Ernie Buck’s world cycle tour
Alex Bailey interviews Manchester based cyclist Ernie Buck about his world tour by bicycle.
AB Thanks for pointing me towards your website www.thebuckstop.net for some background information about your world cycle tour.
I think it’s important that people hear about achievements such as yours so I’m glad that you agreed to do an interview.
Tours on an epic scale show that cycling is a viable means of transport.
I know you were a utility cyclist and a cyclocommuter for 30 years and that you had done some rides from Yorkshire to Kent. Did you do any fitness training before setting off around the world?
EB The straight answer is no. For the three years prior to setting off, I had a 20 mile round commute to work and, given that my planned daily mileage for the tour was 50 – which I exceeded most of the time – I deemed my commute to be sufficient training. As most older ex road joggers will know, knees get a bit arthritic and fragile; the low impact nature of cycling is ideal for cardio-vascular fitness without making joints worse. Weekend rides are great and can be enjoyable, but it’s regular, ideally daily, cycling which really builds and maintains fitness. Cycling was an integral part of my life before I set out.
AB I know you took four panniers, two on a rear rack and two on a low rider rack. What was on your kit list?
EB To answer this question fully would take pages and pages. Two words spring immediately to mind when people ask about the kit I took – ‘too much!’ I’ve read with admiration about people who tour with a couple of pairs of knickers and a credit card. I set off attempting to cover all eventualities; accommodation ranging from campsite to five star hotel, weather ranging from snow and ice through monsoon to 45 degree C heat and clothes to wear off the bike suitable for all societies and social occasions.
Clothes first. Good quality breathable cycling jacket that passed as respectable off bike, over trousers, tee shirts, ordinary shorts, light-weight trousers for off bike, micro fleece, long-sleeved & legged silk base layers – very light and warm on or off bike, cotton short-sleeved and long-sleeved shirts for off bike ‘respectable’ occasions. Whatever I wore on the bike was always topped off by a hi-viz vest (absolute life-saver!) I set off with Shimano SPD shoes, sandals and boots. I wore the sandals most of the time except when it was frosty. I gave the boots away to a Tibetan in Dharamsala. I bought some light-weight cotton ‘below the knee’ trousers for riding when I crossed the border into Turkey. Away from the tourist hot-spots it’s best to be sympathetic to Islam. I had a couple of pairs of full length ‘cargo pants style’ trousers made up by a Kurdish tailor in Van in eastern Turkey; they served me well in the colder parts of Iran, Pakistan and Canada. I’m not really into hats but I dealt with extremes of heat and cold with either a wide-brimmed floppy cotton one or a classic wool over the ears job. I had to buy a helmet when I got to Canada – it’s the law – so when it got cold, wore my polar skull cap, or occasionally a full balaclava, underneath; both of which I’d carried with me. A hi-viz waterproof helmet cover bought in Canada paid dividends too.
Tools & spares. A couple of good compact multi tools served their purpose for most of the jobs that I wanted to undertake. I carried spare inner tubes and, after Western Turkey, a couple of rolled up spare tyres (700cc are hard to find east of there) and a Cyclaire pull-cord pump in a small canvas case strapped to the frame – worked very well.
A word about the panniers themselves. On the advice of an old cycle touring acquaintance, I bought Super Cs. I didn’t much like them at first; the way the draw cords fastened the top of the main compartment was quirky, it seemed to be in the wrong place. However, they grew on me and I eventually came to appreciate the ‘earergonomicshat had gone into their design. There completely water proof very sturdy, putting up with being bashed by sundry carts and rickshaws in Asian cities. They’re not designed for the light-weight tourer though; they’re quite heavy even when empty. But if you’re doing long distance in out of the way places and want really durable luggage, I’d thoroughly recommend them.
AB It’s good to see that you found the Carradice totally waterproof and ergonomic. Would you recommend them for commuters? They look a little more low key that the Ortleib ones so they could look more acceptable in a formal workplace.
EB Panniers for commuting are purely a matter of personal preference. I still use the same set of panniers for shopping and carrying my training stuff around Greater Manchester, sometimes using the smaller front ones on the rear carrier, depending on the loads I need to carry. They look a little scruffy now but function as good as new. I’d guess my Carradice bags will outlast Ortleibs and if one isn’t worried too much about style, I’d certainly recommend them for commuting.
AB It’s interesting that 700c tubes were rare abroad, I always imagined 700c had world popularity.
EB I imagined likewise when choosing the bike set up but soon discovered that east of Istanbul, it’s either 28 inch wheels on the millions of workhorse bikes that carry whole families, farm animals and everything else on the Indian Sub-continent, or 26 inch on the few imported bikes available in large modern cities. I left home with presta tubes but eventually had my rims drilled out to accommodate Schrader valves; although I did come across many Woods valves with the old valve rubbers that I remember from my youth.
