Publication Details
Going Solo Adventures
Digital Publication/Website
10. December 2018
Going Solo Q&A with Rae Hadley
GSA - Who is Rae Hadley?

Rae - Yikes! Who am I?! A tricky question at the best of times! Living on the road makes me an adaptable chameleon ( a highly desirable if sometimes confusing skill) and so until recently I have a ‘resting’ solo cyclist … now I feel like I almost fit back into the newbie category as I adapt back to touring life. Almost, but I know my skills are rapidly waking up! 

I have been a lover of nomadic living for as long as I can remember. My preference for sleeping under the stars or under canvas and extending my sense of what constitutes as ‘home’ has been a long developed skill. 

Devon born, countryside grown, I spent holidays ‘rough’ camping with my parents and younger brothers. I lived on a narrowboat in the Bristol and Bath areas for the 10 years prior to this cycle trip and then did a rapid reassessment of my life trajectory as it led up to my 4th decade.

This mental calculation of years and desires propelled me into leaving the ‘safety’ and ‘normality’ of years of UK work life as a care, support, and social worker for a life on the road. 3 1/2 years on and I still have my eyes to the east!

I am an incorrigible romantic who will always see the best in a situation, a dreadful emailer, Necessitarian with regard to my diet and a friend to the local cat and dog population wherever I spend any length of time - they can spot a kindred spirit and purveyor of assorted treats, although too often I carry the sugary kind, unhealthy for all of us.

GSA - What’s your current go to touring bike and pannier set up?

Rae - My trusty steed is a classic black, all steel framed Nomad from the early 2000s. Thorn, who produce them, are a fantastic company who have spent decades honing their craft of building bikes and setting people up with full rigs. Thankfully for me I spotted Tilly as a 2nd/3rd hand gem on road.cc and as she was only across the water from Bath, in Wales, was able to go and road test her and bring her back the same day. The Fates smiled on me that day because she has been the most incredible companion on this journey. 

Tilly is set up with old calliper brakes, bar end shifters and currently rocks the classic set up of 2 yellow Ortlieb Backroller Classics on a Tubus rack and 2 black Ortlieb Frontroller Classics on a bodge job, unnamed front rack which has amazingly done duty since May 2015 in Germany. It replaced a severely rubbish, Halfords front rack, which snapped after an altercation with an unexpectedly deep patch of sand on a downhill.

I am also currently bungeeing a 50l backpack onto the rear rack which has been extremely useful and has given me the option for days of hiking and camping when the opportunity has arisen, Pakistan being the most notable, with an Austrian hitchhiker. It was strange being sans cycle but was a fantastic opportunity to hike the mountains surrounding the Karakoram Highway with a male companion who, by his gender, gave me a different experience of life there. The differing opportunities always give new insights into people, the locale and my place there.

GSA - Current location, number of miles roughly covered and do you keep track of punchers? 

Rae - My current location is the marvellously hectic and tout ridden Kathmandu, Nepal. If you are in need of tiger balm, miniature chess, rickshaw rides or hash there are any number of purveyors of these and many more items to help you lighten your wallet.

Distance! Umm … sorry! My milage really is a rough guess because I've lost and/or broken 3 distance daemons since the UK - 27 countries (some more than once), a large loop of Central Asia …15,000miles? 20,000miles?! … I’m really not into stats unless they are things like number of samosas per day/week/month or number of times offered hash/tiger balm/chess set/rickshaw walking through Kathmandu in a single evening!

And as for punctures … following the initial horrific mistake of setting Tillly up with Continental Town Rides prior to our departure and having days too numerous to contemplate, with multiple punctures .. well, I lost count out psychological need for sanity following the concept of ‘blissful ignorance’ … but it could easily be over 50! I think I've only had 3 since a switch to Schwalbe Marathons and the arrival of the first one in Kyrgyzstan was a moment of celebration at how well the tyres had done rather than stress at the instance! However it wasn't freezing cold, dark or raining … which would have radically changed my reaction!

