A Day in The Life of A Bike Messenger

The worst I ever had of it was two broken ribs and a laceration of my right hand.


I came to, in the middle of the road with five Parisians hunched over me and several more abusing the owner of the 4×4 who had opened his door into me with such timing that I had no idea where I was or what had happened. The concern on their faces told me it was ugly, my bike was gnarled and twisted out of shape and drops of thick dark blood were dripping from my knuckle onto the tarmac. I think I started crying.

Three weeks later on the way to Charles de Gaulle airport, delayed trauma from the impact made all the muscles in my chest contract and I went sheet white and passed out. With the help of other passengers my brother took me off the train and sat me down on the platform to wait for the Pompiers. I’d seen you like that at festivals too many times to be that concerned, he said later.


I’ve been doored three times but none worse than that. Cars have gone into the front and back of me, pedestrians have stepped out into me. I’ve been spat at, kicked, pot-holed, turned left-into, and run off the road and chased by a white van man, for wearing a pink beanie. I’ve gone over my handle-bars more times than I can remember, shedding skin and spilling blood on roadsides and pavements around the city. I once cycled into the Regent’s Canal.

I should probably be less alive than I am.


*

For two and a half years in my early twenties I cycled around London for eight hours a day with a radio strapped to my chest and a bag over my shoulder full of documents needing dropping off with a life-threatening urgency. Of all the things I experienced in that time, none were greater than London itself. The city would smack me in the face every day, an enormous beast of brick and fumes and ghosts and noise, baring itself in all its guises, battering me with indifference as it attended to the business of being London.

Yet at some incidental time of day when I least expected, some afternoon along a towpath or catching my breath on a stoop in the late morning, the din would recede for a moment and in that pause the city would let me in, as if it was winking at me, reminding me I was part of its plans and I belonged.


I grew to know its geography in a way that seared itself into my brain. I learnt how different parts of the city connected to other parts, mapping out the connective tissue where artery met tendon and capillary. I learnt the city’s contours, the hills, the churches and cemeteries, the circuses, the old City gates, the order of the bridges, where the river curled and where it straightened, the one way systems and the shortcuts, even the timings of the traffic lights.


I could tell you the lights along Clerkenwell and Theobalds Rd were etched in my head so exactly that if I timed it right I could do the junctions blind. I told a mate and he asked me if I thought I was Sean Connery in the fucking Rock.

Doing the circuit, it was called.

You were on call from 8 til around 6, beginning mostly in the City picking up and delivering documents to the big banks. You’d get to know the bowels of important buildings, the dirty underbelly, the despatch area, where men in shirts and Hi-Vis coats would peer boredly over spectacles or bark at you, where you’d cross path with other riders doing runs to other banks and chew the cud of the mid-morning.


I learnt a new way of riding. One that weaved and cleaved and hopped up and skittered across and was always morphing. Traffic lights ceased to mean much, I learnt how to ride across the city without stopping once and without running one light. There were spaces in between things I learnt, that if you knew where to look for were everywhere, waiting for you to slip through them. I learnt how messengers would face down vehicles most capable of killing them, running fingers along the sides of buses to show they weren’t afraid. Above all I learnt that getting somewhere could be more fun than being somewhere.

I never got to know the real courier family. I knew those who worked for my company and recognised many as I passed them in the street. When they invited me to hang at messenger spots or drink with them at day’s end by the Foundry on Old Street, I was too shy. I’d summon the courage and right at the last minute I’d cycle by.


When I left my first company I bought the office a box of Quality Street and they laughed at me. It wasn’t a very courier thing to do. Most bike messengers stepped to the beat of their own drum, respecting few but their own. There was a lawless irreverence to their spirit, a life of squats and beer and alleycats and identity that I didn’t come close to touching.

But I sensed a slightly lost side to the existence too.

Of being surrounded at all times and still alone. Winding through traffic, catching the lights just right, flying past the madness, pushing and weaving and skidding, at its best it was a dance of joy. But the embers of the fire revealed something sadder. As if you were seeking something that couldn’t be had because the relentless engulfing city had you first, it was a clipped sort of flight, a Truman Show type of freedom. It made me wonder who in a city was ever free. All these years later I still see some of the same riders I once shared the road with, gliding along, ears tuned to the intermittent static from their radios.

But I was quite happy.

For those two and a half years the love affair was between me and my city. I hardly spoke to anyone all day. Sign here. Sign here please. Just here on the line. In three years I took the tube less than five times. When I did I would feel mole-like, burrowing along underground to stick my head above the surface. But on a bike I was a hawk, surveying the city from a great height, moving through it like a sea, it was the journey I loved the most.


Slowly they revealed themselves to me. Strange unknown parts of the sprawl existing as they always had. Harlesden, Rotherhithe, North Finchley, West Norwood, I’d cycle anywhere. I liked the longer journeys so my controllers would send me further and further away. That’s how you become a top rider, my boss would tell me, knowing he’d have to spend triple the money on a van. Different parts of town would recall different friends and memories, each one of them had a story. At the end of the week I’d get an envelope with six fifty pound notes in it.

I’d head to the New Era shop in Soho and pick up a fresh cap.

And it was sad too. Like life.

And tiring and repetitive and surprising and monotonous and ecstatic like life. But I wouldn’t have the deep understanding of the city I do without the time I spent trailing lines of coloured ribbon along its lanes and alleyways. If one talent of mine could be worth matrixing into another person’s brain, I thought, it would be my London. Sitting in the back of taxis I’d argue with cabbies over routes, especially when I was drunk, until they’d point out how the fuck they were gonna get their cab the wrong way down a bike lane and through a park, so I’d shut up.

People talk about their lives sometimes in terms of chapters. First day at school. The day I saw my father cry. First love. The birth of my first child. Certainly one of the chapters in my life will be cycling the streets of London at top-speed with headphones in, whooping at the top of my lungs, transported to some other place entirely. If this sounds a little dangerous then I could tell you the by-product of cycling a city every day for fifteen years is an understanding of the road, and what not to do.


A few years ago I drew together the most important lessons I’d learnt from my time cycling around town, and came up with the Six Cycling Commandments.


*

My legs are tiring now, I’m getting older.

