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?

Falling in love again

It’s been over four months since I went for a bike ride. Since we got back from our tour around Britain neither of us have had much interest in cycling. It felt like we were all pedalled out and the thought of pumping up the tyres and getting back in the saddle just didn’t appeal. Until today that is.  I’m not sure whether it was the signs of spring all around us or the sight of so many people enjoying a ride in the sunshine yesterday but all of a sudden we both felt as if it was time to get back on the bikes.

We didn’t go very far but it was a very special ride because it has resulted in me falling in love again.

There is no doubt that after a break of this length the bike always feels uncomfortable. The reach to the bars is too long, the saddle is too hard and I feel like the whole bike is too big. It just doesn’t feel right. I know from past experience that it will take several rides of increasing distance before that old oneness with the machine comes back and we become a team again. Before muscle and metal meld into a single entity once more. It’s nothing to worry about, just odd. I suppose we are both just a bit rusty.

My trusty steed at Land's End last year.

My trusty steed at Land’s End last year.

Contrast this with the amazing feeling that I get just one or two miles into the ride. Despite the awkwardness, I am struck all over again by the efficiency of this marvellous machine. If you have even a small amount of fitness then it takes no effort at all to propel both rider and bike along at an amazing speed. For the same effort as walking at a modest pace a bike will take you many, many times further in any given time-span. It is like a magic trick.

This sense of magic comes over me as if I am riding the bike for the very first time. As if the bike itself is a completely new invention and it fills me full of joy every time it happens. I am convinced that this mechanical advantage is partly responsible for the sense of freedom that every child gets when they first learn to ride a bike. They might not consider the physics of it, but suddenly they are moving faster under their own steam than they have ever done before in their lives. One minute dad is hanging onto the saddle to keep them upright and then the next moment he is history. He is completely unable to keep up with the child who up until this moment has always been just a stride or two away. Always under his control. Not any longer. The bike gives a child a freedom of such scope that they may never experience anything quite like it again. Many of us will spend a lifetime trying to recreate that feeling but it can never be available with such intensity again. The pure joy it brings is dependent on its very transience. It simply can’t be had twice.

I think what I felt today, just like I do whenever I get back on the bike after a break, is a faint but very tangible connection with that special moment from my childhood. That unadulterated joy that comes from being able to travel so easily, so simply and so independently. I think it’s this simple childish pleasure that is at the core of cycling and especially cycle touring. It gives me a sense of freedom that nothing else manages to do. It’s magic. Like being a child again.

Perhaps it is time to get the maps out of their boxes. Time to start dreaming once more.

Signs of Spring

Signs of Spring