In which I recall the most difficult ride of my life
I have a little present for paid subscribers this week: an essay I wrote more than a decade ago, about a long dark night on the bike in Eastern China in 2012 – the final section of my thousand-mile dash between Lanzhou and the coast, which I mentioned in the footnotes of this newsletter, two weeks ago.
I’ve edited the essay lightly, added and subtracted some details, and tidied up the syntax a bit – but overall, I was both reassured and a bit disappointed to note that the overall quality of my writing doesn’t seem to have changed very much in ten years.
My attitudes and opinions really have changed though, since that long ride that bridged my twenties and thirties. I have always thought long and hard about everything I’ve done, as well as trying persistently to do the right thing (whatever it may be in the situation I find myself in), and I suppose it’s inevitable that this intensity of contemplation will move me briskly from one position to another, and that my outlook after a decade will be considerably different from what it was back then.
Without wanting to criticise my earlier self too much (I was doing the best I could, with the knowledge and influences I had available to me at the time), I would make this journey very differently if I were to embark on it today. The two things that really stand out are my approach to risk (I am now horrified at the thought of riding along an unlit road surrounded by trucks), and my almost complete ignorance of the cultures and languages of the country through which I was travelling.
If I planned this trip today, I would do a lot more homework. And I would very quickly let go of the desire to cycle non-stop from one end of the continent to the other, because it’s just impossible that I could adequately familiarise myself with all the different places I’d pass through. China was, in hindsight, one of my biggest missed opportunities. Despite being there for almost three months, I barely learned a word of the language, and was usually too busy dealing with the logistical difficulties the country imposed on a bike tourer in a hurry to pay much attention to the nuances of what was going on around me. During my final two-week dash to the coast, I remember passing signs that directed me to various tourist attractions, and wishing I could stop and investigate, but I told myself that I had to put every ounce of effort into forward motion, or I would miss the ferry, and outstay my visa, and disaster would ensue.
And oh my goodness – I’m still in awe of how I managed to navigate myself across an entire continent, without the use of GPS. Technology has moved on so quickly since then that even just ten years later, such a feat seems unimaginable. Nowadays my smartphone is my most indispensable piece of equipment when I travel – I use it for navigation, for translation, for photographs, for all my communications, and countless other tasks. But during that ride I carried an old Nokia (which I only used in Pakistan and China, where I managed to acquire cheap SIM cards), a small camera, and a handful of paper maps (one for each country) that I had picked up in Stanfords before I left. I bought myself a cheap laptop twelve months in, but until then I just used internet cafes, or occasionally borrowed a laptop from someone I was staying with.
When I think back now, I genuinely can’t believe I managed to find specific addresses in enormous Chinese cities, where I didn’t speak the language or understand the script. This essay reminds me: it often took a very long time, and involved considerable extra mileage. I would show people the address I’d been given, and attempt to follow the directions they gave. (I still have a small collection of the rudimentary maps people drew me.) Between cities I would simply learn the characters of the next place I was aiming for, and look out for them on road signs. This meant I often ended up on large, busy, boring roads – there simply wasn’t a means available to me of planning it any other way.
Today, if I knew I had over 1,000 miles to cover and only eleven days in which to do so, I would have planned my journey in meticulous detail. I would have looked for the most direct and efficient route possible, I would have paid attention to things that might slow me down (like big cities and mountain ranges), and I would have considered where I might expect to sleep, and find food. Back in 2012, all I did was look at the distance between the two places on Google maps before I left Hong Kong, set myself a daily target of 100 miles, and make a note of the cities I should expect to pass through, so that I could look for their names on the road signs. I recall a horrible sinking feeling, when I was sitting on the train between Hong Kong and Guangzhou, already committed to this venture, and remembered that – of course – whenever I estimated my mileage using Google directions, I’d end up riding a greater distance, through a combination of getting lost, choosing less direct roads, and not being able to ride my bike on the highways Google preferred. Over 1,000 miles, this might well add up to quite a lot. I was going to have to ride more than 100 miles a day, if I possibly could, and I would have no idea, as I went, how much further there was to go.
I made it, but that ride remains one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, and reading through this essay, which I wrote shortly afterwards, I note that much of the wisdom I thought I’d acquired during my ultra-racing era (which began three years later), I actually picked up during that frantic and exhausted eleven-day dash.
Here's the essay; I hope you enjoy it,