Steady Increments, Cross Continents

My conversation with adventure cyclist Dan Calverley eventually and inevitably turned to fitness, but the result is not what I was expecting. Clearly Dan was extremely fit by the time he started an around the world ride in January 2015 and this would surely be a prerequisite in attempting such an arduous task. “2013 was probably the fittest I’ve ever been in my life. I did the Bob Graham Round in June that year and didn’t drop off too much the following year.”

The Bob Graham Round, a 66-mile fell running challenge that takes in 42 tops and involves 8200m of ascent is one of the classic UK running test-pieces. In other words, a whole load of excruciating madness.

South Korea

“Fitness for the world trip never occurred to me though. I’d done a lot of long distance cycles previously and I had started to really push the distance on the road bike. I was getting close to a 300km day in 2013/14. But I learned that you don’t train for a big bike tour. How do you train riding a big heavy bike every day? If you do, you’re already doing it. You’re already on tour! Riding a carbon fibre road bike in the summer isn’t exactly training for cycling what is essentially a steel frame tank with 40kg of supplies attached. This can include camping gear, food for a few days at least and, depending on where you are in the world, an awful lot of water. And any previous experience of cycling or level of fitness I had was to be detrimental in the first few weeks of the trip.”

More on this later but let us back track just a little. In August 2014, Dan arrived on the doorstep of my new house and stayed with us for a few days. He told me and my wife he was planning to do something – what it was he wasn’t quite sure at this point, but he was certain it involved lengthy travel and the possibility of not returning to the UK for some time, if not ever. Toying with the idea of taking his motorbike at this point, Dan took three weeks off work went from my house in central Scotland to our friends in Forres, then to London and Bristol, on to Belgium, France and Germany. Coming to halt somewhere near Frankfurt due to a multi car pile-up for several hours, Dan made a phone call that would cement his ideas.

“I was reading Mark Beaumont’s book about cycling the world. Although I liked the book, something didn’t quite gel with me. He always seemed in a rush, pushing himself to do mile after mile. I admired this, the athleticism and need to push on physically. I’d barely been out of Europe and I realised that seeing the world was really important, seeing and experiencing.”

Smoking rollies and reading Beaumont’s book at the side of the autobahn Dan contemplated how he would do a trip like that differently. He also remembered that he knew someone who done an around the world trip on a bike already.

New Zealand

“Steve was a friend from home. He cycled the world about 10 years before, taking a northerly route through Russia. He used to send a weekly letter into the local paper about his travels. I’d read this on my lunchbreak when I worked as a recruitment consultant, and while I sat on the autobahn I decided to phone him. We hadn’t spoken in eight years or so, and I suggested to him that we meet so I could pick his brains about cycling. He apologised and said he was currently guiding cycle tours in Germany! It turned out I was only a few hours away from him and we were able to meet within a few days.”

Steve became Dan’s cycling mentor, taking him under his wing and giving him the benefit of his expertise and previous adventure cycling knowledge.

“I knew then it would be by bicycle. Steve recommended a few books I found more suited to me, Alistair Humphreys and Rob Lilwall amongst others.”

These romantic travel stories, Steve’s included, cemented the idea but I suggest that the inspiration and drive was already within Dan. These influences brought it out and galvanised the plan.

“I needed to get out, needed to take a chance and get out of my comfort zone especially socially. I realised my world was closing in. Although the break-up of my nine-year relationship was not the driving force behind the trip, it wasn’t healthy for me staying in the same place, and I needed to put myself into the world and trust its people more.”

Selling his house, motorbike, car and mountain climbing gear, Dan left knowing he would be gone a long time.  He told one of the last people he spoke to before leaving England he was aiming for around 80 miles a day. The reply from an elderly gent was that his aim seemed quite a lot. How right he was. This is where our previous comments on fitness returns.

“I was actually quite naïve. My expectations were based on my experience as a long distance cyclist; I was fit as I could get as a runner, but this all was against me and set me up to push myself too hard. My expectations were totally out of whack with reality, and I resorted to my old self, cracking the whip, riding in the dark and trying to make up the difference. My fitness level and experience actually worked against me. I developed a problem with my knee and needed a rest day within the first two weeks.”

The initial aim, to get to warmer weather as quickly as possible, was still achievable – but maybe not the crossing of the central Asian desert before summer. Dan knew that the pass through the high mountains of Tajikistan in winter was out of the question, and there was seasons to avoid through China and the Himalaya.

