I left out a lot of the loneliness, the confusion, the shameful and foolish decisions I made that still haunt me years later. I didn't tell you what I was really thinking about in Taranto, the last night of the journey.
When I re-read the first draft of my book, a lot of it just didn't ring true.
I sound like a pretentious schmuck who likes to brag about the places I traveled. That's a big part of who I was when I biked the entire length of the ancient Roman road, via Appia. But it's mostly just show.
In the first draft, I left out a lot of the loneliness, the confusion, the shameful and foolish decisions I made that still haunt me years later. I didn't tell you what I was really thinking about in Taranto, the last night of the journey.
Most of the emails I get about via Appia come from people who probably haven't done an extended solo bike tour. So I'm rewriting the book. I want to show you the dark side of pursuing a dream.
This book will still tell you where to go, what to see and do, where to eat and even advice on picking up Italian women.
I'll give you good information about the route, in case you ever want to do a similar trip. You'll hear a lot of local history and stories, and you'll meet many of the Italians who made my journey unforgettable.
But I want to write something more than just a travelogue or a guidebook. So I'm putting back a lot of embarrassing things I cut from the first draft. Entries from my journal that will help keep it real.
This book is also my confession. I will share my deepest regrets about the journey. If I can help save you from some of the mistakes I made, this book will be worth writing, and hopefully worth reading.
If there's a story in you it sometimes might be better to let it ferment. Seal it in the oak barrel for a few months, bottle it an store it in your wine cellar until it's a properly aged vintage. I'm giving you the highlights, concentrated and distilled over ten years, and if it stuck it's probably important.
It has been ten years since I biked the via Appia, and I'm only beginning to get serious about publishing the story.
What kept me so long? Excuses, hundreds of endless lame excuses.
And yet if there's a story in you it sometimes might be better to let it ferment. Seal it in the oak barrel for a few months, bottle it an store it in your wine cellar until it's a properly aged vintage.
That's what I did with this story and now I might have something worth reading. At least I have something worth remembering, because after all these years the best parts of the story are the only ones I can really remember.
Anything that has fallen away was almost surely less important. I've waited ten years to give you just the highlights.
In fact, one of my big frustrations in writing this book is that it's been too short. There isn't even one tiny thing to add in here that could make it longer without somehow ruining the book.
I tried for months to pad the book with extra words, new ideas, more plain old stuff but sometimes less really is more.
Are people going to pay the same price for an 80-page book as they would for a 200-pager? Maybe more. I'm giving you the highlights, concentrated and distilled over ten years, and if it stuck it's probably important.
The good stuff always sticks.
I've got a manuscript that's been commented on and rewritten and is nearly done. But I want to do this right. That means an audio version, proper formatting, and professional editing as soon as I can afford it.
In the meantime life gets in the way. I'm building a bathroom. I'm helping a friend sell his house. I'm caring for neighborhood trees and eight (yes, eight!) cats and writing all the copy for a website for one of my clients.
In a few weeks I'll be looking for a job.
But all that said, I'm still going to get this book published someday some year. And you'll be (hopefully) around to read it when I do.
You know the risk. Get out there on a bike, and you could be hit by a car. You could catch a wheel in a storm sewer, crack your head against the concrete, and suffer permanent brain damage or death.
Add the risks of poisonous snake bites, death by heat exhaustion, heart attacks, being shot, and a zillion other dangers. Why would you ever go out on a bike ride? What are you thinking?
You’re thinking in a probabilistic way. All of those things could happen, but the probability of any of them happening is so tiny that you can probably ignore it.
You could bike every day for the rest of your life and probably never have to encounter any of the dangers we just mentioned.
Probabilistic thinking is one of the things that puts you on your bike in the first place, and it can serve you well in many other aspects of your life.
There are many people out there who might like to bike more, but they live in terror of the risks. They’re making an assumption. There are two possible outcomes: A) You could have a wonderful time, or B)You could die.
For the person who is afraid of a bike ride, both A and B are equally probable. They’re suffering from a big misunderstanding.
If there were equal odds of enjoying a good ride or dying a horrible death, you’d probably think twice before going on a bike ride. But the odds are not equal. Probabilistic thinking enables you to enjoy your bike ride, knowing that the chances of a fatality are somewhere in the ballpark of being struck by lightning or winning the lottery.
Now let’s apply this probabilistic thinking to some other part of your life.
