Saturday, 15 August 2020

Getting time in the saddle

This summer we've been stuck in Thailand due to COVID-19. It's been wonderful. Thailand seems to have dealt with the pandemic extremely well and so there are very few restrictions in place. The only exception to this being that tourists can't come into the country so we've had the place almost entirely to ourselves.

As luck would have it we've fallen in with the cycling crowd at work and so have got many more miles in the saddle over the summer than we ever would have bothered with if it had been just down to us. This particular ride used to completely knacker me out; now both Jo and I can do it with relative ease. It's just 10k short of what I hope will be the daily average on our big trip and takes about 4hrs (including a brownie stop halfway). 

Of course, 100k will take us longer fully loaded and almost no days will be as supremely flat, but this shows that 100k/day is a perfectly doable average, leaving plenty of time for stops and ensuring that we'll arrive at our destination early enough to get on with some admin and relax a bit. 

Here are the stats for the ride as done this morning:


Monday, 27 July 2020

Key learnings from the Mae Hong Son Loop

A couple of weeks ago Jo and I cycled with some colleagues from work around the Mae Hong Son loop. It was a wonderful trip - epic climbs, hair-raising descents and a near-constant parade of impossibly beautiful vistas.

Our companions on this ride were hard-core mile-eaters, used to hours in the saddle at a pace that we can't sustain, but they were extraordinarily gracious and patient on this ride. We followed Alee Denham's gpx tracks pretty religiously, only deviating in the sense that we missed the Chiang Mai to Pai day, and that we doubled up on the Mae Sariang > Wat Kiew Lom > Mae Chaem section to make a long single day. 

This was our first real test of multi-day 'unsupported' touring in a tropical climate (we carried our bags, but had the luxury of a vehicle popping in on us now and again). 

Here are the things I took away from the experience:
  1. I sweat A LOT in this sort of climate, so much that I'll need to ditch my Brooks saddle and opt for something a bit more like this. The Brooks is going to get trashed. I also get so sweaty that I can't twist the grip to change the gears on my Rohloff hub. A late-on-the-tour-discovery in this regard was the utility of a tiny pack towel tied to the handlebars for when a gear change is required.
  2. It's debateable whether it will be worth lugging a stove, tent and sleeping bag with us for the first section of the ride. On the one hand we'd like the flexibility, on the other camping in that heat with no prospect of a shower, when budget accommodation is such good value, might be a fool's errand. I'm erring more on the side of not bothering now. Safe in the knowledge that there are points on the ride where, if we find ourselves under-equipped,we could get what we need on the go. Less is definitely more.
  3. Cooking for ourselves won't be necessary whilst we're in SE Asia. It is very easy to eat delicious food for less than £1/head with all the savings in time/weight that doing so entails. We could go all Alistair Humphries on the issue, but what would be the point...?
  4. Hills slow you down massively. I'd been estimating that we'd comfortably cover 100km a day, but if it's hilly progress can be painfully slow. We'll need to be flexible. Our 60km days were refreshing - giving time for regrouping in the evening afternoon. I still hope we'll be able to average near 100k and sure some days we'll need to get the miles in, but finishing late day after day will be no fun. And above all, we want to enjoy our trip. 
  5. On previous tours I've felt ravenously hungry all the time; not so on this trip. The heat saps appetite somewhat. Water on the other hand, needs to be replenished about every 20k with at least 2 litres on the bike (3 would be better). Ice (Nam Keng) is 8THB in the ubiquitous 7-Elevens.
  6. Jo and I are closer in speed than we've ever been, either she's got better, or I've got worse, or a bit of both - we might even manage not to lose each other on this trip as we have done so frequently in the past!
  7. Rain is a pain. We'll need to make sure we've purchased decent, cycle-specific rainjackets before the grand-depart.
  8. Foot comfort is tricky in the hot, wet conditions of SE Asia. Trainers felt perpetually soggy and quickly reached a state where they couldn't be kept in the room overnight! I've tried Keen Sandles, as recommended by other cycle tourists, but found that these too aren't quite right. A shoe is needed that keeps the sun off, dries quickly and stays fresh or is easily washed down ready for use the next day - answers on a postcard...
We were reaquainted with the intoxicating sense of freedom cycle touring gives and can't wait to get going...!


Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Useful resources when planning a big cycle tour

Trawling through the internet I've stumbled across so many useful resources for planning a trip like ours. We are not the first to have a dream like this, and it's reassuring to hear how other people have done it.

Here's a list of some of the things I've found useful and/or inspirational:

YouTube Channels
  1. Nomads Trails - great gear lists on their website and a superb YouTube channel. 
  2. Adam Hugill - English bloke who started off cycling around the world with his girlfriend, before carrying on alone(!) Useful stuff on his YouTube Channel.
  3. Wheels to Wander - a Dutch couple on a big ride.
  4. Ed Pratt - this guy unicycled around the world at the age of just 19. His kit list is a study in minimalism; his YouTube channel is inspirational.

  1. Rob Lilwall - a mate of my brother's who has written a couple of books. Cycling home from Siberia + hearing him talk many years ago fanned the flames for me.
  2. Three Men in a Bike by Rory Spowers I've ordered this book on Amazon, following a tip-off from a colleague. An old-school adventure awaits :-)
  3. Jonny Ginger's Last Ride by Tom Freemantle. I was given this by a parent whose child I was taking to cycle in Nepal. It's rather a wonderful travelogue but a sad one to be reading now in the sense that it deals so warmly of cycling through Syria.
  4. Alastair Humphreys - I first heard about this guy via my brother and read some of his early books. He's living proof that if you want to bike touring can be done in a way that would please the most hard-core Mustachian (i.e. you don't need much money!)
Blogs and other resources
  1. Tom's Bike Trip - this is the guy on whom the film Janapar was based. His site is an absolute treasure-trove of information.
  2. Caravanistan - detailed information on visas for Central Asia. Looks very helpful indeed.
  3. DHL Race to the RWC - I suspect this might be taken down soon, but it has a useful map and led me to connections to Ron Rutland and James Owens - their Strava tracks are publicly visible :-) 
  4. Pete Adeney - cf Mustachian - not a bike tourist per se (though he does like bikes!) But adopt some of his principles even just for a year and you'll feel less worried about finances and more able to take the leap.
  5. Pete Gostelow - fellow teacher and fellow Thorn Raven Tour owner. Lots of useful hints and tips on cycle touring on his website.
  6. Alee Denham - some useful stuff here, but mainly an inspiration of you're looking to monetise your tour (I'm not).
  7. Travelling two - a useful blog with a lot of information on cycle touring.
  8. Lifetime Trails -  kit lists, reviews and advice.
  9. Crazyguyonabike - a wonderfully retro treasure trove for cycle tourists.
  10. Two on Four Wheels - I've blogged about these two elsewhere, their site is a useful, if sobering, archive of their trip.
  11. A Bike Journey - Guy and Frederike did a ride from the UK to Australia back in 2010/11. They rode Thorn Raven Tours (same as us) and kept a journal while they went.
  12. Cycletourer website - Frank and Jon, a retired teacher couple, have put up a wealth of information here. I love their kit advice which comes from the perspective of years of experience. They've got their gear sorted to a tee.
  13. Complete Tandenomium - these two did almost the rider we're going to be doing on a tandem. There's some useful info here including a piece on electronics which put me off spending money on a dynamo hub and USB charger. Having read this, I think keeping things simple is best. It also happens to be cheaper :-)
  14. Vaegabond - a German couple on a mission to travel around the world for five years. Very organised - comprehensive kit list and links.
  15. Tour on a Bike - some useful kit reviews and other tips and tricks.
  16. Rolling East - smart looking website of a couple who cycled from London to Melbourne. Really informative kit reviews etc.
  17. Riding Round - Adam Riches' circumnavigation.
  18. The Next Challenge - Tom Moss delves into cycle touring with a new level of geekiness.

I'll add to this if I come across any more, but that's it for now (15/4/2020). Please let me know in the comments if I've missed any gems :-)


Saturday, 11 April 2020

Proposed Route

I've spent a good deal of time looking ar possible routes for our adventure. There are loads of blogs and chat forums about, it's difficult to know where to start. We more or less plan to do a reverse of the DHL Race to the RWC (but without taking in too much of China, none of Japan, nor going through Iran!)

