Brutal! Look what happens to a bike after 18,000 miles On the importance of stuff

It is with some pride that I announce that Martin, my 2011 Marin San Anselmo touring bike, has finally met his match. At some point in the last few months, the chain stay of his frame cracked and snapped in two.

The fact that neither I nor a professional bike mechanic noticed anything wrong apart from a strange skipping in the chain is testament to how amazing bikes are. Martin was literally snapped in half and I was still more or less happily pootling around.

It’s impossible to say how far Martin and I have travelled together since I bought him in 2011, but a rough estimate using data from various bike computers suggests somewhere in the region of 18,200 miles—more than enough to qualify as a ride around the world.

The first picture I have of Martin, only a few hours old. Look how shiny!

Martin: A timeline of adventure

Note: if you’re not at all interested in bike touring or my holiday snaps, then feel free to skip ahead to the next subtitle…

Our first journey together, nine years ago, was around the coastline of Britain. Two months of putting one wheel in front of another, wild camping together in fields, under hedges, in forests and on canal towpaths.

A year later, we repeated the trick in Tunisia, cycling through olive and palm groves, between salt lakes, past Roman ruins, and through two different kinds of desert to the sand seas of the Sahara.

The largest salt pan in the Sahara: Chott el Djerid in south Tunisia. Martin took me there in 2012.

In the wet summer of 2016, Martin (now officially christened Martin) rode in duet with a vintage racer called Joy from London to Vienna. We matched tracks from the South Downs to the Bavarian Plateau, from the banks of the River Thames to the vineyard sprawl of the Danube. Our accommodation, still wild, upgraded to hilltop castles and monasteries.

Camping at Stift Melk, Austria. The abbey is famous for its 18th century frescos and the 11th century tomb of Saint Coloman of Stockerau, an Irish pilgrim mistaken for a spy, tortured and hanged. Martin took me there in 2016.

More recently, Martin found true companionship in the community of bikes that is Thighs of Steel. In 2018 and 2019, we covered over 2,000 miles together across Europe, discovering new countries, new friends and new talents. Martin got himself a chainring downgrade which helped us over the mountains. In Athens, he even got himself a blue tattoo, of which he is still very proud.

Climbing up into the mountains of Romania with Thighs of Steel in 2018. Martin carried me there.

Finally, in our swansong year, Martin learnt the healthy pleasures of daily rides during a catastrophic pandemic, playing his part in the incredible Around the World project that raised over £130,000 for refugees. And, of course, in the lockdown-lifted summer, Martin came full circle: imprinting the south coast with his tyre tracks exactly nine years after he last toured Britain.

Lands End 2020 (L) and 2011 (R). Martin carried me there—twice.

Consumerism gives stuff a bad rep

I don’t want to blow this out of proportion: we’re living through a pandemic. My old bike is broken. I’ll get another one. It’s no big deal. But I’ve never had nearly as much fun with any other object as I’ve had with Martin.

When I flipped him over and saw the thick black crack against his mud and sand-flecked white skin, I felt like I’d slipped into an alternate universe.

A broken frame was nothing more than we deserved: nine years of high-impact, heavyweight touring caught up with the partnership. It was bound to happen one day or another. I was lucky that it didn’t happen while I was out touring—although, on reflection, maybe it did.

Throwaway consumerism has, I think, dirtied the purity of possession. Many people, myself included, have hankered after ascetic minimalism: a glorious rejection of the waste and want that modern capitalism has brought us.

But it’s worth remembering why certain convivial objects are precious to their owners—and perhaps to hold all our purchases to a similar standard of value.

What did Martin ever do for us?

A bicycle extends our human frailties. We become bionic, able to move many times faster and further than we ever could on foot, and much more efficiently. I have done things with Martin that would have been unimaginable without him.

I’m thinking, of course, of the life-altering adventures I mentioned earlier, but I’m also thinking of our day-to-day. Martin made it possible for me to live an expansive twenty-first century lifestyle without ever needing a car or taking an aeroplane flight.

Every week, without complaint, Martin lugs my heavy shopping bags five kilometres across town. Together we’ve visiting sixteen different countries, excluding England, Scotland and Wales. Every day he teaches me something about perseverance, self-reliance and community.

Martin’s made me oodles of new friends and ridden me to work, school and social events—especially during my years in London, where the cost and patchy provision of transport makes travel in the city such an unequal battle. (Hence why The Bike Project gives free bikes to refugees.)

But at what cost?

You won’t be surprised to read that I’ve run the numbers… The original Marin San Anselmo cost me £488.99—still the most I’ve ever spent on a single item. But I’ve spent many times more on maintenance and spare parts over the years. To be precise, over his entire lifetime, owning and maintaining Martin has cost me £3,323.