There’s something you want to do, but you’re afraid to do it. But what are you really afraid of? What are the odds of that terrible thing actually happening?
I’ll give you a few examples. I used to be afraid of singing in front of people. I thought I would sound terrible and people would boo me off the stage.
This wouldn’t be such a bad thing, but let’s assume it would be the end of the world. It’s still worth singing, because the odds of having an audience that rude and boorish is minuscule. If you ever sing in public, most of the audience will be fans, friends, and family who love you.
What are you afraid of? Talking to that good-looking person, or finally asking them out?
Okay, here the odds of success might be against you (but then again, you may be surprised). But the odds of a really terrible outcome are still small enough to ignore. Worst-case scenario, this person might politely turn you down.
Unless you have really bad judgement, your immediate future probably won’t include a drink in your face, a restraining order, or even a terribly awkward moment.
Now let’s look at even bigger things.
Have you ever thought about creating something big for the world, something that might change your life and other lives as well? Maybe you’ve got a book you want to write, an idea for a new game or an entire business. Maybe you’re thinking about a long and dangerous journey.
Here’s where you apply your probabilistic thinking skills.
Whatever you want to do, you can probably think of several bad outcomes. But how bad are these outcomes, and what are the chances that they’ll really happen?
Most of the dangers you list will fall into one of these two categories. First, they’re not so bad. You can live with them, and you’ll be able to dust yourself off and carry on. Or second, they are pretty grave and serious, but the probability that they’ll ever happen is low.
Once you understand probability, you can take on challenges that may have seemed much harder before. Buy a house. Go after a better job, or start your own business. Travel somewhere you’ve always wanted to go. Find the love of your life, or at least test-drive a few candidates.
Since you’ve involved yourself in biking, and maybe bike touring, you already have mad skills when it comes to probabilistic thinking.
Use what you’ve got, and soon you’ll start getting all the other things that you want out of life.
The Janapar Grant was started by Tom Allen, after his own multi-year bike tour around the world (you can watch the film by the same name here
The applications are being accepted "In early 2016," but as of today all they have is a form where you can leave your email if you're interested.
All I can say is, if you are between the ages of 18 and 25, live in the UK, and don't have any work-related conflicts, you should be interested.
If you are accepted, you'll get all the equipment you need: bike, tools, panniers, tent, sleeping gear, and cook set. Better yet, you'll be mentored by some of the best-known names in bike touring, including Emily Chappell, Tom Allen, and several others.
If I qualified, I would jump on this. Just the application itself will get you thinking about your trip, planning, and sorting out both your route and your motivation.
Alas, I'm not British, and I'm nearly double the maximum eligible age. Still, old geezer that I am, whenever I set off on another journey I feel the same excitement and joy that I felt in my twenties--maybe more. Bike touring is a lifelong passion. But if you're reading this you probably already knew that.
By the way, what would happen if you didn't see this blog post and missed out on your chance to apply for the Janaper Grant?
Lucky for you, whenever I have a really important post, especially one that's going to improve the quality of your life, I email it to everyone on my tips list. If you're not on that list, you could have already missed out! Be sure to sign up below, or in the box to your right.
One of these days, a dead battery or a weak signal will turn your smart phone into a mere decoration for the inside of your pocket. Then it’s time for you to take control and use the resources you have. That means your bike, your body, and your brain.
You might get lost the first time you try a new a bike route. But chances are you’ll never get lost in the same place a second time.
On the second bike ride, you’ll remember where to go, what the route looks like, and definitely how steep the hills are. Certain landmarks will look familiar. Even if you don’t go back there again for a week, you’ll remember where to go.
Compare this to reading an article or a chapter in a book. How much do you remember a week after you read it?
Reading and memorizing facts are difficult tasks for your brain. But your visual memory is extraordinary.
For tens of thousands of years, human beings had to find their way around without maps or GPS. To this day, we’re still pretty good at learning our way around in one sitting. Your brain is hard-wired to detect visual cues and physical locations.
One of the great secrets to a better memory is to harness that visual memory to perform the more difficult tasks.
The story goes that the Greek poet Simonides once did a recitation in front of a room full of dinner guests. When he finished, he thanked his audience and left the building.
Moments later, an earthquake struck, and the building was reduced to rubble. Simonides was incredibly fortunate to survive, but an even greater fortune was the discovery he made about the human mind that day.
The Greek building was made of heavy stone and marble. Not only were the guests instantly killed, but it was virtually impossible to identify their remains.
