Alastair: My Grand Adventures interview today is Tom Allen – cyclist and filmmaker – chosen solely because of his beer can stove, about which more later… Could you start by outlining the biggest expedition that you’ve been on?
Tom: The biggest expeditions I’ve been on were cycling from the UK to Armenia over eight months, cycling around the Middle East and Africa for seven months and I’ve also done trips in Mongolia for two months and down the West Coast of the U.S. for two months as well.
Alastair: This is the sort of question that’s hard to answer and generally quite irritating when you get asked it, but I think it’s quite important: could you try and give just a couple of the highlights, the sort of things that you’ve really loved about these big adventures?
Tom: I think the biggest thing is the fact that you wake up in the morning and you have no idea where you’re going to end up at the end of that day, and you have no idea what you’re going to see or who you’re going to meet, that’s kind of what adventure means to me anyway. It’s the unpredictability and the surprises and the unexpected, and the knowledge that it’s very, very rarely a bad kind of surprise. You know, it’s usually pretty positive stuff.
Alastair: So let’s talk about your first big bike trip. Why did you choose to do that? Why didn’t you, say, go for a long walk or climb a mountain? Why did you decide to cycle?
Tom: Well, the reason I decided to cycle was, firstly, because it wasn’t about a physical challenge and I thought that a long walk would be a lot more gruelling than riding a bicycle, and as far as climbing mountains and stuff like that’s concerned, that wasn’t really what I was interested in. I was interested in exploring countries, meeting people, exploring cultures, and I wanted as much versatility in my means of transport as possible, and with the bicycle you can carry everything you need, but it’s not on your back, it’s on your bike, and that’s a lot more pleasant way of doing it.
You’ve also got a massive range of distance that you can cover in a day, from as little as you like to up to, on a really good day, maybe a couple of hundred kilometres.
Alastair: And what were you doing directly before you set off on that trip?
Tom: Before I set off I spent a year planning the first trip, which is way too much planning to be quite honest, but it got me to begin. I was working as a freelance website developer. I’d finished university for about a year when my friend Andy came up with the idea. I was at a bit of a loose end, wasn’t convinced that I was doing the right thing career-wise, and just wanted to do something a bit different while I was still young and uncommitted and had that freedom.
Alastair: Before you went, you had a year of planning and daydreaming. During that year, what were the main worries you had about that trip, and what were the worries that perhaps family were trying to impose on you, and then how did those worries compare to any problems you actually had during the journey?
Tom: I got massively bogged down in the intricacies of bicycle mechanics and what might go wrong mechanically. Massively, I mean ridiculous. And so I spent most of that year researching bicycle parts and deciding what would be the ideal components – you know, the ideal brakes, the ideal suspension, the ideal carrier rack and all this kind of thing. And I didn’t really pay much attention to the routes, I didn’t really pay much attention to the realities of how it would be to be living on the road, and I had no experience to go on in that respect either.
And so I was really just researching something I didn’t understand very well, and I guess the reason why was to try and build up confidence in something which I really didn’t have any experience in.
Alastair: How much training did you do for setting off to cycle around the world?
Tom: I did no training whatsoever. I didn’t even finish building the bike until the morning I left. I didn’t have time, because the last few weeks of preparation were so frantic in terms of getting the stuff, getting the gear together, that I didn’t actually have any time to test any of it.
Alastair: I remember the night before I set off to cycle around the world, my bike pump just arrived in the post, and I undid all the packaging and threw it all in the bin, then realised I’d thrown away the little nozzle bit that does the pumping, and my Dad had to empty the entire house’s bins over the back lawn to find this nozzle. I didn’t do any training either, on the assumption that you can have too much of a good thing and there was plenty of time to get fit along the way.
Tom: Yeah, I think when it becomes a lifestyle, and especially when it’s not trying to do anything particularly athletic, you can afford to go a little bit slowly at the start. You can afford to break yourself in a little bit more gently. The more time you’ve got, the better, obviously. The funny thing is, for shorter trips training makes more sense because you’re more time-restricted and your ability to pull the trip off depends more on your fitness in the first place, whereas if you’re going off for months or years, you’ll be as fit as you’ll ever be within about the first month, regardless of how fit you are to start with.
