When I was a kid, maybe 8,9,10, I was fascinated by those ads in the back of American comics, eg Caspar the Ghost, Batman, Superman, etc that promised you x-ray specs, or bodybuilding devices that made you Mr Universe in one week, but, most excitingly, ones that said you could build your own hovercraft. I never did send off for a hovercraft but now hovering around middle age I have written a pop punk song about this very impulse. And, in the coup de grace, have spent a frivolous amount of time building several prototypes out of cardboard with my bandmates from The Woodlice. The new single “Hovercraft” is out, complete with a reckless Hovercraft video, in May, to celebrate the launch of our new album “Keep the Light On Baby“. Keep your eyes peeled and your feet floaty. In the meantime there’s a link below to a terrific article about all those comic book inventions and misadventures.
I saw an Instagram post today from a friend Kate Stables, of the band ‘This is the Kit’, imagining a world where musicians went touring on bikes, perhaps as a tiny part of the environmental and climate crises we are facing. One bucolic Summer I went on a musical bike tour with her partner Jesse through the pubs of Shropshire. Kate’s post also reminded me of an article I wrote a while back with Boneshaker Magazine, called ‘Musicians on Bikes’, where I talked to a whole bunch of people, including Kate and Jesse, about their experience of touring on bikes and the relationship between musicians and those spoked harps of the road. Here’s the whole article as a pdf:
You can also listen to a bandcamp playlist of all the musicians who took part here:
When I’m not writing, or working as a psychiatrist, or cycling up hill and down dale, I’m a musician.
Here’s a video for ‘Keep the Light On Baby‘ the first single from my latest album with the band The Woodlice. I wanted the video to say something positive about our community. But its tough to make a film during lockdown. So I went out into the street and filmed my neighbours dancing in the windows of their houses at night. Many of us have felt disconnected; from friends and family and neighbours, but that social network is still there, waiting for us. And I hope this video helps us remember that. As the days get brighter and the news get slowly brighter too. Let’s handbrake turn those dimmer switches!
Mind is the Ride shortlisted for the 2020 Edward Stanford Travel Awards.
Now out in Paperback.
Mind is the Ride can be ordered here at Pages of Hackney, your nearest Independent Bookshop (find your nearest Independent Bookshop here) or the usual conglomerates.
It’s been a few years in the making but I think it will prove its worth in the reading, not just a feast of ideas but of handcrafted illustrations and imagery.
This is not simply another book about cycling (though it is certainly a hymn to our two wheeled friend) but uses bike parts and the bike ride as a metaphor to better understand our relationship with the world around us.
Synthesising thirty world philosophies and religions together with bike mechanics and a travelogue has been quite a task, in many ways more challenging than cycling to India! But this is now coming together and I can promise it will be a very interesting read. With such an unusual perspective on cycling, philosophy and travel, the book has needed belief, and time, to make it come alive.
More news in the New Year!
Best of pedalling,
Here’s an article I wrote for Boneshaker #9 “Girls on Bikes”
You can pledge for my Boneshaker Book Project “Mind is the Ride,” on Cycling and Philosophy, crowdfunding here.
Illustration by Deanna Halsall / www.deannahalsall.co.uk
Last week I saw an old lady ride past wearing a black feather boa and leopard print leggings. There she went, at her own pace, in skin tight leggings and a boa. Now that, I thought, is cool.
The last woman in a boa I thought was that cool was Germaine Greer, author of The Female Eunuch, an iconic tract on woman’s liberation from 1970. Growing up in the eighties, The Female Eunuch passed me by. Like a lot of teenage boys I wasn’t sure what to make of my own ‘sex’, let alone anyone else’s.
One solution was to go on incredibly long bike rides on my Claude Butler racing bike. This didn’t solve any of the original dilemmas but at least it was an outlet for all that testosterone.
And it was then I came across a film of Germaine Greer in a black fur boa in battle with Norman Mailer, the chauvinist war horse of American Literature. Greer had an intellectual ferocity that tripped Norman Mailer and his dish-cloth politics back into the men’s room. Greer was hot, I decided. And she was right on. She didn’t burn bras, she twanged them.