AB And I take it 9speed is an innovation which has not been universally rolled out.
EB I desperately needed new tyres, nine speed block and chain when I got to New Delhi. I hunted out the most up to date upper caste cycle shop in the south of the city. The staff assured me that none of these items were available anywhere on the Subcontinent. I’m afraid to say that CTC let me down. An e mail to them elicited the response “we don’t dispatch to India”. (I’ve since taken this up with a board member and I think they’ve changed their policy and will now quote a delivery price for out of the way places) I phoned my ‘local’ bike shop in Bingley, West Yorkshire and got a package put together and some friends from Bradford to send it out. DHL worked wonders for £90 – Bradford to New Delhi in 3 days. Ironically, I discovered that the ‘Continental’ tyres I’d ordered were manufactured just down the road from the Capital – but for export only.
AB Despite problems with the alu rack, how did your bicycle frame hold out?
EB I called in to the Bingley bike shop a few weeks after arriving home. I think they were pleased with their handiwork when I said how well the bike had held up.
I ought to explain why steel and not aluminium. Remote parts of the world have people who are expert ‘make do and mend’ metal-bashers and expert welders who can make an AK47 out of old car parts, but can’t weld aluminium. So, rather than take a chance I went for steel. The frame was built to order by a place in Liverpool arranged by the aforementioned bike shop in Bingley. It held up very well and is still going strong, in spite of all its chips and paint touch-ups. On the rare occasions when I topped 55-60 kph, if my panniers weren’t evenly loaded it did start to ‘whip’ a little. This happened a few times in Iran on wonderfully smooth roads and down hill stretches; rather frightening experience. I ordered steel front and rear racks too but the shop couldn’t get hold of them in time and, against my better judgement, I took aluminium ones that were in stock. “Life-time guarantee – never known them break” said the shop owner. The front one broke first in Hungary and again in Turkey; supposedly proper welds done which only lasted a few days. I finally replaced the front carriers in Singapore. The rear one is still going strong though.
So, did the bike survive on a single wheelset?
EB Yes, it did go right round on the same wheels. I had them trued twice en route but they weren’t far out; very well built in the first place. The bike’s had quite a hammering doing training over this last year and both have since been replaced.
AB Did your cycling style change at all while you were on tour? Many people claim they become more efficient, I know audaxers deliberately take it easy up hills by riding on the tops of the bars in order to open up the lungs.
EB Difficult to say. Commuting cycling, especially in city traffic, is very much a sprint, stop, sprint style, whereas touring is a far more steady pace. My tours prior to RTW were never more than three or four days long; on the big one, turning the pedals round day after day became a way of life. I’m not conscious of my style actually changing though. I simply lapsed into a steady cadence of around 55-60 rpm and used my gears accordingly. My knees wouldn’t allow me to stand on the pedals for long so hills were taken steadily. In spite of my route including parts of Himalaya and right over the Rockies, I only remember pushing the bike up one hill; that was in Quebec City on a very steep hill where I simply ran out of road in busy traffic. Apart from tackling head winds, my riding style is fairly upright anyway. I tend to adjust my height by moving back on the saddle.
AB When I discovered SPDs it was like finding two more gears. Did SPDs enable you to ride further?
EB Yes indeed. My SPD discovery was a ‘Road to Damascus’ conversion. Before the ride, many people had been trying to persuade me to use them but I stubbornly refused. The bike shop proprietor finally said “Ernie, I’m going to put SDP pedals on you present bike and lend you these shoes – get out there and try them”. I was convinced within the first mile. They make a hell of a difference. I only wish I’d used them earlier. Of course I suffered the obligatory couple of falls with grazed knees and elbows before I remembered to ‘extract’ properly every time; now I can hardly ride without them. I’ve just purchased a Birdy folder and the first thing I did was change the pedals for ones with SPD bindings on one side.
AB You gradually lost weight before you got ill. Was it hard to keep eating enough? I know you found bananas a good energy top up. Any bike food tips?
EB Yes, stuffing enough in to keep up the energy levels was difficult. I think bananas became another life-saver. I seem to have a ‘fast’ metabolic rate; putting it crudely, even when my system is on top form, food goes through me pretty quickly. On a journey like this that encompasses so many different cultures and conditions I found the only approach was to be a complete omnivore. For example, in Turkey, Iran and Pakistan I did a lot of meat eating, whereas in India I was virtually vegetarian, then back to meat again in Bangladesh. Apart from illness, my main weight loss was, I think, due to the intense heat of India. I remember looking at myself in the mirror in Calcutta and seeing a picture of the relief of Belsen – I was dangerously thin. However, I think there’s something therapeutic about turning the pedals and it’s perfectly possible to ride in quite poor condition. The varied diets of Thailand and Malaysia helped me get back into some short of conventional shape. As well as bananas, I fell in love with mango in India and still eat lots of it now, mostly dried. Bananas, dried mango, strong dark chocolate, with perhaps cherries or plums, are all in my panniers on long trips these days. Lots of carbs with main meals too.
