The Best Books On Bicycle Travel (Part I)

Who among us has not, at some point or the other, thought of chucking it all in and taking off on a long road trip, unchained from the tedious, mundane callings of work and office. No ringing telephones, no social media feeds, no app notifications, no official meetings – none of the garbage that clutters up our lives. And while road trips undertaken in a car or on a motorcycle are great, for the ultimate in simplicity, there’s always the bicycle. The kind of bicycle almost doesn’t matter – it can be cheap-and-cheerful, single-speed, old-style number, or it can be a piece of exotica, with multiple gears, suspension at one or both ends, and an expensive alloy frame. Either way, using pedal power to go from one city to another – or, depending on your level of ambition, across a country, continent or even the entire world – has a certain appeal.

But bills needs to be paid. EMIs need to be deducted from bank accounts. Loans. Children’s schooling. Home refurbishment. And a million other excuses. No worries, there are enough number of people who’ve strained and sweated on their bicycles, pedalling across the world and living to write books about their journey. We can let them do the hard work and still live their adventures on two wheels vicariously. Sounds like a good deal? Here we go – this is part 1 of our two-part feature on the best books on bicycle travel.

Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle, by Dervla Murphy

For fans of bicycle travelogues, this one is a veritable classic. ‘When Dervla Murphy was ten, she was given a bicycle and an atlas and soon, inspired by her correspondence with a Sikh pen pal, she was secretly planning a trip to India. At the age of thirty-one, in 1963, she finally set off and this astonishing book is based on the daily diary she kept while riding through the Balkans, Iran, Afghanistan and over the Himalayas into Pakistan and India. A lone woman on a bicycle, with a revolver in her trouser pocket, was an unknown occurrence and a focus of enormous interest wherever she went. Undaunted by snow, floods and robbery, using her .25 pistol on starving wolves and to scare off predatory men, and relying on the generosity of nomads, she not only finished her epic journey, but also pioneered a form of adventure travel that has inspired generations. Over half a century after it was first published, Full Tilt remains a hugely popular classic of travel writing,’ says the publisher’s note.

‘Murphy describes travelling through countries with little or no money, without knowing the language nor what or who she would encounter. There are bad people, but most are welcoming and as curious as she is, opening their homes and cafes to this Irishwoman on a bicycle who has made her way to the mountains of Afghanistan or Pakistan. Her books are reminders that most people are fundamentally good,’ says The Guardian. Dervla Murphy passed away in 2022, at the age of 90. We doubt if they make ’em like that anymore.

Cycling Home From Siberia, by Rob Lilwall

‘In 2004, Rob Lilwall arrived in Siberia equipped only with a bike and a healthy dose of fear. Cycling Home From Siberia recounts his epic three and a half year, 30,000 mile journey back to England via the forbidding jungles of Papua New Guinea, an Australian cyclone and Afghanistan’s war-torn Hindu Kush. A gripping story of endurance and adventure, this is also a spiritual journey, giving a poignant insight into life on the road in some of the world’s toughest corners,’ says the publisher’s note.

‘I am amazed at how Lilwall has crammed so much of his experiences – in such colour and vibrancy – into the book. His use of short sentences makes it an extremely easy read, but he manages not to skimp on depth of meaning. You can tell, however, that buried beneath the characters and stories he does choose to tell, there are scores of details still yearning to be uncovered. I’m sure if Lilwall had attempted to unearth all of those juicy out-takes, the book would have been much longer than 300 pages. As it is, Lilwall has left much up to the imagination of the reader, but what a rich picture-in-the-mind his writing does facilitate! The open road is no place for the closed-minded, and Lilwall articulated well his interesting encounters with other travellers and locals,’ says 14Degrees.

