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Country Guides

Tom’s Guide To Cycle Touring In… The Netherlands

As a student at the University of Exeter I once joined an annual fundraising event known as the Amsterdam Hitch. Travelling in pairs or groups, participants would have 24 hours to hitchhike from southwest England to the Dutch capital, spend a couple of nights ‘recovering’, then take a prearranged bus ride home.

This, one of my first overseas adventures, did not gave me a particularly broad or revealing insight into modern Dutch culture.

For one thing, I and my hitching partner Natalia only got as far as a truck-stop on the outskirts of Ghent, Belgium, before giving up and jumping on the train.

But mainly it was because I wasn’t travelling by bicycle.

Cycle route signposting in the Netherlands

Because the Netherlands only really makes sense when you’re on two wheels. During the later decades of the twentieth century, this former imperial maritime power literally rebuilt itself around cycling. Entire city blocks were bulldozed to make way for new cycling infrastructure. There’s a fascinating short film on Youtube of how this all came to pass. (If you don’t have time to watch it, it can be summarised as the outcome of prioritising quality of life over economic efficiency.)

Today, there exist in the Netherlands more kilometres of cycleway than motorised carriageway, more bicycles than cars, and in many towns and cities a higher proportion of journeys by bike than any other means. Where a bike path crosses a road, the cyclist always – always – has the right of way. Many Dutch only consider driving (or other motorised transport) if cycling is impractical, which is rarely.

You hear about this a lot – it’s what the Netherlands is famous for – but it doesn’t hit home until you’ve been there. And it was four years after the Amsterdam Hitch that this unemployed graduate with dreams of cycling around the world discovered that the Dutch experience went much further than almost being hit by a tram while staggering along a canal in search of a hostel whose name he couldn’t remember.

I had cycled across England to Harwich and taken the overnight ferry to the Hook of Holland, rolling off the boat and onto the LF1 Dutch long-distance cycle route (also part of the EuroVelo 12 North Sea Cycle Route), riding through dunes and beaches and seaside towns on traffic-free paths – a luxurious change from sharing English country lanes with impatient van drivers.

I remember wondering when the cycle paths would run out, as they inevitably always did, and the tedium of road riding would begin.

Ninety kilometres later I arrived in Amsterdam. And I hadn’t left a cycle path.

Amsterdam wasn’t the obvious routing. My two friends and I were ultimately heading for Spain, where we planned to ride the Camino de Santiago before looping east and reaching Istanbul before winter.

There were, however, two good reasons for us going there.

The first was that I’d hitchhiked to Amsterdam four years ago and dimly remembered it being fun.

The second was that Mark had ordered a new saddlebag from the UK to be delivered poste restante, and we had to go and pick it up.

Now, if I’d bothered to read an article with a title like “Tom’s Guide To Cycle Touring In The Netherlands” before we’d done this, I might have learned that there was no shortage of very well-stocked bike shops in Amsterdam, and that one of them would probably have a saddlebag.

Given such a revelation, ordering bike parts to the Netherlands would have felt a bit like ordering tea to India.

I knew the visa requirements for crossing Central Asia, the options for passing the Darién Gap, and which border points between China and Mongolia were open to foreigners. Yet at no point while planning my round-the-world bike trip had I realised that the gear to do it could be bought along the way.

The relevance of this anecdote, dear reader, is simply to restate that the Netherlands is a country in which you can simply turn up and spontaneously begin a cycle tour. It is, by all accounts, one of the most convenient nations – if not the most convenient nation – in the world to explore on a bicycle, or tricycle, or tandem, or any other pedal powered machine you can imagine.

In fact, if you’re planning a long ride starting in Europe, you could do worse than begin from the Netherlands. Some of the most reputable expedition bike brands – Koga and Santos perhaps the best known – have Dutch origins, and their bikes can be found widespread. And because the Dutch are not just a nation of cyclists but of cycle tourists, you’ll find all the standard touring gear here too.

Hanging out with our Dutch host

Gaining momentum across the country, we three young British lads on overloaded mountain bikes seemed to ignite a certain compassion in the hearts of the rural Dutch.

