If you've ever bicycled down an unfamiliar route and found yourself delighted by the people or sights you encountered, you share an experience with many recreational riders, including me, adventure cyclist Willie Weir and musician David Byrne. To some degree, we are all grooving on the unknown.
OK, for David and Willie, who travel the world with their bikes, the experience might be a bit more unknown than for you or me, who might just find a new route to a friend's house or a mercifully flat alley in an otherwise hilly neighborhood. But then again, we might just be world travelers too.
During the dark, wet and cold days of winter, I spent a lot of time with my nose in two great books: Travels with Willie by cyclist Weir and Bicycle Diaries by Cyclist Byrne. Both greased my wanderlust.
I picked up Willie's book last summer when getting my STP registration packet at the Seattle REI store. There was Willie, selling and signing books, with all proceeds from the event going to a local cycling cause — what a guy! Willie is a great performer; if you've never seen his stage show with slides of his latest adventure, put it on your list — he'll be at the Bike Expo on Saturday, March 13 at 4 p.m. But he also seems genetically predisposed towards good works. This comes out in his journeys, too, where he serves as a model ambassador for our country, the polar opposite of the obnoxious American tourist that seems to be such a common stereotype.
But when I bought Travels with Willie, I was in traveling mode myself, so it set on my "to read" shelf throughout the cycling season.
By October, David Byrne's book was released, to some fanfare. Through the graces of a friend-of-a-friend, I had met David backstage after his Paramount show last summer, and we chatted briefly (well, me stammering, really) about cycling. I offered to give him a two-wheeled tour of Seattle whenever he's in town, and he mentioned that his folding bikes were all packed for Europe and the next leg of their tour. Ah, well, maybe next time.
So when he came back to Seattle to do a Town Hall event for Bicycle Diaries, I was all ears (but still no tours). The evening included people from the local cycling community speaking about efforts to facilitate and encourage more biking. And with each ticket, you got a signed copy of the book.
An enthusiastic crowd greeted David, who showed slides from his travels to different cities and discussed how some cities are making cycling more a part of urban transportation. He observed that "you see things when you ride around town on a bike and you're more inclined to stop and check it out than if you're in a car." He related a bike ride in the southern U.S. where he and tour-mates saw a small sign on a non-descript building that said something like "Get in here for this BBQ!" and it turned out to be a delightful meal.
He also noted that riding in New York City has been upgraded quite a bit in recent years, and now includes some protected lanes, where bikes are completely separated from cars on the street. "It feels like I can relax in my own city," he said.
After those stories, I was ready to read, so as the November rains chased me off our streets, I dug into Bicycle Diaries. Instantly, I became an armchair traveler, heading off with him to Berlin, Istanbul, Buenos Aires, Sydney, London and a number of American cities.
His essays, which began as blog entries, were far from being bicycling travelogues, and in fact pages would go by without a mention of the bike. What emerges in the diary entries is a wonderful curiosity about his surroundings, a desire to get a little lost and out of his comfort zone, and an insightful take on the art, architecture and culture of the places he visits. In a subtle way, you come to realize that many of his observations and activities were fueled by his bike rides. At a leisurely pedal pace, there's plenty of time for contemplation.
Researching a project on Imelda Marcos (a collaboration with British DJ Fatboy Slim called Here Lies Love that is being released this month), David hits the crowded, sweltering lanes of Manila. He's gassed by belching "jeepneys," assaulted by cafes blaring disco music. He muses as he rides through the open-air marketplace that third-world markets in many places are more or less the same: "The human scale and the pleasant chaos must be part of an unconscious, though thoroughly evolved, plan."
In Istanbul, he says, "as in many other places, I'm almost the only one on a bike." Yet the "intoxicating" city is incredibly crowded, with horrible traffic. Yes, there are hills, but the city has an agreeable Mediterranean climate, and he wonders why the bike has not been adopted as a way to get around. "I suspect that status might be a big reason for this — bike riding, in many countries, implies poverty."
He also reasons that most people think city bike riding would be dangerous, and don't know where they would park their bikes. "These questions get answered and rapidly rendered moot where there is political will," he says. "They are really excuses, justification for inaction, not real questions."
I knew about inaction, as a December cold snap kept me indoors. But the lure of a new cycling adventure made Willie Weir's book jump off the shelf and into my hands. Just the thing to bridge the gap between wanting to get back in the saddle, and actually doing it during the cold couple of months before the Chilly Hilly.
Willie's book, his second, is a collection of essays that were first published in Adventure Cycling magazine, where he's a columnist. His first book, Spokesongs, was a compilation of stories that first aired on Seattle public radio station KUOW when he was traveling in India, South Africa and the Balkans.
In Travels with Willie, he's off to far-flung places once again. His stories tell not only of places and encounters with fascinating, remarkably welcoming people, but also share his philosophy of travel (slowly, not too much forward direction) and of life (smile, sing, try difficult challenges).
For Willie, cycling is the means to an adventure. In fact, at one point he offers three simple questions to determine whether you're on an adventure (as opposed to a vacation):
Am I beyond my comfort zone?
Am I pushing my physical limits?
Am I taking a risk?
He answers yes to those questions by opening a map, placing his index finger on the tiniest red lines indicating the most far-flung of side roads, and then pedaling off. The red lines sometimes stop unexpectedly, or they're grueling roller-coaster climbs, or gravel or snow-covered roads so rough they can't be ridden.
He also carries a tent and his camping gear, and rarely seems to plan where he'll stop for the night. That process involves getting out that index finger again and punching the doorbell of an inviting house to ask if he can camp in the yard. Often, that results in family dinners and invitations to get out of the rain by setting up the tent in a garage or outbuilding, or simply using the family's guest room.
Willie proves that bicycling opens a lot of doors. People are amazed that he's coming through their remote location on a bike, which sometimes is their only means of transportation too. They relate to him, and they can see he's a non-typical visitor: a traveler, not a tourist. They realize that he's traveling at a speed which gives him the opportunity to really observe and understand their land.
Willie and David are basically solo travelers. Both men will occasionally mention their traveling companions (for Willie it's mostly his wife Kat; for David it's a local friend or a bandmate), but primarily they are relating the experience only through their eyes. While one is focused on the built environment of a city and how difficult or easy the urban planners make it to get around, the other gets out across the landscape, putting on the miles and covering broader territories. In either environment, challenges abound.
For the reader, it's a toss-up as to which one is more alluring. The open road has often called to me, and mostly I've answered the urge behind the wheel of a car, although more frequently now behind the handlebars. Urban exploration is always thrilling, and most often when I'm away from home that's been done on foot, or using public transportation on a rare jaunt away from a city's central core.
Cycling across a country, or even between two major cities, can be a project that requires a significant vacation. But jetting to cities and then biking around, unless one is headlining a gig, is an expensive endeavor with logistics and research.
When faced with such choices, it's often easier to take a vacation than undertake an adventure. Still, after reading both of these engaging, fulfilling books, it's a conundrum I want to solve, and the only way to do that is to get out the gear and hit the road.