Alastair Humphreys

Alastair Humphreys


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in-praise-of-the-bicycle
in-praise-of-the-bicycle

In praise of the bicycle...


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16th September 2010

Travelling by bicycle is cheap and you get to live, breathe, hear and smell every mile of your journey – five reasons from a saddle-sore expert to take a spin

Ladies and Gentlemen of the class of 2010, if I could offer you only one tip for the future, travelling by bicycle would be it. Cycling is the best way to experience a country and a culture.

I am well aware that I am biased: I spent five years of my life cycling through over 60 countries on five continents. I have a passion for travel and adventure. And I have a real passion for encouraging people to try travelling by bike.

Here are five reasons why I think bike journeys are far superior to conventional backpacking adventures:

1. Cycling is cheap

Or, as cheap as you want it to be! Once riding through Argentina, I met a French backpacker. As we chatted he became envious of my experiences. So I persuaded him to buy a cheap bike and a tent in the local market. And then we set off on a very spontaneous adventure together.

We rode to Bolivia. Fabien calculated that, just two weeks after buying the bike and tent, he was already saving money compared to using buses and budget accommodation. If you cycle and camp then you remove the two biggest backpacking expenses: transport and accommodation.

2. Tired of the world passing you by?

Don’t you hate it when the train you are travelling on passes through stunning scenery and all you can do is watch it whizz by through the window?

On a bike you are living, breathing, hearing and smelling every mile of countryside. Yes, you will be moving slowly, but that becomes a joy in itself: the journey is the reward. Your trip becomes more than just ticking off a list of must-see sights. It’s the places in between that forge the strongest memories.

3. Skip the tourist traps 

Tourist hot-spots often attract con-men, pickpockets, touts, or just inflated prices. Get off the beaten track and people stop treating you as a tourist. People are curious about who you are and where you are from, and they usually want to show off their country in the best possible light.

Arrive in a village in the middle of nowhere by bicycle, and the effect is magnified! People may laugh at you and think you are mad, but they will be curious, amused, impressed, fascinated, and eager to welcome you. The kindness I received on my bike journeys was amazing and humbling, whether that was in Azerbaijan, Belgium and Chile, or Xinijiang, Yugoslavia or Zimbabwe.

4. Get fit and tanned

You will get fitter than you have ever been and more tanned than you can imagine. The breeze on your face and the freedom of the road are so much nicer than being squashed on a bus playing loud kung-fu movies in a language you cannot understand.

5. Cycling is greener and more fun than...

Cycling round the world is so much better for the environment than a round the world air ticket. Journeys by bike are more unusual, exciting, rewarding, challenging and fun than backpacking trips.

Excuses, excuses?

I’m going to finish by countering your immediate reasons why you’re going to say that travelling by bicycle is not for you:

1. I'm not fit enough

Start slowly – you are not racing anybody, and within a week or so you will feel yourself becoming so much stronger. And use this excuse as a reason to stop frequently to explore villages or chat to farmers in the fields. The slower you travel, the more memorable the experience. There’s no hurry.

2. It’s too dangerous, especially for women

There is a small risk to all of our travels. On a bike the biggest danger is from traffic, but I feel safer on my bike than I do in many of the world’s crazy, high speed, ramshackle buses with loud horns and dodgy brakes (you know the ones I’m talking about!).

In terms of risk from other people, my experience is that 99% of the time you are treated better and more warmly when cycling than when backpacking. Females worrying about the dangers of travelling by bike should read the books of Anne Mustoe, Josie Dew, Dervla Murphy et al.

3. I hate camping

Then consider riding in countries where you can easily reach a town to stay in each evening. Or look at a company such as Cycling for Softies to ease you towards a more challenging journey.

4. I can’t mend a puncture

Nor could Anne Mustoe, and she cycled all the way round the world twice! Bicycles, and bicycle repair stalls can be found in nearly every village in most parts of the world – you are never too far from someone who can fix your bike for you.

So, are you tempted to explore the world on a bicycle? I urge you to consider cycling even for a small part of your next adventure.

Still not convinced?

If not, let me know why in the comments section below. Feel free to post any questions you may have too, and I’ll do my best to answer them.

