TIPS FOR CYCLING IN THE DEVELOPING WORLD
Words + Photos by: Evan Christenson
I’ve been asked time and time again how to even begin to approach riding in the developing world. It’s a frightening concept with often incredible rewards if you’re willing to step out past the initial wall of fear.
But that wall of fear can seem daunting at times, and it will restrict your riding to such a small part of the world. Past that wall, that intimidating, imposing and restricting blockade of fear lies adventure and wonder. On the other side is a world you may not understand. You may be unsure you’ll even like it. But you clicked on this article, so the thought must have crossed your mind.
So here are my tips for transitioning on the bike from a developed world to the non. Because so much lies on that other side and it can be so magical that it would be a shame to discredit it from the start.
Find a flow.
Riding in cities that choke with smog and bustle with motorcycles is incredible. It’s terrifying- but in the exciting way where you’re so on alert with adrenaline that everything feels alive. And once you can begin to trust the drivers and yourself a flow develops. On a bike in traffic there is more freedom. Gaps are easier to shoot and flowing in traffic becomes more of a game than a bike ride. Police officers rarely reprimand cyclists, and often in developing countries they are understaffed to the point where laws are more suggestions. Use this to your advantage. If you feel unsafe- ride away from the traffic. If there’s a break and you’re waiting at a light- go. Prioritize separating yourself from the waves of traffic, and being ready on the side of the road once the traffic returns. Pull off the road and wait if you’re uncomfortable. Getting there late is more important than not getting there at all.
It’s so easy to be overwhelmed by buses and motorcycles and cars and kids and pedestrians and the unending overlapping of them all. Developing cities are a hectic necessity sometimes. Big routes in developing countries can require you to go through them to pick up supplies or connect to different roads, so when you’re exhausted from weeks of riding already and need to get out as quickly and safely as possible, you need to return to your flow state. Find your breath and work with the traffic. Once your cool is lost and the chord begins to fray it’s all too easy to watch the commotion and panic. Don’t do this. Trust in yourself, but more importantly-
Trust the driversI’m more encouraging a healthy skepticism here. When a new system of traffic flow blindsides you for the first time it’s easy to dismiss it as impossible. Surely no one can do this, right? But comfort is found in the repetition of the system. The drivers are accustomed to the chaos of their cities and a bike isn’t a large element to have to adjust for. Ride predictably, and trust the drivers to be comfortable in their homeland. Understand that to most drivers that level of chaos is normal, and riding a motorcycle with a cow or 5 people on the back can be too.
LightsIt’s just general good practice, but whenever you’re riding into a city, have a tail light on. *Please*
EquipmentI don’t really think your equipment is what makes the difference between good, enjoyable and safe riding in a developing country, but make sure it’s working. Brakes need to grab quick, it should shift reliably, have a decent puncture (and garbage fire) proof tire and as always you should be comfortable on your bike. Good riding here starts with the mind. Don’t let your bike issues take up space on your valuable stress buffer.
MapsKnowing where to go in an unfamiliar country is always a challenge, but in bikepacking or just escaping for a ride on a family vacation, it’s always an integral part of the adventure. I recommend maps from Gaia if you’re off-road, but Google Maps is amazingly prevalent in places you wouldn’t expect. But this is important. DO NOT follow the Google Maps default bike route and navigation. It will take you through places that are impassable over and over again. I once ended up in Kenya by accident. Another time I somehow got to Luxembourg via a half constructed highway.
Food & WaterNow this is somewhat regional based, but markets are always plentiful in cities. Stock up for however long until you know there will be market again, and don’t forget to prioritize local foods (I always like regional cookies and fruits) to maximize immersion. Although, Coca-Cola and Snickers have swallowed the world whole by now. So if you need some calories and a taste of home, it’s never too far away.
The Art of the DealAlmost everything is negotiable in a cash dominated developing country. Carry the local currency, understand the rough conversion to your home currency to know what you’re paying, and have some fun bartering. There is an ethical part to keep in mind here though. If the bike you’re on is worth more than a nearby house...don’t be a dick.
HousingAirbnb is also surprisingly prevalent around the world. Warmshowers.com is a great European resource for hostels, and couchsurfing works well too in most parts of the world. But some nights, a nice comfortable hostel is what you need after 12 hours of pedaling. I’ve always booked mine through Airbnb. *Camping restrictions are regional. Check with your countries tourism agency*
EnjoyAt the end of the day, riding your bike is the best way to explore a new city or country. The pace it dictates affords conversations so genuine and unique they force you to love wherever it is the pedals stop turning. The novelty of traveling by bike is never lost. The questions are endless, and though it can get annoying, it’s always served me as such an easy gateway to a longer conversation, or a meal and bed. Humans are naturally kind and generous, and seeing another person tired on a bicycle elicits that natural good. This is where all the best nights of my life have begun. With a long bike ride and then a question. “Where’d you come from?” “ON A BIKE?!” “Oh come in and have some food.”