Bike touring and individual efforts to reduce CO2

Image Credit: Killian Conyngham, Laoise Tarrant

Killian Conyngham discusses individual environmental responsibility when travelling through the story of a bike touring trip across Germany.

I suppose I should start by mentioning that I like to travel a lot, and that I would like to think I care about the planet. I should also likely mention that I believe individual reductions in carbon footprint cannot be regarded as a viable solution to our climate crisis, when so much pollution is institutional. Nonetheless, I think that these individual efforts to reduce personal emissions are worthy, if not vital undertakings, especially for someone born into privilege as I was. I mention these things to lay bare my biases and provide a starting point for the story I’m going to tell. A story about a trip I took where I attempted not to fly and chose instead to mostly cycle to cut down on my own emissions. It’s been on my mind recently, as travel is mostly off the menu, and I sit at home planning far off future trips and reflecting on past ones. I will say that I don’t intend this story to form a call to action on climate change. That is something I hope people can find for themselves. Nor is my stance intended as an all-out critique of more traditional forms of travel. No, what I hope to achieve here is to offer an exploration of a more sustainable form of travel which I personally am very new to, yet utterly taken by, in the hopes that others might explore their own options too. So that, when travel is back on the menu, we might see the heavily polluting travel industry begin the slow process of getting on track to sustainability.

It is sometime after dusk. I lie in my tent, still awake, and feel a certain simple happiness. Things seem easier, and they all make a bit more sense. This sensation, nice as it is, is however underpinned by an underlying anxiousness. This happiness feels borrowed, stolen almost. It doesn't seem like I can just get away with it. ‘It’ being both the feeling, and the fact we are wild camping in a forest just outside of Munich, something which is not permitted in Germany. I wonder to myself whether it will feel like this the whole way up. It's only early days of the trip, and so I decide to hold off on making a judgement on the whole thing, but the sensation lingers. It feels like a part of me is waiting for the catch. It feels like a part of me wants a catch, so I can write this whole idea off, and go back to the much more comfortable existence I had only a week ago. But a catch doesn’t magically materialise. I am left to figure things out for myself.

The next morning, we set off on our bikes. That is what we are doing, by the way. We are cycling to Berlin. Well, more specifically, I am trying to cycle home, and I have met up with a friend named Kai who wants to cycle with me as far as Berlin. But cycling; that’s the point of it all, or at least it’s all for there to be a point about. We are on a cycle tour, an experience/lifestyle/mode of transport, that involves carrying everything you need on the back of your bike, and, well, cycling to wherever you want to go. It is a style of travel which, although comparatively less popular than many others, especially for long distances, has a significant niche audience.

While myself and Kai both mention the planet as a significant factor in our choice of transport, and try to keep our trip consistent with that, it isn’t what we find ourselves talking about as we make dinner by our tents in the evenings. Instead the conversation almost always turns to the conversations we have had with randomers along the way. These conversations with inquisitive locals, seasoned bike tourers and everyone in between always provide a huge boost of energy. I initially prescribe their frequency to the interest of those around us, but quickly come to see they are a product of a much more fundamental aspect of bike touring.

I will call this aspect awareness. Sometimes it is the friendly greetings that you get from people. Sometimes it is stopping for a second to look at a map and being offered real directions from a local. Sometimes it's answering questions as you lock up your bike. And sometimes it's seeing a cathedral spire far in the distance. It's knowing that it’s where you have to go, and sharing a sense of awe with many who have come before you, at how far it can be seen from. Suddenly feeling you understand a lot better why it was all important in many European cities that nothing was built taller than the cathedral, and smiling to yourself as it grows larger in the distance, eventually becoming one of the many buildings in a town you normally wouldn't give a second glance as you drove through. Whatever form the awareness takes, it's a luxury I soon come to adore, dragging me into the moment and the world around me, as I slowly pedal my way through the landscape.

Bringing it right back to the planet, this awareness not only changes the way things are while on the road, but also how they are when you arrive. Normally, arriving at a sight, particularly one of natural beauty, I step out of a car or a bus, and straight into the sight, with maybe a short walk to get there. Almost immediately I have arrived. The sight exists in a bubble, separated from the world around it. I think this approach builds up a sort of implicit use-based value system of nature. As we jump out of our car or bus and walk up to a vantage point, feeling a sense of wonder swell in us, it can be easy to imagine that this sense of wonder is what makes nature so very worth saving.

But this way of thinking is fundamentally limited. Imagining the primary value of nature to be in its use or appreciation ignores the fact that any given view is contained within a fragile ecosystem, sustained by many more mundane natural features all around it. More importantly, this approach creates a separation, where people view themselves as fundamentally one step removed from the sights they see.

Approaching places by a day’s cycle I experience this separation begin to slip away. As we get into our second week of cycling, everything becomes breath-taking. Small, unnoteworthy rivers and forests strike me with grand-canyon-esque awe, as my sense of self-importance slowly gives way to a daily appreciation of my limitations. This sense of appreciation also extends to historical and cultural sights, and the towns we pass through, as my newfound intense awareness gives me giddy excitement whenever I see something even slightly interesting. Every day on the bike sees me with a stupidly wide grin at some point, my camera filling up with photos of random fields.

