Cyclists can be fussy, intolerably smug, unpleasant and heinously judgemental of their own kind.
I can look at an expensive bike and by simply noting the angle of the seat and the the angle and height of the bars, know what kind of person is likely to be riding it. Are they someone who loves riding and has ‘earned it’ or are they just someone lapping up the over-spill of a bonus? Out on the road it is easy to spot someone who has bought a really fast bike but has never actually ridden fast: They will ride it like a chopper - bars high due to a lack of flexibility in their back. It’s a little painful to watch, like seeing someone on a ski slope in brand new high-end kit continually falling over.
Ideally each stage of expense in your bike should be earned. Cat4 (beginner) racers shouldn’t be on £5000 pound bikes with £2000 aero carbon wheels - though often they are. They should be on something that is good enough - a £1500 pound bike with £800 carbon wheels is as about as much as anyone needs to win a race up to elite level in the UK.
This is an old school view, hewn when bikes were a substantially larger proportion of your income than they are today. Bikes, even the very expensive racing bikes the pros ride, are cheap. If you look at smiles per pound then bikes are cheaper generally than yachts, cars and motorbikes. That’s why us keen riders always seem to have more than one bike. Often a lot more than one bike.
So when I started to look around for something to replace the soggy World Horizon I knew where in the market to look. Nothing too flashy but not something designed to a price point. I didn’t need a whole bike just a frame; I would just move all the parts from the World Horizon over. It had to be cheap and cheerful and tough enough for the daily fifteen miles in winter. You don’t want to be riding an expensive racing bike to work because a) you might crash it b) you will start commuter wars and everyone will want to overtake you and c) you want something with mudguards. Turning up in the office on a wet day with a ‘badger stripe’ of filthy London water up your back is not the best look.
I ended up buying something with the not very evocative name of a ‘Kinesis 4t’. That’s says nothing at all - that’s what you get from a no-nonsense British company. Belt and braces.
It was a cyclo cross frame. Which might mean nothing to you, so let’s take a small diversion here…
In Europe come the winter mud and snow working pros used to keep their speed up by doing Cyclo Cross (‘CX’) races. The format is simple - a twisty looped course in the local woods, farmland or domain, ideally with some steps, some steep grassy banks and lots of mud. The races are an hour plus a lap. The races are very popular with cyclists as they are hard workouts and (before the advent of the Mountain Bike) the only way to enjoy a bit of filthy action. The races are also popular with the crowds as you can bring beer, eat frites, stand on a tricky part of the course and shout and laugh as riders fall off. It’s a huge sport in the Netherlands.
The bikes are more like road bikes than mountain bikes - they have a bit more clearance so that mud doesn’t make the bike unridable and they have ‘canti’ brakes which give more room for larger tyres with knobs on them. There are subtle geometry differences, usually a slightly more relaxed head tube angle so the front wheel doesn’t tuck under when you are performing wiggly shenanigans through muddy ruts. This format of frame has long been popular with road riders for reasons other than flogging yourself around a muddy field at 9am on a Sunday morning - they have plenty of room for mudguards and the brakes are better in the rain. CX bikes are more often put into service as commuters and winter trainers than they are as race bikes.
Which is exactly what I did with mine.
From the first turn of the crank on this thing I knew it was good. It was cheap, yes, but it was also very well thought out. Where the Horizon had been a bit soft when you put your foot down the Kinesis was taut and springy. The size was spot on, it started well, stopped well - it was perfectly suited to the hectic London commute.
It was a bike that had been designed by British people for British conditions. It was much better suited to being in England than I was at the time. Having got through the first few years and generally adapting to London life I was now struggling a little with life itself, specifically with being a father.
I was suffering from the malaise that new dads of a generally selfish disposition have - anger. This is not a simple anger, its not just ‘I don’t have time to do what I want to do anymore’. No, that time was easy to give up and I was (and remain) besotted with my son. But as Baxter made his first year and a few issues related to his prematurity went away I was left with something else. Even in retrospect I am not sure what the trigger was. Maybe I was angry that my earlier ambitions for myself as a writer had not really worked out and I was struggling to reconcile that image of myself with the day to day reality of working for a large public body. Maybe it had something to do with Baxter being the age I was when my mother first divorced - was there some kind of low-level physic trigger? Maybe having reached 40 I was looking down the barrel of the rest of my life and wondering what the hell to do with it. Maybe all of those things. Almost certainly all those things.
To my credit I had worked out that the first role of a parent is not be ‘a great parent’. The first role of a parent is to be happy with being good enough - everything else flows from that. You cannot have a happy child if you are not happy yourself.
Perhaps that realisation had made me angrier - why couldn’t I be happy? Why had the ease of being myself in the world eluded me for so long? Why oh why did I periodically get levelled with anxiety and depression? I’d done the drugs, I’d done the therapy but here I was still prone bouts of anger and its close friend despair.
Around this time I had another rough patch. Or two. Maybe three. Enough that one day I walked myself into Whipps Cross Hospital and said I couldn’t really handle things. No I wasn’t going to kill myself. Yes I wanted to live, of course. I got sent home with some Valium and a promise of an appointment to see a district Psychiatrist. I told her my woes and she said that I could do with some cognitive behavioural therapy but that I was too lucid to qualify for any state assistance for it.
