considering a bicycle trip? this is a must read
The mental hurdles of bicycle touring
Hi, welcome to this blogpost. Good you're here: it either means you're considering ever doing a bicycle-touring trip, you might be on the road currently or you're just curious what the hell motivates people to even consider. I'm sure this post will give you important insights either way.
Before I dive in, I would like to explain the relevance of the picture above. The image captured the moment we (me, a German cyclist & a Swiss cyclist) were hesitant to continue cycling because of a massive bull blocking our path. It happened in Tadjikistan at 4000m altitude on a off-the-map USSR military track we were following. After a stare-down of about 10min we decided to approach it carrying rocks in case it would charge (and no, you don't have to tell me that that's naivety at its core: it is). We managed to pressure it off the road though and decided to ride our bikes past quickly. It worked; he didn't charge. Although you'll encounter many physical hurdles like this while bicycle touring, those are peanuts compared to the mental hurdles. I mean, mind over matter is what they say. That's why I focus on mental barriers in this post only.
consider this before leaving
Now, although I was writing a post myself called "The mental hurdles of bicycle touring" in which I lined up the biggest mental hurdles before departure and the ones popping up on the go, halfway down I remembered a post I read 1,5 years ago before my trip that very closely resembled my writing. It is a post called Planning your first big bike trip? Ask yourself these 7 critical questions first by bike-touring guru Tom Allen on his absolute biblical website. Since his post so accurately captures personality aspects important for bicycle touring, it feels more relevant to share his post in combination with some of my insights. So please do read his post first before continuing.
Good, hello, welcome back. Hope you enjoyed that. My name is Bas.
Before heading out on a bicycle on a world tour, Tom in short says the following:
- You better be chill being alone, for longer periods on end, with little to no external input
- You better be chill with limited comfort, sleeping in a tent at -5 °C in the middle of nowhere while half your muscles ache like never before
- You better be able to be pro-active when sh*t hits the fan underway
- You better try to loose the habit of wanting to know what will happen (the goal-orientation flaw I wrote about in my post on running a marathon)
- You better be able to stop the continuous train of thoughts in your mind and be able to truly enjoy the now (which for me was very much part of the start of my spiritual path)
- You better not crave recognition for what you are doing
- You better accept you'll come back a different person
I got lucky to run into his post a couple of months before my own departure in 2017. Reading it gave me a massive boost of energy because I felt ready to face the personal challenges posed. But no worries, besides an energy boost his post freaked me out as much as it might have freaked you out. Specifically I doubted my tolerance for discomfort, I highly doubted my bicycle-repair skill and my on-the-spot problem solving capabilities in general. In hindsight my close to indestructible bicycle made most those worries irrelevant. Besides the energy and doubt his post gave me, the insights of his 6th point in specific made me extra sharp in the conversations with Discovery Channel about a collaboration for a public video project I was having with them at that time. Looking back on my Amsterdam-Singapore adventure now, I have to say I still agree with Tom on every point he makes. So Tom, if you happen to be reading: thanks for sharing!
Besides Tom's list I've learned of a couple hurdles that keep people from going on an bicycle-touring adventure. I'll share these first after which I will share some of my personal frustrations that I, despite the pre-departure willingness to face all my flaws, encountered while on my journey. Lastly I'll share a tool that made overcoming my biggest personal challenge a lot more easy.
pre-trip mental hurdles
The following is a list of doubts I've heard from people during and after my trip that keep them from going on a bicycle trip. I'll follow the doubt with my reaction.
- I can't leave my job/house/family for a long time | This is an argument I have nothing to bring in against. Simply put: this is very true for most people. The financial and social opportunity cost of leaving home for a long time are higher than the perceived benefits of a trip. That said however, I have not met any bicycle tourer on my path that regretted leaving it all behind.
- I would go crazy being on my own for such long periods. It is such a lonely endeavour | This too is a valid argument that Tom touches upon for a reason. For me personally I can merely state that I've not felt lonely at all on my one year trip. It simply was a lot less of a lonely adventure than anticipated: partly because of the contact with locals you'll have everyday, partly since I've met many other cyclists and cycled together with others for most of my trip, but absolutely also due to the comfort I feel being alone. And whether you feel lonely when you are alone depends on the person and differs for everyone. You can test yourself on this with the following thought experiment: would you be comfortable with spending a night alone on your couch in your house without excess to your phone/a TV/any other form of entertainment? If only the thought already makes you feel uneasy, you might want to work on why that is first before heading out on a solo trip. A much better test would be to start meditating. If you can't handle your own train of thoughts, I wouldn't recommend going on a longterm trip alone. You should at least be able to objectively observe your thoughts and have some experience with reshaping negative thoughts into positive ones.
