I crossed The Entrance Bridge, leaving the previous day’s mishaps behind me, and pushed north, following off-highway trails through forest fringes.
Finally the New South Wales Coast Cycle Trail began to offer what it had promised, taking me far from the Pacific Highway and brokering a tightly-negotiated route along the various barrier islands and reefs that were smeared along the coastline.
I bounced between placid seawater lagoons and the omnipresent Pacific surf, stopping mid-morning for coffee at a shipping-container kiosk on the southern point of Catherine Hill Bay.
Freewheeling down past the beach, the waves looked so inviting that I couldn’t resist stopping for a spot of body-surfing.
Only then did it become clear what a gift to cycle tourers is an Aussie east-coast institution whose origins can be traced back to the early 20th century, known today as the Surf Life Saving Club (SLSC).
Every year, the list of touring bikes seems to get shorter.
First we lost bikes that were relatively obscure. A good example is the Revolution Country Traveller, built by the Edinburgh Bicycle Co-operative. This was a fantastic value entry-level tourer, retailing for under £500 and earning great praise. But it was limited in its distribution to EBC’s handful of locations in northern Britain, and I’m guessing it can’t have made much of a profit for just how cheap it was.
For those unfamiliar with the brand, Dawes are a British outfit who have been making touring bikes for decades. Indeed, when the first Galaxy was launched in the early 1960s, it could be said that Dawes had created the first mainstream off-the-peg touring bike, at least in the UK.
When the originator of today’s archetypical touring bike pulls their entire range without warning after more than 50 years on the market, you know something’s changing.
The following year, something similar happened Stateside. Surly, who since 2004 had built the reputation of their Long Haul Trucker into a firm favourite of the North American cycle touring community, announced that the “LHT”, too, would cease to be manufactured. The webpage for the bike and frameset was updated with a cute image of a gravestone reading ‘gone but not forgotten’, and has since been deleted completely.
These are two striking examples of a trend I’ve noticed while keeping that blog post updated over the 10 years since I originally wrote it.
But the list of discontinued touring bikes doesn’t end there. We’ve also lost the entry-level Ridgeback Tour road touring bike, the entire Co-op Cycles touring bike range by major US outdoor retailer REI, and the Adventure Flat White, all of which used to be manufactured at scale. At the bespoke end of the spectrum, Roberts’ truly legendary Roughstuff was another British classic whose story came to a slightly quieter conclusion. The picture is even more grim when you look at bikes designed for worldwide expedition touring, where the market is even smaller and less fashionable.
And the retailers have followed suit. At the time of writing, the two big UK online bike retailers, Chain Reaction and Wiggle (which have now merged), between them list a total of two touring bikes – the Fuji Touring and the Cube Touring, both of which could be described as token touring bikes from mainstream manufacturers. In fact, Chain Reaction have deleted the touring bike category from their website altogether. And across the industry the phrase “touring bike” is rapidly being replaced with “adventure bike”. Some of the bikes sold under this banner bear little resemblance to anything I’ve ever listed on that blog post.
This all begs the question ‘why’.
You might think the answer is obvious: the coronavirus pandemic has effectively cancelled the type of free and unrestrained travel exemplified by cycle touring, and manufacturers have simply cut their losses as a result, focusing on bikes for short trips close to home.
But while there’s little doubt that the pandemic will have hit the cycling industry hard at the crossover with international travel, the downward trend in touring bike sales and availability had already begun before the pandemic.
There’s another easy target here, of course: the rise of bikepacking. I’ve written extensively about my views on this in a long and detailed post on the difference between cycle touring and bikepacking. If you can’t be bothered to read it, the short version is that – in my humble opinion – today’s bikepacking boom is the result of an industry-wide campaign to make the concerns of a tiny cohort of time-rich mountain-biking campers appear relevant to people who would otherwise just have bought a touring bike.