(This was in spite of having ceremoniously shaved our heads and inadvertently taken on an appearance normally associated with members of an outlawed brand of militant fascism.)

Friendly locals welcomed us to camp in the gardens of their family homes, to sleep on narrowboats, and to eat dinner with them, sharing with us – in perfect English – the simple stuff of life.

On one memorable occasion, a couple invited us to sleep on their garage floor, seeing as it was raining outside. The wife later revealed that her husband was a professional plumber and that he had installed the mother of all showers in their en-suite bathroom. Would we like to use it?

Pulling back the cubicle door revealed an extravagant control panel which not only allowed one to specify the water temperature to a tenth of a degree but also activated an array of coloured lights, music, horizontal water jets from multiple angles, and great blasts of steam from hidden orifices. I have been searching for a showering experience to match it ever since.

The rain continued, and we quickly realised that the Nederlanders’ love of cycling was not dependent upon perfect riding conditions. Yes, the thing about the country being completely flat is more or less true; the highest point on the mainland is a lowly 322m above sea level, and our biggest climbs were generally to the top of a dike or out of a subway tunnel.

But the wind – the wind was sometimes so relentless that simply inching forward felt like pedalling uphill in granny gear. And it was usually, of course, a headwind. Add horizontal rain to the mix and we quickly discarded the notion that cycling across the Netherlands wouldn’t be tough. As for sidewinds? Wearing ponchos? Forget it! Better to stop in a café and wait it out.

When it was nice, though, the Netherlands was really nice, with a lot more protected areas, forests and nature reserves than we’d expected, reachable only by off-highway cycle paths. And in general, the Netherlands was familiar enough that we could ease into the groove of long-term travel. Yet I was soon yearning to press eastward into less familiar territory – which of course says more about my 23-year-old self than it does about cycle touring in the Netherlands.

Six years later and no longer fixated on leaving the West behind, I returned to the Netherlands, this time to collect a recumbent bike from a kindly reader and ride it home to England. After many years of life-changing travel in places where bicycle infrastructure was unheard of, I was struck even more strongly by the sheer luxury of travelling through a country designed so ubiquitously for the bicycle rider.

I resurrected my wild-camping routine, this time with a hammock, though I never did find any of the Paalkamperen, a little-known but apparently wonderful network of designated free camping sites.

And if I’d stayed longer, I would doubtless have called upon one of the thousands of registered Warmshowers hosts in the country. (Armenia, by comparison, has three.)

But all too soon I was riding down that very same LF route to the Hook of Holland and boarding that very same ferry to Harwich – this time able to afford the occasional coffee along the way.

Yes, it’s a trope often trotted out in travel literature, but the Netherlands really is a cycle touring utopia. And – as I discovered at both ends of a rambling world tour – that goes for total newbies and a hardened adventurers alike.

Landelijk Fietsplatform, the official Dutch organisation for recreational cycling, maintains a very informative website (in English) all about cycle touring in the Netherlands.

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Country Guides

Tom’s Guide To Cycle Touring In… England

This is #2 in an occasional series about cycle touring in each of the 50+ countries I’ve had the pleasure to ride through. I’m working my way through the list chronologically (and wishing I’d started earlier!). Read about the background to the series here.

The first country I went on a big bike trip in was Scotland. But I went with friends. The first time I tried it alone was in my home country: England.

I forget the precise date. I have neither photos nor diaries to reference. But it was some time in late 2006. My destination was Abergavenny, Wales, where an old university friend lived. He was about to embark on a big round-the-world backpacking trip, and for whatever reason (probably lack of money) I had decided to cycle there from the East Midlands, where I was living with my parents.

Given that I was in the early stages of planning a round-the-world mountain biking expedition called ‘Ride Earth’, I figured that a couple of days’ pedalling across Middle England would be good practice.

Turned out it wasn’t. It was too easy. Because England, I discovered, had these things called cycle routes.

The National Cycle Network: A touring cyclist’s best friend

In fact, it had a whole National Cycle Network, a concept to which I later discovered most of the world had yet to think of. Today it’s more extensive than ever, with 14,700 miles (23,700 km) of routes meeting official standards, including ten long-distance National Routes.

