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.
“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.
“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 (www.selfpropellingparticle.com) 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.”
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.
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
Rob Lilwall: Cycling Home from Siberia
Tom Allen: Janapar
John Fowls: The Magus
Cormac McCarthy: The Border Trilogy
John Krakauer: Into the Wild