Let me just repeat that: She said I would benefit enormously from help but I was too coherent to qualify for any on the NHS. Was there something about being able to articulate my pain that disqualified me from care? WTF? Sorry we’d love to fix your broken leg but you are too fit. Sorry we’d love to give you a heart bypass but your spelling is too good.
So I bought some off a local therapist instead and it made sense but there was something else, something bad going down. Things were still getting worse. I was having to take to my bed for days at a time. And strangely it all started to feel more physical than emotional. My stomach would knot up and it felt like food poisoning but it was too regular to be that. Acute stress? I wondered if I was properly ill…
I went to the doctor and she pretty quickly ruled out the cancer prognosis. She thought I had irritable bowel syndrome. I decided that was a bad diagnosis, I didn’t know why, it just felt incorrect. So I took another tangent and went to a nutritionist. The nutritionist sent bits of my body to somewhere in America. When the results came back she said I had the worst response to wheat (Gluten) that she had even seen and that I should stop eating it immediately. All of it. She said I might be able to eat a little in a few years, but don’t count on it. I still can’t, ten years later.
So I stopped eating wheat (and oats and rye and barley) and within a few days was feeling better. Much better. After a month I felt fantastic. I wasn’t getting the stomach knotting feelings anymore and I was beginning to drop some weight (a good thing, I was rather stodgy at this point).
As it happens neither the doctor or the nutritionist gave me good advice. The doctor most certainly should have looked for gluten intolerance or Coeliacs disease. By telling me to stop eating wheat immediately the nutritionist cut off my route to a proper diagnosis of Coeliacs, which would have been very useful indeed (bread on prescription, a watchful eye on other related health conditions). The gold-standard test for Coeliacs is a challenge test - that is you have to be having gluten in order to test for the antigens that indicate Coeliacs. By the time I’d found that out I had been gluten free for months and the idea of going back to eating gluten for six weeks was, frankly, terrifying. So I’ve never had a proper diagnosis.
But the really interesting thing is that my depressive tendencies just kinda vanished at the same time. It took me a while to notice, but I realised that I hadn’t had an episode for a long time, and the anger started to subside. There are some theories about this that revolve around ‘leaky gut’ and the fact that there are as many serotonin receptors in the gut as there are in the brain, the idea being that a healthy gut is a healthy mind. I am not sure about that, but I can say that 95% of my mental health issues have simply vanished. I get occasionally bleak and still have periods of mild self-doubt but what happens when I have them is completely different. I don’t just collapse into depression in an instant when something goes bad, instead I simply do what normal people without depression do - take it in my stride and resolve to do better, or fix something, or take some action on it. I react and adjust and learn and move on rather than dissolve into a self-pitying pile of misery.
This raises some interesting questions - how much of depression is out and out physical? How much is emotional or circumstantial? I guess it varies from person to person but it seems obvious to me, having lived it, that they are all strongly correlated. Physical and emotional and circumstantial. That’s what makes depression a difficult thing to work out - it closely resembles normal life.
As you can imagine this was a game changer. It made me a happier person and therefore a better dad. I became, and remain, good enough.
This new found physical and mental health meant that I had more head room, better physical capability, less crippling worry and anger. I was less judgemental, particularity of myself. I even became less judgemental of people who bought expensive bikes with their bonuses and didn’t know how to ride them - at least they were getting out and about. I try to remain grateful and not dwell on the loss of losing twenty years of good mental health. Sometimes that is very difficult to do.
Alongside this being a father had given me a social circle that made life a lot more tolerable. Meeting up with other parents in the then down-at-heel local park after nursery and watching lots of children collide with each other while getting to know their parents was fantastic. I finally felt like part of the local community. Being a parent put another leg under the table of adulthood and grounded me in a way that I never expected. It’s an obvious thing to say but the ratio of idiots to genuinely nice is probably about the same the world over. There are lots of horrible people in London but an awful lot of nice people too - you just have to find them. It is ironic that I found this community and these good friends in the city I thought was made of devil juice. Life eh?
Around this time I first learned about a style of bike riding called Audax, a year or so after I had put together my Kinesis. Audax, the Latin root for Audacious, is organised long distance riding.
The only reason I knew about it was from following a couple of ‘old’ guys on their fixed wheel bicycles in the Dunwich Dynamo sometime around 2008. Slightly insulted by being overtaken by old guys riding bikes with no gears, I decided I would take my revenge by clinging to their back wheel and getting a draft from them. So I hung on for as long as I could, maybe twenty minutes.
As I was struggling to keep pace with them they were chatting away, not a care in the world, looking and sounding like they were perfectly at home riding through the english countryside at 3am on a Saturday night. One of them had an old flappy gilet with the word ‘Audax UK’ on it.
Later that weekend I looked up ‘Audax’ online and was astounded. People rode bikes for 200, 300, 600 km at a stretch? Despite having done the Dunwich Dynamo five times by this point, I could not get my head around riding 600 km. It seemed impossible, unhealthy, certainly mad. I felt the same way about it as finding out that some people actually drink 12 pints of beer in an evening. I mean why? What’s the point?
