Blogging from the road is something I’ve done since the beginning of my travels. The stories that follow have been written and published from the road itself over several years of bicycle adventuring – from roads in Arctic Scandinavia, Canada & the USA, Europe, and most recently my home country, England, which is perhaps the most unusual tale of the lot.
To make reading them in sequence easier, you’ll find navigation buttons after the end of each instalment (just after the sharing buttons – hint!), which will take you directly to the next part.
Arctic Scandinavia By Bicycle In Midwinter (2011)
I decided to post a series of short daily dispatches from my tent on a one-month journey I made in 2011 from Oslo, Norway, up past the Arctic Circle to Bodo, by way of Swedish Lapland. The twist? It was the middle of winter. I wanted to see if it was possible to travel by bike in extreme cold, and if so, what the experience would be like.
Find out by reading the dispatches, starting with Day 1.
Cycling The U.S. West Coast from Vancouver to San Francisco (2012)
The USA wasn’t a place I expected to push the boundaries of adventure. But that wasn’t really the point of this two-month ride. My younger brother Ben had emigrated to Vancouver years before, and this shared journey to San Francisco would be a way of getting to know each other again as adults.
Plus – the USA did surprise me after all, in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Start reading here.
A Recumbent Microadventure Home From The Netherlands (2013)
This journey came about thanks to a wonderfully random and generous offer from a blog reader in the Netherlands. He wanted to give me his spare recumbent bicycle, on one condition: that I collect it from him in person so he could give me a crash-course in riding it.
Obviously it made sense to practice riding recumbent by cycling home to England. Here’s the first in the four-part series telling the story of that very laid-back and strangely retrospective bike trip.
#freeLEJOG – A No-Budget Bike Tour The Length Of Britain (2014)
Bored with hearing people tell me they could never afford to do a big bike trip, I decided to prove the opposite by cycling the length of Britain on the lowest budget imaginable: zero. Not a penny. No credit card as backup. Nothing. And on a bike I rescued from the scrapyard.
It was the scariest and most memorable three weeks of riding I’ve ever done, and by far the steepest learning curve I’ve ever climbed. Read all about it, starting here.
This is the final part of an account of touring the Netherlands and the UK by recumbent bike. Start at the beginning.
Two things surprised me when I woke up in a damp polo field in Cambridgeshire.
The first was that even though a damp polo field in Cambridgeshire would sound neither exotic nor adventurous when I mentioned it, all of the elements of a typical, successful overnight camp on a bike trip had been present, and I felt as satisfied and energised afterwards as I ever had in all manner of exotic and adventurous places.
The second thing that surprised me was to see that I’d ridden 80 miles the previous day, more than halfway home. I hadn’t been pushing hard, as I was still not fully comfortable on the recumbent. But it’s hours in the saddle, not speed, that produce big-mileage days. Perhaps I was surprised, then, because the previous time I’d ridden this route it had taken the best part of five days to cover.
I rode through Cambridge, fuelled up with coffee, and was out the other side, pedalling alongside the guided bus route towards St. Ives. (Think double-decker buses blasting along a purpose-built asphalt runway, with not a car or any other vehicle to be seen.)
On the way through Huntingdon I was tempted to swing past Hinchingbrook Country Park. It was in that park that I had pulled off my first ever successful stealth camp. That had been six years ago. It had been a milestone moment; a momentous occasion.
But I could not remember how to get there. And so Hinchingbrook Country Park passed me by.
I pressed on.
Oundle arrived after lunch, a historic and charming little place where my dad used to teach. It is beyond the skill of this writer to describe the ride there, on the country lanes of the East Midlands, in remotely exciting terms. The most interesting thing that happened was encountering a farm vehicle so enormous that I could have ridden right between its wheels and beneath its chassis on my little low-slung machine, without losing much more than the top of my flag in the process.
