“If you march your Winter Journeys you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin’s egg” - Cherry Apsley Garrard (‘The Worst Journey in the World’)
“the Journey is the reward” - Lao Tze
“Do you really think we just got off the banana boat?” said the latest letter. “Riding a BICYCLE round the WORLD?! If you want a bike why not get a job like everybody else. Nobody is going to fall for such a ridiculous suggestion.”
My search for sponsors to support my idea of cycling round the planet was not going well. Five years later it takes a lot of self-restraint not to tell you the name of the prominent British bike company who sent me this reply in response to my suggestion that a company linking its products to a journey across 5 continents would benefit in return. The urge now to turn up on their doorstep with a large bunch of bananas and a grin is strong. But I will not, partly because nobody really expected me to finish what I had started in reckless pub conversations and unrealistic daydreams in the dusty recesses of my mind back at university.
For the duration of my ride I carried with me a sentence torn from an email I received from a well-wisher at the beginning: “I will be stunned if you complete it,” he said. He was not the only one. The biggest doubter was me. From the moment I ‘left my front door and stepped into the road’ until, more than two years later, I sailed out of Colombia bound for Panama, I knew that my plan was beyond me. I KNEW that I would quit. It was simply a question of ‘when’. The gradual realisation then that I was actually going to accomplish my goal has been a constant source of surprise. I thought that it was impossible for me to achieve this.
But as Mohammed Ali said, with swagger, “Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.” I am stunned that I have completed it.
Now that I am back on ‘this sceptred isle set in the silver sea’ after a 1500 day sabbatical, I cannot help but think (like Cherry) “was I mad? What was the use…?” Before I began I had several motivations for wanting to attempt to ride round the world. I wonder now whether I accomplished those aims, what unpredicted benefits there were and what were the downsides of a project that has been my sole occupation for so long. What did I learn, and what lessons do I hope to take on from the ride into my future life, whatever that may hold?
I decided to begin as a quest for adventure (‘yes’- I got that), a desire to see the world (again, ‘yes’) and to escape mediocrity and England (‘yes’). (As Tim says in the TV show ‘The Office’: “It’s like an alarm clock’s gone off, and I’ve just got to get away. I think it was John Lennon who said: “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans”, and that’s how I feel. Although he also said: “I am the Walrus I am the eggman” so I don’t know what to believe.”) I longed to escape from routine (‘yes and no’: in many ways my life on the road has been so routine (‘new roads: new ruts’). Ironically I also found myself missing the ease of a regular, comforting routine), to find excitement (‘yes’) and to challenge myself (‘yes’). I was inspired to follow faintly in the bold footsteps of great men and women who had gone before me and told mighty tales in epic books. I wanted to see whether I could do anything remotely similar. I wanted to do something that I would certainly fail unless I poured everything I had into it- I wanted something difficult. And I got it: this is the hardest thing I have ever done: physically, emotionally and morally. As Lance Armstrong wrote, “It’s not about the bike. It’s a metaphor for life. It poses every conceivable element to the rider and more. During our lives we’re faced with so many elements as well, we experience so many setbacks, and fight such a hand-to-hand battle with failure, head down in the rain, just trying to stay upright and have a little hope.”
I wanted to try and forge for myself a career as a travel writer and speaker, as someone getting paid to travel, to write, to talk about his favourite subject (himself), and to avoid a 9-to-5 torture. Whether or not that will materialise I will discover over the next months as I sit down to test my brain and write the book of the journey. I am pretty disciplined now at making myself cycle all day long; whether I can make myself sit still and type so efficiently I rather doubt! Whether anyone will pay to endure my extreme version of ‘death by holiday snaps’ I am not sure about either.
Ironically in recent months I have even felt that I have at last cured my wanderlust. Perhaps I don’t even want to be a travel writer at all after so much travelling! Or perhaps a few months of computer screens and rainy days will have me stretching for the atlas and the panniers once again. I do not know. My imagined careers over the last few years have been so wide as to suggest that really I do not have a clue what I want to do next: being a writer, becoming a McDonalds ‘Employee of the Month’, the Foreign Office, working in a bookshop, the Foreign Legion, a teacher, charity work, a journalist, an Olympic curler, the Territorial Army and working in a coffee shop have all felt like serious options at various times…
Another motivating factor for the ride was as a way of combining my own personal ambitions and desires with the gnawing feeling inside of me that life in Britain is so staggeringly wealthy, inward-looking, fortunate and easy whereas the vast majority of humanity live lives that, frankly, suck, through little fault of their own.
I hoped that my ride could be a good medium for telling people at home about the realities of life as lived by most people on Earth, to serve as a wake-up-and-smell-our-lucky-coffee and to promote the work of ‘Hope and Homes for Children’ (www.hopeandhomes.org) who have been doing magnificent work for orphaned and abandoned children for a decade.