(This is thanks in large part to the work of the charity Sustrans, to whom I’ve been donating £10 a month for a very long time).

But even back in 2006, the National Cycle Network had me riding merrily across Northamptonshire, Leicestershire and Warwickshire without a sniff of a dual carriageway or busy main road.

In a country so densely populated and with so many cars on the roads, this was a Very Good Thing.

English road-signs

Shropshire cycle routes

NCN route signs in Lancaster

(A few years later, on returning from a world in which the idea of designated bicycle routes was just hilarious, I was moved to write an open letter to Sustrans in its praise.)

I remember – upon seeing the county boundary sign in the afternoon on the first day – being filled with such glee that my bicycle could so effortlessly have carried me so far away from the places I knew, purely as a result of picking a direction and pedalling for a few hours. That thrill – that freedom – was a precursor to many things.

That evening I attempted my first solo wild camp. With nothing to go on but my time as an officer cadet in the British Army, I had packed a bivvy bag and a poncho with the intention of throwing up a basha in the woods somewhere, just like I had on exercise. Alone at dusk, exposed and vulnerable, I bottled it. Citing mild drizzle in combination with inadequacies of my military-issue equipment, I hurried to the nearest village pub, paid for a room by credit card, and ate an utterly fantastic lamb and mint pie with chips and peas for dinner, washed down with a pint of ale.

It was a total failure.

But in failing, I discovered one of the best things about cycle touring in England.

Pubs.

Music night at the Old Dungeon Ghyll

Celebrating a successful 3 days

Earning the beer

English Pubs: The touring cyclist’s other best friend

In each country there are certain institutions around which cycle tourists can build practical aspects of life on the road. In England it has got to be the pub. The inn. The tavern. The alehouse. The local. The public house. Don’t you just love that phrase? A designated house in each settlement that’s open to the public? That’s a stroke of purest genius!

And many pubs, particularly in villages, particularly when there is only one pub in the village, really do feel like home.

Partly it’s the olde worlde appearance and decor which imparts a sense of timelessness, as if the space inside is somehow immune to the changing winds of global politics; a stoic refuge from things that matter.

But it’s also because of an oh-so-subtle transformation that happens once you cross the threshold: when you enter a pub you inhabit it. Only secondarily are you a customer. You may do more or less as you want, stay as long as you like, play darts, bring your dog, be social, be antisocial, order nothing more than a pint of orange squash and a packet of crisps.

There is none of the formal etiquette of the restaurant, none of the production-line queueing of the bakery or takeaway, none of the time-sensitiveness of the cafe or coffee shop where staff begin to silently bristle if you do not vacate your table the moment your cup is drained.

In short, they exemplify in bricks and mortar that strange, reserved form of public life that is typical of England.

Aside from that, pubs serve the very practical functions of serving food (including lunch) and ale (which has recently been renamed ‘craft beer’ for some reason), having bathrooms, refilling your water bottles, and sometimes also offering bed & breakfast accommodation, which can be handy in rural areas. British pub food has come a long way as the country has woken up to its past culinary reputation and set about rectifying it. Meals are hearty and portions are definitely on the cyclist-sized end of the spectrum: there’s a reason so many weekend warriors in the UK base their rides around the ‘pub lunch’, and if you stay the night, you’ll usually get a hearty fry-up to send you off in the morning.

Stupendous breakfast

In case you’re wondering, I made it as far as Hereford before jumping on the train for the last leg to Abergavenny, as I’d run out of time.

Incidentally, something else happened that day. And though not specifically related to cycle touring in England, I include this anecdote to illustrate the valuable change in perspective that comes with cycle touring even in one’s own backyard.

So, my girlfriend of a couple of years had very recently dumped me. It was still raw, and I had been festering over it for a while. And somehow, the long hours of riding prised my brain open long enough for a realisation to burst forth. She had not dumped me because I had decided to cycle round the world without her. She had dumped me because I had been a total dick.

And with that realisation came a rush of remorse and regret – and then, surprisingly, a kind of desperate sympathy for the poor girl, such that all I wanted to do was call up and apologise for, well, myself. It was a new and inspiring feeling. So I slammed on the brakes, got out my phone and did just that.

