With only a month to go before this Euro-tour began, I still didn’t have a bicycle. A frame had been prepared for me but in the end we decided we couldn’t use it – we were having too many problems finding components that would fit it properly, and there were some concerns that the unconventional design might lead to some problems for me down the road. With my departure date looming ever closer, I had to come up with a new plan, and fast.
At the time, I was still living in Taiwan. And though hundreds of people do cycling tours around the country every year, few of them do it on a proper touring bike. It only takes about 10 days to do the periphery of the island, and the weather conditions make it easy for cyclists to pack light. So people generally use mountain bikes or even a road bike and mount a couple of panniers on them, and away they go. As a result of this, the market for long distance touring bikes is virtually non-existent in Taiwan, which meant that I’d have to go shopping elsewhere.
After hours of research, I decided I wanted a Surly Long Haul Trucker, a world-renowned and long-time favourite ride amongst heavy-duty touring enthusiasts. I was told by a friend who works in the cycling industry that Surly, an American company, manufacture their frames in Chunghua, which was essentially 30 minutes down the street from where I was living at the time. But when we called them to try to get our hands on one of these frames, we were told that we wouldn’t be able to get one until June… in other words, at least three months after I was scheduled to leave.
In the end, after getting in touch directly with the Surly guys back in the States, I ended up making a Skype call to a shop in England that had several Surly frames and bikes in stock. And this is how I came to know Charlie ‘the Bikemonger’ Hobbs and his lovely wife, Michelle. After a few email exchanges and friendly chats on the phone, they sent me a slick, black Surly LHT frame in the mail, and though it cost me a pretty penny to have it shipped all the way to Taiwan, it was worth every penny. Thrilled with my shiny new frame, I promised that I’d try my best to make it out to Swanage (in Dorset, on the south coast of Great Britain) to visit Charlie and Michelle. And last week, that’s exactly what I did.
Swanage is a beautiful coastal town that has sandy beaches and gorgeous cliffs along its shores, and rolling hills of farmland and wilderness across the land. I was all too happy to spend a few days exploring the area while getting to know Charlie and Michelle better. Neither of them was interested in getting a tattoo, but not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for the ever-charismatic and creative Charlie to find another way to make something happen. In a conversation that was started between Charlie and a man standing next to him at the urinals at a pub one night, it somehow came out that – A) Charlie had a tattoo artist hanging around his shop these days, and B) this other man, Lee, and his friends were looking for a place to get tattoos while they were on holiday in Swanage.
One thing led to another, and the next day I met with Lee, his wife Gemma, and their friends Rob and Clare to talk about tattoos. The day after that, all four of them ended up in the makeshift tattoo studio that we’d set up in Charlie and Michelle’s shop. Lee is a tattoo artist in a shop of his own, Moore Ink Tattoo Studio in Northern England, and he was no stranger to the joys of being tattooed. Nor were the others, for that matter; between the four of them, they must have had several dozen tattoos of different sizes, shapes and styles. It was a pleasure for me to spend an afternoon with them, adding to their collections.
For this sitting, the men both chose to have an old-school rose done in black and white – on the side of the calf for Rob, and on the top of the wrist for Lee, to start building up his second sleeve. The ladies also chose to have the same tattoo done; they each got a wasp done behind their ear, since they’d both experienced getting stung by one of the many wasps they’d had to chase out of their tents that week.
For all of us, including Charlie, it was a fun day of watching people’s reactions as they came into the bike shop for normal, everyday bicycle-related stuff, only to walk in on people getting tattooed right there in the showroom. It was the ones who pretended they didn’t see us at all that were the funniest. You could actually see how hard they were working not to look our way, as though they couldn’t hear the loud buzzing noise of the tattoo machine. Oh, the ever-so-proper Brits…
I left cozy Swanage the following day with a bunch of cool new ‘Charlie the Bikemonger’ stickers on my bike and a whole lot of great memories. Every time I’ve made special plans to visit someone on this trip, be it a friend of a friend or someone I’d only known through emails or phone calls before, it’s been a great experience. There was Areti in Greece, Morena and Marco in Italy, Davide in London, Cathy near Brighton, and now Charlie and Michelle, at the tail end of my stay in the UK. All amazing people who have been a part of some pretty memorable moments on this trip.
It’s great when you feel a connection with someone that you’ve never met in person. A rather rare occurrence, I’d say. And so when an opportunity presents itself for a deeper connection to be made through an actual meeting with those people… Well, I’m certainly not one to pass that up. You never know which one of them will end up being a friend for life!