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

16 Dec 2013

Starting Out on the Bike: An Interview with Zac Newham

Posted by Will

On 28th October 2013, Zac Newham, fresh out of university and with a determined sense of adventure, cycled out his front door in the UK to cycle to Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. He’s a good friend, excellent writer and bubbles over with optimism for his trip. I’ve followed him from the very start and am pleased, but not surprised, to see that he has thrown himself head-first into the challenge and is loving every minute. Recently he took time to answer a few of my questions.

zacearsCheck out his blog to keep abreast of all his latest developments, including pictures, a route map, stats and a growing number of hilarious tales from the road.

How’s the trip going so far?
Very well. I’ve been on the road for 3 weeks now and am starting to get used to the odd blend of routine and spontaneity in my trip. Whilst thoroughly enjoying the freedom of being able to say ‘yes, I think I’ll do this/go there today’ or being able to take days off in places or with people I like, I’ve also loved the feeling of continually improving upon a regular structure.

I have just arrived in Strasbourg on the border between France and Germany and am pretty relieved about the sudden change of scenery from farmland (which has been the running theme all the way from Calais) to beautiful alpine landscapes. Because of this, I’m happy to be leaving France and to be visiting some of the stunning sites of my route soon (the Black Forest, Zurich, the Swiss Alps, Lake Como and Milan are all fast-approaching).

Why’s Ha Long Bay the finish line?
For me, a significant part to this question, and one to which I have given a lot of thought, is why have a finish line at all? Why not just continue cycling until I’ve had enough (whether that be a shorter or longer distance than what I initially intended)? Firstly, I like the idea of striving towards a goal since I feel it gives the adventure some sort of defined purpose to justify to myself and to others and a reason for a climatic celebration when I eventually reach it. Conversely, I dislike the idea of cycling until I’ve had enough as I don’t think this would be a happy way to round off what I hope will be a journey of a lifetime.

Although my trip is primarily about the enriching experiences I will have along the way, the mental, physical and spiritual challenge it entails is also a fundamental part to it. The finish line had to represent some kind of climax that could potentially trump all the other experiences of the trip and give closure to the challenge. Ha Long Bay is one of the seven natural wonders of the world and, on arriving to it, I wouldn’t have seen the sea for several thousand miles. I thought that the combination of these two factors, paired with the fact that it lies roughly around the distance from home that I was prepared to cycle, made it a likely candidate. Lastly, since it is situated close to Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, it’s location is also convenient for me to catch a flight back to my real finish line (which also happened to be my start line). Home.

zacgrassHave you planned your route in detail or are you going to make it up as you go along?
My route planning became a bit of a game of ‘join the dots’; it mainly consisted of me looking up the places I wanted to go and picking the shortest routes between them. Although I had a very patchy idea about the countries I’d like to visit, a lot of my time has been spent interrogating Google for the ’100 most beautiful places to go before you die’ or ‘the world’s most amazing cities’,…etc.

I am now learning the importance of the route taken between these places though, so have begun to think perhaps I should look more at the suitability of roads as cycle routes. That said, my route is very flexible and I have already taken several diversions based on what locals have advised (or sometimes due to a gut feeling!). On one particular occasion this really paid off and I happened to come across the beautiful town of Dabo in Lorraine. Also, I am now considering radically changing my route through the middle east, so on the whole, my route is very flexible.

My parents bought me a Kindle Fire before I left which has been a complete Godsend as far as my route is concerned. I would strongly advise travellers to download the Map With Me Pro offline map app if you have a smart phone/tablet, which you can download KML files to and from the Google Maps engine or other mapping sites. This basically means that you can plot your route in detail and follow it in the most remote regions for free. Of course, you are then dependent on your device’s battery life (mine ran out on the outskirts of Paris!).

How long would you say you spent planning for the journey?
I decided I was going to take on a massive journey when I was 16. Although at the time I hadn’t really decided on the nature of the trip, the terrible and untreatable disorder of ‘obsessive map perusing’ had begun to set in. During the afflicted years that followed, I came up with a series of increasingly wacky ideas and only settled on a Europe/Asia double continental cycle ride relatively recently.

