It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. –Ernest Hemingway
Why? It's the question I get asked most often. Not only out on the road but also by folk back home. Why would I want to ride my bicycle across continents in all weather, in all conditions and live in a tent. It's a question I sometimes ask myself too. It isn't all a bed of roses. Some days you feel like a squirrel on a wheel. There are moments of exhaustion, despair, extreme cold, crazy heat, hunger, thirst. These moments are in the minority though and make you appreciate the numerous highs even more.
Before this current trip I spent 3 years working in London. 3 good years. Busy but manageable. Comfortable. I slept in a warm bed every night. Had a hot shower every morning. Worked a lot. Went to the pub a lot. Read a lot. If someone asked me to talk them through those 3 years it would take 2 minutes. In 10 years time I won't remember a single thing about them. All the days blended into one. Since then I have been cycling the world for 18 months. If someone asked me to talk them through the last 18 months they would regret it as it would take me 3 days and I wouldn't be finished. In 20 years time I will still remember everything about the last 18 months. Cycling around the world you create memories that will last a lifetime. The good memories are for you. The bad memories are stories to tell. There's a lot to be said for comfort and ease. There are times on the road when I crave a warm bed and a hot shower but comfort can be addictive. If you are not careful years can slip by in effortless plenty and you realise you can't remember a thing about them. David Bowie was fond of saying, 'You should be uncomfortable'. He wasn't talking about cycling. He was talking about the creative music making process. If he felt too comfortable nothing good would come out of the session. He sought ways to make himself uncomfortable when creating music to find inspiration. I am rarely comfortable when cycling. For one I sit on a bike saddle for 7 hours a day. I am often tired, hungry, a bit dirty, getting battered by the elements, sleeping in a tent but I always feel alive and amazing things come out of each day. Memories for a lifetime.
The people you meet
The people you meet from all walks of life is one of the great joys of cycle touring. The bicycle is a great leveler. It makes you very approachable. It's an excellent ice breaker. People do not hesitate to approach you and ask what you are doing, where are you going, can they help in any way. The vast majority of the time you are not in tourist spots. You are in the places in between. Places that do not play up to tourism. The majority of these people rarely see any tourists. Certainly not to stop and speak to. They are curious about you. I am always equally curious about them. You meet the real people of a country going about their everyday. It's an authentic experience and one I value enormously. The language barrier can often make communication difficult but it is always entertaining trying to make it work. I have been shown incredible kindness and hospitality by people from all cultures and religions. It is a humbling experience and has improved my view of the world immeasurably.
Appreciation for those things we take for granted
Whenever I come across a bed on my cycles I get in it, form a star shape, and repeat the word 'Wow' over and over to myself. Whenever I come in off a week of camping and have a hot shower I stand there and repeat the word 'Wow' over and over to myself. Whenever I have a swig of water after slugging it out in brutal heat I stare at my water bottle and repeat the word 'Wow' over and over to myself. Whenever I get indoors after a few days out in freezing weather and come across a radiator I sit by it and repeat the word 'Wow' over and over to myself. I never do any of these things at home. Cycling across continents in all conditions gives you a wonderful appreciation for all those everyday things we take for granted.
Apparently cycling is good for you. You heard it here first. Fresh air cycling for 6-7 hours every day definitely has its health benefits. It is excellent for your lungs, builds muscles and strengthens the immune system. It reduces the risk of developing major illnesses such as heart disease and cancer. It is also low impact meaning less chance of muscle damage and inflammations compared to running. Cycling is well known to improve mental well being as well as it reduces stress and cognitive changes that can leave us vulnerable to dementia later in life. There is also the lifestyle of a cycle tourer which generally involves early nights, lots of sleep and little alcohol. In my forties I find I am often treading a fine line between feeling super strong and exhausted. When i get it right though I feel there's nothing I cannot do.
I think cycle touring has to be the greatest cure for insomnia. I have struggled with insomnia back home in my everyday working life. Too much work, unable to switch off, too much alcohol, too much time staring at my phone. Sleeping badly becomes a habit it's hard to break out of. Cycle touring is the opposite. I don't drink, I do 6/7 hours of exercise every day, I spend very little time looking at my phone. Once I've met my water, food, shelter needs for the day there's nothing to left to worry about. I am outside all day so that when night falls my body senses it and intuitively begins to wind down. By 8pm it's pitch black. By 9pm I can't keep my eyes open even if I wanted to. I then sleep for at least 8 hours. Sleeping well then becomes a habit that is easy to stay in. I sleep considerably more in my tent on a cycle tour than I do in my bed back home.
Not only do you get to sample the wonderful variety of local cuisine in different parts of the globe but the best thing is the sheer volume of food you must eat to keep going. Ever felt guilty after demolishing a packet of biscuits on the sofa? No need when cycling. You must demolish that packet of biscuits. It is necessary. I spend all day eating. Everything I can get my hands on and more. Everyday I eat mountains of fruit, porridge, biscuits, pasta, bread, butter, marmalade, more biscuits, noodles, nuts, cereal bars, whatever the local speciality is and when I'm finished I have a biscuit. All in order to keep going. It's great fun. One of these days I'm going to write a book about the different kinds of biscuits you can find in all corners of the globe. It's going to be epic. Be warned it's hard to stop eating so much when you finally get home and stop cycling resulting in you getting fat pretty quickly.
