And so, the final post. Until I get another bike. Which is supposed to be years away. So time to wrap up.
This project was meant to take on year. It took two. I have sat in bad cafes in ma manor for many mornings before work looking for interesting ways to write about bikes and riding and life. I hate to think how many cups of coffee and tea I have bought during the course of writing this. Lets just say the staff know my order.
Writing is the effort to capture lived experience and imagination into a fixed and limited form. You package experience in the most vivid way you can so someone else can unpack it and take what they need from it whether that’s insight, entertainment or inspiration. Hopefully something of all three.
Part of my original brief was to set down some of my life before the benevolent fog of middle age smoothed some over some of it’s sharper, less pleasant, aspects. And that was for my son’s benefit, so he could perhaps see me from a different angle. But what do I want him to see when he looks from this angle?
I guess I want him to look beyond Dad, to see the rough contours of the journey that bought me here, 12000 miles, several careers and 38 years from the moment I entered my first bike race at the same age he is now. That makes it sound like I had a plan, that I was aiming for here, when mostly I have proceeded by accident and mischance. I am not once of those who has a life plan and ticks off achievements like items on shopping list. Just imagine, my interior life-coach says, just imagine what you could do if you really got your shit together and aimed for something! By now we’ve all realised that’s just not going to happen, by design and by nature I am a complexifier and making a plan requires simplfying.
As I have written been writing I have become aware of a few patterns. I’ve used riding in many ways, some healthy, some not so much. For transport, as an escape from bad situations, as a crutch, as a medium for adventure, as a control-valve and simply as a way to get to work without having to get on a bus or a tube or sit in a fecking car in traffic. I’ve been able to look back on the years of suffering (body) and anguish (head) and look for a bigger pattern.
I’ve made the case that cycling is wrapped tightly with suffering and pain, but the role of pain in my riding has changed from that of punishment of self and others to pure feedback. Pain is just one part of the overall experience rather than the governing principle. It tells me when to slow down, when to stop, how fit I am.
Mostly I am grateful for the being able to live without the crippling depression and anxiety that dogged me for 20 years. Inside that larger journey the role of cycling in my life has shifted from being a pursuit of escape bordering on harm into one of pure adventure and joy.
As a child and teen, well before the internet and even colour TV, I used to draw a lot. House plans, yachts, bikes. These days, In the middle of boring meetings (which is to say in the middle of a meeting) I often start to draw houses, yachts and bikes. In the middle of KPIs and annual goals and the kind of language that kills the brain itself, my imagination takes to paper yachts and bikes and virtual houses in an effort to keep the spirit alive. These things have air and light and weather in common; they are objects and experiences and movement wrapped intrinsically together.
And I have come to accept that I just like bikes. I like them as ideas, as objects, as minor design problems, as possibilities, as experiences, as reflections of people’s personalities - they are good design reads and they happen at a human scale. Bikes are democratic objects. I guess in the same way some people look at ensembles of clothing and appreciates and critiques ‘a look’ I do the same with riders and their bikes. I am a cyclista as others are fashionistas.
That might sound like an obvious conclusion, but there are plenty of people who ride who don’t really care about bikes that much. Despite having all the bikes I need I still spend more time than is reasonable looking at bikes. I pop into bike shops just to look at bikes. I read reviews. I stop and look at bikes on the street, particularly the odd and strange ones.
But as I have accepted that I have also realised that I need to pull that back a bit. Interests that tip into obsessions tend to be covering neurosis. There’s a difference between undertaking the task of writing about every bike you’ve ever owned and spending an evening going through a website looking at bikes for no particular reason. I can spend an hour on bike24.com looking at cranksets without blinking. When an interest becomes like eating a king-size block of chocolate for no good reason then you know you have to change your behaviour in some way. Turning off the wifi is one obvious way to combat that, but then you have to look to the source.