This is where Simonides came in to help. He remembered what everything looked like as he stood before his audience. He could visually recall where each guest was seated, and he could lead their loved ones directly to the spot.
This event led to the development of the "memory palace" technique. You substitute visual data that's easy to recall with difficult information that you want to remember.
We'll illustrate this with a bike ride.
Let’s say you have to learn a list of Italian verbs. You can associate them with different places on your route, and you’ll be able to remember them about as easily as you can remember the route itself.
Let’s say I start by riding out of my driveway into the street. My first Italian word is calciare, which means “to kick.” So I picture my neighbor’s SUV parked in the street, and I stop and give the tire a big kick.
Next I ride down to the main street, where there’s a bike trail that goes along the railroad tracks. The second word is “attraversare” which means “to cross,” so I imagine crossing the tracks.
I leave the bike trail and take a road that winds up into the mountains. Pretty soon I’ve worked up a sweat, so I add the word “sudore” which means to sweat. The next word is “stappare” to “unstop.” It’s like the motion of uncorking a wine bottle, so I “stappare” my water bottle and pour half of it over my sweaty shiny bald head. Then I drink the rest, remembering the word “bere” which means to drink.
I’m just getting warmed up at the beginning of the bike ride, and already I’ve memorized half of my list.
Why am I writing about Jedi mind tricks in a bicycling post?
The bicycle is one of those things that can liberate you from what I call the soft perils of 21st century life. Already you're probably healthier than a lot of your peers, because you often travel on your own physical power. Why not give your mind the same freedom?
One of these days, a dead battery or a weak signal will turn your smart phone into a mere decoration for the inside of your pocket. Then it’s time for you to take control and use the resources you have. That means your bike, your body, and your brain.
Limits of the Memory Palace
I showed you how to memorize a bunch of verbs. But that's a far cry from being able to speak a foreign language. The truth is that memory is just a foundation. There's a lot more to learning.
But riding your bike will help you with other thinking processes such as fluency, synthesis, and creativity. We'll get to that in another post.
In trying to publish a book about the via Appia bike tour, I'm following James Altucher's Ultimate Guide to Self-Publishing.* He has a checklist of 20 items meant to get you through the whole process, from the idea to the finished product.
I'm hung up on step 2.
The first item on the checklist is, "Write every day." Over the past six months, I've been close. Now I have a calendar in front of my computer where I get to put a yellow slash each day I write, and the number of days in a row.
It's heartbreaking to get to 30 or 40 days, then skip a day and have to start over again at zero. This keeps me motivated. This might be a good training tip, come to think of it. If you're getting ready for a bike tour, and you want to exercise every day, you could use this same process to stay on track.
But that second item on the list is a killer, at least for me: "Decide what the book is about."
There's an easy answer, or at least an obvious one. It's about a bike tour of the ancient Roman road, the Appian Way. But I want the book to be about more than just this.
The book is about pursuing your dreams. Pyrrhus shows up a lot in my story, because he had a dream of becoming rich and powerful by conquering sections of Italy. He was essentially stopped by Appius Claudius, the builder of the via Appia who famously said, "Every man is the architect of his own fortune."
Appius Claudius had a dream of building aqueducts and roads that would make his name immortal. He achieved all this relatively early in his career.
Claudius and Pyrrhus were notorious for their ability to "just do it." When they had a dream, they would go for it.
I'm not a Pyrrhus or a Claudius. I first stumbled onto via Appia while trying to walk off a hangover after a night of partying in Rome. That very day I fell in love with the road and the idea of taking a bike tour along her entire length.
It was seven years before I did anything about it.
But it turns out it truly is better late than never. I did follow my dream, however belatedly, and I made that first bike tour seven years after I first got the idea.
Now the new dream is to write a book. Or rather, to publish it. I've been writing for years. A lot of the manuscript came directly out of a journal that I kept during the bike tour, a bunch of papers held together (ironically) with rubber strips taken from old inner tubes.
I think I've got a decent manuscript for the book now, but what is the book really about? I want it to be meaningful for someone who never plans to do a bike tour in Italy.
It's about following through on your dreams, no matter how late and slow you are, and no matter how foolish the dream. That must be it. Be the architect of your own fortune, better late than never.
Step 3 in Altucher's Checklist is simply this: "Write it well." Fair enough. I think the first draft is decent, and I've generally gotten good reviews along with a lot of constructive criticism from people who've read the manuscript.
