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In praise of getting lost

Trevor Ward
28 Dec 2016

In an age of GPS navigation, it can be difficult to get lost while out on a bike ride. But perhaps you should try harder…

Though a rarity, it’s not impossible for an elite rider to get lost during a race. Ferdi Kubler, winner of the Tour de France in 1950, ended up going the wrong way after stopping at a bar during the 1955 edition, and finished the day announcing his retirement from racing.

In his defence, he’d just suffered a nightmare stage over the Ventoux, crashing three times during the descent, and told journalists, ‘Ferdi is too old… Ferdi hurts too much… Ferdi has killed himself on the Ventoux.’

More recently, Chris Froome recounts in his autobiography the tale of a young rider in his Kenyan team who dismounted with exhaustion during the 2006 Tour of Egypt and was left behind by the race convoy, including the broom wagon.

Alone in the desert with no idea where he was and severely dehydrated, Michael Nziani Muthai resorted to burying himself up to his neck in sand to keep cool. He was only found later that night by a Polish team soigneur who, by chance, was returning to the start of the stage and spotted his bike lying at the side of the road.

But getting lost needn’t be so extreme. At worst, it’s an inconvenience that adds some extra time and distance to a journey. At best, it can lead to a new discovery or adventure.

Back in the days before GPS and smartphones, I caught the ferry to Holland to begin a bike ride around Europe. Despite the luxury of a network of segregated bike lanes, I was hopelessly lost within hours of disembarking. Every road sign pointed to a place I couldn’t locate on my map: Doorgaand Verkeer. 

Being unable to find what was surely quite a large conurbation given the number of signs for it left me feeling depressed and disorientated. As the sky darkened and my panniers grew heavier, I pulled over to ask a woman and her teenage son if they could help me. Their response was to stare at me with wide-eyed incomprehension before doubling up in laughter. ‘Doorgaand verkeer’, I was informed in perfect English, meant ‘Through traffic’. 

Eventually my new Dutch friends’ amusement gave way to pity for this glaringly inept cycle-tourist and they invited me to pitch my tent in their back garden and join them for dinner. By the time I returned to the UK three months later, I’d lost count of the number of similar serendipitous encounters I had enjoyed thanks to getting lost.

Even routine training rides on familiar roads can offer numerous invitations to get lost. On my regular loops I’m repeatedly tempted by a gaping gateway in a particular wall, a road that appears to climb an uncharted hill, or an overgrown track that disappears into the rippling mass of a cornfield. 

Occasionally, if I’m feeling strong and am ahead of schedule, I’ll take a gamble and go ‘off grid’. When it results in a dead end, or having to dismount and shoulder my bike over a wall or through a clump of bushes, I can console myself with having done a few extra miles and experienced some new scenery. 

In an age of GPS, getting lost isn’t that easy any more. But finding yourself halfway up a mountain when the map screen on your Garmin suddenly expires – as I have – needn’t mean the end of the world (even if it literally is the end of those few square miles of it on your display).

Being ‘off the radar’ can be a liberating sensation, even if it only lasts until you reach the next junction and a big green road sign reminding you that you’re only 12 miles from Colchester. 

In today’s homogenised world of health and safety overkill and rampant political correctness, getting lost is the ultimate act of rebellion. It’s putting two fingers up to the CCTV cameras tracking our every move, the smartphones beaming our locations to orbiting satellites and the online algorithms dictating the patterns of our lives.

So next time you ride somewhere new, leave the bike computer and phone switched off. Pack a map if you want, but otherwise go out and enjoy the sensation of being unshackled from routine or a GPX file, with only your SIM and ATM cards between you and being eaten by a pack of wolves.

There are few greater pleasures for the average cyclist than the discovery of previously unexplored roads, whether by design or default.

Not everything from the early days of cycling deserves celebrating – wooden rims and cork brake pads, for instance – but the sense of adventure that permeated the sport back then is definitely worth embracing. The earliest cycling clubs revolved around smashing long distance records, but even with teams of pacers and navigators, riders could still get lost.

The circumstances of GP Mills’ record-breaking End-to-End ride of October 1891 – just months after he had won the first Bordeaux-Paris race – remain shrouded in some mystery, with him recording a time of four days, 11 hours and 17 minutes despite being ‘accidentally drugged in Helmsdale’.

Today’s pros may never have an excuse to get lost – Froome’s teammate only got lost because the team manager had spent the day sightseeing at the Pyramids rather than supporting his riders – but surely for us amateurs every bike ride is an excuse to go off the map, spiritually if not physically?

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