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In praise of the bicycle

Ladies and Gentlemen of the class of 2011, if I could offer you only one tip for the future, travelling by bicycle would be it. Cycling is the best way to experience a country and a culture. I am well aware that I am biased: I have spent five years of my life cycling through over 60 countries on five continents. I have a passion for travel and adventure. And I have a real passion for encouraging people to try travelling by bike. Consider then these advantages that bike journeys have over conventional backpacking adventures:

  • Cycling is cheap, as cheap as you want it to be! Once, riding through Argentina, I met a French backpacker. As we chatted he became envious of my experiences. So I persuaded him to buy a cheap bike and a tent in the local market. And then we set off on a very spontaneous adventure together. We rode to Bolivia. Fabien calculated that, just two weeks after buying the bike and tent, he was already saving money compared to using buses and budget accommodation. If you cycle and camp then you remove the two biggest backpacking expenses: transport and accommodation.
  • Don’t you hate it when the train you are travelling on passes through stunning scenery and all you can do is watch it whizz by through the window? On a bike you are living, breathing, hearing and smelling every mile of countryside. Yes, you will be moving slowly, but that becomes a joy in itself: the journey is the reward. Your trip becomes more than just ticking off a list of must-see sights. It’s the places in between that forge the strongest memories.
  • Tourist hotspots often attract con-men, pickpockets, touts, or just inflated prices. Get off the beaten track and people stop treating you as a tourist. People are curious about who you are and where you are from, and they usually want to show off their country in the best possible light. Arrive in a village in the middle of nowhere by bicycle, and the effect is magnified! People may laugh at you and think you are mad, but they will be curious, amused, impressed, fascinated, and eager to welcome you. The kindness I received on my bike journeys was amazing and humbling, whether that was in Azerbaijan, Belgium and Chile, or Xinijiang, Yugoslavia or Zimbabwe.
  • You will get fitter than you have ever been and more tanned than you can imagine. The breeze on your face and the freedom of the road are so much nicer than being squashed on a bus playing loud kung-fu movies in a language you cannot understand.
  • Cycling round the world is so much better for the environment than a round the world air ticket.
  • Journeys by bike are more unusual, exciting, rewarding, challenging and fun than backpacking trips.

I’m going to finish by countering your immediate reasons why you’re going to say that travelling by bicycle is not for you:

  1. “I’m not fit enough and it sounds like hard work…” Start slowly – you are not racing anybody, and within a week or so you will feel yourself becoming so much stronger. And use this excuse as a reason to stop frequently to explore villages or chat to farmers in the fields. The slower you travel, the more memorable the experience. There’s no hurry.
  2. “It’s dangerous (especially alone or for females)…” There is a small risk to all of our travels. On a bike the biggest danger is from traffic, but I feel safer on my bike than I do in many of the world’s crazy, high speed, ramshackle buses with loud horns and dodgy brakes (you know the ones I’m talking about!). In terms of risk from other people, my experience is that 99% of the time you are treated better and more warmly when cycling than when backpacking. Females worrying about the dangers of travelling by bike should read the books of Anne Mustoe, Josie Dew, Dervla Murphy et al.
  3. “I hate camping…” Then consider riding in countries where you can easily reach a town to stay in each evening. Or look at a company such as Cycling for Softies (http://www.cycling-for-softies.co.uk) to ease you towards a more challenging journey.
  4. “I can’t mend a puncture…” Nor could Anne Mustoe, and she cycled all the way round the world twice! Bicycles, and bicycle repair stalls can be found in nearly every village in most parts of the world – you are never too far from someone who can fix your bike for you.
So, are you tempted to explore the world on a bicycle? I urge you to consider cycling even for a small part of your next adventure. If not, let me know why in the comments. If you are keen, feel free to ask post any questions you may have in the comments section and I’ll do my best to answer them for you.
But trust me on the bicycle…
This piece first appeared in Wanderlust.
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Comments

  1. Nice interpretation of the sunscreen song 😀

    Reply
  2. Just come back from three weeks riding 1,300 miles from Bilbao back to England. I found these things also;

    – As well as getting fitter, you’ll shed so much weight – even if you are eating like a monster.
    – You’ll realise how few clothes and possessions you need to function. Further, you’ll feel invigorated having been removed from laptops and phones for a little while.
    – You’ll sleep great, after a long day riding.
    – It might renew a sense of spirit in others; getting lunch bought for you, offering help, water, etc.
    – You’ll have time to collect your thoughts whilst traveling to that relaxing destination, where you intended to relax, chill and collect your thoughts anyway.
    – You never get stuck in traffic jams entering exciting cities.
    – You get excited about wanting to set off a speed camera, and race down the hills as fast as you can.

    Thanks for the inspiration in getting me on a bike tour.

