Monday, 9 December 2013

On Minimalism

Long-distance Cyclists Learn The Hard Way

Once you have made a few long-distance cycle trips, minimalist living comes naturally. Most of us found out the hard way. The pain involved in struggling up hills, knowing that so much of your effort is given over to hauling a load of crap one does not need, is agonising. Worse still is being told by a cycle mechanic that overloading is the reason for your broken luggage rack, spokes or wheel rim.

I well remember some of my first trips – cursing as I delved around in panniers bursting with extra clothing that I might have needed if it had turned icy cold or if I had been invited to dinner, searching for a tiny item like a compass or a head-torch that was buried in all that junk. Returning home at the end I would unpack all of it and stare with irritation at how much of it had remained unused. Gradually after a couple of mini-expeditions I got more strict with myself for the next time, asking hard questions of myself about every item I packed, and finally the cause for irritation diminished. In fact it was replaced by a real sense of satisfaction at having learned good lessons – painful as some of them were.

"Painful? Painful in what way?" I hear you ask.

Well not physically. Or rather there was the physical pain, as I have mentioned, of hauling up long steep climbs with heavy panniers and of lugging those panniers up stairs into hostels and guest houses. But the mental pain was far worse. That pain of struggling to find important things in amongst the pannier-chaos of the unimportant, and even of having to post things home at significant cost or giving things away. The hours of suffocating dilemmas and pain of feeling such an idiot – such an amateur.

I am pleased to say that all of this is behind me and that the pain has become a distant memory. Now I bask in the sense of freedom that I have when setting off with a third of what I once carried. Knowing that it is not only me who enjoys that sense of freedom and ultra-efficiency, but my bike as well. Experience has taught me to carry things that serve multiple purposes and not to take heavy or cumbersome items that can be purchased easily and cheaply along the way IF they are needed. If the weather turns unexpectedly cold, there will nearly always be somewhere to buy a sweater or warm hat locally. If one gets into the 'what if' scenarios and thinks that any possible circumstance must be catered for, then one ends up a moving mountain of luggage with a half crippled rider and a bike somewhere beneath it all, or needing a support vehicle. Of course I must point out that if one is heading out into the wilds where no supplies can be obtained, more needs to be carried.

In any situation other than the 'empty quarter' or the wilds of Mongolia I'd say this is OTT

To add some detail to this lesson, let me say that during my 10,000mile ride from Ireland to Japan, my son and I took the following each, plus a tiny 1.2Kg tent (a TerraNova Laser Large). This was contained in a pair of Ortleib Roller Classic rear panniers and an Ortleib bar bag each. Plus a small daypack across the top of the rack / panniers that contained our overnight stuff and valuables (under a stretch cargo net):

Light, small sleeping bag - (We were not going anywhere really cold)
Silk sleeping bag liner - Maybe the best thing we took. Useful alone camping on hot nights, in hostels, dirty beds or as extra warmth inside the sleepingbag.
Camp sleeping mat - Sam had a self-inflating thermarest, me a square honeycomb type (better).
Cycle clothing - 2 pairs padded cycle shorts, long sleeved cycle shirt (more useful to avoid sunburn), short sleeved cycle shirt, cycle shoes you can walk in comfortably, helmet, fingerless gloves, waterproof (breathable) light jacket with hood, cycle sunglasses.
Evening stuff - (kept in daypack) Long NorthFace trousers (easily washed & dried), 2 t-shirts, 1 long shirt, 4p underpants, 4p socks, microfleece, sunhat, book, small washbag, phone & camera charger, diary/sketchbook.
Equipment & valuables - Passport, money &, maps, mobile phone, bike tools (mainly a park tools 19 multi-tool), mini-1st aid kit, mini-mending kit, compass, headtorch, knife, fork & spoon, tupperware box (used as storage + eating bowl & lid as chopping board), microfibre cloth, stretch washing-line. Spare tubes, cables, nuts & bolts, cable-ties, duct-tape, puncture kit + lubricant, greasy cloth, gear cleaning brush and wetwipes.

2 people's luggage for a 9 month trip. The Crocks were a luxury - I dumped mine 1/2 way

Having ascertained we were away for 9 months and 10,000miles, most people asked us where our luggage was! However on another trip like this I would probably take less. You tend to get into a routine of washing clothes the moment you arrive at your destination. That way they are more or less dry by morning, so you need very little.

All this has taught me how to be a better long-distance cyclist and a better traveller. It has taught me something far more valuable than that in life, however. After 9 months on the road with only the contents of 2 panniers and a bar-bag, I realised that all I needed in life was what I had with me - perhaps even less. It taught me that I was far happier, with a greater sense of freedom, when I wasn't physically and mentally weighed down with the clutter we all tend to fill our lives with, and tell ourselves we need. Most of that crap we don't need. We tell ourselves we need these things because we like consuming – a reward for hard work perhaps – but these things become an encumbrance in our lives. Pretty quickly it can get to the stage where they begin to suffocate us. I constantly remind myself of this when I'm about to buy another fleece or a high performance jacket, or a great new pair of boots. I tear myself away from motorbikes on e-bay, surfboards, wetsuits, boats and other clutter that I'm sure at the time I need, but know I will regret buying within a year. I focus more on shedding the clutter I already have and on the sense of liberation I feel when I do. The sense that I can breathe again.

I've seen worse. I've gone for something most people recognise.

My advice to you is this:
always ask yourself before you buy something, pack something or even accept something free from a friend, "Could I do without this? How much of a problem will it be to me not having it? Is it really going to help me in my life, or will it just become one more bit of clutter?"

A full kit list from our Japan cycle adventure and a performance evaluation, is printed at the end of our book Long Road Hard Lessons. Please click the link below or in the right-hand margin of this blog to find it on Amazon etc.

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