But can I really write it well if I'm not clear on what the book is about?
It feels like I'm at the beginning of a steep hill at the start of a long bike tour. I'm in the lowest gear standing in the saddle, just to get past steps 2 and 3 on the checklist.
There are 20 items I need to check off in total. Maybe in another seven years I'll be able to tick them off and be a self-published author.
Here's the good news. Becoming the architect of your own fortune is just like pushing yourself forward on a difficult ride. You'll get there.
I can almost guarantee you'll get there faster than I will.
This was a rant about my new book on biking down the Appian Way. If you would like to read the entire book, or even join me on a future bike tour of via Appia, subscribe below and I'll keep you up-to-date. Your email will not be published, and I will never share it with anyone.
On a bike trip in Colorado, I got my butt handed to me on a Frisbee by guys who were 15 years older than me.
I blamed it on the altitude. And it's true that after a few days I could almost keep up with them. At least close enough that they mostly stopped making fun of me.
This was my introduction to middle age. I thought I was in great shape, but really I've been turning into a bike potato.
For years I scorned people who deliberately trained. "Just get on your bike and ride," I thought.
I also avoided any talk about racing. I'm all about bike touring, not racing.
Now I've done a bit of reading, and I learned the shocking truth: Bike touring can be an emasculating, power-sapping habit. It can turn your strong, youthful body into a flaccid meat suit.
A physical therapist told me I should never do another bike tour again after the age of 40. I will not be following his advice.
If you're a stubborn fanatic like me, and you insist on bike touring, here are the dangers and how to reverse them.
Danger #1: Repetitive Stress Syndrome
If you take a short bike ride that lasts a few hours, you're going to gain a lot of physical benefits. Bike touring is different.
On a bike tour, you're in the saddle for hours on end. Probably six hours or more. Maybe 10 or 12 if you're a fanatic. I've done this on bike tours of Italy.
During that time, your back and shoulder muscles are straining to hold up your head. Your arms are locked on to the handlebars. Your knees are grinding along, over and over, with continuous pressure on the exact same spot.
In a more natural activity, you would be moving around a lot, using different muscles in different ways, shifting your weight around onto different joints, and generally stimulating and using most of your body.
On a bike tour, you're concentrating all the effort and all the strain. Many muscles are cramped far inside their normal range of motion. Other muscles aren't used at all.
Danger #2: Depletion of Your Reserves
You have a limited amount of glycogen stored in your muscles and your liver. On an extended bike tour, you may not have time for your muscles to recover. Your glycogen may be used up without sufficient time to replace it.
When this happens, you might start burning protein instead. Keep this up for too long, and you can end up with a loss of muscle mass.
You may have noticed the skinny leg syndrome that some people have on a bike tour. Over time, you'll lose power and stamina because of the loss of muscle.
Danger #3: Inertia
If you're on a bike tour, you're probably trying to cover a lot of ground each day, and you'll likely have an interest in conserving your energy.
You're probably also thinking of the bike tour as a vacation, which means you'll be more relaxed.
These two factors have a tendency to make you ride more slowly. The problem is, you're essentially training yourself to ride slowly. A slow rider tends to get slower.
One of the most useful and practical bits of advice I've found is from Roy M. Wallack in his book, Bike for Life: How to Ride to 100--and Beyond. (see below) He suggests taking shorter tours.
This is great advice for many reasons. First, it minimizes the damage of the three dangers. If you're only touring for 3 days, a lot of the problems with bike touring simply won't have time to develop. It's also useful against the mental and psychological damage that bike touring can inflict.
Short tours are also more practical. You can fit them into a busy life. Do a weekend bike tour, and you won't have to miss work.
Better yet, you can turn a long tour into several short ones. For example, when I bike the via Appia next time, my plan is to ride for a day or two, then stop in one place and take a few days to really explore, talk to the locals, and have a learning/cultural experience while my body recovers.
One of my dreams is to tour around the entire Mediterranean sea. Realistically, my wallet and the geopolitical situation won't allow it. But maybe I'll reach my goal over several years, one country at a time. Turns out this will be good for my health, too.
Another way to defend yourself from the ravages of bike touring is to tour the way you train. Alternate long tours with short tours. Have days when you ride as fact as you can, or at least include sprints into part of your journey. Make a conscious decision whether to attack a hill all-out or to merely endure it.
