World traveling cyclo-tourist Cass Gilbert suffers from a mild case of quantum physics. While he’s not physically in two places at once, his mind often is when the topic of exploring every far-flung corner of the earth comes up. With his panoramic vision, keen situational awareness, and an easygoing demeanor, Cass pedals into experiences that the rest of us daydream about. He makes traveling the world by bike seem easy, because, as he’d be the first person to tell you, it is. You just need to go.
Cass took the time to answer five questions that help drive that sentiment home. Or away from it …
Salsa Cycles: What would you bet are some of the first things extended-trip cyclotourists will realize they can live without?
Cass Gilbert: Given that traveling light is incredibly liberating, rather than constraining (as it’s often perceived to be), I’d say almost everything, within reason! This is a lesson I learned while riding across South America. Once I began to appreciate the opportunities that traveling light afforded, and the newfound places it allowed me to explore, I often jettisoned belongings by sending them ahead by bus. Encomienda, as it’s called, is cheap and secure postal service that exists throughout the continent. It’s also a great way to pare down gear; it helped me hone what I did and didn’t need. More often than not, I completely forgot about the prized gear I’d parceled up. It’s amazing what you can learn to make do without. Necessity is the mother of invention, right?
SC: Part of the excitement of touring is mulling over and acquiring new gear, and sweating over the details of setting up your “ready for anything” adventure kit. How much does that matter once you start turning pedals? Is being a perfectionist possible?
CG: We’re so deluged with choice these days that it’s easy to be paralyzed by indecision. Before any trip, I’ll pack, unpack, repack. I’ll ponder, consider, debate … but the moment I start riding, all my apprehensions and indecisiveness melt away. Being on a bike is a great de-clutterer of the mind. Sure, it’s fun to labour over the minutiae, weigh gear and pontificate over packlists before the ride begins. Inevitably, it’s only once you’re on the road that I remember how almost anything can be made to work. That’s an uplifting feeling. Being a consummate gear nerd, the most sobering and refreshing sight is a fellow bike tourer reveling in his travels, despite having the most basic/threadbare/wrong gear imaginable. Sure, the right tool for the job is certainly worth figuring out, and can certainly add greatly to your experience. But letting go and just enjoying the ride is as important too.
SC: What is the same everywhere you go?
CG: Hospitality, especially in the mountains. Our perception of so many countries around the world is skewed by their misrepresentation through mass media. Sure, there are trouble spots, and places where you need to keep your wits about you. But, more often than not, people are people wherever you travel on this incredible planet, and almost all of us simply want to reach out and connect.
SC: What influences your routes more at this point–maps, intuition, or outside forces? Does this change over time or based on where you are?
CG: All of the above. I’m a sponge for ideas, and I love to change my plans at the drop of a hat. That’s one reason why I’m drawn to travelling: to escape the self-imposed framework we always seem to trap ourselves in back home.
More recently, I’ve taken to dedicating hours pouring over Google Earth. It’s an incredible program, one that opens up a whole new realm of bicycle exploration potential. These days, I’ll often create a fictitious GPX on my laptop, download it to my smart phone, and go from there.
This said, human input is invaluable, too. I’ll also ask anyone I meet for advice–pickup truck drivers in Guatemala, for instance, are undisputed experts on roads conditions - and I often seek out bike shops for local knowledge. On more than one occasion, employees I’ve met have joined me on my journey, and remain good friends today. As I’ve grown older, I’ve also enjoyed reading historical accounts of an area, and working their themes into a ride for an extra sense of context.
Recently, the new breed of fat and mid-fat bikes have probably influenced my route finding most. It would be no understatement to say that riding these bikes has allowed me to look at maps with new eyes. The serendipitous timing of this new breed of bikes, along with the lightweight softbags that are now on the market, and the availability of smartphones and satellite imagery, have combined to usher in a golden age of touring. I wouldn’t like to think that I rely on technology to have a good time in the wilds … but there’s no doubt this touring triptych is a game changer for two-wheel travel.
SC: Being in motion for months at a time, with everyday presenting some thing, someone or someplace new, what techniques have you developed besides the use of film to remember all the little magnificent details? How do you take a little bit and leave a little bit as you travel the globe?
CG: Bike touring certainly crams in the memories. One method I use to ensure I appreciate this unending stream of moments, is to lie in bed at night and attempt to recreate a particular day, sometimes weeks or months after the ride. It’s a great way to exercise the gray matter, and help resurface memories that are sometimes lost under a pile of new experiences. Keeping a blog is always rewarding to look back on too.
As for give and take, bicycle touring has always appealed to me in the way it encourages interaction with people around. A bike always creates interest–fatbikes take this to a new level–and helps strike up conversations. For the most part, travels to developing parts of the world are a one-way street… something of which I’m always extremely aware. By choosing a bicycle as my form of exploration, I feel I’m offering something in return; even if it’s just a fleeting connection. If someone asks for a spin on my fat bike, I can rarely resist–seeing the smile on their face is too good to miss.
Keep up with Cass and read about past travels:
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I had to live on both coasts a couple of times to realize that maybe being born in the Midwest wasn’t just arbitrary. I’m drawn to the terrain here, and if you catch me with one of this region’s supreme IPAs in hand, I’ll talk your ear off about my favorite spots. I’ll always take every opportunity though to explore every nook and cranny anywhere I can on a bike, because that’s what makes me feel most alive.