But in any case my mind was elsewhere. How would it feel, I’d been wondering, to retrace the route of a fateful journey past, to pedal in reverse along the tracks I’d made at the very beginning of my new life as a bicycle traveller all those years ago? Would it dredge up thoughts — regrets — that were best left buried; reawaken dreams, ideas and perhaps a few broken promises that had long ago been put to bed?
I had my answer now. It was something odder still. Of the hundred miles I’d revisited, I’d recognised a mere handful of spots with any clarity. A bike path through a riverside park in east Cambridge. A roundabout on an industrial estate outside Bury St. Edmunds. A stretch of narrow road over rolling hills in which I’d snagged my quick-release lever on Andy’s trailer and come crashing to the ground. A U.S. Air Force fighter jet on the roadside outside RAF Alconbury.
And even these memories were dim and deja-vu-like in their quality, as if they’d happened to someone else.
Where was the village in which we’d been handed punnets of strawberries by a kindly gardener? Or the Suffolk hamlet in which we’d pitched our tents in an animal sanctuary? The church we’d stopped at to find the warden and ask about camping in the graveyard, and who let us sleep in her back garden instead, bringing us bacon sandwiches in the rain first thing in the morning? Had these events happened to someone else too?
These anecdotes, and the journey from which they’re drawn, no longer exist anywhere but in a murky world of subjective memories. On that first foray into the unknown, every inch of road had pushed my limits in some way. Everything was new. The ride I was on now, though enjoyable in its own way, was no more challenging or adventurous than walking downstairs for breakfast. And as a result, the same road looked and felt nothing like it had when I’d set off in trepidation, 23 years old and with no previous experience, from my Northamptonshire village in the direction of Harwich, intent upon cycling round the world.
And how I laughed when I saw Deenethorpe village green! A worse place to conceal oneself overnight I could not possibly have imagined. Yet this exposed patch of grass was the one I’d once selected above from every other available option as the ideal place to spend my first night in a tent!
The memories were strong as I dismounted to snap a couple of photos. But I did not knock on the door of the house whose inhabitants had found us nervously putting up our tents, taken pity on us, and invited us in for some cheese and biscuits and strawberry pavlova. I felt that the gesture would be awkward and the reunion forced and absurd.
I rode on. And in less than an hour I was home, pedalling up a village street so familiar that it was if I’d been born in knowledge of it. And to think that it had taken an entire afternoon to ride those seven miles from my front door to that patch of grass in Deenethorpe!
As it turns out, retracing the first days of my first big bike trip has changed nothing about my memories of that time. It has not sullied the happy narrative of being young and wet behind the ears and experiencing the world for the first time. It has not even unearthed any particular nostalgia, nor a wistful and foolish longing to go back and do it again.
What it has done is remind me just how inconceivably far that original journey — the physical and the emotional — has taken me from its origins on these roads. I firmly believe in, and will continue to evangelise, the notion that a long, personal, adventurous journey should be a central component of our formative years; that everyone who is able should be encouraged to undertake such a journey before the tentacles of adulthood responsibilities have taken too firm a hold.
To do this is, in various ways, part of a broad range of cultural traditions, from the Native American ‘vision quest’ to the Australian Aboriginal ‘walkabout’ — and, in case that sounds a bit far-out, the German ‘Walz’, which is still alive and kicking. I met several such journeymen (and women) on the road myself. The closest equivalent we have today, it seems, is an extended piss-up on a beach in Thailand.
This short trip has also demonstrated unequivocally just how much of these thousands of miles of journeymaking has been irrecoverably lost. Time has passed; details have faded and eventually have vanished beyond the reaches of recollection. All that is left, now, is a memory of the fact that these things and many more did happen.
Of course I have a handful of photos and video clips. And undoubtedly there will be relics in the form of slight shapings of personality and perspective. But these can never again be distilled from the whole. And as for the videos and photos; the day has already passed when I’ve singled one out and realised that I have no recollection of the place in which it was shot, nor of what happened there beyond the moments captured.