Finally, add some cross training into the tour. Stop for a day and go hiking. If you're strapped for time, just do a bunch of push-ups in the morning, or take a 20-minute yoga break when you find a good spot along the route.
A bit of thoughtfulness will let you reap all the benefits of bike touring while avoiding the dangers. You may even finish the tour feeling fresh and invigorated.
For months I agonized over what I really wanted to say in this book. I wondered whether it was even worth putting out there.
I know I didn't want to write another travelogue. I hope if you'll read it you'll set out on many glorious journeys of your own, but I can't expect you to care very much about mine. I tried to serve up nuggets of history, tips, and suggestions seasoned with a sprinkling of local color and personal experience.
What finally came out was a big surprise.
To make a long story short, I finished the whole thing but I didn't know what to call it. So I let the public vote with their clicks.
The rest of this post is about how I did it. If you've ever thought about writing a book of your own, the rest of this post might be useful. If not, then you can skip it. Save your time, and go for a bike ride instead.
How to Select a Best-Selling Title for Your Book
I had a lot of things I wanted to say in this book, so it was easy to come up with over a dozen titles. The first step was to narrow it down a bit, so I talked to a lot of people and threw out the titles they thought were the worst.
I finally pared it down to these three, which are pretty straightforward:
Biking the Appian Way Biking via Appia Biking Rome to Brindisi
I paired each one of these with a subtitle, and repeated them without the word "biking."
Next I created a google adwords campaign.
If you've never done this, it's pretty simple. You start by picking a batch of keywords. I used things like "bike touring Italy" "ancient Roman roads," and the names of various cities and towns along via Appia.
Once you have your keywords, you create your ads, which have a main headline and two subheadings. I simply used my titles and subtitles, and I was good to go.
When people search for your keywords, a lot of them will see one or more of your ads (Google shows them at random). You get data showing how many times an ad was seen, how many clicks it got, plus a lot of other useful information.
One title and subtitle of mine got nearly twice the clicks of any of the others. Within days, I had a winner:
Biking Rome to Brindisi: How traveling the ancient via Appia saved me from a life of quiet desperation
If you want to read the pre-publication edition, contact me by leaving a comment below.
Ask almost anyone to find Italy on a map of Europe and they can do it.
It's shaped like a boot.
Last night that venerable Italian boot gave me a solid kick in the head. "Use this, you fool!" it said to me. Here's a great way to boost your memory, using the shape and layout of different places.
Let's say you're taking a biochemistry exam, and you have to memorize the different groups. That's a hard task, so let's turn it into something easy.
Let's say you have to walk to your friend's house. Your friend only lives a few blocks away, and you've walked there once already. You know the way. After just one try.
Your brain is very good at finding its way around. Your ancestors were walking back from the lake to the cave 10,000 years ago, and you've inherited their skill.
Now let's apply that skill to learn biochemistry. Here's how it works.
Imagine that walk to your friends house. There are certain landmarks you'll see along the way. All you have to do is attach each biochemistry group to one of those landmarks.
For instance, one of the houses you pass has a big cardboard box on the porch. You imagine a car speeding around the corner, crashing into the box. The car-box. The carboxyl group. You could even imagine the car spews carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and a boxer comes along and punches the driver in the face.
The more personal, vivid, and strange your images, the more likely you'll remember them. Let's move on.
As you're walking, you pass a chain link fence. You could imagine it is a long chain of smaller molecules, a polymer. I like to picture it as DNA. Then a guy (or a girl) comes along and chains his/her bike to the fence. The cyclist uses a very strange method to lock up the bike, involving a whole group of locks. Method, methyl. The methyl group is attaching to the DNA molecule.
You get the idea, I hope. I'm using this to memorize all the Roman emperors. For me, that's tougher than biochemistry. How can you use this?
As a checklist before your bike tour, to make sure you don't leave anything behind
As a reminder of crossroads and important sites on your bike route
To remember names of people you meet on a bike tour
If you can't get to a journal or blog, this could help you remember the highlights of your trip so you can share them later on
I'm memorizing the Roman emperors because I want to be an expert on via Appia, the ancient Roman road that ran from Rome to Brindisi. I biked the entire route, and I'm planning another trip in a year or so. I'm also publishing a book about via Appia this year.
If you want to hear more about these things, including where to find the book or how to join me on the next tour, all you have to do is sign up for my email list below. I'll never share your email with anyone.