Julie Gildred

on . Posted in TCSD Conversation

Typically I use this article to talk about racing Ironman triathlons with one of the TCSD members.  But today I’d like to expand all of our horizons by speaking with Julie Gildred, TCSD member who is on a continuous Ironman of sorts as she is using her love of cycling to see the world.

CZ: What was your profession before you started your travels?

JG: I practiced law in San Diego for 12 years.  When I resigned from Vivendi Universal Net USA, I was responsible for the legal affairs of some of the most revolutionary music internet sites including MP3.com, Rollingstone.com and GetMusic.com. 

CZ: What was your inspiration to quit your day job and travel by bike? 

JG: Between 1992 – 1998 my career took me to many developing countries such as India that affected me deeply.  I realized the thing I enjoyed most about practicing law at that time was the travel.  Since then, I’ve known I would do something more with my life involving adventure travel and/or fitness, but could never work up the nerve to leave what, by most standards, would be considered a very successful career.  I felt stuck in the conformities of society, resigning myself to 5:00 a.m. wake-up calls to run, spin or swim…the things I love to do most.   It wasn’t until I completed my first multi-day bike journey across northern Spain in spring of 2002 that I figured out how to live very simply and inexpensively with my bike and two panniers, albeit an unconventional lifestyle.  When I returned from that vacation to the confines of my four office walls, fluorescent lights and computer screen for 10 hour days, I knew immediately it was time to break free.  When I left the US for Vietnam in January 2003, I had no intention of cycling around the world for one year.  My rough plan at the time was to cycle Vietnam from north to south and give my bike to a local once I reached Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).   After the first 500 km’s I was hooked and now, frankly, I don’t know how to travel WITHOUT my bike.  As a self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie, exploring the world on two wheels is my ultimate dream adventure.

CZ: When you are on the road, how much support have you had? 

JG: Traveling on a bike with panniers is, by definition, unsupported.  Everything you need you carry with you.  The only exception is that I sleep in guesthouses, hostels, backpackers, monasteries and convents.  Only in Tibet did I camp and once on the island of Corsica I slept on the trampoline of a Hobie Cat on the beach.  It was just too pretty to be indoors and I refused to pay the exorbitant prices of hotels.  Generally when I pass through a major city after a month or so of cycling, I will have my bike ‘serviced’.  I found a great Western-style bike shop in Bangkok right next to Lumpini Park.  While my bike was being serviced and cleaned for about 120 baht ($3.00 USDs), I’d go for a run in the park.

All of our guided Great-Exploration’s tours are ‘supported’, meaning luggage is transported from hotel to hotel and we have a sag wagon we jokingly refer to as the ‘van of shame.’  Last year, I guided 5 trips for Great-Explorations (Morocco, Andalucia Spain, Tuscany, Umbria and the Tour de France) for a total of roughly 44 days, gaining an average of 5 pounds each trip eating incredible food, drinking way too much wine and at least two Gelatos/day!  I also spent a good portion of last summer developing new routes for some of our other European trips.

CZ: When I lived in Chicago in the 80’s I tried to bike solo all the way to the Grand Canyon.  I made it to Oregon.  Oregon, Illinois that is.  My solo journey lasted 80 miles and mentally I just could not handle it.  I was lonely and afraid.  Tell me how you handle the issues of solo riding. 

JG: It’s impossible to get lonely in South East Asia - the land of sensory overload.  I’m typically so in awe of everything around me that I forget I’m even pedaling a bike.  It’s only when I cross a yak, pig, landmine sign or group of school children that I’m jolted back to focusing on the road.  At the end of my second day of riding in Vietnam, my voice was hoarse and sore from saying ‘hello’ to groups of enthusiastic young kids wanting to practice their English.  The conversation was always the same…they would scream at the top of their lungs… ‘HALLOOOOO’  ‘Where you PHROOOMMM?’ ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Where you going?’  Not responding is not optional. 

Once in Italy I had been climbing what seemed to be 2 hours-- straight out of the gun.  Just as I started to question the sanity of my life, a cute little old Italian man dressed in his 3-piece suit gives me a grin wider than the Grand Canyon, raises his arm above his head in a fist and says: ‘Bravo, Bravo….Ciao Bella!’  That’s all I need to make my day (and I encountered things like that daily).

