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On the Road: From Camarillo to the world at large

Darren Alff talks cycling, social anxiety, and the upside of pedaling the planet in low gear.

By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

Hill climb near Anysberg Nature Reserve, South Africa.

 

ost people have a satisfying if rather pedestrian existence. Occasional holidays spice up what is, for the most part, pretty standard fare: work, school, family, household chores. But for Darren Alff, adventure is his way of life.

In the summer of 2001, at the tender age of 17, the Camarillo native boarded a bus for Portland with nothing but his bike, 300 dollars, and a few essentials, and spent a month pedaling from Oregon to Mexico. Heís had a passion for bicycle touring ever since, and has probably spent more time on the road than off.

In the last 12-plus years, Alff has biked across 28 states and more than 50 different countries, carrying the food, gear, and other essentials he needs to live while traveling on two wheels. Between tours, heís written four books, started two websites (bicycletouringpro.com, gobicycletouring.com) and built his website design business, Silver Mountain Marketing, from his home in Park City, Utah.

When we caught up with him, he was fresh off a 14-month trip to South Africa (and a brief jaunt to the Grand Canyon).

What prompted you to take your first tour? I was 17 and had never left home before. Growing up in Camarillo, I had severe social anxiety. I was so afraid of people. And the idea of going on a bicycle tour by myself and having to interact with other people on a daily basis in order to survive was probably a bigger challenge to me than the cycling. Accomplishing that was really cool. Iíve shared that story on bicycletouringpro.com, and since then Iíve gotten a lot of young people who have been in that same situation: they have social issues or trouble communicating with other people, and they had really never done anything for themselves their entire lives. Itís really cool to hear their stories. Some of these people have taken to the road for the first time and are successfully riding across cities, states, and countries, and realizing they are more capable than they thought.

How long do your tours typically last? My shortest one was a month. My longest one, which was last year, was 14 months. Iíd say my average is somewhere around three to six months. A lot of people who do these bicycle tours, Iíd say their average is closer to a week.

Have you met people who have taken to bike touring the way you have? Thereís a small community of people who live on their bicycles and travel around the world. Some people do it like me, where I have a home. I go on tour, and then I go home for a little while, and then I tour. Some people are on the road all the time. Most people just do shorter tours, vacation-style tours where they use their two weeks of vacation a year to go to a different state or a different country. There are a whole bunch of different types of bicycle touring.

What gave you the idea to start bicycletouringpro.com? In university, instead of getting a summer job like most of my friends, I would ride my bike across the United States. Around 2007, my roommate from college said he wanted to do a bike tour. So I talked to him on the phone for two hours, and I had such a great time teaching him all this stuff Iíd learned about bike touring. And I thought if I could teach one person how to do this, it would be awesome if I could create a website and teach 1,000 peopleóor 10,000 people.

Have people been inspired to try bike touring after checking out your websites? Yes! I have a reader who is 50 or 60 years old and she basically became interested in bicycle touring because she wanted to lose weight, and she wanted to do it in a fun way that didnít require her to go to a gym and be on a strict diet. She went on three long-distance bicycle tours and lost about half her body weight. And now sheís helping other people lose weight. I think thatís really cool.

When did you make the jump from domestic tours to international travel? All of my tours during college were in the United States. I got past one barrier: the social anxiety problems. And I think just being comfortable in America and having a general understanding of the countryóonce I was comfortable here, I thought Iíd try somewhere else. My first overseas tour was in Germany. My parents had hosted an exchange student from Germany, and I thought, ĎI know someone in Germany; maybe Iíll go there.í I think thatís how it got started: I knew one person in the whole country.

What are the benefits of bike touring over, say, a tour bus, or backpacking through Europe, or using a Eurail pass? One of the great things is just the physicality of it. When you sit on a bus all day, youíre just viewing the world through a window. On a bicycle youíre really in touch. You can smell the grass youíre riding past, farmers come up and talk to you. If youíre on a bus, you just blow past all that. Youíre more in touch with your surroundings. Youíre going slower, so you can stop and smell the roses.

The physicality thingóit feels good to be in shape and to be able to ride a bike. Riding a bike doesnít have to be hard. A lot of these tours are really easy; anybody can do them. But the act of riding your bikeóitís that childhood innocence that a lot of people experience no matter what their age. When you get on these bike trails, it feels good to ride.

How fast do you travel when youíre on tour? One of the things Iíve learned from my early bike tours, when I always had a timeline because I had to get back to school, was I ended up rushing. Iíd ride 60 to 100 miles a day, and fly through areas without really getting to see them or experience them. Now I go a lot slower, between 30 and 60 miles a day on average. I think thatís a much better way to do it. Itís cool to say that you rode 3,000 miles in two months, but I think itís more rewarding to say, ĎI rode 1,000 miles and had all these experiences.í

Whatís something that you think most people donít know about bike touring? Most people who try a bicycle tour end up enjoying it. But it sounds so scary and sounds like a lot of work at the beginning. It doesnít have to be. You really can go for just two days, experience what bicycle touring is all about, and get hooked. Just try it. If you know someone whoís done it, talk to them and get their help. Or try a tour thatís an intro to bike touring. Itís a really unique, rewarding experience overall.

Alffís typical campsite, this one in a Luxembourg forest. A solar panel strapped to the rear of his bike is used to recharge electronics.

Bicycle touring along South Africaís Garden Route, an idyllic 150-mile stretch of indigenous forests, golden beaches, and pristine lagoons.

Camped out in Iceland, near the mouth of Skaftafell National Park and the countryís largest glacier.

Alff and his riding partner Brandon trudged through a vicious storm in the Icelandic interior, an experience he describes as ďa blast.Ē (Brandon disagrees.)

Info on touring and Alffís travel scholarship program: bicycletouringpro.com.

Guided tours: gobicycletouring.com.

01-01-14

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