Over the years, as we’ve prepared for our tour, we’ve followed a number of cyclists who were already out there experiencing the world from the seat of a bicycle. Anxiously following their adventures online, their blogs provided inspirational fodder for our dreams. Although we hadn’t met a single one of these cyclists personally, we felt intricately connected to them somehow, and were moved by their online reflections, their struggles, and their triumphs.
We recently contacted some of these folks, to find out what motivated them to pursue long term travel, what challenges they faced, both in preparing for their trips and while on the road, and what advice they would offer others dreaming of traveling. Thus begins our “Cycling Shorts” – a series of short Q & A sessions with cyclists who are traveling or have traveled the world by bicycle. The answers we received in response to our questions were as varied and unique as the travelers themselves, but each of them offers us a glimpse of what it means to respond to the call of the open road.
Our first Q & A is with Tom Allen, whom we first discovered via the Ride Earth project, a global expedition that began in 2007 “with the aim of promoting cycling as a viable mode of transport and discovering the world through responsible, open-minded travel”. That project came to a close at the end of 2010 and now Tom is working on writing a book and making a documentary. You can follow his current adventures at his website, Tom’s Bike Trip.
Tom began adventure cycle touring in 2007. After his first rite-of-passage ride across Europe to Turkey, he fetched up in Armenia, staying 9 months. He rode south through the Middle East and north-east Africa as far as Djibouti, then headed across Arabia and Iran and back to Armenia to live and marry the girl he’d met there previously (everybody say “aah!”). A few months later he travelled overland to cycle off-road in Mongolia, and recently finished travelling back through Europe to the UK with his wife, returning home on his bike 3 and a half years after he originally left.
Why did you decide to travel full time? What did you want to accomplish by travelling?
I had been a graduate for two years, working from home as a freelancer. I desperately needed to get away from the UK and see something of what the world had to offer, but I hated the idea of backpacking and being reliant on public transport and hostels. So, essentially, I had no choice but to jack the whole lot in and get on a bicycle.
How long did it take you to plan for long term travelling?
I spent about a year planning my equipment in my spare time – typical materialist – and barely paid lip service to the route. Luckily I discovered that you don’t really need to know where you’re going when you’re self-sufficient enough to go pretty much anywhere.
What was the number one personal fear you had about taking the leap and realizing your dream of full time travel?
I was terrified I would injure myself or have forgotten something really important, and that I’d have to return home and face the mocking music. I did in fact hurt my knee on a couple of occasions, due to problems with my bike sizing and SPD pedals, but I took it as an opportunity to rest up somewhere interesting for a couple of weeks when it happened.
What was the number one obstacle you had to overcome to be able to start off on your adventure?
I had decided a long time before that I was going to do it, so there was little doubt that I would actually set off when the time came. But if I hadn’t made such a song and dance about it and told everyone and thrown a big leaving party, I may not have got that far. It’s often said, but leaving is the most difficult bit. Leaving and not looking back.
Describe a moment or experience on your trip where you felt high/alive/fully human.
The lifestyle is characterised so much by emotional peaks and troughs that it’s difficult to pin down one epiphany out of so many! But if I had to, I would say that the experience of lying down amongst the towering sand dunes of Arabia’s Empty Quarter, knowing that it was my last night in the desert before Dubai, and reflecting on the half-year of pedalling that had brought me there via Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti from far-off Turkey, was one of these prized experiences.
Describe a moment or experience on your trip where you felt low/tired/pathetically human.
The first night in the Nubian desert after arriving in Sudan. I had no map, guidebook, GPS or sunscreen. All the hope I had that I was following the correct track lay in a small compass I’d found in a toy shop in Aswan. There would be no settlements I knew of for some days. I realised that I was far away from civilization and getting through this hostile place was entirely up to me. The responsibility and sudden lack of choice – pedal or fail – was a shock.
How did your experiences on the road change who you are?
I don’t think much has changed in my personality, more my frame of reference for dealing with life. I think I have a better grip on what constitutes a real risk and what just looks like one, on how little someone can live on and be content, on what truly brings happiness no matter what our circumstances or in what country we were born, on the context in which news stories about international affairs should be put – things like that. But I don’t think I’ve changed much in character. I think I might have become a bit less arrogant.
What assumptions or preconceptions did you have before leaving that were changed by travelling?
I had all of the usual romantic images of particular nations that we develop while we’re growing up. Needless to say they were blown away pretty soon! I also assumed a lot of things about what exactly cycle-touring as a lifestyle would really be like, and what the journey would eventually mean and represent to me personally. Again, I was proven very very wrong.
Has your relationship to material things/possessions changed by your travelling with only what you can carry on your bicycle?
I would say that my suspicions were confirmed regarding material things – that the necessities of life really do boil down to food, water, shelter and not a lot else. Everything else, material or philosophical, is optional. So if you have the aforementioned necessities, you’ve theoretically got a huge amount of room for inventiveness and expression in life. It annoys me to see so much mediocrity and complacency in the developed world, when the potential is so vast for what individuals and society could achieve, could we only see how lucky we actually are.
Other than “just do it”, what one bit of practical advice would you offer to someone who is dreaming of touring/travelling?
Take time out from the road. Practice enforced rest and reflection. Life in the saddle is so intense and tactile that you really need regular periods for digesting what you’ve done and seen.
Want to know more about Tom’s travels?
Check out this video: In Outer Mongolia Part One