The real detailed planning only occurred after I graduated from university about four months before cycling out my front gate. To be honest though, I’m not the most easily stressed out or organised person and tend to leave most of the planning for the last seconds before a deadline. I reckon my trip only really began to take shape within the last month!

zachidingWhat sources of information were most useful during the planning process? (cycle blogs, friends/family, books etc…)The internet is obviously an inexhaustible source of information and many hours that probably should have been invested elsewhere were spent surfing sites such as Google Maps, Google images, Wikipedia, the UNESCO site and of course (and I can promise readers I haven’t even been contracted to say this!) Will’s Carry On Cycling blog. Yes, seriously, the reassurance that comes just from knowing someone who has already gone through the same processes you are about to is very beneficial. Of course, it helps to source information from a blog that has been well thought through and organised, with a wealth of useful and easily accessible material. I’m pleased to say that the time and effort Will has so obviously invested in to his really shows. Besides, why bother learning from your own mistakes when you can learn from those of others instead!!

Lastly, about a week before I left, my mum bought me a truly wonderful book. It is called the ‘The Traveller’s Handbook’ and provides information on the top sites of every country in the world, information on the nitty-gritty details of travelling (i.e. visas, injections…etc) and some interesting personal accounts by ‘professional’ travellers about their experiences in their particular fields of travel. Besides being an incredible source of information, it is also an entertaining read.

Why did you decide to travel by bicycle in the first place?
I couldn’t afford the plane tickets. No, the fact that I love cycling is the over-riding factor and the reasons why are many. I find the physical challenge enticing, the speed of travel ideal, the economy bank balance-friendly and the adventure worthy of a story to tell future grand kids about. I find quite a strong feeling of accomplishment from cycling long distances. I like the rewarding feeling of cycling up a big hill and love the long downhills that peel tears from my eyes. I also like the fact that I am seeing all the places in between the more popular sites which makes me feel like more of a local traveller than a visiting tourist. It also means that when I do pull in to the better-known sites, it’s so much more exciting.

zacbikeabouttoleave-800Overall, my experience of cycle touring is that everything I feel seems to become multiplied in intensity. Although this may also mean that the trials and exertions I invest in to travel are also intensified, the sensation of life enrichment is utterly infectious.

Why did you choose to cycle alone?
I think this is the best question of the lot, probably because it is the one I have thought about more that any other (so please excuse the inordinate length of my answer). Since I had next to no experience of solo cycling, I was taking a massive leap in to the unknown. In the end, I decided that the benefits of cycling alone outweighed both its costs and the balanced benefits and costs of cycling with a companion.

I felt that the flexibility solo travel entails was one of the most important reasons for choosing it; in particular, the ability to make spontaneous decisions. I love the fact that the trip is completely my own and that I am the only one who can call the shots. This means I can go to sleep when I’m tired, wake up when I’m not, take days off when I need to, eat what I would like to,…etc. I believe these small day to day decisions are incredibly important when taking on such a monumental challenge and, by minimising the amount of stress caused on this level, the trip as a whole becomes far more enjoyable.

Another major reason why I decided to become ‘The Solo Cyclist’ was because of what I felt I had to gain as an individual from long-term solitary travel. Besides the obvious physical challenge of my trip, spending so much time on my own also puts my mental and spiritual endurance to the test. By this, I mean my capacity to pull through and bounce back from challenging circumstances without any input from sources other than my own resolve. I have to admit that I find the feeling of accomplishing a testing task reason enough for taking it on in the first place. A favourite quote of mine is ‘to travel is to take a journey in to oneself’ and I don’t think this is ever more true than with a long solo trip. My hope is that my journey will lead me to be a more confident, more loving, and more wholesome individual.

