Currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand (06/12/2013) - 31200km cycled

8 Nov 2013

Is cycling around the world dangerous?

Posted by Will

The perceived ‘danger’ of cycling around the world never ceases to intrigue and amaze. In fact, many people find it so difficult to distinguish cycling around the world from certain death that they can’t help exclaiming the all-too familiar phrase: ‘you must be crazy?!’. Some disguise their shock more politely: ‘wow, you must be so brave!’, but either way it’s clear that cycling from country to country, continent to continent, is considered dangerous. Is that consideration true? I don’t think so. Or, more specifically, I think cycling around the world is no more dangerous than standard backpacking.

dangercyclistWhen people gasp that cycling around the world is dangerous it seems they are afraid of two different parts of the ‘cycling around the world’ concept. First, the ‘around the world’ component, which brings up fears of going abroad and an unimaginable number of extraordinarily different places. Second, the ‘cycling’ component, which brings up concerns of the sheer distance involved, physical exhaustion and the vulnerability of a cyclist to forces outside his/her control.

The first component isn’t as fear-inducing as the second. After all, nowadays young people, some no more than 18 years old, are encouraged by friends and family to head off travelling on GAP years and volunteer projects, some of whom will complete an around the world journey. They are encouraged on the grounds that travel is enjoyable, that knowledge of unfamiliar cultures is valuable, that world experience will be useful in later life and many other reasons, all of which apply equally if not more to cycling. The dangers are no doubt spelled out but these are never considered dangerous enough to think the backpacker ‘crazy’. The very fact their friends and family give them support is enough to conclude that simply travelling around the world is not considered truly dangerous.

Of course, perhaps these young travellers are allowed to journey around the world because they are heading to supposedly safe destinations. Many around the world travellers spend the majority of their time in South East Asia, Australia and North America, all of which have many travellers and the latter two of which have similar cultural practices and good medical infrastructure. The around the world cyclist is perceived to have to travel outside these safe zones in order to achieve their ambition.

Well, if a backpacker is allowed to claim he/she has travelled around the world by visiting the above regions of the world, then a cyclist can too. The cyclist can pack his bike and bags onto an aeroplane across the more dangerous areas, and many cyclists do. Cycling around the world isn’t only restricted to the hard-core adventurers you see eating caterpillars on live TV or sleeping for years in caves for the pleasure. Cycling around the world can be limited to the same considered-to-be-danger-free zones as backpackers and understood in this sense, cycling around the world can’t fairly be supposed dangerous.

p1000598-800The fearful may disagree with the preceding sentence saying it doesn’t matter where you are – it is the ‘cycling’ itself that’s dangerous. That moves us on to discuss the second component part of the ‘cycling around the world’ concept. In my opinion this is the part that really conjures the idea of danger. How could pedalling one’s legs on a lonely road in Siberia, Mongolia, not to mention Iraq, be anything other than dangerous?

Cycling is considered dangerous mainly because a cyclist is seen as particularly susceptible to a myriad of threatening external forces, some of which are specific to cycling, some of which are more general travel worries. Let’s have a clearer look at the most popularly-believed menacing outside forces in turn.

p1060757-8001. Attacked! Often, travelling without the protective metal frame of conventional transport is equated to being attacked on the road. When cycling any car could stop, point a gun and demand your money or your life. That has happened to a few unfortunate cyclists in the past, but it is extremely rare even in the most dangerous area of the world. When forming the equation above, the fearful forget that an attack requires willingness on the part of a local to attack. I have never witnessed any inclination of that sort. Even if it seems that the incentives add up – the cyclist is much richer, has expensive equipment, has a different religion, comes from a country with perceived imperial tendencies – in fact they probably don’t. The risk to an attacker is enormous both from the justice system of the country in question (state of prisons, likelihood of fair treatment) and the wider community, whose influence on individual behaviour is generally much greater than in the ‘west. That’s not to mention the moral compulsion of the would-be-attacker. Most village-folk I’ve met on this trip have a stronger and better-placed sense of right and wrong than I do.

Try to see an attack from the potential attacker’s point of view. Would they think it safe or prudent to approach an unknown, unfamiliarly-shaped tent in the middle of the night? Would they believe they could win the fight if it came to it? In general, cyclists are a fairly unkempt, bedraggled-looking and physically imposing set of people who don’t look wise to take on. And village-folk (with whom the cyclist mainly deals) won’t have had much contact with foreigners and so don’t know how one might react to provocation. A traveller is much more likely to be attacked in a tourist hot-spot or major city where alcohol is present, the unscrupulous tend to hang out and where there is a general understanding of foreign behaviour. Backpackers are more likely to frequent these areas than touring cyclists.

2. Illness/physical exhaustion. Cyclists are considered particularly vulnerable to illness and physical exhaustion because of the sheer amount of effort it takes to pedal everywhere. Those believing this are misinformed. First, cyclists are much fitter than normal travellers meaning they are better able to deal with physical exertion. I survive the ordinary tasks of daily life in Vietnam much better than my backpacking counterpart because my body is better conditioned to deal with the heat, humidity and increased effort. From talking to other cyclists, I find that most are much better able to tell when their body is exhausted than a backpacker who has recently flown in. Heat exhaustion, dehydration and other such common ailments of travel are much more common amongst backpackers than cyclists.

Second, cycling around the world gives the body time to adjust to new bacteria gradually rather than being flown into an entirely different climate zone in under 24 hours. I almost never suffer from vomiting and diarrhoea whereas listening to just a few minutes of any backpacker’s memoirs will soon reveal several such episodes.