GSA - What have been some of your life’s biggest lessons learnt from time in the saddle?

Rae - Cycle touring has delivered some absolute corkers in the life lessons stakes! 

Numero Uno is that “Everything changes!” Sounds simple but the constant repetition of up hill grind, actual rather than just metaphorical, followed by flat plateau or joyful down hill has put into deep muscle memory the knowledge that change is constant, never just uphill and that if I keep on pedalling I will reach the top because the incline is not infinite.

Next is that we are more the same than we are different and that there are usually ways that those differences can be celebrated and discoursed rather than used to create tension and animosity. Respectful curiosity and excitement to meet each other is what I try and maintain, not always easy and I certainly don't succeed all the time, especially when having a mobile phone shoved in my face for the 100th time!

That I endure beyond what I think is possible well into whatever is necessary to get the job done! Having cycled across snow, ice, rock, desert, and navigated and negotiated my way alone I know this is the case … mainly there really is no choice. I am in an isolated location and its my job to get myself out again! 

This is currently a bit of a bone of contention because I have been off the bike recuperating and gaining weight after being sick and I have realised that I have become very used to the comforts of a safe space to sleep, food available everywhere, people around me and a distinct lack of physical challenge … I am currently nervous about my ability to endure … and writing this I realise that it is rather that this aspect of myself is a bit flabby from lack of recent use but like my physical self will develop its former elasticity in no time … it will have to!

GSA - Sickness and injury are sometimes hard to avoid when you place yourself in foreign environments or when you push yourself to hard, and I know recently it’s set you back lately. Does this have a big effect on your mental health and make you question the reasons to carry on? And if so what motivates you to get back in the saddle and carry on?

Rae - An apt question for my current situation! I have recently experienced the biggest physical challenge of my life (yes, I have been very lucky) a bout of Giardia (a parasite infection) which destroyed my gut and from which, 9 months on, I am still regaining my internal stability and digestive structures. Doesn't sound like much but months of nausea and a loss of 10kg of muscle has had a profound effect on my body and mind. 

Its been incredibly tough at times. I have missed being able to cycle and more importantly I have missed the feeling of control over my body and felt the crushing insecurity from broken pride and ego in the certainty of physical abilities which I used to have. These have all had a profound effect on my mental health, my sense of security in my own skin and as you say have led me to question my capacity to continue. 

For me it is rather a question about whether I am able rather than do I want to continue. However I am in the position of being very nervous about how the next few weeks and months will play out as I resume the tour with a new set of rules - different diet, different body, different approach! 

I have to manage my energy differently and not burn through my reserves in the way that I used to and I have to be more conscious of how I fuel my day and am no longer running on a wheat and sugar based, high energy diet. In effect I am having to mentally slow down and take more conscious care of myself rather than blithely assume that my body can take whatever is thrown at it. 

Through the rose coloured lenses the outcome of a nasty situation looks like a beautifully wrapped gift which I am opening just in time for Winter Solstice/Christmas!

GSA - From a personal view what have been some of your pros and cons of being a solo bicycle tourer?
Rae - The pros - The capacity to engage with people who might feel more anxious about approaching of being approached by a couple or group is the most compelling. I think this especially applies to female tourers. I think bike travel gives us the impression of being crazy-harmless and interesting! A winning combination when faced with opportunities to send time with other women and especially children!

This is a pro and con! - I confess I have become even more selfish and ego centric than I was before and as a result of never having to consult or compromise with another (Tilly doesn't count) I am conscious of how often I make snap decisions with the expectation of following through or making another soon after and not having to check them with another.

The capacity to constantly look out towards the world and not inwards to feed, manage and support a relationship gives me much more time and energy for engagement with people and place. I’m not suggesting that couple or group travel isn't outward looking but there is the necessity to focus on those immediate relationships in order that they don't wither and die. Tilly is more gracious and accommodating in this!

