Friday, 26 October 2012



My role in this blog – and perhaps in life too – is to do daft things with varying levels of success, and then report back so that no-one else has to make the same mistakes I've made and instead can just cut straight to the stuff that seems to work. 

A little - very little - local help in India

So, this post is about how I learnt something really quite important about simplicity and bicycles and then tried to make bicycles as complicated as possible until I worked out how to make them simple again. 

It started when having hitched across the Sahara desert and into Burkina Faso I ran out of money. I needed to get to the coast, a thousand miles away. A few weeks as harmonica player with a high-life band in Ouagadougou earned me enough to buy a second-hand, heavy, single-speed, black Chinese bicycle in the market. I loaded my small pack and guitar onto the rack at the back. Made a few peanut butter sandwiches and set off to pedal west to Bobo Dialasso, and then across Mali and into Senegal and finally down to Gambia, where the bike was stolen. In those few weeks of pedaling along sand-tracks and sleeping in the bush, sometimes doing a hundred miles a day sometimes covering no more than five, I realised that world-wide one could pretty much guarantee being able to find and buy a cheap local bicycle and pedal it for thousands of carefree miles, carrying all your gear and seeing the landscape pass satisfyingly faster than walking-pace but still at the cost of a bit of sweat.

There's Always A Local Bike
So, given this huge success, it's hilarious that I got it all wrong next time i set off to pedal a bit. I was going to cycle across the Sahara, from the Mediterranean coast down to the Hoggar mountains, over a thousand miles of dirt roads and sand tracks. I planned the trip really carefully, and took the kit side of things really seriously. My thinking - i suppose - was that the cheap, simple Burkina Faso bike had been good, so something twenty times more expensive would be twenty times better. So, I worked in London as a bicycle-courier to get fit. And to make a lot of money; a huge amount of which I then spent on what was a startling new American idea in the mid-1980s, the mountain bike. Mine was an import – amongst the first in Europe, I suppose – with satisfyingly wide and knobbly-tyred wheels, a super-strong frame made of Molybdenum. It was so strong that I was able to fit racks fore and aft, and hang capacious panniers off them, and put a handle-bar bag on the handle-bars, and clip and fix locks and bottles and tool kits all over the frame, and then put an extra little bag on the back of the seat, and pile up more stuff on top of the back rack. And because it was a complex beast I added, to all the other gear I was carrying, an array of tools and piles of spare parts. Two things did occur to me at the time; that it was irritating having a bike where nearly every bolt, Allen screw, fixing, nut and clip was a different size to its neighbour and so needed a separate tool to fiddle it with; and that I could have pretty much reconstructed a second-bike from the parts I was carrying. These things occurred to me but they didn't point me to the obvious conclusion that I was making things too complicated. I was missing the point of why i'd found my single-speed Ouagadougou bike so good for travelling. My West African local bike had been cheap, mechanically simple and looked like every other bike in West Africa and so didn't stand out and mark me as a rich idiot foreigner (i WAS an idiot toubab, yes, but not rich). Best of all the local bike was already IN West Africa.

Struggling to get over-complicated bike across the Sahara. Using the most reliable low-gear; walking

I was setting off to pedal across the Sahara on an over-complicated and expensive bicycle. A bicycle, moreover that was in Ireland, more than a thousand miles from the start of my thousand miles desert trip. Reader, this idiot toubab started his trip by cycling most of the way from Cork – bar a few lucky lifts – across France in mid-winter to catch the ferry leaving from Marseille for Algiers. It was a truly miserable trip. Mostly I remember hours a day of freezing, dark fog. And the rear-wheel hub exploding in a shower of tiny ball-bearings on a grit road (each piece of grit the size and colour of a tiny ball-bearing) in the rain half way across the Camargue. I found most of the ball-bearings and repacked and reassembled the hub. But it gave trouble from them on and right across the Sahara.

