Crazyguyonabike.com is another bicycle touring related resource that originally inspired me towards creating the Bicycle Touring 101 web site. It is a wonderful place to visit and read the numerous (500+) journals about other people's bicycle touring experiences all over the world.
It's even better if you decide to hang around and put a few of your own bicycle touring adventures up so that others can also enjoy them.
Sharing your adventure is very easy to do. Everything is web based so you can enter your journal reports using a simple web browser. Generally you enter each day of your tour as a page on your journal site. At any point you can change the order of the pages, create new ones and edit existing ones. A guest book is also included with every journal making it possible for people to ask you questions or give you feedback about your tour. I have eight journals on the Crazyguyonabike.com site myself so I can say with experience that receiving feedback from people via the guest book is always something to be savoured and enjoyed. It's especially nice when it occurs during the tour allowing you to respond to questions etc in your actual journal pages.
If you would like to update your journal while on the road you actually have two ways to do so as well. You can use a computer with a web browser and update your journal like normal or you can send an email to the journal to have it add a page for you with the contents of the email as the actual page information. When you take this feature and couple it with a device like the pocketmail then you end up with the ability to create an exciting and very dynamic journal that records your tour as it happens. Not only is this very nice for others to read and experience but it also gives you a very vivid tour record upon your return.
A resource like this would not be complete without the ability to include pictures and this site certainly allows you to include as many pictures as you want.
Crazyguyonabike.com is truly a pillar of the bicycle touring community and a priceless resource that will hopefully be around for quite a long time!
The remainder of this article contains an interview with Neil Gunton, the creator and mastermind behind CrazyGuyOnAbike.com. Read on to learn more.
What's the history of crazyguyonabike.com including when it first appeared?
I was working (as a programmer) on Wall Street in 1997, making good money but feeling kind of burned out. I had finally gotten myself out of debt, and actually had some money in the bank. I was feeling restless, and at some point the idea for cycling across the USA bubbled into my head. The concept grew, fed by the drudgery of everyday, high pressure job stress. So, I made a graceful exit from the job I was doing. I hired someone to replace me, who turned out to be a much better programmer than I ever was, so I guess that turned out ok! Then, in May 1998, I got rid of my New York City apartment, put all my stuff in storage on Staten Island, and packed up my bike to just take off. It was a very nice feeling to do that, knowing you are totally free to go wherever you want, but once you actually get on the bike and start riding the reality quickly hits you. The tour was a lot of fun, and I kept a daily journal on my little Psion Series 3C palmtop computer. I guess I had an idea that maybe I could write a book about it or something. After I got back home, the journal just sat there for a good year or more before I began to try working it up into a real document. By that time I was getting into Linux and the whole Open Source scene, and I decided it might be cool to put my journal up as a website. I quickly realized that the thing would have to be split into multiple pages, because of the sheer length and number of photos. Also, editing all those pages manually would simply be a nightmare... so, I remembered my previous Web programming experience with developing dynamic, database-driven websites, and decided to put the whole thing into a relational database.
It took a while, but the first version of the website was done by early 2000, can't remember the exact date but the domain was registered in January 2000 and I think the site was up by March. It was very simple, just my journal, not even a guestbook (that first appeared in April 2000). I took a few more months learning about Linux, Apache, Perl, MySQL and all the other tools involved with making such a website possible. I added the ability to edit the journal through a web browser, and I quickly realized that all the code I had written could be extended to allow other people to put their own journals up too. After all, once you have a database driven website, in theory putting other journals up should be as simple as adding more records to the database. So then I went to work extending the database to enable the concept of different users, each journal getting its own guestbook and so on. This was released to the public on March 7th, 2001. I announced it on the Phred mailing list, and the first few journals went up shortly thereafter, about six by the end of the month. From there the site grew as people suggested features and the site just seemed to take on a life of its own.
Why "crazyguyonabike"? Is there a story behind the name?
