As a solo cycle tourist life on the road can be a very liberating experience. Get up when you want cycle as far as you want and stop whenever and wherever you like. Sometimes though you crave the company of others who are putting themselves through the same experience. This craving for socialising with your velophile peers means that eventually your journey will intertwine with at one other person sometimes many more.
So far this has happened five times on my journey with varying degrees of satisfaction. Travelling with others can be fun and challenging. There are some advantages and disadvantages to cooperative travelling I’ll start with the good stuff…
- You don’t need to explain yourself to other cycle tourists, mostly anyway. They get it you get it and that common experience means you can express things without talking and get past all the crappy small talk. It’s an instant recognition of a singular experience and an understanding that’s usually left unspoken.
- You don’t have to worry too much about entertaining locals with chat about your journey because with fellow companions you can chat among yourselves or just be silent when you’re dog tired at the end of the day and can’t be arsed because you all know that you’re all thoroughly shagged.
- You can share weird moments, hardships and encouragement on the road and have a laugh at the situations you find yourself in bonding with complete strangers that you may never meet under normal circumstances over big dramas or the smallest incidents. Cycling the desert would have been amazing by myself but it would have been much harder and probably a little more boring had I not had Rhys, Johanna, Francesca and Estel with me to share the experience with. Their stories and mine are now part of the same journey at least for a short time.
- You can share equipment, food, recipes, fuel, and tips and tricks for surviving on the road. For example I learnt new foraging skills from a couple of Spanish guys while cycling through Albania to Macedonia. I also found out that foraging is incredibly time consuming and can break the rhythm of a ride if you do it too often. I learnt a new hitch knot which I can use on my tent guy lines from an experienced hitchhiker and wild camper, Rhys Bevan, in Kazakhstan. I was able to assist with my pump when this same person lost their pump and also when he needed screws to fix a misbehaving rear rack. A problem shared is a problem halved in these situations.
- Pooling money and buying food or accommodation becomes much cheaper when your a larger group. Hotels prefer groups because you multiply the daily bottom line. It also becomes affordable to think about renting apartments as I found with a German couple, Philippe and Beata in Turkey. They also showed me that booking.com has a free cancellation option which is useful if you have to book places in advance for annoying visa requirements.
- Shared goals can also help a group bond. If you want to go to a particular place or make a certain number of kms per day it’s easier when your all motivated to keep going. You can maintain a pace you might not otherwise make or you might stop spontaneously because one of your party spotted something on the way that you missed.
- There is safety in numbers. Shit happens and unfortunately with longer tours you will have moments where you may get into accidents, you might fall ill with the diarrhea in the desert (true story), or particularly if you’re alone and sometimes in a group of female travellers you will get unwanted attention from some primitive minded men. These and many other situations can endanger you, your belongings and potentially lead to some scary moments. Travelling with others means that any problems encountered and any dangers you may face can be faced together.
So much for the good now here’s the bad part about travelling in groups…
- You have to compromise. I hate to compromise. You started out selfishly thinking this is your journey then suddenly you realise you have to be a sociable and social person. You may want to do something but sometimes to avoid conflict, being left behind and so on you must first seek the consensus or permission of the group. This can feel like an alien concept at first if you’ve been going for weeks or months on your own. It can also be very irritating if the consensus is frequently swayed by one member of the group.
- You have to keep pace. Either you slow down or speed up but whichever way it is the pace may not be your own and it may become untenable for everyone to stick together after a long period. Some people don’t want to be rushed others don’t want to break a fast rhythm with too many breaks and meandering stops. There is no right way or wrong way to tour, however in my opinion record breakers like Mark Beaumont strike me as the most boring tourers focused on nothing but speed and efficiency missing the point of seeing the world from a bike. This leads back to point one where you have to compromise.
The best companions support each other but don’t hinder the collective rhythm. I found this with the Italians Mirko and Michele. In that case I was the slow poke with my fifty kilo load. I preferred to allow them to power ahead and just caught up with them later – I wanted to do their distances I just needed to spend a little longer on the bike. They were also great company encouraging me to use my horn at every opportunity especially when passing the ladies or just to make pedestrians jump at the sound!
I found that dynamic again with Estel and Francesca this time I would set the pace or Francesca would and Estel would pootle along behind catching up when we stopped. Francesca developed a novel way of working out the distance Estel was behind us by listening for the hoot of a car horn behind her, you get beeped at a lot by cars and trucks. No horn sound meant she was quite far back. The two Spaniards I travelled with were, in contrast, possibly the most annoying companions though I think the feeling was mutual. After a fast paced Italian duo the slowness and constant stop start approach of these two drove me nuts and I think my incessant pestering about when would get going again, must have annoyed them. In the end we parted ways without saying a word. I had powered ahead and when I noticed they weren’t behind me I waited. I waited for a long time then cycled back… nothing. They had ditched me. I smiled at their little conspiracy because at ten kilometres from the border of FYROM (Macedonia to non-Greeks) and Greece I was relieved to be able to continue at speed. I was slightly offended by their method of ditching me, it was bit childish and unnecessary but I thought fuck it each to their own and at least in a way we parted with no love lost.