Lastly, I believe that my time spent meeting people has hugely benefited from making my trip a solo one. I have been able to give the amazing people I’ve met my full, undivided attention, time and effort, with the advantage of also receiving theirs. It’s because of this that I have come to really cherish my time with them. There’s something very special about meeting a complete stranger and, after giving each other a pinch of conscientious kindness and a dash of honest openness, leaving soon after safe in knowledge that you’ve made a meaningful connection and a good friend.

zacinthecoldNone of this means that I’m a cold-hearted, solitary and selfish individual. In fact, I think I probably value intimacy and committed companionship far more than your average person. These were just things I felt I had to sacrifice this year in order to take on the challenge. Indeed, as I am writing this, during sunset in Strasbourg’s most romantic district, with a young couple smooching by the beautiful riverside just in front of me, I have to admit there are elements of solitary travel that I would happily trade in if I could. I will probably be spending Christmas alone this year and, although this usually triggers an automatic ‘aaaaaaaaah, poor you’ from my sympathisers, it’s something I’m completely OK with; it just means that I will never take future Christmases spent with loved ones for granted.

How did your friends and family react when you told them what you were planning to do?
This obviously completely depends on the person. It’s been quite interesting hearing what people think about it.

Above all, every reaction I’ve had has been positive (with the occasional ‘crazy’ or ‘nutter’ thrown in now and again) and people have offered me a great deal of support. I’ve been called ‘inspirational’, ‘amazing’, and, my personal favourite, a ‘dream giver’ and almost everyone seems to think my journey is pretty special. This is most often because they can’t imagine ever taking on a journey like this themselves. However, I believe that some react the way they do because there is a small part of them that wishes they would also take on such a journey. To the second category I’d just like to take a brief diversion and say ‘do it!’. It really is as special as you think.

Lastly, those closest to me react differently to those I am less well acquainted with. There is often a genuine element of worry (especially from my female relatives and friends) or a regard for whether I’ve thought it all through. Thankfully, these are also the people who know me best and realise how much my journey means to me. Overall, the reactions I’ve had have been great and help me to discover or remember my own purpose in undertaking the trip.

What were you most worried about before leaving?
By far my greatest worry was whether I would enjoy solo cycling as much as I was hoping I would. It’s not something I have a lot of experience with: the longest I’ve cycled alone was over the course of two days in Somerset. This may sound incredibly stupid but at the time I remember feeling a little lonely (especially when setting up camp for the night). My greatest fear was that as soon as I got on the road I would start missing company and companionship and would dread the long winter nights alone.

Luckily, I was proved completely wrong. I think this is primarily due to the unique commitment to a purpose that comes with taking on a long solo journey (compared to the casual escapade I had intended for my short cycle round the west country). There are two parts to this purpose that I feel have enabled me to overcome my previous fears and doubts: the first is linked to how I’ve come to view myself. I think the best way to describe this is that I’ve entered a kind of committed ‘partnership’ with myself in which I am able to link my insecurities with my strengths (e.g. whenever I feel alone, I remember those that I love; whenever I feel tired, my determination spurs me on; if I ever feel depressed, I know that my fortitude and sense of purpose will save me…etc). In this way, I am discovering that every personal issue has an internal solution and that the issues I was originally worried I would struggle with have unexpectedly turned out to be precious and enjoyable moments spent growing and getting to know myself.

The second part is linked to how I’ve come to view others. Technically, my trip definitely isn’t a solo one. I have already spent some wonderful experiences in the company of others who I will never forget. Although this is partly because they themselves are wonderful people, it is also because I have come to fully cherish my time with them. It’s because of this that I don’t feel like I’m missing out on constant company.

Overall, the challenging nature of a solo trip has meant that my experiences with myself and with others have become radically enriched and my initial worries have been completely turned on their head.

Aren’t you worried about falling behind your peers in the world of work?
Definitely not, and as I continue along my route this feeling only increases. There are two reasons for this:

zaccooking-8001. Like many others, I have spent 14 years at school and, after taking a year out, spent an additional three years at university. By investing such a huge amount of time in examined education, it has become completely ingrained in me to become a working member of society. I have no doubt I eventually will be! However, I feel that other, more important aspects of my education have been neglected as a result and, even though I won’t be sitting an exam, I am determined to invest a great amount of time learning about them. Although I may fall behind my peers in the world of work, I believe that the lessons I am already learning in commitment, courage, fortitude, gratitude, random acts of kindness, determination, endurance, self-confidence and the many uses of duct tape will more than make up for this. Though I believe these lessons will undoubtedly help me to be a more fulfilled and happier person, I have a sneaking suspicion they may also help me in the world of work.

