Right now there are a lot of people on a lot of bicycles doing lots of trips in various parts of the world, and this has been the case for some time. Cyclists get everywhere - you can pretty much guarantee that no matter where it is you might want to go, an intrepid rider will have been there before you (and probably kept a blog about it.)
Inevitably then, there is a lot of travel writing out there based on these two-wheeled journeys. I've read quite a number of those books. Most of them do a fairly decent job of giving a flavour of the raw, visceral adventure, and most share similar themes - the author is discontent with regular life, curious about the wider world, has lots of time, little money. There are some bike trip books amongst these are truly wonderful and a real joy to read - I'll compile my favourites in a follow-up blog post.
Unfortunately though, I've found that there are also a lot of cycling books that aren't that great at all. Many fall into the trap of giving too much banal information (endless descriptions of kit and routes) while others are poorly written and fail to ever really paint a picture of the adventure or conjure up images of characters and landscapes for the reader. The worst of all these (in my opinion) are those that are full of spilling errors and gramatical typo's.
Everyone has the right to write a book, and I commend all cycling authors for the discipline and desire that it takes to put their story to paper. That said, I think there are a few basic rules I've learned from writing my first book, The Road Headed West, that apply to all travel writing- and especially cycling stories - which make for a better work. If you're going to put time and effort into something as monumental as book writing, then it's definitely worth making it the best that it can be.
Here, then, are the questions I asked myself when I was writing. Perhaps you'll find them useful if you're considering working on your own book. (Note: I'm aware I'm a first time author and still have much to learn myself!)
1. What is the story of your book?
You know what happened on your adventure. You went from X to Y and Z happened (more or less.) Your adventure story and the narrative of your book, however, are not the same thing. If you simply write down everything that happened, as it happened, you'll have a very long, very boring book. Figure out what the story is. What is the 'hook' - what is the event or angle to your trip that made it unique or exciting, and will entice someone to begin (and keep) reading?
2. What are your themes?
Your story will probably focus on a journey or experience in a mostly linear fashion. This is your main narrative, but within that you need a variety of themes to add various dimensions and depth. If your story is about cycling from A to B, then perhaps your major themes could be the spirit of exploration, the rite-of-passage experience you go through, the changing of the landscape or culture around you and so on. I was first given this advice by author/adventurer Rob Lilwall before I began writing The Road Headed West, and it helped immensely to make a list of my major themes really early on. As I progressed through the manuscript I could refer back to my list and see which were working, which weren't, which needed some additional writing and which should be cut down. The end result of this process (when done well) is a story that appeals to the reader on a number of different levels - the mark of a really good book.
3. Who is your audience?
You can't be all things to all people. Your story will inevitably affect some people more than others. Even more amazingly, there will probably be some folk who have absolutely no interest in you or what happened to you on your adventures (I'm still coming to terms with this myself!) Decide on your audience - are you writing for cyclists? Travellers? Historians? Retirees? School kids? Some of these audiences can overlap, of course, but if you come from a road cycling background and want to write for similarly minded people, then you're well within your rights to include lots of details about the mechanics of your bike, your RPM and all other sorts of stuff that would very quickly drive away a reader keen to learn more about the cultural side of your trip. The idea of your audience is ultimately tied into your goals for the book, too. What do you want to achieve by writing it - to change the world? To impress your friends? To inspire others like you? Think hard about who you want to write for, and why you want to write it, and factor this into the next point...
4. What is your voice?
This is essentially another way of describing your writing style. It's crucial to find the best and most natural way for you to tell your story. One thing I found very hard was keeping my voice consistent. One day I'd sit down to write when the sun was shining and I was in a good mood, and light-hearted jolly prose would flow out onto my computer screen. Another day, perhaps in darkest winter and in the middle of all sorts of other stressful life scenarios, I'd begin typing and my stories would come out like storm clouds, reeking of impending doom. Work hard to find out what is natural for you, and try to stick to it. I've heard it said that it helps to imagine you're writing to a good friend - that encourages dropping any assumed augmentations to your style. It's important to read widely within your genre for inspiration, but don't try to imitate anyone. It's much better to be a top-quality version of yourself than a poorly-written carbon copy of one of the greats. Don't try to be Jack Kerouac!
