Today, 16th January 2018, is exactly three years since I left London on my bicycle and it is also precisely one month since I arrived home. Feels like an appropriate date for the last blog on my cycle around the world…
After one year cycling I wrote a blog summarising my time on the road and began it with a few stats on my first year of pedalling. I shall do the same this time around, but with a slightly longer list. I bloody love statistics. Here are some numbers for you to sink your teeth into:
Total distance: 48,850km (30,350miles)
Countries cycled: 42
Days spent cycling: 639
Hours spent cycling: 3232hrs (equivalent to 135 days continuous riding)
Average distance per day: 77km (48miles)
Average speed: 15km/h (9.3m/h)
Total elevation gained: 420,756m/261miles (equivalent to 48 times up Mt Everest from sea level)
I only recorded the miles I cycled when they were full days of riding. The total distance doesn’t include my day outings and shorter rides. If I had recorded all of those rides I think the distance would be a bit over 50,000km. I was surprised the average day wasn’t longer and that my speed was such a pathetic 15km/h. It varied a lot on my trip, in some countries I’d do sections averaging nearer 100km a day but when the sunlight hours were shorter – in England, for instance – I cycled much less.
Furthest distance in one day: 185km/115miles (8hrs 15mins cycling in Australia, August 2016)
Longest time cycling in a day: 9 hours (over 140km in Iran, May 2015)
Most elevation gained in one day: 2,700m/8,900ft (over 80km in China, May 2016)
Shortest day: 20km/12miles (2hrs in East Timor, October 2016)
Top speed: 76.5km/47.miles per hour (Thailand, May 2016)
Fastest day: 24km/15miles per hour (over 50km in USA, July 2017)
Slowest day: 6km/3.5miles per hour (over 37km in China, January 2016)
People often ask me: “How far do you cycle in a day?” It’s a hard one to answer because it varies so much. The road quality affects my distance, as does the weather, the altitude, the terrain and the wind. Only cyclists appreciate how much difference the wind can make and only those who’ve tried pedalling into a strong headwind with four panniers understand what a drag the extra surface area can be. One day in Australia I had an awful headwind and managed only 90km in 8 hours of cycling. I took a day off and when I got back on my bike the winds had turned 180 degrees. That day I rode for almost the same amount of time and hit 185km, the longest day mentioned in the above stats.
I’m not so sure the ‘most elevation gained in one day’ is accurate. Sometimes my GPS measured them a bit off. I know for a fact I did a few days with more than 2,000m ascending but they didn’t happen often. The first time I managed that was in Armenia and I climbed a similar amount occasionally in China. The shortest day was in East Timor when I ended at lunch because I was sick. I hit that top speed in Thailand trying to reach 80km/h for no good reason other than being a young lad who wants to see how fast he can go all the time. I hit a pothole on the descent and nearly lost control. My metal thermos was knocked out on the bump and cracked on the tarmac. That was a wake up call and I never went so fast again…
Hottest temperature: 46C/115F (Australia, December 2016)
Coldest night temperature: -20C/-4F (China, January 2016)
Coldest day temperature: -15C/5F (Iceland, November 2017)
Australia may have won the award for hottest temperature but it was in Thailand that I found the heat the most challenging to cycle in. The day I left Chiang Mai in May 2016 it was 43C and the humidity made it unbearable. Thailand was the only country I felt forced to take a break for a couple hours in the middle of the day because I felt unsafe riding in the heat. It’s funny, most people I speak to are shocked when I say I cycled solo across the Australian Outback in the middle of summer in a way that they never are about me cycling Thailand! It’s interesting the places we consider extreme environments around the world.