Just how much of these adventures are lost in this way? How many memorable experiences will never again be remembered? Should we feel melancholy over their loss?
The point, I suppose, is that while memories of the past might well inform the present, that past can never truly be revisited. And so perhaps if you spend too much time reliving days of glory through rose-tinted spectacles, it may suggest that there’s an ongoing journey in need of more attention.
This is Part Three of an account of touring the Netherlands and the UK by recumbent bike. Start at the beginning.
In pitch darkness I pedalled away from the port, waving goodbye to the three Londoners I’d met on the ferry.
Decked out in woefully inappropriate attire — tweed, a trilby, a tie-dyed T‑shirt — they had been cycling around the Netherlands on clapped-out old bikes piled high with cheap supermarket-bought camping equipment. Not a Brooks or Ortlieb logo could be seen among them as they wobbled off, and I felt suddenly jealous of them for reasons that I could not identify until later, riding alone through the dark and misty streets of Harwich.
For a vehicle that looked like a deck-chair on wheels, it absolutely felt like sitting on a deck-chair on wheels.
(I don’t know about you, but I’d choose a deck chair over a bicycle saddle any day. Yep, even over a Brooks.)
Menno was wheeling his ‘Quest’ velomobile out of the garage. If ever there was a contender for the prize of Most Eccentric Road-Legal Pedal-Powered Vehicle, it’d not be the latest addition to my bicycle fleet but instead this: a three-wheeled chassis with a carbon-fibre shell, enough electrics to put Johnny Five to shame, and a price tag that would make even an SUV buyer shudder.
This description, however, risks belying the Quest’s strange and elegant beauty: a miniature Bullet Train lookalike gliding silently, even unobtrusively, along the cycleway in front of me, pinpoints of LED light dazzling me with every application of the brakes and indicators, and a comedy imitation car-horn for scattering unsuspecting pedestrians.
This, of course, was the predictable refrain of almost everyone back home when I’d mentioned that I was flying to the continent to pick up a recumbent bike and then ride it back to the UK. Well, if you’ve been reading this blog for long enough, you’ll know that when it comes to adventures, my first question is:
“What’s (really) the worst that could happen?”
Too much of our decision-making — or indecision — these days is fear-driven. While fear exists for a good reason (it kept us from getting eaten by tigers), we as a society are veering worryingly towards paranoia, and are increasingly out of touch with the difference between real and imagined fears.
I had never ridden a recumbent bike. I’d never met the man who’d offered it to me, and knew neither where he lived nor anything else about him. I’d planned the trip and booked my flight to Amsterdam just a couple of days before leaving, and bought a ferry ticket from the Hook of Holland back to Harwich that had given me a time window of one and a half days to ride the new bike a hundred miles across the Netherlands to catch it. And I’d no idea where I would sleep, nor what route I’d take, which meant that precisely nobody would know where I was for the duration of the trip. A risk assessment officer would have a field day.
My point is that none of this was remotely worrying. In fact, these were the very things that made the idea attractive. Spontaneity is fun; an antidote to life in the over-informed, over-scheduled Information Age. If a complete stranger had got in touch to say he wanted to gift me a bicycle, the most likely explanation was because he was a generous well-meaning individual. Learning to ride a new kind of bicycle would be fun; if I fell off, I would pick myself up off the dedicated bicycle path (this would be in the Netherlands, remember?) and try again.
Given no recent training whatsoever, the hundred miles would be a silly challenge, and a motivator to keep moving rather than dawdling in cafes watching hot Dutch chicks go by. And as for route-finding and unplanned stealth-camping? A chance to use my wits for a bit of problem-solving in the name of boyish adventure, rather than using a smartphone to have myself guided to the nearest hostel, turn by turn, like a robot on remote control. Life’s not about that.
Balancing on a recumbent was initially rather strange, for reasons that weren’t immediately obvious. But as the kilometres went by on the first day, the weather mild, still clinging to the warmth of summer, I soon realised why.
