The nomadic cyclist: Ruby Woodruff talks life on the road
Variable. Currently I'm housesitting and working on a vineyard but before this I was picking up dog shit at a greyhound kennel.
Anything to do with the outdoors and adventure.
Kelly: Where did you start and where are you now?
Ruby: My first real bike tour started in Portland and ended in Peru! It was only supposed to be a one-month trip to Los Angeles for a friend's wedding, but we (my boyfriend, Nick, and I) decided to keep biking south and one month turned into nine months.
After spending the summer back in Canada, we flew to Australia and cycled from Sydney to Melbourne and then around Tasmania. We're still in Australia now, but we bought an old Toyota Van and are taking a break from bike touring to work and surf.
K: What inspired you to leave Vancouver?
R: The high cost of living, the rain and not having any real commitments. I’ve also spent most of my life there so I wanted to experience what else the world had to offer.
K:What were you doing before?
R: Besides pursuing an eight-year Communications Degree, I was traveling a bit and working various jobs depending on where I was living.
K: The craziest story thus far?
R: Our last week of biking along the Peru coast was a bit crazy because we didn’t have any money. Well technically we had it, but we couldn’t find any working ATMs to take cash out so we had the equivalent of $3 between us. Credit cards weren’t accepted anywhere either so we couldn’t pay for accommodation, food or water (the tap water in Peru isn't safe to drink so we had to purchase 7L purified jugs).
The only thing we could afford was gas to fill up our stove and then with that we would boil water for drinking and cook whatever groceries we still had with us. We survived with no money for about five days before we finally reached a bank machine. Fortunately, people helped us out with places to sleep – mainly churches and police stations – and offered us what little extra food they had. It could have been a lot worse but it was definitely an eye-opening experience to have to survive without any money.
K: The funniest story thus far?
R: While cycling around Tasmania, we ended up in a one-street town called Gladstone. We'd planned to camp in the park but as we were unpacking our bikes a local father and son came by and invited us over to their place. A few hours (and a few beers) later, we'd set up our tent in the backyard and had agreed to go to the family cabin with the wife and kids for the weekend. The next morning, the dad dropped us and their eight-year-old daughter off at "The Shack” and then he left. We hadn't even known these people 12 hours and we were already their babysitters. The mom and son came and joined us that night but instead of a relaxing getaway, we were stuck with screaming kids and a mom who spent her days downing champagne by the pint. It wasn’t all bad but I was definitely relieved when our little dysfunctional family vacation was over.
K: Tips on planning a trip like yours?
R: Don't be intimidated by bike touring. Before I started bike touring, it seemed like a very foreign and complicated way to travel. But all you really need is a solid, preferably steel, bike (no flimsy carbon fibre road bikes), a rack —or two—and some panniers. Don’t feel like you have to invest in top of the line gear either. We’ve met people who were riding around the world on beat-up $100 mountain bikes and homemade bags. Almost any set up will do, and once you’ve got the basic gear it’s as simple as riding a bike!
Less researching, more riding. Once you have an idea about a trip you want to do I would recommend choosing a date to leave by or purchasing a flight or train ticket –something that you can’t easily back out of – so that you’re committed. Then you can start researching; read blogs (if you can find them), look at google maps or talk to people who’ve done a similar trip. It’s helpful to have a rough idea of where you want to go, but no matter how much research you do, nothing can fully prepare you for a bike trip. It’s best to start riding and figure the rest out along the way.
Be true to you but be open to change. Everyone bike tours differently and for different reasons. Some people want to clock as many kilometres as they can each day, while others want to crawl along. Some want to wild camp and spend as little money as possible while other people want to stay in hotels and eat at the pub. Do whatever works best for you, but be flexible. Things have a way of working out when you’re bike touring so just embrace whatever opportunities come your way and don’t be afraid to alter your plans.
K: Apps to use?
R: Google Maps (Offline), WikiCamps or iOverlander, WarmShowers, MapsMe and WhatsApp.
R: Schwalbe Marathon Plus Tires, spare tubes/pump/repair kit, bike lights and a high visibility vest, stove (MSR Whisper Light), camera/smart phone, journal, Teva Sandals, sleeping bag and mat, blow-up pillow, chamois (padded bike shorts), computer, snacks… I try to be somewhat conscious of weight so everything I bring has to be 'essential’.
K: What everyone should know if they’re thinking of doing a similar trip?
