There many pluses to cycling beyond the merely being fit, though being fit is lovely. Lets call them; The Freedom, The Perfection, The Passion, The Transcendence and The Point.
1. The Freedom
There are plenty of people who will understand this passage from the bike-adventurer Mike Hall’s girlfriend about his motivations to get on a bike and ride stupidly long distance:
“Mike struggled to conform to corporate life and the constrictions of a social structure he felt alien to. He seemed to wade hesitantly into humanity until he reached saturation point and couldn’t handle any more, then he would disappear. When Mike heard about the Mars One mission, he seriously considered applying for a one-way ticket off this planet. Riding a bicycle was his way of escaping from a world he did not walk through comfortably. On two wheels he was strong, he was more than human, he was his best self.
“After a race he would come back chilled and calm, contained, happy, relaxed for a few months. Then the need to do another would build and build till it reached a kind of fever pitch. Then he would become moody and difficult. Pushing himself out on the road was not an option. It was a basic human need, like air.”
(As retold by in a piece by another epic cyclist, Juliana Buhring)
I don’t feel the need to break the record for riding around the world solo anytime soon, but the feeling of being out of sorts with the corporate world and the scratchiness is easy to relate too. It’s why even a club ride can feel a bit organised and over-determined to me.
Even as I write this I realise my riding as become too focused on Audax. Audax is great in that it gets me out of the house and lets me carve out a chunk of time in a schedule, but what about just kicking off for the fun of it?
I was reminded about this while reading blogs on the Mason site. There is a feature there about a film maker called Annaleena who discovered cycling at the age of 26 so she could avoid public transport and then got the bug, badly:
Forget about planning and just go do it. My most memorable jaunts have been completely on the spur of the moment: like riding to Brussels one Friday eve after work, just because the road was calling.
About four years ago I got an itch for longer journeys. I had just found out about Alfonsina Strada and was so inspired that I immediately signed up for Vätternrundan (a legendary 300km race in Sweden). What followed was an even bigger itch: not for races but for long multi-day solo adventures. For example, I’ve done a solo Paris-Roubaix on Christmas Day, ridden the routes of Tour of Flanders, Paris-Brest-Paris, Bordeaux-Paris and other legendary races – very much in the spirit of Marie Marvingt who was told she couldn’t take part in Tour de France 1908 because she wasn’t a man [eye roll] but went and rode it anyway on her own. That’s exactly the spirit of my adventures and what drives me to them is without a doubt the sheer sense of freedom and wanderlust you feel on the road.
That is inspiring, just riding for its intrinsic rewards. Who needs to see you do it? Why do you need points or badges? Sure it’s great to do the big rides like the Ride London or the PBP or the Transcontinental, but what about just picking a challenge and riding it out? What about riding through the night on Friday with a few mates? That’s how the best ride in the UK - the Dunwich Dynamo - started.
You really don’t need much. The unsupported ultra riders have taught us how much (or how little) you need to take with you. Modern gear is so good that you can ride with minimal kit and strike out a long way without much planning. Point to point challenges and ‘rondes’ are the essence of long distance cycling and there is a whole generation or two of younger riders who are leading the way here, pushing out into the world and seeing what they are made of, balancing aspiration and reality in the furnace of experience; Emily Chappell, Jasmijn Muller, The Adventure Capitalist, VecchioJo, The manfromicon… there are plenty more just a search away - chapeau!
All this makes it seem like The Freedom is about running away. I have often tried to run away on a bike, but there is only one thing in the world you can’t ride away from and that is yourself.
The Freedom is about taking yourself somewhere new. And what that means changes with your time of life; That freedom to ride 4000km when you want as a twenty five year old is not something that is reasonable as a person with a family. When you have a new-born the height of cycling freedom is riding your bike to work. It took me many years to learn, but freedom to ride is not freedom from life it’s freedom to embrace life.
An older, more parochial, version of the same urge from Anquetil:
I only have to feel that a wall is keeping me prisoner to want to jump over it. It’s a reflex. If cigarettes are banned, I smoke. If we’re not to go out at night, I go out. If flirting is outlawed, I flirt.