Alastair: The fact that your bottom hurts for two weeks matters less when your trip’s a year long than if your trip is only two weeks’ long…
Tom: Exactly. It’s a real pain in the ass.
Alastair: Another problem that people have – this is a real Catch 22 – is thinking that you want to go off and have an adventure but you can’t because you don’t have the experience necessary. Did you worry about that, and then how did the reality turn out for you?
Tom: That’s one of the things I worried the least about, actually. I can’t really remember how I was thinking about it at the time, but I remember being preoccupied with how I was going to get out of the country, and how I was going to get out of Europe, because I felt that those were the places that would be familiar and those were the places I would be least worried about being in from a cultural perspective. And I figured that by the time I actually did clear Europe, I’d have enough experience to deal with whatever came up next.
And also, in reality, it’s quite a gentle gradient, really. It’s not like you’re suddenly thrown into the deep end somewhere. It’s very rarely like that. There probably are a couple of places, but in general it’s more like things change on a day-by-day basis, rather than you cross a border and everything’s different. The only place where I can think of where that was more the case was probably going into Turkey from Bulgaria because you were going from Christian Europe into Muslim Middle East. But even then, it was nice. It was refreshing and exciting, rather than worrying.
Alastair: When I arrived in Istanbul, I was amazed at how noisy and smelly and crazy and chaotic it was, and then I carried on around the world, and almost three years later I arrived back in Istanbul the second time and was amazed at how clean and quiet and civilized it was…
Tom: Yeah, exactly.
Alastair: So what about travelling solo or with a friend? What were your thoughts on that before the trip and what are your thoughts on it now?
Tom: When we… I say “we” because it was me and my best mate at the start, we set off together and that gave us the confidence to set off at all. That was definitely the biggest thing about planning it with a friend, was that we gave each other moral support; we enabled each other to get started. I can’t say if I would have done it if I’d been alone. I like to think that I would have done, because my life circumstances at the time were either to go travelling or suffer miserable, unfulfilling office jobs for the rest of my life. So I probably would have gone on my own, but definitely being in a pair gave me a lot more confidence to actually do it.
We egged each other on and maybe that even ended up meaning that the plan snowballed way beyond what it should have done, but I guess it got us on the road in the first place.
But I did end up on my own as well and it couldn’t be more different. Of all the things you could change about an experience, the difference between being alone and being with someone else is the biggest change. On your own you’re utterly dependent on yourself to be in control of your own emotions and your own responses to what happens, and your own ways of solving problems. There’s no one to sound-board with when it comes to making decisions.
Alastair: But equally, no one to have inane arguments with about what flavour jam to buy.
Tom: Yes, exactly. That’s the other side of the coin, in that you don’t have to worry about what anyone else wants, what their preferences are and what their ideas are. I think there’s a place for both and don’t think you should necessarily do one or the other.
I think they both offer particular benefits and they both come with their own compromises, and I’ve done both and I think it depends on what I’m trying to get out of the journey, whether or not I’d go solo. My next trip’s going to be in a pair but I can foresee another trip this year that I’ll do on my own as well, and it’s purely based on what I want to get out of the trip.
Alastair: So would you say then – as a massive oversimplification – that if someone was a bit nervous and daunted about even beginning their adventure, then they should find a friend to do it with, whereas if they’ve got the guts and they know they’re going to do it, then they should do it on their own?
Tom: I think if someone’s too nervous to start something on their own, then definitely finding a friend to do it with will help. I would just say that be very careful about making sure that the friend has the same overall expectations for what the trip’s about, because it’s when people have differing expectations that things start getting difficult. So definitely take someone with you and make sure it’s the right kind of person.
Alastair: The other massive area of concern for people is equipment, which I know is a bit of a bugbear of yours. I read one of your pearls of wisdom on Twitter saying that ‘all buying decisions should depend on how many days on the road it costs’, which is a fantastic mantra. That’s really good. I know asking you this question could launch you off into a 60,000-word e-book, but what’s your general, brief summary when getting the equipment ready for an adventure?
Tom: There are a couple of different ways of approaching that. You have to start off by trying to be realistic about what the absolute bare minimum is going to be to achieve what you’re trying to achieve. So for example, if you’re going on a trip that’s going to require a lot of camping, what’s the absolute bare minimum function that a tent must perform? Any extra-fancy stuff – light weight, ultra- durable, ventilation – that stuff, it’s not as important as just being able to close your eyes for a few hours.
