An Ode to the Hike-a-Bike
Like a good hike-a-bike, Jacob Martin’s latest piece is short and punchy. In it, he shares a little about his love-hate relationship with pushing and pulling his bike along the trail and reminds us why all the effort is often worthwhile. Find Jacob’s tribute to the hike-a-bike and a lovely gallery of 35mm film photos from steep tracks around Europe here…
Words and photos by Jacob Martin
I feel a weird mix of emotions when I start hiking my bike. The act of getting off and pushing my bike is fun, misery, relief, and pain all at the same time. I chose to be here, but a part of me is screaming that it doesn’t want to be here at the same time. I totally understand and really don’t.
Hike-a-bikes have, however, been a feature of all the best bikepacking trips I’ve ever done. I don’t think it was the part that made any of them enjoyable, but I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have been the same without it.
I guess there’s a lot of value in doing difficult things. The achievement is intensely rewarding, at the very least. But there is so much more to it; there is something so satisfying and pleasurable from pushing, lifting, hauling, or dragging my laden bike through deep mud or endless bog, over rivers or fallen trees, and up painfully steep paths in the mountains. Or maybe that’s just me?
Of course, it can be frustrating too, when you simply wish to pedal on, move quickly, when you’re tired and hungry and just want to ride your bike. I can think of many of these miles of knee-deep bog as we crossed Sweden or that time we spent hours lifting our bikes over hundreds of fallen trees in Germany.
That being said, I enjoy the relief of using different muscles than the same ones that have pushed me forward for hours, days, or even weeks. That chance to put weight on my feet and take it off my bum but still keep forward progress. I often find pushing my bike a weird mix of fun and not fun, type two fun, maybe. Type two and a half, even. But that’s still fun last time I looked.
The worst hike-a-bike I ever did came a couple of years ago during the final days of our months-long trip on the European Divide Trail. I don’t even think you could call it a hike-a-bike, maybe a scramble-a-bike or a climb-a-bike. Whatever it was, there certainly wasn’t a chance we could pedal up it. Frankly, getting up it at all was almost too much. We unloaded our bags at the bottom, as there was no way we could get them up fully loaded, and we slowly dragged our bikes and ourselves up this loose dirt slope. I felt that if I slipped at any point, I would find myself in a heap all the way back at the bottom.
This ordeal, including the second scramble back down and up again for our bags, which only carried us 100 metres closer to our destination, took us a whole hour. But weirdly, I’m so glad we did it, glad to have done something hard, glad to have the relief at the end, glad to have a story to tell, though of course I wouldn’t ever choose to do it again.
There is, however, one type of hike-a-bike that is never fun: the downhill hike-a-bike. It’s when the flow, the speed, and the wind in our sails are robbed from us by an unrideable trail. A kick in the teeth, the ticket we paid for in the pain of the uphill snatched straight out of our hands. Thankfully, I don’t have many tales to tell of this, not more than a few metres here and there. Quite possibly, my brain simply considered these memories unworthy of keeping; I certainly wouldn’t wish such an experience on my worst enemy.
Furthermore, we’ve all been there when our bikes are beyond a quick trailside repair, and we must dismount and push to the nearest road, bike shop, or back to where we came from. Our head falls low, spirits gone, no summit, no relief. It sometimes feels like a walk of shame, even. I should have carried more spares, looked after my bike better, or spent a little longer learning to repair this machine by myself. I remember pushing my bike with a destroyed freehub for miles along the side of a road while trying to hitch a lift to find a repair in the nearest town. That wasn’t so fun.
But through all of this, we grimace and laugh, and in some way, either now or when we recall the story in the future, we actually find it fun. That’s how adventure works, at least for me.
I remember plenty of other real type one fun hike-a-bikes. Some went on for hours and hours, like in the Lake District during the Lakeland 200 or that long push up Yr Wyddfa I’ve had the pleasure of doing more than once. On the latter, the highest mountain here in Wales, you have scores of tourists on their way down, cheering you on, asking all sorts of questions, and some just looking on from a distance in bewilderment.
“Why?” they ask, so confused. There’s a weird disconnect where in that to one person, the answer is so far away, and to the other, it is so unquestionably obvious. This act of pushing our bikes, of pain, of discomfort is just a small price to pay. A necessary evil, you could call it. I remember so many of the best views and best descents I’ve ever had coming right after these huge hike-a-bikes.
Of course, I can see the fun in a trip where you never once have to put your foot on the ground, where you can pedal and flow endlessly across different landscapes. Easy is so nice some days, but I think if every ride was like this, we’d get bored pretty quickly. At the end of the day, we’d have stayed at home if we wanted easy.
You might not agree with all of this, but I think many of you will see my last point. One of the reasons we all like to travel by bike is to experience the parts of the world that speak to us, and they’re often places that aren’t the easiest to get to. We want to see what the view is like from the top, jump in that lake down there, or get away from the crowds and spend the night with the stars.
For me, a hike-a-bike or two dotted here and there is like a little compromise between leaving the bike at home and simply going for a walk and just another trick we pull from up our sleeves to get places we may otherwise not be able to get by bike. The bike takes us quickly across the landscape, though not too quickly, letting us see the trees and smell the flowers. It carries our heavy gear and takes the brunt of the harsh land beneath us. However, now and again, we must put our feet on the ground to get us to a unique, fun, or beautiful place where our wonderful machines can’t quite take us on their own.
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