I wanted to chat to Joff Summerfield who is currently on his second lap of the planet on his penny farthing. But he’s a hard man to pin down to something boring like a computer and a schedule, so instead I sent him 10 quick questions about his adventures.
In what way does this journey feel different to your last? I’m interested in the difference that novice travellers feel to experienced ones
The journey feels different from my last because I’ve started by crossing the US and not Europe. The culture is more familiar, and I can communicate with ease. The physical challenges are still the same, the wind blows just as strong, and the mountains are just as hard to climb. The practicalities of life on the road are so much easier when you can speak the language. I do crave the difficulties involved in countries where it is more challenging to communicate, and I’m looking forward to the next month or so for that to come a reality.
In 2001, when you set off to ride round the world, you failed on the very first day! What would you say to people who don’t begin difficult things because they are scared of failing?
Failing is all part of life, and that includes adventure travel. On my first round the world attempt when I had to come back on the first day, it was a huge anticlimax. My problem was a physical one with my knees, but with hindsight I’m glad it happened because it made me all the more determined to try again.
For adventure travel you need that determination, it’s character building, and when your character’s tested you have these experiences to fall back on to help you on your way.
Do you like cycling? I ask this because I only cycled round the world as a way to see the world, rathe than in order to spend a lot of time riding a bike.
I don’t have a long history of cycling. I of course cycled as a kid, but then didn’t touch a bicycle until I was an adult. My first bicycle tour was a way of having a cheap holiday when I first became self-employed. Setting out, I didn’t realise that I was going to have the epiphany which sent me on the path to my current lifestyle.
I hugely enjoyed that holiday, and it showed me the way I was going to see the world, on a bicycle.
You say that you don’t really know where you will go after South America. Many people would be daunted about heading out into the world without a fixed plan. Why / how have you done this?
I have now almost finished crossing the US, and within the next month will be crossing into Mexico. The long-term plan is to head all the way down to the bottom of South America. After this I have a few ideas, and interesting countries I would love to visit, but it’s just too far ahead to think about. I’m guessing it will take me at least a year to get to the bottom of South America, and there is so much to think about just in that stretch that thinking further ahead is too overwhelming. There are also so many different political and environmental situations which can make countries harder, or easier to cross that the making of any hard and fast decisions now is impossible.
What are the biggest differences you’ve seen on a long-distance ride compared to how your preconceptions were about how it might be?
Before I started making the longer journeys I did always wonder how I was going to be received by people. If you watch the news you will never leave your house, as news is always bad news it seems. Although I do have a great faith in humanity, you can’t help but be influenced by the surrounding media. When first setting out I did wonder if all the bicycle travel books I had read were true, and are people that kind. Well, it turns out the people of the world no matter which colour, race or creed, religion or beliefs are wonderful. As someone travelling on a bicycle, people see you as being vulnerable, and are always willing to be friendly and help you out.
I love your phrase that being on a bike makes you “instantly innocent”. Can you give an example of how you have been received out on your bonkers bike?
The bicycle I’m sure does indeed make you instantly innocent. Everyone across the world rides bicycles, be they rich or poor, it’s a universal connection between us all. When people see you arrive, road worn and dusty with that cyclists grin on your face they cannot help but smile back.
On one occasion in China I was getting a bit peckish so stopped in a small rural village to get something to eat. There was a crude restaurant by the roadside and as they didn’t have any windows I pushed the bike inside so I could keep an eye on it. The owners were startled at my sudden arrival, especially since I just stepped inside with a Penny farthing wearing a colonial pith helmet. But bless them, they made me some noodle soup, and gave me hot water to drink from a jam jar.
The meal was lovely, and the people inquisitive and friendly. I’m not sure if my bicycle or my round eyes, big nose, and hairy arms caused more surprise among my hosts. But when I came to leave and made the universal gesture of “how much” they did seem a bit puzzled. It was then that I took a second look of the small room. As my eyes panned the scene, it slowly started to dawn on me that this wasn’t a restaurant at all, it was in fact someone’s home!
These lovely people had just fed and watered me, after I unceremoniously had stepped straight into their living room with my bicycle. I’m sure though it was the bicycle that made me innocent and sparked them into being so obliging.
Do you like being the centre of attention (which I presume you always are on your bike)?
Touring on a Penny farthing does create much interest from the locals. The way I look at it is that it gives the perfect introduction for me to meet and make new friends. If someone pulls over to take a picture I will always try and stop and have a chat because that’s what travelling is all about, engaging with your surroundings and the people.
You said that you wanted to make “the silliest bike you could think of”. Why did a normal bike to ride round the world not appeal to you?
My reason for using a Penny farthing for touring the world is twofold. The first is that I’m British, eccentric, and proud. The second is that deep within me there is a huge need to be different. The appeal of being different is what makes me tick, in fact, it’s the essence of my being.
When I decided to cycle round the world, and thought of a Penny, it felt so tempting the die was cast, and at that moment there was no turning back. Once my researches began for making the bicycle, I discovered the story of Thomas Stevens. Between 1884 and 1887 Thomas was the first person ever to cycle around the world. And yes, he did it on a Penny farthing. Nobody had done it since, which made the challenge all the more fascinating.
Why did you feel the urge to do a second big trip: you’ve already ridden round the world once?
On my return I felt hugely tired, and the thought of heading out again to see more of the world on the Penny wasn’t high on my list of priorities. The challenges of life changed, and I had to earn a living and become normal again.
As the years passed, I pined for my old way of life, the endless stimulation of being out there in the world. After five years I got to the point where business was good and I was comfortable and enjoying where I was living. In the back of my mind there was that voice calling me back to where I know I am most happy, the road. My bicycle is like a wife, we go everywhere together, so I knew it was time to once more leave the comforts behind and set out for the world.
If I gave you £1000 what adventures would you go and do?
If I were given £1000 for an adventure I would like to take someone who has never experienced this lifestyle out there into the world. To show them that they can travel great distances by their own power, and to give them the insight into how wonderful and safe the world is.
You can follow Joff’s adventures here.
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!