I think, as you put it, that nice gear is nice but it’s not essential. If the choice is between having crap gear or having nice gear but not being able to afford the trip, then it’s obvious you should just take what you can find, essentially, and live with it. You know, deal with a bit of discomfort.
Alastair: When I was on my bike trip and trying to live very frugally, I used to give myself pep talks like, if ever I was tempted to go and buy a beer for £3, I’d work out in my head that that was equivalent to three days of cycling through Africa, and what would I rather have? So I think that’s a good comparison.
There are two great equipment things I’ve read on your website… one is your uber-cheap touring bike… Can you give us a summary of that, and then I’ll direct people towards your website?
Tom: The brief was, “How cheap can I get all of the equipment for a bike trip of any length?” Turns out that a bike, cooking, camping, clothing, all that stuff, I could get it for about 25 quid.
Alastair: £25 for everything?
Alastair: So that would then give you £975 of your £1000 to go off cycling.
Tom: Which, you know, five quid a day, let’s say, that’s a lot of cycling. Quick bit of maths… Nope, can’t do it. How many days is that?
Alastair: Just under 200, isn’t it?
Tom: Yeah, it’s about half a year trip.
Alastair: So how far could you go on your bike for your £1,000? From your front door, where could you get to?
Tom: You could get to India?
Alastair: You could easily get to India.
Tom: Visas are what would stamp up the bill. That’s the thing. You could just cycle around Europe for a year, just round and round different parts of Europe. There’s such variety in Europe, you’d never get bored.
Alastair: So then the other piece of equipment, which is going to be compulsory on the kit list for anyone doing this Adventure1000, is the beer can stove. Give me a quick summary.
Alastair: How long does it take to make?
Tom: It takes about ten minutes if you’ve had a bit of practice, probably 20 minutes if you’ve never done it before. Literally all it requires is an empty can. It runs on medical alcohol or methylated spirits, which you can get at any pharmacy in the world anywhere.
Alastair: Does it not take two hours to make your cup of tea in the morning?
Tom: No, it doesn’t. You can boil a mug of water in five minutes. Fantastic. And it costs literally the price of a can of beer.
Alastair: Okay, so now we’re going on to after your first big adventure to your life now. What are you doing now with your life, and how has your life been influenced by that first big trip you did?
Tom: I think the first big trip was the one in which you learn the basics of what it’s like to be out in the world, living on the road. And you get all your preconceptions smashed, and that’s all really good and healthy when you’re that age, because that’s what you need, I think. You learn all these big lessons and that’s fantastic.
After that, it’s a case of, “Why is travel and adventure still relevant to me?” I’ve found that it is for me, and the trips become more and more personal, I suppose, as a result of that. They reflect my developing ambitions and I’ve made sure travel is still relevant for various reasons.
My current project is a language-learning one, and I’ve found the motivation to learn a language by planning a trip in which I’m going to use it. There’s no better way of doing it than being fully immersed. So these are personal reasons for going on more trips.
Alastair: Your language-learning, I think it’s a really good thing to talk about because one of people’s main worries about going on adventures, is that they’re going to have to meet “foreigners”, and foreigners are all going to be terrifying and kill them, whereas you ended up meeting a foreigner and getting married!
Alastair: So we definitely both found on our trips that the “foreigner” is not a dangerous beast.
Tom: The thing is, you’ve got to remember that you’re the foreigner, not them. They’re at home; you’re the one who’s just wandered into their lives. And as long as you do so in a humble and open fashion you’ll be fine. I think that’s the most important thing, because if you look threatening (big expedition vehicles can look quite intimidating) or you’re in a big group of people with sunglasses on, it doesn’t really engender a lot of hospitality, really. But if you just saunter in one day with a backpack and a bicycle and look clueless…
Alastair: …and smile a lot…
Tom: …people immediately see someone who needs a bit of help, and that’s what you get.
Alastair: So now with all your years of experience, if you were going to go back and do your first big adventure again, what do you know now that could have helped you back then?
