I rarely blog about the cycling of bicycle travel. Instead, my posts tend to share what I’ve been thinking about, the people I’m meeting, or both.
One reason I don’t write more about the actual cycling is that I’ve never been attracted to reading about cycling. Another reason is that among the slightly ridiculous (but pernicious!) stories I tell myself about what I can write is a verdict: “there’s no way I could write an interesting sentence—let alone a whole post—about pedaling…What’s there to say—everyone knows what it’s like to ride a bicycle, and it’s just riding a heavy bicycle.”
Lurking just below is the fear: “I have nothing to say about cycling that’s profound, and I’m a failure if I have nothing profound to say after all this time spent riding a bicycle.”
These types of stories are self-fulfilling prophecies, stopping first drafts—and first pedal strokes—in their tracks. I’d have never started blogging, let alone bike travelling, if I imposed on myself the need to be profound (whatever that means in these contexts?!). When I removed the pesticide of perfectionism, I grew all sorts of sentences about what pedaling feels like.
The sentences were about what I love about cycling: the satisfying mix of balance and focus required to slowly weave through small spaces between vehicles without hitting them, in cities where rules are suggestions and we’re allowed everywhere and nowhere on the road.
I had a lot to say about the humbling realization that bike travel is as intense or gentle on the body as one makes it, much like showing up to a spin class: you’ll guaranteed some baseline amount of exercise, but everything else is up to you. I was that person who, when the instructor would yell at us to turn up the resistance dials on our handlebars, would often fake the motion. To some extent, I’m still that person.
But all these fun sentences got so long and I wanted to write a shorter post, given that the last two months I’ve published very long articles.
So this is a post about how one physical aspect of bike travelling feels: walking bicycles up hills. Compared to darting through traffic and the willpower involved in pursuing intense exertion, pushing heavy bicycles up hills is more specific to long-term bike travel.
But the truth is that I chose bike hiking because I wanted to return to publishing a post on the first of each month, and it was
April 30 May 2 May 3 and this section was going better than the others. I’m very aware that there’s an irony in trying hard to write about cycling, and ending up with a post primarily about walking. You can laugh if you want. I already am.
It’s time to start walking when the road becomes sufficiently sandy, rocky, muddy, steep or a mix of these. But even when the road has become so visibly untamed, I’m in denial in the moments before the first walk of the day.
While I’m still riding, at a snail’s pace, a glance down at the derailleurs confirms that I’m already in my lowest gear, dashing my hopes that I could shift down a little bit more. Next I wonder if my brakes are rubbing against the rim and thereby making cycling feel harder than it needs to.
Nope, inevitably the brakes aren’t the problem either, and the final deceleration to stationary doesn’t require anything from them anyways, because the road stops me completely.
Goddamn it road! Thank you road: for existing with your sharp edges or dirty attempts to swallow up feet and wheels in your muck. No-one’s cowed you, made you efficient and therefore bland to a certain type of visitor. I don’t live here, I don’t have to commute, I’m only passing through. You force me to walk, but by now it doesn’t take long to settle into bike travelling without biking.
If I’ve gotten off on the left side of my bicycle it’s only a moment from dismount to pushing because I insist on pushing from this side—always.
But sometimes I forget and dismount on the right. Then the walking begins with an awkward shimmy around the back of the bicycle while trying to stop it from rolling downhill, which it’s very eager to do, which would erase one of my hard-won final pedal strokes. I keep the bike upright and still by pressing myself against the bags as I move around them, lunging over their bulk to grab at least one brake lever at all times. My bike sometimes cooperates, and sometimes lurches to one side as the right wheel turns dramatically, probably because one of the front panniers is far heavier than the other.
Once in position I start plodding up the hill, and fidgeting. I treat the handlebars like a weighted bar, pushing it away and then bringing it back towards my chest every ten seconds or so the moment I start to ache in either position. I also busy myself doing some high-frequency wrist movements, bending and straightening them almost without thinking, while also travelling my hands along the handlebars and the bar ends. Unwilling to accept discomfort in any position, I accept discomfort in a variety of positions.
For an activity that’s easy to imagine as monotonous, like a donkey’s funeral march, every step uphill is unique on tough climbing roads.
Occasionally a big rock stops my trudge. From my position crouched over the handlebars I’ll peek above my bar bag to size up the obstacle. Either I’ll try maneuvering around it, or roll downhill by half a rotation to give myself room to lunge at the rock, hoping to roll over it.
Though the road isn’t usually strewn with boulders, there’s constant comparison going on between the direction my front wheel is aiming for and other possible positions that look slightly less steep, have more agreeable surfaces, or a few metres of shade. To walk with bikes is to make tiny zig zags within a path that already wiggles through the landscape as it works with the topography instead of plowing through it.
In the minutes and hours on foot I sometimes think I’ll have an easier time admiring these rough, beautiful landscapes because less of my attention will be demanded by the rough, beautiful road. In reality my neck and head tend to sink between my shoulders while I stare at what’s underfoot. I sightsee on breaks, which are frequent anyways.
I really enjoy walking and this didn’t change when I started cycling. The types of roads that force me to walk aren’t so different than hiking trails, and to visit them on anything more than a day trip would require carrying a lot of stuff on my back. While pushing the bike uphill may look impressive in photos, I’d take it over lugging a backpack up the same route all day, because my body feels so much freer without something on my back.
That said, I’m hopelessly biased towards bike travel. It takes effort to avoid orating unsolicited evangelism of bike travel to anyone who expresses the slightest interest. So instead of comparing between activities, I’d better stick to contrasting bike walking with bike riding.
