Written by Laura Moss, bicycle adventurer
There is a man in India who can’t mend punctures. He doesn’t own a tent, roll mat or sleeping bag. Most of all, he has an impressive gut.
All these factors make him an unlikely candidate for a cycling expedition. The belly alone suggests he is more at home on a sofa than a saddle. The truth is, he has cycled thousands of miles across four continents.
“No fancy equipment? No problem. Don’t know your crank from your chainset? You’ll manage.”
He arrived in Australia, ready to cycle 1,000 miles, without owning a bicycle and unable to afford any model in the local bike shops. Eventually borrowing one from a friend, he made up for the lack of camping equipment during his journey by sleeping on picnic tables. When it rained, he slept under those tables. Faced with a puncture which he had no idea how to mend, he pushed his bike 100km to the next town. He fits his adventures around a full time, demanding job, while his bemused family shrug and enjoy the break from his eccentricities.
The reason for telling you about Hemant is to demonstrate exactly why cycle touring is open to everyone. No fancy equipment? No problem. Don’t know your crank from your chainset? You’ll manage. More fat than fit? Don’t worry, that will resolve itself once you set off.
When we were planning our bike ride round the world, we were plagued by fears. Crossing the Alps was my own particular nemesis, and I would wake up in a cold sweat having dreamed that my knees had popped out of their sockets or that my other half had left me for dead on the side of a Swiss mountain. For months before we left, I fretted that I didn’t know how to fix a broken spoke, whilst never actually getting round to learning the required technique. My aforementioned other half spent an entire year researching the perfect glove, footwear, camping mat, stove: anything that would help us cope with a Turkish winter. We spoke to dozens of people and read scores of blogs in order to plan a perfect route, aiming for the fine line between adventure and danger.
Ultimately, it was all in vain. Our route changed within weeks of setting off. My high tech gloves leaked, so I switched them for a pair of army surplus overmitts which I bought for a fiver from eBay. On the odd occasion we had a broken spoke (or worse, a split wheel rim), we carried on, cautiously riding to the next bike shop. The Alps, it turned out, were over within two weeks of leaving home, took two days to cross and we soon found ourselves crossing bigger and steeper mountains without even realising it.
Cycle touring isn’t difficult. If you can ride a bike for a day – even a couple of hours – you can cycle to a destination, sleep, and cycle again the next day. It’s this winning formula – what we refer to as ‘Cycle, Sleep, Repeat’ – which allows you to creep across the surface of a region, country or continent, powered by your own efforts. It is the log chopping of the expedition world: low tech, low skill and low glam, but immensely satisfying.
Cycle touring opens the world up in a way like no other: moving fast enough to cover reasonable distances but slow enough to take it all in, you end up seeing places and meeting people you would never otherwise have cause to. We feel priviliged to have had the sheer variety of experiences we were offered as we pedalled our way across the world, whether it was being scrubbed down by an old woman in a traditional Korean spa, visiting a sacred Iranian site (usually off limits to non-Muslims), or sharing a meal with Georgian nuns, hearing their stories about the Russian occupation of their town during the South Ossetian war.
My yearning for the open road is most acute when I reminisce about the places we slept, particularly those nights (and there were many) when we were taken in by local people. Being on a bike means you are vulnerable, and with that vulnerability comes a trust, borne of necessity, in innate human goodness. Throwing our defences down meant we were adopted by people the world over, from Albanian peasants to a Texan millionaire, via a Japanese tulip farmer with a penchant for Elton John. In almost 500 nights on the road, we didn’t have a single bad experience.
If this form of travel appeals to you, but you are daunted by the thought of the open road, don’t be. Learn what you can, buy whatever kit you can afford, but above all just think of Hemant. After staying with him in Jaipur, all my fears seemed inconsequential: at least I can fix a puncture.
Laura Moss cycled 13,000 miles around the world in 2013-4 with her husband, Tim. She organises the Cycle Touring Festival, a weekend of talks and workshops which aims to inspire and equip people to explore the world by bicycle. Read more about Laura and Tim’s journey here, and find out more about the here.