The Absolute Joyfulness of Cycling

Contributor: Ralf Lopian

Man on a touring bicycle standing in front of a monumentExperiences and insights after one year on a bike.

One year ago, to this day, I left my home in Myrskylä, Finland, to go on my cycling trip around the world. I cycled for eleven thousand kilometers, saw twenty countries, and met scores of lovely people. I cycled up incredible steep mountains and hills and, once on the top, rushed down at exhilarating speeds on the other side. I saw landscapes of such beauty that I almost wept at the sight of them, and I walked in cities of such splendor and historical magnificence that I fell in awe of our forebears who created them and their history. I doggedly battled my way through foul climatic conditions, and I felt the sweetness and pure joy of cycling a lovely route in gorgeous weather. I was in such ecstatic moods that I literally danced on my bike, and there were times when I had to overcome the mental wear of constant cycling.

This year on my bike has been incredibly eventful and has brought me insights into my own soul that I didn’t know before and probably would never have discovered without the highs and lows of a demanding cycle journey. It confirmed or changed some of the expectations I had for the journey, and it alleviated some of the darkest fears I had locked down deep inside me. I think for other potential long-distance cyclists, it would be of advantage to benefit from the knowledge and experiences I have assembled from one year on the road. After one year on the road, I think I have earned the right to give advice and insights on long-distance cycling. And here it is:

man sitting in front of a loaded touring bicycle on a dock by the waterBeing alone does not constitute loneliness

Being a solo cyclist naturally involves being alone for long stretches of time. Cycling for days on end without properly speaking with anyone was, especially in northern Europe, a very common experience for me. When the only words exchanged with somebody else can be summarized as “good day” and “thank you” when visiting a shop to buy groceries, it is genuinely justified to question if such an isolated condition may lead to loneliness. I am a very sociable person, but I also feel very comfortable with being alone. The only question for me was: can I be alone for long stretches of time before going completely meshugge?

Jean-Paul Sartre, the great French existentialist philosopher, once wrote that “If you are lonely when you’re alone, you are in bad company.” I can fully subscribe to this sentiment. At no time whatsoever did I feel that the solitude raised bad spirits and that I was starting to fight myself. I talked a lot to myself because I like to do that when I am alone. Talking to yourself is quite simply a conversation with somebody you truly love and care about.

But I converse in my mind because my wife once told me that talking aloud to yourself is a sure sign of approaching utter madness. There are constant dialogues and conversations in my mind discussing particular aspects of my trip. A constant stream of thoughts is developed, reshaped, and improved, supported by the mantric activity of pedalling. This keeps my mind busy. It leads to a rich mental activity without space for negativism. But whenever I meet another cyclist or person who is interested in conversing with me, I dive into the conversation headfirst. After long stretches of verbal inactivity, every chance to communicate is taken, and my words and thoughts are bubbling over like from a freshly opened champagne bottle.

My fears of loneliness were unjustified. Just the opposite, I cherished my solitude which helped to develop my creativity and built up my hunger to easily approach people and talk to them.

Campsite with tent and touring bicycle in a mountain meadowHomesickness is an overestimated phenomenon

Right from the start of my trip, I had been wondering about the complete separation from my personal environment of family, friends, and work colleagues and how it would affect me. There were times when I missed my family and when I wanted to be with them. But these longings were never so overpowering as to cut my trip short. In today’s world, with its modern communication methods keeping relations alive and even assisting in the creation of new ones by distance becomes a virtual reality. Very frequent video chats with my family and friends sweetened my evenings in a dark tent. And occasionally, I flew to Finland to spend some time with my family.

Social media, which I have used frequently, kept me in contact with many of my former colleagues in Finland and worldwide. Indeed, my writings and postings reanimated quite a few old friendships from primary and secondary school, whom I hadn’t heard from in almost 30 years. I must say that my contact with more distant family members and friends has become even more frequent due to my journey.

And then there are the new friends. People I encounter on the road who show me unbelievable kindness and generosity. People who are helpful and kind and who are a pure joy to converse with, and who stay in contact with me for months. People who invite you to share a bottle of red wine and experience an incredible sunset on the Dalmatian coast. People who press a cold beer in your hand when you arrive sweaty and tired at a campground after pushing your bike for twenty kilometers due to a mechanical issue. People who pick you up at the roadside because your bike is broken and then provide you shelter, food, and good company. And the fellow cyclists with whom you camp together, do some communal cooking and talk and joke until late at night, all while a full moon illuminates the mountain silhouette around you. These are the moments when you start thinking that the thrill and experience of the new alleviate any feelings of homesickness you might have had.

If I look at it objectively, I must say that my journey has caused my ecosystem of friends to become markedly more diverse. Considering that there is still a whole world out there waiting for me, including quite a few of my social media contacts who have invited me, the prospects are indeed tempting. I do doubt now that homesickness will play any major role in my future consideration.