- I feel like the countries I want to cross are too dangerous. The world is a scary place | Surely, there are a couple of regions in the world currently (think Syria or Afghanistan/Pakistan) that wouldn't be a smart place to cross by bicycle. But on average our perception of worldwide safety is skewed negatively by continuous stream of negative news exerted by the media. Surely I cannot guarantee safety to anyone, but I can say that if you're alert and sensitive to potential dangers, you mostly control your own safety. Besides, there are hundreds of cyclist cycling from Europe to Asia and vice versa every year. I found myself added to a Whatsapp group of 250 cyclist cycling the globe, and very very rarely was there bad news reported. I like to uphold my perception that the world has never been more safe then it currently is. Not quite in line with that: here is a warning sign for tanks I encountered in the North-East of Turkey.
- I just can't do it physically. I'll need to train for ages before I could start a journey like that | First of all: I wasn't a cyclist myself before I left. And since my bicycle was only delivered 1,5 weeks before I left, I didn't have time to train at all. Surely I'm Dutch, so yes, I do own a bicycle and I do use it almost daily to get to place in and around Amsterdam. But I never used to cycle for fun in my spare time. Second: I've met grandpa's aged around 75 on the road that were cycling the world for whom their physical strength wasn't a big barrier. The point is: the potential problem is not a physical one: everyone can do it. But physically the big challenge for beginners (like I was) is to actually start a long trip very slowly. Since your body is not used to cycle 6 hours a day, you need to treat all the sensations consciously. Make sure to be 100% honest to what your body is telling you every moment. The friction here comes from the excitement the start of a trip brings. This excitement might make you want to ride out super fast while the body needs calm consciousness in order to sustain in the long run. This is something all endurance athletes understand is key, but it is also extremely difficult in practice. One absolute key advice I would give here though is to stretch at least your legs every day after you're done riding. During my period of training for a marathon I was stretching along the lines of this lady's post running stretch routine. That actually suited me well during my bicycle trip.
Surely there is a ton of other reasons not to go on a bicycle trip but I've heard the above ones most. Combined with Tom's post I feel this gives a relatively complete overview of pre-trip considerations. If by now you've decided to go ride a big trip, there is a couple more hurdles I would like you to be aware of that are specific for on the go.
hurdles I encountered on the road
The largest issue I've had to deal with on my trip is something I had been working on for a couple of years before my trip already: my goal oriented mindset being a hinderance to live in the now. I actually devised my own cycling 'pyramid of energy' on the road to be able to deal with my tendency to over-demand myself. I'll describe the pyramid in detail later.
Another on-the-road frustration I bumped into as soon as I crossed into unknown territory was my eagerness to understand expressions of cultural differences. Surely at times I was able to ease my curiosity by learning a lot from a museum visit, or through an extensive in-dept conversation with a local. But since you are so exposed to all activity on the street, there is going to be a ton of things happening around you that you'll just not understand. At times you won't have the energy to stop cycling and ask a local about something you're curious about, at other times you're not able to communicate with anyone at all because of language barriers. At those moments you'll be lucky to be able to ask a local farmer if he minds your tent on his plot of land by means of Google translate. No way you'll able to ask him what he thinks of his country's president who apparently, as you've observed through the presence of his photoshopped portrait on just about every street corner, cares a lot about his self-portrait. That sort of question in itself might not be a very smart thing to ask in some countries btw. It doesn't take away the fact that you're wondering in the first place. I clearly remember having to accept the fact that a bicycle trip is mostly a sensory trip: a trip during which you'll see, smell, hear, taste and feel just about everything a country has to offer but will understand very little of all the input. This hit me as soon as the first unexplained cultural fascinations passed me by in Eastern Europe. I was frustrated for some time and tried to intellectually grasp as much as possible by reading about the cultures online. But at one point I realised I would just stay frustrated if I would keep on wishing to understand. I had to settle into not being able to explain everything that intrigued me. Moreover, not understanding things you see has its own perks. Throughout my trip I got to understand the value of wondering without understanding more and more. In a way fascination without longing to understand why things are as they are draws you into the moment (Tom's number 5). Likewise, accepting (weird) things as they are is a crucial aspect of letting go of a sense of control we Western human beings like to think we have. Tom's number 4 stems from the same wish to control all aspects of our life. Messed up as it is, our Western closed-minded way of living allows for a great sense of control. Anyway, go read The Black Swan if you need some intellectual tickling regarding our illusion of control. My point in short is: see a Chinese bloke take a shit on the street in some Chinese town? Don't worry about it. Just go with it, move over, take a dump next to him, discuss the weather, all good, you fit right in.
