Jo Burt: The Shitty Bits
The long and winding world of bikepacking has somehow found itself travelling with a large weight of romance strapped to it and it’s easy to see why. There’s the beguiling life of the open road, the enchantment of escape, coming and going as you please, master to no one but where your front wheel points you. The charm of new places and allure of a constantly rolling view, stopping outside a bakery for freshly-baked snacks, pausing on a riverbank for a paddle and finishing the day camped in a quiet sunset washed corner of nowhere. Even the extreme racing end of the bikepacking spectrum has glamour within its hardships in the seduction of the rider pushing themselves beyond their limits, the pedalling over mountain passes through the night into the poetry of the dawn, and the hobo chic of sitting on a skuzzy petrol station kerb scoffing cold pizza. What a lot of this conveniently ignores though – be that during a quick bike ride with bags bouncing over a weekend or a schlep across an entire continent – are the shitty bits.
These aren’t the bits on any ride that are really horrible; that torrential rain or endless grunty hill or bike-carry over a mountain that has teeth gritted and a determined far away look in the eye, with the only plus side the potential for a good story once you’re out the other side. Those are ten a penny in the bikepacking library, but instead, it’s the bits where it’s merely a generally bearable yet tedious level of annoying unpleasantness.
These aren’t even the bits that might be considered dull, and there can be enough of those. The long straight roads that can stretch into the horizon across the fields, plains, bread baskets and middle bits of countries, the ones that kink every few kilometres just to keep you from falling asleep. Or the bits where the scenery doesn’t change for half a day and the mountains remain a purple smudge on the horizon and never seem to get any closer. The endless miles that are just boring and offer up nothing of any stimulus to engage you, the shitty road might well be dull but it has an extra something special scattered on top of that which can gently grate at your entire being.
The shitty bits are the largely undocumented reality of long-distance bike travel; for every breezy memory friendly mile down a shady tree-lined road, there is slogging along the scruffy gutter of a bypass curving lazily and eternally round a town. For each spectacular hairpin up a stunning alpine climb, there is the bun fight of navigating through a busy city, where the culture shock of noise and hectic traffic sneaks a whispered swear after a day of quiet, calm cycling solitude. It is there in the no-alternative stretch of road that is cloyed with lorries and close pass driving, probably in the drizzly rain, or the bit too warm, nothing worthwhile weatherwise, just enough to poke the irritation levels up a bit.
The basic logistics of riding a long way mean that it can’t all be Instagram moments on the road – be that of the posted-for-jealousy beauty or posted-for-sympathy misery kind – and while in between these snapshot moments there is a lot, an awful lot, of humdrum common all garden cycling, weaved into all this are the mildly miserable stretches that have very very little to commend them, they’re just a little bit shit.
The poorly surfaced roads, the unpleasant routings through industrial estates on the outskirts of town. Any number of shabby convoluted tortuous cycle lanes that your GPS likes to divert you down, the getting lost whilst negotiating a big city intersection, the roadworks detour unwanted hill, the path that shrinks into a hedge, the going through another industrial estate on the other side of town, with a dumped fridge for decoration this time. It’s the lazy river down the valley swamped by factories along its banks, all fences and pipework and clanking and smell, it’s the quarry hacked into the side of a beautiful mountain and all the dirty road and heavy trucks it brings. Anything that’s just a little bit irksome, adds another layer of tired when you’re tired and elicits a pedal weary sigh.
Any decent bike-packing story wouldn’t be complete without a little bit of a climatic struggle; swiftly donning a waterproof jacket, hiding in a bus shelter somewhere to escape a deluge or shoving an ice-cream down your chamois because you’re riding through a heatwave by mistake. But we can’t include any proper weather in this, it can only be the mildly annoying kind; that nagging headwind or light mizzle, those times when it might be a little bit cold and you don’t know what to wear. The mediocre stuff that might merely scuff the shine off your mood.
Not even bleak, more a half-hearted grim, hardly making the effort to be nasty. Just a bit grotty. It’s the ugly miles where you don’t stop, you don’t consider taking a picture. The bits where it’s busy, or grubby, shoulder hunching not nice, where you put your head down and just get on with pedalling, hoping it’s over soon. It’s not ever a situation that puts you in much danger, there’s no jeopardy involved here, there are no future pulling-it-back-from-the-brink anecdote possibilities, it’s nothing much at all really, just a bit hushed mutterings rubbish. This definitely wasn’t in the brochure stuff. Try and hum a cheerful tune in your head.