I feel good

The title of the song by James Brown not only applies to my mental state but also to my health. One of my concerns had been that, in particular, my aging joints may not cope very well with the strains of a long, multi-year bicycle journey. But what can I say? My knees are keeping up with the hard work of cycling uphill, and my muscles do not overly protest the constant exertions connected with a cycling journey. I have no backpains because I’ve slept on the ground when camping, and I feel reinvigorated after cycling for some time. In some way, this journey has inserted a spring into my step, and I feel years younger, mentally and physically.

From a mental point of view, this journey taught me to pace myself. During the first four months of the trip, I achieved my planned mileage, but as soon as I hit the steep mountains of the Alps and the Balkans, nature, and age showed me the limits of my possibilities. The heavy climbing day after day caused a certain mental tiredness, and after a while, I noticed that I had to fight mental battles to get out of my sleeping bag or bed in the morning. I just wanted to stay in the comfy, snug sleeping bag, and my desire to insert rest days grew exponentially. I had identified mental tiredness as one of the major potential causes for interrupting or ending my journey prematurely and had devised a policy to trust my body and the signs it sends me. Consequently, I reduced my speed and my exertion levels during my time in the Balkans and Turkey in order to keep mentally fit and myself on track to complete my world tour.

Relics of an old castleThere is never enough time

When I was planning my journey, the rosy picture of a leisurely daily cycling quota and the fun activity of cooking tasty dinners in front of my tent shimmered in my mind. The days would be complemented by writing my diary entries, publishing a daily blog on Facebook and my website, and as the icing on the cake, producing a little video every month or so. Add to that the prospect of having a merry, sputtering open fire and a sip of beer while looking at and dreaming about the stars, and you get the absolute cliché of a romantic camping trip. Well, let me tell you, this was a complete fata morgana of productivity and creativity. In fact, I do not find enough time during the day to do most of these planned activities.

When you cycle for eight hours a day (including breaks), the time to pitch your tent in the evening and break it down in the morning almost completes your daily activity. Feeling tired after a hard day’s work, the mind is not prepared to devise clever blog entries, and the cooking of tasty and fancy dinners becomes a relative rarity. This is acerbated when the winter months are approaching, and daylight becomes rare. The cold evenings and nights force you into your sleeping bag, and writing on your computer becomes rather difficult. Cooking is reduced to some eggs and onions consumed hastily with some bread and hot tea. While on my trip, I just coped with writing my diary entries and my daily blogs on Facebook. The upkeep of my website is hopelessly delayed, and my video project is on ice. I simply don’t have enough time for it.

Couples doing a long-distance cycling journey have it easier by dividing the tasks among them. For a solo long-distance cyclist like me, the day simply hasn’t enough hours to do all the chores and to get a good, extensive sleep session. Yeah, and about the open fire session while sipping beer and doing some star gazing, that usually falls flat as well because, after eight hours of cycling, you are too dead tired to stay awake after dark. Sometimes, however, when I crawl out of my tent during the very early morning hours to do what old men have to do early in the morning, I do see the stars and look up and admire them, all while pissing on a mole’s head.

Three cheers to dopamine

There have been moments of such incredible joyfulness on my journey that I can hardly describe the pleasures I felt at these moments. Moments when I literally danced on my bike, jumping on and off my saddle with the rhythm of the music and driving wild curves on the empty road. Moments when I sang along to songs at the top of my lungs because the music touched me and felt so appropriate to the beauty of the landscape. And moments when I cycled hard, and the kilometers were just flying past, and I felt strong, fit, and like a young man again. Many times, I experienced this joyfulness which could almost be described as ecstasy.

Many of these joyful moments were certainly caused by the beauty of the land and the exquisiteness of the music I was listening to. Like on the Peloponnese when I cycled up and down in the mountains in the clouds, being alone on the road, seeing nothing and divine voices singing Händel’s “Lascia chio pianga” were coming from my speaker, filling the grey, milk-like void around me. I felt like in heaven, and I was so emotionally touched by this experience that I know I will never forget it in my life.

Moments like that define your journey, and they make you fall in love head over heels with long-distance cycling. But these moments are actually created by your heavy physical activity of cycling. Dopamine, the pleasure hormone of your body, is produced to satisfy the pleasure centers in your brain to overcome physical adversity and hardships. Whenever you cycle hard, dopamine is produced, the world around you gets this extra golden taint, and you feel happy and joyful. I am sure that without the dopamine produced by my own body, many of the experiences I had would not have been as memorable and joyful. So, hip, hip, hooray to the wonders of endorphins and dopamine.

Old world cobbled street and alleyway with purple hanging flowersSome last thoughts

When I planned my trip for many years before I actually started, I had these rosy expectations of adventure and achievement paired with the experience of seeing beautiful lands. I thought it would be great to do such a journey and that it would be the defining part of the sunset years of my life. Now, after one year, I must say that it is much more than what I expected. The journey has become more beautiful and educational than I ever imagined.

Imagining that I just cycled from Finland to the edge of Europe in Istanbul; there is so much more to come and enjoy. I cannot fathom the pleasures awaiting me on my future routes. It appears that my own dopamine got me hooked.