Back in my eighties home town you either wore chinos, listened to Duran Duran and did the dance moves, or you dressed down for radical politics and street protest. Nowhere did the ambiguous flux of sexuality seem to fit in. I remember walking home at midnight with my racer after my first proper snog when a police car pulled over and asked me what I was doing. In those days it seemed like snogging and cycling, or even walking and not cycling, were illegal.
I found solace in the writing of Philip Larkin and then Jeannette Winterson and finally, girls on bikes.
Philip Larkin is one of the moles of English poetry. He is not known for his feminism and he publicly spouted right-wing rhetoric. But he had a libertarian chant in his tightly sprung couplets.
To hell with stereotypes, tiny-minded values, holding teacups with your fingertips, provincial curtains, dust on the mantelpiece, pulling over boys with bikes for having a snog: everything, perhaps, Larkin felt imprisoned by.
“Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide…”
From “HighWindows” 1974
Unfortunately, the UK government had other ideas and embarked on a monolithic campaign about AIDS, just as Larkin was persuading me to go a-roving. Scooby Doo tombstones landed in heaps of dust between the ten o’clock news and the National Anthem. It was as if ‘AIDS’ had been unleashed with four capital letters solely to do battle with those four more profane letters on the walls of the youth club toilet. I desperately wanted to go “down the long slide”, but not into a tombstone.
At University I cycled everywhere. To the feminist poetry think-tanks and to the union bars full of sweat and Brylcreem, but the condom machine was always broken.
And then I read a short essay by the writer Jeannette Winterson. Winterson didn’t just say ‘to hell with small town thinking’ and ‘to hell with stereotypes’, but ‘to hell with fear’.
She pointed out that sex is as necessary as breathing. It is part of the fluid curve of life and nature. Entwine with nature, she said, give way to the sensuous curve, the flow of sex, the unboundaried thrill. Winterson said sex is a smeared rainbow; it is a delicious elusive ride. Hop on, she said, see where it takes you.
My girlfriend at university had a three-speed Raleigh. She was pretty easy to catch up with but I didn’t dare draw alongside ’til the pedestrian crossing. She hopped off to cross the road and I skipped off to follow and we talked and then we walked and then we rode side by side. I remember she had two dried autumnal leaves above her bed, curled around each other.
To my second girlfriend I gave a backie on a silver BMX down the steepest hill in the city. We were both drunk and the brakes didn’t work and we burnt our shoes out but it felt amazing, like “everyone young going down the long slide.” I remember when she danced to R ‘n’ B she would smack her bum in time to the offbeat. For some reason that always made me think of the silver BMX carousing down the hill.
My current girlfriend and I began our first date on a bike path, side by side, freewheeling into town, chatting shyly as the bearings purred within our wheels. Later we would cycle to India and back, returning down that same bike path, freewheeling home.
As I write, the sun has emerged from the English winter. You can feel the heat off the leaves, shrugging off the frost. And the streets are full of “Girls on Bikes”. It’s not only that “Boys on Bikes” don’t do it for me but that so many dress so badly, all grimacing and lycra, like bad S&M at a pool party. And while there are also girls in lycra there are so many more in ripped jeans, pullovers, tank tops, skirts and t-shirts. I cannot help but respond to their electric zap. As spring wakes up the earth so it wakes up the limbs. And those limbs travel the circle of the seasons so sexily on a bike. For sexuality itself is such a joyous ambiguity in motion.
In northern Europe we save our private bodies for the indoors, the fickle winter polices our flesh. But when the sun finally arrives, the hop from indoors to the bike is small, and we allow a more intimate self out in the open. The car does not do this; the car is a room on wheels. The bodiless driver speeds about in four walls and sexual signals are saved for winks in traffic jams. The car can only punish hips and legs, it can only fold them up, make them fearful behind steering column and air bag and hazard light. The car itself is sex. It coughs and burps and beeps like a pimp at a whorehouse. It will not lay itself gently against your hip as you unswing your leg at the end of the unwinding road.
A ‘ride’ has long been a crude metaphor for sex, a lumpen parallel of cycles and humping. “I bet he/she is a good ride”. But the reality of a more intimate sex is that we ride each other, an ecstatic escape from gravity, revolving around the heart of ourselves, tumbling into freedom with “everyone young going down the long slide,” on BMXs or granny gears or tandems.
‘Daisy Bell’ is one of the most famous songs ever written about bikes.
“ Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do,
I’m half crazy all for the love of you.