And in this I certainly succeeded in breaking my own personal little comfort bubble, having being forced to face the struggling masses and now unable to ignore these issues quite as guilt-free as I used to do. Whether or not I have made any impression on anybody else is not really important to me any more. For I no longer think my ways superior to another’s and do not venture to judge. I try to see things with fresh and open eyes, to praise when I can and to be silent when I can’t. We make our own choices. But I do also love Jesse Jackson’s fiery speech “if, in my high moments, I have done some good, offered some service, shed some light, healed some wounds, rekindled some hope, or stirred someone from apathy and indifference, or in any way along the way helped somebody, then this campaign has not been in vain..”
I over-estimated the physical side of the expedition. Over such long periods of time my body had time to rise to the challenges of whatever fitness levels were required of me. It has been a real thrill to become so fit. To be able to ride 100 miles a day, spending 8 hours in the saddle on a very heavy bike over demanding terrain and to wake the next morning and do it again, and again, and again is a feeling I am very grateful for. We greatly under-estimate our bodies. So many people say to me “I could never ride that far”. For most people that is nonsense. I am no genetic-freak Lance Armstrong superstar, I was never in any good sports teams at school, I realised sadly young that I was never going to play for Leeds United and in Los Angeles I nearly lost an arm wrestle to a 50 year old woman. But now I ride more hours a day than Armstrong (so I can eat as much food as I want and I will not get fat) and I can sing very loudly as I ride easily up Alpine mountain passes. I feel tired but satisfied at day’s end. It feels good. I hope not to relapse into the sedentary life of our rich world where even children do virtually no exercise, we drive everywhere, eat crap food, stay indoors and forget that doing exercise is something that actually makes you feel good, not bad.
But if I over-estimated the physical aspect, I also under-estimated the mental challenges. Being away from friends and family has helped me to appreciate their true importance. Leaving my girlfriend, Sarah, made the journey so much more difficult and made me question, on innumerable occasions, what on earth I was doing. Being alone for so long (great adventures or not) made me realise that there is even more to life than seeing spectacular places, being carefree and wild, facing fresh challenges and new experiences. I realised that what I really want to do is to share these things with somebody else.
Being alone means you are completely reliant on yourself for motivation. Nobody is checking up on you, nobody praises you if you ride an extra long day, nobody gets mad if you slack off and camp at 6 o’clock, nobody knows (or cares) if you take a bus, nobody raises an eyebrow if you take an easy option, or if you spend frivolously your too-few funds, or if you avoid a challenge that frightens you or if you walk over a mountain pass you could have ridden. Nobody gives a damn. Nobody except you. I realise now the importance of self-respect for how happy you feel within yourself. I realise how tempting it is to take the easy option.
On your own you stand or fall by your own efforts or shortcomings. I have harboured horrible thoughts and resentments that disgust me to think back on, but when you are alone you cannot blame these on anyone but yourself. Without the comforting option of being able to pass the buck you are really forced to face your demons on the bike. Trying to persuade myself not to quit, to keep going, not to take the easy options has been the single hardest aspect of this ride. But it makes the end product sweeter. It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun.
I believe that we underestimate our capabilities. Too often we strive for and achieve only that which we believe we can achieve. We should aim so much higher. Aim for the sun- you won’t hit it, but you’ll get pretty high. We settle for too few accomplishments and we are not satisfied with what we have. That is the wrong way round. We sink too often into pointless retrospective regrets of “would have, could have, should have” about our lives. But, like Frank Sinatra I must say “Regrets? I’ve had a few.” I regret wallowing too often in self-pity. I regret how the sheer scale of the solitary ride often overwhelmed me and left me wishing the road away, dreaming of the end. I regret that I was not allowed into Iran (or DR Congo or Angola), but I look forward to visiting there in the future (inshallah). I have been disappointed in my efforts to raise publicity for ‘Hope and Homes for Children’.
But above these small regrets is the reassuring notion that I will never regret that I began this ride. ‘I took risks, I knew I took them; things came out for me, and therefore I have no cause for complaint’ is what I wish RF Scott could have written.
This journey was a wonderful learning experience for me, not only because I had hours free each day in which to read, read, read. Talking with people of every race, religion, political view and wealth level has also been eye-opening and helped widen my horizons. From having to make countless snap judgements on who to trust or not to trust I saw that first impressions can be misleading, but usually they are not. I have been helped by so many strangers, many of whom have become friends and inspirations and without whom I would never have succeeded. (I never learned the difference between ‘who’ or ‘whom’ however).