Furthest distance cycled in a month: 2461km/1529miles (USA, Sept 2017)
Furthest distance cycled in a week: 699km/434miles (China, December 2015)
I was surprised China won the award for most miles cycled in a week. I was riding through the edge of the Gobi desert that December and although the days were short I remember putting in the big mileage simply because it was desolate, empty and the was nothing else to do. I always felt like there was deadline, despite how free I was on the road. Perhaps we are never completely free, and my great nemesis over the last three years has been the changing seasons. I was in a rush that winter in China because I wanted to get over the Tibetan Plateau before the cold caught me (I didn’t make it) and I was in a hurry this autumn in America because I wanted to reach Iceland before winter. Once again, I didn’t make. In fact, I’m not sure I got any of my seasons right on this tour…
Highest elevation: 4,708m/15,445ft above sea level (China, January 2016)
Lowest elevation: 42m/138ft below sea level (China, November 2015)
Two awards for China here, with both the highest and lowest points of my trip. The Turpan Depression – through which I cycled – claims to have the world’s fourth lowest exposed point. In summer it is hot and dry but when I pedalled through in winter of 2015 it was freezing cold.
For a Brit, the altitudes up above 4,000m are hard to comprehend. The highest point in the UK, Ben Nevis, is a feeble 1,344m in comparison. I did two sections of high-altitude cycling: the first was in Tajikistan up in the Pamirs and the second was in China around the fringes of the Tibetan Plateau. By the time I reached the highest point of my tour at Kuluke Pass 4,708m ASL I was used to the lack of oxygen. It was always a weird sensation to feel out of breath all the time and I always found it hard to sleep well more than 4,500m above sea level.
Most water carried at one time: 25 litres (Australia, December 2016)
Most punctures in one day: 3 (Australia, December 2016)
Longest distance between civilsation/water: 225km/140miles (Australia, November 2016)
Longest time between punctures: Approximately 9,000km/5,600miles (From UK to Armenia at the start of the trip)
Most falls in one day: 3 (On ice and mud in Scotland, November 2017)
Collisions with cars/motorbikes: 3 (Georgia, China & Indonesia)
Fortunately I never hurt myself too badly in those accidents and my bike only took a couple of minor knocks. The first crash happened on my way out of Tbilisi, Georgia in July 2015. My front wheel got bent pretty badly in that collision so I had to return to town to find a bike shop. The first mechanic I found looked at it, shook his head and told me I’d need to buy a new one. The only problem was that he didn’t had a rim my size. I went to another bike shop and the guy there also told me he couldn’t true it back. He didn’t have a wheel my size either! In the third shop I found the mechanic also didn’t have a spare wheel for me but he said he’d have a go trueing the rim. When he finished it wasn’t quite straight and the tension was really uneven but it certainly worked. “How long do you think it will last?” I asked him. He shrugged. The answer was all the way! That wonky wheel managed another 40,000km – amazing.
That brings me onto replaced bike parts. Most of the bicycle wasn’t as lucky as the front wheel…
(Some of these are estimates and numbers don’t include the original parts):
Tyres: 3 pairs
Chain & cassette: 4
Brake rotors: 2
Bottom bracket: 1
Multiple tubes, puncture patches, cables, housing, brake pads
The frame is the same, as is the Brooks saddle (although it’s looking pretty sorry these days – as you can see below), the handlebars, front fork and both pannier racks. Not much of the gear I left London with made it with me around the world. I can almost count them on one hand: bike lock and cable, hard drive, pocket point-it book (the one pictured at the end of this blog), high-vis vest from IKEA, passports & bank cards. Everything else has been changed.
I wonder how much of me has changed over the last three years. I’m not talking about psychology here, I mean physically. I read something recently – I think it was in Bill Bryson’s A Brief History of Everything – about the rate that our cells develop. If I remember the stat correctly (which I probably don’t), it’s possible that a third of my cells are different than when I left. Regardless of whether I have my science down, a large chunk of my personal matter is not the same that left London with me. And psychological change? Well, that’s another story…
Times I cheated: 2
Let me explain that one. Quite early in the trip it became extremely important for me to cycle every metre and never ‘cheat’ by taking a ride. I never took buses or trains and only tried to cross water by the shortest possible crossing. I see that obsession as a weakness rather than a strength because at the end of the day – who cares? There is no award for pedalling every inch of the way but I am not the first bike tourer to get fixated with that.