It won’t be a stylish marriage –
I can’t afford a carriage,
But you’d look sweet upon the seat
Of a bicycle built for two.”
It suggests abandon but also the binds of marriage and etiquette. Too often we forget its later lines….
“When the road’s dark, we can both despise
Policemen and lamps as well…”
Bikes were there at the start of the nineteenth century. The biggest spoon in the gene pool this side of ballroom dancing. Often the only way to get a roll in the long grass was a ride out of town on a ‘safety bicycle’. The ‘bloomers’ of women cyclists were the proto trousers of the suffragettes. No wonder cigar-smoking gents were set against them. “We wear the trousers around here, love.”
And as Bella Bathurst suggests in The Bicycle Book there was an Edwardian mistrust of the leather saddle. “The constant friction of the saddle on genitalia must inevitably lead to masturbation, and masturbation must lead to a new race of pop-eyed nymphomaniacs riding around Britain in a state of frenzied arousal.”
Half a century later ‘IBM 7094’ became the first computer to sing. And the song it sang was ‘Daisy Bell’. Buried in its binary switches, left and right, good and bad, in its stringent huddle of men with clipboards, I like to think there was a wayward sexuality. A rising sap in the machine. A pulse in the leg. A hot breeze on the mouth. A snog with your eyes closed as the wheels go round and round and round.
When my girlfriend read this article she said it could as well be called ‘Boys on Bikes’ so easily could its themes be applied to both sexes. OK, I said, but bikes are more feminine, their curves echoing the womanly form (as Dennis Gould put it in a previous Boneshaker ‘Oh the JOYS-Goddess/Two Wheeled Gypsy Queen’.) No, my girlfriend said, bikes are like boys and girls, angular and rounded. Bikes, she said, are bi.
In a world without limits, without brakes, without policemen, without stop signs, the rules fall away to a sensuous unknown.
“Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.”
You can pledge for my Boneshaker Book Project “Mind is the Ride,” on Cycling and Philosophy, crowdfunding here.
Here’s an article I wrote for Boneshaker #8 – on cycling without a helmet and the mind-body-bust-up.
You can pledge for my Boneshaker Book Project “Mind is the Ride,” on Cycling and Philosophy, crowdfunding here.
“Freakin’ intellectuals on bikes. They’re everywhere.” Jonny slammed his beer glass on the table.
“Out there…” He pointed round the Oxford pub in a wide arc.
There was a gambling machine and an old man in the corner staring at a glass of ale. The gambling machine reflected neon on the outside of the old guy’s inch thick glasses.
“Can’t see any.”
“Out there” said Jonny, “on the streets.” He prodded at the imaginary masses. “The crème de la crème of a generation, scuttling round on their bikes from lecture to lecture…” He banged his fist down on the table so his pint of beer and his bike helmet lurched upwards, “and none of them are wearing helmets.” He screwed his finger into his temple. “Mental.”
“And you’re as sane as a fresh walnut?”
“My head,” he said, tapping his skull, “is my livelihood. And I’m not going to risk it like those,” he paused for emphasis, “tosspots.”
Jonny built missile guidance systems for the military. I did try and point this out, given that he built the brains that killed brains, but after four pints of beer and a packet of pork scratchings he was unwilling to see the paradox and left in a huff.
I watched him wobble down the dual carriageway on his old racer, his helmet strap flapping loosely under his chin.
“Tosspots!” he shouted at the distant domes of the Oxford colleges.
Cycling without a helmet, at least in the UK, is up to the individual. It’s a debate so old it’s got cobwebs coming out of its lugholes. I don’t wear a helmet. Other people do. The difference between me and other people is not measured by virility, foolishness, dullness or heroism. It is measured only by a helmet. My choice is a mop of hair. Other people’s choice is a plastic shell that increases the safety of their noggin by a measurable percentage.
I know that the responsible thing is to wear a helmet. And I really do want to be responsible. But I just don’t want to prioritise my head. I like the whole of my body. In the world of road safety this makes no sense at all. You can look up the facts and you can place your bets but I just want to ride with my mop of hair in a greasy flop in the spring air. In no way does this denigrate those who don’t want to ride with their greasy mops in the spring air. It’s just my choice. And choice is a feverishly potent word. It suggests a moral ambiguity in the equations of risk. For me it’s not about whether you wear a helmet or not, it’s about why.