It’s nice to bike hike
For one thing it’s refreshing to use different muscles. My lower back gets a break from the throbbing pain it experiences while cycling up steep hills for a long time—my bike doesn’t fit my body properly. I don’t know how to make it fit properly, which is to say I haven’t put much effort into adjusting it.
And my goodness, getting my nether regions as far away as possible from the saddle can be such a relief when rashy or chafed.
On steep roads I’m able to push for longer between breaks than if I was pedaling. This is because these roads are determined to kill all momentum, so a lot of low-end torque is required of the legs to keep the pedals turning. To bring a foot forward in the next step feels easier than keeping the pedals turning. I suppose this is because when walking uphill at really slow speeds you don’t really have any momentum to lose.
It’s also harder to start from stationary when pedaling. That first pedal stroke requires balance, power and—if the route is littered with rocks, loose surface and roots—precise positioning. With walking you can just lurch forward to start again without much planning. There’s less thinking required, freeing up attention for more daydreaming or chatting.
It’s confidence building to keep moving for a few hundred metres instead of fifty metres before stopping to catch breath or rest legs. The longer stretches spent consistently moving forward, no matter how slowly, help me believe that with enough time and effort I will actually get somewhere—a camp spot, a place to collect water, a restaurant, the next town.
Something else that’s confidence building: cycling up hills and rough roads that previously would have absolutely forced me to walk. This is such a great feeling. However, as I’m sure you know, the only way to get this good feeling is through lots of time in the trenches with physical sensations that feel like suffering. I can ride up lots of roads I couldn’t before; what I can do would amaze the 2015 version of myself. But I often forgo opportunities to continue that aspect of personal growth. I often choose to walk simply because it’s comfortable, the short-term “nice” that comes at the expense of certain longer-term accomplishments.
Accepting the possibility that a route will force bike hikes means more routes become options. I don’t want to give the impression that we’re always or even usually choosing donkey paths that cross mountain ranges, but sometimes we do choose a way we have considerable uncertainty about, a route that excites us given how it looks on the map. If we’re confident it’s a through-going road, we’re tolerant of some amount of mystery surrounding how the going will go.
“So who cares if we have to walk some parts of it, that’s fine, we’ll get there eventually,” I often say while we’re making these decisions. But “eventually” is finite, with real constraints like having enough food and water to be comfortable travelling along a road at exceptionally slow speeds. One of the reasons I’m able to look back with fondness at the bike hiking we’ve done so far is that we’ve not only planned food and water properly, there’s usually been more places and people along the way than we’d dared to expect.
These are roads after all, they were created for people. Help has never been more than several hours away, even on foot.
Making bike hiking nicer when it’s not
Besides having snacks and drinks, there’s two other conditions I like having met while I’m on foot.
First, the wheels need to keeping turning. I get instantly frustrated when muddy roads clog the whole area around the brakes with a rigid mess of mud, dead grass and little stones. First comes the strange sensation that the bike just got much heavier. The front wheel’s one thing, but once the back wheel is glued in place it’s very difficult to move the bike at all. A stick must be found to poke out some of the mud. If no stick, then it’s a job for the hands, like pottery class. I really don’t cope well with this, at least not at first. It’s daunting, I let myself worry that I’ll be literally stuck in place. Sometimes my wrath gets directed at Evan because I’m jealous that he can walk on ahead. His bicycle has a roomier build than mine, meaning that mud doesn’t immobilize his wheels as often.
But it is only in this very narrow respect that he’s advantaged. My second condition for enjoying bike hikes is that I’m pushing my bike and not his. Evan also wishes it was my bike he was pushing. He’ll pedal unless absolutely impossible because his bike is so hard to push. I’m chill about pushing because he carries much more than me. This is why he thinks more carefully about the chance of pushing beforehand. “You try riding her!” I’ll get from him sometimes—a terrifying prospect.
So whenever we’re on a steep hill, I yell ahead to him, preemptively offering to help him push. Then I’ll inevitably stop, get off and start walking as he continues to pedal in the bottom gear of his fourteen, doing amazing things with his meat pistons (what he calls his legs) and choosing perfect lines that are maybe 5 or 10% easier, making all the difference.
Sometimes he accepts my help, after he’s stopped pedaling and is leaning over the handlebars, head down, exhausted, overwhelmed at the what-if’s of what he’d do if I wasn’t here (maybe his bike would be lighter for one thing). He’s become vulnerable. Fear for Evan is not being able to take care of himself and whoever else happens to be around.
Thinking about it now, maybe the worst part for him is the best part of bike hikes for me. I pressure him to let me help him, and it’s actually exciting for me when he lets me.
I let my bike rest on its side on the side of the road, or leave it in the middle because generally on these roads there’s little traffic, if any. I briskly walk uphill to meet him. I grab the back of the back rack and push while he steers and pushes from the front. He calls breaks every so often. With the two of us it feels so easy, and we go together until a patch of shade or the crest of the hill. Then he’ll rest, and I’ll trot back down to where I’ve left my bicycle, my legs wobbling from fatigue and the unfamiliar sensation of walking downhill.
It means more hiking overall for me, but the helping buoys me. I feel like I’ve contributed, and I feel proud of Evan for accepting help. I pick up my bicycle and start my own climb, finding out once again how long each stride can be without my right calf hitting my jug with every pace. Though I have to push my bicycle alone, it feels lighter after even just helping to push Evan’s monstrous load.
We haven’t done much bike hiking recently. We’ve been choosing easier roads; a lot of the photos I’ve shown you today are from our time in east and southern Africa. Looking at them has made me hope we can do some more walking soon. Given that combining slow cycling with bike hiking has allowed us to travel along some truly amazing routes, I’ll assume Evan is also keen. As long as there’s help for him if he wants it.