I was reading a book called "The Essential Crazy Wisdom", by Wes Nisker (a very good book, btw). It speaks of many concepts in Eastern philosophies which resonated deeply with me. Then I discovered that most of the good (i.e. short and descriptive) domain names were already taken and being used for mostly useless and unrelated sites. In frustration, I decided to go in the opposite direction and choose a domain name that was laughably (for that time) long and unwieldy, also one that perhaps conveyed something of the whimsical and pointless nature of a long distance bike ride. After all, how sane is it to just quit your job and take off on a bicycle, pedaling into the unknown? I was, for sure, the crazy guy on a bike. Especially in the hot sun of Kansas.
Can you briefly describe some of your bicycle touring adventures?
There are not many, in fact. I remember from the earliest age, my little folding bicycle symbolised freedom to me. The bike wasn't all that great, but I would go on little tours from my house in Norwich (UK) and explore strange new neighborhoods. When I was about 10 years old (circa 1977) my parents moved down to Cornwall (in the Southwest of England) and bought a farmhouse that was about 3 miles from the nearest village, and 7 miles from Truro, the closest real town. Then my brother Nick bought me a five-speed sports bike, a Carlton Cobra. This was my first "real" bike, and it allowed me to go much further afield. I would bike into Truro regularly, and for many years thereafter I would break distances down into "Truros" (i.e. multiples of 7 miles - so if there was a distance of 15 miles I'd just say well, that's only Truro and back, that's nothing). I used to delight in seeing if I could push the biggest gear up the big hills, and didn't know a damn thing about spinning or anything else. I'd wear sneakers, cotton rugby shorts and t-shirt. No helmet, gloves or shades. And I had a whale of a time! It was fantastic.
When I was 19, I was accepted into the University of Edinburgh to study computer science. This was 1986. My parents were also moving up to Dunkeld, which is near Perth (also in Scotland). So, I decided that to get up there I would ride my bike, all the way from Lands End (the most southern tip of England). I put a shaky, rusted rack on the back of the bike, bought two rear panniers, and a bunch of Ordnance Survey maps of the UK, and on May 1st 1986 took the train down to Penzance. From there I proceeded to ride up the country, staying at the many (and excellent) Youth Hostels. I took an ad-hoc route through Wales and the Lake District. Once memorable day was spent pedaling through the rain in Wales, thinking to myself how refreshing and wild this all was - I was proud to be out there in this, feeling close to nature etc. I found out later that this was the big radioactive raincloud that came over from Chernobyl. Great. I think they had to slaughter a bunch of sheep because they were contaminated, so I have no idea what happened to me. Anyway, it was a hard ride (again, just wearing sneakers and rugby shorts) and I managed to get to Dunkeld by May 18th. By then I'd run out of money and so had to abandon my plans for going on up to John O'Groats (the northern-most point in the UK mainland) - though to be honest I was more than happy to stop then. I was tired! It was perhaps just as well I decided to stop there, since the rear rack broke about a week after I arrived. Just snapped, it was totally rusted through!
Unfortunately I have no pictures or real journal of that ride, which I have regretted mightily over the years. You think you'll remember every day, every incident, because it seems to be seared into your brain at the time. And you do for a short while, but inevitably you start to forget the details. After a longer time it becomes a big blur, with just individual mental snapshots surviving (this is one of the big reasons that I was so careful to keep a detailed journal on my TransAm).
After that first big ride I slid into the world of university and then work, and didn't really have a chance to do any touring until 1998, the big TransAm ride (http://neil98.crazyguyonabike.com). Then there was another gap, until 2003 when my wife Chiho and I decided to pedal from our home in Wisconsin to the Mall in Fargo ND. That can be seen at http://pedalingtothemall.crazyguyonabike.com. These are the only real tours I have done, though there will hopefully be more in the future, as time and money permits.
Two of the major tours that you went on included your 1998 Solo Cross US tour and your 2003 Ride to the Mall tour with your wife. In what major ways did the tours differ for you? Did you find it a lot different to tour as part of a team rather then alone?