Moods of Future Joys, by Alastair Humphreys

Another bike travel classic if ever there was one, this is part one or Humphrey’s two-part travelogue, where he goes around the world on a bicycle. ‘This enthralling account details Alastair Humphrey’s epic journey across Africa, through Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya. His experience is at times brutal, and though he faces loneliness, despair, and harsh conditions, he also survives through trust in the kindness of strangers,’ says the publisher’s note.

‘Humphreys’s engaging, sometimes brutal, sometimes comic style is above all a call to arms. Or rather wheels. This book deals with the first leg of his four-year odyssey, which started in 2001 and ended on the glorious coast of South Africa more than a year later. The intervening miles are documented with unflinching honesty. Cycling across Africa on a route passing through Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya is apparently a brutal experience but one, it would seem, that is worth the effort. Humphreys conveys his loneliness, wanderlust, grit and despair in a manner reminiscent of the great tradition of British explorers. Euphoric, boring, unrelenting, unique, exhausting, liberating, lonely. These are words that describe a long journey by bike and Humphreys weaves them into his chapters in such a way that you can’t say you weren’t warned but perhaps you’re a little intrigued to try them out for yourself anyway,’ says The Guardian.

Thunder and Sunshine, by Alastair Humphreys

This is part two of Humphreys’s two-part travelogue (part one being Moods of Future Joys, described above), his epic around-the-world journey by bicycle, and it’s every bit as interesting, as engaging as the first one. ‘Here, Alastair sails from Africa to South America, where he rides from the southern tip of Patagonia to northern Alaska. Crossing the Pacific, he cycles into a Siberian winter, carries on through Japan, China and nearing the end of his journey at last, across Asia and Europe towards his home in Yorkshire,’ says the publisher’s note. As you might assume, and rightly so, the book is absolutely packed with adventure and excitement on every page. We are, after all, talking about a nearly 70,000km journey, completed over four years, travelling on a bicycle and on a total budget of less than Rs seven lakh!

‘In an age when there are, in the older way of looking at things, no new frontiers, an adventure like this is a great achievement and no doubt an inspiration to others. There may be no roads untraveled, but there are still new ways to travel them and much to learn along the way. Humphreys is a hopeful person – there is no taint of cynicism or world-weariness in his writing. Constantly self-motivated, he had only himself to thank when he got up each day and cycled another few miles. He was nearly always treated with kindness and ‘nobody ever refused me water.’ He concludes, ‘Don’t believe what you see on the TV; the world really is a good place,’’ says Curled Up.

‘Humphreys repeatedly talks about his voyage as something he felt like doing ‘to escape the routine’ of his daily life, yet he entered into a life of intense routine: 100-mile days, preparing breakfast, lunch, and dinner over a small cooking stove, then camping in any quiet spot he could find before he did the same again day after day. Both books [parts 1 and 2] frequently deal with loneliness that is the inevitable result of his solo journey. Humphreys is often frustrated by his inability to develop lasting friendships on the road as he moves on each day and he has little contact with his family at home. The books often offer a very intimate glimpse into Humphreys’ life, like reading someone’s personal journal. Being able to relate to him, knowing he is essentially ‘the same as anyone else,’ makes his account all the more impressive,’ adds Matador.

The Hungry Cyclist: Pedalling The Americas In Search Of The Perfect Meal, by Tom Kevill Davies

Some do it for adventure, Davies did it for food, which is probably as good a reason as any. ‘Over 100,000 miles to cover, one man, one bike and one hungry stomach. Having created his alter-ego, the Hungry Cyclist and with thousands of pedal-powered miles before him, Tom Kevill-Davies pushed off from New York City on one of the most ambitious gastronomic adventures ever undertaken. A ballsy travel memoir, The Hungry Cyclist follows Tom’s adventure into the hearts and minds of the people he meets. Revealing the diverse cultures of the Americas, Tom’s journey from over the Rockies to Baja California, through Central America down all the way to Brazil via Colombia, gives the real flavour of this truly extraordinary landmass,’ says the publisher’s note.

