10 Years trouble

Ten and a half years ago my parents came and collected my possessions  and took them back to their house. A month later I flew to Austrlia and spent 9 months there making new friends, drinking and occssionally being  a ‘backpacker’.

So on Saturday again my parents collected what few possessions I own and took them back to their house. Now a part of me feels like I should be having some kind of existential crisis, that my life hasn’t progressed in the last ten years. If I judge myself on the house, wife, kids and car narrrative then yes I really haven’t got much to show for those years. Also from the perspective of my mental health issues and my continual battle with alcoholism I’ve definitely gone round in circles a few times.

However I’m a different person, I am a changed man. I have had some amazing experiences in those years including new horizons in travel, music, writing and briefly (step) fatherhood. Those experiences have shaped me and made me more self-aware. They have also given me a level of confidence that I’ve never had before and wish I had gained earlier in life. So I’m single, unemployed and soon to be of no fixed abode. Do you know what? I don’t care. I don’t need symbols of status to validate my existence. I’m me, just one guy making it up as he goes along and enjoying where possible as much of this life as I can because I know it’s short.

So at times I’m down and cynical and want to rage against the unjust society we live in but I still need to remember to smile. Today is just a pixel on the canvas of my life and looking at the picture of the last ten years  it was great. I have a host of happy memories of my friends (old and new) and their smiling faces. That is what is important to me, not material wealth, so as this new adventure starts I look forward to what the next ten years holds.

Conceptualizing theories in motion.

Re-visting old posts isn’t something I do often but I feel I need to share this and give it some context as to why I am.

Today’s guest blog on Alastair Humphrey’s site perfectly encapsulates a point I was trying to make about a month ago in this post. A really good example of the idea I floated about quality over quantity with regard to raising children and also making room in your life for the things that make you who you are. So please read the guest blog linked to above written by Satu Vänskä-Westgarth and always be open minded that there are different ways of doing things.

Nervous shakedown

So I’ve just got back from a few days riding around in Scotland as a bit of a ‘shakedown’ for my future tours. Naturally I’ve been thinking whilst riding and for some reason I dwelled a lot upon the concept of the ‘touring expert’. Now my background in cycle touring is actually pretty theoretical. For the last four years I have worked for a bicycle shop that is a touring specialist. Now I’m an information sponge so rapidly I gained a detailed knowledge of touring bikes and how they functioned. However until the middle of 2013 I had never actually been on a bicycle tour!

So for over 2 years I’ve been professing to being an expert on bicycle touring, giving advice to customers with zero actual practical experience. Added to that much of the knowledge you gain in a bicycle shop is about the actual bicycle itself. Now I’ve come to the conclusion that unless you are really unlucky a catastrophic failure of the bicycle is unlikely (yes I’m now touching wood and throwing salt over my shoulder etc.). In addition if you’re not travelling in remote regions of the world you’re probably not too far from a bike shop who can fix your non-catastrophic issue.

As an example in Scotland my bike has developed an intermittent clank. Now the expert bicycle mechanic in me went through the stages of establishing why this was happening. You see I reckon you can learn to be an expert on paper. You can understand how something works and how to adjust it when it stops working, however this means nothing without the experience of what actually happens when it breaks or wears. So I’ve been through checking the things that could cause the noise, I did notice that my cassette was wobbling all over the shop. A worn freehub perhaps, not the case because as someone pointed out today my cassette had worked loose. Once tightened there is still the clank and as I have never experienced this noise before I have no idea what is causing it. I’m backed to my first thought  which was that it is the bottom bracket but as there is no play in the cranks and they spin freely it’s going to take a strip and rebuild to establish if that is true. So this is why an ‘expert’ is nothing without experience, because in some situations you need to be able to think and act quickly. This (I assume) is why first aid training e.g. CPR is practical to give some measure of what actually happens in that life or death situation where action needs to be rapid. You can’t really role play and simulate actually touring by bicycle though.

Also moving away from the actual mechanics of the bicycle itself a lot of touring is nothing to do with riding a bike. You can add in all the things you do everyday that aren’t riding from a to b as areas for developing expertise and experience. A lot of the non-cycling elements of touring you can only really learn from experience. For example tent A and tent B may look virtually the same but the difference in pole construction can cause you a headache if you have no experience on which to base a choice between the two. Someone gave me a tent for touring for which I am very grateful however it has fibreglass poles, I have now split one section of pole for every time I have put it up. I should have seen this coming as I do have experience of using this type of tent pole before and the exact same thing happened to me over ten years ago, I’d just forgotten. Now beggars can’t be choosers but the result is that after this experience I’ll be getting a different tent which has aluminium poles.

Upon returning to Leeds yesterday I actually ran into someone I know outside a pub in town and we had a chat about the trip I’d just been on. I mentioned my tent failure and he quickly said “aluminium poles all the way”, showing that he was clearly more experienced that me when it comes to tents. However that highlights that experience doesn’t always have to be practical. You can learn from others experiences although I definitely feel it is a watered down version of the real knowledge you gain from your own experiences. I also think you shouldn’t be afraid of doing something because you don’t have the relevant experience. As I said doing it yourself is the best way to gain experience and if you want to mitigate the risks or put your mind at rest then seek out the experiences of others in advance. Just don’t listen to anyone professing to be an expert.
So based on the spirit of sharing experience and from my non-expert point of view here are the things I learned on my short tour around the south west corner of Scotland.

Get you bike set-up spot on before you set off on tour. – Don’t as I did ride your bike loaded with luggage for the first time when setting off for the station. Adding luggage to you bike makes it handle differently. Now a good touring bike will still ride well and in a stable manner when loaded however small differences in the weight distribution of that luggage can make a big difference to the handling. As I hadn’t done any form of test ride with luggage I wobbled off down the road thinking to myself this could be me better. However based on what previous experience I do have all I did at the end of day one was move both panniers further forwards on the rack and instantly the handling improved.

Another example of this was that I decided to alter my saddle height after the first days riding. Now when working in the shop I was always slightly amazed by the number of people who bought new bikes within a week of starting on a long cycle tour. You need to get used to the position on a new bike and set handlebar position and saddle height so that they are comfortable and don’t cause injury. Yes there are theoretical ‘expert’ ways of doing this but generally a bit of trial and error ‘experience’ is required. Raising my saddle height whilst on tour was therefore a really stupid thing to do and I paid the price because after a day and a half my right knee started hurting and feeling a bit ‘crunchy’. Saddle back to normal position and the problem improved, although my knee still twinged slightly as it recovered from my stupidity.
Know your gear. – So you’ve sorted the bike out, however it’s good to test the rest of the equipment you will be using day in day out. My slightly mishap regarding the tent above exemplifies this but another thing I learn on this tour is that I’ve not been using my meth’s burner in the best manner. I have one of the 22g Meths stoves from Bear Bones bikepacking which essentially are a fancy version of a beer can stove. I also bought one of these pocket stoves which I thought were neat as you can use solid fuels or with a Trangia. Now in my inexperience I thought my meths burner and the Trangia were the same, however when you look at them closely they very different in terms of size, shape and function. The Trangia is designed to be used with some form of post stand/windshield so it sits nicely in the pocket stove which focuses the heat of it’s jet upwards onto the pot. The meths burner is designed so that once it blooms you can place the pot directly on top of it, the flames come from the side holes as multiple small focussed jets. It’s taken me over 6 months to realise that essentially using the meths burner in my pocket stove seems to be very inefficient in terms of the time taken to heat/cook and therefore also in terms of fuel! Lesson learnt, however I’ll still carry the pocket stove but will invest in some solid fuel so I have two fuel/stove options.
Learn to understand and read contours on a map*. – Technically we learnt this in the Alps but it transfers across to anywhere that isn’t pan flat. Use the contours on your maps to plan your days riding to keep things manageable and fun. I am talking the big picture here, if your route across the map for the day has lots of tightly packed contours which are close together it is likely your day is going to include a fair bit of climbing. If the contours are spaced fairly far apart then the climbing should be less. Plan your day accordingly you will become more tired and travel more slowly when there is a lot of climbing and therefore probably want to ride for a shorted overall distance. Don’t get bogged down in the nitty gritty of what climb will come when and how long it will be, reality tends to differ from what you think it looks like on a map. So therefore don’t set yourself expectations but personally I think planning according to the big picture is a good idea.