    Reply
  3. You make a very compelling case. I would add, I find renting a car and navigating a strange city and its traffic rather stressful. Also, when not on vacation I ride my bike every day, and missing days while traveling causes me to feel not-right. I would love, therefore, to include more cycling into my vacation time. Which is currently too time-constrained to ride around the world, though. I also have a family to vacation with, which limits my ability to strike out on spontaneous rides to Bolivia. However, a semi-planned family ride along a new river trail would also be a kind of adventure.

    Reply
    • Read Jim’s comment above to add to the compelling case…
      If you live in Europe you should try the Danube cycle path – very well organised and family-friendly.

      Reply
  4. Just do it….

    🙂

    Reply
  5. I couldn’t agree more with this article Al. I’ve just done a 2 and a half week tour of Britain, 1500 miles in total. It was the most amazing way to see all the nooks and crannys of Britain I didn’t know about! I will be doing as much of this kind of thing as I can from now on 🙂

    Would love to a trip round the world, or across a few continents one day!

    Reply
  6. Two years ago I never exercised and smoked over 10 cigarettes a day. Then I found the bicycle (or was it the bicycle that found me?) and it changed my life.

    I love commuting to work and back. In the morning, it wakes me up and I arrive at work full of energy whilst all my colleagues are drowning their sleepy faces into their coffee. And in the evening, it allows me a time to peacefully think about the day that has been. It evacuates the stress, helps me solve some of the problems that I couldn’t figure out in the hustle and bustle of the daily routine (I work in a kindergarten with 3 to 7 year olds) and once I get home I no longer think about work so can enjoy real “me-time”.

    And then last June I decided to have my first taste of bike travel. I rode from my home in Helsinki (Finland) to Finnish Lapland, for a friend’s wedding. That’s about 1,000 km. I loved it, and this is why:

    -You settle into a routine where your daily choices are: when do I get up? What road do I ride? Where, when and what do I eat? And sleep? This is lovely and simple and makes things so much simpler than everyday life. Hence I really felt on holiday, detached from home.

    -You can sing to yourself loudly!

    -You meet extraordinary people. On my trip, I met a guy walking the length of Sweden (2,500 km) alone. When I asked him what his motivation was he answered: “I was a lazy kinda guy. I watched too much TV. I wanted something different”. Well fair-play mate, that is different!

    -You spend so much time looking at maps and imagining what places, roads, hills might be like. They’re often nothing like you had guessed! I loved “turning maps into reality”.

    -All the previously mentioned reasons in the blog and comments.

    The hardest thing really is making the first step and leaving. Once you’re there, you’ll love it! In fact my girlfriend got quite jealous of my experience and now we are planning to do around 1,000 km worth of Danube next summer. Any stretch you’d particularly recommend Alistair?

    Reply
  7. Okay, you’ve inspired me! I just came back from a trip to Southeast Asia, and many times I would look out the bus window and wish I could stop at some cool little village or just enjoy the scenery. I got a little taste of this when I spent a week biking through the ruins at Angkor, and absolutely loved the freedom. I think my next trip is going to be a cycling trip! Any suggestions (or previous posts) about how to plan the logistics of the trip?

    Reply
  8. Yeah I could definitely do with some of your infinite wisdom on this Al. I bought a Surly Long Haul Trucker on the Cycle2Work scheme they have in the UK, knowing that if I get a decent bike I will feel obliged to make a big long distance trip happen. I have next August to November to get some serious travelling under my belt before starting a job in NZ. On your 4 year jaunt what parts of the world were the best by bike? I am pretty new to the pedals so somewhere preferably flat (!) and with a bountiful supply of bike repair shops for 700cc wheels.

    To add to the praise cycling really helps you to discover the undiscovered. it is so easy backpacking solo to get drawn into the standard stop-offs on a travelling trail and not break away from the well trodden path with the security blanket of other backpackers and the convenience of tourist buses. Cycling I’m hoping will give me the spur to break away more and find those places inbetween.

    Reply
  9. Cycling sets you apart from other travellers. You earn respect for the physical effort you are making. You are more approachable and you sense more on a bicycle. You smell the sweet and the horrible. You hear the more.

    What I really like is the time you get to just ponder about things when you are cycling along!

    Reply
  10. A timely post Al, as I’m about to set off on a my first little ride encouraged by your and Mark B’s books, as well as the plethora of long distance cycling travel blogs that you discover once you start looking. Leaving south London, heading down the Rhine and then taking some off road routes across the Black Forest and around Switzerland. I have 2 months for now and have a feeling it will be the start of many more. Cheers for the inspiration.
    http://uninspiredramblings.wordpress.com/

    Reply
  11. A timely post… I’m about to set off on my first short bike trip, leaving south London, heading down the Rhine and then taking some mountain bike routes through the Black Forest and around Switzerland, ending up at a friends place in St Gallen. The bike is in the kitchen waiting to be packed. Slightly nervous about some of the logistics, my legs and the off road routes on a loaded bike but am sure that will disappear on about day 2… Hopefully the first of many. Have been hugely encouraged by your and Mark B’s books. Keep it up!

