Q. In 2006, you began a round-the-world bicycle trip called ‘Ride Earth,’ an epic challenge you had never attempted before. What is it about seeing the world with a bicycle that excites you, and can you describe what the first few weeks of your journey were like?
It was the promise of freedom that first drew me to bicycle travel. I’m sure that’s a common motive among travelers but doing it under pedal power really elevated the sense of boundlessness: no bus schedules, no cramped hostels, no fuel stations, just the open road and near-endless options for where to follow it to. I put a lot of time into building a bike that could take me well off the beaten track – mountain-bike tires, off-road cargo trailer etc – and I put it to very good use over the following years!
Of course, I also had a useful passport to travel on, which I certainly took for granted at the beginning, only later realizing how privileged a starting point I’d had.
My memories of the first few weeks of that first big journey are a mixture of fun and frustration. Fun because I was crossing Europe in the summer with two good friends and zero responsibilities. Frustration because we’d dived in at the deep end and had a huge amount to learn about life on the road. We were young, inexperienced, and naive: a double-edged sword that both gave us the audacity to begin that journey and made the early days extremely challenging.
Route-finding, for example, took a lot of time and discussion. We were dedicated to staying off the roads, but smartphones hadn’t been invented yet, so every day we had to hunt down paper maps of cycle routes from local tourist information offices – and then we all had to agree on a plan, which is of course the hardest part of group travel.
Wild camping was another big challenge. We were travelling on a ridiculously low budget – less than 5 Euros per day per person – so indoor accommodation wasn’t even an option. I remember the first night of the trip, trying desperately to put up three tents on a piece of grass in a village square without anyone noticing us – ridiculous!
Eventually a local farmer invited us in for strawberry pavlova and a glass of wine and we laughed about the whole thing. And it was the same kind of story every night from that point onwards. We slept in back gardens, graveyards, skate parks, garden sheds, blacksmiths’ forges, bike shop basements (all with permission!), as well as – occasionally – on the lush riverbanks and in the wild forests you imagine when you think about camping.
I think we paid for a total of five nights’ accommodation in the four months it took to cycle from England to Istanbul. That first leg of the journey was my introduction to what bicycle travel truly had to offer.
Q. I’ve read about your travels to some off-the-beaten-path countries like Sudan, Iran, Yemen, Syria, the Arctic, Ethiopia, Armenia, Mongolia, and Myanmar etc. Could you share the challenges you faced while cycling in these places and how you overcame them. Also, which destinations do you think are more cyclist-friendly, and what made them stand out?
This is a list of countries and regions stereotyped as difficult or dangerous to travel in. I honestly found that these stereotypes said more about the society doing the stereotyping – namely the Western society and media culture in which I grew up. It’s a common trope among travelers that places aren’t like people think they are, and that idea is probably what empowered me to go and find out for myself.
And when I did, I was surprised and delighted to find that the stereotypes were indeed false, and that the same realizations about the nature of the world were available to the bicycle traveler too.
I did encounter real difficulties on the road, of course, and it would be misleading to claim that some of the places listed above were easy destinations for the cyclist!
I had rocks thrown at me on an almost daily basis in Ethiopia; I thought I was going to freeze to death in my tent in the Swedish Arctic winter; I got escorted out of Yemen by a pick-up truck full of soldiers with a mounted machine gun on the back (civil war broke out a few weeks later); and I’ve spent more time than I’d like in several Iranian police stations. None of these anecdotes would help to squash any stereotypes, but they were the exceptions during otherwise fascinating and rewarding journeys.
As for how I overcame these and other challenges, I guess it’s important to point out that I didn’t choose any of these situations. True adventure is unplanned; some of it good, some not so much! The best you can do when things get tricky is to keep cool, trust your gut, identify what you can and can’t control, and then do your best to find a way through, because you don’t really have much choice.
I didn’t come pre-prepared with a military or survival background, or indeed any prior travel experience, so it was again a case of learning how to negotiate life on the road and its various ups and downs. Incidentally, I found that the solution to a great many problems is to make friends quickly. The greatest hazard of all, on the other hand, is road traffic!
