make sure you do so before the end of the month when the announcement will be made.
(By the way, if you read the article last autumn about my next writing project — working title ‘How To Free Your Inner Adventurer’ — you may well be wondering what became of it. As I worked on the project, things became rather confused and haphazard, and it soon became clear that a single book could not do justice to the sheer scope of the topic. I finally elected to break the scope down and devote one book to each major subdivision. This ebook is the first in the series, and the one I felt would be the best to get out into the world first.)
January 28th 2014 will see the official launch of Janapar on iTunes and several other global video-on-demand platforms, just over a year after our own independent launch of the film. I’ll be in London that week to do some publicity, and then I’ll be heading directly for Iran (they can’t get to me there!).
This is as big a step towards ‘mainstream’ as the project will ever take, and in terms of personal ambition is far beyond anything I’ve ever been interested in. Ultimately, however, the film itself does not belong to me, even if the story does, and there are other people and ambitions involved in this decision.
I’m unsure what (if any) response to expect, but what it really means, to my mind, is that Janapar’s future will be out of my hands, still doing what it was made to do, only doing it elsewhere. Meanwhile, I’ll be able crack on with something entirely new!
There are currently two new film projects on the table for which the footage has already been shot, and two more potential films at the development stage. I’m still unsure which of these will see the light of day this year, but I’m committing to directing and producing at least one of them by the end of 2014.
As with so many big leaps in life, perfect circumstances do not exist, but having spent several years now shooting film footage of my adventures I feel that it’s time I took the leap and attempted full-on directorship of a feature film.
I find filmmaking a more enjoyable creative process than writing, but it generally requires resources and collaboration far beyond a quiet room and a laptop to create something of real substance, and that commitment really does require a story worth telling.
Finding the next story, then, is the first step in deciding which of these potential projects to press forward with. That’s a work-in-progress.
In my roles as husband, son, friend and family member, I feel that I can do much better this year. Financial stress caused some problems in 2013, as I explained previously. My biggest commitment for the year in this sense is to do more than simply subsist, to ensure that creativity is not stifled by stress, and to be able to invest in people and projects I care about.
Specifically, many of my travels later in 2014 will be concerned with re-establishing links that have been neglected or lost. I recently met up with Mark, one of my original cycling partners for Ride Earth. It was the first time I’d seen him since he left the expedition in Budapest six years ago. He’s since emigrated to New Zealand, and within minutes it seemed we’d hatched a plot for adventures in Lord-of-the-Rings land.
And I’m often asked if Tenny and I have plans for future travels together. Typically for diasporan Armenians, she has extended family all over the world. We’re planning an extended journey for 2014/2015; one which will be broadly based around finding them. That’s as far as we’ve got, but the seed has been sown.
I’ve always said that I’ll keep travelling for as long as it remains personally relevant. These plans are a reflection of that concept. Watch this space.
2014 beckons: Onwards and upwards! (And don’t forget to get on the mailing list — things always happen there first!)
I received an email the other day from another long-term traveller about a project I’m currently working on. At the end of the email was the following:
“P.S. When you set out on that first trip, did you ever think that this would become your life?”
A damn good question with more scope than befits a private email exchange, I thought. (Thanks, Jamie!)
First, what is ‘this’, exactly? Well, this blog, I suppose, and all else that it directly supports, for that is all most people see. But I spend more time working on this blog and projects derived from it than anything else. So blogging is the closest thing I have to a full-time job, and it’s a fair enough representation of what occupies the majority of my time, and thus my ‘life’.
It wasn’t always so: my ‘full-time job’ used to be wandering the world’s back-roads on a bicycle, with the blog playing a distant second fiddle. If you dig back into the site archives to 2006, you’ll find articles posted when the site was known as Ride Earth, the name of a rather naive attempt to circumnavigate the world by mountain-bike, which quickly went off the rails and let to all else that has happened.
