A highly unlikely bicycle tourist rides out of Cheshire England to see the world, with his only route plan being;
“I’m going that way”
Are you not going to practice, Dad?
Built like a brick shithouse as a result of a life of heavy manual labour and weight training, and the odd bacon butty, I never felt completely comfortable on a bicycle.
I had a second-hand hybrid bicycle, which was a cross between a road bike and a mountain bike, and I would take short rides along some flat paths and a promenade close to home. I lived near Prestatyn in North Wales, and I liked the occasional beachfront jaunt. It was something my doctor suggested to relieve pain in my lower back, which it did.
I enjoyed cycling for a few miles to grab a coffee at a cafe on the promenade and chat to a few people but cycling back always felt like a spoiler. It wasn’t that I didn’t like being at home, I did, it was that the ride home, however short, would bore me to death, even if I tried a different route back. I felt I understood why some liked to cycle away from home for hours, then put the bike on a train to get home. The fun might have been going. The reward might have been arriving and feeling a sense of achievement.
But even though my hobby was the gym, I loved road-trips and imagined that going on a big pedal-powered road-trip would be incredible. Covering every mile under my own steam, with camping gear and everything I might need, all packed neatly in panniers. Cycling in one direction each day, day after day, week after week, and maybe even month after month. How rewarding that must feel, I thought, to cycle to another faraway country, or through several. I thought you don’t need to love cycling to love bicycle touring.
I started reading blogs and articles on the subject. Most of what I read was by middle-class university-educated young people, often travelling with support networks at home and even sponsorship. Although I admired them, I wanted to hear from parents and spouses and those in their middle age like me, so I dug a little deeper.
What I discovered was that people of all ages and backgrounds were taking on bicycle touring adventures all over the world. There were people in their twilight years and some with disabilities. Some had sold most of what they owned, including their homes so they could be self-sufficient, relying only on themselves. Some people used hospitality sharing networks where members offered a place in their home for travellers. Others appeared to me to be nothing more than scroungers. Interestingly, on the road, some even sought not only adventure but the reason for their entire being. There were people on unicycles, tricycles, and all kinds of pedal-powered contraptions.
I also thought that some bicycle tourists must have felt like I did regarding only wanting to ride in one direction. I read how some would fly out to a destination then cycle home, or cycle out and fly back. Some just kept going in pretty much one direction, all the way around the world until they arrived home. Limited time was often a reason for only cycling one way, and I could understand that.
I eventually moved to England with my wife, Sue, and my daughters Chelsea and Chloe had grown into young adults. I was 54 years old, and I couldn’t get the idea of riding a bicycle from country to country out of my head. I was between jobs and had saved enough money not to have to beg my way or rely on other people, so I was quite fortunate, and I decided to go for it. I wanted one last big adventure while I still felt physically capable. I still wasn’t a regular cyclist. After leaving North Wales, I cycled even less, because I no longer had the beachfront paths, promenade, and cafe with a sea view, just busy roads, and I wasn’t a fan of riding in traffic. I also hadn’t spent so much as a weekend on a bicycle tour. But I wasn’t going to let some tiny little things like that stop me.
When I told Sue and my daughters about my plan to ride out of Cheshire and aim to cross Europe and possibly far beyond, my daughters asked if I was going to practice. They thought it would have been a good idea to take a shorter ride first, such as the length of Great Britain from Land’s End to John O’Groats. But I wanted to see how far and for how long I could ride without any bicycle touring experience. I also thought it would add to the adventure. My very simple plan was to keep going until something beyond my control stopped me, or I felt I had done what I wanted to do. I might have ruled out practising, but I would still have to prepare in other ways. I imagined a bicycle tour of a few weeks or a month or so would require few financial risks and minimal planning.
In contrast, a trip of what could be many months or even a year or two would be a completely different beast. I would have to write a will, get a new passport with plenty of extra pages, just in case. I’d need treatments against viruses and other illnesses, such as rabies, yellow fever and malaria. I had no idea where I might end up, so I thought it would be a good idea to be covered. I would also have to work out what clothing I might need, and I had no doubt the list of equipment would be lengthy.
I started looking at bikes that I thought would do the job, and it was fun but challenging. I needed the equivalent of a Shire horse, not a racehorse. I needed a bike that could carry my 350-pound bulk, as well as around 100 pounds of gear. It would have to be super strong to take all that weight over not just roads, but tracks and trails. It also had to be easy to maintain and reliable. After a lot of reading about the pros and cons of different bicycles and parts, I chose the KOGA WorldTraveller Signature expedition bicycle. I learned that it was a popular choice for long bicycle tours. I loved the colour choices, and I thought the build looked masculine. Though at over £4000 with the panniers and spares, it wasn’t cheap.
After ordering the bike from Cyclesense Ltd in Tadcaster North Yorkshire, it felt like an eternity before it was ready for me to collect. It wasn’t long at all. It only felt like it because I was so excited and itching to get going. I purchased all the gear that I thought I would need, and then some. The bike and bags and all the gear weighed 143 pounds, and the total weight, including me, was just shy of 500 pounds.
The night before the first day of my bicycle tour, my mum was feeling a bit upset and worried, because I wasn’t scared of much and a little accident-prone as a result. Sue and I were living in Liverpool at that time, less than 20 miles from mums, and I decided to spend the evening with mum and leave from there the following morning. Chelsea and Chloe lived near mum’s, so I was also able to see them that evening too.
I had already said goodbye to Sue, which I thought would be a good idea rather than she realise I was gone when the lawns had grown three feet deep. I promised her I’d phone each day if I could, and hopefully have her fly out to spend a little time with me at some point. Sue wasn’t happy about my adventure, and she was worried something terrible might happen to me. She planned to keep busy with her business, Fenwick Street Barbers in Liverpool's city centre. I also made sure Sue had a brand new push lawnmower, lots of new gardening tools, and a big toolkit and drill of her own. What more could she need, I thought.
After a restless sleep on mum’s settee, I carried out the last checks on the bike to make sure I had everything and that it was all secure. I had no idea how the bike was going to feel or handle with the bags fully loaded, and I couldn’t be sure that all the weight wouldn’t buckle the wheels if I hit a pothole in the road, but I felt confident it would be just fine.
It was the 1st of August 2017 when I said goodbye to my teary mum as she stood in her doorway out of the rain in the dull early morning light. Just one mile into my ride, I stopped on a footbridge that crossed high above a road. I could see the streets where my daughters lived, and I imagined them sound asleep. It upset me, and tears welled up in my eyes. I felt my chest tighten as I said “goodbye I love you” under my breath before I cycled on with the rain hiding my tears as they rolled off my face. I had no idea when I would see my loved ones again, and it upset me.
I'm working flat out to complete A highly unlikely bicycle tourist in 2020.
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A highly unlikely bicycle tourist
Copyright © 2019 by Author Stephen Peel
All rights reserved. Printed in the United Kingdom. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner without written permission from the author, except in the case of brief quotations in critical articles or reviews. This book is a work of non-fiction and is based on actual events.