The monuments of the anthropocene are staggering. We humans are masters in blinding ourselves with a feeling of control. Danger hides in the knowledge we don't possess. Ask yourself the questions we don't have answers to and you'll keep being intrigued and fascinated. Stop wondering and life drifts off senselessly. *Continues reading The Black Swan*
the energy pyramid
Like in regular life I've had periodical ups and downs on the road. I've felt happy, exhausted, thrilled, useless, useful, and above all hungry like never before. All the experiences and emotions resulted in continuous fluctuations in my level of energy. Whenever I had the mental space to do so I've been scrutinizing my own energy levels to try to understand why I was having an up or down at the moment. Obviously it turns out it is close to impossible to analyse all factors contributing to your current state of affairs. But generally I have been able to identify four levels of energy and their respective consequences on the road. The reason I'm writing about them is because I found it incredibly useful to be able to accept my level of energy by simply labelling it. Accepting how you're feeling is not only relevant for bicycle touring but is a general life lesson I previously touched upon in a post on running a marathon. It is very human to want to be on top of your game every single minute. This may result in overpressuring yourself however when your energy is just not up there. Not expecting too much from yourself is specifically important in longterm bicycle touring where you will want both your physical as well as your mental condition to be healthy over extended periods of time. You do not want to be at the end of your game in the middle of a dessert or on a 4.500m mountain pass. Riding a bicycle all day while overpressuring yourself mentally will result in pushing your body into unhealthy territories. To accept and forgive yourself for your current level of energy therefore provides much needed mental ease.
See the following description of the energy levels in the same way as you would look at Maslov's hierarchy of needs: the most basic level of energy must be met before you will desire the secondary or higher levels of energy. I'll describe the energy levels alongside some examples on my own trip.
energy level 1 - body & bike
Naturally, the first step in getting anywhere on a bicycle is a functioning body and a mechanically sound bicycle. Energy level 1 in that sense symbolises the choice to ride out that day or not. I've had days where I just felt too ill, hungover, or broken from previous riding days to even start. Accepting this lack of energy is the most important of all. If you push yourself and ride out on a day you actually know you shouldn't the situation will turn against you at some point in the future. A personal trip example: I was food poisoned in Vietnam. It took me out for a day or two. Still not fully recovered I decided to ride out the next day thinking the riding might speed up my digestion and would get rid of the problem sooner. Two days after, the stomach problems turn into a general malaise and I strand somewhere having to recover for a full week. So when you don't feel at least 80% awesome, don't ride, just wait a day. There is time. Moreover, ok-I'm-below-energy-level-1 acceptance will actually make you recover faster. A second hinderance for riding could be gear related. A malfunction on the bicycle could prevent you from riding out too. Or when a defect hits on the road, it could seriously eat away at your energy and motivation. I remember getting incredibly frustrated over my brake pads hitting my rims at every circulation of my wheel in Georgia. I tried fixing it 5 times that day without success. I cursed at everything around me creating a funky scene on the side of the Georgian highway. Stuck at energy level 1, I was not at peace with the situation at all, blurring my ability to think in a problem-solving manner. I later found out a poor aluminium composition of the rim made it crack. I was only able to fix it when Santos send over a new rim to Aktau, Kazachstan. To get to my point: only if the body and the bike are okay you can hop on and start riding. If not, don't worry, accept it and take all the time needed to get exited about riding out again. If body and bike are good to go, congrats, you made it to the minimally required level of energy in bicycle touring. Hopefully you're quickly able to move up to energy level 2 because getting stuck in energy level 1, being busy with just keeping your health and gear at the minimum required level to ride a bicycle, during long periods of bicycle touring will slowly suck out your soul.
energy level 2 - looking up
So you feel good and you're on your bicycle that seems to function: it's time to look up. Energy level 2 merely concerns your ability to observe. To observe your surroundings with all senses. The magic of bicycle touring is that you're out in the open, exposed to all elements. You see, smell, hear, feel and yes, taste, your environment continuously. Whereas in a car only one sense, seeing, is stimulated, on a bicycle all senses provide continuous input. To be able to truly observe and appreciate your surrounding requires energy, but is a great source of energy simultaneously. From riding the desserts of Uzbekistan to riding the Kuala Lumpur city center, if your energy is right, meticulously observing both types of landscape should be an endless source of wonder and fascination. I remember days at which my energy was just enough to start riding out and to be able to look around, but not high enough to actually care about smiling or waving a people. That is why energy level 2 is not the ideal level to get stuck in.