On a traditional upright diamond-framed bicycle, the act of balancing is largely an exercise in adjusting the position of a top-heavy counterweight — that’s your torso I’m talking about — in order to counterbalance the yaw and roll of the machine beneath you. Now imagine, if you will, sitting in that deck-chair again. Your upper body is pretty firmly planted. Not much wiggle room, right? And so the principle lesson in recumbent riding was that my balance had to come from somewhere other than the subconscious shifts of upper body weight that I’d relied upon since the moment my parents took off my stabilisers.
Trials (read ‘stunt’) bikers of the Danny MacAskill ilk will often be seen riding bikes along impossibly narrow walls and handrails and things, and you’ll sometimes see them adjusting their balance by sticking a leg out to one side in a clown-like fashion or using their knees for similar leverage. Funnily enough, said Menno, this is a big part of how balancing on a recumbent works. Since your upper body is locked in place, the next greatest weight that can be shifted about is your legs, particularly those thunderous cyclist-thighs you’ve got going on. Since you’re using them to pedal, however, it’s a case of adjusting the angle at which your knees stick out to the sides whilst your feet remain on the pedals. The same is true to a much lesser extent with your elbows. Once used to this new way of maintaining one’s balance, the result is just as inconspicuous and effortless as upright cycling.
So I had quite a bit of getting used to, and there was much in the way of flailing limbs while the relevant parts of my brain attempted to reconfigure themselves after a lifetime of perfectly content upright cycling. And yes — there were a couple of grazed elbows. But the falls actually served to highlight one of the other distinctive features of recumbent cycling, which depending on your perspective could be its greatest attraction or its most immediate shortcoming.
This thing was low. Seriously low. Which meant that falling off was more akin to rolling out of bed than a calamitous over-the-handlebars tumble. The world looked very different down here — the very opposite of road cycling and the tucked position in which one cranes one’s neck upwards to see beyond the next few metres of asphalt. I found that I could actually see much more of the world, and in more comfort, from my deckchair-bound position of extreme and uncompromising leisure, because I was positioned uniquely to take in the view at all times and thus to worry much less about what was going on with the mechanicals beneath me.
In England, I would also come to know far more intimately the perspective from which the wheels and tyres of motor vehicles experienced their journeys. Though this is perhaps the greatest fear expressed by those who’ve never tried recumbent cycling — proximity to the lethal undersides of cars and trucks — I ended up feeling significantly safer sharing British roads with motorised traffic on a recumbent than I did on my road bike. But that’s a story for the next article.
Seventy kilometres came and went along canal-side towpaths, through leafy green and damp-smelling forests, along dykes and via old roads repurposed for pedal-powered traffic: the world’s most comprehensive system of bicycle paths easily and luxuriantly taking me where I wanted to go with barely a car in sight. Menno told me that there exists a Dutch pressure group who campaign for better cycling infrastructure. I wanted to laugh. So I did. Loudly. In fact, I hooted. If the Netherlands needs a pressure group, it’s for the pedestrians, poor buggers, who’re frequently left with nowhere to walk because there are too many bloody bicycle paths everywhere.
On my way back up through England UK in 2010, having spent the previous couple of years travelling and living in the Middle East and Africa, I wrote an open letter to Sustrans, congratulating them on having done such a great job with the National Cycle Network, given that most of the world didn’t know such things existed.
I stand by that letter, but it is all relative, because placed next to the Dutch system Britain’s is still stone-age in comparison. When the nation’s biggest sustainable transport organisation is a charity, not a government department, there’s a pretty clear indication that a priority shift is overdue.
And then I was alone. A fifty-kilometre morning ride would be on the cards tomorrow, but I’d made the progress I’d needed to make today with surprising ease.