AB At the end of your book you say the main reason you received as much help and hospitality was that you were on a bike. There’s something non threatening about cycling and your bike looked quite at home in the photos of you eating dinner with Asian families. It just looks like appropriate technology in that setting. I’d like to use that picture in the article. Tell us more about how the bike made you approachable.
EB I think you probably covered the bulk of my answer in your question. It really does work. I would add couple of other points though. Firstly, is a comparison with more conventional ways of travelling. If you get off a bus, train or plane you are inevitably in a tourist hot spot and immediately confronted with people who are used to meeting tourists. In the worst case, you’re simple seen as a ‘walking wallet’. Cycling into a village, town, or even a major city, on your route, you cannot help but meet people who never encounter tourists; in many cases have never met a foreigner. They’re as genuinely interested in you as you are in them, which leads to a much more meaningful interaction. Secondly, for me, the only way to cycle tour is alone. If you’re part of a couple or a group, locals will tend to leave you alone, sometimes out of politeness – not wanting to intrude. I erroneously thought that I’d be lonely if I set off on my own when I was planning the trip. Nothing could be further from the truth. With hindsight, perhaps I ought to add a third. My age and grey hair may have had some influence on how I was treated too.
AB What was the funniest thing that happened to you whilst cycling the globe?
EB Many funny things happened on the way round but, without rereading my blog, nothing immediately springs to mind. What did give me constant amusement though were the local cyclists on the Indian Subcontinent. I’d be riding at my normal pace and overtake a local on his rattly old ‘Hero’ bone-shaker and, soon after, hear the same bicycle clanking up behind and gradually overtake me. I’d glance to my right to see and invariably grim-faced young man sweating profusely and looking straight ahead, obviously determined not to be outdone by some foreigner on a heavily laden bike. Of course a few yards in front they’d slow down again and I, keeping my unaltered pace, would overtake them again. And so it went on. It did annoy me at first but after the umpteenth time, I could see the funny side of it. Sometimes, if I was feeling devilish and had managed to get a good breakfast, I used to make a race of it. Not fair really; even though I was fully loaded, I had three chain rings and a nine speed block; unless it was down hill they didn’t stand a chance. Some such riders who could speak English did sometimes engage me in conversation and I met many interesting people that way. But that’s another story.
AB Did your desire to train cyclists to ride on the road come about as a result of the tour and was there an event that inspired it?
EB Not consciously, but it no doubt had some bearing. I think a number of things coming together got me into cycle training. Firstly, I’ve been in some sort of pedagogic role for most of my adult life, teaching telecomms, management, English as a foreign/second language and cognitive skills. Secondly, over many years of cycling in traffic, I’d developed my own riding method which I loosely described as ‘Assertive but Defensive’. But the single event that tipped me over into cycle training happened a month or so after I arrived home; it was the launch of Bikeability and subsequently reading John Franklin’s Cycle Craft. It so perfectly articulated my own assertive/defensive riding style and I immediately recognised it as an excellent training scheme for integrating cyclists with the rest of the traffic. It prompted me to find BikeRight! here in Manchester on the web and sign up for the instructor’s course. I haven’t looked back since (except when on the bike!). It’s missionary work for me – turning out tomorrow’s cyclists.
AB When you think about the tour is there one ‘picture’ that springs to mind?
EB Probably the most vivid memories that I hold in my mind are those of the Buddhist places and sites associated with my hero Mahatma Gandhi; they were the main reasons I set off for India in the first place. Rather than ‘pictures’ what I do retain quite strongly are a couple of ‘feelings’. Firstly, doing a tour of this length – 17 months – cycling and moving on become a way of life and the journey itself constitutes a large punctuation mark. So, I had a life before the ride, went for a ride, and now have a life after the ride. That’s a bit clumsy but you may know what I mean. Second is a sort of a warm glow when I remember that most people in this great big world of ours are warm, kind and friendly once you get to know them. I read somewhere that, genetically speaking, no one person is more distantly related to another than sixth cousin; go to seventh, and all the other primates are included. This fact should be more widely known and appreciated.
AB If you could somehow return to just one of the countries you visited solely for a bike ride, which one would you pick?
EB It would be a toss up between Iran and Canada; for the warmth and generosity of the people in both cases. In addition, if I chose Iran, it would be for the beautifully smooth roads between towns and cities.
More of Ernie’s photos at www.thebuckstop.net