Of course, talking about the awareness bike touring brings without mentioning what creates it is only a half story. To have your self-importance slip away requires a humbling experience. With bike touring this comes in the daily struggle of having to achieve every centimetre travelled with your own power. It’s tiring, it’s exhausting, and sometimes it makes you want to give up. Everything hurts at some point, and you quickly have to become an expert in your own body, as you ask yourself whether a specific ache is just the usual, or something more serious which needs looking at. Our trip was not luxurious. We showered by jumping in a river, were often covered with bugs and even used the occasional cathole.

In terms of actual price, cycle touring is interesting. Once you are on your bike, with your gear on the back cycling across the countryside, it doesn't get much cheaper than travelling by bike. As we hit our stride in the second week some days only cost us a few euros for food as we ask politely for water and use the world as our campsite. But that is not the whole story. Cycle touring involves significant upfront investment. Buying a bike, rack, suitable bags and all the other equipment can come to a hefty price. People do it on cheap second-hand bikes, with homemade pannier bags and not much else, but chances are, when starting off with bike touring, there's going to be significant costs involved. For me, in need of a new bike anyway, and planning to continue touring into the future, the investment proved worthwhile, but it can be a significant hurdle to overcome. Getting off the island of Ireland without using planes tends to be a money sink too. Ferries to the continent can cost around 100 euro with your bike, which while reasonable, is likely more than a Ryanair flight. These expenses could easily make this type of travel unaffordable for many, and so bike touring and other travel alternatives should be taken on by those who have the time and money to do so, rather than being prescribed to those who may not.

Ultimately, a cycling trip is a less carbon-intensive way to travel. But that’s not really the point. As we arrive in Berlin after two long weeks it’s clear to us that cycle touring cannot really be considered just an alternative. Travelling by bicycle brings with it a whole different style of travel. It is not a green replacement for the plane, the bus, the train or even the car. When it comes to travel, choosing to do so by bike is not so much a choice of type of transport as it is a choice of journey itself. In the end, I had to get a flight home from Berlin as bad news struck. Thinking back on the whole thing, in the context of my original goal for the trip, I could easily have considered this a failure. But if you only take from an experience answers to questions you asked yourself before it, you can miss out on a lot of what that experience has to offer. Bike touring gave me a new perspective, brought me closer to the natural world than I have felt since running through a forest with a stick as a kid, and imbued me with a whole new energy and optimism for sustainable alternatives.

Going back to when this trip was just an idea, when I was looking at bags for my bike, I remember coming across a review that perplexed me. It was a man who had taken some bags across the mountains of Patagonia. His review listed a few minor gripes he had with the bags, as well as some positives, before describing how, on multiple occasions, the supposedly waterproof bags had let in water and drenched every piece of clothing he owned. This review scared me slightly, and I ended up not buying that brand as a result. What stuck with me though wasn't anything about the bags, but the rating this review had given. 4 stars. To my mind that was a clear one-star experience, a trip ruiner. In retrospect, the disparity makes sense. Our perspectives were completely different. Of course, that seemed like a 1-star experience to me, when I had only done a few day trips by bike. Because what I hadn't been exposed to was cycle touring’s ability to put you in tune with your most pressing needs, and strip away some of the more stubborn demands of comfort you have built up.

I hadn’t experienced cycle touring. I hadn't experienced pitching a tent in the dark as my pinky was locked in place with trigger finger, or lying in a tent near the Czech border hearing dogs and helicopters into the night, or waking up in the morning to a knife stuck in a tree next to our campsite. I hadn’t experienced any of those things, and I hadn’t realised how non-awful they could be when my mindset was to just roll with the punches and appreciate the novelty of it all. I was still thinking in terms of how awful it would be if on a normal day I came home to a cupboard of wet clothes. I hadn't considered that what cycle touring might do was make me respond to such situations with good natured pragmatism, once I had gotten into the rhythm of it anyways. The rhythm of each pedal getting you closer to your goal. The rhythm of waking up every morning and packing your tent away before dawn to avoid being spotted. The rhythm of a more immediate, more deliberate way of travel.

And in that way, more than any other, I think cycle touring and similar activities have a part to play in addressing the issue of climate change. Because in the words of Naomi Klein: “to confront this crisis truthfully is to confront ourselves - to reckon, as our ancestors did, with our vulnerability to the elements that make up both the planet and our bodies. It is to accept (even embrace) being but one porous part of the world, rather than it's master or machinist.” Bike touring is a phenomenal experience, and it is also a terrifying one. I believe any experience that humbles you, that connects you to our world in a relationship that sees it as a precious caregiver, and not a machine to be conquered, is a worthwhile experience. A worthwhile experience which will hopefully inspire the real, boots on the ground, skin in the game type of activism that saving the planet needs.

I give cycle touring 4 out of 5 stars.