When she responded not with gentle forgiveness but by confirming that, yes, I had indeed been a total dick, I got all defensive and cocked it up again. Clearly I had a long way to go! But it was at least the start of the process of waking up to who and what I was, facilitated and mediated by a bike trip of all things. Cycle-therapy, perhaps you could call it! Cyclo-therapy… no, this pun’s going nowhere. But you get the point.

Off-road cycleway in England

Anyway. So much for pubs and break-ups.

England’s Green & Pleasant Lands

The next time I found myself cycle touring in England was the following summer when I was trying to get as far the hell away as possible. At the time it felt like going to war with a life I’d grown to loathe. And I would win that war by leaving it all behind – the country of my birth, the ex-girlfriend, the job offers, even my poor parents who must have wondered what exactly they’d done to cause me to flee the island forever at the age of 23. I hated it all (not my parents, of course, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to live in a time-warp of a village in the East Midlands for the rest of my life).

And so I was leaving it all behind in the most literal sense possible, destination: the port of Harwich.

My two riding buddies and I set off through the country lanes to catch the ferry to Holland. It was midsummer and the combine harvesters were out in force. The air was full of a particular type of pollen that made the mucous membranes of my eyeballs itch and swell up and inflame to the point that I could barely see. We rode through Stilton and discovered that this quaint little village was merely where the famous cheese was sold, rather than where it was made (mostly in the Vale of Belvoir in north-east Leicestershire, which I knew because I’d recently programmed a new website for Long Clawson Dairy while saving up for the trip).

Several observations struck me as I rode for the coast on a mission to depart this wicked land.

The first was how nice the English countryside was in summertime. This annoyed me because I’d already decided England was shit and I wanted out. But it was undeniable: warm but not too warm, just enough rain to keep things green and fresh, no mosquitoes… and so quiet! With all of England at work 9 to 5 Monday to Friday, the roads were ours – narrow, winding, scenic roads made of good asphalt over low hills and through picturesque villages of limestone and sandstone with neatly-tended gardens in full bloom and trickling brooks with little bridges over them and benches to sit on and ancient churches and pubs. Pubs were great. (See above.)

My kind of lane

DSC_0047

Penzance

English… Hospitality?

The second observation was how nice the English people were.

Helpful and polite to a man, surprisingly inquisitive as to the intentions of three skinheads on heavily-loaded bicycles – and hospitable? Not at all a word I would have considered applying to the English. But of the nights we spent on the road to Harwich, fully three-quarters were spent camping in strangers’ back gardens at their invitation AND being fed by them.

These are statistics I usually trot out for the Middle East!

I mean, yes, we were cycling through the lands of the white middle classes and gentlemen farmers. It was hardly a representative picture of the country. But people don’t come to England in the summer and follow cycle routes and back roads around the countryside and expect a representative view. We’re travellers, not sociologists or anthropologists (though some of us may pretend we are). Our experiences are the very definition of subjective.

And in those short few days I was confronted with subjective evidence that my almost fervent loathing of life in England was borne of an equally subjective kind of storytelling – stories composed of second-hand news, other people’s opinions, and gross generalisations, as chosen and told by my own dissatisfied inner voice. The subjective truth, right here, right now, was that England and the English were actually pretty nice.

Fellow LEJOGer

Old friends in Lympstone

The farmers who took me in

(Of course I ignored all of this and got on the ferry anyway: it would take a few years to reconcile my tendency towards wanton oversimplification, and in any case I had committed to Riding Earth – lucky for you, dear reader, otherwise this blog series would end right here.)

The English Sense Of Humour

I found precisely the same thing a few years later, when I really was dependent on the niceness of the English to ride across their country, because I was doing so without a penny to my name.

I met scores of friendly strangers who would hear out my madcap scheme and play happily along with the ironic pointlessness of choosing to be destitute, never taking my silly mission too seriously and thus helping me to do likewise.

England is, of course, a so-called ‘rich country’, whose government can afford to support its poorer citizens and in which credit culture is deeply embedded. So perhaps it was that complacency around the availability of money that endeared folk to the FreeLEJOG project. (Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the concept working were this not to be the case.)

