Earlier this week I went to hear a talk by a young neighbour who returned two weeks ago from a year-long, 15,000-mile cycle trip with a friend. Both recently qualified doctors, they had ridden from London to Singapore in aid of Médecins Sans Frontières; and they had ridden on bicycles they had made themselves – out of bamboo.
Bamboo is cheap, light, strong and, most importantly, highly shock-absorbent. Its use is championed by a London organisation, the Bamboo Bicycle Club, which runs workshops in how to construct one. Once sprayed up in shiny black, it’s hard to tell that the frame is made of anything other than carbon or titanium.
Tom Roberts and Nicky Moore built their steeds at the Bamboo Bicycle Club a few days before departing, last summer. Twelve months later, one of the bikes had made it all the way and one hadn’t quite (bamboo’s fatal flaw is that you can’t weld it). Happily, though, both riders had completed what turned out to be a more exhilarating journey than they could ever have imagined. A more gruelling one too: for example, riding for eight days on a diet of nothing but bread and butter at 4,000 metres, with night-time temperatures of minus 20, along the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan; and, by contrast, a 150-kilometres- a-day canter through northern India in 45 degrees while suffering from Delhi belly.
I came away from the talk greatly entertained, but also inspired and full of admiration for them, for their courage and endurance and good humour, for their belief in their charitable cause, and for their humility. ‘We were really just two blokes having a laugh,’ said Tom in answer to one question from the audience. Well, yes … but two blokes testing themselves to the physical and psychological limits, while staying friends with each other, and keeping in touch with the constantly changing peoples and landscapes around them.
The observations that struck me most were that the countries they had been warned would be the most difficult and hostile turned out to be the easiest and friendlest, while the most generous hospitality they received was invariably from the poorest people. I can imagine that there must have been something utterly disarming about two such genial young men on such an epic trip, turning up in some of the remote places they visited; but it also takes a great deal of trust and openness to throw oneself on the goodwill of unknown people in unknown lands.
They reminded me a lot of my own younger, more adventurous self, although the scale of their challenge was of an order of magnitude greater than anything I ever undertook. There’s no comparison between petrol power and pedal power, but I did follow part of their route my first summer at university, driving from London to Tehran with three friends in a VW bus. The thought of attempting that on a bicycle leaves me gasping, and it’s only about one third of the distance they travelled.
‘How has the journey changed you?’ asked one of the audience. ‘Ask our girlfriends,’ they joked. They couldn’t possibly know, just a fortnight after crossing the finishing line in Singapore. But it will have changed them, even though, as they pointed out, they were unlike many who undertake such trips in that they had taken off a finite amount of time, for a specific purpose, from careers they’ve just embarked on and are returning to.
I carry memories of my youthful journeys in my core and I know that they shaped me in ways I probably still don’t fully understand, more than 40 years later. The old cliché that travel broadens the mind is only part of it. Travel also opens the heart, it knocks off the sharp corners and smooths out the rough edges, and it nourishes the soul. If I was in need of a doctor and I had a choice between one who had gone straight from medical school into practice, and one who had first had to fix the chain on a bamboo bike in sub-zero winds on an empty plateau high in the Pamir Mountains, I know which one I’d choose.
You can find Tom and Nicky on Facebook at Cycling Without Borders, and you can donate to Médecins Sans Frontières via their Just Giving page at http://www.justgiving.com/cyclingwithoutborders
Such an inspiring story! Love it!
I think the thing that strikes me about this great story is how we tend to contrast i,t to the memories of our youth. We rather owe it to ourselves to have youthful adventures every day of our lives. We only pass this way once, it might as well be a “bamboo bike ride” every day. Maybe not across the World as we reach our” harder to pedal” years. But at least down Dunkeld High Street. Probably marginally less challenging than London to Singapore or even Coopersburg High Street. Happy cycling everyone.
Wow! Very impressive. Will pass this blog on to many of my cycling friends….. We donate to MSF regularly!!!! Great organisation.
Oh, please! Loved it till the last sentence. Then the last sentence made me think the rest of it was rubbish. Life and the character of every person you meet is made up of lots of experiences. You cannot possibly say that cycling to Singapore makes you a better doctor than someone who doesn’t because you don’t know what experiences the other doctor has had. Imagine someone cycled to Singapore while their grandparent was dying rather than stay around to give them support while another you doctor decided to forego a holiday so that they could support their dying grandparent. Which experience makes a better doctor?