Canadian Cycling Magazine
The Joys of Going Solo
Just one rider, the bike and riding bliss
Svein Tuft, Jenny Tough, Cory Wallace and Geoff Kabush share their favourite adventures and tips for pedalling alone
LONG BEFORE the world went into self-isolation, Svein Tuft, Jenny Tough, Cory Wallace and Geoff Kabush were already pushing their limits on solo rides – and enjoying the personal rewards of their chosen experiences. These four riders have purposely tailored their riding to suit a lifestyle that prioritizes solitude – which they relish – with an occasional side of socializing.
They all have a deep yen for adventure, well beyond a quick afternoon rip through a forest. They also have the mental toughness and physical endurance to last for hours on end on the bike. Those two traits hold equal importance. You can have strong legs, but if you can’t think quickly on your feet, adapt to new elements and ride through whatever Mother Nature decides is going to happen at any given hour, then long solo rides might not be for you. You also have to be comfortable being in your head.
When they were asked about their most memorable solo rides, all four fondly revisited their younger selves. Even though they’ve made improvements that make their riding more enjoyable now, the ill-equipped bikes of their early days and little knowledge set the stage for ambitious riding goals.
I miss the freedom of that sensation of not knowing any better.”
Reached in: ANDORRA
“One of my favourite places to ride now is southern France, into the foothills of the Pyrenees and into Basque country. I could do that for years and still be content.”
Svein Tuft may have retired from professional bike racing, but he’s still spending as much time as he can on two wheels. The ride that stands out as his most adventurous, what he calls his “biggest leap of faith,” is his first trip in Bella Coola, which involved a crappy $40 10-speed from Value Village, with a trailer welded to it, and his dog. Of course everything on the bike broke.
“Now I would never attempt something like that because I know through experience it’s such a headache,” Tuft, from Langley, B.C., says. “That’s the beauty of that era of life where we’re young and just don’t know any better. That’s something I miss now – I miss the freedom of that sensation of not knowing any better.”
These days, the multiple national time trial champion appreciates the need to plan everything out for a bikepacking trip. “I’m obsessed about those details,” he says. “I’ve done a lifetime of that stuff and like things to go smoothly.” But there is something to be said about setting that foundation to enjoy the process: making those mistakes and toughing it out when things get hard.
“Riding is also my meditation. It’s something that settles and reorganizes everything in the mind,” he says. Nowadays, Tuft, who lives in Andorra, enjoys rides that take him on big loops through the Pyrenees. He’ll study the area he’s going through carefully to understand the region. “One of my favourite things about biking is it allows you to soak up the real feeling of the land – every undulation, every little town, back roads, alleys and lanes,” he explains. These are things he didn’t always get to take in when bike racing.
Tuft is keen to share some of those beautiful routes with fellow adventurous souls. He has recently opened a bikepacking shop that offers tours and rentals. It is set up to offer full catered trips and routes for solo riders. “One thing that I love so much is taking people out to the real special part of the mountains where not many people go,” he says.
Reached in: SCOTLAND “I have a thing for mountain ranges and trying to get across them. If I had my dreams come true, I’d be heading to the Karakoram soon.”
Last summer, multi-disciplinary athlete Jenny Tough from Calgary did a road tour through the Dinaric Alps. “It was the first time I tried to make my tour training – and fitness – focused,” she says. “I was always trying to beat 200 km before the sun set.” Later in December, her mountain bike got all the attention and the goal was fun as she rode for the month in Nepal. “I didn’t even Strava any of it. I was just there to see the mountains and tea houses – and sleep eight hours a night.” When planning one of her big trips (some of which involve running instead of cycling), Tough will decide where she wants to go, and then what kind of bike makes sense for the type of riding she wants to do. Her most memorable ride was her first. At 21, she decided to pedal to the Yukon from Calgary because she’d never been to one of the country’s territories. Riding her bike there, she reminisces, made the most sense, but she didn’t have any friends who would have done that. They didn’t find out about her plan until she was about to leave and tried to stage an intervention. Of course, she went anyway. “I’d never had a bike before, I didn’t have a smartphone, I really had to figure it out the old-fashioned way. It’s probably the most important growth experience I’ve had,” she says. Unfortunately, Tough has to acknowledge to fellow female adventurers that as a woman travelling solo, you may be on higher alert than your male counterparts. “We were all raised being aware of vulnerability,” she says. “None of that is going to switch off when you go on an adventure. Nothing has actually changed – however, you cope in day-to-day life, you can cope on this adventure.” Tough does recommend learning about the cultural differences before visiting a country, so you can be prepared.
