“The bicycle is the noblest invention of mankind”
– William Saroyan, from his introduction to The Noiseless Tenor
Cycling gets in your blood.
Almost everyone I know has been on a bicycle at some time in their lives. Many people still have one somewhere, and may even ride it frequently. But to be a Cyclist is something different. At some point a simple mode of transportation becomes a central part of life. The cycle and the cyclist are inextricably bound together.
I am a cyclist. It’s one of the things that define me. And cyclists are my tribe. For those of us who have succumbed to the lure of two wheels it is a life-changing event.
A day without a ride, no matter how pleasant, is now lacking something; and any day no matter how boring or annoying is made better by a ride. Even as I sit here licking my wounds from my latest crash, I am impatient to heal up so I can get back on my bike.
Perhaps the nearest equivalent species is the Golfer. Lots of people play golf occasionally and even enjoy it (though the point of it has always eluded me). But a Golfer is someone who can’t think of anything better to do than golf, even if it’s just a quick round on a course that they have played hundreds of times. And when they aren’t golfing they like to read about golf, troll the pro shops for new kit, and watch professional golf on TV.
So what is the root of this cycling mania? There is no single or simple explanation, but for me it’s largely summed up by simplicity, grace and speed.
The diamond frame bicycle is the most elegantly simple and efficient machine the human race has managed to dream up. No other mode of transportation will take you so far and so fast using only your own heart and lungs. No other piece of technology has remained fundamentally unaltered for over 100 years, much less one that can be easily maintained by the owner with a few simple tools. And a well-maintained bike has a lifespan that will exceed that of its owner.
Simplicity also means that there is no free lunch. Riding results are defined in a linear way by the time and effort expended in training. Age and genetic advantage have an impact, but not nearly as much as in other sports. With few exceptions the faster rider deserves to be faster because he or she has trained harder. And every fast descent is earned by hard uphill slogging.
Cycling requires and rewards grace, both physical and spiritual. A fast ride on a twisty road will put all workaday troubles behind as you become totally in the moment and at one with the bike. Hit a fast corner just right and feel the tires bite and the G forces build up as you carve the perfect arc, then jump out of the saddle and accelerate hard. Feel the driving force of a double paceline moving at speed, each front wheel only inches from the rear wheel it is following, the files only an elbow width apart. Experience the contemplative solitude of a lonely road on a dark night, surrounded by the bubble of light from your headlamp. Or just pootle along a country lane, with no windscreen or air conditioning to anaesthetize the senses. Cycling is quiet – just the rhythmic song of a well-oiled chain on cogs, the hiss of rubber on pavement (or the rustle of knobbies over dried leaves),, and when the world tilts upwards, the pumping of the heart and (hopefully) the steady thrum of deep breathing.
I have hit 400 miles per hour while piloting a jet trainer. Frankly, it was dull. Flying nap of the earth in a combat helicopter was much better, and better than that was wide flat open motorcycle racing on the late, lamented Edmonton Speedway. But, with the possible exception of downhill skiing, nothing gives the sensation of pure speed better than flying down a Welsh mountain road at 85kph with only a sheet of lycra between your soft skin and the hungry pavement below.
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I could go on. Cycling changed society in profound ways that the automobile merely amplified. It provided personal mobility to the working class, it allowed farm labourers to look beyond the local village for work and for love, it revolutionized womens’ clothing styles (you can’t ride a bike wearing a bustle or a hoop skirt), to this day it still allows farmers in the developing world to move large bundles of produce to market… And did I mention that a bike ride burns no fossil fuels? However, if you’ve read this far I am preaching to the choir, so I will desist.
So there it is. I am a MAMIL – a Middle Aged Man in Lycra – and there is no cure!
Suggested Post-Ride Reading
The Rider – Tim Krabbé
The Escape Artist – Matt Seaton
Things I learned about cycling:
… And things I haven’t learned: