Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Coming Full Circle

Sunday 21st January, Sölden, Austria

I’m writing this, the final post from my round-the-world cycle ride, three months after I pedalled back into Brighton, where I started from. My last posts have covered periods of two to three months each. This one will cover just eighteen days. I didn’t mean to leave it so long, but in between trying to see as many long-missed friends as I could and taking a job working in a ski resort in Austria, I didn’t find the time to write. The memory of those eighteen days is long faded, but perhaps the long interval has left me at a better vantage point from which to take a longer view retrospective of the trip as a whole.

First I’ll relate what I can remember of those last eighteen days.

From New York, I flew to Dublin. I arrived in the evening and rode from the airport to a hostel in the middle of the city. Too tired to engage with the clientele, all I saw were the same Lonely Planet wielding, party-seeking walking clichés that are the mainstay of hostels the world over. Bragging about how inebriated they got last night or were hoping to get that night, oblivious to how it makes them seem more fool than cool. It’s quite in order to get intoxicated once in a while as a temporary respite from the drudgery of one’s shallow existence as a cog in the capitalist machine, or as an escape from some unjust pain that life eventually and inevitably compels you to endure, or simply “to relieve the pressures of everyday life, like having to tie your shoes”. However, when I see these youngsters travelling halfway around the world to somewhere they’ve never been before, somewhere that must be interesting to them because they’ve made all that effort to get there, somewhere they may never see again, and then they make their main priority getting drunk with other travellers; after which they traipse, half comatose around whatever ‘must-see’ attraction they’ve read about in their identikit guidebooks, it’s hard to make the effort to see their uniqueness. I really am getting too old for hostels.

It didn’t take long to ride out of the city and find myself on narrow winding roads in the famous Irish countryside. The smell of damp fallen leaves filled my nostrils with autumn. I barely remember anything of my few days in Ireland, but this one moment, a memory hung on a familiar smell, remains vivid in my mind.

I would have liked to have dallied in the Emerald Isle long enough for a circumnavigation, but I was now riding to a deadline and the forecast was rain for the next seven days. So I rode straight down the coast to Rosslare, from where I got a boat to Wales. It rained the whole way apart from a few hours one afternoon during which I snapped this photo while eating lunch and gazing east over the Irish sea towards home.




The rain continued for a while in Wales but didn’t detract from a bucolic sense of well-being that I had riding through Pembrokeshire and southern Wales.


Up and down along the Pembrokeshire coast

By chance, I rode past St David’s Cathedral. After an eight century long troubled history, it has recently been extensively restored. It would be well worth a detour for an anyone in the area, but having inadvertently stumbled across it, I was all the more beguiled by its grandeur.




I followed the coast for a while before cutting inland and skirting the picturesque Brecon Beacons national park. With more time I think I might have lingered there for a while and explored its interior. As with every country I’ve travelled through, whether for four days or four months, I left with a feeling of unfinished business and a desire to return.

I crossed over the Severn bridge back into England and made for Bristol. The area around Bristol and Bath has lots of canals and flat, quiet cycle paths that run along them. One night I had the pleasure of staying with round-Britain cyclist and author, Anna Hughes on her narrowboat. I also stayed a day and a night in Bristol with a dear friend from my uni days who I hadn’t seen for twenty years. The following night I stayed in Bath with friends from London and I think that was the first moment I felt like I was back. Home I realised, is defined as much by people as it is by place.




As it was on my way, I stopped off for half a day in Stone Henge. I’d not visited in many years. It’s a lot more commercialised than I remembered it, but still worth a walk and a ponder.

Around Winchester, I picked up the South Downs Way. I’d hoped to ride this all the way to Brighton. However, as much of it consists of dirt tracks across fields and it had been raining a lot, I found myself quickly bogged down in a muddy quagmire. The steep hills and lack of traction meant pushing my bike up and down long sections. It soon became clear there was no way I was going to make it in time at that rate. I had to drop off the South Downs way somewhere around Arundel. In better conditions, without time pressure and on a less heavily loaded bike, biking the whole 100 miles of The South Downs Way would make a gratifying ride. Here are some photos from the section that I did ride.














I finally rode back into Brighton around lunchtime and parked myself on the beach looking out towards the familiar blackened skeletal struts of the burnt down West Pier. I listened to the seagulls and the waves lapping at the stony shore and ate the last bit of cake from my panniers (apple and rhubarb, for the record).




After I’d had my fill of cake and seaside rumination, I wheeled my bike off the beach and rode it the short distance to the house where my friend Jez used to live, to the exact point where I started this trip two and half years prior. Although he no longer lived there, the porch, the door, the window blinds and the creeping vegetation around the ground floor window were all as they had been when I took my first few peddle strokes all that time ago.




I wondered if and how I might have changed. I knew objectively it must be a different person who stood there astride his bicycle that day, present-in-the-moment, without expectation, than the one who full of excitement, wanderlust and fantasy stood astride that same bicycle in that same spot two and half years ago. I couldn’t remember what it felt like to be me before the trip. Whatever change had occurred in me, had accrued gradually and imperceptibly.

There was no strong feeling of accomplishment. I hadn’t ridden around the world that day, I’d only ridden the short distance from wherever I’d camped the night before. The achievement, if that’s what it was, wasn’t something arrived at, but something grown.

Neither did the moment of completion turn out to be a handle on the experience. What I felt at the time, was the journey’s immediate slipping from my hand and its inevitable receding into history. It was already becoming less real at a rate proportional to the square of its distance from the present moment.

The journey hadn’t turned out to be the radical crucible of character that I had secretly hoped it might have been before it started. And yet, day by day, without trying to, I forged a faith in my own resourcefulness that I’d lacked before, simply from never having put it to the test.

By embracing the unknown I also developed an unexpected faith in opportunities and solutions to appear just when they are needed. I say unexpected because I have no reason to think that things should always work out. Rationally, I can see that it’s a matter of choosing one’s perspective after the fact so that whatever happened, seems like the best thing that could have happened. This, in combination with the expectation of nothing useful happening unless I bring it about by my own actions, lends an unexpected and extraordinary quality to arbitrary events. In the space between expectation and reality, magic happens.

This new found faith in things working out, liberated me to make ever more spontaneous decisions, to act in accordance with pleasing synchronicities and in so doing to imbue life with a poetic hue.

In between the green fields, farms and churches of Western Europe; the mountains, lakes and forests of Central Europe; the azure waters and medieval towns of the Dalmatian coast; the dry scrubby hills and rivers of the Balkans; the vineyards, orchards and mountain springs of Bulgaria; the cacophonous traffic and mellifluous muezzin in the minarets of Istanbul; the golden fields of the Anatolian plateau; the caves and spires of Cappadocia; the steep muddy dirt tracks of the Pontic Mountains; the kebabs and chai of the black sea littoral; the wine and chacha of Georgia; the monasteries and mountains of the Caucasus; the snows of Armenia; the ancient cities, deserts, mountains, mosques and overwhelming hospitality of Iran; the gleaming towers of Dubai; the camels and sands of the Arab Emirates; the forts, wadis and starry desert campsites of Oman; the temples and thalis, head waggles and saris, squalor and splendour, elephants and beggars, jungles, beaches, hippies, cows and rambunctious children of India; the pristine volcanoes and forests, the immaculate temples and gardens, the rejuvenating onsens and the exquisite women of Japan; the Australian outback; the Tasmanian hills; the Southern Alps, fjords, glaciers and gravel roads of New Zealand; the orcas and eagles of the San Juan Islands; the falls of Yosemite; the high desert and lonely roads of Nevada; the rivers and canyons of Utah; the geysers of Yellowstone; the rock formations of The Badlands; the vast prairies of Wyoming and Dakota; the lakes of Ontario and the Trans-Canadian trail; the Skyscrapers of Manhattan; the winding country lanes and pubs of Ireland; the green hills and valleys of Wales and the bridlepaths and byways of England; in between all these vistas, all the kind strangers and serendipitous encounters; in between the loneliness and the euphoria, the boredom and the exhilaration, the exhaustion and the elation, the disorientation and the discovery, the hunger and the feasting, the cold, the heat, the rain, the wind, the snow, the mud, the sand, the flies, the cockroaches, the dogs, the camels, the kangaroos and the wombats; the strangers and the friends and the strangers who became friends; in between all these things: all these things I saw, I heard, I felt on my face… I pedalled a quotidian poem and unwittingly accumulated an epic. I, a perforated epicycle, cycled full circle.

As I’ve been writing this, so many months after my life on a bicycle came to end, looking at the photos from that time, I already feel nostalgic for it. I doubt it will be my last bike trip. In fact, I’ve had several more brewing in the back of my mind for a while. The uncomplicated lifestyle, reduced to the essentials and the feeling of having time, the most precious thing any mortal has, is hard to shake once one has experienced it.

If I have some parting thoughts or lessons that I have learned from this trip, they would be these:

  • The world is safer than you think.
  • Most people are really nice.
  • You are more physically capable and mentally resilient than you think you are.
  • Travelling does not sate wanderlust, it stokes it.
  • Don’t be too shy or too proud to ask for help; nothing bad will happen and often wonderful things happen when you do.
  • If in doubt, say yes.
  • The standards of cleanliness and hygiene (as applied to both one’s person and to food) to which we are accustomed to in The West, are absolutely not necessary for health. I've never been so dirty and so healthy as I was on tour.
  • The wind will always feel more against you than behind you.
  • There is nothing more annoying than a fucking headwind.
  • There are places in the world so quiet that if you lie still enough you can hear your own heartbeat.
  • Not setting an alarm clock or knowing which day of the week it is, will hugely improve your physical and mental well-being.
  • So will living outdoors for any length of time.
  • Counterintuitively, the toughest days often make for the fondest memories and always for the best stories.
  • Anything is possible if you have enough cake.


Addendum: Stats

No final post from a round-the-world trip would be complete without a few stats, so here are mine.


Time & Distance
Total time 862 days
Time off the bike 346 days (40%)
Total distance 37,311km
Average km/day 43km
Average km/cycling day 73km
Shortest day 8km
Longest day 140km
Countries visited 25 (across 4 continents)

Costs
Average daily spend £25.27
Air/boat/train fares £3460.8
Medical Insurance £761.43
Visas £304.62
Replacement gear (stolen, lost or broken) £1335.06
Bike replacement parts and servicing £1659.34
Total Cost £28,397.24


Bike parts replaced or bought during the trip
  • loads of brake pads
  • several tires
  • several chains
  • 3 x Rohloff rear sprocket
  • 1 x chainring
  • headset
  • front light
  • rear light switch
  • electric cabling
  • 2 x USB-Werk, eventually swapped for Sinewave Revolution (for charging USB devices from hub dynamo)
  • brake cables and housing (front and rear)
  • gear cables and housing
  • Rohloff paper seal
  • bar ends
  • switched out seat post for Cane Creek Thudbuster
  • front rack 
  • side mirror (went through at least half a dozen of them)
  • bell
  • several bottle cages until I settled on BBB Fueltank XL (the only ones that have lasted)
  • AXA security cable (came apart in my hands one day, replaced with a light but long cable lock)
  • Hebie Chainglider gave out after around 12000km, didn’t bother replacing
  • Bike computer



A note on costs:

For anyone reading this and considering their own bike trip, I should say that mine, for several reasons, cost way above average. If you’d like to get a better idea of what long bike trips can and do cost, check out Tim Moss’s Database of Long Distance Cycle Journeys.

In my case, although I kept costs down by camping and cooking for myself, I did not deny myself touristy diversions or occasional morale-boosting treats. From visiting museums and galleries in cities, to doing bungee jumps, sky dives and kayaking in New Zealand, to sampling sumptuous sushi and saki in Japan, as well as wine tasting in just about every wine growing region I visited; I travelled cheap, but I didn’t skimp on paying for experiences that I thought I would value. I was lucky that I had the savings to do that. If money had been tighter and it had been a case of cutting my trip short if I overspent, I could easily have done the same trip for a lot less. When I needed to replace or add new gear on the journey, I generally bought the best kit I could find (because I appreciate well-made stuff, not because it was strictly necessary). Although I often serviced the bike myself, at times I also paid for work to be done that I could have done myself.

The vast majority of money spent on a bike trip is spent while in cities. I rarely paid for hotels (except for in India, where hotels are cheap and camping can be unpleasant). In cities I usually stayed for free with Warmshowers or Couchsurfing hosts, or occasionally I would stay in cheap hostels. Despite this, most of the things I found to do in cities cost a fair bit. Also, after long periods of privation in remote areas, the temptation to treat oneself in restaurants and go out drinking with one’s hosts or new found friends is hard to resist. So, my tip for bike touring on the cheap is to avoid cities or pass through them quickly if you need to. For me, on this trip, visiting some of the world’s most famous cities was always part of the plan so I did budget for that.

Outside of cities, I camped almost all of the time. Mostly free (wild) camping and occasionally at paid campsites too. I would stock up on food, usually a few days at a time, at shops or supermarkets in small towns or villages I passed through. While travelling like this one can easily survive on just a few dollars a day, even in so-called expensive countries.