Is there a literature of bikepacking?

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.

  1. ‘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.
  2. ‘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…
  3. ‘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.

 

 

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6 thoughts on “Is there a literature of bikepacking?

  1. Thank you for introducing me to Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways. Your write up is alluring and makes me want to read it now! I am ordering it from the Book Depository today.

  2. Nicolas Bouvier – L’usage du monde / The Way of the World – whilst about driving in a little 1950s Fiat convertible down Eastern Europe and then across – has such calm introspection and meditation on frugality and living lightly.

    On every page a gem or two glitters, and the accumulation of colour, detail and inspired metaphor produce an intensely hypnotic effect. Take for example the description of young prostitutes in a Belgrade café who had “lovely, smooth, tanned knees, a bit dirty when they had just come in from practising their trade on a nearby embankment, and well-defined cheekbones where the blood throbbed like a drum”. Or the dancer who, inclining his head “listening to the keyboard as though it were a stream”. Or the time spent on the road brewing tea and sharing cigarettes, in the rare moments when intimacy borders on the divine.

    “I dropped this wonderful moment into the bottom of my memory, like a sheet-anchor that one day I could draw up again. The bedrock of existence is not made up of the family, or work, or what others say and think of you, but of moments like this when you are exalted by a transcendent power that is more serene than love.”

    If you can read French you can sneakily download it here, as you can many other books –
    http://gen.lib.rus.ec/foreignfiction/index.php?s=Bouvier,%20Nicolas&f_lang=0&f_columns=2&f_group=1

    Also the sadly little known Isabelle Eberhardt is marvellous, although again she did’t cycle but walked and camel’ed. Her Prisoner of Dunes for instance:

    “One right to which few intellectuals care to lay claim is the right to wander, the right to vagrancy. And yet vagrancy is emancipation, and life on the roads is liberty: one day bravely to throw off the shackles with which modern life and the weakness of our heart encumber us, in a pretence of liberty; to arm oneself with the symbolic staff and bundle and run away!
    For whoever values the delights of solitary freedom (and true freedom depends on solitude), the act of running away is most courageous and most beautiful Selfish happiness, perhaps. But happiness indeed for those able to appreciate it. To be alone, to be poor in needs, to be unknown, a stranger and at home everywhere, and to march tall and solitary towards one’s conquest of the world.
    The committed tramp, seated at the roadside, contemplating the horizon’s welcoming breadth – is he not absolute master of lands, waters, and even of heaven itself?”

    “Crime, particularly among the poor and downtrodden, is often a last gesture of liberty.”

    “In our modern society the nomad, the vagabond ‘without domicile or known residence’, is a pariah. By appending those few words to the name of some misfit or other, men of law and order believe they can blight him for ever.
    To have a domicile, a family, a property or public function, definite means of existence, to be in the end an accountable cog in the social machine – such things seem necessary, almost indispensable to the huge majority of men, even to intellectuals, even to those who believe themselves most free.
    They are all, however, various forms of slavery, compelling us into contact with our fellows, a contact mainly regulated and predictable.”

    And of course a lot of what Rob McF suggests – especially Deakin.

    I’d also bring W.G Sebald in and people like Iain Sinclair for how we now navigate and comprehend ‘edge lands’ and urban nature etc

    • Thanks! Yes Bouvier is fantastic stuff – and I will have to go and read some Eberhardt. Deakin, Sinclair, Mabey and that whole crowd of Brits are fantastic on a range of subjects, but especially I find on learning to see wildness/wilderness even in urban spaces. Sebalds’s ‘The Rings of Saturn’ is weird and wonderful – a fantastic journey. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Hey there, found you through Bikepacking.com. Delighted to discover another bike-book-adventurer. While I’ve read a lot of the adventuring Brits for sure, I find the standard bikepacking writing genre follows that old narrative of male encounters in exotic places, climbing on top of things (and/or people). I’m working on rewriting it, and reading a lot in the meantime:

    Dervla Murphy. “Full Tilt: Ireland to India on a Bicycle” of course, and I’m currently making my way through 8 Feet in the Andes (walking the Inca Trail with a mule and a small child). I hear “In Ethiopia with a Mule” is also very good. She denigrates the locals sometimes, but when your kid is hypothermic, I guess I’ll let it slide.

    Nan Shepherd, “The Living Mountain”. Introduced to me by Robert MacFarlane. Her writing gave me vertigo. I almost threw the book across the room. https://flamingbike.com/2015/04/18/on-reading-mountains/

    Ben Okri, “The Famished Road.” The road personified as an angry demon of progress, or a hungry god of the village? This one was astonishing and makes me want to set out offerings.

    Poetry is a largely untraveled realm for me, but I’ve returned to Carolyn Kizer’s “Semele Recycled” over the years as a personal mantra for solo travel: flung out, disembodied, heartsick, fecund, many-encountered, and returning with secrets. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/54704

    Love your comics, how do I see more?

    • Thanks for your comment Ginger – I think you are absolutely right about the male encounter with the exotic being the dominant narrative – I think my hope is that some of the philosophy of travelling lightly and sensitively that is at the heart of bikepacking can be translated into any emerging literature from the sport. Ben Okri is brilliant – there must be something in the water in Nigeria – the place seems packed with astonishing literary talent. Nan Shepherd is a wonderful author – Macfarlane has seized on her in much the same way as he has championed Edward Thomas but I think she is frankly a far more interesting writer with a much more powerful and less romantic attachment to landscape. Shepherd is capable of writing beautifully of the feel of the mountain – the sensation of walking barefoot, of experiencing the land against ones skin, but at the same time of acknowledging the emotional void that is geology – all the romanticism of writers like Thomas is dismissed as she explains that mountains care nothing for us – they simply are. It is powerful stuff.

      The comics are by Panthea Read who you can follow on instagram at: https://www.instagram.com/hamhock_mcclintock/

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