I may be gone some time

An interview with a Manchester man who did the longest bike ride possible.

On 19 July 2005 outside a house in Manchester, a silver-haired gent loads his best panniers onto his new bicycle, clips into his pedals and rides off down the street.

It will be a year and a half before he comes back.

“I had always wanted to visit the sites associated with my hero Mahatma Gandhi,” explains Ernie. “Like you, I ride my bike for transport. I always have.”

The ride to India had been in the planning stage for years but to ride half way round the world and then to return on a plane just seemed wrong. So Ernie carried on, heading east though Asia and across Canada to Nova Scotia, returning to England using the shortest possible Atlantic crossing.

So how does a man in his late 50s, with no fitness training and a touch of arthritis, manage to power his bicycle all the way around the planet? “Cycling was an integral part of my life. I had a 20 mile round trip to work. As most ex-joggers will know, the low impact nature of cycling is ideal for cardio vascular fitness without making arthritic joints worse.”

What did he pack? In two words, “too much!” He goes on, “I set off attempting to cover all eventualities from campsite to five star hotel, for snow through monsoon, for all societies and occasions.” Ernie also bought clothing en route, often in preparation for the next country he would enter. “I bought lightweight below-the-knee trousers for riding when I crossed the border into Turkey but, to be sympathetic to Islam, I had a couple of full-length cargo pants made up by a Kurdish tailor in eastern Turkey which served me well in the colder parts of Iran and Pakistan.” There were also legal requirements to accommodate, including buying a helmet when he got to Canada.

Other items were not worth carrying. “I set off with shoes, sandals and boots. I wore the sandals most of the time – except when it was frosty. I gave the boots away to a Tibetan in Dharamasala.”

SPD ‘clipless’ pedals enabled him to get more power out of each stroke and were a huge improvement on the flat pedals he had used as a commuter. “My SPD discovery was a ‘road to Damascus’ conversion. Before the ride, people had tried to persuade me to use them but I stubbornly refused. The bike shop proprietor finally said ‘Ernie, I’m going to put SPD pedals on your present bike and lend you these shoes – get out there and try them!’ I was convinced within the first mile.”

But 400 miles a week took its toll. After scouring New Delhi for new tyres, a chain and a cassette , he eventually placed an order with the British shop that had sold him the bike. “DHL worked wonders for £90 – Bradford to New Delhi in three days. Ironically I discovered that the ‘Continental’ tyres I’d ordered were manufactured just down the road in India – but for export only.”

Ernie’s daily calorie spend required him to eat huge amounts of food and this proved to be the biggest challenge. The effort of the ride became visible on his body as he became dangerously thin. “Stuffing enough in to keep energy levels was difficult. I remember looking at myself in the mirror in Calcutta and seeing a picture of the relief of Belsen. While, it’s perfectly possible to ride in poor condition, the varied diets of Thailand and Malaysia eventually helped me get back into some sort of conventional shape. As well as bananas. I fell in love with mango in India. I still eat lots of it now, mostly dried. Bananas, dried mango, strong dark chocolate, cherries or plums are all in my pannier on long trips these days. Lots of carbs with main meals too.”

Ernie’s poor condition and an infection that accompanied his journey through India didn’t stop him giving the local ‘boy racers’ a run for their money, sometimes without trying. “I’d be riding at my normal pace and overtake a local on his rattly old ‘Hero’ bone-shaker and, soon after, hear the same bicycle clanking up behind and gradually overtake me. I’d glance to my right to see a grim-faced young man sweating profusely and looking straight ahead, obviously determined not to be outdone by some foreigner on a heavily laden bike. A few yards in front he’d slow down again and I, keeping my unaltered pace, would overtake. And so it went on. Sometimes, if I was feeling devilish and had managed to get a good breakfast, I’d make a race of it. Riders who could speak English did sometimes engage me in conversation and I met many interesting people that way.”

“I retain a warm glow when I remember that most people in this great big world of ours are warm, kind and friendly once you get to know them.”

A spell of teaching work in India gave respite before the second half of the tour which featured the splendour of the Canadian Rockies.

Ernie was home just in time for Christmas 2006. During the seventeen months since he set off from Manchester, he rode 20,126 kilometres through 15 countries. If he could choose to return to just one of them, which would it be? “It’s a toss up between Iran and Canada; for the warmth and generosity of the people in both cases. Iran had beautifully smooth roads.”

It brought him the “best job I have ever had”. Ernie explains: “Over many years of cycling in traffic, I’d developed my own riding method. A month or so after I arrived home, I read John Franklin’s Cycle Craft. It perfectly articulated my own riding style and I immediately recognised it as a training scheme. It prompted me to find BikeRight! here in Manchester and to sign up for the cycling instructor’s course.

“I’ve held some high powered jobs in my career – I’ve been the director of a company – but teaching people to cycle on the road in this way is more fulfilling than any. I’m turning out tomorrow’s cyclists. It’s missionary work”.

So, is he planning another tour? Well, he’s just bought a new bike, a Reise and Muller Birdy, and he’s going to test it by riding from Manchester to London next week. Some would say this is a long ride. Everything’s relative.

The pencil marks on Ernie’s map trace a route through New Zealand and then Australia, through the islands of Pacific Asia before heading West through the former USSR. For that ride Ernie tells me he would swap his derailleur drive train for a harder-wearing Rohloff geared hub. Part of the attraction of the Birdy is that it’s Rohloff-equipped.

So here are the lessons Ernie has for us:

1. You will need to eat lots more than you expect.

2. Steel luggage racks last longer than aluminium ones (Ernie’s alu rack gave up on him mid-journey, prompting an emergency trip to a bike shop).

3. If you think you may not need it, don’t carry it.

4. If you see a slim, bearded 60-something on a Rohloff-equipped bike with Carradice panniers, do not attempt to race him. Instead, offer him dried mango.

>> Ernie Buck’s travelogue gives a detailed account of the 15 countries he rode through.

>> A full transcript of the interview with Ernie is available on the GMCC website.

Published in Autumn 2008 by Greater Manchester Cycling Campaign, in print and online.