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Lessons From Space For Long Distance Cycling Trips

Today (April 12) is International Day of Human Space Flight. Those of you who read my blogs already know that I have a fascination with space flight. In the past six months I wrote two blogs that were inspired by astronauts – ‘What Do Cycling A Continent And Spending A Year In Space Have In Common‘  and ‘True Grit‘. Some of you my even recall that I plan to celebrate my 80th birthday cycling on the moon.

So here is another blog inspired by Commander’s Scott Kelly book ‘Endurance: a year in space, a lifetime of discovery’.  In the last chapter of the book, ‘Epilogue: Life on Earth’, Commander Kelly lists what he learned in space. Reading this made me think of the lessons I and others have learned on our long cycling expeditions. Here are some of the things the astronaut mentions:

“Even the smallest decisions I made …were directed toward larger questions of resource management”

Planning a three, four or five month long trip requires resource management, be it what you take with you, how to manage your energy or how to deal with an unexpected shortage of food or water. I recall a day on the original Tour d’Afrique cycling expedition when a local cyclist approached me in the morning asking for water. I had two water bottles and a long day of climbing on a hot day ahead of me. I looked at him in despair and gave him one of my water bottles. All I can say is that it was one long day and when I finally got some fresh water I spent a good hour on the ground, recuperating from my dizziness.

“I have learned that nothing feels as amazing as water”

I couldn’t agree more. ‘Is there anything more precious in the world than water’ begins a blog I wrote on the inaugural Trans-Oceania tour.

“I have learned that I can be really calm in bad situations”

Who doesn’t have a story of being in bad situation and being tested? Mine was when I stood in front of large group of young angry Ethiopians holding big stones in their hands, ready to throw them at me at any second. I was there to resolve a miscommunication that resulted from a cyclist crashing into a child near a small village. The injured cyclist was put into a van but the crowd felt the cyclist was getting away without paying compensation. A rumour started that the child had died from the injury (thankfully he did not – our medic checked him out and he had only suffered scratches ) and there I was, not speaking the language and with no one to help. All that was needed was for one hotheaded individual to throw a stone and I would have been given a biblical departure from this planet.

“Small steps lead to giant leaps”

Remember the first day of your initial cycling trip or the first pedal strokes on your longest ride? I remember standing in front of the Sphinx in Cairo one early January morning at the start of the inaugural Tour d’Afrique wondering exactly what the hell I have gotten myself into. I also remember the day after my arrival four months later in Cape Town, walking on the beach, thinking that nothing was inconceivable. Nothing!

“Focusing on things I can control and ignoring what I can’t”

Expeditions by their very definition are undertakings with many unpredictable aspects. That is why you have to focus on things you have control over and ignore the things you can’t do anything about. Worrying about bad weather, lack of water, or not being in shape accomplishes nothing. Making sure that you are prepared for these eventualities is something you can control.

“I have learned how important it is to sit and eat with other people”

Remember the simple pleasure of having dinner with a bunch of tired cyclists after you have all cycled a crazy distance in rough weather or bad road conditions or having climbed over 2500 meters.

“I have learned that an achievement that seems to have been an accomplishment by one person probably has hundreds of people’s minds and work behind it”

How true this is! There would never have been any of the many tours I have participated in over the years if there was not a myriad of people helping with route research, permits, training, bookings and a long list of other logistical considerations.

“I have learned that climbing into a rocket is both a confrontation of mortality and an adventure that makes me feel more alive than anything else I have experienced.”

Well I suppose any cyclist living in a culture ruled by automobiles know this feeling every time they saddle up.

“I have learned that grass smells great and wind feels amazing and rain is a miracle. I will try to remember how magical these things are for the rest for my life.”

Commander Kelly learned this by spending time away from the Earth. Cyclists learn this by most direct experience while pedalling through the world. As Commander Kelly says, these things needs to be reinforced over and over again.

“I have learned that our planet is the most beautiful thing I have seen and that we’re lucky to have it”

We, cyclists couldn’t agree more! Our leg muscles (as well as our eyes) all have ‘muscle memory’ that comes from firsthand knowledge of climbing hills, of crossing deserts, of swimming in lakes and rivers.

“I have learned a new empathy for other people, including people I do not know and people I disagree with”

This is a lesson that I for one seem to need to learn all the time. It is so easy to be preoccupied with one’s own problems. Being on the road, coming face to face with people’s struggles and challenges, reminds me over and over about my responsibilities to others on this planet.

Reading Commander Kelly has confirmed my feelings about the planet, about space exploration and about the need to act the  best as one can. Thanks.


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