Planet pedal: How to ride around the world on a bicycle

Peter Walker, for CNNPublished 1st May 2015
(CNN) — Cycling around the world?
Really?
That's nearly 20,000 miles under your own steam.
Not put off?
If that's the case let's try and provide the best advice we can.

How far is it exactly and what's the best route?

For those who want to be officially certified as a round-the-world cyclist there are a few basic rules.
Who to ask?
How about Mark Beaumont, the Scottish cyclist and adventurer who in 2008 set a then-world record for the route in just under 195 days, an average of more than 90 miles cycled every day.
Beaumont spoke to CNN before setting off on his latest epic challenge -- cycle the length of Africa, from Cairo to Cape Town, a journey that can be followed on his website markbeaumontonline.
Beaumont explains: "An around-the-world cycle can be by any route, but a circumnavigation has certain criteria.
"To qualify as a circumnavigation you need to pedal over 18,000 miles, start and finish in the same place, always travel in the same direction and pass through antipodal points with an allowance of +2 or -2 degrees.
"Antipodal points, these are points on the opposite side of the world, are pretty hard to find, but I went through Madrid and Wellington."
Most such trips, he adds, tend to go west to east, as continents generally have a prevailing westerly wind. Nobody wants to cycle 18,000 miles into a headwind.
As for route, that's down to combination of factors -- how far the cyclist wants to go, what they want to see and what's possible given ever-changing geopolitical situations on the ground.
As a reference, Beaumont's trip took him from the UK to France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Portugal and Spain.

Is it necessary to go the whole 18,000 miles?

The final mileage is really up to the rider.
Completists will want to do it all, but it can be just as satisfying to set a shorter (or longer) goal.
During the 1990s, at the end of a two-year stint living in Australia, I cycled about 7,000 miles between that country and London.
The distance was a product of both the fact it was a half-circumnavigation, but also the fact that we -- we being myself and my girlfriend of the time; the subsequent demise of the relationship wasn't entirely because of the cycling -- left out some sections.
Time, money and political considerations meant we flew from New Delhi to Istanbul, avoiding Pakistan and Iran.
It still felt like a long way.

How long will it take?

Aside from the obvious factor of distance, the length of the trip comes down to how much time and money are available, and what sort of trip is wanted.
Few people will seek to match Beaumont and his record-breaking ilk -- the current official best is a frankly silly 106 days and 10 hours.
Some people take three years or more doing it.
My trip took about eight months, encompassing plenty of long days in the saddle but also time to enjoy tropical beaches, Himalayan mountains and other wonders at our leisure.

What's the best bike to use?

The traditional answer to the "What kind of bike is best?" question has been something tough and simple, ideally with a steel frame of the sort a backwoods mechanic might weld back together if disaster struck.
In reality, modern alloy touring frames are pretty bombproof, and bike parts are so standardized most cities will have a fair selection.
Beyond that, it's up to the rider.
I rode on a slick-tired, rigid-forked mountain bike, made by a now defunct U.S. company called Klein, which at the time were famed for the quality of their aluminum frames.
I opted for such a sturdy machine in part because I knew certain parts of the route, notably Laos and Tibet, would involve unsealed roads.
Beaumont swears by Koga bikes, which he concedes aren't cheap -- a fully equipped expedition model can cost more than $3,750.
But, as he says, for anyone riding around the world a good bike is the one thing worth investing in.
The British cycling group CTC once asked three round-the-world riders, Beaumont included, what gear they recommended, and all opted for bikes with Rohloff hub gears, a pricy system that has the benefit of being fully sealed and, in theory, largely maintenance free.
All three riders recommended the same tires, which are also hugely popular with bike commuters -- the absurdly tough but fast-rolling Schwalbe Marathon Plus.

What else is needed?

Again, the short answer is: it depends.
On my trip we spent the entire Asian leg staying in cheap hotels or guesthouses and didn't carry a tent till Europe.
For most of the trip I packed everything into two modest panniers on the rear of the bike, including a small selection of bike tools.
Fast movers like Beaumont tend to take lightweight tents -- his weighed less than a kilo (2.2. pounds).
He recommends the completely waterproof roll-top panniers made by Ortleib.
Beaumont has one other packing word of advice: pack light.
"The golden rule with kit is to take less than you think you need," he says. "You have to lug that all uphill, and no matter how frugal you are, you will find yourself after a week's touring at the post office with a box of stuff being posted home.
"It is amazing how little you need on the road."
As a man who spent the first two weeks of his trip cycling with a mandolin on top of his bike rack, I'd agree.

What's the highlight?

For high points, Beaumont names a section from his 13,000-mile ride from Alaska to the tip of Argentina -- through the pampas of Patagonia to the mountains of Tierra del Fuego.
I'd go for the month we spent riding across the absurdly beautiful and often eerily empty Tibetan plateau, from Lhasa to Kathmandu.
Beaumont sums up the joy of bike travel: "The unknown around the corner. And that at the speed of a bike you see so much, but experience it all, unlike any other mode of transport."