The site has been redesigned six times, moved domains twice, at one point was shared with someone else and thus had two writers, and for a long time did nothing more than serve as a trip blog on which I scribbled in internet cafes about my ongoing bike trip round the world, but it has gradually developed alongside my own changing ambitions (and route).
Now, the site brings in a steady stream of new readers, most often searching for help and advice with various aspects of bicycle travel. Although much of Ride Earth’s original readership has long since moved on, this reflects new priorities on my part, and over time it has created a solid base from which to soundboard ideas and get immediate feedback.
And, as well as providing hundreds of thousands of words of useful information, the website serves as a platform for letting people know about the paid-for projects such as Janapar that help to support the time I spend on it all. (On that note, there’s a new ebook coming very soon.)
Why a blog, exactly? Why did I not become a paid travel writer, or simply put my book out and go back to my previous line of work? Why bother continue writing long after the ‘big trip’ finished? Let’s face it: I did four days of actual cycle-touring in 2013, and only a two-month trip in 2012. Do I even still have the authority to maintain this blog?
There is sometimes — not always, but sometimes — an air of desperation around ‘post-trip’ blogs; a feeling that the writer continues to recycle the same old material, interspersed with “and for my next trip” announcements, out of an unwillingness to let go of a once-supportive readership and move on.
I don’t mean to say that every such trip blog is like this, but it does happen. It’s easy to become dependent upon the continuing affirmations of responsive readers, or to feel that by ending a blog you are doing your community a disservice or letting something valuable slide into decline. And my own blog, at times, could have gone that way.
But a large part of my motivation to stop travelling full-time was because I had more creative energy than life on the road permitted the opportunity to use. In part, that was because I didn’t travel with laptops, mobiles and the like. (Others in my shoes would have happily taken a laptop and integrated creativity into their days on the road that way. I was too stubborn and wanted no such distractions from the experience of travel.)
The point is that over several years of riding I gathered so much raw material that I am still drawing from it on a daily basis today, and the process of change I underwent during my time on the road somehow unlocked a creative vault in my head that had previously been shut. I still have an endless backlog of headlines on points of information and advice that I have not yet written into articles. Not writing something for more than a few days actually makes me feel uncomfortable.
In other words, I stopped travelling by bicycle full-time so that I could write about travelling by bicycle full-time — and in a more substantial form than blog posts alone.
There’s slightly more to it than this. Before Ride Earth I had made a brief attempt to become a professional website developer. These were skills learned partly through my Computer Science degree, partly through taking on the job of redesigning the university radio station’s website (oh, the glamour), and partly through — in typical geek fashion — spending too much time in rapport with computers because they seemed friendlier and more interesting than most of the people in the world outside. (Travelling cured that one, needless to say.)
And so it made complete sense to begin a website, because not only did I have the creative drive to publish regularly on a topic close to my heart, but I could look after the technical side of the site as well (HTML, CSS, JQuery, PHP, Apache & MySQL — you get the idea) — work that would otherwise over time have racked up thousands of pounds in professional fees. And both of these things are still true.
The motivation behind all of this is, of course, a rampant form of idealism. I believe that long, personal journeys by bicycle have a transformative effect upon the riders and their subsequent interactions, and that the effect is a net benefit to the world at large. (See this month’s earlier article on reciprocal hospitality.)
Even if only a very small nudge towards an ideal, it’s better than any number of more lucrative careers I might have chosen (there’s that idealism again). And so through storytelling (inspiration), the sharing of knowledge (information) and attempting to serve people’s needs (creating action), my aim has simply become to get more people out travelling by bike — and to have fun doing it.
(I’m getting there with this.)
So in respect to the original question, it’s a similar one to what people used to ask on the road: “What will you do when you get home?”
My answer for many years was that I had no idea, but that I hoped that whatever it was would emerge naturally out of the trip itself.
And, though the route to get here has often been unclear and with a few wrong turns along the way, this is a pretty accurate description of what’s happened.
Happy New Year!
How did you get to where you are right now? Is it where you envisaged yourself five or ten years ago? If not, how can you change things in 2014?