A few years ago I had the opportunity to travel to Lismore in Ireland to attend the Immrama Festival of Travel Writing. I was a minor speaker; the headline star act was Terry Waite. His talk, to a large audience in the local school gymnasium, was fascinating but I couldn’t get out of my mind the fact that the man standing in front of me had spent nearly five years in a cell in Beirut, most of it in solitary confinement. The following year – 2018 – I met and had a brief chat with the doctor and long-distance cyclist Stephen Fabes at the Cycle Touring Festival in Clitheroe. I remember having a similar fixation with the fact that the man standing in front of me answering my questions had spent over six years travelling around the world on his bicycle. Terry Waite had been constrained physically in terms of location; Stephen Fabes was at the other end of the spectrum having cycled nearly 80,000 km through 75 countries. Yet both had spent an extremely long period of time – one through force, one through choice – isolated from family, friends and familiarity. In my mind, it remains a disconcerting concept. Terry Waite’s captivity coincided with the period I spent studying for my degree (and then some). During all those lectures, all those nights out, all those holidays… he was locked up. Stephen Fabes’ journey around the world coincided with the period I spent cycling across Europe three times (and then some). During all those days spent travelling but also all those months back at home working and writing the books… he was cycling. My admiration for both men is more than significant.
Last week, as many of you will have noticed, I had the opportunity to meet Stephen Fabes again, this time for a much longer chat that I recorded for the latest episode of The Cycling Europe Podcast.
And once again, as I sat next to him on a bench near Hyde Park Corner in London, it was difficult to get my head around the feat that Stephen had achieved over six years from 2010 to 2016. That said, as I asked him the questions, I did feel much better informed than I had been when I first met the man at the Cycle Touring Festival as I have now read his book, Signs of Life: To the Ends of the Earth with a Doctor, published last month by Profile Books.
Signs of Life is no ordinary cycling travelogue. In fact, to refer to it as a ‘cycling travelogue’ is probably doing it a significant disservice as the book is much, much more than that. The bicycle itself plays a secondary role in this six-year odyssey around the planet. If you are looking for tales of mechanical tribulations, inconveniently timed punctures or day-by-day breakdowns of kilometres cycled and towns visited, you might want to look elsewhere. Dr. Fabes’ approach is much more selective. How could it be anything otherwise when in one volume of writing such a long period needs to be addressed? That said, he manages to be selective without making the reader think they have been short changed. Many of the 75 countries are mentioned only in passing or not at all. Even one or two of the continents do not take up as much space as you might imagine, especially in the early years as he makes his way through Europe and Africa. This might have been a very long, very slow journey for author; it is anything but for the reader.
Fabes manages, with great success, to discuss his time on the minor roads of the world – he purposely avoids the bigger ones – in an immensely engaging manner; the friends who join him for long stretches of his journey, the travellers he meets along the way, the locals he spends time with. Some of those encounters do not end well but the stories are retold in a reflective manner that involves just as much questioning of his own actions as those of others. He also takes the opportunity to delve into the history of cycle travel, comparing his own epic journey with those of the pioneers of long-distance cycling. Such interludes sit perfectly comfortably with his modern-day stories of people met and places visited. And then, as he approaches Asia, as Dr. Fabes begins to spend more time within the medical world from which he comes, the book discusses his experiences of meeting the practitioners working in the clinics and hospitals he visits. Diseases are discussed, outcomes for patients analysed and historical perspectives pondered over but never to the extent that might daunt a non-medic such as me and, probably, you.
The hostage Terry Waite must have spent many months – probably years – readjusting to the normality of life. This final aspect of his self-imposed isolation is not neglected by Stephen Fabes as he returns home to the acclaim of family, friends and colleagues. The cycling doctor recounts his tales of readjustment with, again, humility and humour.
Whether you are a cyclist, a doctor or neither of the above, this is a book worthy of your time (although probably not quite six years…)