'Stop' -  local bike and minimal kit in Morocco

I won't bore you with the following weeks' travelling. I left Algiers and pedaled up over the Kabylie Mountains and down across the Ouled Nail hills and then I was in the desert proper. I pedaled relentlessly south. All kinds of good thing happened, of course. But here's the point relevant to this post – none of the good things came about because I had an expensive and complicated bike. In fact not having a cheap, local bike was a huge drawback. Not least when I realised that cycling across the Sahara and then around the Hoggar mountains was pretty daft, and i'd be much better throwing my lot in with locals and their camels. If i'd had a cheap local bike I could have abandoned it and done just that; headed off on a camel or on foot. But i couldn't just dump the most expensive bit of kit that i'd ever owned. And the bike that was getting more and more exotic the further into the Sahara I cycled, and so – i'm afraid – more stealable. I had to watch the bloody thing like a hawk night and day. Worse – any mechanical breakdown was a disaster. Bikes weren't totally unknown in the bigger Saharan towns but they were simple single-speed clunkers that could be fixed with a bit of old wire, or with a good whack from a hammer. But not the Rockhopper. To keep it running sweetly it needed the equivalent of regular brain surgery and a constant supply of spare parts that were as rare as Fabergé eggs in central Algeria. It got whacked with hammers and tied up with old wire. And, to give the faithful Rockhopper it's due, it kept going. But not easily.

Rajasthani with top bike.

The very worst thing came at the end of my thousand mile pedal across Algeria. And - I know that this defies imagination - but i'd been so fixated on getting down to Tamanrasset and then cycling off into the Hoggar mountains to look at the famed pre-historic rock carvings, and to meeting up with Tuareg to ask them about their music and do some recording, and to visit Pierre Fourcauld's hermitage at Assekrem (the three slender excuses i'd hung my trip on) that I had given no thought about how I was going to get back to Europe. There was a cold sinking feeling in the hot desert sands when virtually penniless, exhausted and hating the bike, I realised with a shock that I was going to have to re-trace my wheel-tracks the whole way back across the Sahara to reach the coast and a ferry back to France.

Think if I had just bought a cheap local bike in Algiers. How easy the trip would have been, then. I'd have carried a third of the kit. Had less mechanical nightmares. And at the end would have sold the bike for a small profit in Tamanrasset, or just given it away, and hitched a truck back to the north and the Mediterranean.

One can get this biking lark really wrong

You'd think i'd have learnt from that.

No. A few months after returning from the Sahara I took the same bike, the same kit plus a warmer sleeping bag and a bivvy bag [see previous post for the joys of bivvy-bag camping; as learnt at this point in my life] and the same attitude to Iceland. I flew there with the bike as my hold luggage. To avoid excess baggage charges I wore every piece of clothing I had with me, and filled my pockets with the petrol stove, spares, tools and the rest of the gear.  (Yes, that's right in those days either nobody cared, or nobody noticed that i had a petrol stove with all the vital statistics of a Molotov cocktail in my pocket on a flight). The next month was spent in a wet, windy early-summer circumnavigation of the thousand mile Icelandic Ring Road, which back in those days was unpaved and so a grinding ribbon of grit and sand virtually the whole way from Reykjavik back to Reykjavik.

At one point I met a Polish cyclist going the opposite way around the Ring Road. The constraints of Iron Curtain economies at the time meant that rather than having a fancy velocipede, he'd just bought a cheap, second-hand single-speed simple bike. We compared notes. Oddly, though we were both cycling around in opposite directions at the same time, we'd both spent the previous two weeks battling against a head wind. This along with other climatic challenges, and a diet of lambs brains and whale steaks, and having to sleep out through nightly rains meant that we were both having just as tough at time of it as the other. But him having a cheap, simple bike to pedal around wasn't making his trip obviously more miserable than my trip on an expensive, complicated bike. I think that's where I finally began to get the point.

Because all the foreign bike trips I did after that used local, single-speed bikes that cost a few quid.

Indian Hero Jet kitted out for the road - note the reading rack.

In India two of us bought wonderful Hero Jets in Jodhpur and rode across Rajasthan, and into Madyar Pradesh, crossing the Satpura Mountains (where the Jungle Book was set) to finish up in Bhopal (of Union Carbide infamy). Those two bikes we actually bought new; and  were so relatively cheap that we added all kinds of extras; sturdy racks to strap our rucksacks onto, kick-down stands to hold the parked bikes upright in treeless areas, and buffalo-hide saddles that started off wooden-hard but were pummeled by a month of being sat and bounced on into delicate sculptures formed to caress our rears with the fit of angels' hands. I added the Indian schoolboy's cunning weapon in the battle for ever better education; the handlebar-mounted, spring-loaded reading rack that allowed me to read a book – The Pickwick Papers, if you're curious – as I was pedalling along. 
Tiffin Box lunch and a siesta in India

Carla and i bought tiffin boxes to sling from our cross-bars and would stop at village chai houses to fill them with chapaties and dahl to picnic on later. 


