An interview with Mike Elm, founder of New Story Ride, a bike-powered adventure meeting the people creating stories of how we can prosper sustainably into the 21st century
What gave you the inspiration to start New Story Ride?
I used to say “you get what you talk about”. Whatever captures the story becomes the reality. We live by the stories we tell.
I had the notion of a long-distance adventure by bike for a decade, but I’d been drawn into environmental work and saw it as the only thing I could justify spending time doing. Despite my growing sense that I wasn’t putting my all into it, an office wasn’t my best fit.
It wasn’t until my partner Rosie Watson unveiled her New Story Run – which combined her passion for mountain running with finding and telling the stories of people living better in the face of the climate crisis – that my own ride idea started to germinate.
Six months, a train trip to China and an intensive yoga course later, I had the clarity and humility to ask Rosie to take inspiration from her Run and start the twinned New Story Ride. I wanted to do it as ‘bikepacking’ journey to allow more freedom to take ‘roads’ (paths/trails/grassy fields) much less travelled and escape the commotion of traffic. So far, it has worked a treat and allowed me to get myself into ridiculous rocky unbikeable situations.
What have been the greatest lessons you’ve learnt along the way?
That this is about people. I keep learning it.
This was the story on the beautiful remote island of Lastovo where WWF are working with local people who are creating sustainable business models (from fishing to olives to beauty products) that make a liveable island for the people, plants and animals. Here, it was clear the work has to be with and for the people, as people’s need to make a livelihood will always outlast efforts at conservation which don’t take them into account.
This was the story of the whole Balkans, where small hydro schemes are a threat to ecosystems and to the water that people need. But they keep being constructed – in the face of hopelessness and a distorted power dynamic. As a chap called Nemoja told me: “To save the rivers, you need to save the people“.
One of the major things has been fully experiencing what real forest is – it’s so rare in the UK to find it, as a country with less than 13% forest. This area is absolutely nothing when compared to the amazing expanses of forest I had the joy to experience in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Macedonia and Bulgaria, each with 30 or 40% forest that’s alive with life.
What have been the biggest challenges with the ride and how did you overcome these challenges?
I’ve found the biggest, scariest challenge is having to cycle on busy roads. I’ve avoided this as far as possible, including taking some long diversions. Where it‘s been completely impossible to avoid, music has been the answer to take the edge off the awful sound of cars and trucks.
But more than anything, it was starting. Committing to doing this, which had been an amorphous idea in my mind for so long. Deciding on it, and telling people about it. That was the greatest challenge; once that’s out the way and you start…well, then it’s just like riding a bike.
What’s been the most unexpected or surprising thing that’s happened during your adventures?
The amazingness of people, time and time and time again. I’ve lost track of the number of places I’ve ended up staying after asking to camp – garages, sofas, spare rooms, spare whole houses! Delicious meals, cups of tea, homemade jams, homegrown fruit. It’s one thing to theorise that people are great and caring; it’s another thing to have it affirmed and reaffirmed over and over again.
Who have been the most impactful people you’ve met along the way?
In Vienna, I arrived on a Friday and realised it might just be a “Fridays for Future” protest day. When I got to the protest, there was this guy Jonas standing proudly next to his playfully patterned cargo bike. He had previously had a career as a globe-trotting (flying) musician, but as his awareness of the climate crisis had grown, he’d created the bike he stood next to, ‘VeloConcerts’. It’s an electric cargo bike, and the colourful butterfly wings open out to create a stage, and its battery powers the amplifiers and microphone. This allows him to bring music, performance, culture and speeches to all sorts of places with just the energy from the bike’s battery. Electric bikes are by far and away the most efficient means of transport – even more so than regular bikes!
What I loved about Jonas’ story is how he’s taken his passion for music and created something beautiful, whilst also completely changing not just how he does things, but what he does. I think meeting Jonas was important in clarifying what the “New Story” was about – creating something good and more joyful than what’s been happening, not just mopping up the mess or tweaking the problems of the current system. Ever since this, I’ve tried as much as possible to find stories that are doing this.
An example from nearer the end of the first leg of my joureny was the people in the region of Tran who bought the whole municipality and held a local referendum, which saw overwhelming opposition to a proposed goldmine. The community saw through the promise of ‘what glitters’ and saw that the real gold is in their beautiful intact forests, mountains and rivers. The campaign brought the community together and they’ve began creating mountain biking and hiking trails whislt bringing focus to the region’s local products.
What do you think you’ll do differently as a result of these adventures?
I think I’ve gained a greater self-confidence from the Ride to be less bothered about what other people think, and get on with putting myself out there to try and encourage others to be part of making the changes we need. I’m also going to have greater ambition, to not just want to do better but to actually do good!
The stories I’ve been finding and the people I’ve met though have only reaffirmed that there is a point in trying to make the world good enough to avert a climate and ecological breakdown. We’re not alone.
We need to start talking about what we want. We must recognise that there is a story of compassion, of cooperation, of generosity, out there. And from the New Story Ride, I have been seeing that this positivity is everywhere.
Photos: Mike Elm