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

23 Dec 2013

Cycling Solo or in a Group: An Interview with Rob Gardiner

Posted by Will

Between Apr-Nov 2013, Rob Gardiner cycled from the UK to India, riding to the end of Central Asia in a group of three and completing the remaining distance alone. Pedalling both with friends and solo in the same trip, he’s doubtless well-placed to discuss the differences between cycling in a group and cycling alone. I’ve followed his blog ever since I checked out its ‘we three’ page, which features a hilarious description of each of the riders from one of their companions’ point of view.

p1050769-800Although temporarily on cycling sabbatical, he assures me the Tourient Express will crank back into action in early 2014.

- Tell us the story of how the group trip first came into being?

Two years ago, I read the book ‘In Xanadu’ by William Dalrymple. This inspired me to set about planning a cycling trip from West to East that would encompass parts of The Silk Road. In the end, the trip took a vastly different route to William Dalrymple’s, but his book remains the inspiration for it. Andrew, a life-long friend, was in from the start and after a while we had a group of people interested. Eventually, however, only Josh (a friend of Andrew’s) could actually commit. We planned and researched for about 12 months; hindered by the fact that we spent most of that time on three different continents. Finally, in April 2013, we set off together. The original destination was Almaty, but with the proviso that the trip was likely to be extended for some of us.

- How long had you known each other before setting off?
I have known Andrew since birth and we had travelled extensively together before this trip. Similarly, Andrew has known Josh since secondary school and they had also travelled together. However, Josh and I had only met a few times before setting off and had never cycled together.

p1050651-800- On the road was anyone in charge? (if not how did you make decisions?)
I think early on we probably deferred to Andrew, since he was the common denominator and a more experienced cyclist. Also, we often used his phone to navigate, so it was fairly important that he took the lead! However, in general, every decision was made by the group and we always tried to make sure that everyone agreed. There might have been times when someone was in the minority, but we tried to avoid taking decisions that split the group. Sometimes, if we were struggling to make a decision, one of us would just make a choice and we would stick with it. This was good because often it is too easy to be indecisive as a group.

- Did you have any serious arguments?
I can really only remember one bad argument between two of us. The details are fairly irrelevant; suffice to say that it was a personal disagreement exacerbated by tiredness and short tempers on both sides. It wasn’t long before differences were resolved and both parties realized they were in the wrong. Generally, open arguments were rare, but there were definitely times when there was tension in the group. For example, there was a tense atmosphere for a few days due to some very bad timing. Unfortunately, the point at which one of us reached peak fitness coincided with one of the other two feeling particularly worn out. When two people are feeling so different, it can be hard to come to an agreement over routes etc. Obviously, both parties had to compromise and soon things were back to normal.

- Did you ever consider splitting up?
Yes. I had a serious infection in my foot that caused us to lose a lot of time in Uzbekistan. Andrew had a wedding to get back for, so we genuinely considered splitting up. However, in the end, we realised that it would be very impractical because of all the kit we were sharing. Furthermore, I felt that I wanted to share the experience of cycling in The Pamirs with the other two, since it was the highlight of our trip for all of us. To make up for the lost time, we caught a bus and stayed as a group.

p1050089-800- How did you work out spending money in a group?
We had a kitty that we all paid money into and we kept a written tally of payments. It was a really good system and, since almost all purchases were shared items, we rarely had to make any adjustments to it. The only disadvantage was that it often meant that one person was carrying all the money, which could be a pain if you arrived at a shop first and it wasn’t you.

- Was it cheaper cycling as a group or solo?
When I was wild camping or able to stay in hostels, it didn’t make any difference. However, campsites in Western Europe and hotels in India are both cheaper when you can share the cost. Generally though, I don’t think cycling alone is more expensive. In fact, it is probably easier to find WarmShowers or CouchSurfing hosts, so could be cheaper if you take advantage of that.

- What considerations would you advise others to make when choosing cycling mates?
From my blog you can probably infer that a penchant for garish lycra and the ability to grow amusing facial hair are highly desirable in cycling companions! However, to be honest, if a friend has cycle toured before and is willing to come on a trip with me, then that is probably enough for me to agree to cycle with them. People generally know what they like and a shared desire to cycle and explore goes a long way to making a trip successful. On the other hand, if a friend hasn’t cycled before, then the important attributes that I would look out for are mental resilience, open mindedness, and a good sense of humour. Of course, a decent level of fitness is also important.

- Why did you decide to carry on after the others left?
Our trip was always very open ended, so I feel like I merely made a decision not to stop, rather than actively choosing to keep going. Originally, Josh had suggested that he might keep cycling for longer, but after a few months he said that he felt like Almaty would be far enough. At this point, I was in love with cycling and enjoying the trip hugely. The idea that I might stop in Almaty never really seemed an option.

p1050913-800- What was the single biggest difference you felt when continuing alone? Were you lonely?
I never really felt lonely, which actually surprised me quite a bit. In fact, in India, I often craved solitude! I think the single biggest difference was the level of stress when things weren’t going well. Obviously, when something went badly wrong it was a lot more stressful. However, I really noticed the difference when I had days of uninspiring or difficult cycling. As a group, there was a lot of banter and humour that helped us get through these days, whilst on my own they tended to drag on a little more.

- Was it easier to interact with local people on your own?
Honestly, I’m not really sure about this one. I had great experiences both whilst in a group and whilst solo. Of course, experiences like my crazy 12 hour Kazakh taxi ride probably wouldn’t have happened had I been in a group, but in terms of people’s attitudes, I don’t think that there was a huge amount of difference. However, as I mentioned earlier, WarmShowers and CouchSurfing opportunities are certainly more abundant when you are alone. Given that these both helped to shape my view of India whilst I was there, I’m sure that being in a group would have changed this.

- Did you feel like cycling solo put you at greater risk?
I hate this talk of ‘risk’ whilst travelling and I never felt in any danger whilst alone or in a group. I do think that cycling in a group is safer, but not for the reasons that most people probably think of. In my opinion, the main danger when cycling alone was my inability to assess my physical condition independently. Towards the end of my time in India, I began to get quite ill and develop malaria-like symptoms. It took me a few days to realise how bad I felt and to seek medical advice. Fortunately, I did not have malaria. However, if I had been with friends, I think my poor condition would have been more apparent in comparison and they would have encouraged me to get medical advice earlier.

dsc_0175-800- Rumour has it the Tourient Express will soon crank back into action. Is that true, and if so, when?
That is most certainly true. Quite when is undecided as of now, but sometime after Christmas seems likely. As for a destination, I think the New World is probably next on the list.

- Will it be leaving the station carrying only one passenger?
Yes, for the moment I think that will be the case. However, I’m open to company, so I hope that people might hop on board for a section or two. In fact, if anyone is reading this and interested in cycling touring in 2014, then contact me via my blog.

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