15 months of cycling, people, places, cultures, encounters, indescribable highs, soul destroying lows, feelings of boredom, love, frustration and passion all compressed into a single moment. When I look down through my scratched sunglasses, held together with more superglue than anything else, the tarmac slips past at that familiar pace and I could be anywhere; cycling off into Turkey on those first confusing days, bewildered in a big empty Central Asian desert, having a small existential crisis on a Chinese highway or bumbling happily about south east Asia. For brief moments when my mind is able to fathom the enormity of the experiences a lump grows in my throat and the nostalgia becomes unbearable. Then a small hill and the ensuing sweats interrupts the thought process and I’m brought back to reality – a humid 37C on a busy road, cars and scooters whooshing past, Bangkok 100 km away.
A man stopped me to ask where I was going. “Bangkok! Ooo very far from here. Maybe err.. eighty kilo. I don’t think you can go on bicycle.”
At 30km the tail back begins and I begin to weave the bike, chasing gaps, breaking sharply, making a nuisance of myself and feeling memories of busy London commutes return. My mind is occupied with “just getting it done” and as I inch closer to the final destination the significance of the last few kilometres fades.
Finally I arrive, haul my bike off the street into a guesthouse, make a mess of the foyer and run off to the shower before anyone gets close enough to whiff four days of sweat and grime. As abruptly and unceremoniously as it began the journey ends. When I think back to all the times I’ve craved stability and longed for a community it feels good to cross this imaginary finish line. When I think of all the times I’ve basked in the freedom of the open road and it’s felt like I’ve been having the time of my life I’m hopelessly nostalgic.
Over the next few days I begin sorting through everything which has supported my life for the last year and a bit. Every item tells its own story and attached to every scratch, tear and break are little memories. My helmet crushed and fractured from a bad fall in Cambodia and its straps held together with fishing line after a dog tried to eat it. Inner tubes a collage of patches, the tyres both booted and one remarkably still held together with dental floss. Holes in a pannier and scuffs on my shorts from the first fall in Turkey. A scar on my left shin from a dog bite. Calliper hoods torn and shredded, leather saddle cover worn through, shoes holed and soles flapping, cleats barely able to stay clipped in, zips broken or breaking, clothes worn to their threads. Even though it feels like I’ve cycled far enough I look at it all and can’t help but wonder how much further it could have taken me. Where might we have got to… and what would I have seen along the way.
Once on the plane I sat and watched Asia pass by beneath me and failed to get to grips with the fact two or three minutes in that metal box roughly equated to a whole day of cycling on the ground. The two experiences being so impossibly different it seemed daft to compare them in any meaningful way.
As the plane descended drizzle streaked along the windows, dark clouds loomed overhead and in the novel weather London felt almost as foreign as any place I’ve visited over the last 15 months. Family greeted me at departures and it felt incredible to be back in their arms, but it wasn’t too long before those inevitable words left someone’s mouth, “Ooo it’s like you’ve never been away dear…”
And there in lies the problem, from here on in the journey is a memory and recalling all the ways it has changed my priorities and refocussed my outlook will become increasingly difficult. I already struggle to tie the world I’ve seen on my bicycle together with that I see around London. Yet whilst it’s easy to get carried away with this being the end of the journey, as I’m sitting here in my living room with an empty calendar staring back at me, I actually feel quite invigorated. This not need be the end of anything, but more the start of something new.
I wonder what will happen next… and what will I see along the way.
Now that I’m back in the UK this blog will be coming to an end soon, but for those who have enjoyed the photographs I’ve been taking there will be a bit more as I try to whittle them all down into a concise series of 60 or so shots for a small book of photography. The scope of the book will be unashamedly artistic and I’ll be seeking to combine a few words with photographs to tell the story of the ups and downs of life on the road, spontaneous encounters and the extra-ordinary acts of hospitality. It won’t be so much a book about bicycles, campsites and roads, but more about the people and places I’ve discovered along the way, which is really the only story I’ve ever been interested in telling.
In the mean time if you haven’t got round to donating to the charity you can do so for a little while longer here. A big thank you to everyone who has been so generous already.