Pilgrim Cycling: meet Tom Probert

In Interviews, London by Claire

Pilgrim Cycling Co. is a Kickstarter project that embodies an adventurous, explorative spirit and has just smashed through its goal by 250%. I sat down with creator Tom Probert to talk about the motivation behind it all. He chose his favourite coffee shop and shared his tips on cycling a tuxedo to the French opera, sneaking into barns, and the Pyrenees.

Inside Tap 114 – a noisy little spot on a long, busy stretch of Tottenham Court Road – is a graphic designer with a rather special T-Shirt. He also has a collection of amazing stories about a childhood cycling across some of Europe’s best mountains, roughing it in barns, and getting nine punctures in one trip. His tales about cycling are the type that make the world seem larger in size but easier to reach. Between us, though, we still can’t quite work out what a friand is. So, whilst I eat miscellaneous cake, he answers some of my questions about where he wants to go and how his own adventures all began, back in the day.


Hi Tom. Going back, before Pilgrim, what got you started on adventures and cycling?

My Dad just took me out on a bike when I was pretty young. He wasn’t a mad cyclist, but he had a bike and I think he saw it as a good little thing to do with me, and then my sister as well, and then my brother. We did a few little trips around. We’re from Southampton and we would do a few little day trips, and then that extended to doing a few weekends. Then we’d maybe camp somewhere along the way or stay at a B’n’B.

“It was the coolest thing to cycle back up your drive, knowing that you’d started off in Milan, somewhere across the other side of the continent.”

And then we started doing this thing: my dad just had this idea to do Land’s End to John O’Groats. I think it was a bucket list thing he wanted to do with the family so we did that in 2010. So it was my Dad, me and my brother who’s maybe 6 years younger than me (he was quite young at the time)! He was quite little to be doing it.

How old were you?

[Some maths occurs] 23 or 24. And it was brilliant. My mum, sister and our dog came along in a motorhome. So they supported our trip and we would get to the end of a day, find the campsite and then have food, collapse, chill out, and get cared for. We did that all at quite a leisurely rate; we spent three weeks on it. It wasn’t pushing the extremes of physical endurance. We also stopped in at some of our friends on the way. It was a nice little trip, well – quite a big trip – but it was done in a manageable way.

And that became tradition. We’ve done that every year since, some kind of adventure. The following year we flew to Milan with our bikes and we cycled back home from there. So, we cycled over the alps. It was the coolest thing to cycle back up your drive, knowing that you’d started off in Milan, somewhere across the other side of the continent.

“There was a massive thunderstorm there that night and it was quite scary being in that place. Then we got woken up in the morning by organ music just blasting through the whole place. So, it’s stuff like that which is what it’s all about really. Those experiences.”
We did that one completely unsupported. So we had panniers for the tents and stuff, and it was just great. I think the magic of it is that you turn up at a campsite at the end of a day’s cycling with three bikes and then 20 minutes later you’ve got a miniature village of tents and bike kit hanging up to dry and then the next morning it’s just gone and it’s three bikes again. I thought that was just brilliant; the self sufficiency. I find that really exciting.

That was probably the most rewarding.

What was it like going through the alps?

Tom-Probert-Ride2It was really cool. That’s the first time I’d done anything approaching a mountain – cycling up a mountain. We went up St Bernard’s Pass, and I was quite nervous before doing that. What’s nice is that it’s quite a gradual incline that just goes on for a whole day. but it’s a fairly manageable steepness. And the scenery that you’ve never seen before – it’s a completely different level. And then you get through the foresty bits and you’re up into the proper bare, exposed rock and there’s snow and stuff and it’s really exciting.

Then at the part with the big lake, there’s a monastery near it where we stayed. The monks try to look after travellers as they pass through, and it’s been there for years. You can go in there, stay for virtually nothing and they give you tea and food and stuff. That was really unique and absolutely brilliant. It felt like staying in a real monastery – really basic accommodation. There was a massive thunderstorm there that night and it was quite scary being in that place. Then we got woken up in the morning by organ music just blasting through the whole place. So, it’s stuff like that which is what it’s all about really. Those experiences.

Have you had any ‘Wow Moments’? That’s a horrible phrase, but I mean those moments that take your breath away, when something fundamental clicks.

I did the London to Paris. There was virtually no preparation for it and I think that’s the first time I’ve got off and done what sounds like such a hardcore thing to do, for me at the time.

