When you get into a car, or onto a train or plane or bus – even when you leave the house on foot – you do so almost always with the intention of arriving somewhere. You have a destination in mind, and your chosen mode of transport is simply how you’re going to 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 individual options, and places as destinations to go to and return from. Time spent actually in motion is something to be endured, and preferably minimised.
Yet in order to see the point of travelling by bicycle – and to understand why I and many others believe that it is the best possible way to see the world – you must abandon this contemporary understanding of travel completely.
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. I rode a bicycle across a continent.
But what really happened was this:
I woke up every morning, usually in my tent or on someone’s couch.
I had my breakfast.
I began riding, usually in the general direction of Turkey (i.e. south-east).
And 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 Bandar Abbas and Ranong.
I’ve spent years of my life in the process of getting to these and other destinations.
Why did I bother spending all this time just to get where I was going?
Because I travel by bicycle for everything it offers besides arriving at a destination.
The point – always – is being here, not getting there.
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 momentum 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 into wheels.
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 you not choose to see the world by bicycle?