energy level 3 - interaction
You're on your bike, you're enjoying the scenery and hell yes, there is enough energy to put effort into making contact with the locals on your way. This is energy level 3. This is the feeling you've longed for: the freedom to go where ever you want to go, the flexibility to stop whenever you feel like it, the spontaneity to meet whomever catches your attention. You're in the zone. It allows you to be humble and grateful towards everything that crosses your path, and more importantly: you're able to share your energy with whomever notices you passing by. A little smile here, a wave there and a brief exchange of words easily ends up in a invitation to have a tea, coffee, breakfast, lunch or even a stay-over for the night. There is all the time in the world and nothing pushes you to want to continue cycling. No way you're missing the chance to an authentic meet-up. You feel like learning, like exchanging stories and you notice the feeling is mutual. I call this 'the zone' because when it comes to interactions with locals all the energy you put in will come back twofold. On my trip I think I've been in the zone for about 70% of the 13 months. I've experienced closing myself off from local interaction for some time in Eastern Europe, China and parts of South East Asia due to different reasons. And I feel thankful for having experienced so much sincere interaction with amazing individuals throughout my trip.
Turkish hospitality is truly unequalled. I cycled up a steep road when Mohammed, guiding his herd of cows home, ordered me to stop to have a extremely elaborate lunch with his wife and mother at his house. Since spoken communication was limited to an extensive monologue (he didn't quite seem to grasp the fact that people exist, like me, who don't speak Turkish), I was pulled into an amazing hospitality rollercoaster: ending in Mohammed throwing my bike into/onto the back of his car, taking me up the rest of the mountain and giving a private tour around his valley. I think he thought biking up was simply impossible. Admittedly: it was damn steep. These first 'cheating' kilometers were totally worth it :) Looking for a place to sleep in the small town of Keskin after Mohammed dropped me off, I was aided by this friendly gentlemen who helped me to a place to sleep in a teachershouse & invited me to his house to have an iftar meal with his friends. I learned my first Turkish words from his 4 high-energy kids :)
energy level 4 - capturing
Energy level 4 is specifically applicable for those who want to capture their trip on video. Since I made a decision to capture my trip (till China) for a YouTube collaboration with Discovery Channel, I have been busy making video for about half my trip (read more on how I got to collaborate with Discovery Channel here). I've already described the pro's and con's of this decision in this post and just want to make the following point here: being able to shoot authentic interactions with locals while on your own is close to impossible. Your energy needs to be very pure for someone to not be bothered by your effort to find the right angle to film the interaction you're having at that moment. This challenge made me pick my moments to ask someone: only if my energy was right, and I estimated the person wouldn't mind ending up on camera, I would actually bring up my film project. This has resulted in many many meetings not caught on camera because I felt the filming would disturb the authenticity. So in line with Tom's postscript to his 5th point: if you decide to make video on the go, please show a fair picture of the trip. And please don't ruin the local's experience of bypassing bicycle tourer by being an insensitive asshole who only wants to get his/her video shots. Be gentle, ask permission, share your good vibes :)
Took a picture of this beautiful old man at the bazar in Samarkand. Walked up to him and showed him the picture. Old as he is his eyes were breathing life. After a broad smile he stroke his beard with his hand and then his heart area. He took his hand up to my face and lightly stroked my beard and then my chest. We had spoken no words, and no words were nessecary. A kid came up to me explaining it was a sign of deep appreciation and a wish for good fortune. He needn't have explained.
Practically seen there is already so much material out there. I'll share some of the sources that helped me out most:
- tomsbiketrip.com - for just about anything
- stantours.com - helped out obtaining visa's for Iran & Uzbekistan
- De Vakantiefietser - rich website full of relevant info on gear, but even better is their Amsterdam based store, walk in, check out their products, talk to the staff and get exited
- De fiets en wandelbeurs - massive yearly fair on biking & hiking. Awesome to go and get inspired
Besides I purchased the following books in my preparation.
I wouldn't say it is absolutely necessary to prepare like I did, however, I noticed it did give me some advantages gear-wise and route-wise over some of the people I met on the road. For most cyclist riding West to East China is close to impossible to get a visa from on the road. I was prepared by applying for a second passport in time in Holland. You'll need prove of the fact you need it from an employer which for me Discovery came in handy. By leaving the second passport at a Chinese visa agency in Holland I was able to start traveling with my first passport, and arranged the agency to send the second passport (now including the Chinese visa) to Kyrgyzstan for me to be able to enter China a couple weeks later.