2. The Perfection
Often people start to ride because they want The Freedom. Then they find they are riding to chase The Perfection, they hunger for form.
And oh, what a feeling is form, for having the legs.
I had it as a teenager without knowing what it was. I found it again as a courier, where the sheer number of miles makes you smooth and unstoppable. In the last couple of years I have had it a couple of times for a week here and there.
The body moves so well it’s almost scary. It can feel lightly mechanistic, like you are oiled in the hinges. It’s those rides where the training comes together and you are totally alive to what you are doing. It’s not that it doesn’t hurt - it always hurts a bit - but the hurt becomes the way you can tell you are doing well. It’s just feedback. it tells you that you are going great. Anquetil again:
While they’re slowing down, I go flat out from start to finish. I am a machine, an escaped robot. I attack. I have fork-arms, connecting-rod thighs. I’m free.
That’s form, that’s the body, but there’s more than that to The Perfection. It’s not just that the body is in peak condition, it’s that you make the right decisions; you know exactly what’s happening between you and the road, you take corners like a pro. If you are racing you take the right moment to attack and the attack sticks. If you are riding a long distance you get the pace just right, you barely seem to breathe but you are gliding along without effort.
Everything comes together.
Which is brilliant but…. for us mortals it only happens once or twice every year or two. You can’t rely on it and you can’t wait for it. If that is all you seek on a bike you are going to be giving up soon. Perfection is accidental and a bonus. It can be prepared for and asked for but it can not be demanded.
And after a few years we realise The Perfection is not really why we ride a bike anyway. We ride because we have The Passion.
3. The Passion
I’ve covered the twisted and perverse world of suffering before and noted that The Passion of Christ (and of cycling) is a mix of agony and ecstasy. Luckily anyone can have this bit of cycling, even an old codger like me.
Just last week I was on a power bike at the gym pushing into hard territory. Hard for me at least. Sweating buckets in a crappy gym in Walthamstow surrounded by people 25 years younger than me with their matching gear and their beats-certified bluetooth buds and doing carefully regulated sets on the miles of equipment and running machines tied to apps. I am in my old cycling shorts with my hairy legs and cycling shoes on. I have alt-rock from the 90s on my uncool Chinese phone and, as I am coming to the end of a nasty hour of under/over intervals without rest, I am sweating buckets. A distasteful pool of dad-sweat gathers around the feet of the exercise bike. I imagine I look a bit mad.
But just as things were getting really awful I experienced a shiver of delight. From out of nowhere, with my old body rocking and breath coming out of me in unattractive grunts, my whole being lights up with outright pleasure and joy. It was probably a flagellant moment, an out of phase reward from a deep seated inferiority complex.
But I didn’t give a shit about that, I just wanted to ride harder. I was loving it.
That’s the passion. Willingly putting yourself on the knife edge of pain and collapse in search of brilliance.
Again, you are not going to get that every time you ride a bike. But that moment of transcending your suffering is there for the taking. While it’s not exclusive to racing it does have a first home there, if the church of the racing cyclist is suffering then the credo is The Passion.
You see this all the time in racing - riders slamming themselves for no really good reason, chasing some arbitrary prize, looking like death as they cross the line and then, five minutes later, saying they had a great day on the bike.
Obviously there’s the dopamine thing, the opioid that gets released when you exercise and that is as ‘good’ as heroin. But there’s more to it than that. The Passion is not just about riding and hurting yourself. The Passion also has an element of belonging. It’s a bit churchy after all.
There’s a connection to the sport, to the heritage and the linage of great riders. We know that when Bradley Wiggins stepped on his bike at the Velo Park and smashed the hour record that there was a whole history of hour attempts that he was adding to - and he knew it too. That’s what made him want to put himself through that agony, to join the anointed. I bet you he felt more pleasure from being in the company of greats than he did in beating the record, and without that carrot he wouldn’t have been bothered. What point is there in breaking the 59 minute record?
That’s what beating records is about, not winning outright, but belonging to a group. I am never going to have the youth or talent to belong to a racing lineage, but even completing LEL last year pulls me into a Venn diagram that includes some of the riders I singled out above - a lesser step on the ladder of belonging, a point in common even as they race by me.
