NORTHBOUND & DOWN
Author: Otto Ecroyd
Publisher: Great Northern Books
Reviewed by Richard Peploe
Numerous bicycle-based travelogues have been published, and many follow similar principles: decide on a suitably extreme challenge, undertake insufficient preparation (or at least give this impression), and make sure that you encounter appropriate challenges along the way to provide material for the resulting book. Whilst ‘Northbound & Down’ does all of that, the trip from Alaska to Mexico is not the story of your usual cycle-based travel adventure.
Tim Moore is one of the best-known practitioners; Anna Hughes, "Eat, Sleep, Cycle", less well-known, but the result there is probably more similar to Otto Ecroyd’s. He “bought the wrong type of bike. I didn’t realise this was possible.” He decides “to do the rest of my training in Alaska. Why waste time?” He “did no route planning”, and it won’t surprise you to know that “I learnt nothing about bike maintenance.”
As a cyclist, I am often surprised at how ill-prepared some writers of cycling travelogues appear to be – and indeed, how proud they are of the fact. However, not following the rules rarely seems to cause too many problems, and often provides them with even better anecdotes.
Ecroyd takes this to a new level, and will only be beaten if someone starts the ride without a bike – or is unable to actually ride a bike. Note to self: must check if anyone has actually done that yet. Seems like such a great way to set yourself apart from the others.
No budding explorer will gain much practical guidance from ‘Northbound & Down’: the route map is little more than a few place names connected by a squiggly line, and there is minimal information about any of his equipment, let alone any recommendations. It’s just not that type of book.
The fact that the adventure is on a bike is almost irrelevant – except of course that we all know travelling by bike is always the best way to experience such a journey. To put it another way, the cycling aspect does not dominate, so non-cyclists won’t be alienated.
As further confirmation of that, look no further than the pictures: bikes appear in very few of them, and Ecroyd’s own bike in even fewer. Instead, dramatic landscapes dominate, and (for the most part) really make you want to be there enjoying them yourself.
Keen cyclists will still discover stories to which they can relate, such as the sinking feeling of discovering that your bike has been stolen – along with most of his luggage.
On another occasion, a reliance on Google maps led to a really tough climb and descent over “a bastard of a hill” on a loose surface, only to discover that the bridge required to cross a river had long since ceased to be useable.
All that is what makes this book so well suited for its task. If you need inspiration to consider your own adventure, this will surely provide some: it shows that if you don’t know what you don’t know, then you shouldn’t worry about it. Just get going.
If you just want an entertaining read that will often have you laughing out loud, this will also do the job. I find it hard to believe that Ecroyd “didn’t set out to write a book”: it is impressive to turn “a diary of random facts and fragments of thoughts” into “close to 100,000 words … as Christmas presents for friends, family and people I had met during the trip”, let alone make it into such an entertaining book.
Since Ecroyd used a bike on his trip, "Northbound & Down" warrants a review on a cycling website; however, the cycling is such an incidental element of the trip that the book will appeal to anyone looking to read an entertaining story about an improbable adventure.