Touring with someone else is very different from touring by yourself. It doesn't matter if the person is the love of your life or your best buddy from childhood, there are definitely challenges. For one thing, I have noticed that when you're by yourself, people are much more willing to just come up and talk to you. You are, somehow, more approachable. But even when you're with just one other person, you are suddenly a "group" and people just kind of ignore you (except for other cyclists, but they are a special case). Another issue is that two or more people will each have their own speeds and preferences for stopping, smelling the roses, where to eat, and so on. Small differences that are insignificant in normal life become amplified when on a self-supported bicycle tour. I would say that it's a fine test for seeing if you're really "compatible" with someone else, to go on a long camping trip (bike or otherwise). Being in close proximity to the other person through all sorts of physical hardships tends to strip away the higher levels of civility and bring out any underlying frustrations or differences. I could see this happening with me and Chiho as we were getting eaten alive by mosquitoes, tired after a long day pedaling in the sun, against the wind. Fortunately our relationship is strong enough that we weathered the little storms, but I think this is perhaps one of those "dirty little secrets" that people hesitate to talk about because it is so personal... they assume that they can go on a coast-to-coast bike ride with (say) a friend from college who they have never really had to go through any significant hardship with, and you hear over and over about the riders eventually splitting up. Usually differences are to do with speed, expectations about distances and where stops would be, and the simple wearing down of our "civilized" selves as we experience hardships that aren't common in today's pampered world - a lot of people really don't appreciate just how hard bicycle touring can be (just having the wind blowing hard against you all day can almost drive you crazy, let alone the hills, sun, punctures, dogs, cars, dust, and other travails that the road can throw at you at any time).
Of course, there are also many positive aspects to traveling with a good friend or spouse - you have someone to share your experience with, and it can make you grow closer together if you can weather the problems. Having emotional support is important, as a long solo ride can get extremely lonely for some. I would say that both solo and accompanied have their own points in favor and against. Solo riders can do whatever they please, whenever, and they somehow seem more romantic to passers by and people met on the road. On the other hand, riding with someone else gives you that measure of support and friendship when you need it... neither one is "better", they simply present two different perspective and it all depends on who you are and who your partner is.
Your web site is very popular and an incredible resource for touring journals. When you first started the site did you see it growing to be as big as it has become?
Not really, because I assumed that there weren't really all that many bicycle tourists out there... and those that were out there would probably be able to find better, more "professional" solutions than my website. I always really saw this thing (and still do, really) as a kind of experiment to see what people would do if you put the tools out there. The only constraint I put on the content is that it be directly related to bicycle touring in some way. Other than that I've been pretty lenient. I still wouldn't say that it's "big", the site currently gets around 750,000 distinct page requests per month, which really isn't all that much when you think about it. A lot of sites out there get that much in a few hours. I am quite happy to let the thing just "be", and have it grow organically. I am so tired of seeing everything that becomes successful eventually destroy itself by either being bought out or merging with something else to make an even bigger, more unwieldy conglomerate. It happens with corporations all the time, and the end result always seems to suck even more. I've had a few different people and organizations ask me if I would like to merge the site with theirs, but I have always resisted this (even though the other sites get substantially more traffic than I ever will by myself). I think there is something to be said for a small site that remains focused on its own little niche, and doesn't feel a need to be the biggest or baddest website out there. I don't aim to "rule this space" or be the most dominant anything. If people like the site then they can use it, and I'm glad to put something like this into the world. I have thought at length about putting advertising on the site (on my own terms, text-only ads from companies that I choose) but I always seem to come back to not liking the idea at all. I feel like I would somehow be defiling something pure, which isn't meant to sound pretentious or precious! The website is simply a place for people to put their bicycle touring journals, and I think that's enough.
I imagine that there is some significant administrative work behind keeping your site running smoothly. How much time a week do you spend on pure administrative tasks compared to new feature development? What top three things could your authors do to help you free up more time to move your site forward?