The afternoon was drawing into dusk as I pulled off the cycleway near Boskoop and into a large area of recreational parkland beside a reservoir. Expansive lawns were studded with stands of tall trees, litter bins, and the occasional toilet block. The last walkers were drifting towards the car park as darkness continued to fall and the distant lights of the town began to twinkle across the water. I conducted a quick risk assessment — public land, no people, distant from roads and cars, low chance of night-watchmen, sufficiently far from the town for drunks or prowlers — but it was my gut that told me I’d found my camping spot for the night. And my gut was always right.
And so — as I’d done on literally hundreds of nights before — I chucked on my fleece, got some dinner on the go, wandered around in the darkness to reassure my paranoid brain of the expertise of my gut, and then stopped — to experience the joy of sudden stillness and solitude in this brand new temporary home I’d found.
And then I slung up my hammock between two trees and slept until dawn.
What do you make of these strange contraptions? Why wouldn’t you take a recumbent bike on tour?
The last time I saw Holland was a day in late June more than half a decade ago. I saw Holland, disappearing in my rear-view mirror, the Belgian border drifting beneath my bicycle wheels as I crossed a river somewhere south of Maastricht.
(I didn’t actually spot the border crossing itself, E.U. Freedom of Movement being the luxury that it is.)
That was the last time I saw Holland.
Until last week.
Circling Amsterdam as the plane came into land, industrial-scale greenhouses and irrigated crop fields spanning the flatlands as far as even my elevated eye could see, I could not suppress an audible cackle over the circumstances of my return visit. Fellow passengers eyed me suspiciously before returning to whatever in-flight delights their iPhones were serving up. Crikey — the iPhone didn’t even exist last time I was here…
Because the next few days would entertain a whim I’ve held for years. The seed was sown by a German lady I met near the Hungarian-Slovakian border whose name I immediately forgot and whom I have always since referred to as ‘Duvet’. It seemed at the time a similar-sounding name to the one I’d already lost in the blur of new experiences and chance meetings with friendly strangers that characterised my new life as a full-time traveller.
Duvet’s first appearance in my rear-view mirror caused me to slam on the brakes rather abruptly. For she had eased into view on a low-slung contraption resembling a pedal-powered deck-chair with saddlebags attached.
“What the hell is that?” I wanted to say as she pulled up alongside me, but out of politeness I asked instead: “What kind of a bike is that?”
Duvet was riding her recumbent to India, alone, and — even though wearing traditional Bavarian costume — was riding a hell of a lot faster than the inexperienced little trio of me, Andy and Mark, who had just about managed to muddle through to the far end of Western Europe and were about to suffer the worst case of food poisoning in living memory. And so she left as quickly as she’d arrived.
But the impression of that bizarre and strangely alluring contraption somehow remained, and would return to tickle my curiosity for years to come. It just looked so damn comfortable — even if cycling recumbent did make you look like you were trying to swim backwards in a strait-jacket. And there was something about the bike’s sheer eccentricity and novelty that appealed to my non-conformist side; the side that (for better or worse) found a childish thrill in defying convention and causing the occasional harmless stir amongst the fair people of this world.
The Netherlands, which we Brits often refer to mistakenly as Holland (distinction here), is nowadays the world capital of recumbent cycling. So it should not have come as a surprise that when a fellow long-distance bicycle traveller wrote in with the generous and humbling offer of the recumbent bike he no longer required, it came with the condition that I come and pick it up from his place in the Netherlands.
Now, I’m a staunch supporter of saying “yes” more, and when an opportunity like that comes along it’s the only excuse I need to bunk off work for a few days (that’s why I’m my own boss, after all) and scratch the itch of wanderlust that I know I’ll never shake off (nor, by the way, do I ever want to).
…and four days later, there I was in Amsterdam Schipol, looking at the empty baggage reclaim hall, wondering exactly how one of my two bags had made it here from Heathrow Terminal 5 yet the other had not. Some things will always remain a mystery.
