Philosophy Of Travel

How Has Cycle Touring Changed In The Last 10 Years?

Picture, if you will, the classic young middle class white male embarking on a heroic journey of self-discovery, straight out of the modern liberal all-about-me mould. Ten years ago, now… wow. Was that really me?

Today I’m tweaking the gears before embarking upon the latest chapter of my life as a serial bicycle traveller. And from the comfort of this air-conditioned coffee shop in Hat Yai, Thailand, it hasn’t escaped my attention that the world I’m setting out into is very different to that of a decade ago.

Much of the basic stuff of cycle touring is timeless, as even a cursory leafing-through of Thomas Stevens’ 1896 travelogue will demonstrate. But has anything fundamental changed in that blink of a cosmic eye?

I’d argue that it has. And I’d be very interested to hear what you think of the following observations.

You’re Not So Special Any More (Not That You Ever Really Were)

Once upon a time, bicycle travellers were amongst the farthest-flung outliers of the independent travel community.

I don’t mean people going on bicycle holidays, which has been mainstream enough for — ooh, a good century or so. I mean people traipsing across the planet, indefinitely and in search of nothing in particular, on heavily-laden bicycles.

These people used to be true pioneers; mostly of the kind nobody had ever heard of because they did it for the hell of it and couldn’t ‘share their experiences’ even if they wanted to, at least not until back home, and even then rarely beyond a token positive story in the local rag.

Now, cycle touring is so utterly commonplace that everyone knows someone who’s doing it (or thinking of doing it).

There’s nothing wrong with this. I for one feel privileged to have watched cycle touring merge into the mainstream of independent travel, for a host of reasons I won’t prattle on about. And I hope that I’ve been able to contribute to that change in some way.

But my point has more to do with the enduring myth that the journey of pedal powered self-discovery is somehow special.

10 years ago I was just about able to (weakly) argue my case.

But now, in a world where cycle tourists become A‑list celebrities and career TV personalities?

Nope. Cycle touring is now firmly in the realm of normal things to do.

It Isn’t Just ‘Us’ Doing This

The white middle class male stereotype is dead, too. I’m not talking about more women cycle travellers, either; they’ve always been there despite perennial gender-based concerns. This is something else.

It began while idly trend-spotting among my blog’s visitor statistics, which at some point became a fascinating thing to do when I was really bored. Turns out that a good chunk of new incoming readers now hail from Eastern Europe, the Indian subcontinent and Latin America.

It’s a very rough measure, of course, but hey, this site’s pretty popular, and the trend seems to show that cycle touring is increasingly a pursuit about which the global middle class — educated, connected, and English-speaking — is searching for information.

Beyond a few small zones where Western freedom of movement privileges still apply (Europe, the U.S.), the same pattern plays out anecdotally on the roads of the world, where I’ve noticed a plateau in the number of white-faced Westerners packing panniers and bar-bags, and a significant rise in frequency of riders from ‘other’ places, of whom I now meet far more.

In short, the white post-colonial cycle touring demographic is morphing into something else — in fact, there’s plenty of evidence that it might be shifting elsewhere, as newly liberated populations begin to embrace leisure travel in a world of post-survival meaninglessness.

Perhaps this would be a good time to get my ebooks translated into Hindi.

Adventure Is An Attitude, Period

The maxim that ‘adventure is just a state of mind’ has been hammered so long and so hard that it’s finally come true. In terms of experiential value, cycling round the world is equivalent to bivvying on a hill in Berkshire in every aspect other than duration.

Taken along with the fact that everyone’s best mate and their dog has cycled round the world, this makes doing such a thing even less noteworthy than ever — which means you’d better be doing it for reasons that have little to do with what anyone else thinks, because fame and fortune or indeed any bragging rights whatsoever are forfeit. Anyone with an adventurous attitude who can string a sentence together is now equally worth paying attention to, because that’s all adventure consists of these days.

In fact, if recognition or ‘personal brand building’ in the adventure world is your goal, travelling a really long way by bicycle is a hugely inefficient way of going about it. Go bivvy on Scafell Pike and give a talk about it instead.

What’s left, then? Oh, just all the other stuff… time, real time, to get to know your own mind; a way to put your redundant body to task and get to know that too; a teacher of self-reliance and interdependency whose lessons will serve you forever; a first-hand context for the various truths and fiction spun by humanity about itself; and of course something fun and totally pointless to do without having to tell anyone about it because, well, why not?

