Nicholas and Richard Crane set the standard for bikepacking more than 30 years ago. Rapha recounts their expoloits with the first in a series from the Mondial archives.
So read a 1986 diary entry by Nicholas Crane as he and his cousin Richard embarked on a 5,000km cycle ride from the mouth of the Ganges to the ‘pole of inaccessibility’ – the spot on the earth’s surface that is farthest from open sea. As bad as things were on day two, far worse lay ahead for the pair as they traversed the Himalayas, the parched emptiness of the Tibetan plateau and the broiling dunes of the Gobi desert.
Nicholas Crane went on to become president of the Royal Geographical Society and became well-known as the brolly-packing presenter of the BBC television series Coast, but in the 1980s he was Britain’s leading adventure cyclist. Journey to the Centre of the Earth, the Cranes’ account of their epic endeavour, was published in 1987 and I first read it as a rapt teenager. At the time I was just beginning to explore London and the home counties by bike, and the Cranes’ antics blew my mind. Thirty years on, with both adventure and bicycles very much back in vogue, it is interesting on rereading the book to note how much of their remarkable journey prefigures modern-day bikepacking and ultra-racing.
Though their quest was decidedly whimsical – unlike the north and south poles, the ‘pole of inaccessibility’ has no real geographical significance – the timing was perfect. Communist China, for years a closed, totalitarian society, was modernising and beginning to open up to foreign travellers. The Cranes were possibly the first cyclists to ride the new Friendship Highway from Kathmandu in Nepal to Lhasa in Tibet, and almost certainly the first to ride across the Tibetan plateau and vast tracts of the Gobi desert.
Before leaving they identif ed their destination as somewhere north of Urumqi, an ancient staging post in western China. They set themselves the target of getting there from the Bay of Bengal coast in 50 days. An average of 100km a day might not sound much, but considering the 26,000 vertical metres of climbing, the extremes of climate from the humid tropics to snow-clad mountains and arid desert, the challenges of navigation in unfamiliar countries where neither spoke the language, and the hard reality that many of the ‘roads’ were not roads at all but rough, rutted and rocky tracks, it was an ambitious plan.