5. What is unnecessary?
If you've done well with points 1 + 2, then hopefully there's not too much superfluous material in your finished manuscript. If you're like me, however, you'll have written 160,000 words - about twice the length of a 'normal' travel book (my final draft was just under 80,000 words.) Whatever your situation, you're going to need to edit hard. I recommend getting help with this if you're self-publishing, and if you're lucky enough to have a publisher, then I recommend listening very closely to your editor! You're going to be very attached to certain annecdotes. Maybe they work really well when you tell them down the pub - that doesn't mean they have to stay in your book. Everything that remains should in some way further the narrative or add weight to one of your themes. To overuse an overused phrase that sums this up well, you need to murder your darlings. Slice and dice your precious work until it is a shadow of it's former self. The more you cut and edit, the better it gets (usually!) Get feedback from (honest) friends and colleagues on the work, and see what they think is unnecessary. Finally, don't despair at this stage. Ernest Hemingway has great, if slightly demoralising, advice for anyone at this stage. We're all in the same boat. As far as I'm concerned, if you've made it this far, then you've done incredibly well - you're nearly there! - and it's worth the next stage of painful editing to make your book the best it can be. It's absolutely worth it.
My book, The Road Headed West, was released earlier this month. If you'd like to see how it turned out, you can get a signed copy from my website here. If you'd rather hedge your bets, then why not download the free sample on Kindle via the Amazon store?
There are a lot of reasons to have an adventure. First and foremost, it must be personally satisfying. It must be something that makes you feel fulfilled - something to make you come alive.
I love the self-development, formative side of adventures too - all the journeys I go on change me hugely, and always for the better. The challenges of such an unpredictable, spontaneous existence, with each day a new unknown - it's not always easy, but it is always worth it. I learn much about the world, and even more about myself.
I love the landscapes - the visceral thrill of riding down a new road, smelling the flowers and looking to the horizon. There's something incredibly satisfying about feeling the undulations of the earth passing beneath your wheels or feet, and learning how a country changes through the simple act of traversing it by human power.
There is the social angle too - almost all the adventures I've ever had have been enhanced immensely by the people I've met along the way. If you want to restore your faith in humanity, set out on foot or by bicycle and before too long someone will stop you to chat. Not long after you'll begin to receive the gifts - cold drinks when it's too hot, hot drinks when it's too cold. All over the world I've been the recipient of the most outrageous acts of generosity and kindness. I've met people with incredible stories to tell, and I've made friends that I'll stay in contact with forever. This is one of my favourite justifications for adventure.
In the last few years I've discovered another reason, too. When I first set off to cycle through North America, it was mostly for selfish purposes. I wanted to challenge myself, to see the world and to have the wild experiences along the way. It wasn't long, however, before I began to take just as much joy from a very different part of the trip - that of sharing it. I kept a blog throughout my journey, and it's a combination of those essays and notes from my journals that I used to help write The Road Headed West - my first book. There is a great power in writing about a trip - the power to entertain, educate, inspire. I never thought that I would write a book, but after returning from my trip through North America I couldn't shake the feeling that the stories I had from that journey were worth telling. It's taken me nearly four years to get there, but I've done finally turned them into a book. I'm very proud of it, and mostly I hope that readers can enjoy my travels vicariously in the same way that I have done with so many hundreds of books myself.
If you have been on an adventure - the sort that makes you come alive- you will inevitably have a good story. I'd urge you to tell it. Tell it in a blog post, or write it up and send it to magazines. If it's a really good story with multiple themes and angles, then why not start penning your first book? I wrote my entire book (three times in fact, followed by five drafts of the eventual manuscript) before I got a publisher. I'm delighted with my publisher - they were my first choice and I'm very happy they wanted to take a chance on me - but the fact is that these days you don't necessarily need a publisher to get your book out there. There are a lot of very good self-published books available, especially in the travel-writing genre.
If writing isn't your thing, then try photos - begin with a photo-essay. Give film-making a go. Maybe express yourself through art.
There is a fantastic potential to do great things with storytelling. It can provide a platform for thoughts and ideas that wouldn't otherwise get one. One of my works that I'm most proud of is my film Into The Empty Quarter, because it shows a side to the Middle East that many people don't necessarily know about (Spoiler alert: it's an awesome place.)
