In contemplating various new writing and drawing projects and ideas I sat down recently to try and identify bikepacking literature. By which I mean writing which is specifically based on, inspired by, written about or during or otherwise related to the cycling sub-discipline of bikepacking. There is a profusion of cycling blogging and a huge array of writing on the mechanics of bike-setup and equipment as well as an abundance of trip-reports and the like. But what struck me was that most of the writing that seems to be out there really just adopts the sorts of trip-report ‘we did this, then we went here’ style of plenty of previous outdoor writing. Naturally some accounts are better written than others, more entertaining, more philosophical but are they stylistically distinguishable? Do they get at the heart of bikepacking and how this weird corner of the bike-touring world is different?
Struggling to answer this question I decided to identify three pieces of writing that to me speak to some element at the core of what makes bikepacking different from other forms of adventure.
- ‘Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes’ by Robert Louis Stevenson (1879) – Long before he turned his hand to what he would later call ‘potboilers’ like ‘Treasure Island’, Stevenson was a struggling young writer looking for material. Setting out on a ramble through southern France seemed to be the answer. This text is a cult-classic of the travel genre for good reason, Stevenson does a great job of articulating the credo repeated by generations of young folk setting out on adventures “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake.” Aside from being ‘all about the journey’ Stevenson also gets himself a fancy sleeping system made up specially for the journey (an early example of the sort of gear-prototyping/DIY/custom ethic which infests bikepackers). The most familiar part of the book for bikepackers will of course be the love-hate relationship Stevenson forges with his companion – a singularly irascible and obdurate donkey named Modestine. I for one have never had a day on a bike where I didn’t stroke it lovingly one minute, only to curse its steel soul the next. When bikepacking, one’s movement through the landscape is always moderated by one key relationship, and whether your companion has four hooves or two wheels, the relationship is often…complicated.
- ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ by Richard and Nicholas Crane (1987) – Skyler introduced me to this account of an amazing journey from Bangladesh to the centre of the world in a Chinese desert (as in the point on the earths surface farthest from a coast). The Crane’s embark on this epic astride custom built racing bikes and they make it work. If you ever feel like you’ve mastered ‘ultra-light’ then you need to read the Crane’s account of drilling, chopping, or leaving behind everything that they can. Their journey is an exercise in ruthless stripping away of intervening gear and junk (mental-clutter), and of whole-heartedly embracing the places they are cycling through. Choosing not to bring cooking gear they are the mercy of local cuisine and water which they seem able to withstand, with constitutions which put one in mind of Thesiger and Shipton and the hard folk of yesteryear. This is a good story about riding bicycles a long way despite significant challenges. A word of warning: it may make you rethink your bike, your gear, your food, and your attitude…
- ‘The Old Ways’ by Robert Macfarlane (2012) – Friends and family have frequently accused me of fetishizing the work of British writer Macfarlane but I find his work on pathways and the interwoven nature of human-landscape relations to be compelling and invariably beautifully written. I return to this book frequently because I find it to be one of the clearest expressions of how landscapes are more than simply geological entities cloaked in biota, but they are also shrouded in layers of human memory, stories and meanings that all of us absorb and contribute to. In ‘The Old Ways’ Macfarlane muses on the nature of paths and tracks which vein the soil, stone and water of the British Isles. Bikepacking is in many ways a sport founded on rethinking what constitutes a rideable path – it is an exercise in escaping the boundaries of roads and exploring trails, dirt, desire-lines and cattle-tracks. We are a cult of path/trail/way-obsessives.