Red dirt swirled outside, coating with a fine layer the garden chairs now strewn across the yard. Just seconds earlier I’d managed with some difficulty to wheel my bicycle into the garage and lock the door. This wasn’t exactly cycling weather.
Growing up in Northern Ireland had not prepared me for mid-west American storms. Where I come from a windy day means you hold onto your hat and leave the umbrella at home; a worst-case scenario is perhaps the exposure of a badly secured comb-over. In an Iowa storm you fasten everything you can to solid ground, locate the nearest basement and pray for those with a hairpiece.
The lights died and immediately to the north a Force 4 tornado touched down, it’s column rotating violently. Swallowing trees and houses it passed over the spot where I’d originally wanted to pitch my tent. Luckily a local rancher had read my vacuous ignorance for tolerable naivety and taken my bicycle and I into his home. Watching the destruction I tried to recall exactly what was the appeal of being so close to danger, alone with only a bike for company and worst of all being stuck in Iowa, surely the least happening place on earth!
In March 2010 I set out from New York City on my bicycle heading roughly in the direction of Hong Kong. I chose to forgo GPS and leave the route planning vague, relying instead on intuition and local knowledge for better or worse. My Santos bike and I were fully self-sufficient carrying camping equipment, clothes, food and water. Also essential to me was my video camera and tripod, bulky as they were. The idea of my own self-devised adventure combining passions of cycling, sustainability and non-fiction filmmaking captured me so completely that I was left with no option but to make it happen.
I rode west across North America, from New York to Vancouver. Departing Canada, I cycled down the west coast into Mexico and, failing to secure passage on a freighter ship, flew across the Pacific to New Zealand. Touring both of the islands led me to next journey along the Australian coastline, and South East Asia followed. I pedalled through Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and China, arriving in Hong Kong after 14,000 miles, 11 ½ months, 107 jars of peanut butter and not a single haircut. Bearded and beaming I flew back to Europe to ride a final few hundred glorious miles between Paris and London.
Forget any notions you might have that bike touring is somehow intimidating. If you are a technical nut then you’ll certainly get your kicks, but even if you don’t know your sprockets from your spokes there’s no reason why you too can’t head off into the sunset armed with only a dash of pragmatism. The hours spent alone on the road are liberating and the eternal revolution of the pedals brings catharsis; each turn pushes troubles to the pavement and offers clarity on the upstroke.
The speed of travel is slow enough to engage with every passing sensory element, yet adequately swift to make it an adept and viable method of transport, recognised and respected world wide from the streets of Hanoi to the penthouses of New York. Inoffensive and unpretentious, the bicycle sends a message of humility and openness. Arriving in foreign lands as a grimy, sweaty Irishman, I was experienced kindness and gracious hospitality that transcended the limitations of race, class, culture and religion.
A corn field in Iowa during a tornado would never be my idea of a good night out, but I was privileged to have witnessed the full force of raging nature from the safety of a welcoming stranger's house. Anything and everything is out there waiting, and therein lies the beauty.
This piece was originally written for and published in The Sunday Times