You don't have to possess the intimate beauty of John Steinbeck's writing, or the flowing prose of Jack Kerouac. You don't have to have Werner Herzog's eye for a perfect shot (or his weird voice.) Just begin - begin to tell your story in the way that feels most natural. Don't worry if it's not good to begin with (even the best struggle with that.) Re-work it. Re-work it some more. Ask friends for their feedback. Pour passion and energy into it - everything you've got. If you care enough and work enough, you'll be able to produce something you're proud of. Whether you'll get your story out there to the masses via a book deal or TV deal or any other sort of deal...that's another question. But if you tell your story because you really want to tell it, and because it's about something that makes you come alive, then you've already succeeded. Anything else is a bonus.
My first book - The Road Headed West- is out now. It is the story of my journey through North America on bicycle - from New York to Seattle, then down the west coast to the Mexican border. At heart it is a rite-of-passage story about what happens when you take to the open road in search of adventure. It is also a portrait of North America as I experienced it on two wheels - a slow, intimate journey through a fascinating continent. You can read it here.
Today is the day!
As of this morning, my first book - The Road Headed West - is officially on sale. I am incredibly excited, and more than a little nervous to finally share it with the world. I wrote this book because I wanted to tell the story of my journey across North America, but I honestly never expected more than a handful of friends and family to have a chance read it. The idea of publishers, marketing, book launches - those were never in my thinking. I'm delighted and amazed that there's been so much interest since those early days, and that it has now made it to this stage.
I believe very strongly in the story - that it's entertaining, and paints a detailed picture of real, small-town America as I saw it - and I certainly hope it's enjoyed by most (if not all!) who read it. Thank you to all the readers of this blog and everyone who has encouraged and helped me along on this and other journeys. Adventure is something I'm passionate about - an idea worth spreading - and more than anything I hope this book gives a hint of the rewards that lie in wait should we choose life on the road, with all it's risks and unknowns and promises.
How you can buy the book (and get a free DVD)
Signed books are available here, and regular copies through Amazon and in all good bookstores.The book costs £9.99, plus postage to wherever you are based.
As an added incentive, for anyone who buys from this site or from Amazon, I am offering a FREE copy of my film Into The Empty Quarter to anyone who buys online this week, Monday to Friday. Just forward me your e-receipt (to this address) and let me know whether you'd like a DVD* or HD digital download of the film.
I'm also giving having a few 'launch' events in various parts of the UK (including Canterbury, Bristol, London and Belfast. For details and dates of those, read more here.
* If you choose a DVD, I'm asking you to pay the postage, which for the UK is less than £1
Why you should buy the book (aside from the free DVD)
The major theme is that of a rite-of-passage journey - the adventure that happens to a naive 23-year old when he leaves behind everything he knows and sets off to learn about himself and the world at bicycle-speed.
It shows the transformations that happen, both to me and to the land around me. The book shows North America as I found it - a picture-portrait of a spot in time and space when I pedalled through. Others passing by just before or after me may have had an entirely different experience, but The Road Headed West is the story of what I found there, for better or worse. The book shows the diversity of the USA - the landscapes, yes, but even more so the people. There are a host of incredible characters in this story who I feel so lucky to have met, and even luckier to be able to include them in my book.
Finally, of course, the book is about adventure. It is about taking risks, mostly calculated ones, and showing what happens. This is a story set with the backdrop of a bicycle journey, but there are all sorts of other adventures that pop up at various points. When you do something unusual, like decide to spend 6 months riding a bicycle around America, then it's probably unsurprising that strange and wonderful things happen.
I suppose in a way it is also a book about bicycles. The bike is the catalyst for almost everything in this story - it is the vehicle that powers me westward, and it is the icebreaker in all of the conversations. It became my home, and the most reliable friend I had.
Overall, The Road Headed West is a collection of experiences, and a call-to-arms to embrace adventure in life - to buy the ticket, and take the ride.
One more thing...
At the back of my book, I've included my kit list, for those interested, and I've also written a 'How-to' section for travelling by bicycle. Touring on two wheels is a way of life I love, and pleasantly it's also a very simple one. I think though that this is not always clear to non-cyclists - certainly the idea of setting off with only a bicycle for company can be a daunting one. That's why I've added this section in the back - to dispel fears and debunk myths, and share the knowledge I learned the hard way about how to go from total novice to seasoned pro on the road.
Some sneak peaks
1. The madness of it all. Few countries that I've visited can compete with the USA in the oddity stakes. I encountered all sorts of the weird and wacky - from an 80-year artist who specialised in Hello-Kitty related furniture, to a ex-commando who took his cat ski-ing (and posted the videos on YouTube); from giant 70-foot roadside dinosaurs advertising shopping malls, to a town modelled on 19th-century Bavaria. Luckily, however, I love this sort of thing! The kitsch, the bizarre, the downright disturbing - it all makes for a great travel experience. My favourite (or at least, the most memorable) was the celebration of Rocky Mountain Oysters in Montana; that is, to say, the 'Testicle Festival'...
2. The marvellousness of it all. It would be unfair not to follow up the madness without mention of the myriad marvels there are in North America. From Niagara Falls to the Badlands National Park to the Big Horn Mountains, I found landscapes that made the hairs of the back of my neck stand up and stay stood. The lesser attractions, I found, often held their own alongside the heavyweights of the Grand Canyon, the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Ocean. The winner, without a doubt - the place that is etched forever deep in the recesses of my mind - is the bubbling, boiling super-volcanic cauldron of Yellowstone National Park. I spent just over a week there, leaving my bike at the campsite and hitching around with other tourists. The best memories I have are of walking through the back country, past steaming mud pools and gurgling geysers, watching our for bears and buffalo roaming the paths....
3. The roads. When you ride a bicycle, you begin to accept, then enjoy, then crave and love the visceral thrill of a really, really good road. Stunning scenery, an interesting route and a good surface are all common ingredients. Enormous scare-the-crap-out-of-yourself downhills also help. The USA and Canada have no shortage of these types of roads. My favourites were mostly found west of the Mississippi, in the winding passes of the Black Hills, or the cathedral-like avenues through the Redwood forests. I'd ride any of those road again in a heartbeat.
4. The people. A journey through North America is inevitably a social experience, and I'm pleased to report that I found mine to be an enlightening one. Passing drivers would stop to give me cold water. One even handed me a 6 pack of beer. Those passing encounters were special, of course, but the times I remember most are when I got a glimpse inside a community. Many nights I found myself taken in, fed and looked after by complete strangers. On a few occasions I stopped in my tracks and spent 3 or 4 days in a village or town, staying with new friends and getting an idea of life in middle America. In Fowler, Michigan - population 1201 - I spent a happy weekend with Handsome Mike and PickleBall Sally - two local characters that no short blog such as this can do justice to. Mike was the life and soul of Fowler, and I must have met nearly every single one of those 1201 residents through his whirlwind tours. My lasting memory is of Mike riding with me to the edge of town on his bicycle (with a homemade 'saddle' cut out of a chiropractors chair) then having him burst into tears and hand me $100 dollars which he said was to help 'make the most of life on this ride, through the greatest country on earth.'
5. The self-development. Although selfish, this is one of the main reasons why I travel. I love the formative nature of these journeys, and I find the challenge, unpredictability and constant need to adapt is very refreshing. It keeps me active, makes me feel alive. Riding through the USA and Canada was my first real experience of this, and it's no exaggeration to say it changed my life. I learned a lot about the world, but I learned so much more about myself. Everything I am and do today (for better or worse!) is in some way related to my experiences riding the road headed west across North America.
My first book - The Road Headed West - tells the full story of my journey across North America by bicycle. You can order a copy here.
The alarm klaxon annihilates the silence of pre-dawn. I roll to my right and paw feebly at the source of the sound. It dies an instant death, and my world is at peace once more. This is the moment of truth right here – it could all fall apart now before it’s even begun. It’s the simplest thing in the world, getting out of bed, but I’ve fallen at this hurdle before.
I edge closer to the outer reaches of the blanket, then place a first exploratory foot out onto the floor below. I’m being a lazy wimp, I know that, but still it's a struggle. The rest of my body eventually follows the foot, reluctantly, and I’m out – vertical, if not yet truly alert. It’s all plain sailing from here. I’ve passed the first major test.
