In August 2018, I left the Army and set off from home with a second-hand bike.
I wrote this on my blog: “I head alone to the continent excited and nervous. In reality, I don’t know what to fully expect. Either way, an intriguing venture awaits.”
I returned to London in October 2019 having ridden 22,500 miles for 430 days across 4 continents.
I thought I knew about cycle touring before I departed. I read a few books, browsed the internet and spoke to a few friends. But theory is very different from reality.
Theory suggested I would wild camp, meet people and stay with locals. I would see unique things and witness the real world from the perspective of a lone traveller on a bike in foreign lands. I would be free. I would be liberated from the constraints of a “normal life”, whatever that is. It was wanderlust, self-expression and pure escapism. That’s the theory.
During my cycle, I regularly put up stories on Instagram with #perceptionvsreality. The perception from the outside world often matched the theory I envisaged before setting off. It was the sunsets, mountains, rivers and trees. It was the selfies with locals, empty roads and expansive landscapes. It was the freedom of life on the road.
SO WHAT’S THE REALITY?
The trip was everything I hoped it would be. It ticked the boxes I sought in terms of reflection, isolation, escape, perspective and joy.
I came across some of the most hospitable, friendly, kind and selfless people I’ve ever met. I cycled across vast deserts, up lung-bursting mountains, along Siberian winter roads and through forests. I got lost, ran out of food and water, improvised bike repairs, laughed, cried and celebrated.
The highs were epic; the lows were miserable.
There was the confusion and hilarity of being alone on the Kazakh Steppe. There was anger in Xinjiang and isolation in Central China. There was the intrigue of going across the cultural map of the USA and the fun of being back in Europe. There was also the total delight of sharing the final week up through France and back to the UK surrounded by friends and family.
In many ways, the theory and the reality were the same thing. And yet they weren’t.
Reading a book on Everest aged 17 is different from being aged 21, scared and alone at 8,700m.
Equally, being sat at home turning the pages of your friend’s cycling book is different from being there on the side of the road in a -30°C snowstorm with a broken wheel, a puncture, snapped tent poles, no phone reception and numb fingers. Also, reading about someone else’s tears as they set off alone for a grand voyage, or drinking with their mates at the pub having returned, is so very different from experiencing it yourself.
The theory and the reality are not the same and that is a blessing to us all.
Why? Because if they were, there would be little incentive to embark on these weird, wonderful and unique adventures. As Bilbo used to say, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”