The bicycle is where my adventuring heart lies. It’s the most versatile, all-purpose accessory to adventure ever invented.
A motorbike may be faster; walking may be slower (there is a time and a place for both fast adventure and slow adventure). Kayaks, canoes, and crampons may get you to wilder places. Living and working in a foreign land may immerse you deeper into a culture. But a journey by bike does a pretty good job at every one of these aspects.
Riding a bike is one of the most joyful aspects of childhood. Every eulogy to cycling trots out that cliché. But it remains true: Riding a bike is fun. If something is fun, why not do more of it? Certainly, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. I have buried myself deep in pain and exhaustion on long days in the saddle. These days are classic Type 2 fun (hideous at the time; glorious retrospectively). But a bicycle gives you a choice.
A bicycle is the greatest Willy Wonka-style Golden Ticket to adventure that has ever been made. It opens up the world to absolutely anyone.
You can choose to pedal furiously around the planet in just six months. Or, as Heinz Stücke did, you can set out in search of a life more fulfilling than his a ‘boring and monotonous job.’ Heinz wanted to take charge of his future. 50 years and 370,000 miles later, he is still cycling around the world. Proof, if nothing else, that there is a lot of world to be seen out there.
You’d probably pick a pace somewhere in between the two. But that’s the point. A bicycle journey gives you the freedom to do it however the hell you choose.
When I think of my bicycle journeys, large and small, I have a variety of happy memories. I think of the wild places bicycles have taken me to. The sheer variety of them makes me smile, whether it’s snowy mountain passes, silent deserts shimmering with heat, or bumpy single-track paths leading to isolated Scottish bothies.
Traveling by bicycle can be as simple as tucking a credit card, passport, and toothbrush in your pocket and making your way between cafés and hotels. Or bikes can also be a small miracle of self-sufficiency. I’ve loaded my bike so heavy with food and gear that I couldn’t lift it an inch off the ground. Progress is slow like this, but it’s liberating and rewarding to be able to cross swathes of desert or mountain without caring whether or not you meet another person or find a shop along the way.
I’ve carried food for ten-day stretches, cycling through a Siberian winter until I reached the next settlement, spending hours each night melting enough water for the next day’s miles. I once carried all I needed to make it across Turkmenistan without stopping because I’d faked the visa dates in my passport and I did not want to linger.
In the high mountain deserts between Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia, I’ve cycled without speaking to a soul for more than a week, battling on by myself through the icy wind and sandy tracks by myself.
But bike journeys are not just about leaving the world behind.
I have also enjoyed riding amongst the hordes of bicycles during rush hour in Beijing, or weaving through the chaotic streets of La Paz. Bike journeys are a superb way of meeting people. When you arrive somewhere on a bicycle you don’t get bracketed as an Annoying Tourist or a Rich Foreigner. You’re just a person riding a bike, and an automatically interesting person at that.
‘Where are you from? Where are you going? On a bike? You’re crazy! Come meet my family!’ is the standard opening exchange when arriving almost anywhere on Earth on a heavily-loaded bicycle.
I have been welcomed into mosques and churches, yurts and embassies, mud huts and mansions. And in every one of those places people want to talk about your trip.
‘Tell me about your adventures! Tell of the wonderful things you have seen.’
Buying a bike is not expensive (correction: it need not be expensive) and cycling journeys are not exclusive. Anyone can participate in a cycling journey.
If you strapped a tent to the back of any old bike and just began riding tomorrow, you could reach another continent in a few months’ time. You certainly don’t need to see yourself as ‘a cyclist’ to consider this as a serious proposition. Isn’t that amazing?
I’ve spent five years of my life traveling by bike. But I am not a ‘cyclist’. The bike was always just a tool, an adventure-enabler. A bicycle is the greatest Willy Wonka-style Golden Ticket to adventure that has ever been made. It opens up the world to absolutely anyone.
Proper cyclists are often dismayed about my lack of knowledge or interest in how many sprockets my chainset has, or that I did not (do not, will not) shave my legs. None of this matters to me. Veteran traveler cyclist Anne Mustoe, (a retired headmistress who pedaled around the planet a couple of times,) claimed not to be able to fix a puncture. She would rely on the effective, if a little incongruous, combination of feminine charms and headmisstress-ly authority to persuade a local man to help her whenever the need arose.
A bicycle journey can be an appetite-whetting weekend away, a couple of weeks riding from Land’s End to John O’Groats, or a transcontinental epic. I find it beguiling to know that anyone who is able to ride a bike and read the instructions for how to pitch a tent has all of the skills necessary to cycle from New York to Los Angeles, from Cairo to Cape Town, or London to Singapore.
As you read these words now, dozens of very ordinary, very humble and laid-back folk are currently cycling thousands of miles through every terrain on the planet, having an adventure that they will never forget. You could, too.
I have never met anyone who regretted their big bicycle journey. But I have often met people who regretted not taking one when they had the opportunity.
Remember that decisions about adventure are not irreversible. If you think you want an adventure, but fear it may not actually be for you, then give it a go. Try it. If you hate it, you can always come home! It’s not the end of the world. And far better to realize that than not even to begin and be filled with regrets and ‘what-ifs’ for the rest of your life.
Adventure can be compatible with real life. You don’t have to see your plan as a choice between ‘a normal life with friends, ties, salary and, pension’ OR life as a ‘crazy wild-eyed lunatic who has dropped out of life to go chase the horizon.’ It is entirely achievable to achieve have a big adventure without ruining everything else that feels important or unavoidable in your life.
You can go on a cycling adventure by yourself, go with a friend, go on a tandem, go on a tandem by yourself and pick up passengers along the way, go on your honeymoon, go as a family, or go as a couple and return as a family. You don’t need to be fit and strong (though you soon will become that). You don’t need to be rich (indeed, I believe that the more basic your bike journey, the longer it will linger in the memory). You don’t need to be tough. You don’t need to be clever, or skillful, or practical. You don’t need to serve years of apprenticeship before tackling something huge. If you want to cycle 200 miles in a day, you’ll soon be able to. If you want to snooze off a long lunch of Romanian homebrew underneath a tree, you can probably manage that right away.
In other words, a bicycle journey can be whatever you want it to be.
This article originally appeared on Humphreys’ website, Living Adventurously.
Photo top: Patrick Hendry