Why go cycle touring?

Could this be the answer to goal free touring?

Could this be the answer to goal free touring?

I was reading a friend’s blog this morning and he wrote something that struck a chord with me. James is currently riding from the most northern tip of Europe south towards Spain and beyond and he is now in central France. This is what he wrote; “this tour is a bit like a scouting trip finding cool places to come back to ……”. (You can read James’ blog, Self Propelled Life here.) The reason it made me smile is because I can remember Gill and I making exactly the same observation more than once during our travels last year. I’m pretty sure I have heard the same sentiment from other travellers too which is why I am pondering the very nature of cycle touring and why we do it.

With a few exceptions where people are trying to break records I think it is reasonable to describe cycle touring as a leisure pursuit rather than an endurance sport but the more I think about it and the more complex it gets. I always used to think of it as moving from place to place at a relatively relaxed pace, stopping to explore wherever interest dictated. In reality I have found it is rarely as simple as that and there are numerous reasons for this.

Firstly, most people touring are on a holiday or a fixed term break from work. In other words they have a pre-defined amount of time at their disposal and this immediately introduces an element of urgency into the trip. It shouldn’t but it does in my experience.

Secondly most tours have a goal of some sort. Given a fixed time span most tourers will pore over maps calculating how far they might get in the given time and working out a route accordingly. The problem is that no matter how relaxed you are about the daily mileage and ultimate destination you have still set yourself a target to measure your progress by and thereby introduced that element of challenge. It’s this element of challenge that adds a further complication I feel. You see if you take away the challenge, the target, the goal, then you are in danger of taking away the motivation and incentive that keeps you going when times get tough. Like I said, it’s complicated.

Maybe the question we should be asking ourselves is why are we going on the trip in the first place. I have heard endless criticism of foreign tourists, particularly Americans, who come to Europe and ‘do’ Scotland for example in a couple of days. As cycle tourers with a goal of reaching a particular destination in a given time are we not guilty of a similar mistake? This isn’t a criticism of anyone by the way, with only one exception every trip I have done has had a proposed duration, length and end destination. If I am questioning anybody’s motives then they are my own. Of course travelling on a bicycle at the limited pace that it dictates will always reveal more of a land and culture than racing around in a car or a coach but the principles are the same. I am certain I have used the phrase, ‘done the coast of Britain’ once or twice in the last few months. What does that mean?

That black line did become a bit of an obsession I admit.

That black line did become a bit of an obsession I admit.

Gill and I are tossing around ideas for what we might do in the future in terms of another adventure. We haven’t even decided yet that it will necessarily be by bike but if it is then I would like to think that we might set off with a very different goal to the last time. I like the idea of taking away all goals that involve places, times, distances and pace and replace them with learning, observing, meeting and talking. It sounds like a simple thing to achieve but I don’t think it is. We can certainly avoid any final destination in a given time and we can avoid setting any kind of daily mileage target. We can go away without a computer on the bike and even, to some extent without a knowledge of how long we will be away. What I can’t imagine doing though, is touring without maps. Once you introduce maps into the equation you get distances and with distances comes times and before you know it you have fallen back into the old traps of measuring progress. This leads to feelings of achievement or the lack of as you inevitably trace your route across the map. When I first moved to Essex as a twenty something with no friends down there I used to amuse myself at weekends by walking a compass bearing through London. I discovered all sorts of interesting places that way. It certainly added an element of adventure to a walk across London and I wonder if it could work for cycle touring. We live in Lancashire so maybe if we took a bearing on Dover to start with, mounted the compass on the handlebars and set off in a vaguely south easterly direction. It might work.

The idea of drifting through a country or region with no set agenda sounds lovely to me. To stumble on a place of interest and rather than making a note to come back another time simply pitch the tent and stay as long as necessary to explore it. But there is a catch. I do wonder if I would be able to just let go and really enjoy the moment. Or would I suffer a constant itch at the ‘lack of progress’. I wonder if having no geographic goal would simply lead to lethargy and ultimately to losing interest in the trip. But does it matter if it does? If we go back to the question of why go cycle touring in the first place and answer it; to see places and meet people, then surely it doesn’t matter how far you go or where you end up does it? What do other tourers think? I would love to know. Anybody out there that has toured like this?

Virtual adventures

I seem to be spending a lot of time on virtual adventures at the moment. It is something I have always done since I was a teenager but today’s media makes it so easy that there is a danger of overdosing on armchair adrenalin. Back in my youth I read just about every account available of people climbing Everest or trekking to some pole or other. I attended lectures and slide shows given by the likes of Chris Bonington and Doug Scott and waited impatiently for their next book so I could conquer another unexplored peak vicariously. My own adventures were always a little less daring or exotic but they still fulfilled that deep rooted desire to explore both the world around me and the me, inside me.

With the profusion of TV channels now available and the blossoming of the internet there is no longer any need to wait for the next book to be published. There are countless tales of journeys available covering every corner of the globe, using all modes of transport and based on an ever increasing range of themes. In the last month alone I have followed Sean Conway’s run from John O’ Groats to Lands End, Emily Chappell’s ridiculous winter bike ride through Alaska in impossibly cold conditions and most recently Richard Reeve’s delightful odyssey as he visits a hundred British micro pubs by bicycle. Talk about a child in a sweet shop, the choice is endless.

Right now I am sharing adventures past and present both in the form of a good old fashioned book and various web sites. Anna Hughes’ book, Eat, Sleep, Cycle, is the account of her whirlwind ride around Britain, as is the blog of the same trip by Bill Honeywell back in 2011.

Moidart in Scotland, time for reflection

Moidart in Scotland, time for reflection

I read these things for lots of reasons. Reading an account of a journey I have made myself, like the one around Britain by bike, is a chance to compare and reflect and if it’s a blog by somebody I have actually met it lends another slant to the story. It is sometimes possible to fill in gaps in the tales based on a little knowledge of personality and circumstances. Dick Edie was a lovely host in Scotland that Gill and I stayed with last summer. He is riding across Canada worrying about bears but fulfilling a dream and James Harvey that we met at the Cycle Touring Festival has just left the northern most point of Norway at the start of a six month cycle trip that will take him to southern Spain and on to Istanbul and maybe beyond. Sometimes it is just the sheer audacity of what some of these people are doing that fills me with awe. It really doesn’t seem to matter whether or not the trip itself appeals to me personally. Following Sean Conway as he ran down the length of Britain covering up to thirty miles in a day was fascinating in a “you wouldn’t catch me in a million years doing that” sort of way. Likewise, Sarah Outen, who is about to put to sea in a rowing boat to cross the Atlantic Ocean on the final leg of her round the world, self-propelled  journey. James’ bike ride through Europe on the other hand sounds delightful, something I would genuinely like to do. Whether I am tempted by the trip or not, I can drift off to another world for a few minutes or hours and dream of future adventures of my own. I do find myself pondering what it is about other people’s fun and games that is so attractive though. What makes these journeys so fascinating and why people do them?

When I think back to those early pioneers that went to unexplored places I wonder how different it was for them. When the likes of Columbus set sail or Mallory set out from base camp they were literally going into the unknown. That is surely exploring in its purest form. Now it is almost impossible on this small planet to go to places no one has ever been to before so did they experience something that was fundamentally different from what James or Dick will? Maybe not. You see whilst I am a little bit jealous that they were the first to discover, conquer, summit or whatever, I suspect that the element of being the first was probably quite a small part of the overall experience. I am sure it is very satisfying to go down in the record books as the first person to stand on a particular mountain or complete a triathlon of the length of Britain (Sean Conway had cycled and swam the whole thing before he ran it!) but surely the journey is the real essence of the experience rather than the record.

It would be easy to think that there is nothing left to explore these days when you dig around on the internet and see so many amazing journeys taking place. Surely every ‘first’ has been claimed. Or has it? There is one goal that remains unconquered and will always stay that way. The goal of understanding yourself. That is what I suspect these adventures are ultimately about. All my reading and viewing of other people’s far flung challenges leaves me prodding and poking at what it is that makes me tick but I don’t get many answers. They only make me thirstier for knowledge and understanding. The answers start to come when I embark on the real thing. When I take the first step on the trail or ride the first mile of the road to somewhere I have never been before. That is when the exploration starts and that is when I learn a little bit more about myself. That is when I climb a little bit closer to that elusive summit of self-knowledge.

Reading other peoples stories is a little bit like smelling the Sunday dinner cooking. It gets the juices flowing and hints of something delicious to come. The blogs and books keep the excitement ticking over at a low simmer. For now the necessity of things like earning a living have to come first but the reading confirms that it’s only a matter of time before the pot comes to the boil and the next adventure into the unknown will begin. Until then I will settle for travelling in a virtual world and say thank you to all those that make that possible. Enjoy your journeys and keep those wonderful words coming.

Ferries

There is something about wheeling a loaded touring bike onto a ferry that is very magical. I know I’m not alone in this feeling so I thought I would try to dig down into the sensation a little to see what it it is that makes it so special.

I have always liked ferries because, with exceptions like the Woolich, they are usually part of a journey that in turn is part of an adventure. More often than not they involve travelling to an island and that in itself promises all kinds of exciting new discoveries and very often changes of culture and outlook. If it isn’t an island it’s an estuary and then it is very likely to be a passage that goes back hundreds of years and carries a different kind of romance.

Arran to Kintyre

Arran to Kyntyre

Most of the ferries we have travelled on so far have been designed to take cars. They loom up above us as they creep up to the slipway and open their huge gaping mouth like a giant steel cuckoo expecting to be fed. Instead they spew out cars and trucks that are made to look like dinky toys and then we are invited to wheel our bikes on board while all the boarding vehicles wait behind us. We can’t help but feel slightly smug being first on board but the roles are reversed on the other side as we are made to wait amongst the diesel fumes before we can disembark. There is always a sense of urgency amongst the crew as they lash our bikes to some iron work and we scramble to collect what we need from our bags for the journey. Then we are off upstairs to the lounge or the deck to pick the best seats before anybody else gets a look in.

Cromarty ferry. We had to wait for an hour and a half for the tide to rise before it could dock. Not a problem really.

Cromarty ferry. We had to wait for an hour and a half for the tide to rise before it could dock. Not a problem really.

The smaller ones, like the Cromarty ferry we used yesterday are the most sociable as cars, bikes, drivers and riders all mingle on deck together and that is when we get the most attention. Somebody always wants to know where we have ridden from and where we are going and a short thirty minute crossing will often see us making new friends that will be following us for the duration of our trip. These brief encounters seem to cut to the quick, slicing through the small talk and getting strangely intimate in such a short time. Perhaps it is the sure knowledge that you can’t get stuck with some utter bore for anything longer than it takes for the boat to get from one pier to another that loosens people up. Whatever it is we often find ourselves waving goodbye in a manner normally reserved for loved ones on train stations after just a half hour conversation.

The huge catamaran that took us from St. Margarets Hope on Orkney to Gill's Bay on the mainland.

The huge catamaran that took us from St. Margarets Hope on Orkney to Gill’s Bay on the mainland.

I love all the ship paraphernalia too. All the tackle and equipment associated with tying up and casting off. The painters, capstans and hawsers that form the complex system of securing a massive ship of several thousand tons to the pier. The smells of engine oil, hemp ropes and salty sea and the sounds of crew shouting instructions and labouring diesel engines holding the ship at bay as the ropes are secured. Who can resist a little shudder of excitement as the last rope is lifted from it’s bollard and cast aside as the boat begins to move away from the harbour. It’s such a symbolic action that so many adventures have started with throughout history. That sense of excitement and thrill of exploration never diminishes whether we are boarding a tiny passenger only vessel for a ten minute crossing or some behemoth that will take us across the seas for hours.

 

Tobermory on Mull to Ardnamurchan.

Tobermory on Mull to Ardnamurchan.

Yesterday’s ferry was our ninth of this trip but there will be many more before we are done and I’m looking forward to every one of them.

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