(Quick aside: I flew by British Airways, with 2 checked bags, in Business Class, and used the members-only Executive Lounges (i.e. free grub) in both airports. This cost a total of £25 — a third of the price of the cheapest Easyjet flight I could find, and less than a single train ticket to the airport. I managed this through what’s become known as ‘travel hacking’, which is an interesting topic in itself. In a forthcoming article I’ll explain exactly how this works, and how a bicycle traveller can use the techniques to his or her advantage.)
Menno lived in Ede, an hour’s train ride east, and came to meet me in the airport. I felt a kinship with him immediately — here was another guy who had found the conventional life to be missing some inexplicable but utterly crucial component, and, as a result of a restless and questioning nature, had sought to find out exactly what it was by setting forth into the world on a bicycle — the search, rather than the answer itself, being the main point.
The difference was that he’d first done this 30 years ago and had been on countless long journeys since then, reminding me that I was a mere spring chicken in the world of bicycle travel (heck, my grandma and granddad took off on a tandem for their honeymoon in the 1940s, and let’s not forget Thomas Stevens’ world tour by penny farthing in 1896, lest we be thinking that adventurous bicycle travel is anything new).
As well as accumulating no less than 11 bicycles in the process — including 2 recumbent bikes and a Velomobile — he’d found a way of combining his yearning for adventure with a professional medical career and life as a family man. Menno had made arrangements with his employer to accumulate paid leave through small, regular contributions of overtime, meaning that every 5 years he could disappear for a full 6 months — whilst remaining on the payroll, and without sacrificing any additional statutory leave. That sounded like an enviable position. How many people could strike a similar deal with their long-term employers? (The answer, I’m willing to bet, is “more than you’d think, if only they’d ask”.)
You’ve probably guessed that the ‘itch of wanderlust’ I mentioned earlier wasn’t going to be scratched by a posh flight to Amsterdam, even if the airline lounge did serve a quite wonderful mature Stilton at room temperature with a panoramic view of planes, landing.
No. It was going to be scratched by riding the recumbent bike all the way back from whence I’d come.
* * *
There’s something absurd and fascinating about pedalling (or walking) a route that you have just flown (or driven). It serves as a reminder that the word ‘travel’ is a poor descriptor indeed if it encompasses both the fibreglass-bound teleportation of air travel and the act of rolling bodily across the earthly landscape beneath those same clouds, inhaling and absorbing all that it contains for the brief second in which you inhabit each and every inch of that space. The two experiences are are unlike each other as climbing a tree and boarding a space-rocket.
Of course I was nervous. I’d never ridden a recumbent in my life, and now here I was, wheeling the wobbly thing to a quiet stretch of road behind Menno’s house for a crash-course in not crashing or veering off course, and I was due to set off for the Hook of Holland tomorrow morning. But hey, I was supposed to be doing this bicycle travel thing for a living, now, right?
And that was another curious element of the ride ahead: it wouldn’t quite be the first time I’d ridden this route. I would, in fact, be tracing more or less exactly the path that I’d taken six years previously, as my two friends and I gingerly nosed our way out of familiar England and into the world of permanent bike-mounted vagabonding that has since taken me across four continents. For me at least, it was a journey that had always felt unfinished, even if only in an abstract sense, things having moved so far past those youthful, heady days. Would this return trip somehow put a symbolic full-stop at the end of a half-finished sentence?
(Does anyone reading this remember ‘Ride Earth’?)
There was a time when I’d had a mission and it was as clear as glass: cycle round the world, return a hero, die happy. The journey I ended up making instead, which began on these very roads and bike paths ahead of me, was in many ways about unpacking that myth, and continues to this day.
And so, as I stuffed a hammock and some food into the saddlebags and prepared to depart on my brand new pedal-powered deckchair, I wasn’t sure what I’d feel; what or how much I’d remember, even, as I retraced a ride I’d undertaken long ago now — with so much having happened in the six years since that I can barely remember the person I’d been when I’d done it.