The cons - Its incredibly draining being brains, brawn, navigator, linguist, culture ambassador and life and soul of the party to everyone all the time. I try to respond to people as if they are the first people to have asked me the questions which they inevitably do (country? age? occupation/job? children? married? why not?!) and find this very draining so on many occasions I have avoided habitation because I don't want to be invited in for tea! Treating the last person with the same enthusiasm as the first, at the end of the day, can be difficulty and tiring and I get annoyed and overwhelmed more often than I wish. Its then that having a companion who could take some of the emotional load would be great!

In fact, on the occasions that I have had a companion for a brief time (between 1 day and 4 weeks!) that is exactly what has happened. I was lucky enough to have a visit from my brother, Ben, whilst cycling in India. This was an amazing time which presented its own challenges and joys. Travelling predominantly solo does give me the opportunity to really appreciate every aspect of traveling with another when the chance arises and I am eternally grateful to my bro for coming out to visit me!

The reason Tilly has become such a big personality on this tour is purely from a need to externalise aspects of my personality, which having another person to engage with will do and which comes from the necessity to manage everything alone. There is so much to do on a cycle tour and doing it solo can be exhausting and at times lead to the sensation of emotional ‘burn out’ but recognising this early enough and taking some time to rest and reset sorts me out!

GSA - Fondest location you cycled through?

Rae - Central Asia - its a vast geographical area to which, as ever, political boundaries do not do justice. The various people I met from different ethnic groups often appeared to have more in common across political lines than different and I had the best time either camping out on the various Steppes, trudging up a difficult, storm ridden Pass only to be picked up by a local herder and taken to his families Yurt for the night and enjoying the beauty of mountains, deserts, rivers, lush green fields and the occasional ancient ruin to wander around.

Sampling the local food: hot, delicious bread fresh from the stove, the local honey (floral from a million sweet flowers), the local variation of plov with its limited but deliciously sweet carrots and onions. Nights of star filled wonder - far from sources of light pollution - and with cold breath swirling on crystallising air. People as curious about me as I am about them and with hearts full of the desire to engage with my journey in which ever way they can - talking to me, offering food and a place for me to camp … sharing our commonalities rather than focusing on devisive differences. The openheartedness of the people was amazing to me and leads me to constantly consider a return to the Stans.

GSA - What's been one of the most challenging circumstances you’ve found yourself in?

Rae - Ah … difficult to consider what constitutes ‘the most challenging’! In some respects, for me, the most challenging aspect of travelling is the integration of understanding and knowledge from working through a situation and then the conscious act of putting it behind me so that it doesn't constantly taint similar but distinct situations. This can occur with specific types of terrain following an accident, confidence when doing a particular activity (I had an issue with how to confidently use my stove after tipping boiling water on my feet early on in the trip) and also how to interact with different groups of people.

Unfortunately, there have been several instances like this … instance of having to talk fast and maintain a vice like grip on the power difference between myself and a man who has decided that he would like to try and take advantage of my solo status after spotting me camping. Such situations are thankfully very definitely the minority of my experiences with men however they unfortunately stick in my mind simply because of their difficult nature. These situations have thankfully always been resolved without horrifically negative consequences and I have then been in the position to find a way to lay these experiences to rest in my psyche. I work on carrying these memories lightly so that the experiences have as little negative impact on the next chance encounters as possible. Its also about my honesty with myself and what my needs are in how I relate with memory and hindsight as well as in a forward thinking way.


GSA - Touring either by kayak or bicycle has placed me in some situations that’s left me really questioning life, I’ve had ghostly encounters, strange flashing lights and nightmares that had me fearing to open my eyes. Have you had many strange encounters since you first started touring in 2015? 

