This week's guest writer on the topic of 'Why travel by bicycle' is Tom Allen - an adventure cyclist, blogger and filmmaker. His bike trips have taken him thousands of miles through tens and tens of countries around the world, including the sorts of places that many travellers would desperately seek to avoid (think Yemen, Sudan, Iran, Syria, Ethiopia.)
Tom's inaugural years of bicycle travel were subsequently made into a feature film, Janapar, which is simply a must-watch for anyone with even the slightest interest in adventure. Most recently, of course, his 'career' hit a new high point when he had the great honour of going on an a trip with one of his all-time heroes...
Below Tom shares his thoughts on why he so often chooses bicycles for his particular brand of adventurous travel.
Oh boy. Have I got a tough job ahead of me. How is it possible to provide a satisfactory answer to a question saddled from the word go with so many possible distortions of meaning?
Perhaps I should first explain all the things that "travel by bicycle" does not mean.
In fact, no. Let's go even further back to basics and deal with what is meant by "travel", seeing as almost everyone gets this wrong.
When you get into a car, onto a train or plane or bus, or even when you leave the house on foot, you do so almost exclusively with the intention of going somewhere. You have a destination in mind, and your chosen mode of transport is the means of reaching it.
Every time you pack a suitcase, buy a ticket, plan an itinerary or open a guidebook, you are participating in a particular kind of travel - one that casts experiences as concrete, consumable lists of things, and places as things to go to and return from.
This sounds so stupidly, stupidly obvious. And that's exactly why I need to bring it up. Because in order to see the point of travelling by bicycle - and thus to answer the question of "why" one might travel by bicycle - you must first abandon entirely your traditional understanding of why you'd choose to travel in the first place.
I do a lot of Q&A sessions, and I've tried to explain this in so many ways. I'll say that when I left my house in England and cycled to Istanbul, I was... no! The penny drops. He cycled from England to Istanbul. That's a really long way to ride a bicycle. I could never do that.
Sounds weird, but hear me out. The truth is that yes, I cycled to Istanbul, but not with the intention of cycling to Istanbul. Yes, I woke up every morning in my tent or on someone's living room floor, had my breakfast and began riding. But never thinking, "how much further is it?".
So why else, then, would I make that journey, and the others that followed it, to Yerevan, to Cairo, to Djibouti and Muscat and Tehran and Ulan Bator and Tromso and Vancouver and San Francisco, all made without the slightest desire to go to any of those places?
The answer is so blindingly obvious when you think about it.
I travel by bicycle for everything else - for everything other than arriving at these so-called destinations. For every second spent on the roads between them.
The point is being here, not getting to somewhere else beyond the horizon.
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 I choose to ascribe to it; one that unfolds as I pedal, right there before my eyes and ears and nose and mouth, beneath my feet and at my fingertips, every waking second.
There is no door to close behind me, no isolated compartment of privacy to retreat to, no escape from the escapism of adventurous travel. I'm on a bicycle; there isn't supposed to be. No; it is a call-to-arms to engage with life in its every form and to learn to accept and tolerate it all, bar nothing, for how is one dusty, anonymous and transient figure taking a cross-section of the world on a pushbike supposed to wreak his or her own particular brand of change upon those he 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, and it hurts. 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 a most human level with other members of our species.
This may only occur outside the prison-like constraints of the economic transactions of public life in an individualistic consumption-driven society, and 99% of the time, this is exactly where your bicycle journey will unfold.
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 do this. You're feeling a faraway call.
And you will indeed take greater responsibility for your actions as a result of feeling their consequences unfold, all day, every day. Do not travel by bicycle if you do not want to engage with the world on a deep level. Do not travel by bicycle if you prefer the abstract, virtual universes in which we increasingly invest our precious time and emotional energy. For never again will you be able to seal yourself off from people and places, withdrawing behind smartphone screens and headphones and sunglasses without at the very least acknowledging that you're ignoring a world you've now experienced more fully than most who'll ever live.
(I am not going to claim that this new perspective will make you happier. But it will at least serve as a constant reminder of what it means to be alive, for as long as you remain so.)
So much for the meaning of travel. The bicycle, too, has a cultural image problem. The images are of toned calf muscles and reflective shades and helmets and four-figure price tags in boutique bike shops, of sweat and hardship and victory and defeat, of hi-viz commuters jumping red lights and high profile fatalities under the wheels of HGVs.
The bicycle's biggest image problem is that it has an image at all. It makes no more sense than of human feet having a fecking image. I am not sure when we forgot that the bicycle is a tool to be put to whatever task the rider deems appropriate. I hope that we remember sooner rather than later.
It may not be obvious why the bicycle is so enormously well-suited to delivering this all-encompassing experience of travel. The reasons are simple ones.
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 I described earlier. Walking cannot deliver this.
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 proportional 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 a sleep of a depth to rival the dead.
Then there is the immediacy of your engagements with those you meet on the roadside. You are socially conditioned to fear the unknown and to avoid contact with strangers. You will have this kicked out of you within days. Your strongest memories will be of time spent with friendly strangers who became friends in 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 - materially, physically and emotionally. 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.
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 travel by bicycle?
You can keep up to date with Tom's latest adventures via his blog. His website is packed full of (free!) informative gems to help the aspiring adventure cyclist; he has also just published a comprehensive e-book on essential gear for cycle touring.
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Other posts in this series: