I have always found bike touring to be an intensely personal and introspective endeavour. Journeys with companions have been a lot of fun, and I definitely owe my love of adventure cycling to early trips with friends around the U.K and Europe.
As I rode further and longer though, I began to wonder what it was I was hoping to take from a multi day bike ride. Sure, fun is always an important issue, but there’s something else that happens, or can happen when touring. I’d caught a glimpse once or twice pure liberation like I’d never felt before, and perhaps this was what I was searching for.
It seemed that this sense was greatest when alone, completely immersed in the world passing under my wheels and at the mercy of everything around. This, I decided, can only be achieve as a solo undertaking and so I resolved to set out singly to explore the people, landscapes, cities and ideas that I feel drawn to.
The idea that one can spend up to eight hours a day completely alone for weeks and months on end can be a frightening thought. I distinctly remember on my second day in the saddle thinking,‘I’m either going to come back from this a lot stronger, or else I’ll go mental.’I think, and hope, that the result was the former.
Last year I set off from New York City on my bike, and rode over 14,000 miles to Hong Kong. I crossed the USA, then rode from Canada down to Mexico. Flying to New Zealand I covered both islands there, cycled up the east coast of Australia and finally worked my way up through South East Asia until I reached Hong Kong just under a year later.
I started and finished alone, although I did pick up friends and allies along the way. For me this is the ideal scenario. As a solo cyclist you are not only forced to interact with the environment and people a lot more, but you also carry with you an unshakable aura of vulnerability.
While this can be a double-edged sword and as such needs to be kept in the forefront of one’s mind, I found that overwhelmingly it led not to danger or exploitation but rather to incredible acts of kindness. Being alone goes a long way to removing any of the fears and inhibitions that people in foreign lands may have about when they encounter the stranger.
I often got the feeling that the initial emotion was sympathy, as in “We must do something for this poor guy on the bike; he’s clearly off his head to be doing that.” Not perhaps the ideal start to a relationship, but it’s amazing how well it works out after that. Aside from benefitting from the generosity and philanthropy of these people, it’s unquestionable that you learn more about a place through connecting with its people. And for the majority of bike tourists, surely this is the goal, for if you wanted pure fantastic speed or efficiency you would travel by air or rail.
So being alone really helps you to become socially immersed in the cultures you are briefly passing through. That’s fantastic, but what about the rest of the time, the endless solitude with no one to help while away the boring hours of repetitive pedalling?It’s always going to be a battle.
In my stationary life I am quite a social person, and don’t particularly enjoy spending too much time alone. I find good company provides inspiration, relaxation and invigoration. When touring there is a trade off; inevitable you do miss the companionship. After 10 hours of riding into a 20mph headwind you will probably just want someone to complain to. The flip side is that by not having this outlet you can become much better at getting on with the task at hand; riding alone I wasted much less time feeling grumpy and grumbling because, quite simply, it didn’t achieve anything.
You learn to make the most of time to yourself, and I found I was more productive and less distracted than ever before. And, of course, much more inclined to speak to anyone any everyone I came into contact with.Coming back to my original comment, this is always going to be a matter of personal taste.
I’m certainly not going to encourage everyone to blow off their friends and head out alone to find a nice hermitic cave. All I will say is that having experienced the liberation and unique merits of solo cycling, I’m convinced. It’s not for everyone, but if you’ve never tried it, surely it’s worth a go?
More information about Leon here.