Cycling to Connect

by Amie Thao

Before setting out on a tour, the focus is usually on preparing the bike, gear, route, and finances. After leaving home, the rhythm of the road sets in and the focus shifts to the journey. I want to share with you some of the things I learned, especially about the importance of making human connections when traveling by bicycle. 

I first encountered cycle touring while on vacation in Iceland. I saw four people on fully loaded bikes making their way around the Ring Road in the wind and rain. At the time, it seemed insane — I was having enough trouble keeping my rental car from being blown off the road — but I never forgot the look of intense joy on one cyclist’s face as she made it to the top of a steep climb. 

A month after returning home, I got laid off from my job and decided to try traveling by bike by myself. I put my belongings in storage, left Seattle, flew to England, and built a bicycle. I have never been to Vietnam, the country that my parents fled in 1975, so I made it my goal to reach Ho Chi Minh City. First, I tried out my new bicycle and gear by cycling across England and Wales. 

When I started out, I had no experience with distance cycling, bicycle maintenance, or long-term traveling so it wasn’t optimal that I hit trouble on the first evening. I couldn’t find my campsite and my tire blew out. Instead of flagging down a car or knocking on someone’s door, I watched as the sun went down and then dragged my bike into a patch of trees to pitch my tent. I stayed awake for most of the night listening to the sounds of forest animals scurrying in the underbrush, leaves falling, and owls hooting. It crossed my mind that I made a mistake, but I survived that first night and cycled on. At the beginning of my tour, I didn’t talk to many people. I was focused on learning the ropes and reaching my destination, however, I quickly learned what most people who have traveled by bicycle know: a good day can be ruined in an instant by rude drivers, a headwind, or bad weather. Conversely, a bad day can melt away just by having a friendly and unexpected social interaction. 

What remains from those first long days in the saddle are memories of the people I met: the Australian woman who volunteered her spare bedroom in Cambridge, the man who brought me a cup of tea from his house, and the Welsh cycle tourist that saved weight by using his fleece jacket as a towel but didn’t mind carrying along a tea kettle. 

After crossing Wales, I hopped on a ferry and started across the European continent. I barely had time to get used to the Netherlands’ impressive network of bike paths before a Dutch couple flagged me down and invited me home. Fons and Marie Louize are just two of the hundreds of people that I’ve met on the road. Since then, I have cycled in 30 countries, stayed in over 100 homes, and picked up a co-pilot, my partner Olli Tumelius. Quite a big leap for the girl who wouldn’t flag down a car because she didn’t want to bother anyone. 

Cycle tourists have the advantage of being viewed as transient outsiders. As such, people often open up quickly about their lives, sometimes even allowing us to create a much deeper relationship in just a few hours than we might be able to in years with someone at the office. When crossing through multiple cities, counties, or countries, people will talk about their neighbors. You will hear about their experiences and the prejudices and stereotypes they hold, but it’s still possible to connect, even if you don’t agree. When you cycle into the country they described (or denounced), you can make up your own mind about the people that live there. 

Olli and I recently cycled through the Balkans, a beautiful and complicated region. We heard from Bosnians, Croats, and Serbs, many of whom shared their perspectives about their extremely turbulent history and recent wars. Some people were supportive of America’s intervention during the Balkan crisis and some are still angry. Everyone had different theories about what went wrong and who was responsible. We were left with more questions than answers, but we understood something about the region that we couldn’t have without talking to a variety of people. 

Traveling by bicycle makes it easier to become engaged locally which can help counteract the negative messages we receive from the media and popular culture by allowing us to interact with inhabitants and to hear their stories. We see how people culturally different from us live. Our interactions with them challenge and refine our beliefs about ourselves and the world, sometimes in deeply personal ways. 

For example, I spent the first 30 years of my life in the U.S. living as a person of color, sometimes even being asked, “Where are you really from?” 

When I cycled around Europe, people unequivocally considered me an American without asking much about my heritage. I had to leave the States to see my identity and culture differently. 

Many cyclists — especially on short tours — are in progress mode and neglect opportunities to connect. 

This autumn, Olli and I camped under the awning of a car wash in Montenegro during a torrential rain storm. The next morning, a cycle tourist stopped across the street from us. We hadn’t seen another cyclist for weeks and marveled at the chance encounter, so we invited him to join us for a cup of tea. He said he didn’t have time that day and simply rode off. It’s important to remember that life is not a race and cycle touring isn’t either. More opportunities present themselves when you can stay in the present and slow down. 

One day, we met some mountain bikers on a road out of Albania. After chatting for a while, they invited us to visit their home — 20 kilometers in the opposite direction from our planned destination. Because we were willing to change our plans, we gained three friendly tour guides and two more days to explore the country. 