Jonny believes that his “livelihood” is his head. But the head is just a hood for a life. And life is a sensuous dance of the mind and body. If you’re wearing a helmet just because of that part of you that flops backwards and forwards on the top of your spine, you may as well be on a monorail. A bicycle will spin you through the world, head, body and soul, like a cartwheel, if you let it.
Jonny’s ethic is built on the ideas of René Descartes, a seventeenth century philosopher. “I think therefore I am,” said René and the Western World doffed its hat and agreed.
Descartes was a “Dualist” who divided the mind and body into two distinct substances, a view of reality that prized the head over the neck below. But if I am anything I am a “Monist”, where the mind and body are one. And the truth of it is that anyone that gets on a bike is also a Monist. There is yet to be a bike that runs on telepathy. And there is yet to be a bike powered by a headless telepath.
Freakin’ Monists on bikes. They’re everywhere.
If you pop a head open you find the left and right hemispheres and, a bit lower down, like a bow tie, the cerebellum. If anything is the “mind” of a cyclist it’s this chap, astride the flip flop head and the adjoining spine. The cerebellum is the middle man, wheeling and dealing information between the brain and the limbs. It is responsible for a cyclist’s muscle memory so that we don’t have to keep doing those twitchy left right wobbles for the rest of our life when we first take our feet off the ground.
In the evolutionary scheme of things when man had enough muscle memory to lope around picking veg, the cerebral hemispheres bloomed above the cerebellum, which brought the mixed blessing of consciousness and, in Western civilisation at least, a mechanistic view of life that prioritised mind over body.
But it was not always so. The oldest existing works of Western literature are Homer’s ‘Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey’ from ancient Greece. And as Michael Clarke points out in ‘Flesh and Spirit in the Songs of Homer’ Homeric man had no understanding of body or mind “rather his thought and consciousness are as inseparable a part of his bodily life as are movement and metabolism.”
A man might consult his ‘thumos’, a vital energy that leads to certain thoughts and actions, but this thumos also required drink and nourishment. Homeric thought is associated with “the palpable inhalation of breath, and the half-imagined mingling of breath with blood and bodily fluids, in the soft, warm, flowing substances that make up what is behind the chest wall.”
And I would argue that the cyclist lost in the hypnotic rhythm of a long ride, cerebellum flickering, propels this same ‘thumos’; the mind flowing in body, breathing in the breathing world. And, like Homer, “the common ground of meaning is not in a particular static thing but in the ongoing process of living.”
Are cyclists the Homeric heroes and heroines of ancient Greece? Sometimes it’s hard to feel like this stuck in the guff of a five lane traffic queue. At the rump of three millennia the archetypal Western man is Homer in the cartoon ‘The Simpsons’, plumbed into a television by his eyeballs, his body extrapolated into an engulfing sofa. (It is left to his son Bart to kick off the kerbs on a skateboard and flow with the wind, his wisecracking ‘thumos’ whirling past the lanes of traffic).
So how did we get from here to there, from ‘thumos’ to plasma TV? It was all Plato’s fault, chief Greek philosopher and betrayer of Homeric verse.
“Originally man was only a head,” said Plato, “and so that head might not roll upon the ground with its heights and hollows of all sorts, and have no means to surmount the one or climb out of the other they gave it a body as vehicle for ease of travel.” After a bit of shenanigans over the next thousand years this kind of thinking ended up with Descartes and his mind body divide, each part stuck together like bits of an Airfix kit. But the bicycle refutes this. Emerging out of the industrial revolution it is the most wayward of machines. Then, as now, it nurtures the buried belief that the mind is body and the body is mind.
Ian McGilchrist’s recent book ‘The Master and his Emissary’, examines mind within body by describing the cerebral hemispheres of the brain, the walnut atop the cerebellum. He proposes that the right hemisphere, with its predominant role in the body, its ability to synthesise meaning and empathise, its openness to intuition (the functions of the “lunatic, lover and poet”) has become too separate from the left hemisphere, with its formulaic agenda, its internal logic, its reliance on language.
He argues that this separation, and with it the prioritisation of left hemisphere thinking, has led to the mind–body divide in Western life; “….the body has become a thing, a thing we possess, a mechanism, even if a mechanism for fun, a bit like a sports car with a smart sound system.”
