There are times riding a bicycle when everything just feels right. The wind is at your back, the skies are clear, and the road is smooth and flat and disappearing easily beneath your wheels. In such moments the act of turning the pedals evolves into such a natural, rhythmical movement that it becomes practically effortless. You feel wonderful. You feel alive. You feel like the whole world is with you, as you glide along, smiling and waving at everyone. It is the very best of feelings. In those moments you truly understand what it means to be free.
Then, more often than not, you get a fly in your eye.
That’s the problem with these moments of cycling nirvana. They don’t happen very often, and they tend to be short-lived. So I’m going to be starting my story with an altogether different scenario. A much more common kind of biking experience, actually. One when I was sweating and struggling and cursing my way up a steep hill under an inescapably hot sun.
And I’m afraid I’ve started my story with a lie because I’ve just used the word ‘inescapably’ quite falsely. There were actually many locals who were doing a grand job of escaping the hot sun, lounging in the shade of their simple homes, and keeping cool beneath corrugated roofs. Overweight men lay in hammocks, glancing casually at the crazy foreigner as I strained at the pedals to inch myself forward at an embarrassing wobble. Shadows of hard-working women moved around inside these wood-slat homes, and children peeked out from empty window frames, giggling and daring one another to be the first to shout “Gringo!”
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My progress was reduced to a pitiful crawl as I fought against not only the gradient and the soaring temperatures but also a cruel headwind that bristled through nearby palm leaves. Sadly this wind did nothing to cool me down. It was no match for the sun and merely slowed me further while giving me the unfortunate impression that I was cycling on into a fan-assisted oven.
I noticed a malnourished dog padding along the road, one of the thousands of strays eking out a meagre existence feeding on whatever scraps they could find in this part of the world. Earning my misplaced envy, even this poor, diseased animal, with its rib cage pressing through its taut skin, was able to progress up the hill at a greater speed than me. I watched the determined mutt as it disappeared up ahead, gaining ground on my companion, Karin. As my eyes looked up I was surprised to see that she had pulled off the road and was examining her own bike. It looked like she had a problem with it.
“I’ve got a flat tyre,” she informed me, as I finally clawed my way up towards her.
“Good,” I replied, collapsing into the shade of a café that by some small miracle happened to be right next to us. I’m not always a selfish man, but in my present condition, I was extremely grateful for this excuse to get off the bike and have a rest, while she set to work fixing the problem.
After a little while, I noticed another touring cyclist appear in the distance, and I sat and watched him as he made impressively steady progress up the hill. Within minutes he had arrived at the café and, perhaps seeing the damsel in distress with no sign of any gentleman offering her assistance, he rode over towards us.
He was a slightly red-faced and greying man of about forty, who laid down his bike and came to us, sweaty and out of breath. Proving my damsel in distress theory wrong immediately, he stepped straight past Karin into the café, sat down on one of the plastic chairs, and ordered a coke in perfect Spanish. I assumed it was perfect Spanish anyway, I don’t know, I can’t speak Spanish. Then he introduced himself to me, in his native English accent, as John. As befits any two-cycle tourists meeting under such circumstances far from home, we then got down to the serious business of exchanging our travel stories.
I soon realised that mine stories were not going to compare with John’s
I soon realised that mine stories were not going to compare with John’s, as he proudly boasted of having been travelling for twenty-five years through more than a hundred countries. Not all by bicycle, mind you. He’d been a backpacker, and spent plenty of that time working as a language teacher in various parts of the world. Only recently had he discovered bicycle touring and begun to embrace the fun one could have cycling up steep hills in tropical furnaces.
I myself had caught the bug a couple of years earlier when I’d seen a documentary about a Scottish guy named Mark Beaumont setting the world record for cycling around the world in the fastest time. Watching him jabbering to the video camera he held in his outstretched arm as he dashed around the planet in six months was probably the first moment when I realised that it was even possible to travel on a bicycle, though I’d always dreamed about travelling the world. As a young boy, I used to sit for hours looking at the family atlas, tracing pretend lines across continents, and allowing my imagination to run wild thinking about what it would be like to actually travel those finger strokes. As I grew up, graduated university, and entered into the difficult life phase of ‘not knowing what the hell to do next’, my ambition to make a big around-the-world journey was as strong as ever. Sadly the problem remained, exactly as it had when I’d been a child, that I had no money. So far as I could tell travel was prohibitively expensive.