‘This is a tale of death-battles with squadrons of mosquitoes, malodorous public toilets, of galloping dysentery one day, to drowning your sorrows with cowboys and dining with beauty queens the next. But above all it is an ambitious story of getting to where you want to be – even if you have to endure cactus-induced punctures, unforgiving desert heat, uphill struggles through never-ending cocaine plantations, or artfully dodge hungry bears, neurotic RV-driving Americans, angry rabid dogs and run-ins with local law authorities in the process. An amazing tale of what can happen when you get on your bike and go,’ it adds.

‘As any solo traveller knows, the people you meet are important. Whether it’s just for human contact or for more urgent things like help and assistance, food and shelter you need other people on a trip like this and it helps if you yourself are a likeable person. Tom must be, because so many people go out of their way to help him, whether it’s in his quest for that special meal or when he’s in difficulties – tired, cold, wet, exhausted. ‘The kindness of strangers’ has become a cliché but there are so many examples in this book that it has a powerful feel-good effect,’ says Tony Turton.

The Man Who Cycled The World, by Mark Beaumont

When it comes to long-distance bicycle travel sagas, Mark Beaumont is one of the best known names in the business. He’s done it all, he’s done it all again and he’s done it faster than anyone else on the planet. His stories are riveting and this book is where it all started. ‘On 15 February 2008, Mark Beaumont pedalled through the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. 194 days and 17 hours previously, he had begun his attempt to circumnavigate the world in record time. Mark smashed the Guinness World Record by an astonishing 81 days. He had travelled more than 18,000 miles on his own through some of the harshest conditions one man and his bicycle can endure, camping wild at night and suffering from constant ailments. The Man Who Cycled the World is the story not just of that amazing achievement, but of the events that turned Mark Beaumont into the man he is today. From the early years of his free-spirited childhood in the Scottish countryside to present day, he has been equally determined not to settle for an average existence, but to break free and follow his dreams,’ says the publisher’s note.

‘The author does a solid job of revealing his psychological difficulties, his physical challenges and the mundane task of finding food and a safe place to sleep each night, and he delivers tantalizing cultural and geographic tidbits along his route. Among his many stories: staying the night in a Mafia-run hotel in the Ukraine staffed by beautiful dancing girls; feeling overwhelming illness at the sight of the absolute poverty in Pakistan; and experiencing frazzled nerves when he was run over by a kindly old lady in Louisiana, then mugged the same night in his motel room by drug addicts. When Beaumont provides more of a story line, the narrative sails along,’ says Kirkus.

The Man Who Cycled the Americas, by Mark Beaumont

After cycling around the world in record time, Beaumont is at it again. ‘The Man Who Cycled the Americas tells the story of a 15,000 mile expedition that broke the barriers of human achievement. To pedal the longest mountain range on the planet, solo and unsupported, presented its own unique difficulties. But no man had ever previously summited the continents’ two highest peaks, Mt McKinley in Alaska and Aconcagua in Argentina, in the same climbing season, let alone cycling between them. Oh, and Mark had never even been up Ben Nevis before. Full of his trademark charm, warmth and fascination with seeing the world at the pace of a bicycle, Mark Beaumont’s book is a testament to his love of adventure, his joy of taking on tough mental and physical feats, and offers a thrilling trip through the diverse cultures of the Americas,’ says the publisher’s note.

‘The book does succeed in doing what all good travel books should: it gives you the urge to do it yourself. It’s hard not to be impressed by Beaumont’s wanderlust, his desire to take on challenges that many would think out of their reach. But while there’s no doubting Beaumont’s tenacity, it would serve the reader better if he revealed more of himself and talked about what motivates him to take on these challenges. Beaumont spends so much time alone on his bike that whenever he encounters other people, he soon starts to crave the solitary nature of the cycle. The idea of slowing down and soaking up his environment obviously doesn’t sit well with a man who made his name smashing a speed record,’ says Bike Radar.

Also see: Part II of this story

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