    Reply
  12. Rob Bough Posted

    I agree with all of your points Al, these days my cycling is limited due to my knees being knackered so I tend to go backpacking but hire bikes for short rides along the way.
    I have so many great memories of my cycling tours, getting off the beaten track to places you’ll never find in Lonely Planet, you see so much more on a bicycle than just staring out of a bus window, and you’re right you do get treated better by the locals, I hired a bike on Bali, went to a resteraunt where I was fed at a much cheaper price than a coach party who turned up just afterwards.
    You can’t beat the freedom of cycling, stopping where you want, eating when and where you want rather than being limited to where the buses and trains go. On top of that it’s good for the environment and good for your health, so if anyone is in 2 minds about a cycling tour, just go for it, you’ll love it!

    Reply
  13. Al – That’s it, I’m off!

    I bought a bike two weeks ago and I’m hooked. Currently now planning to cycle the west coast of South America next summer. Don’t care how long it takes to finish, I can’t wait!

    Have you got any tips on living cheaply (aside from camping)? I’d love to do the full Alaska to Ushuaia trip (or even a full world tour) but I don’t think I’ll be able to save up enough before the departure date.

    Cheers for the inspiration!

    Reply
    • Having read the list of things you’ve decided to do and then not completed I’ll believe this when I see it! 😉

      Seriously though – all the best of luck.

      Google:
      Couchsurfing
      Casa de ciclistas
      and the Warm Shower List.

      Those things combined with wild camping and a ruthless ascetism (aka ramen noodles and bread) will get you through the Americas pretty cheaply.

      Throw in a bit of Mark Beaumont super-speed style and you can nail this thing in however long you have money available for…

      Suerte!
      Buen Viaje…

      Reply
      • Thanks – on it.

        Well you’ve hit the nail on the head. There’s no turning back once I’ve told everyone I know (and those I don’t yet) and the idea reaches the point where turning back would lead to eternal ridicule. Bring it on.

        Reply
  14. I read your two first books 2 years ago and have been all round the south east UK. I have just completed my first big tour ( big for me ) riding the Camino de Santiago in May starting in Chartres France, all the way to Santiago and back up to Oviedo in northern Spain where i collapsed from the hills and got the train to the ferry. 5 weeks of bliss and views to die for. I have also just bought a front bag for my Bromton and started using it to go to Sainsbury’s.

    Reply
  15. I like this. I moved to a new city, ditched my car and took my bike out of cobwebs. For a long time I stared at it sitting on my porch. Then I decided to ride it one day to a farmers market, only about 2 miles, but I was feeling it at the end. Slowly as the weeks past, I began riding one, two then three days a week. It really only took about a week or so for me to feel a noticeable difference in my stamina and I really began to enjoy it. Unfortunately, I recently tore my Achilles (not biking), but once I am able to start moving about again, I think getting on my bike will be a great way to exercise without putting too much stress on the injury. I would love to be able to do a bit of biking through the small towns of Vermont or western Massachusetts, there areas I live. Thanks for giving me something to look forward to!

    Reply
  16. Cycling is too fast for me… I think walking is the best way to experience the world. I find that on a bicycle I pass by things too quickly and I don’t really soak it all in. For me the only way I really feel I’ve immersed myself in a place is if I’ve walked through it.

    Reply
  17. Freya Van Hove Posted

    If I go backpacking, I normally don’t use any busses or trains either, nor do I use hostels – I just walk and use a bivvy (and a tarp). Therefore traveling by bike wouldn’t be cheaper for me; I’m already traveling in the cheapest possible way. However, I very much like how you can take on longer distances and are indeed not that hesitant to go off the beaten track or try a random road. But traveling by bike also implies you have to take care of your bike. And you can’t take it with you everywhere you might want to go (swampy terrain, very sandy terrain, steep and rocky mountains, through some thick vegetation, museums & weddings,…) which means you’ll have to restrain yourself to do some further exploring, or find a place where you can leave it safely, and later get back to it. You can’t just leave it behind, which make you less free – yet independence is most important to me. Finding a safe spot to leave your bike for a while won’t be a problem most of the time, but sometimes it will. But anyway, once you’ve found such a spot, you may not want to leave all your luggage on your bike (if there are people around). But you can’t take all that stuff with you on your back – unless you’re traveling with a minimum of luggage, which would undermine an otherwise big advantage of the bike: that you can take more stuff & supplies with you. These are some thoughts and doubts I’m having, I’m hoping you can convince me otherwise – because I see a lot of advantages and opportunities as well 🙂

    Reply
    • Nicolas Posted

      The Fairy Queen:

      Let Noise and Care,
      Doubt and Despair,
      Envy and Spight,
      (The Fiends delight)
      Be ever Banish’d hence,
      Let soft Repose,
      Her Eye-lids close;
      And murmuring Streams,
      Bring pleasing Dreams;
      Let nothing stay to give offence

      Reply

 
 

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