Q. Tell us about your bike and must-have gear for your journey, and how you find places to pitch your tent for an overnight stay?
I came to adventure cycling from a mountain-biking background, along with an unhealthy obsession with bikes and gear! Because of that, I decided to build my first touring bike from the ground up. The result was a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster, and after a few years I retired it in favor of a commercially available touring bike, which was lighter, nimbler, and better suited to a mixture of road and gravel, carrying a couple of small panniers.
I now alternate between that and a custom-built heavy-duty touring bike (an Oxford Bike Works Expedition) for longer trips on tougher terrain with heavy panniers.
What all these bikes have in common is that they’re built to carry a rider and their luggage and be comfortable over long distances. That means they’re stronger and heavier than bikes designed to be ridden unladen, and the riding position is more relaxed than bikes designed for sport or competition.
The category to look for in your local bike store is the “touring bike”, but people routinely repurpose commuter bikes, hybrids, gravel bikes, even road and mountain bikes, to carry luggage and go on longer trips. At the end of the day, if you already own a decent bike that fits you, you could probably take it on a bike tour.
I’ve never taken off on even the shortest bike trip without camping gear. Some people prefer “credit-card touring” and staying in guesthouses, but I personally consider camping gear essential because it allows me to sleep anywhere, paid-for or otherwise. That gives me flexibility and peace of mind, upon which rests my basic enjoyment of cycle touring.
Cooking equipment is nice but optional – you can always pick up food on the roadside, picnic on snacks, or get into cold-soaking! Tools and spares are sensible to carry, as is knowing how to use them in advance. Most riders I know travel with an on-bike set and an off-bike set of clothes, perhaps with additional underwear and weather-specific extras such as waterproofs and insulated jackets, depending on the climate and how long they’re going for. That’s more or less it for essential equipment.
Finding places to pitch a tent for free is easier than many people think. It’s also far less glamorous than it looks on social media, being driven mainly by practical concerns. In open landscapes you can usually camp where you like for a night, though it’s best to be somewhere sheltered and away from roads and trails. If you do get spotted, local people are more likely to be curious and hospitable than unfriendly and aggressive. For that reason, if there are people around, I make a point of asking if it’s okay to camp for one night in my chosen spot. (The answer is rarely no.)
It does get trickier in enclosed or cultivated landscapes where there’s less accessible ground. I usually allocate at least an hour for finding a spot so I can get away from such areas, but if I’m stuck, I tend to look at field margins, behind hedges, in clumps of trees, along river or canal banks, etc.
In more desperate circumstances, I’ve also camped in playing fields and parks, on traffic islands and construction sites, and even in abandoned buildings! Sneak in after dark and leave before dawn and it’ll usually be fine. Never forget that all you really need is a flat surface the size of your tent’s footprint. It isn’t much.
Q. How do you plan your daily route and map things out, what’s a typical day like in terms of miles covered, and how often do you take breaks?
Things have changed a lot since I started out. My first attempts at long-distance route planning started with a printed world map that showed the global road network, and then dived down into ever-more-detailed regional maps, all on paper. On the ground, I used tourist maps, followed signage, asked for directions, and basically made it up as I went along.
Today, detailed maps of road and trails around the world are available instantly and everywhere, thanks to global cellphone data coverage and worldwide open-source mapping projects such as OpenStreetMap. Were I to begin the same trip today, I could set off blind and plan daily routes on the fly using a purpose-designed smartphone app, with the route tailored to whatever style of riding I fancied, hitting as many pre-planned waypoints as I chose, and going as far as I wanted.
A typical day in the saddle would be anywhere between 50 and 150km, depending on a huge list of variables.
I’m thankful for the navigation experiences I had in my early days, for they taught me to predict how natural landscapes and humanmade infrastructure would serve my route-finding ambitions. I know that I can bring those skills back into service whenever I need to, which comes in useful in poorly mapped areas and wilderness regions. (Incidentally, I now work as a trail designer for hiking and biking routes, which involves a similar process of finding and surveying unmapped tracks.)