You can see this in Sports Science, where the physical outputs for athletes have become systematised and maximised, where cyclists recognise only cadence, speed and kilometres. The head watches the click of the cycle computer and not the roll of the road.
But the right hemisphere cannot exist without the left, for as a poet needs the logic of language, so a daydreaming cyclist needs the science of gears. The difference for McGilchrist is that the separation has become so absolute that it is now the logic of the left hemisphere that predominates and it is this binary logic that directs so much of our debate. Good and bad. Dirty and clean. Happy and sad. Helmet or no bike helmet. There is no room for the ambiguous flux of choice.
I spend my time pootling around on bike paths and in parks. Perhaps I won’t wear a helmet. Perhaps I will. It is a flexible choice but it is still a choice.
I cycled 10,000km from England to India with my helmet strapped to the back of my bike. Some would argue that was a foolhardy choice and I would be inclined to agree but I enjoyed having my sweaty head exposed to the air. In fact I was more of a high viz man, fluoro over my trunk, while my girlfriend preferred a helmet. We seemed to epitomise the mind–body divide as we rode along separately but together we looked like one reasonably safe unit. I didn’t think my girlfriend was any more or less wayward than me. After all she had also chosen to cycle east for a year.
Why carry a helmet all that way on my bike and never use it? A talisman perhaps. Or rather I preferred to know it was there if I needed it, the wind blowing through its cage like reckless thought.
The bicycle at its best fits the human body as if it was a part of that body, so right does it feel. And if we are clear that the body is not a machine but part of the wholeness of being human, then by extension a bicycle is part of that humanity.
Am I saying that a beaten-up utility bike in a skip has soul? Yes if you yank it out, grease it up and ride with the sun on your legs, rain on face and wind in your mop of hair.
Yesterday I was cycling home and these kids on BMXs nipped past doing hops off the pavements. It looked like they’d just made it back from the barbers and the winter sun shone off their shaved scalps.
I pulled my cycling cap tighter. It didn’t protect my head but it kept it warm. It was merino wool, breathable, top of the range. The left hemisphere approved. I needed to get home to do some DIY before the sun set. The left hemisphere approved. I needed to get to the hardware shop to get the tools to do the DIY before the sun set and I clicked into a higher gear. The left hemisphere rejoiced. But the kid in front then stopped to bunny hop over a manhole, forcing me to brake in a skid, as the skinheads raced on laughing.
“Tosspots,” the left hemisphere thought.
Then, instead of using the concrete slope, the kids rattled down the steps that led down to the bike path, cackling and whistling as they bumped.
I turned after them and bombed down the steps, only to catch my foot in a toe strap, topple sideways into a flower bed, and end up with the bike on top of me and a big smile breaking across my foolish face.
The right leg ached. The whole man approved.
This is an article I wrote for Boneshaker seven, on quiet moments in a hectic world.
I went into town to get ‘A Short Introduction to Buddhism’ only to discover I’d forgotten my bike lock. So I did what this guy at the chip shop once told me. Flip the bike upside down and keep an eye on it through the window. But the bookshop I’d chosen was enormous and the window was blacked out so I had to get the shop assistant to go on the hunt while I rocked backwards and forwards on the doormat trying to keep an eye on my cherished Raleigh.
“ Buddhism for Beginners…?” he said, slipping out a tome.
“Too big.” Rock back on heels to check bike.
“The Modern Buddhist…? That’s quite slim.”
Rock forward, neck becomes tense. “I’m looking for more of an introduction…”
“The Dalai Lama and you…,” he says.
“No, no, An Introduction…,” I say.
“Here we go…” He finds a tome that makes a ‘flump’ sound as he slips it out of the shelves.
“No, no, a Short Introduction to Buddhism…” I rock backwards. A man with bad teeth is reaching towards my bike. “Ummm…. Ummm.” I knock on the doorpane and the man retreats.