The fury and relentless energy of my messenger days have taken the left-hand turn to memory. I still cycle a lot, but I have an oyster card now. If I have to cross London and can smell a hair-breadth of an excuse, before I know it I’ll find myself sat on the Overground. I like it because I get to stare at people. I never got the chance to do that before. The bike was too fast and ceaseless and impatient. You’d get the wind in your hair and a warmth in your loins, and you’d be off. But you couldn’t just sit and stare at somebody for half an hour. It’s taking some getting used to.

Taking a pause. Stopping to stare.


The way you might stare at a somebody you love when they’re not looking.


Somebody, or something.

If It Was in Doubt He Was Sure of An Adventure

The darling buds of May dangle forlornly with ice. For three days my socks are soaked through, my feet ache from the cold and I move eastwards through falling snow into a headwind, cursing my idea that France meant Mediterranean sun. On a nasty winding climb my gears lock up and I scream out in rage. My only company are the creaking pines and my rage is a fart in the wind. A well of happiness that has lain empty for months is filling up inside me. Whatever befalls me now won’t make a shot of difference, I think I have been saved.

*

A few hours into the first day of January of 2019, someone posted this.

My year has felt a little like that. Imagine sleeping through a whole weekend, going out alone on a Monday and getting totalled, waking up and feeling like shit all of Tuesday, with nobody to text about what a strange impromptu night it was. 2019 has felt like that kind of hangover, close to every day. When it threatened to get good, I would wake up on that same Tuesday all over again. Lapping against my shores was a lake of unease, joy was a stone skimming across its surface.

Ratcheting up the pressure and relieving it at will, a mild depression had had me by the balls since November. Too mild to knock me out, but still the mental health equivalent of a small annoying dog humping my lower leg. Every day I watched the warfare of a city fighting harder than I was to stay alive, the siren wailing and check-out lines and sad eyes staring from the top of night buses, folk surrounded from all sides but achingly alone. Joy was there somewhere around the next corner, and I was moving down the wrong side of the wrong street.

*

The Bordeaux airport Ibis Budget hotel is a strange environment to find a new lease of life.

In the past, when things got top-heavy I’d often look to the bike for an out. To go away into a new environment, to raise your heart-rate, to breathe clean air and be enveloped by green, the experience is rich because it is all new. Cycling across a country albeit with maps, is raw unmapped territory for your mind, it is taking five big gulps from an ice cold pint of adventure. We all need some adventure in our lives once in a while.

And so I found myself in the Ibis Budget Airport hotel just west of Bordeaux with my touring bike propped against the wall, lying starfished in the dark as the hum of jet engines sang me to sleep, feeling an emotion I hadn’t been able to muster all year. The kind of excitement only a free man can feel, a man at the start of a long journey, whose conclusion is uncertain. Lyon was my destination, 700km directly eastwards across the rolling terrain of the under belly of France, with a date to keep six days from then on the steps of Marylebone Town Hall, to watch my brother getting married.

This mood of mine had lingered inside me since early November, at times subsiding but never leaving altogether. It occurred to me that sensitive people have these pores that are open all the time to emotional information, good and bad. When depression rears its head it makes the information coming in always the worst kind, and switches off the ability to ignore it. The night ushered in the foreboding morning. Spilt milk was worth crying over. I would step out of my front door over the top into No Man’s Land and face a barrage of information, incoming from all angles, from a wild unforgiving city that didn’t give a fuck about me and my pores.

So like the rich Victorians taking in the healing waters of Swiss spa towns, changing the nature of that information seemed like a good idea. I traded in carbon monoxide and horns for the smell of pine needles in the afternoon. A slanging match between a Turk and a crackhead became the quiet of a sleepy village waiting for its boulangerie to open. For six days the light hitting my face was no longer the pale glow from a screen.

And it went to work on me.


*

The gently rolling fields around Bordeaux are busy with backs bent-double over vines, tending to grapes like newborns. Warmed by the May sun, I move through them slowly, tasting the salt from my sweat and the creeping excitement of the unknown. Bastide towns and hillocks, copses and farm yards, pine trees and butterflies, the tarmac moves slowly backwards beneath my wheel and I breathe and whoop and feel it all deeply, the kind of attention I haven’t paid the earth in a long time.

I feel anonymous in a way I wouldn’t feel in England, there are no rules for me here, and this adds to my sense of freedom. I stop in Castillonnès and eat a simple lunch on the step of a deserted high street, a couple of locals pass by and commiserate about the weight of my panniers. In a shop window I see an old photo of the same high street, and imagine the day the man set up his strange contraption in the road and the shop sellers came out and the village stopped to pose, and think of the children that have lived whole lives since that day and grown old and been mourned.

I move eastwards into the Dordogne, the landscape ramps up, hillier and thick with forest. It is the oldest inhabited area of Europe and feels wilder than the vineyards and the roads are quiet. In 1940 while rescuing a dog who had fallen down a hole, a boy lit a match and illuminated the prehistoric paintings of Lascaux cave, releasing them from a darkness where they had lain undiscovered for 17,000 years. Casting his eyes on the paintings of bull and lion and rhinoceros for the first time, Picasso exited the cave and exclaimed in wonder we have invented nothing!

That afternoon a winding climb takes me up into the hills and I stop a while to rest. There are no cars, and all is still but for the breeze through the trees and the hum of insects. Lions stopped prowling these hills millennia ago but the landscape must look the same, I think. I am a fleeting visitor in an ancient land, I feel small and insignificant. More than that I feel lucky, to be where I am up on this hill, peering into this timeless kingdom for an eternal minute. I look at my bicycle lying in the ferns and nod respectfully. You and me mate. What else could have got me to this spot, shown me all this, made me feel so deeply.

I cycle on.

The Dordogne becomes the Auvergne. Harsh volcanic landscapes, sinister slate grey villages, even the weather changes to suit the mood. A cold front sweeps across France and I take shelter in cafés and massage my toes to get the blood back into them. There is sleet and snow and cold hard rain that chills me to the core. A techno festival 30km north turns into a Red Cross disaster zone. Some men in a bar convince me to fill my water bottles with red wine. One of them warns the others mais un litre de vin rouge… après on ne bouge…. They roar with laughter. It is not yet lunch time.

In September I stopped taking antidepressants for the first time in nine years. I was doing fine and wasn’t sure how much they were really working. Being med-free felt like a badge of honour and when I started feeling not so good towards Christmas I imagined it would last a month or so and then I would come out of it. But I never really did. I’d have spells of upbeatness, and show my face here and there, and then be back to normal. The trouble was my normal was a good few floors under ground.


*

On my way out of the Auvergne one afternoon, sat on a bench eating lunch, I heard a faint thud on the glass behind me, and saw a tiny man lying in a chair by the window beckoning me over. Perhaps the oldest person I have ever laid eyes on, his nose knotted like a 600year old oak, as he spoke his dentures fell from the top of his mouth and were caught by the bottom. He was very deaf, and after a few stilted sentences he fell silent, and grabbed my hand and held it.

As I cycled off down the road, a strange emotion surged up inside me, the kind of sadness that makes your tummy ache, that makes you feel so alive it’s hard to bear. When I was out of sight I stopped again and something dawned on me. Fuck, I thought, how is it that I can feel all at once so happy and so lonely. I realised I was coming back to life. All year my mood had isolated me, made me see so few people, I’d forgotten how to be in the world. And it had taken me 650km of French countryside to get to a point where I was happy enough to want to be in the world again, and a meeting with an old man to realise I had to start immediately.

Depression is the most narcissistic thing around, because it places you at the centre of everything. The world outside is beckoning you with open arms, and you can’t see beyond the four walls of your addled mind. Everything affects you, concerns you, hurts you. All information that comes in passes through the toll-booth of your depressed brain, which is too sensitive and defensive and afraid. The narcissistic part is the unending self-obsession.

Being in an environment so vast and ancient and eternal made me feel tiny and fleeting and insignificant. To be amongst those ancient hills and valleys and endless woods made me feel a tiny part of something bigger. My father complains that when I cycle I blitz through countries and have no time for cathedrals or museums. But the woods are my cathedrals, the trees are my spires, the cattle bells ringing out over the hillside are my evensong. Psithurism is a word for the sound of the wind running through the trees


*

On a rainy joyous day in early April interspersed with blasts of brilliant sun my brother got married to Victoria, and not long after my mood returned. My therapist did some rough calculations and we decided to go back on the meds. I was happy to in the end, I was fed up. It was taking the best of me. The roots of some trees run deeper than others. It takes something bigger to unearth them.


*

Looking down from the plane as it flew up and out of Lyon airport, I saw the small details of the French countryside I was leaving behind. Lines of roads, little hamlets, reservoirs, copses, all the signs of a country that feels alien to you because you will never know it. But I had known it. The chatter of the men in bars, the cool silence of empty churches, the town squares and looping mountain roads, the cattle bells and stillness of the mid-afternoon. I had known it all, and it had brought me back. Perhaps not altogether but enough. Maybe never in my life have I understood the wonder of a bicycle more profoundly, and its ability to show you the world in a way no other thing can.

As we approached the first band of clouds, I took out my little pad to make a note, and flicking through the pages I landed on something I had written long enough ago to have no memory of it. I looked down at the scribbled words, read them slowly, read them again, and laughed.

He didn’t want to do anything that was mapped out.


If it was in doubt, then he was sure of an adventure.

A Dawning Realisation About War

In the summer of 2017 I took a trip to see all the battlefields of the Somme and Verdun and the area of northern France known as the Front Line, where German and Allied guns rained fire down on one another for four years during the Great War. On my bike I slowly traced my way past Memorial after Memorial and graveyard after graveyard commemorating the fallen of 1914-1918. 

It was very ghostly and moving and very hard to understand.

One morning I wheeled my bike down a track into a wood at the base of a hill, leant it up against a gate and sat on the grass to eat lunch. It was very still and peaceful and afterwards I slept for half an hour. The hill was Thiepval ridge, I later learned that for three months in 1916 my resting place was the exact spot the Allies and the Germans had fought out one of the fiercest battles of the Somme at the cost of tens of thousands of lives.

That wood where I stopped a while, the earth where I laid my head, the stillness of that afternoon, had witnessed another story. One that even with all my concentration I found difficult to comprehend. And it recalled a realisation I’d had, this time in a field in Germany, that made my own understanding of War a little clearer.


*

Flat-lining on the sofa one sunday afternoon in the grip of a cheese coma, tap-tapping through the buttons on the Sky remote I arrived at the History Channel and a documentary about the rise of Nazi Germany. I looked over at my old man with a raised eye-brow to see if he was in. Staring back at the screen with a glazed look that said he was faring little better himself from a reblochon overdose, he grunted a noise my way which i took as clear encouragement to change the channel.

I think it’s important to watch this though, I asserted self-importantly.

What happened next stayed with me. He snapped out of his cheese coma with a seamlessness only a man with half a century of sunday lunches under his belt could possible have had the opportunity to master, and sat up. He then looked me in the eye very seriously and said:

I think it’s the most important thing people of your generation need to know about, and make sure they remember. The most. Without doubt. I just don’t feel like watching it right now.

Perhaps this has more resonance given that my father is Argentine, and in 1945 when the second world war ended he was three years old and living in Buenos Aires, 8,000 miles away from the dust-cloud settling across Europe. None of his family were involved in the war. He came over here in the 70s and finds the patriotism of his adopted country often blind and difficult to stomach. So for him to tell me the war is something our generation has an absolute duty to be aware of and to remember hit home.

*

The Japanese have a word  被爆者 Hibakusha which is the name given to the survivors of the A-bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. It literally means radiation-affected people. Recently in Hiroshima there has been a collective sadness that with time fewer and fewer Hibakusha remain alive, and with that the last direct living tie with what happened will disappear. As the new generation comes up, there is a fear that people will begin to forget.


*

The ceremony of Armistice Day is handsdown one of the coolest things about the British. When the whole of Whitehall falls silent and the guy gets out the bugle and plays the Last Post, it’s pretty hardcore. In light of this making sure to remember, and the difficulty our generation has in getting our heads around the horror of war, something we have been blessed to avoid and yet also cursed by our ignorance of, something happened to me last year that gave me a new understanding of the whole thing.

On a cycle ride up through the middle of Germany on my way to Berlin, one summer’s afternoon I came into a town in the north of Bavaria called Brunn. It was tiny. I free-wheeled through it, and on my way out I passed a war memorial, recognising it at half-glance as one does with the familiar. A minute or so later as the town was disappearing over my right shoulder, I semi-froze. And cycled back.

It was exactly like so many of the war memorials that stand on village greens throughout England, even in rural Scottish villages they are there, tributes to the Glorious Dead. My cycle ride had taken me through the whole of France, where every single town or hamlet has a memorial to soldiers killed in the wars. So when I saw this one I didn’t think twice.

But what cracked me clean across the temple was the realisation that this was the other side’s.

As self-evident as that sounds, what confounded me was that it was the first time I’d understood the other side’s perspective. Here was a tiny town with name upon name of soldiers, from that town, that had died in the First World War, mourned by surviving relatives of that town, suffering the confusion and tragedy brought on them by the Powers That Be embarking on a war of such aggression, that our generation is incapable of imagining it.

The inhabitants of Brunn, up on that hill in northern Bavaria, what possible say could they have had in a war that announced itself one morning, and went on to steal their sons and daughters and change their lives forever. How helpless must they have felt.

It was the first time that what we learnt in school to call the enemy now existed in my head as real people. Soldiers just as young and innocent as the names inscribed on the walls of memorials all over Britain. And how the mothers and daughters of Brunn must have thought about the Allies just as we thought of the Bosch, just as much the enemy, figures of hatred responsible for all the death and destruction and pain they were feeling. For that afternoon I was on the German side, and it all made more sense and became even more confusing.

For us it is history. For our great-grandparents it was a worst nightmare that begun one day, and from that moment on this nightmare morphed day by day into a horrifying reality. It was waking up one morning to a radio broadcast, that turned into a month, that turned into six years, that turned into a dark shadow over their minds that lived with them for the rest of their lives.

The Hard-Earned Wisdom of The Bicycle

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.

*

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.


*

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.

The Story Of A Bike Theft

Five weeks ago, my man Wilma went into a coffee shop on Broadway Market for a cappuccino with extra chocolate sprinkles. When he came out two minutes later his trusty steed, the bike he’d left propped up by the bench outside, was nowhere to be seen.

Having semi-digested the awful sandwich of surging adrenaline and sinking-feeling that being on the receiving end of any theft serves up on a plate with one of those pointless ribboned-toothpick things, he put a call out on his instagram to the London bike scene.

Jensenparsonss‘s vow to ‘look carefully’ and reverblondon‘s promise to ‘keep an eye out for the c&nts’ were laudable but in the end fruitless, and no white Brother track frame ever did surface. Poor old Wilma was left to curse his luck and resort to busting around town on his old school vespa, which although less tiring, doesn’t come close to the daily dodgem-esque thrill of blazing around London on a push bike, as he ruefully imparted to me over languid sips on another cappuccino with extra chocolate sprinkles.


*

Like the apple falling from the tree and coming to rest by Newton’s side, or the permanent residence of Toni’s mountainous stash of bugle, legend tells that when all was thought lost, the solving of Columbo‘s greatest case emerged from right under his nose.

And so it came to pass, that almost a month after the tragic incident, fate found me on a lovely Friday evening of late summer, cycling down Mare Street with the extemporal nonplussedness of a man in sync with his surroundings, high-fiving the twilight, no doubt on his way to an outdoor screening of some genre-bending silent movie from the 20s. Which I was.

And looking to my left I see a tall man half-standing, perched in animated conversation with his homey who is seated on the bench pictured below. Perched I say, because he is rocking slowly back and forth, while resting his forearms on the handlebars of a white bike.

Ah cool, I think, as I always do when I clock the familiar branding of my friend’s bike company on the down tube. Another Brother bike spotted out on the streets of London town. I wonder how many there must be out there now. I feel pride in my mate and his endeavour and his achievement. And then, out of nowhere in true Columbo style, the double-take surges up from deep inside me and sledge-hammers me across the temple.

That looks a hell of a lot like Wilma’s bike.

I recalibrate, and focus once more on the bike’s custodian. He is a towering Afro-Caribbean man with dreadlocks, a beanpole two inches shy of 7ft. Lifting my bike onto the pavement about fifteen metres downwind, I focus every atom of my body and channel my best Jason Bourne. I instantly feel myself fading into the surroundings, fusing into the street furniture. When in a matter of seconds a troupe of schoolkids and an old biddy almost run me over, it becomes clear. 

I am invisible.

I call Wilma, who picks up. Bro I think I’m looking at your bike. I describe the details of the bike and he corroborates. A pause on the line. Fuck, he says. And tells me by total serendipity he happens to be three hundred metres away, drinking a pint in the sunshine on Broadway Market. What the fuck do we do.

Just as he’s about to tell me he’d rather be left alone drinking his pint on Broadway, our man comes to the end of his conversation with his homey and starts moving off. Fuck he’s moving, I whisper… I’m gonna tail him. To gasps from onlookers who literally see me appear out of a brick wall, I unfuse myself from my surroundings and start following from a Bourne-esque distance of 20 metres.

Ellingford Road is quiet and narrow and lined with plane trees at its western end where it meets the brick arches of the Overground lines, commuter-veins taking blood back into the dark heart of the city. In its time as a tributary from the commotion of Mare Street to the oasis of London Fields, it must have witnessed much. The wail of sirens during blitz night-raids, many a love story, the odd broken dream, an almighty 1966 street party, and the whistling of endless kettles boiling water for cups of tea, milky remedies for the arrival of news of every sort.

All this of course becomes irrelevant when you’re tailing a 7ft assailant-in-waiting down it, with zero idea on a starter move. I follow at a shrewd distance with my balls now vying for space with my Adam’s apple.

The plane trees and embers of broken dreams fly by and before I know it I’m nearing the black brick of the railway arches. Passing under the Overground I find time to capture an artistic photo of my handlebars in a wild dance with their shadow, in silhouette against the sun-splashed tarmac.

Stammering updates down the phone to Wilma, we hang a left onto Martello Street and ride up past the Pub on the Park. Crowds in the garden are in full cheer enjoying the sunshine of their youth. But this is no time for a pint. As I follow it dawns on me that our man might be heading directly back to Broadway in some macabre revisiting of the scene of the crime maybe, the exact place where Wilma is sat drinking his beer.

Just as my hopes pick up speed, turning languidly right into London Fields he ignores the thoroughfare going left to Broadway, and continues straight, bisecting the park westwards towards Dalston. Fuck.

Our man has settled on an average speed unlikely to set any velodrome on fire. Which makes tailing him even more difficult, for in my excitement I keep catching up with him, suddenly remembering to keep my voice down unless he starts getting suspicious of some dude doing a loud running commentary of each one of his pedal strokes.

Back in Jason Bourne mode, I refocus and keep my distance while whispering coordinates down the phone to Wilma. In this fashion, we edge westwards across the park, in the direction of the council estates that line its western edge and whose alleyways and stairwells form an impenetrable web running deep into their heart.

With no idea where he is heading, I know at the same time alone I stand little chance of getting anything from him, other than a personalised gift requiring a few stitches. My word against his is nothing. You can’t just accuse someone of stealing a bike in broad daylight. Not when he could have a vested interest in testing out a kitchen knife on your upper leg.

I press on, and hear Wilma on the other end of the line, mumbling what sounds like someone reading a pint of beer its last rites. Then his voice changes. Right where the fuck are you. Keep tailing him, I’m legging it to my vespa right now. In the knowledge we have just doubled in number, my fear subsides. I explain to him as best I can the direction in which I think we’re headed. The line is shitty, I can just make out the sound of an engine spluttering into life, and as I strain to tell him we’re still moving westwards… he cuts out. Fuck.

I’m on my own.

The immortal line from Shawshank echoes around the haunted attic of my mind.

Fear can hold you prisoner.

I can hardly move. I calculate I’m about another 25 metres from urinating powerfully down both trouser legs, and try to remember the the rest of the line.

Hope can set you free.

Hope might have worked for Andy Dufresne and his rock-hammer, but hope holds no sway in this situation. Hope isn’t getting my mate’s bike back.

With no way of knowing if Wilma has clocked where I am, we start moving back in the direction of Broadway. Then out of nowhere, our man takes a right on a path I didn’t even know existed, doubling back on himself, and it dawns on me he is taking me into the mouth of the Lion’s Den. His own.

He edges out onto the road, me behind.

As I’m about to faint my terror is pierced by a noise some way off to my left, it is the sound of 150cc’s careering towards me at just under the speed-limit. Wilma appears on the horizon, rounding the corner in a cloud of burning rubber. He full-throttles towards us. His jaw is clenched in granite-like determination. He looks at me and nods.

It’s on.

I wave my arm in the direction of our oppressor, whose back is turned, moving incredibly slowly up the road. The spine-tingling moment when time seems to slow in moments of high-tension floods over me, draining the blood from my face. Out of the corner of my eye I see two old ladies motoring up the other side of the pavement, and realise time has not slowed at all, not even remotely. Just the unfathomably slow progress of our man down the road has duped me into thinking the space-time continuum is out of sync.

But does the gazelle being tracked though the high-grass by the cheetah see any cause for concern. Suddenly the motives for his slowing become clear. He is stopping. The thief, and by now we both seem clear on the fact he is responsible for the cruel theft mere weeks before of the white Brother bike he is astride, comes to a languid halt by 142 Landsdown Drive. Lazily skipping the bike up off the pavement he walks towards the bright red door on the left.

Wilma and I move forward together in unison.

Wilma shouts…

WILMA
Oi!

The man about-turns at the door of Number 142 exhaling a plume of sensimilla.

MAN
jahmun?

WILMA
that’s my bike!

MAN
what jah talkin bout?

WILMA
you’re holding my bike mate it was stolen from a coffee shop on Broadway Market three weeks ago. I’m calling the police

MAN
jah madman mi buy dis fi 20 pound from man pon Brick Lane

WILMA
i’m calling the police

ME
yeah

MA
nuh call di police bredda

WILMA
give me my bike back or I’m calling the fucking police

We move in perfect pincer-movement towards him, me a whisker away from tripping over a paving stone and face-planting into a shrub. Feeling our advance the man recoils into a cat-like position, ready to spring. In the blinking of an eye, his face morphs into an expression of such unabated fury that both Wilma and I do a huge double-take. The intensity of his glare seems to explode every capillary in his face and a river of blood washes over the whites of both his eyes, turning them crimson.

The traumatic events that followed have been papered over by selective memory and much therapy, but as far as I can recall what happened went roughly as follows.

Wilma launches himself at the man and the bike, and together they fall to the ground. Mid-fall I see him remove something from his jacket pocket which catches the reflection of the late-afternoon sun. It is metallic. I fear for my friend’s life and do the only thing a man faced with such a predicament can. I get out my phone to lense the viral video of the decade.

Realising the pixel-power of my nokia 301 is never going to set YouTube on fire, I consider switching to my Canon G5X, mulling over if I even have any space on my memory card. All the while the two writhe on the ground outside number 142 like a pair of sketchy breakdancers trying to do a freeze.

As I stand there gawping, Wilma pulls some beginner jiu-jitsu out of nowhere and arm-bars his adversary, forcing the metallic object out of his hand. It drops to the floor, letting out a tinkle on impact with the paving slab. Time stops. The three of stare at it.

It is a bike-key.

MAN
man fi try get mi lock fram bike fi give it back rasclaat!

WILMA
oh

MAN
(wincing in pain holding his arm)
take ya pussio bike

WILMA
Err… yeah nice one man. Umm… sorry about the arm buddy.

They smile, and inexplicably hug it out. My last impression is that of Wilma and the man, arm-in-arm, laughing loudly as they disappear through the door in a thick cloud of weed smoke. But by now I am motoring down the street as far as my limp can carry me, aware of a warm liquid working its way down the inside of my trouser leg.


*

So yes in the end we got the bike back. Nothing quite so dramatic happened. No shanking took place. No blood was spilt. No jujitsu arm-bars were administered. Did we confront the perpetrator. Yes. Did he seem completely surprised and turn aggressive. Yes. Did he ask how the hell we had followed him there. Yes. Did I at that moment feel incredibly like Jason Bourne. Correct. Did he reluctantly hand the bike over after repeated threats that we’d call the po-po. Yup. Did Wilma and the man shake hands at the end of this transaction. Strangely enough, they did.

Did I piss my pants. Maybe.

Much more importantly, was the clenched-fist of justice administered to the glass-chin of wrongdoing, in the face of all adversity and against all odds.

 The world was the winner that day.

There is a strange sub–plot to this story.

Following the incident, Wilma and I fell out and didn’t speak to each other for a month.

Upon retrieval of the bike we hugged it out and whooped and hollered and went our separate ways. I was still in time to catch my silent art house movie from the 20s. He of course had his pint to finish. That night as I got into bed, my phone bleeped with a short text:

The next day, we met on the canal by Victoria Park in the midday sunshine. And he didn’t even bring it up. It was like the whole thing had never happened. There was no mention of the heroic reconquest, the fight to the death, the faith in the universe restored. Nothing. I couldn’t believe it. I began questioning whether I’d made the whole thing up. And yet there he was, in clear possession of his white Brother bike that three weeks ago he’d mourned the death of and said goodbye to forever.

And it surprised and saddened me. And for some reason I took a step back from our friendship. I mean I’m not completely irrational, there were other reasons, but the aftermath of the bike story had left me a bit cold. So I shut-up shop on our daily banter for a bit.

Stumbling through Lao Tzu a while later I saw the short passage:

Fill you bowl to the brim and it will spill.

Keep sharpening your knife and it will be blunt.


Care about people’s approval and you will be their prisoner.

Do your work, and then step back.


The only path to serenity.

This stuff is 2,600 years old. My wrath lasted less than a month, and subsided. It wasn’t that I thought Wilma had acted normally. But my reaction was dumb. Maybe he had some shit on his mind he was bad at expressing. Maybe the bike thing had meant less to him than it had to me. No brains are the same, nor is the beef going on inside them at any one time. Why don’t I write about it, I thought. Immortalise it on the page. Pour my feeling into words and let them bubble. Or step back.

So I did both I suppose.


*


Do your work, and then step back.

The only path to serenity.

A Guide To Continental Iced Coffee

Travel broadens the mind.

More importantly bike travel through Europe precipitates many a petrol station pitstop, and with this an unrivalled opportunity to sample a crapload of variations on the world’s most accomplished libation, iced coffee. I’ll run you through some contenders.

Cafè Royal – Extra Strong

These Café Royal cats have their iced coffee shit on lockdown. You’re looking at the Extra Strong line. But they have a whole host of flavours, my original intention was a blogpost dedicated solely to this one brand. And yet life passes most people by while they’re making grand plans for it.


So it came to pass that after this first memorable encounter I never saw Café Royal again, running out of petrol stations before I’d crossed the Swiss border into Austria. A sad allegory for the fleeting nature of life, a lesson in grabbing opportunity while you can. I’m left instead with the memory of that delicate nectar as it slipped down my throat, the kick of the added caffeine only the Extra Strong line could provide, and the loving wash of the artificial sweeteners on my brain. A moment made more beautiful by its precious transience, it will be in my heart always.


*


Emmi – Caffè Latte Macchiato ‘I’m sooo creamy’

These days you can find the Emmi line in any Tesco extra, but the acid test is drinking it in situ. In the same way prosciutto di Parma tastes better on the terrace of a hilltop village in Piemonte, or a devilish fromage de chèvre hits the palate with more resonance whilst sitting in the shade of an umbrella pine overlooking the valley of the Luberon, I figured drinking a german iced coffee in Germany would take on greater meaning. But Emmi is made in Switzerland, so my logic didn’t fly. Like all other iced coffees it was sweet, and pretty sickly. It was creamy though. So creamy.


*


Mr Brown – Coffee Drink

I blame the craft beer revolution for turning me into one of those guys whose heart genuinely falls when looking right then left then right again at the bar and failing to see a tap with that cool lick of condensation itching to pump out a pint of obscure pale ale. There are still pubs aplenty you don’t even need to walk into to know their beer of the week will be a toss up  between numbers and not remotely cold Carling extra cold. The pub equivalent of Ronsil Quick Drying Woodstain, doing exactly what it says on the tin.


In loosely the same way Mr Brown Coffee Drink is only stocked in Germany’s most godforsaken petrol stations. But when in the baking sun in the outskirts of some shit town in North Rhine-Westphalia, it hits the spot. It looks, tastes, and is cheap. But comes in a can. Which none of the others do. A lovely little USP.


*


Nescafe Xpress

Gggnnnhhyuuuggh under no circumstances go near one of these. It’s admirable the way they’ve managed to condense 18 tonnes of refined sugar into a bottle that size, but it is fucking disgusting. I think I got stopped for speeding that morning. Three weeks later I’m still gagging from the memory.


*


Movenpick – Espresso

I have absolutely no memory and made no mental note of anything to do with this iced coffee. I don’t even have any opinions about its packaging. In a blind tasting Sam Allardyce would pick Movenpick.


*


Caffè Lattesso – Cappuccino

If iced coffee was a character from a film then Caffè Lattesso Cappuccino would be Johhny Depp walking through Miami International airport in Blow.

Or Dufresne crawling out of the shit-pipe to freedom.

Or Larusso post crane-kick manoeuvre.

This is more than iced coffee. It’s the moment of all our lives. If I ever have a child, I want an ice cold Caffè Lattesso to reach for at the moment of truth in the maternity ward. If Harry Kane ever scores the winner in the Champions League final I’ll be pouring Caffè Lattesso Cappuccino all over the fools next to me on my L-shaped sofa, hoping it’ll stain, because it will be a Caffè Lattesso stain. Before coolly reaching for another from a fridge full of them, chilling to perfection.


I remember the moment like it was yesterday. A petrol station in northern Bavaria. A muggy afternoon. A smiling petrol station attendant, blonde, eyes like emeralds in a glassy sea, the first pair of eyes I saw once I’d come to on the petrol station forecourt after passing the fuck out. I asked her to marry me, she laughed and kissed me on the cheek, and pulled out a glossy of some bearded german brey. At any rate, the elevation of an artificially coloured sweetened caffeine drink from exactly that to one of the defining moments of my life was a profoundly humbling experience, and one that left me deeply moved.


*

It tastes much like all the others, but comes with a little amaretti-type biscuit hidden in the top. Check it out.


Kapow.

I wasn’t taking any chances on more Movenpick non-moments and loaded up.

As I cycled off into the greyness of that September afternoon, I glanced back and saw Helda’s hand pressed up against the glass, as her eyes locked onto mine in a retinal embrace, an imperceptible longing etched onto her silken face. All at once my life unravelled before my eyes, and as my soul soared skyward my heart threw itself against my chest, imploring my head to turn my bike around, to be within a heartbeat of her once more.

They say that what you love you must set free, and gazing back in her direction, still in my head were all the promises I had to keep, and in my legs the miles before I’d sleep. I turned away, and moved blindly onwards into the arms of some alternate destiny. Can I hand on aching heart say that Caffè Lattesso had no part to play in any of this? I can’t

What kind of iced coffee does that.

