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A Dutch adventurer chronicles two years traveling by bicycle

An image of Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia from Martijn Doolaard’s “Two Years on a Bike.” (Photos by Martijn Doolaard/"Two Years on a Bike"/Gestalten)
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When Martijn Doolaard pedaled his bicycle out of Vancouver, B.C., in 2017, he knew he had a long ride ahead of him. The Dutchman had dreamed up a cycling trip from Canada to faraway Tierra del Fuego, on the southernmost tip of South America. It was a plan of mathematical elegance: A single line uniting two vast continents, 14 countries and the longest terrestrial mountain range on Earth.

“There’s something about the seeming infinity of such a route,” said Doolaard, a 38-year-old graphic designer with the shaggy blond beard and sunken eyes of a wilderness saint. “The destination was extremely far, and it seemed like a big adventure.” It would take him two years and 12,296 miles of riding to reach the end of the road; Doolaard’s written and photographic account of the journey, “Two Years on a Bike: From Vancouver to Patagonia,” was published by Gestalten in January.

At night, he often slept in ad hoc campsites scouted using satellite images from Google Earth, cooking one-pot meals over a gasoline-burning camp stove. In his book, Doolaard sometimes appears as a tiny speck in sweeping drone images: He’s dwarfed by empty stretches of Nevada desert, or picking his way up a trail to an Ecuadoran mountain pass.

Juxtaposition of tiny bicycle with big landscape underscores the scale of the undertaking, while hinting, too, at its appeal. Every bit of additional weight matters on a bike, rewarding riders who winnow their needs to a state of functional minimalism. An illustrated packing list in the front of the book reveals that, for 816 days on the road, Doolaard ate off a titanium spork and scrubbed dishes with a dedicated toothbrush.

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“The simplicity of traveling the world by bike gave me focus. Everything had a purpose,” he wrote of an earlier bike trip across Europe and Asia. (He documented that ride in the book “One Year on a Bike: From Amsterdam to Singapore.”) In contrast with the mess and complication of life at home, riding his bike provided a quite literal sense of direction. “Once I set off, life was very clear to me.”

While cycling across two continents is an extreme feat by any measure, the journey linking North America and South America has become a touchstone in the world of bicycle touring. The now-classic southbound passage across the Western Hemisphere goes from Alaska to Argentina, first completed by Americans June and Greg Siple. Their groundbreaking 18,272-mile ride, a trip they called Hemistour, began 50 years ago.

“We were very intent on using the expedition as a way to promote bicycle touring in the United States, because it really wasn’t a thing at the time,” said June Siple, who was 25 when she set out from Anchorage with fellow Hemistour riders in 1972. In the early ’70s, it wasn’t clear that such a journey could be done at all. The distances were vast, and bicycle touring — particularly through such far-flung places — was an unfamiliar concept to many in the United States, even fellow cyclists. Siple said that disbelief was a common reaction to their plan, but that their group was confident: “I think we were all just ready for the task,” said Siple, who turns 75 in March and is hoping to clock 1,500 miles of riding this year. “I mean, it was a huge adventure!”

In the half-century since the Siples began their groundbreaking ride, bike touring has changed. In part, that’s due to the couple’s own advocacy as co-founders of the nonprofit organization now called Adventure Cycling Association, which has published more than 50,000 miles of bike routes in the United States. Even if you’re living in a place where few bike tourists pass through, you can find them all over the Internet. Doolaard and other social-media-savvy cyclists attract thousands of followers. Technology has contributed to the transformation of the sport.

June and Greg Siple corresponded with sponsors, family and friends by airmail, collecting general-delivery letters at post offices along the way. Doolaard, in contrast, had a gear list that included a DJI Mavic Air drone and mirrorless digital camera to document his adventure. He traveled with a phone and laptop, so he could pick up freelance graphic design work along the way to fund the ride.

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It’s one thing to spend two years eating with a spork. Leaving home without a smartphone, Doolaard explained, would have been next to impossible. “You can’t do without this technology anymore,” he said. A phone is essential not just for keeping in touch. While the Siples mostly found their way using paper maps from roadside gas stations, modern bike tourists mostly navigate using digital mapping technology.

“Mobile mapping applications such as Ride with GPS and Gaia GPS provided the tools needed to navigate routes on lesser-known tracks,” veteran bike traveler Logan Watts wrote in an email. Watts’s website, bikepacking.com, has become the online home base for cyclists who, like Doolaard, sometimes seek out dirt roads and trails unlikely to appear on commercially available printed maps. (Today, the word “bikepacking” refers to a style of bike travel adapted to rugged places, but it was coined by National Geographic staff writer Noel Grove for a 1973 article about Hemistour.)

Bikepacking.com features itineraries created by bike travelers around the world, and they’re shared freely, so others might retrace their paths. A cyclist heading for an out-of-the-way part of the Bolivian mountains, for example, can now download a GPX mapping file following every inch of cyclist Michael Dammer’s 286-mile traverse of Andean terrain via unpaved mining roads and alpaca paths.

Such resources allow riders to explore ever-more-remote areas, knowing that, however arduous the trail, it will eventually lead out of the wilderness. Doolaard incorporated some of these open-source tracks into his trip from Canada to Argentina, including the 1,673-mile Baja Divide through Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula, and the 858-mile Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route. “You’re assured that you’re going to make it when it gets tough, because these are not easy routes,” Doolaard said. “Because people have done it, you think, ‘I’m not going to fail on this one.’ ”

That assurance is welcome, in part because riding a bike often makes you feel exposed in every sense of the word. Harsh weather finds riders with nowhere to hide. Heat, cold, head winds, bugs, hunger, fatigue and loneliness can erode a traveler’s resolve. But that exposure can reap generous dividends, including a sense of cultural and geographic immersion, plus hospitality encountered at every turn.

“You have a certain vulnerability and immediacy, so people will open up to you,” said Greg Siple, recalling frequent offers of free campsites and strangers who handed over the keys to their homes. Doolaard noticed this, too. “The more vulnerable I make myself, the more I feel I’ve tapped into something more fundamental and rewarding,” he wrote of his time on a bicycle.

Those rewards helped carry Doolaard through the final weeks of his trip, which found him exhausted and homesick, riding the tempestuous Carretera Austral across Southern Chile at the wrong time of year. “The road is a daunting undertaking in the winter, guaranteed to test my mettle,” he wrote. He sometimes slept in cabins left open for travelers in need of shelter amid a famously harsh landscape.

On the worst day of rain, he arrived at dusk, alone and cold, at one small cyclists’ refuge in the tiny town of Villa Amengual. Pinned to the door was a note that the host, Ines, had typed in English. “Come in with confidence, like in your own home,” it read. Doolaard did. Soon, Ines would return home and begin chopping firewood to dry his sodden clothing for yet another day on the bike.

Smith is a writer based in Vermont. Her website is jenrosesmith.com. Find her on Twitter and Instagram: @jenrosesmithvt.


PLEASE NOTE

Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.

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