The first time I was forced to take a lift was between the border of Laos and Thailand. The officials won’t let you cycle across the bridge over the Mekong so I had to put my bike in a bus for a couple of miles between checkpoints. The second time was in Utah, USA when I was forced to hitch a ride through the Mt Carmel tunnel by Zion National Park – the security there wouldn’t let cyclists ride through.
My final year on the road – 11 months to be precise – was as fun as the first two. It felt quite different in many ways, in part because I began the year with a 3 month break and in part because I was cycling towards home for those final 7 months, rather than away from it.
I moved quite quickly this year. It was a slight struggle to start cycling again in New Zealand after my break in Australia but by the time I started crossing America I felt as fit as I ever have and I made fast progress across the country. I had very few days off this year compared to the previous two but at the back of my mind I knew I was heading home and that kept me pushing east.
New Zealand was not just a struggle because I had been off the bike for a while. While I was working in Australia I focused my every attention on getting back to my bicycle and re-starting the adventure. I’d romanticised my life on two wheels and forgotten how tough it can be when the weather is not favourable. When I started cycling in New Zealand it rained for three days straight. The days were short and the nights were cold in the tent. I had not been prepared for that after being in warm climates for almost a year and I found it hard to enjoy myself at first. I did love New Zealand and once I got back into ‘the routine’ it was impossible not to enjoy the mountain cycling.
The real unexpected gem of 2017 – and perhaps of the entire trip – was the route from San Francisco to central Colorado. That ride was up there with the best 6 week sections of my cycle around the world. The two other contenders would be across the Pamir Highway into Kyrgyzstan in autumn 2015 and the ride across the Tibetan Plateau and into Yunnan in early 2016.
The American West was amazingly varied. During those 6 weeks I cycled out of the bustling San Francisco urban sprawl, over the Sierra Nevada, across the Great Basin desert, past Utah’s famous national parks and over the Rocky Mountains. Simply sensational cycling. I’d go back there in a heartbeat.
It was a shame that the Great Plains were so dull after all that beautiful scenery. The month that followed was easily the least stimulating of the year but I was glad to have my sister along for the ride. Lea bought a bicycle off Ebay for £100, didn’t do any training, hopped on the bike and blitzed it 2,000km without a single complaint. My first fortnight was pancake flat along the North Sea coast but Lea’s was straight up and over the Continental Divide. When I say anyone could go bike touring I do mean it. Both Lea and I are perfect examples of how unqualified cyclists can just start pedalling and get out there in the fresh air. All you need is the motivation.
Going to Iceland so late in the year was a good move. Not only did it present me with one last great challenge after a relatively easy crossing of North America, it also was the last environmental battering I could take. That cold month in Iceland, followed by a wet fortnight in the north of Britain was the last I could be bothered with. I was ready to arrive home when I did.
Even the last ride down Britain was a pleasant surprise. I wasn’t expecting to find an adventure so close to home but Scotland was a truly unexpected wonderland this winter. I genuinely had no idea the Highlands are so beautiful and I’m already thinking I might end up back in Scotland this summer…
As I cycled across the UK I felt like a giant magnet in London was sucking me back down to the Big Smoke. The large chunk of Scotland north of Glasgow felt wild and untamed but once I escaped the highlands things began to feel more and more familiar each day. By the time I reached Leeds – a town I used to live in – I really felt like the journey was at its conclusion.
When I studied music in Leeds I spent an awful lot of time mastering my craft as a percussionist. By the end of my degree I was practising for hours every day of the week. When I picked a new piece of music to learn (like this one on the marimba) I would select something that initially looked too difficult. I certainly wouldn’t be able to sight-read it but I’d concentrate on one thing at a time and just learn the first few notes rather than worry about the whole piece. Once I’d learnt the first bar I’d piece together the whole opening phrase, and then the next, and then the next. Soon enough I’d have the entire movement down. Then, once I’d nailed that, I’d move on the next and break that down into small manageable chunks once again.
