Through New Story Ride, Mike Elm is cycling from Vienna to Mongolia to source and share stories from the frontline of the climate crisis. He has been inspired by New Story Run, a project by his partner Rosie Watson, who recently wrote for Adventure Uncovered.
How did New Story Ride come about?
I thought that in all sorts of places there must be incredible human kindness, generosity, compassion, innovation and joy targeted towards the greatest challenge we face as a species: the climate crisis. The New Story Ride was created to share that truth with everyone who needs to see that not only is this new story possible, but it is happening.
I’ve had the idea of a long-distance bike ride in mind on and off for maybe ten years. However I began to work and then also to volunteer on the climate and ecological crises, and through that I felt there was no way to ‘take time out’. The scale of the challenge of turning round where we are headed with these crises made me feel I had to be working directly on them. Even though over time I started to feel more like my fit wasn’t in the traditional ‘in-an-office-behind-a-computer’ role.
Rosie Watson, who I’m well lucky to call my partner, cracked the combination of the two like an absolute star when she came up with the New Story Run. I remember my feeling of ‘Oh shit, this is exactly what I want to do but with my bike’ when she first revealed it to me.
What followed was me taking the train to China (highly recommended - route here) for a friend’s wedding and a sabbatical that involved a yoga teacher training course. I’d slightly jealously kept an eye – as much as Chinese sensors allow – on Rosie’s journey. It wasn’t until I’d completed the course that I got the clarity and my ego in check enough to realise that The New Story Ride was exactly what I should be doing.
With Rosie’s encouragement, the New Story Ride was born as a twinned adventure to the Run. To find and tell more of the stories of how we can get to a world that is more cooperative, compassionate, fun and has the crises we face in check.
And what were the first steps?
The Ride began on 24th November 2019 in Vienna, after an epic twelve days of trains, boats and buses back from China. Some rather last-minute kit cobbling including a second-hand, early 90s Ridgeback bike from Graham Watson (some relation); bikepacking bags from Mark Beaumont (yes that one – it’s amazing what happens if you tell people what you need); and a tent from the aquatic adventure man David Gange.
I take my own route on the Ride and then every week or two Rosie and I overlap in a place as we weave and wind our ways towards Mongolia.
What’s your latest, in the Covid era?
I’ve ridden more than 5500km, passing through bits of twelve countries so far to get to where the Fakiya hearing this from. No really, this village in southeast Bulgaria is called Fakiya. And I’ve been hosted in a yurt by a legend called Mitko. He grows chickpeas and with his yurt is trying to live as off-grid as possible.
One really special piece of the new story I found in Bulgaria was in the northwest, in the beautiful region of Tran, where the local community had come together to overwhelmingly vote against the development of a gold mine and instead to focus on showing the great potential of the region for biking, hiking, climbing, yoghurt, rabbits and bees. I can confirm it’s excellent for at least the two of these I tried.
The way ahead for the Ride (and Run) is across the Black Sea on a three-day, (mostly cargo) boat to Georgia. Then a route through Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, a little of Russia and Mongolia. There is the slight issue right now of COVID-19. For the time being many borders are closed on this route.
It’s come to the point where both of us are pausing and going back to the UK for what I expect will be at least the next 6 months for lockdowns etc. Whilst there we’ll be catching up on sharing the pieces of the new story we’ve come across, helping where needed, trying to earn some cash and preparing for restarting hopefully in Spring 2021!
Why did you choose to focus on the climate crisis for the project?
I am 33. I expect to be alive in 2050 and beyond. Right now my outlook is for a Mad Max retirement. I feel like choice doesn’t really enter into it when the threat of the climate crisis is so real and so relevant to the present day let alone the future.
It is also something inherently universal. The climate damage caused in one place manifests in another. So I feel it’s important to underline the universal existence of efforts to limit it.
And how did you decide to focus on the climate crisis in the way you are, i.e. through sourcing stories and projects?
I think people struggle to imagine where to start, so showing human-scale stories of people making an impact is intended to show others that at the core of all the changes are individual people just like you.
What impact do you hope to have?
I want people to see that they have a part to play in the climate crisis. Not in the ‘do your recycling’ kind of way, but in the ‘how do I combine what I love doing with what needs doing’ way. We should be excited for what else life could be.
Are there any stories or projects that strike you as particularly promising or noteworthy?
The thin random line I’m tracing across the map is showing many examples to recharge optimism of the overwhelming good in people. I hope it can inspire people to try.
The river Vjosa in western Albania is the last wild river in Europe. It could also be the start of bringing back wild rivers. The tiny village of Kutë, which sits right above land that would be submerged by a proposed large hydropower dam, I met the locals trying to change the course of rivers. They want to make theirs a solar-powered village, to start showing the alternative to making the dam.
Albania and the neighbouring countries are plagued by hydropower schemes which damage the rivers’ ecosystems and exist purely on the basis of warped incentives. These places depend on their rivers. If the model of a solar village could work – and with the amount of sun in the Balkans all it needs to work is a change in investment – the fate of the beautiful Vjosa can change and the damage that’s been done can start to be reversed.
Has your thinking around the climate crisis more generally changed during the ride?
That it's not only angels that make positive change. It’s real people with greater or lesser flaws.
I visited Ljubljana in Slovenia specifically because the city is creating a new story focused on people, not cars. Breaking the dominance of private cars - no matter how they're powered - is fundamental to the scale of change necessary everywhere. What they're doing is impressive, and they've relied on implementing rapid changes that you can feel. They are an exemplar of transformation, and the result is a peaceful, spacious and beautiful city centre.
But they also have lots of complaints of corruption from residents, and the mayor has cases against him particularly.
Do you plan on continuing to work on the climate crisis following the New Story Ride?
Everyone in the world is working on the climate crisis: some people are working to fuel it and some are working to mitigate it.
Right now the path we are on is bleak. The time when we had the luxury of choice of being involved in climate action or not is gone. Either the climate breaking down is something that is just done to us and we suffer massively, or we all put our heart and soul into creating an outcome that is not catastrophe. Or at the very least try.
It is no longer enough to be thinking small - doing what you've always done but with a nod to being green. The urgency of the climate crisis must define not just how we do things, but also the things that we do.
The climate crisis is the result of and has the potential to exacerbate the world's major issues. Working on the climate crisis isn't about counting grams of C02; it's about creating a world that we want to live in, and one that - with a lot of collective effort and a bit of luck - we can.
Mike also sourced some questions from social media.
Have there been different welcomes from people in different places?
In every country I’ve been there’s been people who have welcomed me into their house and fed me, in most cases having known nothing more than I was someone on a bike travelling some distance. There has, however, been a shortening of the time between wondering who I am and offerings of a drink or food, especially in Albania.
How do you find your routes?
My main map app has been OsmAnd, which I use for navigation overall. This leads me on the occasional ‘this is a hiking path that’s way too steep to cycle on’ route. But that’s part of the fun, right?
Another useful tool is the Google Maps satellite view. It does require internet, but from that you can sometimes find routes that are exciting and don’t exist on any maps.
How did you make such an elegant setup from such an old banger?
I have a great eye for design and am always impeccably organised ... I get at least a few people saying they find my setup stressful, urging me to get panniers etc. I think they need to calm down. Pieces hardly ever fall off and – especially now that I sent some bits home – Billie (the bike) rides like a dream. I think we get too attached to image and it takes away from the adventure!