I might take some flak for holding this position, but I’ve been watching this industry for a long time, and I’m acutely aware that bikepacking was a thing long before it was a thing, even if its absurdly niche status meant we’d never quite needed the language to describe it. A good example of this is the Rough Stuff Fellowship. Today we would call them a bikepacking club, but they were officially founded in 1955 and they sure as hell didn’t call themselves bikepackers. It would be another two decades before the mountain bike was even invented. All that’s happened is that what they’ve been doing for 70-odd years has suddenly become trendy.
So much for obvious explanations. The truth is that I haven’t conducted an industry-wide survey to gather empirical data on the matter, and I have no intention of doing so. Instead, I’d like to offer the community a few observations on the topic of what this all might mean for us:
1. Let’s first remember that we are experiencing a decline in the manufacture and sale of new touring bikes on an industrial scale. This is not the same as the death of cycle touring itself. It doesn’t mean that every touring bike in existence will suddenly be dumped at the scrapyard, nor that smaller manufacturing operations won’t continue. (I just went down to my workshop to check, and my Oxford Bike Works Expedition is definitely still there.)
2. Let’s also remember that while we’ve lost bikes of real pedigree, none exhibited any major mechanical differences from each other. That’s because the core design principles for a good touring bike are tried and tested; no longer unique to any one brand. In any case, almost all manufacturing is outsourced to the same handful of factories in Taiwan, some of which I’ve visited and watched all the brands roll off the line together. In other words, what we’ve seen is the closing of a few chapters in a very long story, not the loss of some arcane body of knowledge.
3. Because touring bikes tend to be “forever” purchases, they’re intrinsically bad for business, so none of this should be a surprise. Many of us eventually invest a rather large amount of money on a single timeless, bomb-proof world touring bike we intend to ride for the remainder of our touring careers. Bikes in this tiny niche are unlikely to be very profitable in the first place, but they’re even less of a viable business model when you consider the unlikelihood of a repeat purchase. Given that, it’s hardly surprising that the touring bike would be an easy target for cost-cutting in times of financial duress.
4. Good news – limited choice should make it easier to choose a touring bike. Some personality types (I believe they’re known as “maximisers”) want to see all the options and spend endless hours picking over the most trivial of differences in order to somehow divine the best possible purchase. On the other hand, I recently received an email from a reader complaining that the only bike she could find in her local bike shop that fitted her was an extra-small Salsa Fargo, and that she didn’t want to buy it just because it was the only choice. I suggested that it being the only nearby choice might actually be the best reason to buy it. (Another reason, perhaps, to track down and get to know your local touring bike specialist.)
5. There’s probably never been a better time to buy a custom-built touring bike. Especially if it’s a “forever” purchase, and even more so if you have diverse physiological requirements, there’s a strong case for shunning the mainstream altogether and getting yourself a one-off touring bike that’s finely tuned to your individual needs. While expert touring bike builders can be found throughout the land, I shall cheekily take this opportunity to recommend to UK readers Richard at Oxford Bike Works, whose workshop is open to anyone within visiting distance, and whose flagship expedition touring bike I helped design.
What do you think? Is the touring bike dying out? Or are we just seeing a spurt in its evolution?
Bogged down in research for your next big bicycle adventure?
I wrote a book just for you! How To Hit The Road is here to take (most of) the pain out of planning a bike tour of any length, duration or budget. Available as a fairly-priced ebook or paperback.
No, I’m not selling anything. I know almost everyone who reads this blog has seen Janapar now.
I’d just like to share a selection of the more interesting, challenging and downright bizarre things that have happened since we released the film one year ago.
The first thing that happened, at 9am on November 27th 2012, was that most of you bought Janapar and watched it. We received a lot of fantastic feedback and took a strong first step towards paying off the (considerable) costs of the film (no, we haven’t finished doing that yet).