The distance of travel means that you’re going to pedal through drudgery at some point; there are the mapping errors that mean turning onto that gently distressing main road by mistake or the omnipresent favourite of the long mileage rider, the unintended off-road section. Often enough this can be quite fun, a mental and physical diversion, a section of rideable dirt that takes you somewhere off-piste you’d never normally go but can quickly turn into quite the trial and a bumpy puddle-ridden puncture-hazard lift-your-bike-over-a-fence overgrown annoyance that’s not the stuff of epic pushes over an alpine pass and more the exasperation of a scratchy obstacle course along a canal. Or there’s the unexpected left turn off the road you’re on that climbs, steeply, and descends needlessly back onto that same road. Those are fun.
I’ve had some shockers of “Well, this is a little bit shit” in my time. Episodes of cycling that can’t even be rescued by the rose-tinted massaging of history and even now are still rubbish. Too many to name main roads that looked ok clicking on Streetview but in reality were unpleasant and fast and with hopeful glances down every side turning to see if any could be a nicer option. Add to those the sections of major road leading into big towns and being funnelled into labyrinthine GPS beeping one-way systems. Fussake.
Too many of those can-we-get-this-over-with-now moments.
The long straight road along the coast that was refreshingly flat after too many hills but poxed with potholes and manhole covers. Hot, bothered and hopelessly tired and badly timed at rush hour, the fast-food joint in the town at its grateful end was relished as much for its coolness and calm as its sustenance.
The baking ascent up an endless alpine valley with a concrete wall on the left, reflecting the sun and seeking brief shade in a warehouse loading dock. The climb that wasn’t even the climb, just the monotonous all afternoon lead up to it. The turn left and sudden steepening of the road came as both extra pain and a blessed relief.
The one that shudders most in the memory is a bike lane in Italy taken as a safer option to the major route into a town that was strategic for snacks and picking up the next road. Things started out fine as the bike lane shadowed the road but as the town sneaked into view our route veered away to the right along the river and meandered alongside that for some time before taking all kinds of lefts, rights and picturesque weaving detours through parks to delay our entrance into town, extending the ride by what felt like hours and a totally unnecessary collection of kilometres. It had myself and my riding partner almost in tears of exasperation as we finally slumped outside a supermarket in the middle of town, trying not to look at how short that bit along the main road was compared to where we’d just been zigged and zagged as we ate our way back to the resolve to pedal again. It wasn’t dangerous, we didn’t find ourselves in a sticky situation that needed skilful extraction, there was no near-ride-ending-mechanical (although we did get a puncture) it was just a bit, you know, tediously shit. Not long after this we slept behind some bins in a retail park, that was also a significant level of crap, but at least it was dry.
On top of the aforementioned usual tiresome kerfuffle of having to ride through a town, there’s always the potential fear of having to travel through one of its less desirable parts. For each picturesque village and impressive town square you might freewheel through and stop for a coffee, there is the coin flip of the slightly dodgy urban district, the area where you try to tip-toe through as quickly quietly and invisibly as possible. Don’t make eye contact, try not to stop at the lights and definitely don’t leave your bike unattended if you need to pop into a shop. If you have to stay in a hotel you lock your bike inside your room. The parts of town you definitely don’t want to approach at the wrong time of day; a tired, heavily laden and slow-moving cyclist weaving through dark streets and gloomy underpasses is easy prey to any shady types that might be found lurking in the shadows. Whether creeping through a run-down city centre by accident or the threatening canyons of a high rise suburb there’s a lot to be said for relying on instinct, and the tingle in the hairs on the back of the neck is always a good indicator to keep going and hope you’ll pedal into somewhere more welcoming.
The most annoying thing about all these shit bits is that they’re not worth the effort of getting bothered about, there’s no point in getting angry or generating any emotion above just being generally a little bit irritated. They’re just weary and can drag the day and the miles out unnecessarily making a bad day that little bit worse and frown a good one. The only hope is that there might be a moment of salvation in the form of the flickering light of an open café and a handy sandwich with which to have a quiet sit down and a reset before cracking on with some much desired nicer riding, something worth talking about, something worth the effort, or just something a little less shit.