Rapha Mondial: Lightspeed

As Rapha explores the theme of exploration, we are publishing an extraordinary account of adventure cycling in the 1980s from Mondial Four.

09 March 2018
Light Speed
“In less than two days we’ve had sun-stroke, cockroaches, constipation, monsoon deluges, thunder and lightning, swarms of insects, killer buses, riots and then been arrested by the police.”

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.

Still, the Cranes had form. The previous year they had ridden, dragged and carried mountain bikes to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, and done their best to ride back down again. Earlier, at the age of 19, Nicholas had ridden with a friend from England to Greece without a map, sleeping in fields along the route, while Richard, with his brother Adrian, had run the length of the Himalayan mountain chain in 100 days.

The Crane ethos was to travel as light as possible, an approach they dubbed “super-spartan cycle touring”. They took sleeping bags but no tent, and no changes of clothes. They rode without handlebar tape, sawed their toothbrushes in half, cut the labels out of their clothes, kept spare parts and tools to an absolute minimum and drilled out as much metal from their gear as they dared. They rode without a front mech and shifter, shift- ing between chainrings using a heel kick for down and finger pull for up.

Only 10 days before their departure Gerald O’Donovan of Raleigh’s Special Bicycle Development Unit, which made Tour de France-winning bikes for Joop Zoetemelk and Laurent Fignon, offered to fit the Cranes out with a pair of custom bikes: road-racing machines made from Reynolds 753 tubing, the latest and lightest around at the time. They were modelled on the bikes that Raleigh’s pro teams raced at the cobbled Classics but with a lengthened wheelbase, more relaxed angles, increased fork rake, clearance for larger, 35mm tyres and fittings for a rear pannier rack. As prototypes for today’s new genre of ‘adventure’ road bikes they are pretty spot on, save for the disc brakes. The total weight of the bikes, luggage and all their clothes was 18kg each (and a big chunk of that was recording gear: camera, tape machine, films, tapes and diaries).

A firm rule was to carry no food and a single water bottle each. They relied on what they could buy or beg on the roadside. So too for shelter overnight – they ended up in some less than salubrious sleeping quarters: wedged into a rocky crevice during a snowstorm, sharing a flophouse with a gang of Chinese road workers and bedding down in a barn full of yak dung. The locals were almost always kind and generous, though, perhaps because the Cranes were such irresistible curiosities.

The two are part of a long tradition of adventure cyclists. As Émile Zola wrote in his 1898 novel Paris, “the bicycle is subservient to no time schedule; it is free. It does not follow the beaten path, rather roves along a thousand freely chosen paths… it does justice to the endless variety of human desires and endeavours”.

The first adventure cyclists, who travelled with as little luggage as the Cranes or even less, made equally extraordinary journeys and the bicycle-mad public of the times lapped up the accounts of their escapades. In those early days bicycles were the fastest things on the roads. As the mantle of speed passed to the car, to travel by bicycle was no longer about going as fast as possible but exactly the reverse: a conscious decision to go slow, motivated by a desire for a more immersive, more intimate and more adventurous experience.

Gradually, adventure and exploration gave way to cycle touring, an altogether more sedate approach. Better bikes and better roads steadily increased carrying capacity and it became possible to take most of the comforts of home on to the open road. For some cycle tourists riding ‘fully loaded’, with bicycle barely visible beneath bulging bags, was a badge of honour. In choosing to go fast and light the Cranes took inspiration less from the world of cycle touring and more from the likes of Reinhold Messner, the Italian climber whose lightning-fast and technically dazzling ascents of the world’s toughest peaks ushered in a new, lightweight era of mountaineering.

Thirty years on, the Cranes’ fast-and-light version of adventure cycling has resurfaced in the guise of bikepacking, a minimalist response to the ever-expanding touring pannier. It feels part of a wider contemporary mood reacting to the excesses of the consumer society and leads people to seek out authentic, unmediated experiences, immersing themselves in the outdoors and preferring doing and making over watching and buying.

Before they set of the Cranes considered what they wanted from their adventure. It boiled it down to “problems we couldn’t predict yet which we could survive”. They believed a good adventure should be “difficult without being agonising, dangerous without being suicidal, exotic without being obscure and awkward without being impossible”. Whether you’re planning a hard-riding weekend away or a long-distance odyssey, it’s still a very good list.

Go Until Life Looks Less Familiar


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