The second thing that happened, a few days later, was that we received our first slice of nastiness. I remember it well; an email from someone whose identity I’m legally bound to keep anonymous. Let’s call him Barry. Barry emailed to say there was a glitch in the film at 29 minutes in and could we look into it? We obliged, there was no glitch and then we realised that what Barry was actually doing was taking the piss out of our non-linear storyline.
“I suggest you needed [sic] a more skilful continuity director,” lilted Barry in a further piss-taking email. “I may amuse myself by re-editing.”
Yes, that’s right. Barry contacted me directly to let me know he was considering chopping up four years of my life, my wife, and two years of unpaid work on the biggest passion project of my life. For his own personal amusement.
That was when I discovered that when you stick your head above the parapet you’re going to get a few pot-shots coming your way. The anonymous arena of the Internet allows certain tortured people to indulge their most spiteful and unpleasant urges with absolutely no concept of how it might feel to be on the receiving end. It is the perfect consequence-free environment.
More unpleasantness soon arrived from Justin, who contributed a whopping £5 to the book’s Kickstarter campaign for an eBook and then assumed that both my project and my character wouldn’t mind being measured publicly and solely against his own exacting personal standards.
“The author tries to relay the message that he changed… from an uncaring, thoughtless whiny bloke into a person of understanding, tolerance and character. Unfortunately… he accomplishes none of this and just adds arrogance to his repertoire,” he wrote, with understanding and tolerance.
(Yeah, thanks for the unconditional support, Justin. That’s just what we value most from our backers.)
So I pressed the wrong buttons with a couple of disturbed, vocal individuals. Big deal, right? I had forty-whatever nice reviews and this video to make up for it. And, as another author later said, better getting 5‑star and 1‑star reviews over loads of 3‑star reviews, which just means you wrote a tragically average book that didn’t really say anything to anyone.
Except that the maths didn’t match with the reality. It seemed that the psychological effect of a handful of negative reviews massively outweighed the positive feedback. It took Roz Savage (who’s been there, done that, and then some with her first book) to point out the obvious: I’d done and created something I truly believed in, and no judgement-sniper would ever change that. “To create is much braver and more difficult than to destroy.” Having done plenty of destroying in my time too, I’ll have to concur.
I set off around the country to share Janapar in real life. Lots of blog readers got in touch and set up local screening events. The story took on a life of its own and the themes of personal adventure and following your own path through life were delivered. Standing up afterwards to answer questions, I felt as though I was speaking for anyone who’d made themselves the guinea-pig in their own experiment and tried their damndest to draw a conclusion or two from the results.
Emails started coming in bearing news of people who’d seen the film, read the book, thrown off the shackles and followed suit in their own unique way. The most memorable came from Gary, who’d left a crap job in Lancaster, cycled to Georgia, met a girl, got married, reinvented himself as an English tutor in Tbilisi and now had a baby on the way. Many more stories came in that had nothing to do with cycling at all but nevertheless expressed the realisation that an adventurous life was there waiting to be grasped and lived — the same realisation I’d had back in 2006 while poring over the Adventure Cycle Touring Handbook and the tales of people like Al Humphreys and Rob Lilwall. And that’s why we share stories.
The odd negative outburst still popped out, but it began to seem that they said more about the correspondents in question than anything else. They were sometimes comic.
“Just text and some small drawings,” wrote a 1‑star reviewer of the paperback book after having read only one chapter.
(I noted that the same reviewer did however give 5 stars to the Downton Abbey DVD box-set, which added considerable context to his comment.)
The events were fun. I visited more places in the UK in a month than I’d done in the previous 29 years, and met more cool people. We paid off all the credit cards we’d maxed out to finish the film and started chipping away at the rest of the budget.
The events were also knackering. Utterly, utterly emotionally draining. I started sitting outside venues while the film played. Who wants to relive the most traumatic moments of four years of their life, over and over again, night after night, no matter how important they believe the themes of the story that contains them?