Related to the sheer physical exertion of the cycling was the constant discomfort of camping. Every night. Dan had camped a lot, I knew this already, but camping in the Scottish Highlands or the Lake District where there was no one around was an entirely different experience to camping on the continent. It took Dan a month or so to acclimatise.

“The first month felt like I was hiding out. I was keeping myself hidden. You have to camp where you are, especially when it gets dark, which it did quite quickly. I had to sleep in some crazy places but you get used to it. A lot of the time it was like camping in say, Motherwell. Where do you camp when you are forced to stay there? But I think I got quite good at picking out good spots and following my nose to hide out in. The bike gave me a lot of freedom in this.


“The bike was everything. I rarely had any niggles with it. It opened the envelope of what was possible, and indeed opened up the world. Rather than the Beaumont style of fast roads, good amenities and the quickest possible time, I relaxed in to the bike. The motorbike was too fast, everything goes by in a blur. It’s noisy and expensive. The bike made it a totally different trip. I had never used it as an adventure vehicle and realised very quickly that I was a stranger in all these foreign countries. A motorbike brings very different connotations of how people perceive you. A bike is like a social passport and enables you to meet people you wouldn’t normally. It’s a counter aspirational mode of transport that made people curious, not treating me like I was a wealthy westerner on a powerful machine.”

Which returns us to Dan’s previous thoughts about socialising during our chat. How he interacted with people on this trip was to become more and more vital.

“I learned to say I was only cycling to the next town. Anything further, people would say that it’s too far. Sometimes the next town was too far. ‘And what about all the bad people or wild animals?’ It is dangerous they’d tell me. They’d approach me because I looked mad, but I was travelling in this humble way that made me approachable and opened a lot of doors. I didn’t see any of the bad people or the wild animals but it was comforting to know local people were looking out for me.”

The details of the trip can be found on Dan’s excellent blog ( and I was keen to talk about the writing process itself and what Dan thought about it. Initially a connection for friends and family, selfpropellingparticle has exactly zero practical information for the wannabe adventure cyclist. And this makes it succeed. Dan admits to having no knowledge of the process in the beginning and being sceptical of writing about himself.

“Being a fairly private person, not secretive, but not much of a Facebook poster, it was odd for me to be sharing so much. My personality naturally is up and down and to combat this, I adopted a voice that became like a boys own adventure story. If I wasn’t moving I felt tense and I think the writing became prosaic, a dog’s dinner of a pretentious style. I’d have to work myself up into the enthusiasm to write.”

Feeling that the tone had become too repetitive, Dan had to change track. He still wanted to do something creative, the writing he believes to be as integral to the trip as the cycling or the landscapes. He began the process of changing the nature of his blog.

“I reached a point where I couldn’t write like that anymore. I always tried to extract some wisdom, and then tried to sit down and write about my trip rather than wait for inspiration or when I was in the mood. I had to find a happy medium and as a result, started to be more honest. Day to day stuff would have been a total whinge fest, cycling is hard, but I reached a whole new level of sharing for me. I had to hold back on some of the personal stuff but I was getting more used to putting me out there.”

Changing his aims to be something more like reporting, Dan started trying to understand the place he was in as best he could. The concerns of the people, the problems they face and their opinions on things became his topics. This brought its own problems, the most obvious being from language barriers.

“My new ideals and goals worked for writing retrospectively about the USA where I could focus on individual characters and find the story, find something relevant. The biggest problem was the short visa time you get there. There was less cycling time in Canada too due to the winter.”

But what do people read on the road, and are they able to keep it relevant to where they are? For Dan the trick was to keep it fairly light hearted.

“I stopped reading cycling books and focussed on travel books. It was nice to read something set where I was, but a lot of the time reading on my kindle in my tent, I could have been anywhere in the world. I’d wake up unsure of what country I was in sometimes and could quite easily escape into another world.

“I had to be careful though, I can be quite impressionable and had to be careful not to colour my mind in a negative way. I didn’t need to mess with my head the way certain books can so I deliberately kept it light hearted. I didn’t want to be reading about Mexican drug cartels for example. But I also didn’t want to get wrapped up in false stereotypes, nonsense fears and fake news coming from populist news media. Sensationalist news sells but colours the view of the world and your willingness to trust people. There are dangers of course, but I based my idea of what I think of people and places by what I see. I didn’t want to be a liability but I didn’t want to overly focus on the negative and relied solely on need to know information.”

Dan became more clued up as he went on getting a handle on any political situations and potential conflicts. But he was careful not to let any hint of paranoia seep in.