I stumble around and find some shorts, then a shirt. Shoes and a helmet lie on the stairs. That’s it – I’m ready. My bike sits by the door, always ready, eternally eager. We stagger out the door into the cool morning breeze, I hoist a leg over the top tube and instinct takes over as we roll out onto the tarmac. Immediately contentment and familiarity set in. It's an action as familiar as breathing now, and being sat up high on the saddle is comforting. I know this thing, I know it so well. There is satisfaction to be had in having made it out the door, coupled with an impatience for the rewards of the road. This, these feelings, are why I ride.
My watch says 5.03am. Light burns at the edges of the world and I shiver in the dawn chill. My bike glides effortlessly down narrow streets by my house, then right onto the main drag. Edgeware Road, a main London parallel, completely deserted. I’m still waking up, but am just conscious enough to enjoy pretending this is London in the post-zombie apocalypse.
I move faster now as my muscles warm up. The sun makes a first fiery appearance, an orange ball of fury rising up over the walls of ‘Mecca Bingo.’ Three teenagers lie slumped on a wall nearby, empty cans of Fosters by their feet. In the distance, down a side road, I see a white van idling outside a house while three men load it with tools. To my left an elderly Indian lady walks one of those dogs that looks like a fat rat. The drunks, the workmen, the old people – this time of morning is their domain much more than it is mine. They live it regularly; I just visit. This morning I am glad I did – the worries and stresses and duties and chores I bother myself with during regular hours of life seem a million miles away from here. This freedom is why I ride.
I ignore traffic lights, another luxury of the spectral hour. I see details on Edgeware Road that I’ve never noticed before - markings at junctions, shapes on the tarmac. I try to remember the last time I ever saw this place without a queue of traffic on it. I can’t – perhaps I never have. After a few miles I pass the megastores – Ikea, Homebase, Staples. The smell of French pastries from the industrial ovens of the Asda bakery is tempting beyond belief, and it takes everything I’ve got to keep going.
Finally the sun breaches rooftops and those first sweet rays of warmth sooth the goosebumps on my arms. The deep blue of the sky fades to a pastel shade, slashed mercilessly by vapour trails from flights going who-knows-where. It's odd, but I feel strongly that I'd rather be here, pedalling past a run-down Cash-and-Carry in North London, than dozing on a trans-Atlantic aircraft at 25,000 feet. The moon appears faint, also high above me, not yet set but still defeated by morning. These small things, they’re mine. I take them in greedily, no-one else around to share with. I think back to all the other mornings I’ve had like this on the road. No cars, few people. Warm air, the uncertain promises of the day ahead. I’ve ridden roads like this thousands of times. It feels like more of a home to me than four walls ever will. This is why I ride.
The concrete fortifications of the city fall alarmingly quickly. There is one roundabout that signals the changing order – on one side a McDonalds, the other green fields. I make the transition and stand up on the pedals to signal acceptance. Suddenly I’m in a very different place. The bowed light of morning projects light shows on the bitumen, dappled and strobed from the overhanging trees. Beyond the hedgerows fields extend to the horizon, rolling gently at will. A rabbit dashes out in front, stops, looks, and dashes back into the thicket from whence he came. Next a fox, then a squirrel. Ubiquitous birdsong is my soundtrack. I ride hard now, wide awake and relishing the movement. Hills come and go and I attack then with all I have. I’m sweating profusely and my legs scream in acidic rage, but I pay them no heed. This is why I’m here. Small towns pass in the blink of an eye – country pubs closed, signs telling yesterday’s news – and always I’m returned back to the greenery of the country. So close to the madness of London life, yet a world away. This is why I ride.
After a couple of hours I reach my destination. The location of no real consequence, and all I do is refill my water bottle and take a picture of the cathedral. Then I turn around and head home. I’m meeting a friend for breakfast at 9am. There’s no time to dawdle. In a few more hours I’ll be gobbling up fried food in a greasy café and watching a million people bustle past the window in one of the liveliest cities on earth. Few will have begun the day like I have. That uniqueness is a comfort and a source of constant encouragement. It is the essence of adventure, the beauty coming from the simplicity, and it’s as easy as getting up early and cycling to somewhere new. This – all of this – is why I ride.
One more thing...