Eventually I escaped. To Iran. I almost drowned trying to packraft a swollen river alone. I did plenty more, too, during the two months I was there. Not a word of my most challenging and personal journey yet has ever been published, and nor will it ever be. There is a time for keeping things back for yourself, even if your purpose in life is to share, facilitate and inspire through storytelling.
In Iran I realised that there will always be compromises in everything one chooses to do. Ideals are just that. The reality of life on your own terms — which includes equally adventures and creative projects — is exposure to the new and unexpected, the need to react quickly, to think big and small together. It requires a level of perspective difficult to maintain. I had burned out through investing too intensely in something too emotional. Whatever the future of Janapar, it would need to be contained and managed in order not to become a source of regret, and to allow it to continue carrying the messages with which James and I had originally saddled it.
Before the release, those messages had lain dormat for a year while we’d searched for a film festival to premiere them. The launchpad of Raindance 2012 has since got us invited to dozens more such celebrations of storytelling, including some that rejected us the previous time round. The film has now screened on 6 continents. It’s screened in Antarctica at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. At the World Domination Summit in Oregon. In a tiny bike shop in Sheffield. In the mountains of Bulgaria. And in dozens of other places too.
And in the very near future the story of Janapar is going to escape the grasp of those who created and lived it. It’s on the files of a broadcast agent and a digital distributor. I would do well to forsake the idea of a real, personal connection with all the unsuspecting individuals who will end up as future audience members. Their connection will only be with the world created during the 79 minutes of the film. There is no point getting melancholy; I’ve served the people closest to the project (you) as faithfully as I can, and there’s a growing gulf between my life today and the ever more distant story that continues to be told on ever more distant screens.
It is with faith in the power of storytelling and in the universal messages contained within Janapar that we’re going to let it loose. It will continue to live its own life; to spawn its own adventures. These things that happened to some hapless bloke from England might just prompt a few more folk to take up the reins of adventure. Discover more. Understand more. Then come home and set about making their own contribution to the world a slightly more balanced and — dare I say it — better one. That’s all I really want. (That, and paying off the rest of the budget!)
If you endorse the values I promote through this blog and through Janapar, and you’d like to get involved, there’s going to be a big push early next year when the film becomes available on some well-known global platforms. When the time comes, I hope that you’ll join me and participate in the word-of-mouth, the micro-storytelling, that’s got us this far both online and off.
I am a little bit confused as to what exactly you do for a living. I know that you are an adventurer, but I don’t get where you get your ‘everyday money’. Sponsorship is one thing for a trip, but if you don’t have a 9–5 job, where do you get the daily money from?
It’s a good question. But what exactly might my correspondee think ‘adventurer’ actually means?
Types of ‘Adventurer’ (or Explorer, or Expeditioner)
(Warning: one or more of the following stereotypes may be considered offensive.)
This post was borne of a heated debate I recently had with a couple of friends. It arose from a remark along the lines of “I don’t have time to read your blog, but I do have time to read Twitter updates, so you should be ‘live-Tweeting’ your trips because more people like me will know what you’re up to”.
Well, I won’t be ‘live-Tweeting’ my future trips; not for my friend, nor anyone else. And here’s why.
Tweets, by their nature, are free-floating snippets of information. Each one inhabits a single drop in an ocean of content. In any given Twitter user’s feed, this could span mainstream media headlines, celebrity gossip, a viral video or two, links to random interesting articles, or photos of your mate’s swollen foot.
Then along might come the following:
“Spent a night in no-man’s-land between Kyrgyzstan and China.”
I assume that this is the kind of update my friend would like to see. It would save him having to read a tiresome thousand-word diatribe on the same experience, which he doesn’t have time to do. My adventure travelling experience could be happily digested alongside the remainder of his Twitter timeline. In my friend’s eyes, there’s no difference.
Now, I have no doubt that the Twitter user who posted the update above (which I took from today’s feed) is perfectly happy with his or her Tweet, and feels that it accurately represents what they were doing at the time. And there is little doubt that somebody who has done their fair share of self-supported adventure travel might be able to roughly guess at the context in which one might find oneself camping between two distant Central Asian border posts.
