This morning I woke up, packed up the rest of my gear, ate breakfast and then decided to stay in the uninspiring Argentinean tourist town of El Bolsón for another night. There is no reason for me to be here but it is not the right time to move. By explaining this I hope to give you an insight into my approach to bicycle touring and lift the lid on what my life is really like.
I live a dual existence; a life on the bike and another in hostels or hospedajes documenting, communicating, planning and preparing. Each of these modes consume a different energy and mindset, they reveal different sides of the same man. On the bike I am intense, committed and feral. In town I am sedentary, often glued to my computer and preoccupied with a whole other set of demands; two sides to the same man, two components of the same pursuit and the two opposing dimensions of extended bicycle touring.
The transition from one state to the other is a critical juncture for me. I do not just slip off the bike into a relaxed haze of warm showers, WiFi and comfy beds. It usually takes at least three nights before I become accustomed to a bed and probably five before my mind and muscles relax into this new way. Time on the bike is like heaven to me; it is my drug and leaves my body awash with all the chemicals of exhilaration. I cannot just turn these off, it takes days for them to exit my system and let me relax. Yet if I don’t relax I burn out. Thus my touring style has evolved into an all or nothing duality, all motivated by the consuming need to love my riding, do that thrill justice on my website and seek out more of it.
I ride for fun and I search for fun on routes that demand absolute commitment. If I do not feel strong enough to focus and commit 100% to a route I will not start it. I believe this is the secret to enjoying and not enduring a long bicycle tour. That is why after almost five years consumed by this tour I fall deeper in love with the lifestyle and simple act of riding my bicycle with every route. By only starting a route in an appropriate mental and physical place I never resent being on the bike, never miss the town or people I have just left and always look forward.
One of the cornerstones to my approach is the need to shed any desire to go anywhere. This may sound counterintuitive to a life on the move but in actuality is vital. I feel that riders intent on reaching a target can get hurried and will often force the issue. They ride tired and martyr enjoyment for progress towards their goal. They feel good from covering ground, neglecting the power of the experience and place, gaining energy from the feeling they have overcome hardship and displayed strength instead of from the quality of the experience. That is fine, but for me it is not sustainable, why would anybody choose to ride long if they don’t enjoy the act of riding? If you just ride for fun then there is no motivation to restart the ride before your nervous system is properly cleansed and batteries fully recharged.
A question I always ask myself is ‘would I ride this route is no one knew or was ever going to know I’d done it?’ Riding for glory, story and recognition makes no sense to me. In this vein, I think it is vital to understand your priorities and motivations and tailor your tour to those. Visualize the whole process with positivity and find peace with the collection of compromises it will ultimately necessitate.
I am (in theory) riding south to Ushuaia, a journey that is traditionally dictated by factors of time, season and distance. There is nothing stopping me hopping on Ruta 40 and pushing my way quickly down to the end of the world, nothing except the plethora of reasons why I tour. Instead I choose to explore a series of less direct and more remote alternatives. A collection of individual routes as opposed to one long ride to a destination. This will take more time, increase the risk of dropping out of the ‘correct’ season and make the possibility of never reaching Ushuaia very real. I prevent the urgency of these factors pushing me off my course by twisting my perception of them away from them as constraints and towards them as opportunities: Taking more time means it’ll be considerably colder and wetter when I get further south. No big deal, empirically I can deal with the cold and really enjoy snowy landscapes. Not reaching Ushuaia would be a disaster. Not at all, if I really wanted to get there I would have done so three years ago. I derive infinitely more pride from the style of my riding than the product of it. Not reaching Ushuaia and staying true to myself means so much more to me than that photo with the ‘Ushuaia’ sign. I stopped riding to Ushuaia and just started riding south about four years ago, that released me into the present.
Patience is another key to my approach. My experience has taught me that if I am patient I will always find a place to camp and if I take the time to plan a route properly there is no chance of running out of food, water or money. I generally do not have and certainly do not value ‘crazy’ stories of preventable mishaps because I plan everything well beyond what is necessary. This is a personal thing; others get their buzz from venturing out into the unknown and riding spontaneously. I plan my routes meticulously using Google Earth, ridewithgps.com and other people’s experiences. I create a pdf document containing elevations graphs, maps and notes of distances, elevations, potential food and water stops and border crossing information and upload it to my smart phone (see example at the bottom of this post). Then I upload a GPX track of my route (downloadable from ridewithgps.com) to Gaia GPS, again on my phone. This way I have all the information I need easily accessible. Prior to buying a smart phone in La Paz, Bolivia I’d put the pdf document onto my Kindle and always avoided GPS. Since swallowing my pride and succumbing to using GPS my cycling landscape has opened up immeasurably, it has been a game changer and thoroughly positive move.
It usually takes over a day to find and plan a route and in some areas many days. I usually only approach this task after I’ve drawn a line under the previous route. So when I roll into a town at the end of a leg of riding this is how my days pan out: The first day I am tired and struggle to concentrate so I often devote this to sorting through and editing photos. The second day will invariably be spent putting a blog post together. The third will be route planning and the fourth gear maintenance and preparation for the upcoming ride. Every time I stop I give my bike a thorough service so I know the state of everything and can make pre-emptive strikes on potential mechanical problems. I’ll usually clean my frame bag and tent zips and wash my riding shoes. On top of this there is always laundry, always something to sew and things to fix. If something needs fixing I do so immediately, ignoring a problem always makes it worse. All these tasks totally fill my days, occupying me from waking to sleeping, leaving only spare time to eat. Invariably they’ll spill over into a fifth day. So you can understand why sometimes I don’t feel ready to leave when the time comes. This is a lifestyle, it is not a holiday and as bizarre as it may sound, I really don’t have much ‘free’ time at all.
When I am riding a route I like to immerse myself, trying to avoid the internet and maintain my focus. I am always trying to stay aware of where my food will come from so I can make judgements on what I need and when, and always have one eye on my water. In general I am committed to what I call ‘sustainable cycling’. I’ll usually ride 6 to 7 hours in a day when 8 would be easily possible and try to avoid riding over 80% of my capabilities. By this token I’m able to stay strong over an entire route and really enjoy it. If I am hungry I eat, if I need the toilet I do not wait, if I lack energy I take a shorter day, I listen to my body, my mind, the weather and the road, trying not to force any of them into a place they do not belong.
All of these routines and eccentricities enable me to stay enthusiastic for my life on the road; my life, my journey, my way. One of the intrigues of bicycle touring is that everybody is different and has their own ‘secrets’. There are no rules and as many different types of bicycle tourist as there are people. I think some are crazy and some think that of me.