What's Cool In Road Cycling

PEZ Bookshelf: Escape By Bike

For those of you whom riding around the velodrome or doing some tricks on a BMX bike or racing on a closed street in an industrial park or meandering on an unpaved road on your new gravel bike for the day is not enough—well, there is the open road to Tajikistan. That’s crazy talk, man—but how do I do it? A recently published and beautifully illustrated book will both whet your appetite and give practical advice on that truly epic ride for which you hunger.

“Escape by Bike” by Joshua Cunningham is an interesting hybrid of a book, part photography book/part instructional guidebook. It came about as the result of a year-long bike trip the author took—at some stages with friends, at others alone—from Dumfries, Scotland to Hong Kong in 2015. He passed through 26 countries and pedalled 21,000 kms (13,000 miles), which is exhausting to even consider. One is reminded of the Douglas Adams quote about space: “Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.” But it’s clearly a long, long road to Hong Kong too if you are on a two-wheeler.

Dusk in the Tien Shan mountains, Kyrgyzstan

When crossing pretty much the entire Eurasian landmass one experiences considerable geographic variety and the book is divided up into chapters reflecting the different landscapes. It begins in the forests of Europe and rolls through on Chapter 1 to Baku, Azerbaijan. (Baku was the location of the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, sadly unmentioned by the author). A brief account of this piece of the trip opens the chapter, which is interspersed with really beautiful photographs and instructional sidebars: choosing the right bike; riding in cold weather; sleeping and shelter; paperwork. A fundamental question is whether to travel with a companion, which has weighty pros and cons. The author’s advice on training is great: just get out and ride and the futher you ride the fitter you will become. That said, the author began his epic ride in winter, crossing the Alps in snow, which must be one of the least pleasant ways to begin a big trip and he admits to being stuck for days at a time, unable to get through the snow.

The final few switchbacks of the Zigana Pass in the Pontic Alps, Turkey

Chapter 2 deals with deserts and again, interspersed with an account of riding from Kazakhstan to Tajikistan, offers useful advice on cycling in hot weather (a lot better than freezing in a Belgian barn, one would think); dealing with foreign languages, navigation, riding in remote areas (not like Belgium at all) and eating on the road. A suggested bicycle for this component is a fat bike, slow but able to traverse areas otherwise inaccessible on two wheels. There are great photos of vast emptiness and camping out with the locals in a yurt. But the desert is a bit of a hard-sell for the author:

  • “Once into Uzbekistan we found ourselves sandwiched between the Kyzylkum and Karakum deserts. Rolling dunes lined the roadside, until replaced by the cracked muddy jigsaws of long-parched bodies of water. The road frequently dissolved into myriad dirt tracks….While in some ways tiresome, the distraction that a poorly surfaced road offered, forcing us to thread our front wheels around potholes and patches of sand in search of a clear line, was a welcome break from the mind-numbing blankness. It provided a challenge to get our teeth into, and helped us forget the niggling pains and boredom brought on by riding in a straight line, kilometre after kilometre.”

A lunch of instant noodles in Uzbekistan, concocted in minutes

With some relief, the reader is ushered into Chapter 3, covering mountains. Of course, these are not the kind of happy mountains you ride over in the Pyrenees or at the Maratona dles Dolomites. Or what you find in Switzeland, where there is a bakery every seven kilometres offering excellent coffee and fresh strawberry cake and a postal bus you can get on if you are tired. This is different: “Life above a certain altitude is harsh, but with its empty, windswept valleys and peaks, whose gradual slopes and stingy dusting of snow belie their height, the Pamirs are a mountain range of desolate grandeur—a truly vasst and unnerving place, well worthy of the title “Roof of the World.”” Luckily there is a sidebar on dealing with altitude sickness. Useful advice also covers maintenance (be ready to fix everything yourself) and staying safe on the road. Unsurprisingly, this chapter includes some of the most spectacular photos in the book.

A 5am glow warms the eastern flank of the shepherd’s yurt we took shelter in, somewhere between Urgench and Bukhara in Uzbekistan

Dramatic skies bring the day to a close in the Kyzylkum desert, Uzbekistan

Coming down from the barren mountains finds the intrepid author riding from India to China. Instead of the harsh dry desert or the harsh high mountains we now come to the hot, wet tropics, where staying dry becomes a big challenge although sourcing food seems a lot less difficult. The bike highlight in this chapter is the “expedition bike,” which looks like a good choice for a huge adventure like this one, with its sturdy frame and serious bag-carrying potential. There is advice on camping in the wild; cooking set-ups; and how to stay healthy on the road.

Blue skies, soaring mountains, and smooth tarmac: living the cyclist’s dream in the Spiti valley, India

The final chapter of the book is devoted to cities and one has the strong impression that these did not interest the author all that much but served as a respite to allow resupply and maintenance before heading back out into the wild again. There is guidance about budget planning and packing weights, as well as some suggestions for other long-distance challenge rides around the world. These are only suggestions without much in the way of detail and a reader will certainly want to look for more information if seriously considering riding the length of Africa, for example, one of the trips noted in passing.

Old meets new in China: a flock of goats being shepherded along a modern tarmac road

“Escape by Bike” does not provide much in the way of cultural information about the 26 countries visited and the human interest element is pretty minimal. The author’s intention is to provide clear and logical advice to anyone considering an epic journey by bicycle and to inspire someone to do so through the excellent photographs of the kind of scenery you cannot just stumble upon but have to earn. In that respect, the book is a success and worthy for the library both of the armchair cyclist as well as that of the fearless adventurer seeking a new challenge.

Pete rides up alongside a work elephant—to the surprise of its rider—in northeast India

As the author notes: “Two wheels will indeed grant you a self-earned passage through some of the most spectacular landscapes the world has to offer, but they also provide a portal into the varied experience of life on earth. In realizing that, the nuances between a cyclist on a tour and a tourist on a cycle become clear, and the multifaceted nature of an adventure cycling journey can be enjoyed to the full.”

“Escape by Bike” by Joshua Cunningham
264 pp., profusely illustrated, softbound
Thames & Hudson, New York, 2018
ISBN 978-0-500-29350-8
Book cover Courtesy Thames & Hudson
All images © 2018 Joshua Cunningham

Suggested Retail Price: US$29.95/C$39.95

• BUY “Escape by Bike” by Joshua Cunningham at AMAZON.COM.

Jonny negotiating the roads in central Liuzhou, China

When not dreaming of bakeries in the Alps, Leslie Reissner may be found contemplating wild adventure uses for his many-bladed Swiss Army Knife at www.tindonkey.com.

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