This book, by Dominic Gill, records an epic cycling journey that starts in Alaska and ends in the southernmost city in South America. There are huge distances- 18,449 miles- beautiful landscapes and physical and mental challenges. Similar adventures have been written about, but this one has a key difference- it is done on a tandem bicycle. The author sets out alone on the tandem and picks up strangers along the way, 270 of them. It is a unique twist on the familiar tale of a man fed up with his job and yearning to do something different and finds the answer in a long distance bicycle trip.
"The attractiveness of bicycle travel struck me then more than ever before. No windows blocking out life's real accompaniment. No travel-induced sleep causing you to miss the small stand selling bright, shiny mandarins or mouth-watering fruity juice. From the seat of a bicycle, everybody and everything has a voice, a smell, an influence on your immediate future."
This quote perfectly illustrates the effectiveness of Gill's writing style in capturing the beauty of travel. It also demonstrates the author's love of cycle touring, but the book doesn't start out that way.
Gill has taken a very honest approach to the first chapter of this book and recalls the sense of dread and nervousness that overcame him in the first days of his journey. He paints a rather bleak picture and nothing you will read in these first few pages will inspire you to copy this trip. I thought that it perfectly captured those feelings of loneliness and despair that an adventurer is likely to experience and this immediately made the author likable and human. It made me want to read on and discover if things got better for him.
They did get better and his morale greatly improves as the journey progresses, largely as a result of the incredible hospitality of the people that he meets along the way. It takes a bit of time before he picks up his first passenger on the tandem, but they soon become a regular feature. I had assumed that he would be picking up locals looking to travel in the same direction. There are some locals, but it is mostly other travellers with time on their hands to take a turn as "stoker", the name given to the rear cyclist on a tandem.
I was slightly disappointed that I was not going to learn very much about the local people and their way of life from the type of passengers that he was carrying. He has more interactions with locals from his daily living like eating and arranging a place to sleep and these encounters paint a vivid picture of the cultures and countries that he passes through, more so than the majority of the tandem passengers. In fact, there is perhaps a lack of detail about the people that sit on the back of his bike, considering that this is the main premise of the book.
Not all of the tandem passengers prove to be worthy companions and Gill is upfront about the annoyance that some of them cause him. For example, the passengers that do not put in their fair share of effort so that he has to do all of the work and drag them along whilst they coast in the back seat. It is another honest portrayal of the realities of adventure cycle touring.
What I liked the best about this book is that there was more of a focus on what the author was seeing and experiencing in the 15 countries that he travels through than on the fine details of cycling. This made up for any feelings that the encounters with passengers lacked some punch.
The book is incredibly well-written and the author has a talent for making you feel like you are there. He is a great observer and uses all of his senses to perfectly capture a place in words. This quote is a great example of this:
"Latin America is a happy land generally but Colombia is up there on the podium. Even construction workers leaning on their shovels and watching us go by made the happiest clowns look like mere amateurs. "
This book was a joy to read and if you fancy giving it a go you can purchase it from Amazon by clicking on the image below: