The Hard-Earned Wisdom of The Bicycle

The bike is alive if you put your ear to the metal you will hear it whispering

It’s a depressing feeling when you realise you’re full of shit.

At the end of July, on the eve of a ten day jaunt through France, I wrote something about the joys of going away on a cycle tour. I’d droned on about how discovering the world from the seat of a bicycle was the most illuminating thing on God’s earth, and three days later I found myself at the top of a hill just south of the Loire valley wanting to cry.

The sun had beaten a migraine into my head, my sweat had dried into a film of salt that caked my jersey and was beginning to chafe, I had run out of water, I felt a shadow of my physical prime, and I wanted to be anywhere but in a nest of roundabouts on the outskirts of the town of Thouars anchored to a fucking bicycle, that I now resented because it had got me here. As if to goad me, as punishment for the lowness of my thought processes, Nature sent an emissary from the skies to plant a kiss on my lower lip.

And something dawned on me.

You see, historically I’d always taken off on these bike trips as a means of escape. I’d be in the grips of a depression and in need of any change whatsoever, of a reset button. And my reset button would be cycling. As a means of falling back in love with the world, and with life in that world, it was an unfailing tonic. I’d go away lost and come back found. I’d go away pasty and numb and drowning in monotony and return fit and brown and full of experience. For me cycle touring was a symbol of coming back from the dead, of crawling out of hell back to the land of the living.

But now I was happy.

I wasn’t looking for a magic bean. I wasn’t lost, things in my life had meaning. And as I approached the same roundabout for the third time in the 35 degree heat of a French afternoon, feeling my bottom lip slowly inflate like a bicycle tube, all I could think was…

what the fuck am I doing

The rocket-fuel of finding meaning in life wasn’t in me, the road ahead felt twice as long and twice as steep and wasn’t leading to any kind of redemption. I’d waxed on about falling in love with nature and feeling the wind on my back, about forests and streams and silence. But I was full of shit. I was metronomically pedalling along A-roads and stopping at French Morrison’s to down Perrier and eat emmental and jambon brioche buns out of a packet. Nothing was as it had been. I was seeing through it all, and I wanted to be back in London.

I’m back now, and I think I get it.

Some things are best understood not in the moment but in their aftermath. In the ten days it took me to cycle from Saint Malo in Brittany to Toulouse near the Pyrenees and the border with Spain, I was running from nothing. In that way, it was my most instructive cycling trip. I saw the world not radiating the glow of my own salvation, but as it was. It taught me that running away might take you out of hell for a little bit, but hell will keep coming for you. Running out of hell is a trip, but nothing feels that good if it’s not directly pushing away something bad. You’d be better off addressing the reasons that are making you run in the first place.

The cycling itself was less of a drug, the motivations for being on a bike were more opaque. I had to look harder for them. But find them I eventually did. And i was left with the same conclusion as always:

Touring by bicycle is The Great Teacher.

It is more than just cycling through a country. The bike is a confusingly wise thing, with a living beating heart. If you put your ear to the cold, scratched surface of the metal and concentrate, you’ll hear a whistling through the hollow tubes, and if you learn to listen carefully this whistling will whisper the wisdom of life back to you. Below are some of the lessons that hunk of steel has imparted to me over the last ten years.

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EXTENUATING CIRCUMSTANCES

Cycling through a nine day heat wave in early August can take its toll on your head and affect your mindset to the point where something that should be enjoyable can become really quite un-enjoyable because you’re so fucking hot all the time. But you think it’s your fault, and you’re getting old, and falling out of love with something that is precious to you, and you start to worry what that says about you and how you’re losing your wonder for the world, and for adventure, all these things, and it’s really just the fucking heat. More often than you’d think, the reasons your life is a disaster have their roots in something incredibly superficial.

SIMPLE THINGS

I stopped by the side of a road in New Zealand once and opened my water bottle to look down into it. Baked all morning by the sun, it was tepid, stagnant looking, and had bits of dirt floating around in it. I put it to my lips and sucked it up and in that moment it was the most delicious sweet thing to ever pass through them, more than smooches. The same thing I’d spit out on any normal day tasted like the water Indiana Jones downed in one from the Holy Grail. For that to happen I thought, I’m either very thirsty, or the bike is whispering to me.

On a cycle tour tepid water and a hunk of bread is a feast. A shitty campsite shower, clean socks, and a packet of Haribo and I feel like praying to a divine power to give thanks. Seneca told of the importance of depriving yourself of the things you think you need, and realising you’re completely fine. Of realising how happy you can be with very little. Not just happy, maybe happier. Which doesn’t just mean we should nurture an ability to go all Robinson Crusoe from time to time. It also means we spend our lives shackled to things we simply don’t need.

CONNECTION

One of the things I claimed before about the importance of getting back into nature, wasn’t so much the idea of becoming a tree. It was also about the places nature could take you away from. I try not to go on my computer that much when I cycle, which leaves me with sending and receiving texts on my beat-up nokia. One afternoon I found myself deep in a wood in Aquitaine looking down at my phone showing zero bars of reception, and some weird deep instinct rose up in me and a smile broke across my face.

A weight lifted, and I realised then my anxiety was one of being connected, not the other way around. After all I had everything I needed, I wasn’t lonely. And the liberation from this little plastic thing with this immense power to claw me away from being present in my surroundings was winged anxiety soaring off into the trees. Freeing me to enter into a connection with things directly in front of me, the ones living and breathing in the real world in front of my face. I’d foregone one type of connection to enter into another, one I could share with me, myself and my own memory, and it was making me a damn sight happier.

HISSY FITS

Below is my bike wheel sunk half way through the floor of La Puna, a plateau sitting 3,500 metres above sea level in the Andes. I was 80km from the nearest town when I was hit with a 6km stretch of this thick sand which made cycling impossible. The winter sun was beating down on me, I felt helpless and scared, and falling over for the fifth time in as many minutes I lay by the side of the trail with my head in my hands and screamed at the top of my voice as loud as I could. Expecting it to echo out over the vast valley like some strangulated death rattle, strangely enough to my surprise, after half a second my scream cut out abruptly, as if someone had ripped a plug out of a socket.

Something older and wiser inside me was telling me to get on with it. No-one could hear me scream. It was somewhat PG13, but I was in a survival situation and I was wasting energy i needed. Something inside me far smarter than I was, was making me go from problem to solution without the interval of a hissy fit. The seriousness of the situation required me to get straight on with solving it, leapfrogging my frustration completely. Which is kind of remarkable. If there’s one lesson the bike has imparted to me over the years, the wisdom of which I find it hard to fathom the extent of, it’s this one.

KEEP ON MOVING

When you’re cycling for seven to eight hours a day, you go through every single emotion possible every single day on a bicycle. If you spend over a week doing this, accumulated fatigue ups its ante, and odds on at some point you’re going to find yourself at a massive intersection during a rainstorm with a flat tire wishing you’d never been born. Or you’re out of water with the mercury pushing 38, and a resolve firmly mounting in your head to roll over and die by the roadside flash-fried by UV.

This is when you move. Take one more step, and you will find that doors will appear in walls you didn’t know existed, and you can walk through them. A bend in the road will become a small hamlet, a tap will reveal itself half-hidden around the side of a church, you will throw yourself under it, and it will feel like a thousand power showers pumping limited edition Evian all over the furnace of your charred melon. See Simple Things above.

NATURE

You get pretty tanned on a bicycle. You’re in the sun almost every hour of the day. It might not feel that way because you’re always moving, in and out of shadow, up and over hill and dale, the wind hitting your face, making your eyes stream, but the sun’s effect is the same on your skin as if you were lying all day on a beach towel. It gets you whether you like it or not. Go cycle touring for even a short amount of time, and the effect the sun has on your skin is the same one Nature will have on your mind. By just being in it, immersed in it, it will go to work on you without you even realising.

And Mother Nature will begin to speak to you in her ancient language, and She will call you into her arms.

What She has to say, you have to find out for yourself.


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Stuff that didn’t make the cut.

If you can bear your own company, travel alone. Your experience will be richer for it. Wave at old people when you pass them by. They dig it. Don’t torture yourself, but don’t make things too easy for yourself either. You don’t need a Garmin super-computer or booking.com to cycle round a country, you can get by with paper maps and sign language and you’ll have a much more memorable adventure. The combination of a mind free to wander and an optimum heart-rate is breeding ground for some really decent thought processes. Write them down or you’ll forget them. Cycling is the only drug I know where coming down might be even better than getting high.

Lastly, be sure to accidentally make a beeline for a friend’s palatial holiday home, even one that might be empty, a friend whose family have placed enough confidence in you to tell you where the keys are hidden, also encouraging access to their fridge, from which you could extract an ice cold beer, or two, or three, to accompany you as you while away an afternoon by the pool, staring out over the vast forests of the Lot valley, and fall into a deep peaceful slumber…

… transporting you to other worlds.