There are two provisos to the above firstly this probably only applies to Europe where what goes up generally must come down i.e. you aren’t likely to spend an entire day climbing or descending. However if that is a likely prospect then use the heights printed on the map to establish that your entire planned route for the day is going generally up or down with the contours. Proviso two is that    you also have to take into account the weather, so with that in mind.
Become an amateur meteorologist. – When I was in Scotland it rained. A lot! However I didn’t mind as I knew it was going to happen. Now the normal way to know what is coming is to simply look at the weather forecast from some media source. However personally I would try to learn to understand meteorological charts. Why? I hear you ask, isn’t that what the weather forecaster does to provide the forecast. That is true however forecasts are based on probabilities, i.e. how likely the forecaster thinks that the symbols on their charts will result in particular weather conditions. So if you can read the charts yourself you can learn (with experience!) to predict what is coming yourself and more importantly add your own spin to it. My spin is that I aim to be prepared and predict the worst. Every possibility of rain becomes a definite so that I’ll be more likely to put the tent up or at very least a tarp over my bivy bag. Equally any indication of bad weather will cause me to revise my plans in terms of distance travelled to allow for donning waterproofs, gritting of teeth and/or battling headwinds.

Wind is also a ‘big picture’ element. Tightly packed isobars on your weather chart are a good indication of strong winds to come however it always seems to blow from a different direction to the one you’re expecting so don’t bank on that tail wind for the day ahead. As an aside I had a fantastic day yesterday of a strong headwind with a never ending rain cloud. I could see the end of the grey cloud with blue sky and nice fluffy white clouds ahead but in over three hours never reached them. This was despite my logic that the wind should be blowing the rain cloud over the top and behind me. This happened because what the wind actually did was blow those nice fluffy white clouds so they joined onto the end of the big grey rain cloud and extended it further forward. This occurred pretty much at roughly the rate I travelled forwards creating a never ending conveyor belt of rain. Lovely!
Embrace madness. – You’ll spend lots of time on your own. It can be very quiet. I have decided talking to yourself is normal behaviour under these circumstances. Equally walking off the train into Leeds station at 6:30pm on a Saturday night was literally sensory overload. The room began to spin I was so unused to this many people in one place. This is why we go touring though isn’t it? To gain new found perspectives on the world.
Take earplugs. – It doesn’t matter how quiet the place you pick to sleep is there will always be some form of noise that you really want to block out. On this trip I brazenly camped within spitting distance of roads on three nights which meant earplugs were good for blocking out any late night/early morning traffic noise. However I actually found them equally as useful staying in the bothie at White Laggan where it was almost too quiet. The remote location meant that the whistle of the wind or the slightest sound was almost more disturbing than familiar sound of a car engine passing by.
Go to bed early so you can get up early. – My body formed a routine for sleeping on this trip which involved waking every two hours to alter my position in my sleeping bag. I would then easily fall back asleep and generally slept somewhere around eight to ten hours a night. When it gets dark if you are camping (especially in bad weather) there really isn’t much you can do beyond read by head-torch or meditate. So turn in early because then you can get up and on the road early too. I often found myself up before sunrise so I was packed up and ready to go at first light. There nothing quite like a dry crisp winter morning just after dawn and if you’re also riding through beautiful scenery it’s an experience I’d highly recommend. The other plus is that you can get most of the days miles dispensed with by lunchtime giving you a decent window of time to locate your chosen sleeping spot for the night before darkness falls.
Enjoy yourself! – It’s suppose to be fun. Personally I’d recommend being conservative in terms of daily planned mileage totals. Don’t kill yourself chewing your stem to get to a certain point if you don’t necessarily have to. I am however useless at following that advice and always end up riding further than I should in a day. Also allow yourself time to stop and look at your surroundings, enjoy the view, take a photo. Equally you might want to visit a particular landmark or museum, or spend an hour refuelling your calorie and coffee stores in a cafe. It’s not a race, and yes part of the joy is the journey but equally the things you see and the destination should be joyous too. I am really glad that I rode less than thirty miles last Friday arriving really early at White Laggan. It meant I had time to try to dry out all my wet gear, prepare a good meal, collect fire wood for the evening and still could just chill out and admire the view of Loch Dee.
*I have a theory that you can actually roughly predict if the terrain will be flat or not on maps without contours too. However it requires some more detailed geographical knowledge so I might explain/expand that in a further post.

For some reason every morning I had this song stuck in my head.