Rae - The strangest experience I have had was a night of half wakefulness/ half sleep near the top of the … Pass. Breathing was more difficult despite having been on the Tibetan Plateau for the 2 weeks previously and having acclimatised well and my dreams were viewed through a red filter, reminding me of a film adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Mask of the Red Death” which evidently had a more profound effect on early teenage me than I had realised. Medieval men in tall, cardinal hats processing around and me watching from a levitated vantage point were a strange and disconcerting dream state to reflect on later. 


GSA - For 48 hours you’ve got the pleasure of cycling a tandem bicycle and you can go anywhere in the world. Where would you go and why? Also who would you have on the tandem with you?

Rae - This would have to be a high speed, time-travelling style wish because I would love to take the daughter of one of my oldest friends on a 48hour tour of Central Asia and the Karakoram Highway. I would love to be able to show her the beauty of the high rocky areas in Tadjikistan, the dusty desert steppes of Kazakhstan and the fertile green and orange and gold of the river valleys of the Hunza Valley. I will have to give her a few more years to grow, time to work on her parents and it might be possible. 

Showing her the beauty of the natural world, the joy of slow travel, the kindness of strangers and how much is achievable in our own way and under our own steam … I think she would love the excitement and experience of what she would see and could then be a strong advocate for these things and take her images, impressions and experiences back to share with her young friends and her younger sister … who I haven't even met yet!
GSA - Bicycle touring limits what kit you can carry to just a few small bags, what are 3 things that you can’t travel without?

Rae- Haha!! Im not sure my bags qualify as small and I recently came to the realisation that the less stuff I have the greater the level of attachment I place in each item … not sure this is healthy but then again its just an observation!

1- My Primus Omnifuel stove - a true beast which will muscle through the worst of conditions from truly sub-zero to burning desert heat, wind rain, high altitude and the beach - it will also produce heat with the worst fuel you can feed it - not always happily but it will run and having been in tricky conditions of cold and wet, depending on a hot meal, it has never let me down. I do always have 2 different types of fuel though so if altitude or cold is messing with the gas I can be certain that the local petrol will (probably) be fine!! Rats!! Now I need the pans … Ok maybe I just want my penknife … aaaaaarg it stressful even considering leaving things behind!

2- My Camera - the capacity to learn to ‘see’ in new, different and more engaged ways are part of my process of taking ‘photos and have given back in multiple ways. I can appreciate a scene or a detail with greater complexity than before and than adjunct this to any and all of my emotional or intellectual understanding of the context giving more vivid and whole an understanding of what is in front of me. I also really love that capacity for creative endeavour that photography gives me, a need that I have even greater drive for as it somehow replaces the need for company!

3- My Exped Down Mat - An absolute legend in the cold but more tricky in the summer because it insulates so well that I end up with sweat pouring off me from the mat side up - however I choose to manage it this way round because I see hyperthermia as a more difficult issue to remedy than heat stroke. Although when i think of it like this I think i just gave myself an excuse for a new compression mat! This because I can more easily manage without a tent if I have a bomber mat. My mantra is ‘insulate twice under for once over’!

The truth is that having managed theft and loss of of kit I always make do with whatever I have with me and the resources around me. I know its not the kit that makes the travelling possible, although bike travel without a bike might be considered a bit of a misnomer! 

Recently I have realised that I have an unfortunately greater level of attachment to the kit which I have consciously decided to have with me and so any loss feels like the ‘team’ is a ‘man down’! Its a way, my way, of managing the psychological aspects of travelling solo! I talk to the kit, have named the bike (Tilly) and the tent (Stan - its the Czech for tent!) and feel bereft when important things go missing. The recent loss of a gifted tobacco tin containing my beloved Opinel penknife, a tin opener and small piece of candle (minor thought it might sound) was particularly stressful!

GSA - Why should people take up bicycle touring?