The same philosophy can be applied to short tours. Cram less stuff into your itinerary and allow for unexpected encounters. 

Rushing around and traveling without connecting can put us in danger of treating people and cultures like commodities that exist solely for our consumption and entertainment. It helps to stay humble and remember that everyone and every culture has something to teach us, even if it’s unpleasant. 

Traveling by bike gives us the opportunity to engage in authentic travel and allows us to connect with the earth. Not only are we outside under sky and stars, but we also see pavement, industrial agriculture, and the heaping refuse of human society. In some regions, there are informal landfills by the side of the road where skinny stray dogs roam in packs to scavenge for food. Dozens of stray cats jump in and out of dumpsters. We domesticate these creatures and we create the garbage. From our saddles, it’s easy to see (and smell!) some of the outcomes of our collective decisions. 

During my early and giddy days of bicycle travel, I thought I had found my tribe. Touring cyclists, both on and offline, seemed like a band of positive, open-minded, and independent people. I have come to see that we are not a homogenous group. Many cyclists have positive experiences on the road, but not all. I met a man whose experience of isolation and discrimination so colored his worldview that, after a decade abroad, he held mostly negative opinions of his hosts and their countries. He attributed his unhappiness to the ignorance of those around him and to various conspiracy theories. 

Another cyclist traveled for three years alone and started to feel like the world was out to take advantage of him. He became suspicious and questioned everyone’s motives, even people who hosted and helped him. The writing on his blog became darker and darker, and at the end of his trip, he seemed deeply depressed. 

There is danger in feeling disconnected from society and community. Many of us, even solo cyclists, will not go through such a drastic change while on our journey, but if the world and it’s inhabitants begin to seem consistently unfriendly or if you start feeling either superior or inferior to everyone, it’s probably time to take a break and regain some balance and perspective. 

Without a doubt, occasionally there are problems. In bicycle travel as in life, there are times when you will be unable to connect because you don’t feel respected or safe. Because I’m American, some people have seen me as a vessel in which to pour all their negative feelings about the U.S. I have been told to apologize for my country and have been subject to a rant about our foreign policy that ended with, “So &*#% you!” In some cultures, western women, particularly Americans, are considered promiscuous and I have been openly asked for sex. 

As an Asian person, I have been called “Chinese” and “Chinese Dragon.” People have made fake Chinese sounds or taken photographs as I walked or cycled by. 

As a solo female traveler, many people questioned the wisdom of what I was doing. Often there is an assumption — even among women — that a woman is somehow less capable than a man of taking care of herself on the road. 

When people express attitudes I don’t agree with, I try to stay curious about what experiences led them to form their beliefs. Even negative experiences can be informative, but there are times when regardless of how open you are to different perspectives, things are just unacceptable, such as violence against children or animals. It’s important to monitor your feelings and reactions — if you have an innately bad feeling about a person or a situation seems wrong or unsafe, it may be best to withdraw as soon as possible. 

Cultivating an open mindset will often result in positive interactions, but having the freedom to cycle away can be one of the best things about being on a bicycle — you don’t have to connect with everybody! 

Connecting is great, but there are also times when you want to break a personal speed or distance record, or you are in a hurry to get from point A to point B. Or maybe you are just too worn out to talk. The important thing about being a good traveler is the ability to engage with the people and places where you are. If you lack energy to notice or care what is going on around you, do what you need to do to recover. Sometimes wild camping or a paid accommodation is preferred just to have some space and personal time. It’s perfectly legitimate to take care of yourself until you have enough energy to be a good guest again. Know yourself and respect your limits. Sometimes cycling is just cycling. 

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One day, the nomadic cycle-touring life will lose it’s appeal. Time will pass. The week- or month- or years-long tour will end and it will be time to return home to your family, friends, and community. I found that my experiences on the road have simultaneously made me more open and curious about people and the world around me, and they’ve helped me to define my own value system  more clearly. I have met so many wonderful people along the way, including my partner, Olli, who has cycled with me for over a year now. I hope that your time cycling will be equally joyful and enriching. 

Post script: While I was writing this article in February, two cyclists, Peter Root and Mary Thompson were tragically killed when they were hit by an automobile in Thailand. They were cycling around the world and are an inspiration to many in the cycle-touring community. On their blog, twoonfourwheels.com, they recently wrote, “People make this journey worth riding. Landscape is one thing, adventure another, but the quality of human contact is the best.” 

Amie Thao has cycled over 10,000 miles through 30 countries. She is currently cycling to Vietnam with her partner Olli Tumelius. You can find out more on the web at amie.is.

This article appeared originally in the April 2013 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine. Adventure Cycling members receive 9 issues of Adventure Cyclist each year and have full access to digital editions. Join today!