“Almost everywhere in the world people will treat a foreigner with a sense of curiosity and almost pride. Contrary to what we might be told in the west, Muslim countries are most hospitable to travellers. I encountered very little hostility, and as I hoped, my world view changed. I had heard that countries that have experience of international aid, or are in some way dependent on it can be strange for cycle tourism but I didn’t get too much of that at all. The trip became less about the cycling, less about me and more about the people.”

New Zealand

The story took over. The nature of both Dan’s writing and his adventure had changed and adapted with his interests and how he himself had adapted to the situation. In other words he kept growing, kept progressing and kept moving until forced to stop by events out of his control. He feels the need now for some roots, especially in the current climate, but hopes to do six months or yearly trips once travel returns to normality. South America and Africa would complete the continent loop maybe taking two years and he talks of a possible overland trip to Asia via a more northerly route. But like everyone at the moment, Dan has no plans.

“Everywhere I went was too quick and you have to make choices. I missed out most of Mongolia, I’d like to see Pakistan but didn’t manage for visa reasons. I realise now that in six months on a bike you can be in China. The bike opened up the world to me. My original idea of one long continuous journey didn’t quite work out but I no longer have those ‘this is my one and only chance to see this place’ kind of thoughts. It may have seemed like a slow process but steady increments cross continents.”

Steady increments, cross continents. Someone should put that on a t-shirt.


Live Deliberately


Currently listening to Torchlight: The Long Quest, courtesy of Dark Age Productions

A list of the various authors and specific books mentioned during this conversation

Richard Askwith: Feet in the Clouds

Mark Beaumont: The Man Who Cycled the World

Alistair Humphreys

Rob Lilwall: Cycling Home from Siberia

Tom Allen: Janapar

Dervla Murphy

George Orwell

Bruce Chatwin

Laurie Lee

John Fowls: The Magus

Cormac McCarthy: The Border Trilogy

John Krakauer: Into the Wild

Jack London

‘We Went Up Benachie Once’

A chat with Dan Calverely Part 1

Forced back to the UK from Mexico due to the global pandemic, Dan Calverley had to call a halt to his adventurous plan of cycling through six continents. Since January 2015 he had been constantly cycling and camping around the world. With a brief break teaching in South Korea, Dan had successfully cycled from his home in the north of England through southern Europe, heading east through Turkey, Georgia, and a few countries that end in ‘stan’. He has cycled through many others, 32 at last count before his progress was halted. A total journey of over 60,000km pedalled.

The following article is based around a conversation I had with Dan one snowy Saturday night via zoom. We had planned to do this interview while walking a mountain ridge somewhere or at least in a Highland pub. The real reason for me wanting to speak to Dan, was not to find out about his travels; his excellent blog does that exceptionally well. I wanted to find out his drive, how he kept going and what got him inspired into the outdoors enough to make a man want to spend most of his forties in a small tent.

“I was always quite outdoorsy I suppose” explains Dan when we finally get the laptops working well enough to hear each other.

“When I was a kid I was really active. I did my first bike tour when I was 11, dragging one of my older brothers to a youth hostel about a 15 mile cycle away. My best friend and I would cycle all through the Yorkshire Dales and into the Lake District.”

“I’d do outdoors stuff with my dad and older sisters, camping, but never anything like climbing mountains. I’d have to give the credit to my third oldest sister Sarah. She worked in an outdoor education centre on Arran and from the age of 15 through to 17 I’d spend several weeks every year there visiting her. Of all my six brothers and sisters, she was the one who properly inspired me to the outdoors.”

While Sarah was taking groups of schoolkids hiking or kayaking, Dan would wander off on his own, telling his sister his route but losing it very quickly and getting “as lost as fuck”. This was the first time he had been out properly on the hills, unaccompanied, and “learning to read the landscape the hard way”. Following animal tracks and ending up on ridges far from his intended routes and wandering into areas that would be solely for climbers, Dan admits to blundering around Arran. They call the island Scotland in miniature for good reason but this was to be a good training ground for the future. He just didn’t know it yet.

And this is where I come in. I first met Dan in late 1995, during our first year at university. To me, at the pretentious age of 17, all Dead Kennedys, Coltrane and Kerouac, Dan was exactly the type of person I’d hoped to meet at university. A year or so older than me, he had already lived what I thought an incredibly exciting life and we bonded over records, books and booze. “We went up Bennachie once did we not?” asks Dan. We did, and that remained our sole outdoors pursuit for four years save the odd Buddhist retreat (Dan), skateboarding (me) and drinking on the beach (both).