A little while ago I entered a competition run by Discovery Channel UK called 'Make Your World Bigger.' I love the concept - it's exactly the sort of adventurous mindset I champion through my trips. I'm therefore delighted that they chose my photo and caption from the Gobi desert as one of the 25 finalists!
At the risk of sounding like I'm begging (which is exactly what I'm doing...) please would you take thirty seconds to vote for my image? Here's the link -http://mywbcompetition.com/gal.aspx?og=2
All you have to do is click 'Vote' and then also select 2 other images from the 25 (they're all good!) Thank you - it's very much appreciated! #mywb
In 2010 I set off from New York City on a bicycle, headed west for an indefinite amount of time. The bike was my one-way ticket to new experiences, and I was determined to see what lay beyond the boundaries of comfortable living.
There were a lot of reasons why I decided to launch off across America on a bike, but the main one was that I just wanted to - to be more specific, I felt I needed to.
It didn't matter that it was America, or even that I was on a bike. What was important was that I was 22 years old and I felt completely mollycoddled by my previous life in the UK (my knowledge of the word mollycoddle was a prime example of this.) I'd never been tested; never been tried and found wanting. I'd almost always been comfortable and safe, and more than anything I wanted to break free of that for even just a little while.
I wanted to head off into the wilderness, towards places and people that scared me because I knew nothing about them, and to see what would happen when I arrived. How would I respond? If it went well, I would learn to trust in myself a lot more. If it went badly, at least I'd know comprehensively that I was in fact a wimp, and I should return home to wrap myself back up in cotton wool.
At the end of 2012 I went to Oman to pull a cart full of instant noodles through the largest sand desert in the world. That trip was very silly (and tremendous fun!), and one of the main things I took away from it was how much I enjoyed the region. Oman and the UAE were fantastic places, I discovered, full of great people. The Omanis and Emiratis looked after us well, when we saw them, but it was expat oil workers from other parts of the Middle East and Indian subcontinent that we encountered most frequently. Pakistanis brought us curry from their truck, Syrians gave us cake and Saudis offered to kill a camel and throw a celebratory party for us. Yemenis stopped to have a quick chat and wish us well, and Bahrainis gave gifts of more Pepsi than we could carry. It was my first visit to the Arabian peninsula and, aside from a brief holiday to Cairo one time, it was my first journey to the Middle East proper.
As readers of this site will know, a couple of years ago I walked 3000 miles from Mongolia to Hong Kong with my friend Rob Lilwall. The intention was to see China at ground level; to watch how a country, people and landscape change at human speed. Moving so slowly undoubtedly offers a unique (if occasionally miserable) insight into a place. I have since become quite a fan of exploring on foot (see more thoughts on that here.)
The idea for the journey came from Rob - he and his wife Christine had just moved to Hong Kong, and part of his motivation for exploring China in such a way was to forge a deeper connection with their new home. Rob, clearly, was also just someone drawn to the wilds of the world, to adventures and travel and challenges and everything that lies therein. He had lived for three years on a bicycle, pedalling from Siberia to London, and had spent countless days and nights on dusty roads in foreign lands and in tiny tents tucked away in unknown landscapes. He had an enviable wealth of experience 'out there' in the world, but still wanted more.
Rob wasn't looking for passing, transitory incidents to form the basis of future anecdotes at dinner-parties - he wanted to really dig deep and learn what he could about China. The culture, the history, the language, the humour; every piece of knowledge gleaned would be a deepening of the relationship with his newly-adopted country.
On Friday I safely returned from my joyous little adventure around the British Isles. In 19 days I cycled 750 miles on a folding bicycle, climbed the 'Six Peaks' (the highest mountain in each of the six major regions) and saw some of the most beautiful parts of our wonderful islands.
Sidetracked is the coolest adventure magazine around on the web at the minute, in my opinion. If you haven't yet heard of it, then you're in for a fantastic surprise! Each new edition is published monthly (this latest is the ninth,) packed with fantastically written and illustrated stories from around the globe.
I'm delighted that this month, amongst the many other very cool tales of adventure, my own story of trekking from Mongolia to Hong Kong also makes an appearance.
Do check it out by following the link below- I hope you enjoy it, and remember to take some time out of your schedule to read through the rest of the articles!