Wild Camping in England

That ride also helped hone my approach to wild camping in England.

For such a densely-populated island I found sleeping rough in the British countryside remarkably easy, thanks mainly to the ubiquity of hedgerows.

These lines of closely-spaced shrubs and trees have been used for centuries to enclose and subdivide land, particularly farmland, creating in the process the esoteric art of hedgelaying – in fact, hedges are so much a part of England’s heritage that cutting one down is now a criminal offence!

They also act as windbreaks, wildlife corridors, barriers to livestock… and easily-accessible hiding places for touring cyclists.

Escaping a wild-camp site

Wild camp outside Whitchurch

Somerset sunshine

England’s canals: perfect for cycling (& camping)

Other good wild-camping spots in England can be found alongside navigable rivers and canals, of which there are over 3,500km in Britain as a whole. Many canals also double up as traffic-free cycling routes with the original towpaths now repurposed for leisure users, including cyclists as long as they ride considerately (tip: this is also a great way to pedal across London, Birmingham and other cities of the industrial north).

Also, boat people and bike people tend to share a common understanding of the romance of itinerancy and nomadism; few narrowboat-dwellers on public moorings will mind you pitching up nearby for the night.

Making the most of England’s national heritage

I wound up working for food for a few days at a National Trust campsite in the Lake District where my money-free project intersected with two of the UK’s most precious institutions: the National Parks and the National Trust.

England’s 10 National Parks (instigated in 1932 by the ‘most successful direct action in British history’) offer in my opinion some of the best riding in the country and a rare chance to see what the island might have looked like before the encroachment of humankind. (I have a soft spot for the Lake District, having spent a very happy year living there.)

And the National Trust does an enormous amount to look after what nature and wildlife does remain, as well as giving visitors the means to engage with it. Anyone planning a tour of England incorporating more than a few of the charity’s stunning properties would do well consider the benefits of joining.

Cycling organisations in England

England is going through a phase of obsessiveness with cycling, due in large part to the high-visibility (sorry, so sorry) success of British riders in the Olympics and the Tour de France in recent years.

It is somehow ironic that the official government body representing cyclists’ interests – Cycling England – was dissolved in 2011, but at least we still have its non-governmental counterpart Cycling UK, whose lineage goes all the way back to 1878.

What cycling’s popularity means for the tourer, among other things, is that there’s plentiful company on the roads – particularly at weekends, when one may have enormous fun drafting plump pelotons of MAMILs on one’s fully-loaded touring bike – and there are well-stocked bike shops everywhere, including several that specialise in cycle touring.

Janapar at Cycle To The Cinema in Sheffield

You’ll also find cafés and coffee shops in rural areas with cake portions that seem as if they’ve been measured specifically for cyclists – probably because they have.

Much like the German ‘Bett und Bike’ (bed and bike, duh) initiative, England too has a growing network of specifically bicycle-friendly accommodation along many of the most popular routes.

So there’s a good start.

Cycle tourists exploring Europe tend to overlook this little cluster of rainy islands in the north Atlantic. But I hope I’ve convinced you to consider England for your next bike trip. Once you get used to the accent, you’ll feel right at home.

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Country Guides Guest Posts

Brutal Indonesia: Cycle Touring Sulawesi On Folding Bikes

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

* * *

“I… can… do… it!!!”

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

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

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

Why cycling in Indonesia, of all things?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cycling in remote Sulawesi: some important basics

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

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

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

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

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

Pros of cycling in central Sulawesi

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

Cons of cycling in central Sulawesi

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

Cycle touring with folding bicycles

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

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

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

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

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

In conclusion

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

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

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

Categories
Country Guides

Tom’s Guide To Cycle Touring In… Scotland

Scotland was where it all started. Little did I know my first week-long cycle tour – an ill-advised crosscountry jaunt through the West Highlands – was going to have such a profound effect.

It seemed unlikely at the time. For that week in May, Scotland did not hesitate to deliver its traditional punishments of mountains, midges and rain, and my companions and I were, to put it mildly, ill-prepared for any of it. We suffered. We were tested. We were found sorely lacking in almost every department: the arrogance of youth piling headlong into a chasm of inexperience. Fun it was most definitely not.