A Yo! to Nature on The Eve of A Bike Trip

I had been pounding my mountain bike through dense forest for over an hour.

The sinuous track finally straightened and I crested the pine-coated hill. I looked over at Wilma and grimaced, then stared out across the vast unending lands stretching out ahead of us and channeled the last of the Mahican in me. These were the territories of the Native American tribes who had roamed freely over these hills and prairies for tens of thousands of years, existing in a deep spiritual communion with a sacred earth they called a mothering power.

I was born in Nature’s wide domain! The trees were all that sheltered my infant limbs, the blue heavens all that covered me. I am one of Nature’s children. She shall be my glory: her features, her robes, and the wreath of her brow, the seasons, her stately oaks, and the evergreen.

George Copway Kahgegagahbowh, The Ojibwe People (1848)

*

That was in 2016, near the beginning of a 2,800 mile bike race that ran the length of the Rocky mountains from Alberta in Canada to the US border with Mexico. That trip was about as far from normal as a bike trip can get, but is an example of the fact that for the last decade of my life, it’s become clear that I can’t really do any travelling anywhere if I don’t have my bicycle with me. I wouldn’t really know how.

In 2007 when i was 24, my mate Guy and I took some bikes to Japan on a journey into the unknown, and thenceforth spent the next few years chasing the two-wheeled dragon wherever we could. We braved the southern spaces of the Arctic circle and unending daylight in Norway, and traversed Eastern Europe from Poland through Slovenia, Hungary and the Ukraine, crossing the Carpathian mountains into Bucharest.

In 2012 I took up the reigns alone, and went to the Andes for six weeks. That was the first trip that really scared me. 43 days at 3,500 metres above sea level, nights so cold water would freeze inside my tent, migraine-inducing altitude, you can read an account of it here. Closer to home my bike took me through Italy, the Alps of Austria and Switzerland, it showed me the length of Germany, there were forays through Holland and Belgium, and France many times over. And a month exploring New Zealand.

I’ve been eaten alive by sand-flies in a river near Dunedin, suffered third degree sunburn in the shadow of Mount Cook, had 3am hallucinations in the deserts of New Mexico, slept in a village on Japan’s east coast that has since been destroyed by a wave, was run off a mountain road by the Romanian mafia, and bought apricots off a 60yr old Ukranian woman with a handlebar moustache. I’ve looked down roads I can’t see the end of, camped out in the middle of them, got more lost than you can ever fathom, I’ve felt the most sad, tired, confused, and by turns the most at peace, elated, and alive I’ve ever felt in my life.

All from the saddle of a touring bike.

*

Discovering the world by bicycle has become my favourite thing in life. It is something I crave when I feel distant from it. It is something I feel a physical pull towards. And is something that fuels me for months once I have returned from it. Until the point where that flame has weakened and splutters and I look for the next chance to go again.

I thought long and hard as to why I felt this so strongly, and I came to a realisation. This physical pull, this joy, this peace of mind, this aliveness, this residual contentment in its aftermath, none of it is actually about the bicycle. Not really. It’s about where the bicycle deposits you. I realised that it was about something far bigger than just the bike. It was about getting the hell away from cities, and getting back into nature. It was something wise and ancient inside me, calling me back to the mountains and the rivers and the birdsong and the silence.

In 1845 the American writer Henry David Thoreau, in his late 20s, built himself a small cabin among the pine trees on the shores of Walden Pond in Massachusetts, wanting to see what it would be like to live cut off from other people, in communion with nature. He summed up his experiences in the book Walden.

He went for long walks, read, mended his clothes, gathered fruit, went fishing and mused on what holds us all back from living in this way. Amid the trees with only birds and badgers for company, he ate and lived simply, but felt like a king. At the end of his time in the woods, Thoreau returned to the modern city sceptical of its so-called achievements and determined to live according to the wisdom and modesty that is the gift of the natural world.

Thoreau was tapping into something innate. This need to be in nature, I have come to believe is deeply nested in every single one of us, thanks to the seven million years of human evolution, and the hundreds of millions of years before that, when we lived in the world and all of the world was just trees. What Thoreau was saying was the same wisdom the Native American tribes had passed down between them since time immemorial.

Nature’s features, her robes, the wreath of her brow, shall be our glory.

I remember one morning lying against the trunk of a giant Eucalyptus in the South Island of New Zealand, looking up and watching its branches and leaves silhouetted against the sky dance in an almighty summer wind. And an intuition came to me that I’ve never forgotten. Straight out of left field. Nothing is wiser or cleverer than nature. I remember thinking it clearly and indelibly. Nothing has been here longer or is more perfectly designed or knows more. It was here before us and will be here after us, and we should pay attention to what it has to say.

Getting into one environment can also get you out of another. And the world of screens and status updates and vibrating alerts and inadequacy, the world of rush hour commutes and screw faces and carbon monoxide and fear,I think we could all use getting the hell away from for a minute or more. It’s not just what nature can give you, but also what it can take you away from.

I wanted to write this because I’m off on my bicycle tomorrow evening at dusk, my ferry lands in Saint–Malo on the north coast of Brittany at eight in the morning, and for the next ten daysI will trace a path as far down the belly of France as I can get. I have my tent, some reading material, a notebook, some clothes to mend, some fruit to gather, the company of birds and badgers, and some fishing to do.

I was going to make this a detailed account of the tiny things that make cycle touring so majestic, but I thought i’d use the next two weeks for research. So here’s Wild Geese by the poet Mary Oliver, if you want you can find her propping up the bar with Thoreau and Kahgegagahbowh, the fellow with the feather peaking out above his head at the start.

They’re all singing from the same hymn sheet.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees 
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and i will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

3000 kilometres at 4000 metres

When I’m old and sedated by my years perhaps I’ll dine out on the memory of an English summer many years ago when I spent six weeks at 4,000 metres above seal level cycling through an endless Argentine winter.

A detailed account of exactly what one person gets up to on his own in a tent for 45 days is for another day and perhaps a different audience, so here’s a foreshortened version of events for you to draw your own conclusions as to what brought about the terror which that barren wilderness unleashed inside me, enslaving me to demons which now deprive me of sleep and have me bound to a hospital bed, sweating rabidly between convulsions and speaking in tongues.


*


First off I want to clarify that Argentina is more than just a combination of the world’s greatest footballers and the world’s most beautiful women.