But I also appreciate the wealth of information now available for route planning. It takes away a lot of unknowns, which can diminish or alter the sense of adventure, but it does allow for a much more tailored journey to take place, and ultimately makes exploration more accessible and egalitarian. Both ends of the route planning spectrum are equally valid – they just result in different kinds of experience.
Q. What are the most important safety precautions for you?
I quite like the “zone” concept. In the comfort zone, you’re doing what you already know. In the stretch zone, you’re learning something new without it getting risky. In the panic zone, you’re no longer able to make good decisions, and that’s when things get dangerous. I think a lot of safety as a traveler comes down to keeping yourself out of the panic zone.
I’ve learned over time to trust my instincts because they usually turn out to be right. Sometimes this has involved learning the hard way! Being tuned into your innate sense of threat and danger is an important skill and one that helps you avoid ending up in that panic zone.
While I used to behave fairly recklessly when it came to precautions (no phone, no satellite tracker, no insurance, no telling anyone where I was going, etc), there are objectively sensible reasons why things like these are common points of advice. I think the turning point for me came when I realized, or remembered, that there were other people in this world who would be affected by my approach (or lack thereof) to safety.
Taking responsibility for the consequences of your decisions beyond the immediate and the personal is a big step, and probably the one that causes people to dial down the risks they take as they grow older, wiser, and more experienced.
I always wear a helmet and ensure my bike and I are clearly visible to motorists. This is a simple step that reduces the potential severity of the single most likely way to get hurt while travelling by bicycle. If I was in the mood for wordplay, I’d say it was a “no-brainer”.
Q. Share a memorable moment or encounter from your travels that holds significant meaning for you, and tell us what made that moment special?
I’ve collected far, far too many memories over the years to list! But one story that comes to mind happened in Mongolia back in 2010. My riding partner and I had travelled from the shores of the frozen Lake Khovsgol and into the forested mountains to the west of the lake. The printed overview map of the country we’d bought in advance showed a road, but there was none: just huge valleys full of boggy ground and boulder-strewn riverbeds.
We couldn’t ride, so we pushed our bikes on foot, filtering water out of the rivers and eating nothing but instant noodles and cereal bars.
After four days, we found a rough jeep track leading out onto the plains beyond, but almost immediately got lost in a tangle of grassy wetlands and marshes, the sun beating down and no shade or cover. Then we suddenly came across a little wooden farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. We hadn’t seen any other humans for quite a while at that point, so we knocked on the door and went in.
What we found inside was several generations of a Mongolian family sitting around a candlelit shrine, with what looked like a recent photo of someone at its center. They welcomed us in and sat us down, and it soon became clear that they were mourning the death of a loved one. Vodka – a hangover from Soviet times, no pun intended – was passed around liberally. We’d been exerting ourselves on empty stomachs, so in no time at all we were both absolutely smashed.
Then one of the family started singing. And it was the most wistful and heartfelt music I’d ever heard. Perhaps it was the vodka, or the occasion, or the unexpectedness of it all – probably a combination – but I suddenly found myself in floods of tears, wracked with uncontrollable sobbing.
It felt like a sudden release of all the stresses of journeying through this unknown wilderness, somehow culminating in this moment of universality: a celebration of life and a reminder of the impermanence of all things, needing no language to explain.
Q. How have your bicycle travel experiences given you unique opportunities that you might not find in other forms of travel?
I’m lucky enough to have travelled the world by many means. I’ve hiked thousands of miles (mainly in the Caucasus as part of the Transcaucasian Trail project), journeyed on horseback across Patagonia, followed Iran’s longest river with an inflatable kayak, and travelled across various continents by train in attempt to reduce the amount of flying I do. This has given me a lot of time to think (and write) about the unique opportunities offered by the bicycle. And there’s a lot to say on the topic!
