Interview 017: Tristan Ridley | From Bike Tourer to Bikepacker + Tips for Cycling the Middle East and Africa

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After his first tour, Tristan swore he was done with bike touring, but then the itch happened. As with most people, it likely started when he found himself daydreaming of the freedom he had had the previous year when he did a 13 month tour from New Zealand back to the U.K. Then came the time when he was hanging out with his mates, telling them the story of flying to Papua New Guinea from New Zealand, not realizing how incredibly difficult it would be to bike tour on the largest island in the Indonesian archipelago, due to lack of roads, a nearly impassable mountain range running through the centre of the island, and the constant threat of robbery, murder or abduction. Somehow, Tristan was able to take numerous boats to get around the eastern cape, each one lasting somewhere between 12 and 36 hours. Once on the road, he had to deal with catching dengue fever and even got chased by a group of young men wielding machetes. Tristan likely finished off his story by telling his mates that the people there were incredibly friendly, but that it’s not somewhere he would recommend people to bike tour. Just a bit too dangerous. All these things helped him realize how spectacular New Zealand is as a bike touring destination, providing tourers with every type of landscape one could wish for, in a safe place where even at the worst of times, the chances of major problems are quite slim.

 At the time I don’t think I fully appreciated it…In hindsight, I think New Zealand is almost the perfect bike touring destination. 

One day, after much thought and some careful planning, Tristan decided to tell his mates that he was going to go on a tour again, but since he had already done 25000km over a 13 month period, this trip would have to be grander. He somehow settled on a plan to cycle 100,000km through 100 countries. Having told his friends this was what he was going to do, there was no turning back. 

Mapping a route taking him up through the Scandinavia and down through the Baltics and the rest of Europe all the way to Turkey, flying into Jordan and cycling into Israel, taking a boat to Egypt and then cycling all the way to Cape Town, South Africa, would take much more than your traditional touring bike, especially since Tristan loves getting off the beaten path. For this tour, Tristan built himself up a Surly ECR mid fat bike, sporting 3 inch tires. Using a more traditional bikepacking setup allows Tristan to really get out there, and by not having panniers, it’s easier to manouver when pushing, carrying, etc.

Everywhere has that 0.1% of the population who aren’t maybe the nicest people in the world and in most countries, that tiny minority is kept in check by police, army, or whatever kind of security there is. But in Papua New Guinea, in a lot of places unfortunately, there isn’t that control.

What Tristan couldn’t tell his friends about was how amazing Estonia was going to be, and how awesome it was for bikepacking, with trails and campsites dotted throughout the countries. His friends wouldn’t have believed him if he told them that when he went to the Kjeragbolten rock in Norway it was so windy that he was scared he would be blown right off it and that the Jordan Trail is 600km long and by cycling it he would be able to see Petra and cycle in the Wadi Rum desert. Sitting in a bar, telling your friends about a planned trip, people would find it hard to believe that you can cross a border into Israel, one of the most protected countries in the world and not even get a stamp in your passport. Nobody would believe that having a police escort in Egypt might be for your own good and that if you were to try to ditch them for several days, you might end up being robbed at gunpoint by a bunch of bandits. 

Travelling light just makes everything better as far as I’m concerned, you know. It lets you push a lot harder. It makes the riding more comfortable. It means if you ever need to lift your bike over a fence you can actually do that instead of having to unload the whole thing and do it.

As Tristan continued along into his trip, he often couldn’t believe that the disconnect between popular belief and actuality was so large that the Sudan, a country many would believe to be exceptionally dangerous, would turn out to be filled with some of the kindest, most hospitable people he had ever chanced upon. Having the opportunity to be there during a relatively peaceful revolution and seeing the look of hope and expectation upon peoples’ faces on a daily basis would make Sudan of his favourite countries throughout all of Africa. 

In preparation to this second tour, Tristan decided to search for a charity that he could fundraise for, ultimately decided to support Build Africa, a charity that focuses on education for Africans in rural Kenya and Uganda. Before arriving at these two central African countries, Tristan worried that they would be countries completely dependent upon charities, but to his surprise and contentment, they were countries with proud people, trying to do their best with what they have.

 Having a portable home just completely changes the way that you travel. It means you’re not always tethered to towns.

Throughout his time in Africa, Tristan found that he much preferred cycling through countries that had a smaller population density and that camping under the stars in the middle of the desert is one of the best things in the world. He’s now in Brazil about to start the America’s, building upon his repertoire of stories so that when he finally does get back to the U.K. and has a chance to sit in the pub with his mates, he can tell them about his adventures up in the remote parts of the Andes Mountains, and everything in between.

Cheers Tristan. Keep on pedalling.


Follow Tristan on his adventures at:

Show Notes

~ 30 sec       Intro to episode and Tristan Ridley
~ 4m 30s     Disastrous first bike trip
~ 7m 30s     From hitchhiker to bike tourer; Cycling in New Zealand
~ 12 min      Cycling in Papua New Guinea; taking boats; almost sinking; getting dengue fever
~ 16m 30s   What bike he used for his first tour and about his setup and why he changed to a bikepacking setup for his 2nd tour
~ 22m 30s    Talking about allemansrätten (every man’s right); favourite piece of equipment; why aero bars are under-rated
~ 32 min      Discussing his planned route for phase 2 of his tour – 100,000km and 100 countries
~ 34 min      Cycling in the Nordic countries; why Estonia is better than Thailand for first time bike tourers
~ 37m 30s    Cycling in Jordan (Petra and Wadi Rum); Going to Israel and not getting stamps
~ 42 min      Attempting to cycle in Sinai, Egypt; Problems with Egyptian police; avoiding the police escort and being robbed at gunpoint
~ 48m 30s    Discussing media bias and how it’s not the reality for Sudan
~ 53 min      Fundraising to build schools in Kenya and Uganda with Build Africa; Why some African countries are completely dependent on charities; The importance of schools in African villages and towns
~ 1h 6m       Population density and why he doesn’t like some countries as much as others
~ 1h 12m     Why Tristan loves Namibia; best countries in Africa for cycling; best country in terms of the people
~ 1h 16m     Tristan’s planned route through the Americas
~ 1h 19m     Discussing burnout and road fatigue
~ 1h 22m     Talking about his bike setup and where he carries his gear; seat post bag vs rack bag
~ 1h 27m     How much longer he will be riding with Craig and why they probably won’t continue together
~ 1h 29m     End of episode and what’s next

About the Author
Traveller. Cyclist. Expat. Over 15 years experience living abroad in six different countries. I've travelled to over 40+ countries and met countless travellers, cyclists, and other expats. As a passionate cyclist I've had opportunities to bike tour in some truly amazing places. While definitely not an expert at bike touring, I'm passionate about sharing bike touring stories and helping others learn hacks, tricks, and techniques to improve their touring experience. I look forward to you joining me on this journey of learning about and becoming a better bike tourist.

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