Unbeknownst to me though, by the time Dan had graduated and was ready to move on, he had started running, along the beach mostly in an effort to get fit after nearly four years of drinking. When he moved to Glossop with his new wife for a job in nearby Manchester, he found himself with the hills of the beautiful Peak District on his doorstep. “They were just inviting me to run”, which he did. He also got into hillwalking, with the odd scramble thrown in but as in Arran, Dan soon found himself in areas far more technical than walking would allow. It was at this point with a thirst for both knowledge and experience, that he joined a climbing club.

For Those About to Rock…

Serving his climbing apprenticeship with the “old salts” of his local JMCS scratched the itch for real climbing but progression in an individual’s ability was not high on the clubs list, at least at the time. If an effort to learn more Dan was accepted onto an alpine climbing course run by the British Mountaineering Council. A week long course in Chamonix was where the confidence to do long and proper winter climbs came from. Here he learned advanced mountaineering skills; rope work in teams, how to fix ice screws and real time ice arrests in the glacier. This latter skill Dan would teach me several years later on the more forgiving slopes of a snowy Tarmachan.

Though neither of us was to realise it at the time, Dan was to become my outdoors mentor. We shared many camping and walking trips, and still would if lockdown restrictions didn’t apply. Dan was responsible for my traverse of the Cuillin in Skye, including the bagging of the famous Inaccessible Pinnacle, Sgùrr Dearg (quote of the day: “Inaccessible! My arse.”). The In Pin is somewhere I’m glad I don’t really have to hold onto again; actual mountain climbing never grabbed me. I hate heights, but as Dan explains to me, climbing is a head game.

“I’d never say never, I just find it hard to imagine I’ll do proper climbing like that again. My head isn’t in it. I wouldn’t say it’s a lost interest, but being on a rock face dangling on a rope doesn’t appeal to me anymore. I am miles fitter now than when I was climbing regularly but you need to keep it up and keep your head in the game. I lost a lot of that the year I did my PhD and thought I could return to the form I had previously. I’d need to go back to the beginning now and start again, which may not be a bad thing… I always enjoyed the low grade climbs or roped scrambles most anyway.”

That’s me shiteing it…

I was surprised at this. Dan’s climbing experiences hadn’t answered what I was after and so we changed course. Whatever we were going to find out here, it didn’t have to do with mountaineering. I asked Dan if he could only follow one interest for the rest of his life what it would be, and the answer was emphatically ‘running’ and with that I felt we were getting closer to the heart of what drives him.

“I’m a runner, not a racer. People feel the need that when they run, they need to run fast, that it’s all about the clock. The kinaesthetic movement of running brings me most joy and most clarity. The feel of the run, that’s the important bit.” Although he was an active local cycle club member it was the running club that he really found most enjoyment, and possibly himself.

Peak District running

“I’d enter races, fell runs. The Peak and Lake Districts are the home of English fell running and I lived right next to it. I liked the longer weekend ones. 22 miles or more. You’d run in the snow because they’re all year round. You have to pace yourself, know about nutrition and have navigational skills. I did these for most of the decade doing 30 plus milers. They’re called ultras nowadays, that’s kind of taken over the kind of fell running tradition.”

37 miles and 10,000 feet of ascent, Dan ran the Old County Tops in the Lake District four times in total and was part of the winning team the first year he did it. But something else comes up in this chat about events that isn’t necessarily about competing, or even running.

“I started running races when I first moved here as a way to meet people. I entered as a non-affiliate, initially I had no club, but the Glossop one was excellent. It still is. It’s for all abilities and the camaraderie was brilliant. We made a weekend out of the races, staying in a hut or camp or hiring a cottage. I loved that.”

I’m not a runner. Very occasionally I might and I have done part of the Edinburgh marathon as a team event. My attention waned around the 8 mile mark. However I do recognise what Dan is saying here. Sharing the hardship of outdoor pursuits such as this is a surprisingly social pastime. In my case, hillwalking with another person is an intense period of time to spend with another human. And sometimes it is the company that is the best thing about it. Forget the spectacular or unusual views, the sunrise or sunset, when else do you spend as concentrated a time with another person exerting yourselves equally with a deliberate aim? This is the ultimate and tragic lesson Alexander Supertramp realises far too late. Human contact is powerful, we crave it, and when you have a shared goal, whether its winning a race or ascending a mountain, the experience is all the more memorable. Dan clearly relishes in this in his time running, and I hope, in his time hillwalking with me.

11 years ago now.

Maybe next week in Part Two we’ll talk about his travels.

Live Deliberately


Currently listening to Mulatu Astatke, EthioJazz, a Dan Calverley recommend