Then came the revelation that it was possible to travel by bicycle. After a little more research I began to find out that there were plenty of people out there who had made, or were making, long journeys on two wheels. I read about the exploits of people like Alastair Humphreys, who’d spent four years cycling around the world, and Heinz Stücke, who’d spent a whole lifetime. Suitably inspired, I decided to get involved and set off on a couple of six-week tours myself. I had a crap bike, no idea what I was doing, and spent far too much time walking because I could not fix punctures. Nevertheless, after these short trips, I was hooked. I’d discovered that bicycle touring was not only the cheap mode of travel I’d always been looking for but also a fantastic way to see places. I realised with some delight that it might be possible to fulfill my lifelong ambition and see the whole world this way.
So in May 2010, with David Cameron just settling into 10 Downing Street, I decided it was the ideal time to get out of England for a while. I bought a Surly Long Haul Trucker, a proper touring bike that would certainly go on to live up to its name. I cycled it to Denmark, took a ferry to Iceland, cycled around some volcanoes, and then flew to the east coast of Canada. From there I’d intended to ride south to meet my German friend, Karin, in Central America, as we had made plans to cycle there together. Instead, I made myself rather at home in Toronto and settled in for a Canadian winter. I’d met an attractive girl, Rachael, who distracted me because 1) she was an attractive girl and 2) I am easily distracted. After three months of being (admittedly quite happily) distracted by Rachael in Canada, I awoke with a start one morning, looked at the snow piling up on the window frame, and cried out, “Oh bloody hell. I’m supposed to be meeting my friend in Central America.” There was no longer enough time to cycle there, so I hopped on a plane and flew instead, arriving in Mexico just in time to meet with Karin and begin our cycle south together as planned.
John listened intently to my explanation as to how I had arrived here at this little café in the middle of Nicaragua. His coke bottle now sat empty on the table, and as I finished my story he turned to the bored waitress and ordered a Fanta.
“Gracias señorita,” he said as it was delivered to him. Like I said, his Spanish was exceptional. Then his attention returned to me.
“The thing is,” he said, “in my opinion if you’re going to cycle around the world you should do it properly. Cycle the whole way. Not use any other transport.”
This came across as a bit of a dig at me for having flown from Canada to Mexico instead of cycling. I felt like I needed to defend myself.
“She was very attractive, John. I was legitimately distracted.”
“Fair enough,” he laughed, “but you still can’t say you cycled around the world, I think if you miss bits out. If you take a bus, a train, a plane, whatever, then you haven’t cycled the whole way, have you? To do it properly you should cycle it all. And you should take boats across the water.”
“Yeah, but everybody uses other transport sometimes.”
And it was true. Ever since I had started researching the idea of bicycle touring I had read dozens of books and blogs of people who had ‘cycled around the world’ in some form or another. They had all resorted to using cars, buses, or trains on occasions, or flown across the oceans. The idea of going all of the way around the world using only a bicycle and boats was crazy. It was simply too difficult, not only because of geographical obstacles like oceans and deserts but also due to bureaucratic ones, like visa restrictions and war zones.
“Well, I think unless you do it all by bike and boat, then you haven’t really cycled around the world,” John repeated.
“But nobody has ever done that!”
Several hours later, as I was following Karin up yet another Nicaraguan hill, the conversation with John replayed in my head, as it would many more times in the weeks and months ahead.
‘Silly man,’ I thought. ‘Why should he think you have to travel entirely by bicycle and boats to qualify as having cycled around the world when nobody has ever done that?’
And then I thought about it a little more.
‘Nobody has ever done that.’
I’d had an idea.