The Passion drives you out onto the bike, it’s what makes you a cyclist. Despite all the benefits of marginal gains, power meters, fast bikes and all the rest of it you have to want to go out there and ride; you have to take it as read that the pleasure and the pain are wrapped in each other. Ultimately you have to accept and that it can be very difficult to separate them.
The ratio of pleasure to pain shifts all the time; sometimes a ride is great because you possessed the grim determination to drag yourself out into some horrible weather. Sometimes a ride is great because you are somewhere new and the road is smooth. Sometimes there is nothing good about a ride whatsoever but a few days later you can feel the benefit of it. Most of the time you just never know what you will find, how the suffering and the passion will interact. And you have to feel relaxed and happy about the weirdness of that.
And once you have found peace with that you are available for…
4. The Transcendence
A rider I know a little who is really getting on now (late 70s) still comes ‘out of retirement’ to do Paris-Brest-Paris. He’s a good bit quicker than me because he just doesn’t stop. He told me once over a drink that he thought endurance cycling changed you at a cellular level. He meant that more metaphorically than actually but I am not so sure. I think the pursuit of endurance is a base-level human urge.
I think the body is built for endurance. It knows what to do when you place it under endurance stress. If you are looking for a reason you could find some evolutionary justification; Sure cheetahs and antelopes are faster than humans, but they have poor endurance. Hunters didn’t out sprint them, they kept going and caught up with them, again and again, until they wore the antelopes out.
Persistence, application. One set of animal traits against another. Endurance versus speed.
More than that though, deeper still, further back in time.
When I was sitting on the power bike last night I had that feeling again, halfway through the sixth very hard zone 4 interval. That strange, electric feeling of aliveness. It felt primitive, like I had climbed down through my brains. From the rational down to the emotional to the limbic. From human to monkey to lizard.
Being a lizard feels luminous and hot. I am basking on a rock to warm my blood, then skittering off on instinct alone, a facet of pure being flashing for a moment in the light. Off to find food, in search of procreation and, always, more light, more heat.
For a moment this feeling elongates in time and space, right back to the beginning of life - a naked, simple joy of being. As I sweat and grunt and look oh-so-horribly white and red among the tanned and sleek east european I have this wonderful feeling that I belong to a universe that created all of us. These weird gym-beings, the drunks on the streets, the middle classes scuttling home to comdemn the working classes on Love Island - I feel that we are all made of the big bang, from atoms and emptiness older, even, than an iphone 3.
That’s the Transcendence.
Or sometimes at 3am as the light first comes into the sky and you are rolling up and down a hill line somewhere out in the middle of wherevershire and you simply stop noticing single things, when the fullness of life and things and the landscape and the sky all smooch into one fat envelope of experience. When all the boundaries simply drop away.
Of course you can probably get the same feelings from a tab of Ecstasy, but riding is my drug, my existential and transcendental vehicle of choice and I will fight you to my last breath to hold onto it.
5. The Point
When I started this blog I thought of myself as someone who had had a lot of bikes and enjoyed riding. Now I see, and openly confess, my true nature.
Seen in one light I am the worst of all creatures; an enthusiast. Which is to say someone who is cut from the same cloth as a stamp collector or a season ticket holder. In another light I am a long time member of the outcast road cult whom the majority call Fucking Cyclists.
But in the best light, in the middle of interval six or at 3am in Wales, I am an explorer, a devotee, a guru and an athlete; Cycling is simply my medium, I am a cyclist.
It’s a definition I have arrived at rather than sought. I hesistate to define too much of myself this way because I am not particularly brilliant at it. In my current Audax circles I am one of the faster slow people. Back in the day I was always good for third to sixth but that’s all. Such is the genetic lottery.
But I am part of the bretheren who embrace The Passion, who seek Perfection though Freedom, we gratefully accept the moments of Perfection and Transcendence that fall our way. All cyclists of any ability or type have access to the five stations of the wheel. It’s not exclusive and it doesn’t really matter what you wear or ride. All of it is there for anyone who cares to look - that’s the point.
Next chapter: Coda; why write about bikes then?