“Here we go,” says the bookseller, “A Very Short Introduction to Buddhism…”
“Yeh, yeh, yeh give me that one.” I wave my credit card at him and leave with a book, which is the same size and colour as a bar of chocolate. The man with the bad teeth has gone but the back wheel of my upside down bike is going round and round and round like he’s given it a twirl. The freewheel clicks. I wonder if Buddha would have liked cycling? He was always sitting cross-legged though and well, that dhoti and the chain ring…The wheel keeps on spinning. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick…
I think back to a weekend visit to my parents. In my old room, long since converted into office space, there is a bookshelf of adolescent reads and some non-fiction my Mum has bought me over the years. In amongst the angry young man books I find ‘Meditation in a Week’ and further along ‘Meditation in a Day’ and finally, hidden by Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, the stocking filler ‘Instant Meditation.’ At some point my mother would be buying me ‘Meditation in No Time At All’, a form of meditation so immediate it happens even before it’s contemplated, the single sheet of instructions lost forever amidst the poetry anthologies and dystopias.
In ‘The Bicycle Book’, writer Bella Bathurst interviews Patrick Field of the London School of Cycling, who teaches city riding skills. “How you treat a red light,” he says, “depends on how you feel about yourself and society….The ones who make me laugh are…you know, I’m waiting at a red light, and these kids go past, desperate to move, as if their bike will explode if they stop…” He goes on; “The people who can’t stop at red lights aren’t happy – they don’t have the psychological resources to be themselves, so they’re infected with this anxiety, this “I’ve got to get going.”
I had friend who cycled everywhere plugged into her iPod. To the shops, to the next town, to the mountains, her playlist on an infinite shuffle. And then she realised this was because she couldn’t bear her own company. She told me this outside a house party and the mobile she was holding dropped to the pavement, the back fell off and she broke into tears.
All very dramatic, but I knew what she meant. For a long time cycling wasn’t enough for me. I had to be plugged in. I had to be receiving stimulus. And then someone wagged a finger.
“Earphones and cycling are unsafe,” they said, “you’re a risk to yourself and other road users.”
“OK”, I thought, “I’ll get some ‘safe’ ones.”
So I bought ‘in line’ headphones, backward-facing devices that could ‘slingshot’ music across a gap between the speakers and my lugholes, a space into which, so the blurb persuaded me, the external world could safely permeate. Thus I would ride, thus I would glide through the traffic, like a bit part in one of those sold-out folk music phone adverts.
But at the end of one of these trips I felt like I’d been gunned down. A drive-by shooting in a gold fish bowl. ‘Shooting’ noise into my brain wasn’t a good idea. It wasn’t doing the music or the cycling any favours. Modern life is geared up to selling stuff to help us cope with modern life. The world spins on its kaleidoscopic axis faster and faster and faster. So how do I fit it all in? Do I change my life? No, I buy something that changes me. Crowbar in another 10 minutes of Led Zeppelin. Bam. Click to another playlist.
I’m going to sound like a pipe-smoking beardy here, but I do remember vinyl with a painful ache. After one side finished, those delicious thirty seconds as the album is flipped over and the needle replaced. A short lapse of silence.
There are the doers and there are the done-to. And I’ve always liked to think I’m a doer and cycling has been part of that philosophy. I am the agent of my own locomotion. I will go where I chose and when I chose, at my own will. But it took many thousands of kilometres of riding to realise that what I liked most about cycling was not doing anything.
Somewhere on a plateau amongst the Turkish mountains after all that pummelling and grunting, all those roaring, guffing trucks, what I needed, what I found, was a coasting horizontal, lost in an infinite moment of going and not going. The hills so far away across the plains it seemed like I, and they, were never going to move and all the wreckage of the modern world holding its breath, lost in the moment. It took me twenty years of cycling to realise that the best part of it was being still. The freewheel going tick, tick, tick, tick. Marking out the fragments of silence.
Steve Hagan, a self-styled priest of Zen Buddhism, says this: “Generally we think of a journey as involving movement and direction, either going somewhere into the world or else leading inward, into the self. But in Buddhism our journey must go nowhere – neither in nor out. Rather, ours is a journey into nearness, into immediacy…….To be fully alive we must be fully present.”
And shooting John Coltrane into my head is not going to help. I’m not going to pretend that I don’t still listen to music and ride, because I do. But I have a lot more time for silence. And when I say silence, I mean air marked out by lucid punctuations, birdsong, leaves rubbing their hands together, the tyre pressing into the earth in the park, the freewheel going tick, tick, tick… I used to ride to work straight down the cycle track, headphones in and bam! I’d be there. Now I go through the park; it takes twice as long but I and the world get to hang out a bit more.