We will learn a lot more about Audax and the wonderful and strange people who do it in later posts on other bikes, so for the time being let me just tell you about my first try at Audax using my Kinesis.
There was a website with a list of rides (still there) where you could see what was on offer. There was one from Congleton in Derbyshire that was just down the road from where we were going on holiday. So I sent off a form and cheque for a couple of pounds (yes, a cheque) and turned up to small room above a rugby club on the outskirts of Congleton and got given a little card with a list of ‘controls’ in it. For some of those, like the beginning and end, you got a stamp. For the rest you needed a receipt from a cafe or ATM or a piece of information ‘an info’ about a place you were passing through, like “At 180km the number on the telephone pole next to the postbox”. Maybe thirty riders set off on a variety of bikes, mostly steel lightweights.
The first 100km was straightforward. I hitched a lift with a couple of old guys (getting the theme there?) who chatted away, barely drawing breath and taking a very occasional sip from a water bottle, being as frugal with nutrition as I was profligate with gels and energy drink.
At Ironbridge, the halfway point, I found a cafe and slumped into a massive lunch, weary and sceptical about my ability to get back. After an hours recovery I got back on the bike and started to chip away at the route by myself, following along on a piece of paper taped to my handlebars that bore strange inscriptions like ‘SO mrb’ and ‘TL @ TRL’ (straight over mini round about and turn left at traffic lights.)
The second half seemed long, much longer than the previous 100. I was getting tired and my hands were getting tingly and sore from the bashing they were getting through the handlebars - I’d never had that on a bike before. Part of the route was through a motorbike hotspot and I found myself gritting my teeth as riders doing 80+ mph tore past a few feet away. Like having a chainsaw run up your back. Oh, and there was a persistent headwind which I was having to grind into. Time slowed, distance elongated in front of me. Each pedal stroke became a chore, then an agony. My thighs were on fire, and not in a good way.
About ten miles from the finish I caught up with a group that had briefly stopped and rode in with them, a relief to have someone else break the growing headwind and to have something to take my mind of my numbing hands, heavy legs and a rapidly crumbling sense of humour.
As I got back to the final control I can’t say I felt any sense of achievement. There was none of the feel-good of the Dunwich Dynamo - the route seemed arbitary, there was no mythic back-story to the event, it was just a bloody long ride in a big circle for no apparent reason. Physically I felt like I had barely survived, like I had had those 12 beers, but not in a good way. I still had no idea how people would ride 600 km in one go - the reality of it seemed further away rather than nearer.
I was done with Audax, that was for sure. What a stupid thing to do. So much for long distance riding, maybe I was a domestic creature after all.
The Kinesis was not ideal for this kind of riding - aluminium is not the most comfortable thing to build a bike out of and the unaccustomed 9+ hours on the bike highlighted just how much road shock this bike transmitted. To be fair it was designed with one hour rides around a muddy field in mind, so I was well beyond the design brief of the bike.
I went back to commuting with occasional weekend rides, making sure to keep well under 50 miles.
That was in 2010. In the years after this I had plenty of other bikes as you will see, but the Kinesis formed the solid backbone of my commute right up until 2015. It had various combinations of gears and parts, always pretty much bottom tier, whatever was lying around.
My favourite times on this bike were spent just pottering around the East End; exploring the Lee Valley Canal from Limehouse right up to Ware, taking in the lower reaches of the Thames. I call this style of riding cycloflanneuring - sometimes taking photos, often just riding somewhere ‘because’. Learning about obscure places like Poplar and Ilford, taking the Greenway down towards London Airport or riding the Lea Canal path from Limehouse to Ware. Looking at a map and seeing something called ‘Beckton Alp’ and riding down to it to find a 15m high slurry pile turned into a dry ski slope, long since abandoned. Drinking coffee, looking at the anarcho-hippy canal boats, finding the traveller camps and allotments that would later be obliterated by the Olympics.
Cycloflanneuring. Pootling around. Cyclo-pottering. Engaging time out. Good for the body and the mind. There is something to be said for just riding around without any speed objectives, though it had taken me a long time to find the pleasure in it.
Here’s a run of photos from a pootle down the Lee Valley towpath to Woolwich and the Thames.
For this style of riding you need the kind of bike that you can leave locked up outside a cafe without feeling like you’ll be losing a limb if it gets stolen. With a set of big tires on the Kinesis was perfect for the mixed surface bashing of East End London where you get everything from fine gravel to punishingly bad concrete to wet clay to wooden bridges in the space of a mile.
Eventually I got other bikes that replaced it functionally and it got retired. I have tried to sell it once or twice, but it has a beaten up paint job and people want their CX bikes with disc brakes these days, so it sits, stripped down and bare, in the back yard. Here’s a photo of it today…
A faithful bike, the kind of bike that everyone should have one of. A bike that’s good enough.
If you want the frame let me know - it’s got another ten years of pootling in it at least, and is free to a good home.
Next: A Forest