Yet we made it! And there was something deeply intoxicating in emerging from a dark journey that had taken us so far beyond what we knew, to wild places that made riding happily out of Inverness on Day One seem like a distant memory, that made the prospect of ever returning to civilisation a long-forgotten dream.

More than anything else, what defined this new approach to a bike ride – in which one did not simply end up back where one had started at the end of the day – was that redemption always lay ahead, beyond challenges and experiences unimaginable and undiscovered. Giving up and turning back would achieve nothing.

And the feeling that – were I to continue, day upon day – those challenges and experiences would never stop coming nor delivering the rewards of living through them was, I think, the drug that sucked me in and left me lusting ever more strongly for adventure; an addiction I now can never cure, as here I am, nearly 12 years later, having crossed half the world on a bicycle and still going.

Scotland is where Englishmen have always gone to test their mettle once the nice but overcrowded delights of the Peaks and the Lakes have outlived their appeal. Things assume the form of the land the English wish they hadn’t tamed so completely; the land they remorsefully imagine England might somehow still be like had they not harnessed her and arranged her appearance so heavy-handedly in a frenzy of civilisation, agriculture and industry. Scotland, the northern half of the island of Britain; the wild step-sibling of the prim and proper south, a place where (from an English perspective) the familiar and the foreign both rear their heads to produce complex feelings nowhere else can quite reproduce, simultaneously of homecoming and visitorship; a thing very difficult to articulate.

Crossing the border and weaving among the valleys of Scotland (as I did again in 2014 as part of a long ride north on roads and cycle routes), it felt as if someone had dialled down the volume of the land, leaving a silence imbued with constantly changing qualities. Suddenly it was space and time and the minutiae that dwelt within both that dominated my experience. No longer was I navigating a world so overtly designed and moulded by mankind.

In Scotland – particularly as you press up and out towards her extremities – you will find moor and mountain still confident in itself, where people may have dabbled but seldom overextended their reach, as if the ancient lands could subdue and humble each generation of inhabitants before they exacted their worst excesses.

There are quite simply fewer souls here with whom to share the road. It is far easier to feel that you have gone beyond the bounds of human society and are a narrow track’s width away from the cliché of true communion with nature. And it is a kind of nature – dramatic, prehistoric, simmering with a hint of dormant savagery – with which you will likely form a close relationship during your time there. Especially when, as frequently happens, the heavens open and you discover the true meaning of ‘cold, wet and miserable’.

Two practical aspects of cycle touring in Scotland embody all of this for me. The first is a piece of legislation known as the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, which among other things formalises the right to camp freely, at least temporarily, more or less anywhere you would reasonably consider doing so.

Partly this is just writing down what should be common sense in a sparsely populated place where people come to spend time outdoors. But it also means that you will always know where you stand when it comes to putting up your tent: it is your legal right to do so. North of Hadrian’s Wall, never again shall you stress out about ‘getting caught’. With it comes the moral imperative not to abuse that right, of course. But that rarely seems a problem among cycle tourers.

The second is naturally of more interest to bikepackers and mountain bikers, and it concerns the (until recently) little-known culture of the bothy. Bothies are simple shelters in remote places, privately owned in most cases, maintained by volunteers, and left with the doors unlocked for free public use. It takes real effort to reach most of them, for by their nature they tend to serve regions far from roads or settlements, often having been shepherds’ or hunters’ shelters in a previous incarnation. This serves as some protection from the abuse they would undoubtedly suffer were they easier to get to (the kind of abuse that has seen wild camping rights suspended on the eastern shores of Loch Lomond).

For the intrepid cyclist – perhaps one with fatter, knobblier tyres on their bike and an appetite for rewarding detours – bothies represent an idiosyncratic subculture of mountainous Britain with a practical purpose for the adventuring cyclist.

