Riding into a 20mph headwind, screaming profanities at the top of your lungs, 20 miles away from the hotel you booked because it’s been raining all day - it’s not most people’s idea of fun, is it? To be honest, it’s not mine either. But that was the reality two thirds into a solo 160 ride along the length of Wales a few years ago. That’s the thing about being on a big ride on your own. The highs are great, but the lows are pretty shit.
Riding solo is a strange thing for some people. Cycling by its very nature is a solitary sport, but seems to lend itself better to being a group activity. Like most people, I enjoy heading out with mates on the weekends and I’ve been on a few tours with friends, but there’s still something that draws me towards touring solo. Yet most of my friends have never done it, and tend to not consider it an option for their holiday. It’s hard to explain. There’s an element of freedom like no other when a two week tour is completely under your control. It’s a very pure adventure.
My first ever bikepacking trip around Scotland was a mostly unplanned loop around the west coast. I had only one plan - cycle around the Isle of Mull. Everything else was supposed to be filler, but some of the best moments and discoveries came from the bits in between. It could be a particular vista on a small climb, or a strange landmark at the side of the road. From spending a rainy day exploring Oban and trying to learn how to unicycle at the hostel, to spending a few hours with some local triathletes at the pub, the trip really felt like a true adventure, which all came to a crescendo on Mull. That amazing day finished off by watching the sun set over Calgary Bay, and it’s still one of my favourite days on the bike. In a brief moment it all clicked - this is exactly what I needed.
As a fairly introverted person, I find it difficult to speak to people I don’t know most of the time, but for some reason on tour I become a social butterfly. Maybe it’s a mutual interest in exploration and adventure, whether someone is a part of it or not, that seems to coax me out of my shell. I often find that when people see you rest up your laden bike at a pub garden, they can’t help but ask what you’re up to. Before you know it, you’ve spoken with the local time trials legend from back in the day, and Terry from the other side of the village is inviting you round to his BBQ because he thinks you're mad. And you haven’t even placed your order at the bar yet. It’s a very genuine and human experience that is quite rare in day-to-day life.
The days where the sun is shining, the views are epic and the roads are smooth are all well and good, but dealing with the other side of it all is where the phrase ‘character building’ comes in. True character building is those moments when you’re pushing into a rainy headwind for the past five hours, and you’re telling yourself not to lose your temper again. This is where you would probably want your mates alongside you to crack a joke, or pull you through those terrible days on the bike. But it’s down to you to keep it together.
Each decision you make tends to also carry a lot more weight. You're always weighing up your options: is this a good place to sleep? Shall I carry on another 20 miles? Is it better if I cut out this part of the route? What might seem small at the time could make a huge difference further down the road, but it's important to be able to cope with your mistakes too. I remember riding 7 miles in the complete wrong direction, and coming pretty close to flinging my bike into a nearby Loch.
However - the flipside to all that pain and misery, is there’s still that same sense of reward. It’s just delivered slightly differently (even if that feeling is ‘relief’). It’s that sense of accomplishment after conquering a tough climb, pushing through harsh weather, covering a big distance in one ride, or whatever it may be. The great thing about cycling and bikepacking is that sense of accomplishment is essentially on tap. And while sharing that experience is amazing, it feels pretty special to have that to yourself.
Maybe it’s somewhat selfish to undertake an adventure for only your own personal enjoyment and not share the experience, but in these busy times of social media, chat groups, zoom calls, whatsapp message groups, I find that the importance of taking a break from it all and simply enjoying the moment for yourself can’t be understated.
Sometimes it’s good to exhale a bit. After a year of pandemic lockdowns and cancelled plans, there’s definitely been a shift towards self sufficient adventuring and touring, and people seem to be enjoying that amazing sense of freedom to travel at your their pace and take in the scenery, which is only a good thing. And at the core of it, that’s what bikepacking and touring is all about. At least to me anyway.
The real fun starts when you get back and spend the next few days/weeks/months with your friends and you’re telling the same stories over and over again...
- Jon Hicken