That’s a heck of a lot of money, but—get this—counting from the day I bought him to the day he broke down at the end of my cycle around southwest Britain comes to exactly 3,323 days. Martin cost me one pound for every day that I owned him. Or about 18 pence per mile.

That, to me, is incredible value. There aren’t many other possession that have given me so much. Certainly some of my books, my Alphasmart Neo2 typewriter, yoga mat, guitar, teapot, plants and running shoes. Not much else that I can think of.

What about you? What possessions bring outsized value into your life? I’d love to hear from you—especially if you hold all your purchases to this standard.

On the naming of things

It is only right that we celebrate our most highly prized possessions—and, yes, give them petnames. I never loved Martin so much as when he was baptized Martin and grew a personality. My girlfriend at the time misread the brand name ‘Marin’ and contrasted his blocky functionality with the sleek lines of her own vintage racer.

Giving names to inanimate objects might sound silly, but I think it helps combat throwaway consumerism. A name and a personality is the beginning of a story and, when we tell stories about our favourite possessions, we honour, not only their service, but also the ingenuity, engineering and natural resources that went into their construction.

And this ingenuity and engineering is what’s so beautiful about the design of a bicycle. When Martin’s chain stay snapped, what did I lose, exactly? Why didn’t I feel this way after the rear mech sheared off, or all those times my chain snapped or wore out?

Indeed: what is left of that 2011 Marin San Anselmo that I bought from the Cycle Surgery in Camden Town nine years ago? Nothing more than the handlebars, forks, frame and rack. Everything else has been replaced—even the name.

Stuff has a soul

This reminds me of the ancient philosophical conundrum known as the Ship of Theseus: if you replace, one by one, all the planks of a ship until there are none left of the original, is it still the same ship?

The same metaphysical question is asked of Abraham Lincoln’s axe, which needed its handle and then its blade replacing. It’s a question that could be asked of ourselves: we shed our skin every few weeks and every ten years we get a new skeleton.

But as well as posing an insoluble philosphical question about the persistence of identity over time, the Ship of Theseus prompts us to think about what happens at the end of our stuff’s life.

Aristotle decided that the fully-replaced ship was indeed still Theseus’s. And if a yes is good enough for one of the more practical ancient philosophers then it’s good enough for me.

A great ship is a great ship forever. A great axe is a great axe forever. A great bike is a great bike forever, even as the parts are replaced one by one. Because well-designed stuff has something about it that endures. We could call it a soul.

So I’ll keep what I have of Martin—the original handlebars, forks and rack, as well as all the other components I’ve bought more recently—and replace the broken frame as I have replaced bent wheels, snapped chains and worn brake blocks.

The bike is gone, long live the bike!

What now for Martin Jnr?

Thankfully, a friend has very generously leant me her spare bike to ride (thanks GC!) until I’ve found a new frame for Martin Jnr. One of the more alluring options is the idea of spending this lockdown building my own bamboo bike frame.

I first came across the Bamboo Bicycle Club ten years ago, when I had neither the money nor the cycling experience to justify investing £300 in a wooden bike. But now… Now they do ‘home build kits’—surely it’s meant to be!

This is not a bike ride Cycling around Britain again?

In an alternate reality, right now I’m preparing to join Thighs of Steel on an adventurous detour through the wilds of the Carpathian Mountains as we wend our way from London to Athens.

In this reality, however, our epic fundraising adventure has long been cancelled and instead we spent May and June riding remotely, collectively raising over £110,000 for refugees hit by this thing called Covid-19.

I’m grateful that I haven’t been sick, that I’ve been able to continue working and that we’ve still managed to do some good for those less privileged. But lockdown does funny things to the brain and seeing my summer plans cancelled wasn’t a very nice feeling.

So back in April I promised myself that I would do Something Else. I drew up a few different options, which naturally depended on the state of the pandemic when July 2020 rolled around.

Top of the list was to cycle around Britain. Again.

~

2011 was the year of the Arab Spring. Barack Obama was in the White House (and ordered the assassination of Osama Bin Laden). Amy Winehouse died.

On 17 July that year, a few days after my nan’s funeral, I left home on a 58 day, 4,110 mile bike ride around Britain. It was my first huge bike tour and I knew next to nothing about bikes or the psychological challenges of riding so far. That ride gave me a wellspring of resilience that has stayed with me ever since.

Next Friday, exactly nine years later, I’m leaving home on my bike again to not cycle around Britain. Despite everything, I feel much better prepared. This time I know that this is not a bike ride. These are the tentative first pedal strokes into a physical, psychological and social unknown.

I’m not expecting anything. I’ll board my bike, fully laden with camping and recording kit, and do nothing more than turn the pedals to see what happens.

