First person: 'I rode tandem with 270 people'

Dominic Gill, 29
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The Independent Online

If you ask someone what their chances are of picking up a stranger on the back of a tandem bicycle and asking them to help pedal, I think most people would agree that they are slight.

I had taken a plane that delivers workers to the northern oil fields of Alaska, to Prudhoe Bay on the tip of the continent, where I would begin my 18,449-mile cycle ride down the west coast of the American continent. I wasn't sure whether it was a good idea or not.

I picked up the first of my 270 passengers five days before I reached any remote form of civilisation. Having someone on the back wasn't just a way to pass the time, it was a massive wealth of awesome stories. I picked up an old, toothless hitchhiker in northern Canada who had been cattle ranching and gold prospecting up and down the highway all his life. He didn't do much pedalling and spent quite a lot of time trying to spark up a rolled cigarette, but it didn't bother me because the stories kept on coming.

Up as far as San Francisco I was having fun and knew where I was – I had cycled the route almost 10 years before with a good friend.

But the fun ended and anxiety crept in as I neared the Mexican border. I had heard scare stories about Latin America – especially Tijuana just south of the border – about people being raped or shot or killed. It made me nervous.

As I crossed into Mexico and raced south at top speed, a man shouted at me in the street. I carried on, convinced that he wanted to rob me. But he kept shouting, first in Spanish, before French and then English. His name was Marco and he took me in and looked after me. He was a qualified nurse, his wife was French and he had two children. We're good friends to this day. I realised the scare stories were nonsense. I rubbed shoulders with roughly 10,000 people and only one of those people made me fearful, which is pretty good odds.

In the Mexican state of Oaxaca, in a mountainous area of dispersed, indigenous villages, I was camping on this elderly fellow's yard. His son returned home drunk, decided that I was an American infidel and tried to get me to leave. The next second he took out a machete and was calling his friend on a phone. I understood enough Spanish to hear him say: "There's a fucking gringo in the yard, come and help me get him out." The gravity of the situation dawned on me and I gathered up my things and fled.

I headed further south as the South American winter was beginning. No one does that, it's stupid. I had to keep on going, though. The snow and ice was tough on the bike. In the middle of an icy, isolated highway in Patagonia the bike gave up, and after having five punctures and several broken spokes, I was also exhausted.

Me and my partner at the time, a girl named Jocelyn from Chile, hitched a lift with a passing sea urchin delivery truck for about 150km to the next city.

On 8 August 2008, after two years and two months on the road, I completed the trip. I felt lost and displaced back home. I was no longer special without the great big bike that made people stop and talk to me in the street.

I'm planning my next journey now, which starts this summer. A 74-year-old Californian man named Ernie, who I met on the last trip, made the mistake of telling me he had always wanted to cycle across the States. He has leukaemia, and couldn't do it on his own. Now, with my help on the tandem, he can.

Against all the odds, you can still squeeze the most out of life and discover new things at a grand old age. I'm realising that I can put a positive spin on the world, and that my dreams of adventure are beginning to come true.

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