The admin work tends to go in fits and starts. Usually there is more work to be done immediately after a major new release of code, because people find bugs and suggest better ways for things to work. You'd think it would be easy to design for simplicity and ease of use, but it really isn't. Ironically, designing for those goals can be the hardest thing you ever do as a programmer. You'd be surprised what some users do on the site - people post forum messages as a Resource entry, or use my own contact form to try to contact someone else ("Hi John, loved your journal..."). Other people start their journal and then just abandon it midway. Perhaps they ended their trip and just forgot to write it up, or (often) they quit the trip before the end and just put the journal out of their mind as well (I guess that's understandable, a form of escape from the reality of failure)... either way, I have to deal with those unfinished journals. I don't want to let them clutter up the site, but some of them are quite hard to remove since they may have significant content already. A good example was Peter Ranvestel's "Strugglebus" journal, which had some of the most incredible writing I've seen yet on a journal - really excellent stuff. But he left the journal in the middle, and never replied to any messages enquiring as to his well-being or if he finished the trip... he simply disappeared. Eventually I emailed people who seemed to have known him from before his trip, and they told me that he had in fact finished the tour and was back home. So, I unpublished the journal. If people can't be bothered to update the journal and let the people who had been following it what had happened, then I can't be bothered hosting it, to be honest. Peter did get in touch after I unpublished, promising to complete it as he had time, but so far it remains unfinished, and unpublished. Sad. Probably this is the hardest part of administering such a website for me - the people who treat it like something that is "just there" or really doesn't matter, rather than something that has real people (and real readers) behind it, who put a lot of effort into it and care about keeping it good. Currently I have a script that automatically unpublishes abandoned journals after about 100 days of inactivity, which in most cases is plenty enough time to demonstrate that the person probably ain't coming back. They can always re-publish if they want, but this keeps the site relatively free of frustrating journals that just cut off in midstream for no apparent reason.
What can authors do to help me? Well they can read the instructions, try to keep to the spirit of the site, and tell me when things go wrong. It's surprising how many people simply never tell me about a bug - sometimes I have discovered something that was broken for a loooong time, simply because I had to use that feature myself. When I came to edit my Pedaling to the Mall journal, I found a bunch of stuff that people really should have let me know about. This stuff had been broken for months if not years! Amazing. I think people are generally used to the "Microsoft" effect, where you feel kind of powerless when something doesn't work. But maybe they simply don't realize that there is a real live programmer behind this site who will try to fix a bug, frequently within minutes of you letting him know about it (if I happen to be sitting at the keyboard). Tell me about the bugs, and I will fix them! Promise!
Crazyguyonabike has gone through a vast number of changes in just the past couple of years that I have been using your web site. What are some changes that you've added in the recent past and what additional changes can we potentially look forward to in the future?
The most recent big addition was probably the Directory (which was renamed to Resources because some people felt that "Directory" connoted more something like a user directory). This is actually a fairly powerful database which allows people to contribute links and other useful information. The powerful aspect of this is the combination of categories and locales - so you can, for example, potentially find all the campsites in San Diego. However I was a bit surprised at the lack of reaction to this feature - when I announced it on the Phred mailing list, it got zero replies on the list (and about two off list). This was startling, since I thought a resource database dedicated to bicycle touring would be bang on target for this community, but it was in fact another lesson in human nature. I think most people are not all that technical, and perhaps they simply didn't "get" the thing, or else they didn't really see it as something that they could participate in. Fact is, I designed it so that anyone could contribute. In fact, nothing much will happen unless people contribute. For example, I thought that if everyone put up their local routes (good roads that people could use to get through the local area) then we might end up with a nationwide network of small routes that people could patch together into larger routes. One of the bigger problems with making your own route across the USA (or any other country) is that when you don't know an area, it's really easy to end up on crappy, main roads with lots of traffic. If local people contributed their knowledge, then we could have all those gems accumulated in one database, searchable by location. If it grew then we could add tools to display the data in more interesting ways, for example graphically on real maps. But, as it is, not many people have put up routes. There are always some links to websites being posted, but the Resources can do so much more.
Most recently I added locales to journal pages, so that people could associate towns with individual days in the journal. These can then be linked to a map website (currently MultiMap.com) so that you can see exactly where it is. Eventually, I can see linking all these together to display a larger map with an overview of the journey. The possibilities are endless, really, once you have associations with locales (a locale is simply a longitude/latitude, i.e. a point on the earth, be it a town, mountain pass, lake etc).
Some people have asked for audio and video capabilities, but my server and bandwidth capabilities aren't really there yet. Anyway, I think there is something special about text, it will stick around for a good while as the major form of expression.
As for other future possibilities, I am open to ideas!
When you look at the vast number of features available to users on your site do you have any particularily favourite ones that you really like personally?