Perhaps this whole exercise is all just a massive exercise in deferral? Perhaps I have been on about bikes as a way to avoid thinking about other things in life? As I have sat in cafes writing about bicycles I have become aware that I could be doing other things, less selfish things. Or even better selfish things.
Cycling is a great place for obsessives to hide in full sight. I have met a good few of them on the Audax circuit and obsessive is a good working definition of a professional cyclist; you can’t maintain peak power and 3% body fat without being ‘strongly outcome focuseed’ and, as we have seen, professionals suffer depression and drug problems in much higher ratios than the normal population. There are riders coming forward now who are talking openly about body dysmorphia. Being a racing cycling would be a perfectly logical and potentially deadly sport for a binge/purge body-obsessive to pursue their neurosis in.
Perhaps there is a signal in all of this that is about getting me out of a rut. My day to day life has not much light or air or movement in it. The sedentary life is a killer. It’s not just the sitting down it’s the dulling of the mind, blunting of it to make it ‘useful’ to the organisation. I can’t take my whole self to work, but I don’t know the job where my whole self would fit. There’s a reason it’s called work, right? I should probably look at other ways of making money that isn’t ‘work’, but I struggle to summon the confidence to sell myself in that way and in the meantime I am immersed in the London nine to five, the parent peak-hour lifestyle where every queue is long and every stream of traffic is slow and every beach is always full and every holiday is expensive.
The idea that my life happens inside boxes horrifies me even as it is somewhat inevitable in London; one box to live in, one to work in, one more to get you to work and one more to exercise in. Then there’s the boxes we put in a microwave box and deliver into our square mouths while we watch funny people on a glowing rectangle while chatting to friends on another glowing rectangle.
Too many squares. Too many boxes. Too many pointless categories that serve only as marketing segments. 50ish. Father. My ‘Ad choices’ are now full of life insurance and, believe it or not, offers from Age UK to help me learn how to use a smartphone or ‘surf’ the internet. Having worked in digital for over twenty years I think I might have avoided that particular categorisation, but it seems not. I am now old and useless and only worried about dying, it’s official. Just for the record I am a lot more worried about climate change, but then it’s hard to make money off that.
Bikes get you out of boxes and put you in the environment and make your heart work, sure. But the greatest benefit in cycling is that you move in arcs and curves. You are always turning on a bike even when you are riding in a straight line.
That is so simple and so obvious, but there is a world of benefit in it. We could be crude and say that cycling is great for your mental health, but that doesn’t come close to summing up how good riding is for you; it combines the aerobic hit of running with the kinaesthetic joy of dancing and the benefits of mindfulness.
Our bodies are not good at straight lines. Things with straight lines like buildings and TV screens and project management solutions and careers and life plans are easy to design but they are fantasies of rationality, spartan appeals to self control. They are not life itself.
The plan is not the ground. You can’t do a ride from an easy chair. You can’t get anywhere without placing a bet and putting your rubber to the road. Then, when you are on the way, it’s all about continual small adjustments with occasional massive turns and lurches. Curves and bumps and jolts, twitches and corrections.
We don’t get a choice in the basics of existence - we wake up every day and have an infinite array of choice, an infinite number of problems to solve and challenges to take, all the while with time’s firm hand pushing on our backs. Being true and good is about staying with the journey even when you are not quite sure where it is you are headed.
I guess that’s the big one for you Baxter; we all have our issues and our journeys and the message is that, when things get tough, you can get better, you can endure and learn and change to the good. If you set out bold and adjust on the fly, you can be resolute and flexible.
Life and cycling both look like neat lines from above but as we ride we are making thousands of tiny adjustments as we go. You cannot move and be in a state of rest, balance helps you move forward. It’s a dynamic not a state. It’s made of circles and curves not lines and boxes.
Riding a bike is about creating a life in balance. From the smallest nudge on the bars to get you through a corner to some of the biggest challenges you can put to yourself, cycling is life, lived.