Cycling solo in France is a special treat.  The weekend before our TDF Tour started I took a train to Bagneres de Luchon to ride a few Cols and spend the night in the beautiful Luron Valley.  I had biked 100 km’s the day prior and was not intending on making it a big day.  On the backside of Col de Peyresourde I hit a strong head wind and unusually warm weather.  The Auberge I wanted to sleep in was full so I decided to train back to Toulouse that same day.  Unbeknownst to me, there was no train station for another 60 kilometers.  Half way into the 60 km, I was really struggling with the wind, heat and fatigue.  A peleton of French cyclists out for their Sunday ride passed me.  One guy noticed I was bonking and, being the gentlemen that French male cyclists are, he slowed his pace and let me draft behind him as he took me all the way to the train station.  It was fantastic.

The most fear I experienced was when I quit my job. 

CZ: Where have your bike travels taken you? 

JG: I traveled through 13 different countries, although I really don’t count England since my bike spent most of the time in the bike shop and I was in London  primarily to visit my best friend visiting from the States.  I started in South East Asia covering Vietnam, Cambodia, Northern Thailand, Laos and Myanmar (Burma) before going to Morocco, Spain, France and Italy.  My tight budget and love for all things Asian took me back across the world to Nepal, Tibet and finally New Zealand.  New Zealand was the first English-speaking country I rode through with the intention being to ease the culture shock of returning home.  In total, I rode roughly 12,000 kilometers.  Not a lot of distance by Ironman training standards but when you’re on a 1996 mountain bike pushing 15 kilos of your life around with you, it’s enough to get your heart rate up, sweat a lot and still enjoy every aspect of the region.

CZ: What places have been your favorites to bike through and why? 

JG: This is the most common question I’m asked and probably the toughest one to answer in a single sentence.  In response to the barrage of inquiries from family and friends, I published in January an email newsletter entitled ‘The Bottom Line on Bike Travel’ listing my favorite countries by categories.  Below is an excerpt from the newsletter which is my ‘long answer’ to this question.  My short answer (if it’s possible) is that I’m particularly enamored with developing countries where Buddhism is the primary religion and regions unaffected by tourism.  Burma and Tibet are on the top of my list for the friendly and warm people, stunning scenery and exotic cultures.  The cycling is not for the meek, however.  A majority of the roads are unpaved and the physical conditions (heat, sun, lack of food, altitude) make for some of the most challenging cycling in the world. 

The Bottom Line on Bike Travel……
‘I've waxed poetically for over a year about the countries, the cultures and the cycling.  When all is said and done (it's never 'done'), friends and family want only the bottom line.....what's your favorite country? What's the best Great-Explorations tour?  What are you going to do now? Answers to these questions don't come in a single sentence.  So, I thought I'd join the rest of the world in publishing my 'Best of 2003' list for those of you who may be interested in joining me in 2004 on 'supported' bike tours (meaning, fine dining, charming inns and, best of all, I schlep your luggage!).  Starting the end of April, I'll be guiding tours in Spain (Camino de Santiago and/or Andalucia), Italy (Tuscany) and France (Tour de France). If you prefer the exotic, that will have to wait until the end of the year!

Julie's Best of 2003 List:

BEST EXOTIC BIKE ADVENTURE:
Myanmar (Burma)
Vietnam
Tibet

BEST WHEELING AND WINE:
Italy (Tuscany and Umbria)
France

BEST ALL-AROUND GREAT-EXPLORATIONS TOUR (my opinion)
Camino de Santiago, Spain
Tour de France
Tuscany, Italy
Corsica, France

BEST ALL-AROUND CYCLING, SCENERY AND CULTURE
Corsica, France

EPIC DAY JOURNEYS
Dalat to Phan Thiet (Vietnam)
The Road to Mandalay (Burma)

WORST DAY RIDING (I had trouble coming up with a bad day)
Nelson to St. Arnuad, NZ  (the wind)

CZ: What places have provided the most challenge and why?

JG: New Zealand because of the gale force antarctic winds.  It was cold, rainy and on flat road I was traveling an average of 5 kilometers/hour.  That’s demoralizing.  Another day, I found myself on a flat, flat straight road with nothing but a lot of sheep.  It was the first time in 12 months that I felt the monotony.  I searched for some undulating hills or a curve in the road to make things interesting.  Ultimately, I spent the rest of the day inside my head writing.  I like to write when I ride.

