How I became a world cyclist
Hi, I’m Dan.
Before setting off to cycle the world, I lived in the in Derbyshire, United Kingdom.
I used to spend my days working at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester, where I did research on energy, emissions and transport. I have previously had ‘mini-careers’ as a local government pollution control officer and as a corporate recruitment consultant. Along the way I have somehow obtained a degree in philosophy, a masters degree in environmental science and, believe or not, a PhD in environmental engineering. Over-educated and under-stimulated, my ignorance of the day to day concerns of most of the other human beings living on the planet prompted me to leave my comfortable bubble of security and predictability and see first hand what’s really going on out there.
My plan is to travel relatively slowly, by bicycle mostly, while being fairly self-sufficient – camping most of the time to stay within my small budget. If I can stay longer in interesting places / with interesting people, then so much the better to learn about those countries.
My plan is to ride across the six main inhabited continents of the world. That is, Europe, Asia, Australasia, North America, South America and Africa. Antarctica is of course a continent too, but I ruled it out because of the huge energy and financial costs of getting there and surviving there, coupled with the fact that I would not learn much about humanity at the South Pole (and I can see penguins elsewhere in the Southern Hemisphere, and research scientists are everywhere!)
My initial estimate was that it would take me approximately one year for each continent except Europe, with which I was already familiar and where I can easily travel in future when I return home. After two years on the road, I am more or less on track for that five-year timescale. By November 2018, after 33 months on the road (plus 13 months working in South Korea), I have cycled in thirty-one countries in Europe, Asia, Australasia and North America. I expect to take around three more years to cycle back to the UK via North and South America, Africa and once again through Europe.
I have long dreamed of an ‘around the world’ cycle trip, inspired by others who had made similar journeys. But the merry-go-round of day-to-day life along with the fear of losing the security of a good job, comfortable home and relationships kept me from acting on my desire. In the year before my trip, my life was turned upside down when I split up with my long-term partner. That was the catalyst for finally taking the plunge. I wanted to make some important changes in my life, and an extended trip seemed like a good opportunity to practise new ways of thinking and living. I also wanted to visit places I had always dreamed of and learn about other ways of living, alternatives to the insular western lifestyle I was accustomed to. At the same time, I had reached the end of one work contract and was about to begin another, but my heart was not really in it. I realised that I would never be in a better position than this to make the trip of a lifetime.
The trick to long-term travel is to live frugally. To pay for this trip I sold everything I own (house and contents, literally everything that had money value). That covered my upfont costs, like a specially chosen touring bike and luggage, but for many of the things I needed I just made do with what I already had. It also gave me a yearly budget for living costs while on the road. Most of the time my only expenses are food – my bicycle is my main mode of transport and I sleep in my tent for free or with kind souls who accommodate me at no charge. I prefer to cook for myself using my camping stove, except in countries where it is cheaper to eat out. In westernised countries I try to resist expensive treats like restaurants and cafes – I make my own tea or coffee and stick to the budget options in supermarkets. Of course, sometimes I do end up paying for accommodation where the climate or terrain makes camping difficult, or in towns and cities where hosts are difficult to find. Other big ticket expenses are visas, replacing equipment as it wears out and travelling across oceans by plane or boat.
If I run out of money before the end of six continents I will find work to enable me to continue. (Update 2018: In fact I already did this. When I reached South Korea in March 2017 I took a job as an English teacher, working in the city of Masan for 13 months).
I usually say I average around 100km on the days I ride, and qualify that answer by pointing out that it depends on terrain, road quality, wind, energy levels etc.
In fact, the stats show that my mean distance travelled by bicycle on 416 cycling days between Jan 2015 to March 2017 is 88.3km, with a total distance cycled so far of 36,735km.
The short answer to this is that I don’t know, but I don’t worry about it either. Right now I am focussed on day to day life on the road, trying to pay attention to the here and now, not being consumed with thoughts about the future. That said, I don’t see myself living an itinerant lifestyle indefinitely, this is a time-bounded trip. But nor do I see myself returning to the kind of life I led before. I have in the past worked in the corporate sector, local government, and as an academic researcher in a university. I am good at in-depth research and complex writing assignments. Arguably it makes sense to utilise these skills in some form or other, but I cannot do a nine-to-five desk job again. Developing my writing talents for freelance publication is one option I am exploring.
In any case, I know I can live happily with much less now – less stuff, less money. I am open to possibilities and take reassurance from knowing that resourceful, adaptable people are never destitute.