The plan (no. 2)

So my rough outline of the first three months of next year looks a bit like this.
routepart2A part of me feels I should be more adventurous however I’m sure January along the Bay of Biscay will take me out of my comfort zone. Also I have no idea what riding through the Pyrenees/Andorra is going to be like in early March. I just have a irrational wish to be able to say I’ve been to Andorra. Mid-nineties Lookout records comps are definitely to blame!

(I actually had the Heide Sez comp not The thing that ate floyd, but I couldn’t find the Sweet Baby song on it’s own so you’ll have to listen to the whole thing – or skip to 51:40)

Sick outside view

I’ve been kicking these thoughts around in my head for a while now ever since I had a quick look at the long distance bicycle touring database. The thing that jumped out to me from that website is that I am your average cycle tourist, British, white and male. This shouldn’t surprise me, Jason Lewis succinctly sums up the fact that the majority of explorers and adventurers are white, male and from middle class backgrounds. We are the people who seem to have not only the drive but also the opportunity to travel and explore this globe.

However are we self-aware enough to realise the position of privilege we are in and also to deconstruct the drivers for those adventures? My future cycle tour will not be an exercise in self promotion. To be honest I know that I am far from gifted or special, I am just your average cycle tourist. In marketing terms I have no unique selling point to differentiate me from any other person travelling by bike. Which to be honest is totally fine with me. So I promise you the following three things:

1. I am not going to write a book specifically about my travels.

2. It is unlikely I will circumnavigate the globe, or even leave Europe for that matter.

3. I have no rigid rules for my trip.

So why am I going to make sure I update and write this blog whilst travelling if I don’t want to promote the activity I am doing? The answer is that I know people enjoy reading it and are interested in the adventures I have, plus I enjoy writing. I’ve been a writer since I was young, I enjoy the mental exercise of taking an idea, thought or experience and conveying it to paper. Writing has contributed the sum total of zero to my bank balance over the years yet it brings me immense pleasure. I therefore am a writer about to embark on a trip which could present stories and ideas worth money. Yet I have no aspiration to make a living from it, and there is a very real reason for that.

I am sick of the modern world.

My brain can’t comprehend it, and that has brought me on occasion to the point where I have felt life isn’t worth living. Yet again I hit that point this year and after climbing back out of that hole to somewhere mentally where I could think clearly I knew I had to hatch an escape plan. So here it is, I’m running away. I’m not playing the game any more. Now I know I can’t escape entirely but I can sit on the margins for as long as possible and use my privileged position to think of longer term plans and try to shape an alternative philosophy for living.

We're a fun bunch in the PRBC.
We’re a fun bunch in the PRBC.

This is of course all personal and I don’t expect people to agree with me but I know I’m not alone in thinking that there is something fundamentally rotten in the state of Denmark. So I want to explore this continent that I was born a part of and investigate whether there actually is something rotten in Denmark or if there are flickers of light in the bleak reality of our current existence. I have been called a cynic and a pessimist in the past but the future isn’t rosy when you consider the impacts that inevitable resource depletion will have on our society. All empires fall and our current capitalist paradigm is no exception, I think we need to build something new rather than try to alter and shore up what is an inequitable and ultimately flawed system.

So one day I may write a book but it won’t be a blow by blow account of how I rode around Europe for a bit looking for answers and inspiration. I hope that it will be something that shows us a route out of this mess and gives some hope for the future. Sadly I’m probably not smart enough to write that book. However I know the practice of living in the day to day moment required when cycle touring will feed my soul more than participating in modern life ever has. My remuneration and reward is then happiness whilst I collect the memories and experiences which fuel the ideas that would possibly sit on those pages.

Maybe this is all pretentious bollocks. Just another manifestation of my generation Y identity crisis but I’ve carried the burden of these ideas around for a long time. My recent writing with regards to society isn’t that different to what I was writing in fanzine columns 12 years ago. Just hopefully more thought out and with less of the ‘angry young man’ syndrome that I know afflicts me on occasion. I’ve tried to squeeze myself into the round hole that I’m supposed to inhabit and to be honest I can’t.

So I’d like to raise a toast to sticking to your guns and honouring your principles. If that makes me unemployable and I end up starving to death on a mountain side somewhere, so be it. As it says on the back of my AHTBM cycling jersey, ‘I’d rather be forgotten than remembered for giving in’.