Sunday, 10 May 2020

My Life in Bikes (part two)

Part one, posted a week ago, covered this story up to the time I became settled in Northern Ireland. After exploring this island, I embarked on a series of solo cycle-tours in France, Italy and Spain, taking these as my summer holidays from work. I packed up my bike in a bag and put all my kit into one medium holdall. When I arrived, I took a taxi to the hotel I had pre-booked for the first night, unpacked the bike, transferred my stuff into my panniers and set off the next morning. On a cycle-tour, life is simpler and freer; I was exploring somewhere completely new for three weeks with all my possessions in just two panniers on the back of my bike. I was also leaving many of my normal bothers behind, which gave me plenty of time to reflect on more significant issues. I always wrote a reflective journal during the tour and returned with a sense of renewal.

Every morning I would ring to book a room for the night (in a small pensione or hostal) and then have the day to explore places along the way to my evening’s destination. I would always leave my bike bag at the first hotel, having pre-booked the last night of my trip there. The main disadvantage of a solo cycle-tour is that you have to carry all your own luggage. However much you minimise your stuff (and over time I got good at this), it still makes the bike fairly heavy. Being alone is not a problem, for you are bound to meet other travellers on the way. My favourite tours were of La Mancha, the Basque country, Brittany and Puglia.

I then decided to try a supported cycle-tour, where your luggage is carried for you between destinations. I was particularly interested in exploring faraway destinations where I would have had difficulties organising a cycle-tour on my own. With the Cyclists’ Touring Club, I went on multi-week tours of Sri Lanka, SW China, Patagonia, Laos, N Thailand and Vietnam. By far the best way of exploring a developing country is by bike, for you travel at a slower pace, alongside the people, and really get to experience how others live. I’ve had some brilliant adventures: staying with a family in a stilted hut in a small village in Laos without electricity or running water; meeting ethnic tribes-people, dressed in all their finery, on a market day in the foothills of the Chinese Himalayas (on the road to Shangri-La).

I think the main things that these experiences taught me were self-reliance and humility. Seeing the developing world at first-hand shows you that human beings are much the same. The main differences are that us Westerners, despite being in a minority, have most of the world’s resources and privileges. The majority have less, because we have more. But the poor of the world are remarkably skilled at making the best of what they do have. They recycle, repurpose and reuse all of the time (because they have to). And if you find yourself somewhere far away and in need of help, you will be pretty sure to find it.

Sadly, due to cancer, I have not been on such a tour for a decade. But I have been cycling when I’ve been able to; increasingly so over the past couple of years during my recovery from the last major operation. I have also been honing my bike maintenance skills that I first developed during my cycle-tours. This was given an added impetus by the failures of a local specialist bike shop. They took my money and handed my bike back to me without the headset being fixed properly. Because my bike had been left in a dangerous state, I decided never to give them any work again and that I had to learn to fix my own bikes.

There are a series of tasks that are needed to fix up a bike. I tackled them one by one, as I needed, finding that each of the tasks is not that difficult on its own. I learned many of these by trial and error. There are plenty of instructional videos, but you have to be careful as some of these are misleading. And I’ve now put all of these skills together, for I’ve just built a bike completely from scratch for the very first time. It only took me five afternoons in total, spread out over a week or so. I am very pleased with this achievement.

I now have a titanium-framed superbike, built to my very own specifications like a bespoke suit from a tailor. I bought the frame in a sale last year and then chose all the parts to go with it to fit my precise needs. This was an enjoyable but complex part of the process, because compatibility between parts from different manufacturers can be problematic. Indeed you cannot be sure that they will all work together until you try them.

I am delighted to say that my new bike works beautifully. It is a Kinesis Gran Fondo (Italian for big ride) designed for long distance cycling. It is three and a half pounds lighter than my existing Audax bike, but is very comfortable. What is more, it rolls well up the local hills and speeds down them very surefootedly. The handling is brilliant. I’m sure we will go on to have many great rides together. Although, nobody knows when (or if) overseas cycling trips will become possible again.

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