R: Bike touring is definitely not the easiest way to travel, but if you’re ready for an adventure, and prepared to deal with some hard times, it can be one of the most rewarding and incredible ways to discover the world (and yourself).
K: Would you do the same journey on your own?
R: Not a long-term trip but I could see myself doing some shorter ones. I met a lot of people (particularly women) who were bike touring solo and they loved it, I just think I’d get too lonely if it was for more than a couple of months. I'm really lucky to have a partner like Nick because we’re such a good team together. And at the end of a hard day of biking, it's always nice to have some company to eat dinner with, even if you're both too exhausted to talk.
K: What would you have done differently?
R: I don't think I would do anything differently, however there are a few things I'd wish I'd known, like how to change a flat tire or to not ride in the dark. I also would’ve liked to have avoided so many busy highways during our first trip and to have worried less, but sometimes those things are inevitable.
K: Most incredible story from the trip?
R: A constant that never ceases to amaze me is the kindness we experience throughout all of our trips. One example of this was in Panama City when we got caught in a torrential downpour. We were in a poverty-stricken area and there was nowhere for us to take shelter but a woman immediately waved us into her one-room home. Unable to communicate because our Spanish was still nonexistent and unable to see because there was no electricity in the house, we squeezed between four other family members for half an hour and waited out the storm. It’s almost unbelievable how generous everyone we’ve met has been, particularly those who don’t have much themselves, and I’m so thankful that bike touring has shown me this side of humanity.
K: Have you had any mentally or physically challenging experiences?
R: Every day. Our first day going into Mexico was pretty wild because we had to deal with the language barrier and having to navigate our way through Tijuana traffic in mid-thirty degree heat. Plus I was already on edge because everyone we’d talked to had told us we were crazy for biking in that notoriously dangerous boarder town. After much confusion we finally found our way through the chaos and onto the coastal highway which would take us south. About an hour later, we reached a security checkpoint and the guards kicked us off because cyclists aren’t allowed on that particular road. We managed to follow a dirt track and sneak back on but then I got a flat tire and since it was getting late we had no choice but to spend the night at a sleazy sex motel.
That was a pretty mentally and physically challenging day and I felt like we were in way over our heads but we also discovered how wrong we were for thinking that we’d be unsafe in Mexico. All day long people were trying to help us, like the frail old man who was pulling a juice cart that was bigger than he was along the busy highway up from the Tijuana beaches. It was clear he made his living by selling cold drinks to beach goers, but he still insisted that we each take one for free.
So although we face our own challenges everyday, they are trivial compared to what most people deal with and we are so fortunate to be able to take time off work to travel around on our bikes.
K: Let’s hear about some cool people you’ve met!
R: There are way too many to mention but one person we still keep in contact with is our friend Victor from Colombia. We stayed with him for two weeks in Medellín and he went out of his way to show us around and gave us a new perspective of a place that was once considered the most dangerous city in the world. Also, having grown up in the slums during the cocaine drug wars, he had some pretty intense stories to share with us.
K: What are the main obstacles on a long distance bike trip?
R: Being constantly on the move is hard, particularly in countries where the things we take for granted back home, like clean drinking water and hot showers, are almost non-existent. And it doesn’t help when you can’t speak the native language either. Not having enough money or an income can be a challenge as well, but fortunately bike touring is a very affordable way to travel, especially if your only expense in groceries. Another obstacle –and one I didn’t consider before I bike toured – is the weather, specifically the wind. Nothing can make a ride more painful than pedalling against a 40km/h headwind.
K: Have you found anything particularly difficult as a woman / would you say it makes a difference whilst travelling?
R: I think the main difficulty for me has been trying to keep up with Nick because he rides like Lance Armstrong, but doing so has made me a lot stronger, physically and emotionally. Besides that, I’ve never experienced any differences or felt incapable of anything. Maybe you get a bit more attention as a woman on a bike, but in some ways I think it’s made people more inclined to assist us. My answer might be different if I’d travelled alone because I know that some of the women I met encountered a couple weirdos and potentially dangerous situations, but nothing ever severe enough to discourage them from continuing solo.
K: Finally, where are you now and what’s next on the agenda?
R: Currently I'm in a little town called Heathcote in Southern Australia but we'll be leaving soon to continue our travels. We're also going to ride around the South Island of New Zealand for a couple months starting in December. The plan is to do a waste-free trip there so any trash we accumulate will have to come with us on the bikes! It will be our ‘Riding Dirty’ tour.
*Update: The van blew up so now we are back on the bikes *