No appointments, no itinerary, no alarms, no schedule. Freedom to make it up as you go along. To go left, right, up, down, back, forward, straight on, rest, stop, carry on. Cycle touring is freedom. The opportunity to explore the world at your own pace on your own steam.
No two days are the same
Everyday something new. Everyday I go somewhere new, meet someone new, sleep somewhere new. I have little idea where I'll be tomorrow. No idea where I'll be next week and as for next year well forget it. Each day could bring anything. It could be glorious. It could be shocking. It will probably be somewhere in between. I enjoy the unpredictability. I like not knowing what is around the bend.
Opportunity to learn a new skill
At first when I jacked in my job and set off for China I revelled in the cycling, the freedom and not having to apply my mind to anything other than finding food and a camp spot. After a while though I realised that for all the physical exertion my mind needs exercise as well. Cycle touring is a good opportunity to learn a new skill whilst out on the road. I have been learning Spanish. One of the frustrations of cycling in far flung places is the language barrier. There's often little motivation to learn a language as by the time you've mastered a few phrases you are onto the next country and a new language. Spanish is an obvious choice as an entire continent speaks it. A continent that is incredible to cycle. I spend an hour every day whilst cycling when I think only in Spanish. I sometimes listen to Spanish podcasts whilst pedalling. I watch crap on Netflix in Spanish in my tent at night. I have recently spent a few months cycling up through Central America and Mexico and had a great time practicing with the locals every day. I can now speak Spanish. I barely understand a word when they speak to me but one step at a time. I have learnt how to create websites, done a TEFL, taught English, written blogs and on one of my cycle trips I took a harmonica with me and challenged myself to learn an instrument. It was a failure but only because of a complete lack of talent. I'm sure you could do better. There are countless distance learning courses you can take and study whilst cycle touring, be it in your tent at night, at cafes/restaurants along the way or when taking a rest from the bike.
You learn a lot
In my years cycling around the world I've learnt a lot about myself and the planet. Such as...
The world is a safe place
If you watch the news every night at home you might be forgiven for thinking that the world is a dangerous place. It isn't. If I had taken the advice of my country's foreign office I wouldn't have visited half the countries I've been to. There are a few idiots dotted around the globe wreaking havoc but they are a tiny minority and they can be found in any country in the world. The chances of you being in the wrong place at the wrong time are tiny. Similar to the chances of you being hit by a bus if you go outside. I've felt welcome and safe in every country I've been to and have never felt in danger. Apart from once in Uzbekistan.
Religion does more good than harm
This is topic that generates a lot of debate. Many people believe that religion causes more harm than good but my cycles have taught me the opposite. 99.99999% of religious people across the world practice their religion humbly and peacefully. These people don't have material wealth. Instead they have spiritual wealth which gives them the strength to cope with their often difficult lives. I have stayed at Buddhist temples in Burma, had offers of payment refused in Uighur restaurants in Xinjiang, joined the Easter Day celebrations in Quito, been the guest of honour in numerous Muslim homes, been invited to pitch my tent on the grounds of a Hindu temple and been shown heart warming hospitality in all corners of the globe more times than I can remember. Everywhere I go I see first hand the foundation and grounding their religion gives these people of slender means.
You don't need a lot to live happily
The nature of cycle touring is you have to strip down your belongings to the bare minimum. Not only is there a limit to what you can carry but also the less you carry the easier it will be. I only take with me the bare necessities I need to survive. I often go through my belongings and think do I really need this. Do I really need that. When was the last time I used this. The process makes you realise how little you actually need to be happy. Moving home is considered to be a stressful event in one's life. Only because of the clutter we accumulate. I move home every day. It's fine. Whilst there's nothing wrong with being materialistic experiences provide more happiness than possessions. All new purchases soon get assimilated into normality. They essentially fade into the background soon after you acquire them. This is known as the treadmill of consumption. No purchase will ever bring you closer to happiness, it will simply speed up the treadmill to force you to buy ever more expensive things. Cycling as a lifestyle gets you off the treadmill to concentrate only on the things that actually matter. I understand the materialistic urge. I've spent half a lifetime hording vinyl and sometimes I walk into an outdoor equipment store and want to buy everything in it but ultimately I find managing with precious little extremely fulfilling.
Climate change is real
It's happening. Everywhere I go local people tell me of the drastic changes in weather they are experiencing compared to 5/10/20 years ago. Repeatedly in America recently I was told of the increase in forest fires that are wreaking havoc across the mid west of America. In Bangladesh local people told me of the flash floods that have recently started to occur killing people, damaging homes and wiping out crops. In China I was told of the increases in drought that leave millions of people on the verge of starvation. Crops wilt while farmers and herders are in desperate need of water for their farmlands and animals. In Peru I met indigenous communities living high up in the Andes who told me of freak freezes that wipe out crops and leave the people and animals vulnerable to disease. You don't need to cycle to realise this. You hear of soaring temperatures, record rainfall everywhere you go. Storms and floods are now so common that their devastating effects barely register. Whether it's too late to turn the tide I don't know but we can only try.
You are stronger than you think
Years and years ago I met a Japanese cyclist in Slovenia. I asked him where he'd cycled from and he said 'From home...in Tokyo'. I laughed and said 'I could never do that'. Whenever I meet someone out on the road and they ask me where I started cycling they laugh and reply, 'I could never do that'. They can though. You can. There was a time when all this was a pipe dream but it's amazing what you can do if you have a go.
Obviously when I'm asked this question I don't go into such detail. I generally say...'erm, well, you know...why not?'