If I look at my route on the world map now it looks like a mind-boggling distance. I prefer to think about it in segments, because that’s how I approached the cycling. If you are in London and look at the map plotting a route to Australia it will seem like a formidable challenge. When I planned my trip I’d always concentrate on one section at a time. Once I’d reached one target I’d turn my attention to the next realistic one ahead. That way I never had too much to focus on far ahead and I always had attainable goals. Overtime, I’d piece the sections together and eventually I’d look back and think: ‘Fuck me, I’ve just cycled from London to Australia!” In that sense it is a very similar discipline to playing a instrument.
I am sure this is the same for many of us, when we apply that metaphor to our day-to-day tasks. I am no architect but I suspect even the greatest visionaries look a city skyline and wonder how they will produce a structure to compete with the tallest skyscrapers around. First they concentrate on the foundations, then the first floor and then the floors above. These things don’t happen overnight – we break them into small chunks and then create our own masterpieces.
I was glad to make it home in time for Christmas after spending the last two away on the road. Although I was pleased to be home for it and happy to buy presents for my family it did feel slightly anti-everything I’ve been doing for the last few years. The things I’ve had packed into my panniers are stuff that has been essential to my everyday life on two wheels. My luxury items, eg. cutting board and coffee filter, would probably not be considered ‘luxury’ in many other contexts. Now I was buying things from shops that I didn’t need to purchase, from stores that didn’t need to sell them, for people that didn’t need to have them. Consumerism does funny things to us.
It’s now the weekend and I’m trying to find the time to finish typing this. I have loved writing these blogs but I am also quite glad this is the last one. A lot of people have asked me if I will continue posting on this blog – I’m afraid the answer is a definite no. When I arrived home I was quite tired of talking about this bike ride. It has been at the forefront of my life for three years and it is time to do something different. To travel by bicycle is not my raison d’etre, I have plenty of other things to be doing with my time. That said, a month down the road and I am already wondering what to do next with my bike ride. Who knows. If enough people continue to pester me about writing a book I may actually consider it…
I’m glad to be back in London again. Sometimes I love it, other times I just want to be back on my bike. I’m a working man now and when I tell you what my new job is you may laugh. I’m a bike courier. I spend the day zooming around central London on my bicycle delivering parcels between businesses.
It’s nice to be out on my bike all day. It’s a healthy way of re-integrating with the city. If I’d gone straight into an office after spending so long outdoors I think my body would have shut down. Now I’m certainly keeping my fitness up – with my commute I usually hit about 50 miles a day and am out on my bike for at least 10 hours every day. That means I’m hitting around 250 miles (400 km) a week – more or less the amount I’d have been doing on my tour. I don’t get paid an hourly rate, instead I get paid per drop. I didn’t even know it was legal to employ someone like this but technically I am self-employed. I don’t get any holiday or sick leave and I haven’t got a contract. Despite the ‘freedom’ that affords me I still need to work 45 hours mon-fri to get a 20% commission so there’s still incentive for me to work long weeks. I get paid per week and as everything I get between now and the end of the financial year will be tax-free I may as well try to save up a little money.
I’m basically the little bitch of London, running around dropping off parcels for people more important than me. It’s fun having a nosey into some of the fanciest buildings in town, I’ve never been into such places before. Actually, I’m usually not even allowed in many of them as a ‘common delivery man’. The security just point me in the direction of the loading bay and I’m send down to the grubby basement with everyone else at the bottom of the social ladder. In a couple places I’ve had to meet someone working inside for a pick up or drop and the lobby security haven’t even let me wait inside – instead I’ve had to stand around outside in the cold until the client pops down themselves to meet me.
It’s a funny old city. There’s always something interesting going on here. The other day I made a drop on the 10th floor of a block to a guy who was working on a computer while walking on a treadmill. The next morning I was cycling into town through Balham where I saw a homeless bloke scooping up the remains of a pigeon that had been run over in the middle of the road. He collected the bits of flesh and feathers into one hand and then casually walked down the road with it. I don’t want to know what happened next…
I’m blessed to have come from this city, really. It might not be perfect but there is so much opportunity here. Walking on a treadmill while staring at a laptop because there’s no time to exercise doesn’t sound appealing to me but at least we have choices as to how we live our lives in this country. Just because I’m British means I’m one of the most privileged people in the world. I’m a very lucky man and even if I’m only scraping by – that doesn’t change it. I’ve met so many people around the world whose lives are far tougher than mine will ever be. I have access to great education, free health care and can take my sterling to countries where my money goes way further than is fair and I have two passports that will get me there without trouble. I am very blessed.