2. I don’t really believe I am being left behind in the world of work. A solo cycle ride is an opportunity FOR work. I have already been offered sponsorship for the ride and have thought about seeking it on my return. Advertisement and writing are two of the more obvious avenues of work for entrepreneurial travellers but I’m sure others are only locked away in the imagination and released by creativity. For me, the new and original opportunities my journey has opened up are incredibly exciting. Also, I am currently meeting more people than I have ever met in my life. You never know when one of them might turn around and offer a business partnership (or some gold bullion!).

Was getting out the front-door and onto the road tough? (if yes, what was the toughest part?)
Not really. Mostly because the transition was so instantaneous. My mum, dad, brother and sister were there to see me off and I got pretty emotional saying goodbye to them all. But five minutes later I was on the road and my sad tears soon gave way to happy ones. This was the trip I’d waited so long to take on and it had finally begun.

In those first moments, I also realised how much I valued everyone and everything I was leaving behind and this filled me with reassurance; instead of giving me stuff to miss, it spurred on my feeling of elation as it made me realise I had nothing I should feel I needed to ‘pedal away’ from. Before I left, my sister had written me a poem, the last two lines read: ‘you shall never walk alone, every mile we go with you’ and I guess this sums up how I felt (and feel) pretty well.

It’s early in your adventure, but are there already things you wish you’d done differently before you left home?
I think there is always ‘just one more thing’ that can be done before leaving. I think the thing that’s most difficult is realising when you need to bite the bullet and cycle out the front gate. I could have spent more time making my old bike as ready as it could be but this is also something I can do along the way. In fact, most things are…I could have spent more time and effort saying my goodbyes to friends and family but, thanks to the wonders of modern connectivity, this is no longer such an issue. So I don’t think I have any regrets. I’m glad I left when I did.

I know you applied for and received offers of sponsorship … why did you turn them down?
In short, I turned it down because my aspirations for the trip differed too much from theirs. It’s always going to be tricky when two parties have contrasting goals in a partnership and I felt that their demands jeopardised the flexibility and potential experiences of my trip. They also didn’t offer me anything I couldn’t live with out.

zacbikeinthesnow-800The offer came from Halfords, the largest corporate bicycle business in the UK. I initially offered to make them an original and creative video to endorse their company. However, after they agreed, they began asking me for more of my input during the journey (i.e. regular contact, product endorsement, a constant supply of media…etc). My initial reasons for undertaking a trip like this were centred on the quality of my time spent with others and with myself. On receiving their additional demands, I thankfully remembered this and began questioning whether corporate sponsorship would be detrimental to my time and energy that could otherwise be spent on more personal objectives.

The second major wake up call came when I actually received the stuff. Although Halfords had given me stuff that amounted to a combined monetary value of two or three thousand pounds, much of it was inadequate (they had given me panniers designed for commuting, a saddle bag that didn’t fit the saddle they’d provided, inner tubes that didn’t fit the tyres they’d fitted…etc). I also realised how little I cared about ‘cool stuff’. Even the £500 sat nav they’d provided failed to excite me. Perhaps a tad too sentimental, I saw how much I would sorely miss my own stuff: my battered maps, my mouldy sleeping mat, my well-worn clothes and, above all, my faithful old rusting two-wheeled travel companion. So, after very little deliberation, I sent it all back, and with a huge sigh of relief.

I would strongly urge fellow travellers to think very carefully about seeking sponsorship and, although I believe there are some circumstances where it can improve the quality of a trip, it could be a big mistake to sacrifice the long-lasting quality and purpose of an amazing adventure for some equipment or funds.

Where will you be in a year’s time?
I reckon I will have just cycled back through my front gate. Watch this space.

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