Ultimately, what Tough loves about going solo is the independence, and
learning to do things for herself. “You’re totally in the driver’s seat. You can be creative in your route choices. You learn so much by doing it solo that you wouldn’t do in a group. You learn a lot about yourself and your life. You come back a really refreshed person,” she says.
Another benefit is a laden bicycle always attracts people wherever you are, whether it’s a gas station or a village. “If you’re in a group, you’re not as approachable,” she says. “Being solo, I find I meet more people that way.”
You learn so much by doing it solo that you wouldn’t do in a group. You l earn a lot about yourself and your life. You come back a really refreshed person.”
Reached in: NEPAL “I’d love to do Cape Epic one year. It’s the pinnacle of the mountain biking world.”
Having a father who was a backcountry warden helped shape Cory Wallace’s ease with going solo. The family would spend eight or nine hours a day on horseback for a couple of weeks at a time. Spending eight to 12 hours a day tree planting was an intermediary step from his youth that further helped to build his strength with mental solitude. “The first two weeks are really tough: you’re getting your head to calm down. After, you kind of get used to it,” he explains.
These days, the rider from Jasper, Alta., starts his day by meditating and recommends that others find a meditation course or book to learn the discipline. “It sets the day off on a good note,” he says. Much like tree planting, meditation can be hard at first, but gets better as you progress. Wallace’s favourite and most adventurous solo ride was doing the Annapurna Circuit i n 2017. The goal was to set out on the 220-km trekking route through the Himalayas at midnight and finish i n less than 24 hours. At high altitude, above 4,000 m, he started to get a little dizzy and by 5,000 m he could barely stand up straight. But he powered through and made it with three minutes to spare. Wallace has done the ride two times since, crushing his goals. He says each year has gotten easier. The only other events that are comparable are the 24-hour races he does. (He’s won three solo 24-hour world championships.) “Those send you into the same kind of mental state,” he explains. This is where the meditation comes in, as he can switch his brain off for those first 12 to 15 hours, and then switch it on toward the end when it matters.
“I’ve ridden solo more often than not. It’s just how my body is wired. I like the peace,” he says. That said, Wallace also likes to balance things out with group rides. His favourite races are the stage races in which you get to hang out with the same people. “The best part is the camaraderie,” he says.
Reached in: THE UNITED STATES
“Riding down the coast from Canada has always been on my list – big coast rides down to visit some friends in San Diego.”
Geoff Kabush has said his spirit animal is the lone wolf, but it’s more circumstance that led to his affinity for solo riding. Growing up in a small town, he simply didn’t have a lot of people to ride with. “When you’re solo, you become really aware of your surroundings,” he explains. “I did a lot of sports growing up. What I loved about mountain biking was getting out there and exploring myself.” As a kid, Kabush liked to piece together the fire roads he rode around Courtenay, B.C., riding all the trails, drawing his own maps and seeing how everything connected on those maps.
Nowadays, his long rides are on the road and made easier by specific, chosen destinations. For example, on a long weekend, he rode the 240 km from Victoria to Courtenay. “I’ve always enjoyed those long solo days,” he says. “I really enjoy having that time alone on the bike with my
thoughts to regroup, plan, process and prioritize, so when I get back home I can get to work on stuff.”
When the mountain bike beckons, Kabush will get out for a solo singletrack rip. “On the mountain bike, I really enjoy riding solo, exploring, making all the decisions, and being in tune with my body and the trail,” he says. “I ride solo a lot because of circumstances and not many peers to ride with.” But when an opportunity arises, group rides are welcome for the social aspect. “I really enjoy it, especially back in Squamish, when I can ride with some friends. It’s super fun to explore new trails. Riding with people better than you can push you a bit.”
The Olympian with 15 national titles likes to look for what he describes as “funner” long events, such as last year’s Dirty Kanza. Kabush flatted pretty early on and rode by himself for more than nine hours. “You kind of go into a meditative state on the bike,” he says. “I’ve had times where I almost black out for 45 minutes and come back and wonder how I go to this point.”