Distilled, I’d say that the bicycle somehow makes you both superhuman and intensely vulnerable. Travelling under your own steam gives you agency: you’re not restricted to someone else’s schedules and routes, which means spending much of your time in the places in between, and this paints a very different picture of the world. But wheels – and I don’t mean just bicycles but tricycles, hand cycles, recumbents, unicycles, scooters, anything human powered that rolls forward under its own momentum – extend your range far beyond that of the walker. Their invention revolutionized humanity, and for me they revolutionize the travel experience too.
Yet when you trundle into new places, you’re perceived very differently from a traveler with a backpack who steps off a bus or out of a campervan. I think there’s this innate understanding of the effort it took to get there, at the same time exposed to all the perceived dangers people fear about the world. The result is that you’re taken in and looked after everywhere you go. I’d go as far as to say that it transforms your view of humanity.
Q. I understand you’re based in Armenia. Tell us what led you to choose Armenia as your base?
I arrived for adventure, and I stayed for love! That’s the short version. Armenia was on my planned route for the round-the-world bike ride, and the girl I met there was the reason I never completed it. We’ve travelled by bicycle together in many parts of the world since then, and I now see the goal of cycling round the world as something I’ll complete gradually over the course of my life – if indeed I ever do complete it, which isn’t really the point anymore!
We’ve also tried living in various places, but we ultimately came back to Armenia because it was where we’d found a circle of like-minded people and a style of life that suited us. We found the prevailing Western culture of work in pursuit of wealth to be stifling, and we’ve been happy to accept a simpler and more frugal existence in an objectively poorer and less developed part of the world in return for greater sovereignty over our time and decisions.
I’m the kind of person who needs projects to work on to create meaning in my life, and I also found that in Armenia. This is a place where nature has been left relatively unscathed by, say, industrial farming or over tourism – but these stunning landscapes were essentially off-limits due to a complete absence of information and infrastructure to access them.
I set about changing that, using my skills and experience as an adventure traveler to map out and share routes for hiking and biking that others could then use.
This led to – among other things – the Transcaucasian Trail, an international long-distance hiking route whose Armenian national section was launched in 2021 and now extends over 800km (500 miles) across the country. It’s an endlessly fascinating project to be part of and has sparked the development of a nationwide trail network in Armenia. In terms of giving back to the world of travel, it’s ticked a lot of boxes!
Q. You are also an excellent writer. How has writing about your experiences enhanced your connection to the places you’ve visited?
Writing was originally a form of journalling that helped me process and appraise experiences that seemed to transcend language. It helped me divine (or perhaps invent?) meanings and narratives from disparate chance encounters that wouldn’t necessarily be clear without reflection.
I was a web developer in a former life, so I uploaded what I wrote to a simple WordPress blog, along with a few photos. It turned out that my stories resonated, first with those closest to me (who perhaps I was unconsciously writing them for) and then with an ever-growing online audience. A feedback loop emerged, which motivated me to work on the craft of writing, and eventually led to me making a living from it.
Turning experiences into stories tends to solidify the shapeless, and it’s hard to reverse that process, so in a way I suppose I’ve rewritten what actually happened. On the other hand, stories are how we make sense of things, and it’s nice to take a proactive approach to doing so. I also consider the sharing of travel writing (especially when it isn’t monetized) an act of generosity, because – let’s face it – not everyone has the means or the desire to go out and explore the world, so the next best thing is to live someone else’s experiences vicariously.
Writing has also had the circular effect of forcing me to look for stories and meanings in my travels at the planning stage and during the journeys themselves. Just as there’s a case to be made for going where the wind takes you with no expectations, so there’s a place for journeys with a specific purpose. One helps us understand ourselves, and the other (hopefully) helps us understand the world.
Q. What message would you like to share with our readers who are considering a similar adventure to yours?
I’ve never met anyone who regretted going on a long, bicycle-mounted adventure. If you’ve got the bug, take steps towards the starting line. You only need to know enough to begin – the rest will work itself out on the way.