At the moment, we think our route will look something like this:

If we stick to this, countries en route will be:
  1. Thailand
  2. Myanmar
  3. India
  4. Nepal and then India again
  5. Pakistan
  6. China
  7. Tajikistan
  8. Uzbekistan
  9. Kazakhstan
  10. Azerbaijan
  11. Armenia
  12. Turkey
  13. Bulgaria
  14. Serbia
  15. Croatia
  16. Slovenia
  17. Austria
  18. Switzerland
  19. France
  20. UK
So, twenty countries in total. There are stretches of this ride where the route we will actually end up taking is in doubt, and we'll have to see what conditions are like on the ground at the time. Specifically, I'm not sure:
  • how the stretch once we leave Pakistan will work
  • which of the 'stans we'll be able to go through
  • what happens on the western edge of the Caspian Sea
But working all this out will be part of the fun :-)


Thursday, 9 April 2020

Planning for a post-COVID world

It won't have escaped your notice that the world is on lockdown at the moment and that there's little prospect of the restrictions lifting any time soon.

I'm starting to feel rather glad that we tendered our resignations from December this year, not from August as would have been the norm. We did this because we thought we'd dodge the rainy season, and also because we thought it would increase our chances of being able to secure new jobs for September 2021. But it now has the added benefit of buying us a bit more time to ride out the COVID-19 disaster.

There is, though, every possibility that things still won't be properly 'fixed' by December. Border restrictions may not yet have lifted and/or there could be a sense that western travellers across Asia are unwelcome. Our original cycle plans might have to be shelved :-(

So I've started to draw up alternative plans just in case. Here they are in descending order of preference:
  1. West Coast of N. America (Alaska>Canada>West Coast States)
  2. West Coast States only
  3. Australia Sydney > Perth
  4. Russia (Siberia > Moscow)
  5. Straight back home to 'normal life'

Having got the opportunity to take some time off, I'd really rather not waste it - so an immediate return to normality comes at the bottom of the list. 

My thinking is that more developed nations are likely to be further forward in January 2021 than are poorer parts of the world, hence the pivot to the first world. I also suspect that crossing borders will be an issue, and so have gravitated towards tours that stay in one country throughout.

I still hold out hope that we can do what we originally set out to do - cycle home from Bangkok. But if we can't we have other options...


Sunday, 5 April 2020

Kit List

A good part of the fun in preparing for a trip like this is making all the preparations beforehand. I've pored over the kit taken by other long-distance cyclists - always a feature of their blogs.

We've also done some big cycles before, and have refined what we pack over the years.

This is what we plan to take (links to a Google Sheet). 

Having discovered ThingLink on Rolling East's gear page recently, once we've assembled all the stuff I'll have some fun putting some visuals together as per this experiment:

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Caveat Emptor

It's now out in the public domain that we're doing this ride. We've handed in our notice for December 2020 and started telling people what our plans are.

I can barely contain my excitement, but the response from others has been mixed. Some, as you'd expect, aren't that interested (and I'm conscious of not wanting to become a cycle bore); some, usually cyclists themselves, are thrilled and a little jealous; but a good number are terrified and think we're mad.

Quite apart from the very real chance that COVID-19 might put paid to all our plans, there are a good number of people - Thais in particular - who think that cycling is just plain dangerous. A colleague pointed me to the 2015 death of a Chilean round-the-world the world cyclist. And also to the death of a South Korean cyclist. Both of these tragic accidents happened in Thailand. Then, with only a few clicks, I found myself reading the harrowing tale of a British couple - doing exactly what we plan to do in reverse - who were killed on a Thai road.

There's no doubt that Thai roads are dangerous - some of the most dangerous in the world in fact.  As cyclists, however careful we are, we will be at the mercy of other road users.

I don't want to die on this trip, and I don't want Jo to die either(!) We will do what we can to minimise the risks, but we still want to do the ride. One of the motivating factors is being able to shed, for a few precious months, the suffocating bonds of bureaucracy and to be free. If anything, in the rich world, health and safety has gone too far. People live in a perpetual state of terror, wasting untold amounts of money to try and buy their safety.

Our risk of dying - even in Thailand - in a road accident is small. If we're unlucky, at least we'll have shuffled off the mortal coil with the wind in our hair and a smile on our faces. The blog of Mary Thompson and Peter Root - still online at the time of writing - is a testament to lives well-lived, if cut cruelly short.

We'll be careful, but we won't be writing risk-assessments, nor asking for permission. That would defeat the whole purpose.