It’s been a long six months. As we emerge from our respective cocoons, Cass reflects on the way in which bikepacking can nurture friendships. Sometimes it’s less about the riding itself and more the space that bikepacking creates to spend time with our friends…
The clue is in the nuance. “Let’s ride our bikes – and hang out.”
“Let’s hang out – and ride our bikes.”
Over the years that I’ve bicycle toured, I’ve often looked for themes that lend my rides a sense of purpose. Sometimes it’s been a geological focus, like travelling through Ecuador’s Avenue of Volcanoes. Or maybe it’s been historical intrigue, like following the Ottoman Empire’s trail through Central Asia.
Often, seeing the world on two wheels was prompted as much by notions of self-discovery as a desire to learn more about it. I even gravitated towards lone journeys because they left me more open and exposed, free of the ‘distraction’ of companionship.
But as time has passed, I’ve found myself increasingly enjoying riding with others. Whilst I still savour solo endeavours as valuable opportunities for quietness and introspection, I’m drawn ever more to trips in which friendships are the underlying substance of the ride. Journeys where the experience of being amongst those who are apart of my life is the thread that ties them together. I’ve come to realise that these outings don’t even need to be set to magnificent backdrops, nor do they need to be especially gruelling in nature. Because the essence of these rides is others.
Last year I enjoyed a number of short trips during which I became particularly aware of this. I spent three days riding with my mum and my son; three generations exploring a petite parcel of South West England, connecting in ways I hadn’t felt before. I met up with friends in Belgium and easily enjoyed our times around camp as much as the actual riding. I made a point of bikepacking with those I hadn’t seen for some time, preferably in nearby lands that I’d also neglected for too long. And when I returned to the US, I was perfectly content to stay put in New Mexico over the winter, if it meant spending time with my local community. Every time we bikepacked together, it was as if I was appreciating my friends in different ways, drawing inspiration from their varied selves as we learned about each other more and more.
Little did I know that – somewhat ironically – this newfound recognition would be short-lived. Just a few months later a pandemic swept across the world and we were all destined to seal ourselves off in our private cocoons and disappear from one another’s lives.
Six months on and I’ve noticed that many of my friends are finally able to bikepack safely once more. And although that’s not possible for me to do so quite yet, seeing them getting out again has reminded me what I’ve been missing. Because whilst cycling may have been the conduit to our introductions, I’d like to think that we now hold riding together and hanging out in equal regard.
This photo set from last winter reflects how deeply enriching even a single overnighter can be, if you take the time to really talk, to share food together, and to value the downtime with your friends as much as the hours in the saddle.
On this occasion, Yeshe and Bailey were on their single-speeds, Bailey in his beautiful jumper knitted by his partner and Yeshe looking sharp on his Monē El Continente. Our backcountry route was refreshingly simple in its aim: to lead us from Santa Fe, where we lived, to nearby Albuquerque, just an hour’s drive away. We’d take the road less travelled, however, crisscrossing the Interstate 25 on truck-gouged dirt roads to savour it all the more.
It didn’t matter that clouds had usurped the blue skies for which the state is known, because when the sun did gently push through, the light was all the more mellow and muted because of them, a soft and empty canvas across which to ride. The Cerillos Hills, pocked as they are with abandoned turquoise mines, felt especially ethereal. That night we bedded down amongst the junipers, warmed by the brittle, skeletal branches of a cholla wood fire, and chatted.
But it was the early hours of the morning, before we’d even considered clambering back aboard our bikes and riding, that made this short journey particularly special for me. Yeshe made egg, goat’s milk, and almond flour pancakes, fire-charred and soaked in butter and maple syrup. We sat together and chatted more, unhurried and carefree. And not only that but Jeremy, who wasn’t able to make the ride, had sent us off with a bag of peppery, homemade biscochitos – New Mexico’s state cookie – to add to our shared menu. What a pal!
When we finally extricated ourselves from our camp spot, we settled into a harmonised rhythm, pushing through the day to reach the outskirts of Albuquerque by dusk, exploring rural roads that were new to the three of us. In doing so, we‘d successfully connected both cities in a way that seemed far removed from the vehicular blur of Interstate 25 and its weatherworn billboards, its shards of old tyres, and its beer cans that poke out of the verge like mankind’s take on wildflowers. It was a journey that could have so easily been made by car in a fraction of the time. Yet whilst it wasn’t the biggest ride by any means, I valued the words we shared as much as the miles we rode together.
I’m looking forward to other enriching experiences like this again, however simple or brief. If there’s one lesson that Covid-19 has taught me, it’s to value these friendships all the more. They’re healthy for my mental well being. They’re good for my soul. And luckily for us all, local bikepacking trips are amongst the best ways we can reconnect with each other again. The conversations I enjoy – ones that come most naturally to me around a campfire, after a day of riding – never fail to teach me something, in a way that I once thought only solo riding could really do.
It can be easy to forget that friendships are to be nurtured and valued, not taken for granted. The next time we bikepack together, I’ll be sure to celebrate this as much as the landscape itself. Because every trip is an opportunity not just to learn more about ourselves and the world around us, but to appreciate those we are fortunate enough to call our friends.
How To Win Friends and Influence People (bikepacking edition)
Step 1. Make your dry mix in the blender at home: think oats, chia, flax, walnuts, baking powder, almond flour, a little salt.
Step 2. Add in the wet mix: an egg, melted butter, goat’s yoghurt, and some oat milk
Step 3. Decant it into bikepacking-friendly, reusable containers.
Step 4. Nonchalantly propose a morning menu when meeting up with friends and bask in ensuing ‘woah-waves’.
Step 5. Creep out of your sleeping bag at dawn and rekindle fire from last night’s life debate.
Step 6. Dollop mix into titanium pot (you’re a bikepacker, right?) and magically produce spatula (but one who recognises there are other important things in life) to flip aforementioned pancakes, gently charring for texture and authenticity.
Step 7. Add a knob of butter (because who doesn’t indulge on an overnighter?) and drizzle a generous amount of the finest Maine maple syrup on top.
Step 8. Proffer on a cold winter’s day to your friends, making memories and instantly winning the King of Bikepacking Breakfasts award.