When I first combined biking and bothying on that maiden voyage in 2006, the only way to find out where they were was to join the Mountain Bothy Association and receive a printed handbook in the post containing grid references, which you would then cross-reference with Ordnance Survey maps to find that the bothy in question was indeed on the map all along yet disguised as something else. Nowadays, especially in the wake of a recent awareness explosion thanks to several populist books, blogs and short films on the phenomenon, it’s somewhat easier.

Indeed, rather than try and stem the tide, the MBA now make the locations of the bothies they maintain public on their website (and would undoubtedly appreciate a charitable donation if you do make use of them).

Though it’s often the land that draws people to Scotland, it would be disingenuous to write about cycle touring in Scotland without mentioning its people. While planning my tour of the UK with Janapar in 2013, I’d put out a call for people to host screenings, several of which ended up being north of the border, with the result that I spent several chilly weeks riding between gigs on a folding bike, being hosted by a broad spectrum of strangers along the way.

And if there’s any gross generalisation worth making based on my experiences in Scotland, it’s an extension of the rule that the further you travel from London, the friendlier people get. While it’s as good as impossible to extract the influence of one’s own expectations from any social interaction, my impression of the Scots has been of an approachable and upfront demeanour that I simply wouldn’t expect further south.

I still have the final leg of the iconic Land’s End to John O’Groats to knock off. And each time I stumble upon pictures from the Hebrides, the Orkneys, or the Shetlands, or see the latest quasi-autobiographical Danny McAskill film pop up on Youtube, I’m reminded that there are nearly a hundred offshore islands of Scotland, more remote still and waiting to be explored.

So while Scotland may have been the theatre of my first romance with cycle touring, I doubt I’ll have seen the last of her.

Categories
Country Guides

Coming Soon: The Cycle Touring Country Guide Series

Until now, one thing I’ve shied away from on this blog is dispensing country-specific, guidebook-style advice for bicycle travellers.

Mainly this is because the unpredictable nature of cycle touring can generate highly varied experiences. On the exact same route, a life-changing ride for one person may prove bleak and uneventful for another.

Such differences can’t help but colour your memories. No matter how objective one tries to be in retrospect, I’m not sure that cycling across a country makes one qualified to write a comprehensive and balanced guide for everyone else if that wasn’t the original intention of the trip – which for me it has never been.

It’s also because of the perennial problem with travel guides in general: they age, and they do so rapidly. I don’t want to create a bulky content-maintenance job on a blog which for the most part tries to dispense timeless advice. In any case, there are sites out there (WorldBiking.info and TravellingTwo.com come to mind) that do a good job of country-specific cycle touring advice already. If all you’re interested in is information, I happily refer you to Amaya and Friedel of the aforementioned.

I do, however, feel it’s time to share something of what I’ve learned from cycle touring extensively in a few select parts of the world – mainly because it’s beginning to feel a little selfish not to.

But I’m going to take an alternative approach, rather than replicating what’s been done elsewhere. Instead, I’ll base the articles on personal anecdotes and impressions from my own travels that I hope will convey a flavour of the place, rather than detailing the nuts and bolts of riding there.

This approach will mean I can write more honestly. It should be fun to put together and make use of my current nostalgic mood, and the result should be unique to this blog and hopefully entertaining to read.

Through these tales, I’ll also highlight country-specific resources for readers interested in researching further. This combination of personal stories and curated links should result in a light-hearted inside look at what a cycle tour in each featured country might feel like, with some carefully-selected starting points for follow-up research should the fancy take you to ride there.

As part of my protracted celebration of a decade of blogging about bike trips, I’ve decided it would be fun to write and publish country-specific articles in the order in which I first visited them.

This will have the interesting side-effect of filtering out countries through which I may have technically pedalled, and therefore might be tempted to include in a tally if someone asked how many countries I’d cycled through (e.g. Russia, Greece, Slovakia), but from which I actually have nothing of substance to relate.

(Anyone can collect passport stamps, but if there’s a meaningful measure of whether you’ve truly visited a place, it’s surely whether or not it gave you a worthwhile story to tell. I don’t think buying a greasy garlic-covered bread roll from a Slovakian supermarket between Austria and Hungary qualifies.)

By that criteria, then, country number one in the series – which you’ll be able to read about here shortly – will be… Scotland.