The first thing that slaps you clean across the face is its size.


s h i t  i s  m a s s i v e

In terms of cycle touring I pretty much experienced the most radical stuff I ever have on a bike.


A savage untamed wilderness haunted me at every turn.

Unending stretches of sand sank my bike wheels halfway through the floor and made any semblance of progress a joke.

And a 7 hour 53km ascent up to a pass at 4,300m almost did for me.

But coasting down the other side was fresh.


75km of nonstop free-wheel

There was also the bonus of cycling the same road drug-traffickers use to run their contraband down from the Bolivian border to Buenos Aires where they ship it out to Europe. With the sheer units involved and the pigs constantly on their tail, spillages are inevitable.

Bolivian uncut, pure as the driven snow. That afternoon I chewed up the kilometres like they were Bubbaloo, relentlessly chatting shit into my ear about absolutely nothing, of which I remember nothing, since I wasn’t listening to a word I was saying.


*


Nowhere I have been comes close to the remoteness I experienced on the roads out there, the feeling of existing in places where humans don’t very often tread. Every day I saw nothing but empty roads stretching out endlessly away from me towards the horizon; at times so relentless that calculating the distance ahead of me was counter productive in that it made me not want to start cycling at all.

It got so desolate sometimes that for want of a smoother surface I made that shit count and camped out in style.

The hugeness of the landscape obliged me to switch up the focus from a far too distant destination back to the simple process of pedalling; the bicycle equivalent of taking very small baby steps, one foot in front of the other. In this manner I inched my way for 3,200km down the spine of the country from the Bolivian border to the province of Mendoza.

Meeting legends along the way, making memories by the bucketload, leaving pieces of my heart strewn here and there, and more importantly taking time out to grow an absolutely gangsta handlebar moustache.

I also saw some heavy sunsets.

Cactuses bigger than houses.

Villages dedicated solely to the production of condiments.

Some state of the art petrol stations.

Some of the world’s most informative road signs.

And Argentina’s answer to Bradley Wiggins.

Six weeks alone on the road, heat from the locals was an inevitability I had to live with.

So I upped my security with a tight support vehicle.


*

When it comes to the cycling, I think Hemingway said it best:


It is only by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of a country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.

I definitely think the physical memories of places are intensified by the exertion it takes to haul your tired behind through them, and if I put my mind to it I can remember details of every single day of the 45 I spent in the saddle. The sun on my back, always the smell of the tarmac, the dirt coating my skin, the dryness at the back of my throat that no amount of water could assuage. You forge strong bonds with particular roads you graft through and villages you collapse in. I don’t exaggerate when I say at times I felt even the walls were speaking to me.

The relentless rhythm of cycle touring means that after killing yourself one day, beating your legs into submission, and face planting onto the floor of your tent drooling dust out the corner of your mouth, somehow you get up the next morning and do it all over again. It is symbolic of a bigger thing. You go through every single emotion possible, every single day travelling by bike in this way.


*

I think touring by bicycle is an allegory for life itself.


And the one constant, the thing that keeps you going, on and on, face down through gritted teeth into the unrelenting headwind…

– asides from some expertly brewed early morning caffeine injection –

Is the thought of what might be round the next bend in the road, down into the next valley, or over the next hill.

When that stops mattering you might as well sack it all in and hit up Cafe Jack.

Yup. Cafe Nero in Argentina is actually called Cafe Jack.

Prepping for The Most Terrifying Journey Of All

Not a whole lot goes on in Calgary.

There I was having an early morning pootle a couple of weeks back, assessing the situation, and decided to cop myself an iced coffee and a sparkling mineral water, a combination fond to me and conducive I thought to an early morning frame of mind that played into the hands of further assessment of the situation. What struck me soon upon entering the Drugstore and assessing the situation of the drinks fridge was that it was absolutely impossible for me to buy either component of this favoured combination without procuring my bodyweight in liquid.

The sizing in North America is a joke. The photo’s perspective is not the best, but that’s literally a pint of iced coffee and that’s a litre of fizzy water. And no this isn’t some family pack thing, there was literally nothing smaller. Which got me thinking that capitalism and greed and not biting the hand that feeds to one side, maybe the reason everything is Supersized over there is more of an art imitating life thing. North America is vast. The products are simply mimicking their surroundings.

Which ties somehow into my next point. About four months ago a seriously questionable individual with a hazy sexual orientation sat down by the side of my bed loined in a pink towel and asked me a question.

Four months later, me and him fly back to Calgary this lunchtime with two of his prototype Big Bro Brother Cycles Mountain Bikes stashed safely in cargo, to undertake the mother of all cycle tours.

We are racing from Banff in Canada to the US border with Mexico at Antelope Wells, along off-road trails the length of the North American Continental Divide, the tectonic plate meeting point that formed the Rocky Mountains.

In terms of tapping into my survival instincts I think it shits and will shit all over anything I ever do in my entire life, and that includes going to the Cineworld in West India Quay to watch Dark Skies.

The more I think about what lies in store over the next few weeks the queazier I become. It’s 2,800 miles, 60,000 vertical metres of climbing, which we plan to finish in 25 days, which boils down to 12 hours of pedalling and 106 miles of movement each day. On shitty, muddy, unrelenting, godforsaken, long-forgotten, backwater trails. The drop-out rate is over 50%.

We have grizzly bear spray for the north, and fuck knows what for the tarantulas of New Mexico. We face sub-zero temperatures at the start and baking hot unending deserts in the south. We’ll hopefully high five some indelible memories, and tap into reserves of pain and stubbornness and fear and likewise elation and hysteria we didn’t know were there, enough to break the memory-bank, proper Werther’s Original stuff.

Most of all I look forward to the company of silence, of pine forests and river torrents and mountain tops and nature at its most raw and untamed, not to mention the peculiar folk who inhabit such remote parts of the world, that no doubt will find us just as peculiar as we roll through on our fat tyres like the muddied living dead. And hey yo, we’ve got each other. Whether we like it or not.

Nothing much left to say other than writing this thing out has made me feel even queasier. But at the same time I find myself so excited I can barely sit still or hold a single thought in my head. That must be the excitement only a free man can feel. A man at the start of a long journey. Whose conclusion is uncertain. I’ll leave you now, feeling more than a little timorous, with one of my great pal Jonty’s favourite lines in the english language, the words of Seamus Heaney.

The way we are living, timorous or bold, will have been our life.