But to my high-flying friend sitting in a coffee shop or office in central London, exactly what would this message mean? What context would he have for it? What first-hand experience of the Tien Shan mountains does he have? When was the last time he spent a month sleeping under canvas? What was the longest man-powered journey he took in his adult life? What is it actually like in ‘no-man’s land’? What are the Tweeter’s motives for being there, and why is it important that he or she let the world know?
The Tweet invites imagination, and sheer invention is what inevitably follows. Tweets are so short as to leave every aspect of the words’ true meaning to guesswork. And, assuming that the majority of us have yet to spend the night in no-man’s-land between Kyrgyzstan and China, our guesswork and assumptions will be all over the shop, and the chance that any of the guesses might resemble reality is practically zero.
And in any case, my friend will look at the Tweet, consider it for maybe half a second, and then be distracted by the next in the never-ending stream of informative nuggets. Then something else will happen: the guesswork and the assumptions will be done in the background, subconsciously, where all the misconceived impressions unwittingly held by those who haven’t experienced the world for themselves will be built into a vague and ever-more warped idea of the Tweeter’s journey, as told through his or her Tweets.
Here’s another example from today’s expeditions on Twitter:
“Had a road rage incident.… Dave got tackled off the bike and kicked in the nuts… eventful day.”
Can I feel Dave’s pain? Do I know how he feels; what his sensibilities tell him to make of it? Do I know how blissful his previous month of cycling was before this cruel blow to the family jewels took place? Do I know what events caused the incident? What does his riding buddy make of it? Why am I assuming that a car driver was involved, even though it was never mentioned?
My top priority when I do share my journeys is to take my audience with me, as much as such a thing is possible. Why? Because it’s enjoyable. It might be educational. On rare occasions, it might even be a little bit inspiring. But I know that my audience member probably doesn’t have the luxury of first-hand context for the experiences about which I write or speak, so I have to paint pictures, evoke atmospheres, invest emotions, provide some insight into the whys and wherefores.
Without these things, my stories would encourage readers to build works of imaginative fiction in their minds. Some self-titled adventurers actually rely on this; cherry-picking the pieces of information that they know can be used to construct superhuman-sounding tales of high adventure by people who have no defence against their own lack of context and overactive imaginations. This appeals to media people who sell books and TV shows based on these stories, and of course to the oft-massive egos of the protagonists.
Adventure — being a state of mind rather than a set of criteria — should be without limits; without restrictions on who can partake of it, without it making the slightest difference how impressive it can be made to sound. So it’s not worth pretending my projects are elite or daring or impossibly difficult, or inviting others to do so on my behalf. There are the inconsequential details, and there is the irrelevant information, little of which survives the editing process, but the bottom line is that I have no reason to write at all if I can’t take my friend away from his office, just for a few minutes, and show him a different world; a set of events outside his own experience, something to provoke new thoughts — but in a way which avoids the kind of misinterpretation that is so easy to make.
Other than providing a link through to a fully-formed piece back here, these are things that a Tweet in a timeline — for the vast majority of followers — will never do. If you don’t believe me, try making all the points in this article using 140 characters or less. My friend honestly believes that there is no difference in consuming a handful of vapid Tweets and investing 15 minutes in reading a considered, crafted and complete piece of creative non-fiction (or, for that matter, investing a few days in reading a book). He is wrong. The difference is as great as between a single note and an entire symphonic movement. As someone who creates, I’d rather reach one person on a meaningful level than a thousand people on a level that is ultimately meaningless.
So no, I won’t be ‘live-Tweeting’ my next journey. I hope that these thoughts might provoke others in the field to reconsider their own use of the technology (not to mention reminding myself of these reasons when I’m tempted to start doing it!).
As for my friend’s “I don’t have time” argument, well, if he has better things to do, then good for him — I need not worry that he’s missing out.