I really like the Donations page ;-)
But seriously, I guess the Serendipity page is nice, because it lets you find journals that you might otherwise have never bothered to read. The What's New page is surprisingly useful, in fact I'm always a bit startled when I come across a website with dynamic content (i.e. stuff contributed by users) that doesn't have such a page readily available. It's really nice to be able to see at a glance what's been going on.
I know that recently you moved to a different part of the country. Do you have any upcoming tour plans?
Not really, but that's not because I don't want to. We are currently in Corvallis (Oregon) and this was supposed to be a place where Chiho might be able to get some work in her field (outdoor education/wilderness therapy). However we have been finding that we don't really like the area all that much. The car drivers here are crazy, not in a good way, and the place just seems kinda more tense than I expected. So we are trying to figure out what to do next, as our savings dwindle down to nothing. I'm currently trying to develop some new website stuff that may be able to be developed into a business, but I'll leave the details of that for now.
We have been thinking a lot about Ashland WI, which surprised both of us (who'd have thought we would miss... Wisconsin???). But that area is actually very nice, in part because it isn't really well known. There aren't many people there, and the people who do live there are mostly ok. The drivers give you plenty of room, and the backroads really are that - you can get away from the traffic pretty easily. On top of all that, land is quite cheap, so we can see ourselves going back there at some point to live.
One of the interesting concepts I recall reading about in your Cross USA journal was nilspace. Is this something you are still working on? Would you like to discuss what it is or where it's headed?
Damn, I thought I was going to leave that for now! ;-)
Ok, well, Nilspace has morphed and remorphed over the years, from an online web service to a new language and back again. Currently I think it has split into two distinct things, one being the new computer programming language (which is still a work in progress, but really on the back burner at the moment since it doesn't have immediate revenue potential, which we need). The other aspect is the online communities, which is what I will be working on now. The crazyguyonabike codebase provides me with a base to expand, because it already provides some of the services which will be included - journals (articles), forums, resources. I will be adding classifieds (including special functionality for auctions, jobs, autos, personals and real estate) to make something that will rival craigslist.org and eBay in terms of functionality and scope. I also wrote a webmail application, which includes email, contacts and calendar, which I will work up into production shape and add to the mix. So then we'll have something that is sort of like a blend of Yahoo!, craigslist, eBay, and WikiPedia. The last one is the articles, which will use the current Journals functionality to enable users to post papers on just about any subject, in the spirit of an online compendium of knowledge and wisdom. There will be different categories for the articles, including Reference (i.e. encyclopedia-type entries, mostly factual on specific topics), or literature (e.g. fiction, humor etc), or commentary (current affairs, opinion pieces, etc). A final piece of the puzzle will be functionality for building online stores (see Yahoo! shops) and online payments (see PayPal). I've already implemented the payment functionality, but it's not hooked up to any back-end financial systems, and also needs to be finished properly. Anyway, as you can see the whole thing is rather ambitious, but it'll get there and is, in my opinion, very do-able. It would, I think, be nice to have a "non-evil" website providing these services.
I plan to make money via a somewhat novel approach: The classifieds, jobs, real estate, autos and personals sections will not be free, but you won't have to pay until after the ad was successful. So there is no initial charge to post the entry, but when you come back later to cancel or take the ad down, it'll ask you if the ad worked (i.e. did the item sell, did you get some good dates, did the house sell etc). You can choose then to say "yes" and pay the fee, or "no", in which case you don't have to pay. There will also be another option "Yes it worked, but I can't pay right now" (perhaps you're out of work, or whatever), in which case you don't have to pay. So you only pay if it worked for you, which I think is fair. The fee will thus not be optional, but the idea is that you would have to consciously lie in order to avoid paying the fee - either saying that the item didn't sell, or that you're unemployed. I think most people would prefer to be honest, particularly if a website was providing a truly useful service, and doing it in a way that didn't attempt to screw over the user at every opportunity. I feel that more and more people today are tired of being treated like this, and the hope is that this will encourage a strong sense of community to support such an endeavor. Sure, there will always be some people will never pay, but I am betting on the good people outweighing the bad.
