What Happens When A Non-Cyclist Spends 3½ Years Travelling The World By Bicycle

When I tell people I rode a bicycle 15,000-odd miles across Europe, Africa and the Middle East for fun, but that I’m not a cyclist, I get some funny looks.

I try to explain that it wasn’t thunderous thigh-muscles I wanted but visceral life experience, fresh out of university with a head full of theories and not a job opportunity in sight. No commitments, no prospects, and no desire to grab a backpack and bus the planet’s roads: the combination of bike and tent would allow unmatched freedom, and screw the wild-camping laws while I still rode in countries that had them. I scrimped and saved and stretched it out as far as possible. With pedal-powered transport and pop-up accommodation, my only remaining costs were calories.

I try to explain that while there were gruelling climbs in the Alps and switchback descents in Romania, swooping panoramas on Turkey’s coasts and vast orange vistas in the Sudanese Sahara, these views have faded beside the faces I’ll never forget: the Swiss newspaper editor who flung open the doors of his mountain chalet, the gypsy villagers and that forest mushroom breakfast, the Middle Eastern petrol-station attendants leaving their pumps to provide company and kebabs, the Nile-side Nubians and their unconditional desert hospitality. And let’s not forget back gardens and bacon sandwiches in Cambridgeshire, nor fresh eggs and animal sanctuary sleepovers in Suffolk. I could never have bought such memories.

I try to explain that – while I’d planned out a rather hopeful off-road route away from my Midlands home and across Europe – the route had been ditched within days in favour of going where the tailwinds took me. Following maps in the early days had earned me the confidence to travel without them. Faced with the choice of two roads, I’d take the smaller. When lost, I’d ask directions, or enjoy being lost. For bearings, I’d guess the time and look to the sun, or when raining sit in a bus stop and look at my compass. This was a brand new lifestyle, not a Sunday-morning bike ride.

I try to explain that when I met a girl in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, it was the freedom and flexibility of the open-ended bicycle journey that allowed me to stop and change tack. I had no onward plane ticket or pre-planned itinerary, no date reserved for my heroic return home; setting up shop was a matter of handing over £80 worth of banknotes each month to the landlord of my former-Soviet apartment. My girfriend and I set off riding together; another non-cyclist taking to the road to experience freedom. And her transformation was incredible to watch.

I try to explain why I had to leave her behind; explore the world alone again. It’s even more difficult than explaining why I don’t consider myself a cyclist. But crossing one continent was just the initiation. My bike had opened a door to reality, a world of faces and sounds and emotions, a world out of doors, living simply, getting on with it, rough and smooth, and I’d experience it right here and now from the seat of my bicycle in all its beauty and imperfection.

Riding to Africa, the continent that scared me most, put the stories and images of the planet we live on firmly in context. Crossing Mongolia rewrote the rules of the road completely: there weren’t any roads at all. Cycling to the Arctic Circle in midwinter proved that climate and season were pitiful barriers to adventure. And riding the Pacific Coast of America with my younger brother brought two adult siblings back together again. I learned new languages and alphabets, to write from right to left, gained a second passport, and forgot where I was from.

Now, years later, I’ve married the girl and we’re exploring new roads together. These travels by bicycle have shaped my life more than anything else, and continue to this day. I don’t regret a moment of it.

And all too often I try to explain all this to the people who ask about my journeys. But it’s difficult. No — it’s impossible.

All I really feel able to do is encourage as many people as I can to rethink cycling – not as a sporting discipline, a hobby or a fashion statement, but as a way of experiencing the world and its people that is second to none, no matter where or for how long you go.

I hope that you will consider giving it a try. Even if, like me, you’re not a cyclist.

The full story of this journey is told in the award-winning film Janapar: Love on a Bike, as well as in the book of the same name.

A version of this piece originally appeared in The Sunday Times. Header photograph by Andrew Welch.

Comments (skip to respond)

13 responses to “What Happens When A Non-Cyclist Spends 3½ Years Travelling The World By Bicycle”

  1. Cycling is like climbing. You experience yourself, not the route.

  2. Hi Tom!
    I would like to say I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading about your adventures so far and plan to come back to this website and use its articles and supplements to my own cycling adventure! I’m heading off from Aberdeen in Scotland for a few days just to see what it’s like to cycle and camp without a pre-determined direction, and I couldn’t be more hyped 🙂
    Keep up the blogging, I’ll be sure to check in when I come back on New Year’s Eve!

  3. Actions determine who people are, not titles and so on. If you cycle, you become a cyclist. This is as simple as that. So, that guy is now part of the big cyclists family.

    1. Interesting viewpoint, even though I disagree. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Just watched your film after pulling an 18 hour day whilst travelling back from Heathrow on the Picadilly line. Transported to a world away from tube delays and the red flashing light on the crackberry. That takes something. Feeling truly inspired. Thank you.

  5. Hi Tom,

    As a non cyclist touring the world on a bicycle I couldn’t have said it better!

    The bicycle is a means to an infinite end, a choose your own adventure tardis of sorts, albeit slower and more deliberate.

    Great writing as always.


  6. Bryan Young avatar
    Bryan Young

    Well said! I enjoyed reading this.

  7. Mark Withycombe avatar
    Mark Withycombe

    Ok, bought the film and book! Hoping it will contain some info about your filming/editing equipment and how you filmed etc. (Like I guess you place the camera, then cycle back and past it…). Met my first wife on a trip from London to Istanbul. Next big one may have to be when I retire — could be a film, Grey nomad on bike!

  8. As you know, I bought a bike three weeks before going for a bike ride.
    That bike ride started on 16 May 2014, the same day you yourself Tom began your £0 zero E2E ride.

    The whole LEJOG, in fairness, was never going to be enough for me, so right now you find me holed up in Cardiff for a couple of days, partly as I needed to dry out after a week of Welsh rain and partly as there is a NATO conference here in the coming week, so I want to flavour the atmosphere.

    I anticipate one more month on my British tour, then some serious post production on my thousands of images, then off to do the same in the US of A. Who knows what joys and adventures await me over the next hill?

    For me, much like Mike Carter’s book ‘One and his bike’ — the bike is in theory just another mode of transport, though in reality it is so much more than that, it is a way into peoples’s lives that even walking places can not manage. 

    As Lance said, “it’s not about the bike”, it is and it is not, a bike, seemingly is something everyone can relate to. Your bike is a fine opening gambit which pretty much works on everyone you meet on the adventure and is a real blessing, it opens people up and where you take the relationship thereafter is up to you. 

    (Web site due to go live in the week, though no RoadTrip UK ’til November, other images from Mongolia, N Korea, China, Kiev etc instead).

  9. Tom Kenning avatar
    Tom Kenning

    Ive started my own big cyle adventure just 5 days ago. I also consider myself a non-cyclist. The bike just appeared to be a beautiful method of seeing the world and meeting people outside the classic, set destinations of most countries. Another fantastic blog. This website has helped me all the way to point of setting off and is now still helping me on my way

  10. My mind was already pretty much made up that my next trip would be done by bike… Reading this just solidified that decision.

  11. An emotive piece of writing which portrays what you are trying to put across to others.
    I’m sure many are being encouraged by your blogs to get out there on their bicycles. Keep up the good work 🙂

  12. Beautifully written — You’ve certainly encouraged me just that tiny bit more 🙂

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