Beautiful photo compositions of beaming adventurers with magnificent mountain vistas, punchy travel videos of winding gravel descents and written tales of kindness and chance encounters. From these #wanderlust and #bestlife offerings, you might be led to believe that cycle touring is all sunshine and puppies.
With the fantastic highs must come the miserable lows; those moments when you just have to sit down next your bike and say “F**k it”.
You can’t get to the top of the mountain for that king-of-the-world selfie without an agonizing slog up the side of it. Double digit grades, rough dirt roads, thin air. Pushing your bike step by step, pausing every few hundred metres to lean over the handlebars and catch your breath. Casting an eye over your ludicrous amount of baggage and wondering what you could afford to cast aside on the road, right there.
As a cyclist, it’s only fair that you earn your turn, and each downhill has its up. Walking up the side of the Andes with a 40, 50 or 60kg touring bike is an exercise is stubborn-headedness.
Spend enough time on the road and Mother Nature will eventually get tired of your presence and decide to test your mettle.
Blistering hot sun and wide open skies, a treeless road with no buildings and not a whisper of a breeze. You start to feel like you are cooking underneath your hat, the metal of your bike becomes hot to the touch and the water in your bottles could probably poach an egg. Sweat pours out of you and then stops. Thick salt deposits build up in the creases of your skin and make your shirt as stiff as a board.
You might pray for a refreshing shower of rain to cool you down, but Mother Nature is wont to be cruel and sometimes sends too much. Clothes are soaked, the body is soaked, the tent, sleeping mat and possibly sleeping bag are soaked. You are forced to carry these extra kilograms of water and when you unpack it all at the end of the day, it will still be wet.
For the next trick, clouds roll away to reveal the sun once more. Like a bucket of water thrown onto the hot coals of a sauna, the humidity rockets to 100% and the cycling is more akin to swimming in hot soup. Sweating won’t help you here, the air is already full.
Then the mercury drops and the cold sets in. Overnight snowfalls, icy tents, hands and feet numb from the cold. Moustache Icicles. Wrapped up in layers of clothes and a sleeping bag, peeking under the tent fly to a grey morning, dreading the thought of leaving the warmth and cycling into the cold again.
Perhaps the greatest foe of all is the wind. Knocking you across the road into a ditch or speeding traffic, slamming into you head-on. Crawling along at 5km/h, you ask yourself whether it would be better to just get off and walk. It picks your hat up off your head and sends it spiralling wildly down the road.
The external environment is, of course, only one half of the equation. Discovering new countries often involves discovering strains of exotic bacteria that can’t wait to treat your body like an amusement park.
Dizziness, sweats and fatigue are milder symptoms of eating that risky street chicken, not washing your hands or drinking from a suspect pool of water. Other times, cyclists can be seen leaping into the bushes from still-moving bicycles or desperately scrambling out of sleeping bag and tent for midnight evacuations.
I’ve avoided serious fevers, parasites and even vomiting during my year plus in South America, but other cyclists have only been too happy to share their tales of woes and flows.
The other end of this spectrum is when you find yourself with too little happening in your body; not enough to eat.
Whether due to insufficient planning, underestimating the difficulty of the route or arriving at a town abandoned, it isn’t so hard to find yourself without enough food (or even water). You really feel like a (miserable) adventurer when you are forced to go to bed on an empty stomach.
Then, of course, there is the filth.
Days, maybe weeks without a proper shower. Certainly weeks of wearing the same clothes without a wash. Sweat, dust, various grime and pollution from long days among exhaust spewing traffic. Fortunately, there exists a hierarchy of wash points that help to keep a travelling cyclist from turn into a wild animal.
In richer countries, petrol stations are a cycle tourist’s dream land. Ample food, drinks, occasional WiFi and shower facilities. This is the deluxe shower.
Depending on altitude and time of year, rivers and lakes may provide a more comprehensive bathing experience than even the service station shower. Higher up however, temperatures drop and a lake full of snow melt necessitates only the briefest of splashes.
Next down the list is the tap or hose. By no means will this completely rectify days of encrusted filth, but is a useful tool in holding back unspeakable odours.
Last on the list are wet wipes. These are the bathing equivalent of throwing a cup of water on a house fire, but might provide some psychological comfort.