And best of all, when we'd had enough of cycling across India we sold the two bikes for a slight profit, hopped on a bus and sped away. It would be hard to over-emphasise how much better cycle-touring was on these two paragons of virtue, our sturdy but ultimately expendable Hero Jets, than it was on those trips when i'd insisted on hauling a bike out from Ireland, pedaling it around some far-flung land whilst trying to keep it working and then bringing it all the way back to Ireland again.

Sprucing up the Hero Jets in Bhopal before selling them

So, I did it it the same simple way again on the following trip. The next bike I bought was in Morocco; a cherry-red bomber that cost around €30 in the mid-1990s from a market on the coast in El Jadida. I cycled from the coast to the Atlas Mountains and into Marrakech. 

Effortlessly outpacing a donkey and cart in Morocco

In Morocco i was following in the tyre-marks of a 19th century traveller called Budget Meakin who had made the same trip a hundred years earlier. And he made the same mistakes I'd been making in the past. He had a carefully imported bike, wore a hot and itchy woolen cycling-suit and needed a train of mules and horses following to carry his tent and other kit. 
The cherry-red bomber - the camel of the cycle world

I didn't have a tent, and my kit was no more than a small pack that I disguised with an old sack so my bike was indistinguishable from that of any Moroccan tripping around the place on a sturdy, cheap, simple bike.

Parking in Marrakech

Then, I did it again in Havana. Buying a bike, and cycling around the west of Cuba before selling it back the guy I bought it from at a sligh loss that argued that rather than buying and selling a bike i'd actually hired one very cheaply for a few weeks. A friend, Christina, did the same thing and pedaled considerably further around Cuba than I did, and cheated less, too. Because I was often inclined to put my bike into the back of a passing horse-drawn cart or onto a lorry rather than pedal through the heat. Cheating yes, but proving again the advantages of a simple bike; you can hitch-hike with it.

Then there were a pair of horror-bikes that two of us hired for a long trip out into the desert from the Egyptian oasis of Siwa. Mine too small and its chain inclined to fly off the front chain-ring when i put any pressure on the pedals. Elizabeth's heavy as something made from scaffolding tubing. But even these clunkers carried us sixty miles in a day out across the salt pans to a distant pool amongst palm trees to swim. And both bikes if mechanically suspect were polished and sparkling. Bikes were a point of pride in Siwa. Local men decorated their own bikes with paper fringes, plastic tape, colourful paint jobs and blingy danglers. 

Heading out of Siwa, or perhaps back.

I do think in all fairness that I shouldn't be too hard on the original Rockhopper – I was at fault, not it. It survived the double trip across the Sahara and the circumnavigation of Iceland, and numerous long trips across Ireland and England. And being hammered around the streets of Cork, and often left hitched and forgotten to a lamp-post for days on end. I finally gave it away to a friend; the frame, the wheels, the gears, the brakes and the handle-bars were all original; the saddle had been changed and replaced several times. I kept the back rack to put on my next bike.

And the pair of Karrimor rear panniers are still going strong after more than twenty-five years of close to continual use. So, sometimes there is a return on spending quite a bit of money on something good and new. But on the panniers and not the bike.

And here's a tip - worth reading all the foregoing for. If planning on buying a local bike in some far off country, rest assured that if it's the kind of place that you can pedal then there will be bikes for sale. But there almost certainly won't be bicycle pumps, locks, puncture repair kits and spanners that aren't made out of some material that looks like metal but acts like putty. Nip into Halfords and buy all of the above bits of kit and take them out with you. 

So, that's my argument for heading off for bike travel, pretty much anywhere in the world. Buy 'em, ride 'em, sell 'em.

Keep it simple, don't let it get complicated. 

Simple Bike - Siwa Oasis, Egypt


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About Me

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I'm an independent writer on wilderness activities, slow adventures, traditional horsemanship and odd stuff. I'm the author of Paddle; A long way around Ireland (Sort Of Books), and i was the story consultant on the IMAX documentary on cowboy cultures across the globe, Ride Around The Word. The Slow Adventure sends reports back from the front-line of a slow and simple life; horses, kayaks, guitars, long walks, travel, books, simplicity, trains, travel, wildlife and the occasional thrill.