There’s a backlash happening against charity bike rides. I’m not sure why. For me, it’s a way of trying to give in a time when you often feel like you’re doing an awful lot of taking.
Every couple of months sees the announcement of yet another heroicsolo , pitting man against the elements across the world’s great landmasses for months or years on end. Each of these projects is a noble one. Undoubtedly they will involve huge personal challenges — mental far more than physical. These riders are often setting themselves targets they don’t understand themselves. Three years ago, I was in exactly the same situation myself!
But as far as their audience is concerned — the liberal, intellectual, active, environmentally-aware crowd to whom they reach out for support — it’s old news. It’s been done before. Even this demographic reacts to whimsical trends, and charity rides are on the way out. A default response emerges, usually criticising one aspect or another of the idea, almost as if the mission was nothing more than fashionable posturing.
But no two journeys are ever the same, and the real motivation — usually a deep and personal one — is often upstaged by what is supposed to be media-friendly spin for the purpose of attracting the audience in the first place. This is difficult for the non-cycling, non-travelling audience to grasp.
I think Mark Beaumont unwittingly implanted a false notion of a long bike journey into the minds of a very large audience through his 4‑part BBC documentary. He set out to plough through the miles and break the world record for cycling the world, and he did so by fulfilling all of the Guinness criteria — on the planet’s highways; an impressive feat that deserves due credit.
But his objective differed to practically every other cycle tourist out there. I no longer expect the public to understand that. Someone said to me that I should expect my homecoming to be a huge disappointment. I’d arrive back in England after years on the road, full of enthusiasm to tell people all about the adventures, only to find that nobody would understand what I’d been through in that time, despite all of my best efforts.
Maybe the human mind is ill-equipped to imagine concepts on the scale of a trans-continental bicycle journey. In an evolutionary sense, why would we have needed to develop such a capacity? Primitive humanoid individuals who expended their mental energies on understanding and exploiting their local surroundings would undoubtedly have fared better than those who stopped to perch on a rock and contemplate the stars.
Nowadays we have to make do with this limited equipment when trying to comprehend things on a global scale, and often we fail. I still find it difficult to comprehend the scale of a bicycle journey of several years, even though I’m kind of in the middle of one, but at least I now know how it feels to live a day of that life — and, indeed, it’s a life that should be lived day by day, as a target the size of Planet Earth hanging overhead is simply too monumental to live with.
The point that is missed more than ever, though, does not relate to the fundraising targets of a given ride, or any of the messages that the rider hopes to communicate through the trip. Yes, these may succeed to some degree, but I believe that the more important benefit of such a ride lies in the future, long after the brakes have been applied for the last time. A lone, ground-level journey of several years cannot fail to change something in the journeyman — in the way he sees the world, with all its beauty and imperfection — and inspire him to live life more responsibly in the knowledge of all he has seen.
This is a life-long gift, and it will rub off on those around him — maybe only gradually, and maybe not in any immediately-visible way, but in the course of a lifetime, more good will emerge from this than from any one-off charity fundraising effort.
(Of course, if you do wish to donate a small amount towards helping vulnerable inner-city kids get their lives back on track, I’m sure they’d thank you very kindly for doing so!)