I knew roughly where Paris is but it seemed like such a long way. And I think the sense of freedom of doing that trip, that was probably the first moment when I’d experienced the euphoric “wow, we’re really doing this, getting out there.” I think the trip took took three days.

What did you use to navigate when you went to Paris? I’m still using a mobile phone.

That was funny actually. That was the biggest problem about that trip. I mean, we probably went quite a bit further than we had to because of our lack of navigational skills. We had proper maps – I say proper maps; we had paper maps but they weren’t of quite the right place or the right scale. I seem to remember I had my Dad’s Garmin which was a pretty early model – probably the first one they’d ever made for the bike and that was a couple of years old. Basically it didn’t work. So it’d work for a while and then break, and we’d find ourselves somewhere completely different. So there was a lot of standing around in a lot of french fields. That’s my enduring memory of that trip: just standing around in a lot of french fields on a crossroads between different fields, desperately trying to work out where we were. But I think that was the beauty of that trip as well though. It was completely just winging it.

“I love the romance of getting lost in french fields.”

There was one guy with us who was struggling on some of the hills and after a couple of days we were like “what has he got in his panniers?” So, we tried to lift up his bike and literally you couldn’t even lift the back wheel up. We looked in his panniers. He’d taken a full tuxedo and smart dress shoe and he was going to go to the opera when we got to Paris. This guy had a completely different approach to me. I’d got a rucksack and had put maybe one change of clothes in it.

Tuxedos aren’t that heavy though.

I think if he was taking that approach then he probably had a lot of other changes of clothes. He had proper brogues in there, too. When you’re trying to conserve every tiny bit of weight that you can, it was quite a funny approach.

Did you stay in tents?

No, we stayed in little B’n’B. I don’t know what the best thing is really. I love that self sufficiency and having a tent, especially if you can camp wild as well – then thats just the ultimate thing.


What’s your favourite bit of kit?

Whilst I love the romance of getting lost in french fields, I love having a Garmin. I think it’s quite amazing that you can put a map on your computer, draw a little route that you want to do on it and put it into your Garmin and it’ll tell you where to go. And it’s not a completely mechanical process because you’ll have surprised where what looked like a road is actually through a farm or through someone’s house, or a dirt track.

I get really impressed by things like that and haven’t learned to take those for granted yet. I think it’s cool to follow this little route that you’ve come up with.

Whose adventures inspire you and whose adventures would you like to have been on?

Well, my adventuring hero is Alastair Humphreys.

Micro adventures!

Yes, Micro Adventures. I absolutely love the idea of them. So, basically I would like to have gone on all of his micro adventures when he first started doing it. So, round the M25 or even the simplistic going off into the hillside and then coming back and going to work the next day adventure. I think he’s had a lot of fun. I think it’s a brilliant idea and also once I started getting into cycling and the idea you can go quite far, then I started reading books and I read a couple of his books about going around the world. So those would have been a good one to go on with him, or at least for a couple of legs. Anything that he’s doing really.

If there was one place in London you’d suggest someone goes on a nice cycle – the perfect sunday – where is it?

I really like the old East End Docks. It’s not necessarily the easiest place to join up the good part of it, in a way. But I’d go and cycle around some really interesting stuff over there. There’s a light house – there’s one lighthouse in London and it’s down there in the old docks. I came across that and a whole little hub down there; a ’50s diner trailer selling burgers and milkshakes, and there’s this container almost like this this apartment block. There’s all that sort of stuff.

Then, though you have to do it at the right time – but I love doing the River Lea navigation. Cycling all the way from wherever it starts down at Canary Wharf and follow it along the canals. There’s a lot of exciting stuff down there. It’s lovely to be riding along next to the water and see all the boats – you just can’t do it at the weekend because it gets too busy.

If theres one place outside of London where would it be?

Probably anywhere in France. French countryside – literally wherever you are in France – that for me is the best place to be cycling. You’ve got an unlimited amount of little towns to come across and the drivers are a bit more savvy to people cycling.

That’s a very polite way of putting it.

Yes. There were a lot less people around on the roads and I just love it. I’d go through the whole country if I could – that’s what I’d suggest.

Thanks Tom.

When we loiter outside the coffee shop, Tom recommends listening to his hero Jack Thurston’s show, The Bike Show on Resonance FM. It is excellent.

ClairePilgrim Cycling: meet Tom Probert