Rae - Because its THE most amazing way to see whichever aspects of the world appeal to you! It could be a few days and nights in your local area, a few weeks in your country, a few months on your continent or a few years pottering around … well just about everywhere! The capacity to travel at a speed that allows and enables any one of us to fully experience the place we are at any given moment is truly magical. Einstein (and others) talked about the importance of bicycle trade as a way to engage enough of the mind with the exertions of the body to let the remaining portion roam free creatively, emotionally, sensorily in fact to just expand the way in which we can access the stimulus of the world around us and let it create impacts and impressions that we might not otherwise be able to hold manifest.

To my mind cycle touring really is the most holistic of all the methods of touring. It’s accessible to the most people and therefore has the most global potential in supporting each of us in meeting ‘the other’ in a non-confrontational, respectfully curious way.

GSA - Who within the outdoor and adventure community do you recommend we follow during 2019?

Rae - I confess I am not the most up to date or the most voracious a consumer of social media but I follow numerous cyclists and outdoorsy people, most of whom have been doing this for a long time! The majority of them are women simply because a lot of their experiences are applicable to my situations and give me a wider context within which I can view my own and if people aren't already then I would recommend following them on Instagram, which I find to be the most accessible platform, especially when coming back into WiFi land after a stint in the glorious Dark.

Eleanor Mosman (@eleanor.moseman) An amazing woman who has travelled great distances solo and who is very clear about the need for balance intros regard. Her determined drive to document and raise the awareness of people, especially women, across Central Asia and Northern China inspires me to consider how I might be able to harness my experiences and my slant on the world for the greater good . Why else do we travel but to have the experiences that make a difference to ourselves and to others?

Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent (@antsbk) Ants has travelled extensively in Central Asia recently whilst filming Joanna Lumley’s The Silk Road (no, I haven’t watched it yet!) and I loved following her IG journey thought that time and spotting places I recognised or am putting down on my ever expanding list of places to visit/revisit! I also have a copy of her book “Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains” on my reading list but as I'm heading in towards Arunchal Pradesh anyway I don't want to spoil my upcoming surprises!

Esther Mack (@esther_mack) I really love her photography and prose. The IG platform gives me a chance to get little snippets of her work and her ability to transport me to the places she sees, to converse with the people she meets and to eat the local food and that which she makes whilst travelling are a joy, an envy and a motivation to me as a (not so) closet wannabe writer and photographer!

Fiona Quinn (@fionalquinn) Recently complete the SUP equivalent of the Land’s Ends - John O’Grotes ‘Le Jog’. I love reading her work because she comes across as very grounded and straight talking

Alex (@dartmoorbikepacking) for his beautiful photography, inspirational quotes and supportive, reciprocal online engagement - he is a great person who has had no qualms about giving out the necessary virtual high 5 or tea and sympathy I have needed when times have been tough … its counterintuitive to my concept of what makes a good relationship but online can be so positive and productive! This reminds me we haven't connected recently so I must get onto that!
GSA - What can we see you taking on during 2019 and what's the best way to follow your journeys?

Rae - I think 2019 is going to be a big year for Tilly and I! We have a long way to go, we are hoping to reach Japan and then have a number of longer term plans that have yet to be fully formulated so all I can say is if you want to follow our journey then sign up on the blog (www.wideeyedviews.com) and on Instagram (@wide_eyed_views)!

GSA - And finally, what words of wisdom can you pass forwards to those reading this interview who are keen to take on their own bicycle adventure?

Rae - For this I have to look to the legendary Tom Allen (https://tomsbiketrip.com/we-were-not-born-talented-brave-fearless/) and rehash an idea that resonated for me before I set off.

I read a lot of his blogs before leaving not because I was buying lots of kit or especially concerned about the ‘how to’ of touring but more because I love his enthusiastic style of writing and how accessible adventuring all felt when I read his work …

Anyhow the words come from me and the initial inspiration and wisdom comes from him! I hope it inspires people!

Don’t worry about the road ahead,
It will be there when you are … 
And you will endure.

Set your sights on leaving.

Leave before you know how,
Leave before you are ready,
Leave now!
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