As far as serious diseases go, which is perhaps where the real danger lies, well-prepared cyclists should have all the appropriate vaccinations. For afflictions that have no preventative injections available then perhaps I concede that cyclists are at slightly more risk given the remote places they visit (I am thinking particularly of malaria). That said, medical facilities are almost never far away, remote places tend to have the most helpful locals and good planning beforehand should work together to mean that the risk is marginal at worst (see below).

p1000337-8003. Weather. There is no doubt that a cyclist is particularly susceptible to the weather and I can now exclusively reveal that when riding a bicycle it never rains … it pours. But that’s no reason to think cycling around the world is dangerous. Even the most poorly prepared cyclists will find a way to keep warm when the snow starts falling, a way to keep dry when the rain sets in. I have found local people in so many areas of the world willing to offer cups of tea, extra blankets, even hand-made hats, socks and gloves when I look cold. Of course, most cyclists have the foresight to bring a decent coat, sleeping bag and stove to warm up when dark clouds roll in. Counting out cycling in extreme destinations, which most never visit, the weather sometimes makes cycling around the world uncomfortable, sometimes downright miserable, but never truly dangerous.

p1020602-8004. Wild animals. This always makes me laugh but nevertheless makes this list given the frequency this concern is brought up. There’s not much to say really. No, wild animals aren’t a problem whatsoever, even when sleeping in a tent every night. They are much more scared of humans than even the most petrified humans are of them. In bear areas, a bit of care with food is required but that’s common sense that cyclists pick up from experience or the numerous likely signposts. Smaller creatures always make an appearance and are often a pain but they’re not dangerous. A rare snake or scorpion may be venomous but in my entire time cycling and camping I am yet to see a single snake and have only spotted a handful of scorpions. I flicked one of those onto a nearby soldier in Tajikistan … but that’s another story.

5. Traffic. I put this last on the list because it is least considered by the fearful. When people say ‘you must be crazy?!’ they’re rarely thinking of the crowd of other, bigger vehicles, often driven by seemingly suicidal drivers, that round the world cyclists contend with daily, often on badly paved, thin roads. Without a doubt, traffic is the single truly dangerous force outside cyclists’ control.

Although I might admit that cycling around the world is dangerous for this reason it must be remembered that all forms of road travel are dangerous, and some are even more dangerous than cycling. A backpacker sitting inside a crowded minibus on a winding mountain road is less in control of his life than a cyclist.

Showing the folly of so many concerns surrounding the ‘cycling’ part of ‘cycling around the world’ may still fall short of convincing the fearful. They might point to a cyclist’s poor ability to react effectively should danger occur because a) a bicycle is a slow or unusable method of transport in an emergency and b) cycling around the world means visiting remote, ‘out of touch’ areas. Let me address these points.

First, I agree: a bicycle is a poor vehicle in an emergency. But there’s nothing to stop the cyclist taking motorized transport at that point – hiding the bike, leaving it with a local, bringing it along or ditching it altogether aren’t difficult solutions.

trafficThe second more pertinent concern can also be explained away. Nowadays, it is rare to cycle into an area so remote that mobile phone coverage is out of reach. SIM cards everywhere are available and extremely cheap and as ubiquitous are mobile phones. Even if a cyclist doesn’t have a mobile phone, in an emergency one is never far away and that goes for all corners of the earth. Even in African countries, a great deal of the surrounding population will own a mobile phone. In Asia, phones glued to ears and eyes glued to screens are even more common than in the ‘west’. The internet is becoming almost as widespread. Cafe wifi has been available in almost all reasonably-sized cities I’ve visited, internet cafes are ever-present complete with hordes of gamers and the aforementioned phones come more and more with online capabilities. What one can do with the internet has greatly improved too. I probably talk to my immediate family and friends more than I did when at university via services like Gmail and Skype.

p1060758-800What about access to vital infrastructure like hospitals? It is true that cyclists can become stranded several hours away from adequate medical treatment. Yet most places a cyclist visits does have proper access for motorized vehicles which speeds up the process. After all, a reasonable road had to exist for the cyclist to get there in the first place. And a reader not so familiar with travel in less-developed countries may be surprised to hear how close basic medical treatment usually is. Local people must develop their own medical infrastructure precisely because their village is so remote. In these clinics, healthcare isn’t glamorous – it’s probably under-equipped and lacking expertise – but will be able to deal capably with the common ailments of the area. That stretches from large cuts and bruises to treating relevant infectious diseases. Any complicated tests, operations or unspecific medical advice won’t be available but let’s face it … such procedures rarely constitute an emergency. Remote areas aren’t nearly as dangerous as they are perceived and any material shortcomings are usually compensated by the smiles and friendliness of the people.

There are no doubt variables too that shift a round the world cycling trip closer to or further from the realm of danger: travelling alone versus with friends, for instance, pitching a tent versus cheap hotels or being the type to simply ‘see what happens’ versus the meticulous planner. Those variables are not inherent to cycling though. The same goes for backpacking.

I hope that to some extent I have convinced the fearful that cycling around the world need be no more dangerous than more conventional travelling. I have tried to identify the fears that create the perception that cycling around the world is dangerous. They could all be grouped under one umbrella – the fear of the unknown – a fear that I have tried to alleviate by elucidating what it’s actually like to be out there on a bike. I’ll never claim that cycling around the world is danger-free. In fact, I can guarantee there’ll be moments several stratosphere outside the comfort zone. But isn’t that the case in whatever one does? And isn’t it more dangerous, perhaps most dangerous of all, to sit stock-still simply because moving seems so dangerous?

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