Ah, this old chestnut! “Do you pedal across the sea as well?!” My original ambition was to make the entire circumnavigation without flying. Around ten years ago I decided to abstain from using air travel because of the greenhouse gas emissions from aviation that contribute to dangerous climate change. I hoped that when it came to crossing the oceans between continents I would be able to find passage on either cargo ships or sailing yachts. I used scheduled ferry services in Europe and bought passage on a cargo boat across the Caspian Sea into Central Asia. Aside from astronomically expensive pleasure cruise liners (which ply a limited range of routes), there are no scheduled boat services for the major ocean crossings. Finding a cargo ship or cruising yacht takes time, luck, persistence and then more luck. So far luck has not been on my side and I have been forced to fly – either because I ran out of time on my visa for the country I was departing before I found any suitable vessel, or because I was required to buy a ticket out of the country I was entering to be allowed in under their visa requirements. I was sad to board that first flight from India to Australia, but I have started this six continents ride and I will finish what I set out to do. I still hope to make at least one major ocean voyage by boat.
Related question: “are you an EFI guy?” (as in, ‘every f*cking inch’). No, I am not a ‘no motorised transport’ purist (or obessive). I am happy to use boats and ferries if it fits with a good overland route. If needs must I will hitch a lift rather than die of thirst in the desert. If I have to make a dash for the border before my visa runs out, I’ll get a bus and won’t worry about it afterwards. Basically, my guiding ethic is that if I can cycle, then I will, and will always plan on doing so rather than building routes with the assumption of using buses and trains to skip bits that don’t appeal. Sometimes the road will be busy with traffic, sometimes it won’t. I try to take the rough with the smooth. Air travel is an absolute last resort, as explained above – I will never fly where any surface transport option exists, even if it means a tough ride.
Essentially, yes. The frame, rear rack, handlebar, saddle, shifters, levers, front hub etc are original. But nearly 40,000km on rough roads takes a heavy toll on bicycle components. All transmission components have been replaced three times now, tyres four times, wheel rims replaced after 30,000km. The front fork and rack were destroyed by the unbelievably rough road in Spiti Valley, India, replaced under warranty.
It’s a bit like the philosopher’s axe: replace the axehead when it wears out, later replace the handle when that wears out – is it the same axe? The same could be said of the cells in your body. All is flux.
A full review of my Thorn Sherpa bicycle will follow, eventually.
It is almost impossible to choose a favourite country on all dimensions – cycling, scenery, traffic, food, cost of living, culture, general vibe, etc. There are some countries that won a special place in my heart – for example Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Nepal, Mexico – usually associated with friendships formed there rather than any abundance of amazing vistas or epic adventures.
For one thing, I just like the sound of the syllables – I am a sucker for alliteration! It also has a double-meaning for me. For the first part, I am travelling by bicycle, therefore self-propelled.
But ‘self-propelling particle’ theory is also a scientific explanation of how organisms move en masse, travelling in large groups as one without colliding into each other. It is a mathematical branch of biology that models how animals such as herring shoal together or starlings flock or locusts swarm. Any ‘autonomous biological unit’ is a ‘self-propelling particle’, be it a blue whale, an ant or a motorcyclist in donwtown Hanoi. This appealed to my nerdy, scientific side. It also captures some of what I hoped to gain from this trip – namely, how do other people live around the world, often in much greater proximity to each other than I am used, and what would it be like to join in that great tide of humanity on the move, as an autonomous self-propelling particle?
“Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”. Otherwise phrased as: “Isn’t it too cold at night?”, “Don’t you get lonely?”, or “Isn’t it dangerous?”
I have good quality camping equipment that can keep me warm down to about -20°C or so.
I am happy with my own company and never get lonely camping alone in wilderness environments – I guess I am an introvert at heart. In busy tourist towns, cities or hostels I do occasionally feel lonely, probably because everyone else seems to be in couples or groups, but unless I have particularly low blood sugar it doesn’t bother me for long. I’m at ease socially and enjoy making new friends.
The so-called dangers of camping ‘in the wild’ are – almost without exception – overstated. Europe, Asia and Australasia are very safe places to travel and camp. For peace of mind, I am always careful not to attract attention and prefer a well-hidden campsite away from roads. I have had a few scares, like when a group of armed hunters padded silently through my campsite in the dead of night in the Burmese teak forest. But the main hassle is likely to be being invited into people’s houses when I’d rather just eat quickly and get an early night in the tent.
In North America I had to be careful not to attract bears, not leaving food in the tent at night etc. South America and Africa… well I haven’t really thought about those places in detail yet.
12) Why do you have so much stuff with you?
13) What do you eat?
14) How do you chose your route? How do you find your way?
15) How do you cope in countries where English is not widely spoken? How many languages do you speak?
16) How do you keep motivated? Isn’t cycling hard work?
17) Were you a strong cyclist before this trip?
18) How do you arrange all the visas and permits?
19) Are you going to write a book?
20) When are you going to get married?