There are many great ways to travel - ways which offer a wonderful perspective for seeing the world and for exploring landscapes and cultures and everything inbetween. My pick has always been for the non-motorised ways; for the slower, more intimate journeys that occur when the power to move forward must be generated by one's own body. Over the last few years I've developed a love of walking, the slowest and most natural method of all, and most recently I also experimented with travelling by packraft (an inflatable boat that folds down to the size of a two-man tent.) My first ever adventures, however, all took place on bicycles and as I found on a recent trip by bike in Iran, it is still hard to beat the joys of cycling.
When I was 15 I set off to cycle around the UK with a couple of friends. I remember buying my first ever bike less than a week before we left. It took us four days to get out of Northern Ireland (we'd figured on one) and we spent much of that first trip making terrible navigational errors, complaining about how big the (small) hills were and apologising to policemen for accidentally cycling on motorways. It was brilliant! I loved it so much that the next summer I cycled with a friend from Northern Ireland to Germany for the football World Cup. It was another poorly planned escapade with more wrong turns than right, and in the end we only got there because Germany is so big that we couldn't help but run into it eventually. Needless to say, that adventure was also life-enhancingly wonderful. It didn't matter that we got lost, or weren't sure how to fix our bikes, or that we didn't speak any German (or French or Dutch) - all of our shortcomings seemed to add to the fun.
Cycling trips took a backseat during my busy years of studying at university.* Fortunately, upon graduating I was lucky enough to get a job despite the global recession; unfortunately I found working full-time in a job that I wasn't passionate about to be such a shock to the system that I almost immediately fled the country. I began planning a much bigger, more challenging and indefinitely-long bicycle journey. I saved some money, bought a one-way ticket to New York City and started pedalling west.
*By 'busy years of studying' I mean: lying in bed until 12pm and rarely doing anything useful with my life other than reading the occasional book
That journey took fourteen months in all; after 14,000 miles of cycling I ended up in Hong Kong, ten countries and three continents away from where I started. There were many great things about that trip, but clearest of all I remember the impression that those first four months had upon me - cycling across America, from New York to Seattle, and then down the west coast to Mexico. I'm quite sure the experience left me permanently changed, showing me the thrill of an uncertain, unpredictable action-packed lifestyle. My life revolved around waking up in a hedge and cycling all day so I could sleep in a different one fifty or sixty miles away. I realised then that the best things in life are found at the edge of normality; wild camping, downhill cycling, exciting places and every tomorrow a new unknown. There was no going back from there.
Last year I pedalled a folding bicycle around the British Isles, climbing the highest peaks in our six major regions along the way. That was a new type of two-wheeled adventure, but the principals were the same - uncertainty, physical exertion, reward-through-slog and joy found in the little things (a quiet road, a good sandwich, a town with a funny name, the view from a mountain pass.) Being on a bicycle makes us vulnerable, wherever in the world we might be, and that in turn encourages others to show openness and generosity that may otherwise stay hidden. I made many new friends during my three-week trip last summer, and was the recipient of many free meals and unsolicited sofas to sleep on.
During my most recent adventure in Iran, I had planned on spending five weeks travelling down the entire length of the river Karun by foot and packraft with my friend Tom. When we got there, however, we quickly realised that it would take much longer than that, and in fact the river was not always going to be possible to follow directly due to construction of some huge dams around the mid-way point. Faced with the opposing options of panicking or coming up with a new plan, we wisely chose the latter, and borrowed some bicycles to ride around the no-go area of our river (from a complete stranger in Esfahan who had no qualms in lending two nice bikes to smelly, bearded weirdos.) Tom and I pedalled 280 miles in five days - not an insignificant distance to do straight off the bat with no warm up - and were rewarded with a whole new perspective on the mountains and river that we'd been painstakingly following by foot and boat. We took a detour through a different section of the mountain range, and after much exhausting climbing we rather suddenly descended down into the plains via one of the best switchbacks I've ever had the pleasure to ride. In just a few days we had passed from high-altitude, snowcapped mountains into flat, fertile agricultural marshland (or more strikingly, from Winter into Spring.)
I take great pleasure in the varying speeds of cycle touring. When I was younger and desperate for a fast-paced rite-of-passage journey with challenges and trials left, right and centre (I was really into the self-development thing...), I loved being able to move a hundred miles a day. I got a kick from blasting over high mountain passes and from raging down smooth tarmac towards a new city; powering through deserts and along coasts and into dense forests that seemed to swallow me and my bicycle whole. Yet I also enjoy (even moreso these days) forcing myself to go slower - to stay the night with people who offer up their homes, and to dally by the roadside looking at the view should the notion taking me. I find this aspect of cycling unique - the ability to choose afresh each morning the pace of one's lifestyle.
These are some of the reasons why I travel by bicycle - I have found it to be the best way to access the full range of emotions and experience that travel can offer. The full list of the appeals of bike touring may almost be inexhaustible, but this is a start. Very little, I've found, can match the buzz of taking the first pedal stroke down a new road and having absolutely no idea what will happen along the way or where you'll sleep that night. That's the stuff that makes life worth living!
If you enjoyed reading this blog post, you might be interested to know that I have written a book about cycling across America. It will be released this summer - pop your email address in the box below to be kept up to date with the latest news on where, when and how you'll be able to read it.