I have become convinced of an essential goodness to the human race (tainted of course with bad parts to everyone, and a tiny news-grabbing minority of evil, desperation and lunacy). Almost everybody in the world has treated me well. Nobody ever refused me water. I was only refused permission to camp twice (both in Europe). Everywhere else in the world I was given at least a safe place to camp, and often a bed, shower, feast and unexpected adventures and friendships. Everybody in the world laughs at funny things. Everybody has hopes and dreams and loves. Don’t believe what you see on the TV: the world really is a good place.
Putting the world to rights is one of the great privileges of the solo cyclist with too much time and silence on his hands. So what issues have I highlighted to be solved with a single swipe of my mighty sword when I become master of the universe? ‘Travel is fatal to bigotry, prejudice and hatred’: I would make everybody ride a bike for 6 months through the country of the people they think they hate and have insoluble differences with. That would cure them.
I am frightened by the Public Relations disaster that America is currently engaged in. Every day more and more people are turning to hate the USA, one of my very favourite countries. The arrogance of its regime (and her lapdogs) and the myopia of its supporters puts global stability ever more at risk. It is not a good idea to try and destroy a wasp’s nest with a baseball bat. On the other side of this clash, I believe that the massive majority of good Muslims around the world need to take a loud, proud, powerful stand against the evil few who are hijacking their faith to use it as a growing instrument of irrational hatred.
Clean water, a basic right and necessity, is becoming ever scarcer because of uncontrolled industrialisation and population increase. We are ignoring our environment to our own peril. If we keep burying our heads in the sand there will eventually be no nice beaches left to head-bury on. We must stop ignoring the issues of pollution, waste disposal, environmental destruction and toxic emissions. Which brings me on to cars- one of my biggest enemies! Never mind the pollution, overcrowding, congestion, road rage, stress, expense and slothfulness linked with cars: I hate them because of the morons (read ‘young men’) who drive like lunatics leaving swathes of slaughter in their wake. After four years spent at 10mph within inches of racing tonnes of metal, cars scare the hell out of me! Riding a bike is so much cheaper, healthier, greener, more fun and often faster.
I wish we would stop tolerating the unfulfilled promises our governments make about doing something to redress the cruel imbalances in the world. Half the children on earth still live in poverty. At the same time I wish the developing world would act more themselves to squash the corruption, incompetence and infighting that hampers so many development efforts. Finally, universal primary education, empowerment of women, health and birth control education, micro-credit for the establishment of small businesses and expansion of public transport networks are also some of my favourite inexpensive sustainable development aims.
What am I looking forward to in the future? Well I have not yet figured out what my New Year’s Resolution will be. But I have had so much time to dream of what I would do when I got home again. I certainly daydreamed about this far more than was constructive during my ride. It is nice now to have the chance to put them i
nto practice. Not surprisingly perhaps, I do not drool particularly much about the English food that I have been missing, though I look forward to ice cream, beans on toast, curry, fish fingers, and Marmite and I shall certainly be spending my first paycheque on an espresso machine. I am looking forward too to having a pay cheque! Living on such a tight budget that buying a coke or a chocolate bar was a big deal is wearing and stressful. I am not bothered about having loads of money (which is lucky given my likely careers!), but I do want some money.
I dream of long runs in the hills, of fierce and muddy football matches and patrolling the covers on a summer’s cricket match. I have really missed team sports for the camaraderie and communal effort. I eagerly await Leeds United’s return to where we belong. I am looking forward to “Match of the Day”. I look forward to spending time with friends, to no longer be living out of four small, smelly bags and to spend far too much time and money in bookshops. I look forward to sleeping in the same place two nights in a row and knowing where to find the glasses in the kitchen. I am really excited to explore and discover London, about which I know far less than many other far-flung cities. I want to spend lazy Sunday mornings drinking coffee and reading newspapers.
Travel does not yet feature in my daydreams. Perhaps this is not surprising. And there is still so, so much of the world that I have not yet tasted. A great deal of what happens next depends on how my book writing and slideshows go- whether I can find a publisher, whether anybody buys the book, whether anybody will invite me to give talks and slideshows. If so, perhaps I can make a career as a writer and keep close to development issues through that. I certainly want to live overseas and would love to work in a second language: most likely Spanish. I want to do an Ironman and various other silly things like that. And of course I still need to cycle to the South Pole.
Finally, I have had much time to read and reflect on all those books and adventurers who inspired me and who continue to dazzle. I tried to find common threads to them, defining traits that I could borrow to help me along my own road. Certainly they must be “tough enough to fight, tender enough to cry, human enough to make mistakes, humble enough to admit them, strong enough to absorb the pain, and resilient enough to bounce back and keep on moving”.
The ideal person for undertaking a great and difficult journey (and sadly I know now that I am far from ideal for this) would be one, I believe, who could leap (or at least climb over) the hurdles laid down by Kipling’s “If”, whilst bearing in mind also the finest travel advice I know: the words of Ben Okri’s poem ‘To an English Friend in Africa’.