Stephen Fabes' pub, pint and plan to cycle around the world
I was sitting in the beer garden of The George near London Bridge, surrounded by half a dozen friends, and a similar number of frowns. Flipping open the atlas, I put my pen to the tiny dot of the capital and began sketching out my route. All would be conveniently handled, I’d affirmed, by bicycle. ‘In six years. You know…give or take.’
‘I’ll nail this bit first…’ - a flick of pen whisked me across Eurasia, where I dispatched the Alps, the Pamirs and the Himalayas, ‘and then over here…’ - deftly spanning the Sahara - ‘and then through this bit…’ and I was pootling up through the Darien Gap. Someone muttered something about warlords and drug cartels, but I’d swiped at their concerns with my pint-hand, dripping lager on Mexico, and was soon merrily skidding about Alaskan tundra. In less than a minute I’d breezed back to London: venturesome beard, book deal.
Probably, I’d be back in The George in six years’ time, leaning back, my feet propped on the table, holding forth: ‘And when I was in Turkmenistan…’ I’d begin, ending the tale hours later with a sigh and something like ‘and then I had to hold the poor fella down and cut his damn arms off. Tough job, with a screwdriver.’ Someone would buy me beer.
Two years later, 29 years old, I stood aside a shiny touring bicycle loaded with four panniers. Friends and family had gathered to wave me goodbye from outside the large London hospital where I’d spent the last three years working as a medical doctor. I was ready. I’d been to four Expedition Planning Seminars and spent several months experimenting with exciting brands of padded Lycra. I hadn’t managed any actual cycling, because, well… ‘I have a lot to do, why do more?’
So I set off.
I made a U-turn.
I headed back to the pub.
And then I hunched over a pint, fraught with self-doubt, whilst my loved ones supposed I was pedalling towards France.
Luckily I did eventually leave that pub, mainly because friends arrived and reminded me of my boasts to cycle around the world. I got home six months ago, having crossed more than one hundred international borders since I left London in 2010, cycling a distance of more than twice around the planet on the tread of twenty-five tyres. But those statistics are mere whispers when compared to my favourite brag: I slept in the homes of strangers in more than fifty countries. I’m calling this proof of the hospitality of people on planet earth. It’s one of the great boons of cycle touring that you’re brought closer to people than when travelling by other means, you get a sort of backstage view of the world.
One of my many delights of cycle touring is that unbeatable feeling of waking up and having no clue where I will spend the night to come."
Stephen Fabes, cycling adventurer and author
From desert dwellings in Syria to freezing yurts on the Mongolian steppe, my stretching inventory of bedrooms is sketched from opportunism as much as hospitality: there have been countless abandoned buildings, schools, police stations, hospitals, churches, mosques, temples, monasteries, fire stations and army barracks. Five years ago a stranger slowed to a halt on a South African highway and handed me the keys to his beach house. More recently my German hosts sent me away with a packed lunch and warmer clothes. In Egypt, I shared the mosquitoes and fusty air of a barn with a snortsome, cheesed-off buffalo. Strangely, when I think of how I probably won’t do that again now that I’m home, it’s with half relief and half disappointment. I’m not sure a London landlord would grant me a buffalo for the sake of nostalgia, not even a small one.
One of my many delights of cycle touring is that unbeatable feeling of waking up and having no clue where I will spend the night to come. It’s the ugly certitude of my sleeping place that aches most now that I’m home. But there is some relief in re-joining the real world too. I’d been curious about whether there would be an incomplete move from wanderer to citizen, an afterburn that would find me camping on my mum’s lawn, regaling baffled passers-by with rambling tales about Mongolia.
Do it when you’re young, people say as if adventurous travel is something to be expunged from your system or tolerable only by the restive youth, like hangovers. Unless of course it becomes the system, snagged within your mechanics, part of how you malfunction. I don’t see serial escapism on the horizon, but knowing what I do of the fate of other round-the-world cyclists, the prognosis is poor. Nobody I know is inclined towards a lifetime of pasties on the sofa, if anything, it gets worse. They tend to sniff out the next ante-upping escapade, charting courses across oceans in rowing boats, trying to get colder, higher, more imperilled and exhausted.
Perhaps I share Bryson’s affliction: "Of all the things I am not very good at," he once wrote, "living in the real world is perhaps the most outstanding."
Stephen Fabes is a guest speaker at the Cycling UK Annual Members Get Together in Manchester on 8 October.