Why would anyone travel by bicycle?

Today is a big day for me: it’s the official launch day of my fourth book!

The TomsBikeTrip.com Guide To Adventure Cycle Touring is a condensed, refined, 80,000-word version of all the advice I’ve ever given to newcomers on how to get started in the world of bicycle travel. The international Kindle edition is on sale at the entry level price of £4.99, and it’s available now (with the lovely cover photo above courtesy of Carl-David Granbäck).

To celebrate the launch, this week I’m going to be running a series of extracts from the book’s introduction. They constitute my personal answers to the big questions about cycle touring. What is it exactly? Who can do it? Where can it take you? When’s the best time to go? And how does it actually work?

But today I want to pose the biggest question of all:

Why would anyone travel by bicycle?

* * *

When you get into a car, onto a train or plane or bus – even when you leave the house on foot – you do so almost always with the intention of going somewhere. You have a destination in mind, and your mode of transport is simply how you get there.

When you pack a suitcase, buy a ticket, plan an itinerary or open a guidebook, you are participating in a kind of travel that casts experiences as discrete and consumable, and places as destinations to go to and return from. Time spent in motion is something to be endured, and preferably minimised.

Yet in order to see the point of travelling by bicycle – and thus to understand “why” one might travel by bicycle – you must abandon this contemporary understanding of travel.

I’ve tried to explain this in so many ways. I’ll say that when I left England and cycled to Istanbul, I was… no! Too late. He cycled from England to Istanbul! That’s a really long way to ride a bicycle. I could never do that.

Yes, I cycled to Istanbul. But what really happened was this:

I woke up every morning in my tent or on someone’s floor.

I had my breakfast.

I began riding, often in the general direction of Turkey (i.e. south-east).

One day, many months later, I arrived in Istanbul.

In the same way, I cycled to Yerevan, to Cairo, to Djibouti and Muscat and Tehran and Ulan Bator and Tromsø and Vancouver and San Francisco and Ahvaz and Bandar Abbas.

Why did I bother spending all this time just to get where I was going?

Because people travel by bicycle for everything other than arriving at the destination.

The point, always, is being here, not getting somewhere else.

The act of arrival anywhere is little more than the pressing of a ‘pause’ button on a scrolling, living tapestry; a fly-on-the-wall reality documentary with no beginning and no end and no meaning other than what you choose to ascribe to it; one that unfolds as you pedal, right there before your eyes and ears and nose and mouth, beneath your feet and at your fingertips, every waking second.

Bicycle travel is a call-to-arms to engage with life – and to learn to accept and tolerate it all; for how is one anonymous and transient figure on a pushbike supposed to wreak her particular brand of change upon the strangers she meets with any kind of objectivity or understanding? Better just to watch.

The road is a cruel teacher, hurling bad decisions back in your face without mercy. But it is also one that rewards those who exercise patience and trust and openness with fuel for the soul of the kind that’s fast becoming one of the world’s most scarce natural resources: that of real, meaningful, spontaneous contact at an intensely human level.

You will be changed by the experience of open-ended, freeform bicycle travel, because if you choose to participate in it, you must be seeking a change. You cannot be content in order to want to do this. You’re feeling a faraway call.

* * *

It may not be obvious why the bicycle, specifically, is so enormously well-suited to delivering this all-encompassing experience of travel, as compared to, say, travelling on foot, or by motorbike.

The reasons are pretty simple.

There’s the inertia delivered by the machine itself – the fact that you release the brakes and stop pedalling and yet you continue to roll forward – that sets in motion that scrolling tapestry of life. The is what makes the bicycle beautiful and timeless. Our legs will never evolve to deliver this.

Then there is the exquisite participatory nature of the experience. There is a direct correlation between effort and reward. You get out precisely what you put in. Each gruelling climb delivers a matching descent that you may spend at your leisure, whether you’re the type to blow it all in one go for a quick shot of adrenaline, or canter relaxedly down, savouring each tree and flower and blade of grass and friendly wave. In the same way, a long day’s pedalling will be rewarded by sleep of a depth to rival the dead. No motorised form of transport can deliver this.

Then there is the immediacy of your engagements with those you meet on the roadside. Your strongest memories will be of time spent with friendly strangers who became friends in a the space of a smile and a handshake. You will feel guilty that you ever viewed people through other eyes.

But of all the reasons “why” one should travel by bicycle, perhaps the most important for me is the stripping-back of life to its absolute essentials – mentally, physically and spiritually. Because to my mind, the greatest freedom one can have is to be self-directed, able-bodied, responsible, and fully aware of what matters most in life for each and every waking second.

Travelling by bicycle offers a rare and precious opportunity to be all of those things.

So, at the end of all of this, my question to you is:

Why on Earth would anyone not travel by bicycle?

# # #

If you’re a newcomer to all this, you’re convinced by my flowery rhetoric, and you’d like to give cycle touring a go, I really hope you’ll check out the new book. I really think it’s going to come in useful.

4 Responses to “Why would anyone travel by bicycle?”

  1. David

    As has been said before, bicycle travel is about the journey. Not the destination.

  2. Eduardo

    Once again, a great reading.
    We starting to use here in Brazil, between our group of friends, a term called “tomallenism” to describe this sequence as a philosophy.

  3. William(Bill) Crawford

    Bear with me, I will eventually get to my point. Years ago when I taught a few photography courses, I would tell my students, that after this course your photography would get worse. Worse? And I went on to explain that your images would be sharper, they would be composed properly and the exposure would be dead on. So how come the images would be worse. The photos you produce would be stiff and static because your mind is dominated by the technical issues rather than the artistic parts of what make up a great image and your photography will continue to be that way until the technical end becomes so second nature, you forget about it and then and only then will you begin to “see” again.

    Ok now to the point. When did you become so comfortable with all of the technical ends of being alone on the road, that you forgot about it and begin to “see” the world around you?

    I expect it takes a long time for that to happen.

  4. Markus

    “The act of arrival anywhere is little more than the pressing of a ‘pause’ button on a scrolling, living tapestry.”

    Well said. I think nevertheless. Arrival is important. But arrivals and aims are some kind of fluid.
    You are emotional and fascinated if you arrived at an interesting an new place you didn’t know before. But it’s on the same time evanescent. Because you’ll leave soon and find another place. So encounters with other people could be even more intense because you know you’ll leave them soon…

    Nice prosa here, thank you Tom!


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