My “why” of bicycle touring

Blue Marble
Blue marble. A ridiculously large frame of reference for bicycle touring

On this blog/website you will find some impressions of my bicycle travels and races of the past years. In some cases it’s vivid verbal accounts, in other cases I crunch numbers; either represents elements of my pleasure in cycling and racing. On this page I’ll address the “why”…

My approach to cycling?

I don’t cycle merely for the sake of cycling. In fact, cycling itself is just a tool for me to make experiences that I would not be able to have otherwise.

To me, the great aspects of cycling are linked to…

  • exploring the world, experiencing my surroundings,
  • the feeling of independence, but also:
  • in races, the empathetic relationships with other cyclists who go through the same
  • finding my own physical and mental limits
  • being aware of my position on this planet

This may sound a little “big”, but I will explain…

An example: Oslo

One moment when I felt this the strongest was when I cycled into Oslo on my earlier and trips in 2013, coming from the South:

Many people go by plane, which is like some Star-Trek-style beaming… getting from A to B without any perception of the way in between in terms of space or time. A common visitor’s only chance is to explore the region from the “inside out”, meaning: you slowly extend your range and the radius around your new location. That also means to start with a somewhat limited perception of the city and then, through “hard work” extending the spacial experience.

But cycling into Oslo was the opposite: It was exploring “outside in”, starting with the spacial reference and slowly getting to the core of it. There you realize that “Oslo” is a certain amount of surface with fuzzy edges at the gulf of Oslo, that is very smoothly embedded into hilly and rocky terrain that emerged from the flat coast of western Sweden. While I was in Oslo I always kept this scenario in the back of my mind: on the way to and into Oslo, around dusk, I cycled from the South-East into the outer suburbs. Along the edge of the mountains, through some some sort of canyon with all those little houses along the opposite wall – each window lit with a small candle light, around me the smell of the woods, moist but warm summer air. Its getting dark. Then the first urban symbol: a tram. At some point, suddenly, the entire gulf opens up in front of me with a view all over Oslo; then a down-hill ride along the sea-facade of the rocky ridge, and a smooth transition into the urban area. Of course those are beautiful and touching moments in themselves. But also: While strolling through Oslo, the impression and the contextual reference stayed with me and I am sure that it very much enriched my experience of the city – once you have it, the big picture never leaves. All of the way to Oslo becomes part of Oslo.

And here’s the other kind of spacial reference cycling provides: Before entering Oslo, I cycled there all the way from Berlin; a distance that a non-cyclist usually only measures as being “far”. Spain is “far”, Montréal is “far”, Shanghai is “far”. But a cyclist experiences what exactly that particular “far” is and to her/his surprise it is graspable and doable without any doubt. Somehow that experience suggests that nothing is really far anymore, but hypothetically within the range of our own mind and muscles.

Nothing is far. The world is small. On that Scandinavia trip I did 1777km. The circumference of our planet is 40.000km. So just multiply my not even so spectacularly long tour by “23” and you already experience the first kind of limit of the sphere we live on. “23”… that is a number almost scaringly easy to grasp… Many people – not me – have done it in remarkable, long, exhausting but accomplished tours around the world. Our planet is so spacially limited, it is even within the grasp of a human on his/her simple machine. And that also points at a certain vulnerability of it.

Agency and self-efficacy…

One distinct but related aspect to the above is the element of agency I experience while cycling: I am the designer of my fate; I make choices and those choices very much affect my spacial and mental position. It is satisfying to find out that something I once deemed far away is actually within my grasp. That the grey and elusive cloud of a daunting task turns into a rock that I can climb step by step and then really reach its local summit – and from there I usually see the next grey cloud, but it seems less scary than the first.

And this feeling of knowing how clouds turn into tangible rocks and great views from top extends into my everyday life. It doesn’t say I could do anything, but it means: sometimes a daunting task needs a slow approach and some determination and may turn out much more within grasp than previously anticipated.

The fractal of experience

As you can see the joy of cycle touring extends from the biggest picture into the minutest detail: On the one hand: Your relative position on our blue marble & your feeling of agency. On the other hand: The sweet smell of that wooden log in Oslo’s outskirts or the warm words by the unexpectedly emerging fellow racer in the middle of nowhere. All that is part of it. And that’s why I do it.

Malte