Even when Mother Nature is being nice and your body isn’t playing host to a bacterial coup, cycle touring has many features to test the limits of resilience.
Bicycles are mercifully simple machines, but they still possess a wealth of parts that can throw a metaphorical (or literal) stick in the spokes. A flat tyre is a pain. Two sucks. Three in a day? Four or more? How many times in one day are you willing to take all the panniers off the bike, get covered in filth on the side of the road, change a tube and then keep riding. What if you are on a highway? What if it is raining? What if it is 40 degrees in the sun? What if you are 50 kilometres away from civilisation and don’t have enough water?
Then a tyre ruptures. You break a spoke. Run out of brake pads. A bottle cage snaps off. Your pannier clips snap. Sometimes you can go for weeks with no problems. Sometimes you have a day where everything goes wrong and you want to scream at the bike out of frustration.
Then there are the long days. 12 or 14 hours in the saddle, senses frayed, mind simultaneously blank and twitching. A bus passes too close and almost hits you. Car after car blasts its horn in your ear as they pass. A town drunk starts abusing you. Ride after sunset, swerving around holes in the road and hope that the drivers aren’t drunk or coming down from amphetamine highs. Roads that are resemble a beach more than a highway.
And we mustn’t forget dogs. Dogs be praised and dogs be damned.
Sometimes they are your best mate, hang out around your tent, keen to play and lick the salt of your skin. Sometimes they will bark and howl and chase you down the road. Snapping at heels, snapping at panniers, howling at your tent all night long.
On more than one occasion, dogs have got into my unattended panniers and eaten every single item of food, leaving me with a hungry night of restless sleep.
I sometimes try to get a laugh out of locals by telling them that my bicycle is my girlfriend or wife, but more often than not, my smile is as forced as theirs.
The reality is that setting out into the wild on your own is lonely. The silence can be temporarily masked with books, music and podcasts; picking up the local language opens up brief moments of human interaction, but there is little substance. Days turn into weeks turn into months and contact with family, friends and your old life slowly ebbs away to a muted note.
In hostels and Casa de Ciclistas, you make fast friends with other travellers who are just as quickly gone again.
Without a cycling partner to be a voice of reason, this loneliness can even breed fear.
Nights camped in semi-urban landscapes and the sound of people or animals moving outside your tent. Nights camped in complete wilderness yet hearing the same sounds.
Locals tell you that there are thieves or drug traffickers or dangerous roads just ahead. Do you keep cycling when there have been dozens of robberies in your route?
What would have happened if that snake I almost stepped on had bitten me?
Sometimes it is best just not think about these things.
Then there are the real annoyances. Close calls, bureaucratic processes and tedious hassles.
I’ve crashed my bike several times over the last year, some instances worse than others. In Uruguay I hit the road hard, damaging my front wheel and myself. Moments like this make you reflect on how easy it would be to fall and hit your head or fall in front of a vehicle. It is a slim line between a minor injury and the worst case; every year some cycle tourists pay the ultimate price for following their passion.
Travelling by bicycle creates a feeling of almost complete freedom; you can go where you want when you want.
This illusion is quickly shattered when you do something stupid with your passport. Mine sustained water damage while hiking and it quickly became apparent that I would risk being denied entry to countries if I did not have it replaced. After more than a year of unrestricted travel, it felt strange and uncomfortable to be stuck in Ecuador, waiting for a consulate, embassy and the Canberra office to grant me my travel pass once again.
I’ve been robbed three times during my time in the Americas; a down jacket in Santiago, a phone in Cusco, a GoPro on the Salkantay trek. None of them were confrontational, just opportunists taking advantage of a moment of distraction.
I have broken several phones, my DSLR, an MP3 player and a pair of glasses.
The bike has required welding, new tyres (so many), new bottom bracket, brake pads, chains, cassettes, chain rings and more.
While on one hand these losses simply equate to dollars down the drain, the location can greatly influence your ability to continue. Not having access to maps on a phone, not being able to take photos or simply not having a functioning bike can be a frustrating if you can’t readily resolve the issue.
None of this remotely reduces my enjoyment of cycle touring. The fun and adventure you can experience on a daily basis far outweighs any perceived negatives.
Time will tell if I will have to respond to a real challenge.