Tibet is also incredibly challenging for two different reasons.  One, the communist government.   I wasted 4 days with 2 German friends trying to get our Chinese visas extended so we could ride from Lhasa to Kathmandu with a detour to the north side of Everest Base Camp.  It was impossible to get an extension unless we wanted to spend nearly $2,000/each on an ‘organized tour.’   Cycling Tibet is also the most challenging environment I’ve ever experienced.  Between altitudes over 17,000 feet, unpaved deep sand roads, remote and stark wilderness and extremely cold temperatures, it qualifies as one of the harshest environments in the world.  Surprisingly, it’s also one of my favorite regions.

CZ: What is a typical day or week like for you on the road?

JG: The beauty of foreign bike travel is every day is a new adventure.  The only common ‘routine’ involves throwing my hair in a pony tail, dressing in my lycra bike shorts and finding a big breakfast.  Daily life on the road revolves around finding and fulfilling basic needs:  food, water and sleep.  I spend a lot of time reading maps, perfecting my pantomime routine and, of course, biking.  Depending on the weather, I like to spend about 6 hours/day on my bike.  I had 3 or 4 ‘epic journeys’ where I spent over 12 hours cycling in one day, stopping for food wherever I could find it.  When I get to my destination town, I usually spend another hour ‘shopping’ for a place to sleep.  The standards for budget accommodations differ greatly around the world and my standards adjust accordingly.  I used to think it was important to have a shower and bathroom, now I’m happy with a clean bed and a sheet.  I also try to finish each day with dinner and a beer.  It’s all about needs and priorities!

CZ: Where will your 2004 travels take you? 

JG: 2004 is flying by faster than I would like.  I’ll be in Madeira, Portugal for the 2004 World Triathlon Championships supporting some Canadians and Kiwi’s I met in Queenstown, NZ during the 2003 World’s.  When I return to mainland Portugal, I’ll ride either north or south.  I don’t like to plan too much of my independent riding until I get to a particular country.  Typically my goal is to find a route with really quiet roads, coastline, challenging hills well off the tourist path.  I then go to Spain to guide one of the greatest trips (I think) that Great-Explorations offers: the Camino de Santiago Tour.  Starting in Pamplona, this is a 14-day tour that traverses east to west across northern Spain along the famous Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail with a dramatic finish in one of Spain’s most beautiful cities, Santiago de Compostela.  From Spain, I travel to Provence to lead another tour, before focusing in on our ‘pre-tripping’ for the Tour de France.  Because the Tour de France route changes every year, this is the toughest one to plan logistically.  With Lance going for the world record, this year is particularly challenging because of the sheer number of people wanting to participate in this once in a lifetime experience. 

CZ: Will you go back to your professional life and what are your future career, personal and athletic goals?

JG: I’m living my professional life right now.  It just so happens to be a non-traditional lifestyle for which my law school training is not directly applicable.  I get the most satisfaction out of inspiring others to live an active lifestyle and overcome whatever obstacles or fears they have in making changes in their lives.  It’s also a personal goal of mine to debunk the myriad of fears and myths associated with solo female travel and foreign travel.   I’m writing a book about my experience that I hope to have finished by the end of this year.  Athletically, my primary goal is staying fit with a steady diet of cycling, running and yoga or pilates.  Beyond that, I have several ancillary goals including (1) completing the Raid Pyreneen, a 10-day unsupported ride from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic coast through the Pyrenees.  It’s classified as ‘hors categorie,’ meaning it’s beyond classification; (2) riding from Lhasa to Kathmandu, a 30-day unsupported ride under the harshest conditions imaginable. 


One thing I’d like to convey to other cyclists is how easy it is to travel with a bike.  When I tour, I like to ride on a bike I don’t care about too much which is why I take my old Rockhopper with slicks.  The only time I put my bike in a cardboard box is flying out of the US.  Beyond that, if I ever take another flight, I ride to the airport and just give them my bike and panniers.  They take much better care of it when they see it’s a bike.  It also makes life a breeze when you land.  I simply pump up my tires and go.  No taxis, no nothing.

CZ: Julie, thank you for sharing your story.  This was awesome.  I’d have to classify you as ‘hors categorie and I mean that in a good way.  The TCSD is honored to have you representing us around the world.  We hope you have safe travels and great fun!