Your Bags Are Smaller (Like That Matters)

Technology in general is progressing at a rate nobody can keep up with. Narrowing the field clarifies things a little, but my reluctance to publish tech-related cycle touring articles for reasons of shelf-life has only been magnified in the last decade.

Of particular note are developments in the fields of outdoor equipment and digital communications. Last year, for instance, I received from Alpkit a three-berth tent that was lighter and smaller when packed than the MSR Hubba one-berth tent that just five years ago was Cascade Designs’ most minimal offering.

My sleeping bag, also from Alpkit, is a third of the size and bulk (and warmer) than the massive Snugpak thing I lugged away with me in 2007. Same with mattresses: my Exped Hyperlite M was the lightest full-length mat on the market in 2015 and has almost certainly been bettered in the time since. It’s about the size of a small cycling water bottle.

All this gear would have once occupied a large pannier and a rack-top drybag. Now it occupies barely half the capacity of a single pannier. The cost is about the same overall, and the companies’ warranties show how much less of a concern is durability when it comes to ultralight gear.

So you almost might as well minimise your luggage. (It’ll make getting fit that much less important.)

Then there’s communications technology. Smartphones long ago served redundancy notices to laptops, DSLRs, video cameras, voice recorders, GPS receivers, cycle computers, guidebooks, paper maps, dictionaries, diaries, MP3 players (remember them); the list probably goes on.

(Even the Luddite typing this blog post is doing so on a smartphone with a Bluetooth keyboard and a 4G SIM card.)

Compare this to the now ludicrous prospect of setting off with an entire pannier full of media production equipment, including a DSLR with two lenses and a charger, a MiniDV video camera with an external microphone and a charger, three spare batteries and 40–50 spare tapes (tapes!!!), a tripod, and special cases and straps for all of the above.

Ten years ago this seemed totally normal, indeed necessary, if I wanted to make a film of and take photos on my journey. So did posting a box of tapes back to England every few weeks and spending hours in internet cafes typing up blog posts.

Today I could take one smartphone with a mini lens kit and mini tripod, charge it off the front hub of my bicycle, and not just shoot but also edit and publish Janapar, in 4K, with the whole thing backed up to the cloud as I went. And nobody knows what an internet cafe was.

Discovery Is Now The Fringe Option

As we give over more and more decision-making responsibilities in our daily lives to computer algorithms — where to spend our time and money, how to get there, what to expect when we arrive, which friends and strangers are available to meet us there, etc — so it is increasingly the case that we carry these behaviours over into the frame of travel.

Given the ever-increasing quality and comprehensiveness of the information available, and the ubiquity of being connected, it is understandable why. There’s no need to be afraid of the unknown when the cloud and its various interfaces already appear to know everything we might ask. Indeed, this perceived safety net may be one of the factors in making international travel more accessible and therefore popular.

This goes equally for cycle touring, even if we consider that it mainly involves being in places other types of tourism leave out, because these systems are agnostic regarding who they serve. If you’re off the well-worn trail, the information will instead serve the locals who live there and with who your ideals have led you to want to hang out. So it’ll be translated into your language and served up to you instead.

And whether you use Google Maps or OSM, you’ll probably have received an innocuous invitation or two to contribute to all of this; either overtly with reviews and photos, or discreetly in the background, as measurements such as when and for how long you’re at a given location, together with the content of the messages you send and the photos you automatically back up while you’re there, help bring the digital representation of the world closer to reality.

It is, of course, possible to opt out of all this, perhaps for ideological reasons, or perhaps because you’d rather travel blind and instead feel the profound sense of peace and confidence that comes from being in motion with neither knowledge nor expectations and being totally OK with that.

But that’s my point. Today you have to make that choice.

As I set out from my home in England ten years ago, Steve Jobs was still rehearsing the launch of the first ever iPhone, Google Maps was still blank in several nations of the world, and not knowing where I was going was taken for granted, rather than an optional extra.

This, I think, is the strangest and most significant observation of all the things in this list.

The World’s Running Out Of Space To Shrink

In the same vein, expensive smartphones, cheap credit to buy them with, and the data-obsessed culture that has sprouted from their ubiquity have had a visibly homogenising effect on humanity.