Tom: I desperately needed someone to tell me that flexibility is the most important part of putting a plan together. You don’t even need to put a plan together, just have an attitude that in a real adventure then there are unknowns, and unknowns are going to involve challenge, and challenge is going to mean that you learn new things. So you’ve got to have flexibility.
I was guilty of over-structuring what I was doing, definitely. When I changed my plans, I had to spend a lot of time and effort deconstructing all of that. I had a lot of apologising to sponsors to do and I had to face the music when it came to telling all the followers I’d got on the blog that actually, “I’m not going to do this. I’m not going to cycle around the world anymore. I’m going to go and cycle in a way which is more relevant to me.” So it would have been better to have had a much looser plan and fewer obligations.
And that’s why I now advise people ‘don’t bother with the whole sponsorship thing’. If you’ve got an external cause, which is why you’re doing the trip, then fine, get sponsorship. You’ve got strings attached anyway; a few more won’t hurt. But, otherwise, just keep it really simple, flexible.
Alastair: Thank you. Onto the last little chunk now. Do you think £1000 is a reasonable amount of money for a big adventure?
Tom: I would say it’s more than enough. I would say it can easily outlast the average person’s annual leave.
Alastair: That’s a very good summary. In terms of helping people get towards this £1000 and making it last, do you have some money-saving tips?
Tom: The way I always approached it when I was really skint was if I was thinking about spending any money, the question was, “What will happen to me if I don’t spend this money?”
Yeah, so, “This museum looks interesting. What will happen if I don’t spend this money? I won’t go to the museum.” Okay, fine. I can go when I’m retired; it will still be here. And instead, just look for experiences that don’t cost money, which are nevertheless just as fulfilling. And usually that’s social encounters and the times when you are in stunning parts of the world and it’s all priceless and free.
The reason I chose cycling was because of the cheapness of it. Camp out every night, eat nothing but pasta and bread and cheese and jam and fruit off trees…
Alastair: Cheese? You were lucky!
Tom: I had some fussy partners and I thought some protein occasionally might be good.
Alastair: It’s a very cheap way of travelling, isn’t it?
Tom: Yeah, and obviously no transport costs.
Alastair: Okay, final two questions. If I gave you £1000 for an all-inclusive adventure, what would you do. And what about if I gave you the £1000 plus an airfare (so that all of our trips are relevant to people wherever they are reading about this).
Tom: I think you could get everything you need together and cycle to Istanbul for a grand, and I think if you made sure that your bike was fairly worthless, you could leave it there and then just fly home for 70 quid at the end of it.
Alastair: Crossed a continent for under £1000.
Tom: Yeah, you’d have crossed a continent. You would have seen this incredible cross-section of culture. Doing it in the summer would be ideal; weather would be lovely.
Alastair: And if I gave you a flight to somewhere and then you had the £1000 to spend on the trip?
Tom: I think you could literally choose any part of the world. Any region or country that just sparks your imagination, fly there and then cycle around it until your £1000 runs out, essentially.
Alastair: It’s a long time.
Tom: Yeah, without any particular plan. You know, you can always get local maps; you can always just look at maps in Internet cafes and make a note of the major towns on your route, and then just ask people or take back roads. Just wander on bicycles, really. It doesn’t really matter where. I don’t think there’s anywhere in the world you couldn’t go on a bike trip.
Alastair: Go on; give us a place. Pick a place, somewhere you’d like to go.
Tom: I’d say South-East Asia, actually. Fly me into Bangkok, with a grand cycling around South-East Asia, fly back out again. Good food, good climate, cheap.
Alastair: Very nice. Finally, what are your next plans, and how can people follow you online?
Tom: My plan is to go back to Iran and do a different type of trip, not by bike this time, which I’m going to do next week. You can follow it by going to tomsbiketrip.com, even though it’s not a bike trip. A slightly mis-branding problem there. Yeah, tomsbiketrip.com.
Alastair: Thank you very much, Tom.
Tom recommends these books to read:
- Jupiter’s Travels
- The Long Way Round
- Moods of Future Joys
- Tim Moss’s book
My new book, Grand Adventures, is out now.
It’s designed to help you dream big, plan quick, then go explore.
The book contains interviews and expertise from around 100 adventurers, plus masses of great photos to get you excited.
I would be extremely grateful if you bought a copy here today!
Thank you so much!