- The mood of one person affects the mood of all. Travelling is already a stressful experience. Travelling by bicycle is a mental and physical endurance test so combining that with the generally testing experience of long term travel, add one two or more people with very strong personalities in to the mix and you have a powder keg waiting to explode. So far the desert has been the true test of tolerance and zen for all of us. We’ve all been waking up at 3.30am to cycle 50-80 kilometres before finding shelter, food and water and waiting out the hot hours trying to sleep or usually just sweat uncomfortably in the heat of the day. Leaving again at 6-7pm we use the few remaining daylight hours to go further camping at sundown cooking a meal and falling asleep at 11pm to get four and half hours of shuteye.
Typically sleep in the desert means being woken up by insects in my case and scorpion stings in Rhys’. Johanna just didn’t want to wake at all. It’s been tense to say the least. Not only do we have to contend with the heat there is the added pressure to ensure a constant water supply. We carry around 8kg of extra weight in litre bottles that fall off the bike when you run over potholes. There is a need to ride large distances between tea shops or what passes for towns in these parts. There is no shade, no respite, you have to keep going. Your arse is sore because of your saddle? Keep going. Haemorrhoids making your arse itch? Whack on some some arse butter and keep going. Got a puncture? Fix it damn fast and keep going because the sun ain’t stopping for you. Irritated about the pace? Nothing you can do but keep going or burn to a crisp. Got the shits? Stop every hour or so and shit at the only bush that barely covers your modesty from the passing traffic!
Eventually the sleep deprivation, the monotony of the landscape, the insufferable heat or sheer pressure of it all can make people snap. The only thing that will keep you together in this situation is the knowledge that you’re all in it together. You keep that in mind and you can remain vaguely zen and you can hold on to your empathy for those around you. Sometimes you’ll take turns being cheery other times you’ll be the grumpiest most irritable bugger the world has known. If you like to moan you have to curb it slightly if you’re too cheery it’s irritating as well. You’ll pine for the mountains, fresh water and that elusive color of green that signifies life and vitality. Instead you see the colours of red, orange and yellow. You’re caked in and blasted by sands caught in a the persistent desiccating headwind while you are crawling passed the bleached scrub of a wasteland on a road that seems to stretch on forever.
- Travel envy and the annoying gearheads. Sometimes there are those travellers you know you will never travel with. You meet them on the road or at hostels and thankfully your experience with them is brief. They try and give you advice that is not wanted or needed. They have all the gear but no idea. They’ve been on a five week tour and think they know it all, judging your bike and your gear. The opposite of that is the traveller who seems to breeze through making everything look easy and effortless perfectly packed, good with languages always telling you about the lucky, singular experiences which you always seem to miss out on but they are humble about it which makes you envy them all the more. You don’t want to travel with either of these two because either way you’ll feel shit about your own trip as if you’re somehow not doing it right.
- The friend or the other half. This one is always tough. If you choose to travel with friends or especially your lover you run the risk of destroying your friendship/relationship because the stress of travel like this can bring out parts of your personalities neither of you has seen before. Sometimes this can strengthen a relationship – there is nothing like supporting your other half in throws of diarrhea to bring you closer together is there? I’ve always had a pact with whomever I travel with that if the experience is negative then splitting to go on separately is always an option. It worked well with my friend Phil on my first gap year before Uni backpacking around the world. We’re still good friends in regular contact but it could have been different if we had felt obliged to continue together. We split after three months and had brilliant experiences on our own. The good thing is if you can travel with your friends or your partner then you know your relationship can probably withstand just about anything.
The bottom line? Travelling with others can be amazing but it’s a double edged sword. You will have some amazing stories to tell and those memories will be shared with friends whom you may never see again or whom you may meet down the road because you became besties. You will learn what it truly means to get along and be part of a team. You’ll learn a lot about yourself and your mates. You’ll learn a lot from others and you’ll find out you have things to teach too. Travelling alone is great and I would never have left London if I had to wait for someone else to get their act together and join me. I hate to compromise but sometimes for certain parts of the journey being a loner is not the best option. So if you’re planning an adventure alone or with someone, or you meet someone on the way have an agreement about the vibe of the trip and above all figure out what you want out of it and what the other person wants. If you know that everything else will fall into place or you’ll kill each other who knows it’s your journey go figure it out yourself.
Capoeira For Refugees
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