It is an expensive city though. I felt like I’d spent a fortune on this trip but back in London it doesn’t seem like that much at all. I arrived back home with £5,000 less in my pocket than when I left, having worked for just three months during the last three years. I’d spend that amount in 9 months renting a room in this town…
In the last blog I wrote about how cycling had more or less cured my asthma. It’s funny that I mentioned that because as soon as I stopped pedalling my asthma returned with a vengeance. I had real difficulty breathing over Christmas and it forced me to go and see a doctor. Now I rely on a pump to get me through the day, it’s bizarre. It’s better now that I have started work as a bike courier which is ironic as I’m cycling around breathing in car fumes all day long but I suspect that for me the asthma is primarily a psychosomatic thing and it is the dramatic lifestyle switch that has triggered the problems.
Let me wrap up this final blog. It’s now ten days since I started writing this blog but I’m finding it hard to find time these days to finish it. I leave home at 8.20am and usually don’t get back until 7-8pm by which point I’m pretty shattered from having been out on my bike all day. It’s tough work but I’m getting quicker with my deliveries. I’m managing to get 20+ drops a day and last week I took home more than £400. Not great money considering the hours I’m out but not bad at all for an unskilled job that I could walk straight into.
I’m back at work tomorrow so I’d better conclude things and stick some pictures in here. It has been a pleasure sharing all these stories with you all. I started this blog so that I could spare myself from repeating every anecdote to my friends and family but it now reaches way beyond my immediate connections. I’ve tried to document my journey as both a physical and emotional one and if it has been entertaining, informative or inspiring then that’s wonderful. It was, after all, only because of other cycle touring blogs that I felt brave enough to start my own tour.
I didn’t really need to be brave as there’s not much to be scared of out there in the wide world but I didn’t know that when I left. At the beginning I spent a lot of time stashing my valuables in different places around my bicycle because I was convinced I’d be getting robbed left right and centre. I never had any real trouble the whole way cycling around the world.
I used to read the London Metro newspaper on my way to work every morning. By the time I got off the train at Waterloo I’d be more depressed than when I get on. Bad news sells and the paper would always be full of such awful stories. ISIS had gone and chopped someone’s head off again, Israel and Palestine were busy shooting each other, there always seemed to be a gory murder on British soil and usually another teen had been stabbed in London. The world looks positively terrifying by the time you’ve finished with the news. The problem is, if we spend 90% of our energy concentrating on the bad stories, the evil people and the hateful actions of a small minority, we forget that the rest of the world is full of people who are a positively lovely and helpful bunch.
Not only did the other bike touring blogs make me think it wasn’t too dangerous to cycle around the world, they also made me think that it wasn’t too difficult. I hope my blog has made the feat seem doable because, at the end of the day, if I could do it – the man who had never cycled more than 10 miles before leaving home – then I suspect most could.
If you don’t believe me, let’s quickly run through some of my finer moments:
I had to walk down a mountain 3 months into my trip because I didn’t know how to tighten my brakes. I washed my chain in sea water and then wondered why it was rusty the next morning. I cycled all the way to Denmark (completely lost much of the time) before learning that I could use offline maps on my phone. I carried the wrong size spare chain for 9 months and an extra tyre that was also the wrong size for a good month. I complained about my camping stove not standing up properly for 3 months before I realised that its legs folded out.
If I can do it, you probably can to.
I hope to be back on my bike one day in the future. Let’s just see what happens.
Hopefully I’ll find time to put some of the footage together from this trip into a series of videos that I can share at some point later in the year.
Until then, cheers for coming along for the ride!