Yes, hanging out with the inhabitants of isolated villages in conservative cultures may make you feel — occasionally — that you’ve outrun the rising tide. But only if you kid yourself that the absent majority of each family isn’t living in a nearby city with a Facebook account and a phone full of selfies.

Some adventure-seeking travellers are reacting to this with a pattern of behaviour well-established in the face of change: firstly denial (“wow, I must be the first white person these village kids in Chelsea football shirts with satellite TV have ever seen!”), followed by outrage (“global free-market capitalism is destroying my right to fulfil an outdated romantic notion of world travel!”), followed by grudging acceptance (“right, well, I’m going to buy a bikepacking rig and get really off the beaten track next time!”).

Others just get on with it. Yes, society is changing at an incomprehensible rate, and yes, these changes are visible to those passing through on two wheels, even if they would rather close their eyes to it.

Personally, I feel that it’s an opportunity to watch a major upheaval of human history taking place on a global scale, and at the same time go for a nice bike ride.

Couchsurfing Is Dead. Long Live Airbnb

On a slightly different tangent, I’ve noticed that hospitality exchange networkssuch as Couchsurfing and WarmShowers have changed in a couple of respects.

This mainly concerns the spirit of the whole endeavour. When I opened my Couchsurfing account, there were just a few tens of thousands of members worldwide. As I used that network to find people to meet and places to stay on my first big trip, there was a definite sense that we were part of a revolutionary movement; the connecting power of the internet harnessed in a stroke of genius to the age-old travellers’ tradition of mutual hospitality. Hosts and guests alike were positively excited that the chance encounters with strangers that bring such unforgettable sparks of humanity to the travel experience had been made accessible.

Oh, the good old days, eh? Long gone, of course. now has well over 10 million members, mostly signed up through marketing campaigns rather than word of mouth. The ease of doing so has resulted in an ocean of noncommital or inactive members for whom it is or was just another brief fad; at best a search engine for free accommodation.

All that seems left now is a hard-core of jaded veterans plus a disunited scattering of idealistic youngsters. The savvy have put their spare rooms on Airbnb instead, figuring they’d prefer the extra income than a constant stream of freeloaders.

So the machine might still be functional, but the spirit has evaporated. Which means you can still use it to find a host, just as you can still use a bicycle to travel the world — you just can’t claim it as part of some bleeding-edge countercultural identity. Which is fine. Just different.

You’re Ten Years Older (And That Probably Makes You Terrifyingly Old)

Finally, I performed a quick calculation today while wandering around Hat Yai’s shopping malls looking for a cheap cotton shirt:

If I was born in 1983, almost half of all people alive today are younger than I am.

It won’t be long before most people don’t remember the world I was born into. In other words, my view of recent history is going to become more and more irrelevant to the future.

This assumes, of course, that the cultural trends that value youth over experience and data over intuition will continue on their current trajectory. But it is a humbling thought that what you think and what you do will likely matter less and less as time goes on.

Not that this has anything to do with cycle touring other than serving as a reminder that I am considerably older now then when I started out, and perhaps the world looking different is as much to do with the way I see it as with things actually changing.

One cannot expect to grow and learn and for the same habits and strategies to produce identical results. For this reason, it’s important to continually and critically reassess the decisions you make and the actions you take, from moment to moment and on a broader scale.

To do that, you need thinking time, of course — or perhaps non-thinking time, depending on your perspective and your powers of self-reflection.

And that’s something that cycle touring certainly hasn’t lost its ability to provide.

So what do you think?

Inspiration Philosophy Of Travel Touring Advice

How Does Cycle Touring Actually Work?

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

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

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

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

It must be reclaimed from other parts of our lives.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Header photo courtesy of Max Goldzweig.

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

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

Inspiration Philosophy Of Travel Touring Advice

Where Is It Possible To Travel By Bicycle?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Header photo courtesy of Eric Fiala.

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

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

Inspiration Philosophy Of Travel Touring Advice

When Can You Go Cycle Touring?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Header photo courtesy of Peter Gostelow.

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

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

Inspiration Philosophy Of Travel Touring Advice

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

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

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

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

Except those baseline assumptions are false.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You will have adapted.

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

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

Header photo courtesy of the Sathre-Vogel family.

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

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