~

At the time of writing, cycling and camping in England is deemed safe by the government. How it will feel when I’m actually out there is a different question altogether: I’m acutely aware that camping in both Scotland and Wales is still forbidden.

2020 is not 2011.

It could be that the government, the virus or I decide that one day’s riding is more than enough and I come home on Saturday morning.

It could be that I enjoy cycling for a week, coasting between friends in the south, from my nest in Bournemouth to the concrete smoke of London. Maybe that’ll be enough. Maybe I’ll barely have time to catch a train to safety before the dread second wave winds through our communities.

It could be that I cycle on through East Anglia, pursuing the old roads to Lincoln and Durham and—if Scotland decides it’s safe—even onward to Edinburgh and Elgin. Perhaps the clouds will roll over and I will cycle on for six weeks and come back sunburnt in September with a sack of stories to keep me busy for another decade.

If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it’s to hold the future lightly. As the future tense in Arabic goes: insha’allah.

~

Under ‘pacing’ in my report card from 2011 you’ll find the words ‘could do better’. I cycled all day almost every day for nearly two months. I was permanently exhausted (my skin shrivelled up whenever I took a day off) and my encounters with Britain were more fleeting than I would have liked.

This year I’m taking the pace right down, concentrating more on the stories than on the distance. At a leisurely (!) 60km per day, six weeks is about enough time to trace half the country. If the tour is still safe and fun, I can continue with the second half in 2021. No rush.

The energy for this bike ride does not come from the physical challenge. It comes from a desire to understand the changes that have shaken this country. There’s a lot that confuses me in 2020 Britain:

  • What has lockdown done to our communities? What are we learning?
  • What state are we really in after ten years of Conservative rule? Are our politicians helping us build the society we want? Where are we succeeding and where are we failing?
  • How and why did we vote to leave the European Union? How are people taking this opportunity?
  • How awesome are bikes? What are bikes doing to bring communities together?
  • What, where and why is the north-south divide? And could Scotland thrive outside the United Kingdom?
  • Do Britons really believe that Black Lives Matter? Mark Duggen was killed by police while I was cycling in 2011 and I remember watching the news footage at a hostel in the Shetland Isles. Is this time different?
  • Are we turning the tide on climate change? Or is the tide turning us?
  • How has life changed since I last cycled this way nine years ago?

I hope to hear all kinds of interesting perspectives from people I meet along the way, which I’ll bring to you… somehow.

Although Covid-19 has made planning a last minute affair, I have been preparing the ground for more of a multimedia experience of storytelling this time around.

There will certainly be words; there may also be video and audio. Whatever happens, I’ll let you know right here.

~

Finally: huge thanks to everyone who is helping to make this ride feel even remotely possible. Special thanks to A.C. for the ideas and company, The Tim Traveller for disturbing Youtube AUDIENCE advice, the Thighs of Steel family for oodles of inspiration and for the Wahoo, Documentally for my birthday microphone, and, of course, thanks to the Charles Family for the sense of home to which I will return. Insha’allah.

I know this mailing list is full of awesome people. If you’d like to offer support, please please please reply to this email. Any cycle tour leans heavily on the goodwill of strangers and I’m grateful for anything and everything—from kind words up!

If you’d like to catch up on the story of my first cycle around Britain, I wrote a book about the journey called Life to the Lees. Get 10 percent off with code SAVE10 if you order today.

May we all lead responsibly adventurous lives.

Insha’allah and praise be to science-based risk assessments.

London to Greece via Paris, Milan and Brindisi with (but not by) a bike

Travelling by bike is a dream, travelling with a bike is goddam nightmare – if (like me a week ago) you don’t know what you’re doing.

This is a recollection of my ‘with bike’ journey from London to Patras in Greece, via Paris, Milan and Brindisi. The trip took 5 hot days in July 2018, encompassing 3 trains through France and Italy, and 1 ferry across the Adriatic. Along the way, I got to see plenty of Paris, a little of Milan, and probably too much of Brindisi’s gelaterias!

Before I left, I searched everywhere for information about travelling across Europe with a bike and, although I found plenty of Official Rules,  I couldn’t find anything like this – a straight-forward guide written by a cyclist who’d actually been there and done it.

I was pretty stressed on this journey simply because I didn’t know how much to trust the Official Rules – will Eurostar mistakenly send my bike to Brussels? will there be enough space on the TGV in among justifiably irate commuters? will my bike bag be 12cm too long? and will I be sent directly to jail without passing go by an over-officious guard?

Hopefully this guide will ease your troubled mind because this journey IS EASILY DONE. Continue reading London to Greece via Paris, Milan and Brindisi with (but not by) a bike