The weight of life on two wheels

The first invention of the bicycle dates back to the 1800s. From then, innovation took over to create the motorbike and eventually, advanced motor vehicles. It’s amazing how the first mode of transport that didn’t require an animal to move, is still around today. The question is, what is it that drives long distance cyclists of today?

By Shin Yiing Lee

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Photo copyrights to Shin Lee

With eyes fixated on the road ahead, the trees and lamp posts along the side start to blur out as each pedal gains speed. Keeping her motion and pace, the rider faces the winds head on. Her mind is blank and her heart pounding to the beat of her pedaling, while being vulnerable to both nature’s wrath and blessing. As she lifts her head up slowly and realises that she has reached a forest path, slows down her pedaling to come to a stop. “And I was just by myself. It was just amazing. It looked like a never ending forest with really tall pine trees. I put my bag down and just… admired everything.”

After taking a few photos, she continues her journey as she still had 80km to go until she reaches her stop for the night. All she wanted was a warm shower, a good night’s sleep, and kindness from a good soul. “One time, I reached in the evening and they asked, ‘do you want to have dinner with us?’ On another occasion it was ‘are you okay with eating pasta? Are you vegetarian?’ I felt so blessed” says Esther Koh, as she recounts her nights spent in the homes of Warm Showers hosts during her 8 day long cycle tour from Rotterdam to Berlin.

“They’re quite intimate, so it’s a very nice community.” Esther had explained to me earlier what Warm Showers was— a free worldwide community built for hospitality changes between touring cyclists.

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Photo copyrights to Shin Lee

 

Warm Showers currently has 102,766 active members and 48,435 active hosts internationally, and isn’t the only community based organisation available to cycle tourists. Cycling groups specific to a country, region, or worldwide forums can be found on the internet.

Organisations such as Global Cycling Network, The Next Challenge, and Sustrans exist to provide guidance and advice for cyclists. The joy within communities like these are that if you have a cycling related question, people on the group or network are willing to share any knowledge they have to help.

It’s like having a neighbour you know you can always go to when you run out of salt, just that they’re scattered all over the world.

The cycle touring community celebrates exchanges between strangers and connects the world through the pure love of cycling. “I think cycling is the closest thing to flying, so I love it. Running is slower, it’s difficult to explore while running” Esther laughs and takes a sip out of her latte. The 22 year old studies Nutrition in the University of Leeds. She had returned from her solo cycling tour just a couple of weeks ago.

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Esther, at her destination: Brandenburg Gate. (Photo copyrights to Esther Koh)

“I was raising money for Candlelighters, a children’s cancer charity in Leeds.” She leans forward to rest her arms on the table, wrapping her hands around her cup. “I chose this charity because a friend of mine from church back in Singapore passed away in January just a few months back from stage four brain cancer.”

As a commemoration, she raised £525 through her solo cycling trip by sharing about it on Facebook. “During a Christmas celebration last year, we were asked to share what were we thankful for in the year that passed. All my friend said was: ‘I’m thankful for life… I’m thankful that I’m alive’.” She turns to look at me and says: “That’s it. You know, it’s so simple, but so powerful.”

For Sourish Banerjee, a 28 year old PhD student and Warm Showers host, cycling was a way to explore the world. While living in Rotterdam, he cycled short distances to explore his town. “Slowly, I wanted to see a little bit more. Not just my neighbourhood, but the whole region. And so it grew. And my distances just kept on increasing.”

Now, Sourish is no amateur to long distances, and does regular trips of up to 238km. “I start at 4 o’clock in the morning and I bike until around 12 o’clock in the night. I’ll usually be covering the whole Netherlands in a day with some breaks, of course, and coffee!”

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Sourish Banerjee on one of his cycling trips (Photo copyrights to Sourish Banerjee)

He has also set a goal for himself, to participate in an ultra-endurance cycling event in the future if possible. “Well… uhm… I …” with a little laugh of hesitation he continues and says: “I might not do it anytime soon, but it will be nice to participate in the randonneuring event Paris Brest Paris. It has a history of almost 120 years.”

Randonneuring, a non-competitive long-distance cycling sport where cyclists finish a designated length over a time limit, was born out of a group of cyclists’ yearn for challenges. In The History of Randonneuring Part 1, the first randonneuring event was recorded to have happened on June 12, 1897. Now, the longest challenge reaches up to 3,500km.

Most of these challenges and trips are done for the adrenaline rush from a good challenge of fitness, or for the beautiful scenery along the way. Esther believes “it’s the journey that counts,” as cliché as it may sound. “I wouldn’t say reaching Brandenburg Gate was the highlight. I got a little emotional, but I think I had enjoyed the whole journey so much that the destination didn’t matter as much.” Esther sighs as she reminisced the end of her trip.

Another cycle tourist from Singapore, Tan Yan, shares of the encounters he had with kind strangers along his journey from Thailand to Singapore. Yan had met an uncle (a Singaporean address for older men) while cycling in Malaysia, who kindly allowed Yan and his friend to draft behind him.

“It’s good to draft by hiding behind another cyclist because you save a lot of energy, and quite a substantial amount at that,” Yan says. “There’s an image I remember very clearly from this part of the trip. While we were cycling altogether, a school bus drove past.” Yan pauses with a smile before continuing. “The students wound down their windows, went a little crazy and cheered us on.”

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Photo copyrights to Tan Yan

He even encountered people taking on-the-go selfies with them from their car windows while on the road, and had met fellow cycle tourists as well. “You will meet people while cycling,” Yan shares.

“We’ll just be in the middle of cycling and we’ll shout crazy stuff or holler, and they will holler back, because they understand what’s going on.” It seemed like all cyclists have a common connection in knowing that they’re all in it together for the journey no matter where they’re headed. “We’ll just shout “Oi!” and have a laugh.”

 

In the UK alone, 4% of the adult population under the 2015 Active People Survey cycle nearly every day. That’s 2 million people. Taking into account cyclists in other parts of the world, it will be an astounding amount. It will not be uncommon for these cycle enthusiasts to want to meet new friends who are interested in cycling as they are, be it along the way or at the start of the journey.

Most people cycle in their local community cycling groups on weekends. The urge to see the world merges with the basic human need of being socially connected with others. Leeds RAG (Receive and Give), a charity based society in the University of Leeds provides such a platform— where long distance cyclists join challenges and meet new friends, but also raise money for charities.

Lotta Skule, the Endurance Challenges Manager for Leeds RAG said that they ran three bicycle endurance challenges this year: Bike to Barcelona, Bike to Berlin and Pedal to Prague. Participants had collectively raised £40,649 for a number of charities.

I’ve been with Leeds RAG for 3 years now, and you do meet the nicest people. I’m friends with people whom I did the challenge with that I had no other connections with. Other than the fact that I spent two weeks with them on a bike,” Lotta says cheerily. “That’s quite nice because it’s a good way of meeting people who are interested in similar things with you but are also not similar to you at all.”

Bearing the desire to make new connections, the urge to see the world, the eagerness to challenge one self, and luggage on the pannier racks behind their bicycles, it’s like carrying the weight of life with them along on their journey.

“With bags in the front, on the sides and back… It’s a lot of weight. It’s like carrying your whole life.” Esther says, while showing me photos of her bicycle during the trip. Some cyclists travel around with the weight of their bags for weeks, months, or years.

“Mine was just a taster session of life.”

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Photo copyrights to Shin Lee
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