For my 16th birthday – around the same time I made the transition from long haired drummer in bands to the digital introspection of a computer nerd – I got a gift from my dad. Reynolds 531 steel tubes. Arranged by Castle Bromwich craftsmen. Lines, bolts and welds right from the metal skin of a Spitfire. Blue gloss glittering from a Rolls Royce. A design made to outlive it’s owner. To be repaired repeatedly. Brought inside away from the cold and damp of winter like a beloved pet. Wiped and coated to delay inevitable rust. A Dawes World Tour bike frame with a life to live, in need of an adventure.
At a certain age everybody needs freedom. Often the tool of your freedom becomes the cornerstone to your memories of youth. For many of my friends in rural Norfolk this came when their toes tentatively touched the pedals of a car for the first time. From those cautious first lessons they were soon screaming down country lanes, friends ensconced in the back, playing peaking music from tinny plastic speakers. This smell of the 1 litre engine spinning thousands of times a minute to maintain the rush of wind. Parting trees, puddles and pigeons.
For me freedom came earlier. Living more remote than the most remote village. Far from school, town or friends. Pedals too became my tool to freedom. As my toes touched the cold metal my pedals moved and fell away from me in and infinite mechanic drive of a bikes most efficient construction. It stared with long family rides to the swimming pool. Riding along a disused railway cutting. Crossing through and behind some industrial buildings, through green park land. On 20 centimetre wheels and a single gear this took an age. As I grew struggle became habit. While most of my friends hailed the taxi of mum and dad, I ventured to the end of the road, to the shops and soon between my parents, friends and college. When I started working at a flying school – spending weekends fuelling and moving the poised two seater planes – I cycled the same railway path that used to take us to the swimming pool. Finally when I managed to take to the air myself – at a gliding school on the other side of the county – I could regularly cycle 40 kilometres before breakfast.
But the name gold lettering on the frame – “World Tour” – demanded more. While everyone in my year had applied to universities I spent less and less time at college. Saving my money earned coding instead. Sitting on eBay became an addiction. Buying used bike parts from a range of scrapped machines. First I bought the saddle. Then the gears and chain from an old mountain bike. Finally the distinctive butterfly shaped handlebars – common to many adventure cyclists who’s books I’d read in preparation – designed to ease tendinitis in the wrists but equally sculpted into a visually pleasurable loop of padding in front of the rider.
So while everyone friends were straightening ties and ironing shirts I wheeled my hand built bike onto the loosely packed gravel outside. My mum had got up early just to see me off. I didn’t want our embrace to end yet in complete calm I knew what to do. With a “Love you” and a wave I freewheeled down the hill. The house I grew up in hidden quickly in dense hedgerows. Heading South for the first time. To be continued for the next 30 days.
[Photo of me with my family before my first cycling trip]
Freedom can mean almost anything to anyone. If there was only one definition then could you even call it freedom at all?
Seeking travel for is (for me) the sense of adventure. One moment passing through place and people as the medium of life and experience. Controlling your destiny as an individual yet building and weaving new ways of thinking, seeding relationships and deepening bonds of shared experience. While equally living true loneliness and isolation. Becoming a minority for the first time in a foreign land. Not being understood. Not reading the language or even the symbols themselves, the urban maze, the flowing landscapes. A shock to comfort. Not distinctly enjoyable yet cumulatively valuable. Emboldening a global perspective.
Most importantly you finally escape the mental helplessness of childhood which lingers beyond the age when you’re supposed to have “grow up”. In our comfortable seats reading this on a laptop or phone costing more than the expected annual income of the majority of the world, we are privileged. We can decide to say yes to our dreams unlike most humans in history. The first step is realising it.
That’s why on May the 1st 2018 I’m leaving London. Cycling South East and pedalling until I end up back where I started. 3 years, 30 countries, 120,000km in the saddle. Carrying food and water for weeks where there’s no supplies. Living in a giant waterproof sock where there are no beds.
I’m not raising awareness for charity (although if you’d like to donate Centrepoint, MIND and Arthritis Research all do valuable work). Equally – in the age of Youtube personalities – I’m not raising awareness for myself beyond a simple map and blog for friends and family. There’s no hashtag for this exercise. I ride because I’ve realised there’s nothing stopping me and so there’s nothing stopping you either.
Don’t just freewheel through life. Choose your adventure.
You can follow my journey through a map, photos and writing on benaroundtheworld.org.