But trust me on the whole bicycle thing...

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 Your Comments (13)

  • 16th September by bingojesus

    My only excuse is that I can't afford it. Oh, and I'm a misery on the hills. Any books out there on cycling around the world without any uphill bits?


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  • 17th September by Kelly@wanderlust

    Great news, bingojesus, the world is flat!


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  • 17th September by Alastair Humphreys

    Bingojesus - That's a terrible excuse!!! ;-) I spent £7000 on a 4-year round the world bike journey.
    And if you cycle along a river (eg the Danube from Germany to the Black Sea), then it will be downhill all the way and lovely...


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  • 17th September by Lyn Hughes

    Must admit that I gave up cycling a few years ago when my bike was stolen from the Wanderlust office. Hmm, might have to give it a go again...


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  • 21st September by Alastair Humphreys

    Lyn - you are setting a terrible example...
    Time to get out there and discover somewhere by bike. Morocco, perhaps?


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  • 21st September by letssitoutside

    I am so excited to bike! My last great adventure involved traveling to Antarctica, then from the bottom of Argentina back to NYC by land over seven months. A friend came with me for the first two months of the trip and after returning to Argentina from Antarctica, I tried tirelessly to convince her to replace travel by bus with travel by bike. She really wanted to get to Peru and Brazil before she had to return to the US. Since she had a time limit, we decided to camp more and rent bikes to get around for the day occasionally, but not commit to biking the whole way.

    I meant to change my travel plans after she went home, but ended up falling off a roof in Mendoza and flying back to the US a week before my friend did. It's been 1.5 years since I fell and I'm still recovering from a number of injuries. Sometime in the not so distant future, when I am a little stronger, I hope to bike at least across the United States. Other recovery goals include running a marathon and hiking the Appalachian Trail!

    So glad I found this site and look forward to reading more! Go bikes!


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  • 21st September by Velo Yellow

    Hardly round the world, but I had a wonderful 5 weeks cycling around France this summer, following Le Tour. Would recommend all Wanderlusters give it a try!


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  • 23rd September by acoustify

    I would love to, but I never learned to ride a bike! :)


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  • 23rd September by kiwifan

    I would love to do something like this but being self-employed I cannot get away for long trips. I live in Cheshire. Can you suggest something to try? Don't care about hills etc. Just have a weekend. I went to see Alistair at Chester Uni on his lecture tour - brilliant!


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  • 24th September by SophiaB

    I love the sound of cycling - a practical question though - did you find yourself extrmeley limited in what you could take and physically carry?


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  • 27th September by Alastair Humphreys

    Glad to hear we have fellow evangelists here in "letssitoutside" and "Velo Yellow"!

    Kiwifan - you are perfectly placed to head off on a "microadventure": you're so near to the hills round Llangollen. Follow the Dee upstream, pedal up (or walk!) Horseshoe Pass, then camp up in the hills there. Next morning cycle home - a wonderful little trip.

    SophiaB - this is going to be the topic of one of my forthcoming blog posts. Rather than seeing the limited stuff you can carry as a hindrance, try to imagine it as liberating: to reduce the clutter to a bare minimum really helps for a relaxed, enjoyable, stress-free and cheap travel exerience...
    Al


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  • 6th November by GlenRooney

    im starting my first big cycle adventure around the world next may. I never travelled on a bike before. But the appeal of the freedom and the connectedness with your surroundings far outweighed the option of doing the usual "capsule" means of exploring or the '7 stop plane ticket'. Money should not be an excuse. I've been unemployed for the last 5 months and receive €200 a week from the dole. i still manage to put away €100 every week towards the trip. €70 goes towards rent which leaves €30 for eating per week. this gives you opportunity to adjust to budget eating. :) The planning of it is very exciting and i am constantly swaying between thinking i wont get further than 10 miles and thinking i can definitely pull it off. But you have to acknowledge that the negative thoughts are somehow part of it all and the trip is really what you want, in a way the trip has already started. I thoroughly recommend reading alastairs books. he shows what a completely normal guy can accomplish and the way he thinks himself out of the low times is very motivating.


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  • 18th November by Alastair Humphreys

    Good luck GlenRooney!


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