There will also be fees involved with the email service (which involves a significant load on my servers without any community benefit, so I think there is good reason to charge for this - even though there are obviously "free" email services out there, this one will sell itself on functionality and being totally non-evil and ad-free, which I think some people will appreciate), also the online payments (though I will charge a lot less than the current services do).
I believe that if you provide good services that people like, and make it clear that you're not being evil and respect the user, then "they will come". 'Course, I could be wrong, but it's fun to try nonetheless! ;-)
Bicycle Touring adventures contain many different elements from scenic beauty to experiencing new cultures and meeting new people. When you look back on your recent tours do you have any favourite elements that come to mind?
I think I experienced quite enough new cultures and adventures just living in New York City for nine years! ;-)
The TransAm ride was great because it made me realize just how different people can be, while at the same time being exactly the same. I know it's politically correct to say that every place has its good and bad, people are all basically good etc, but truthfully, anyone who travels will have their own stories to tell about the places they went through. For me, Kansas was one of the most friendly, and Oregon really wasn't (so why am I here now? Hmmm. Not so smart, it seems!). Sorry to anyone reading this who is from Oregon, it's nothing personal. We just all have our own experiences, and I think to try and paper over these in favor of being "nice" to everyone would be avoiding one of the big elephants in the room. People should be honest, good or bad, about their opinions. Not everyone or every place is nice, and not everything about a particular area can be said to be "good" or "bad", but in truth my time in Kentucky was not the best, shall we say. The dogs there were really, really bad (and count Missouri in there too) and yet the Sheriff who helped me in Fordsville KY after I was attacked by a pitbull was kind enough to put me up for the night. So go figure... Oregon was beautiful, but I encountered some nasty attitudes (one diner just outside Eugene told me I couldn't leave my bike outside, effectively telling me to "git")... some of the most beautiful, lush, green, perfect land in Virginia was home to some of the meanest, saddest, most suspicious people of the trip. All that land, and no one would offer me a simple place to put the tent for the night. But then some poor family in the next town would happily offer me their small lawn... it's funny, the more people have, the more fearful and closed they become. It's a strange world, alright. Don't ask me how it all works, I'm still trying to figure it out myself.
Your site seems to always be incredibly busy with journals constantly being added and updated. I imagine that it is not inexpensive to keep such a busy site running. Is there anything that your readers can do to help (donate money to the site/patronize your site sponsors etc)?
Well, the classifieds will be taken care of on the upcoming Nilspace site. I don't plan on putting anything commercial on crazyguyonabike for the foreseeable future, not even ads (I really don't like that idea, somehow). There is a new Donations page, under the Help section, but this is a purely voluntary thing that I don't really expect to see much out of. Some people like to feel that they reciprocated somehow by giving money, especially if they've enjoyed the site for a number of years and read it regularly. However I don't see this as being in any way "expected" or necessary, and people shouldn't feel pressured in any way to give money. There are monthly expenses for the server and ISP, but honestly it isn't the straw breaking the camel's back at the moment.
Do you have a particular tour that you are looking forward to doing some day in the future?
I have thought about a few, including doing a circuit of the USA (across the Northern Tier (E-W), down the Pacific Coast, across the Southern Tier W-E, then up the Atlantic Coast). I don't really know if that's feasible in one single riding season, though. I'd also like to do New Zealand, and some parts of Canada (Nova Scotia)... and a circuit of the UK, visiting all the places I lived in my childhood. Funny, that trip seems positively small now, but it would still be something well over 1000 miles.
Eventually I'll do the TransAm again, because it will bring back memories of the original trip. Hopefully I can get to see June Curry, the Cookie Lady again.
An Interview with Neil Gunton
As I mentioned earlier the Crazyguyonabike.com web site is one of the great places to visit for those of us in the bicycle touring community.
If you haven't been there then I encourage you to go and visit. I think you will be very pleasantly surprised at the sheer volume and variety of bicycle touring experiences that you can find there.
If you have been there and especially if you have enjoyed using the wonderful service that Crazyguyonabike provides then please consider making a donation to crazyguyonabike. It would definately be nice to continue to see Neil's valuable resource on the web for many, many years to come.
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