The first of the four truths of the Buddha is ‘Dukkha’, coming from a Sanskrit word that refers to a wheel out of kilter. ‘Dukkha’ is also defined as ‘suffering’.
“In the Buddha’s time the accompanying image may have been a cart with an out-of-true wheel being pulled along,” says Steve Hagan. It would be trite for me to try and explain Buddhism in a short essay or to extrapolate a thousand years of thinking into a bicycle ride. But I think Buddha would have enjoyed our two-wheeled friend. And he would have been the first to point out that the ‘out of kilter wheel’ is in the rider and not the bike. With all the restless having-to-get-a-move-on that modern life demands, we are in danger of forgetting that one of cycling’s great pleasures is not that it gets us places but that it puts us in a place; it gives us a tangible sense of presence in the world, a sense of hereness that forgets the suffered anguish of desire, the consumer mosh pit and the white chocolate mp3 player.
So yes, let it be said, I am a fan of the freewheel hub, the ratcheting mechanism in the rear mech that lets your bike coast ever-onwards without having to pedal. I’ve never ridden a fixed wheel (with no ‘freewheel’) but I don’t think I’d like it. I watch those ‘fixies’ balancing on their pedals at traffic lights and it all looks a bit too, well, precarious.
Of course you can’t judge a bike you haven’t had a go on. That’s like a politician ranting about the moral decency of a film he hasn’t seen.
“Hey daddio, get on the saddle,” those messenger boys would say, “you might enjoy it.”
I’m sure I would, but for now I’m quite happy freewheeling through the park. And now I’ve zoned in on the freewheel I see it everywhere. I see it in old men sat on park benches talking about this and that as the sun goes down, nowhere to go and everywhere to be. And then I see it in young lovers on that bit of concrete that was going to be used as part of the boating lake but never got used as part of the boating lake, so tied up in the dance around each other, they only exist in the moment, as the sun goes revolving around them. And I see it in me when I go running down the hill, so steep I just have to keep on going. If I put my arms out wide and pretend I’m an aeroplane and make a “wooo” sound, I forget my legs and get caught in the endless moment of gravity’s pull. And that “wooo” noise is a kind of silence. And cycling is a way of being still. And there is no Very Short Introduction to Buddhism only a Buddhist approach to Very Short Introductions.
“Tick, tick, tick, tick……”
I once biked to a sandy desert. OK, I cycled to a big Iranian city then I took a bus and a taxi. But the place was amazing – one of those ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ sandpits – and the thing that struck me, apart from the sensuousness of the dunes, was the quality of the silence. It was so absolute you could hear your own mind, a low level hum that wasn’t tinnitus but could only be the mind, the ratchets of the ear ticking over. In the search for peace and stillness and silence ‘out there’, ultimately we return to ourselves.
Illustration by Kerry Hyndman
This is an article I wrote for Boneshaker six, based on the joy of leather saddles and cycling from Bristol to India.
It would be a mistake to say that my leather saddle fits me like
a glove. Gloves are for hands and saddles are for backsides.
But on some days, with a good tailwind and a smooth highway,
there is a sense of being borne aloft like a couple of free
range eggs on a silk mitten.
When my ‘B67’ saddle arrived in the post it looked more
like a pain in the arse. The ‘B67’ sounds like a tactical
bomber and resembles a thug on bedsprings. Relatives
would rap the seat with their knuckles, bite their bottom lip
and give me that ‘look of doom’, the kind of look older men
reserve for younger ones going into battle.
Having cycled over 10,000 km to India I can honestly say I survived without mortal canker.
I never got used to the ‘B67’ but it, with the slowness of a
craftsman, with the sympathy of time, got used to me. If I gaze
at the ‘B67’ long enough I see, not the face of God, but the
careful scoop of my own testicles, the right slightly higher than
the left, darkening its brown leather hide like thumb indents in
iron clay. But saddles aren’t porcelain made by potters. They’re
cushions made by masochists. Day after day. Mile after mile.
Hill after hill. ‘Breaking it in,’ they call it. But who are they,
and who, breaks who?
My journey began eighteen months ago, long before my
trip, with a visit to the doctor.
“Balls,” I said, pointing down, in case he’d forgotten which
half of the body they were in. “Pain,” I added, “cycling.”
“How far in a week?”
“About fifty miles.” I was pretty pleased with myself.
This would surely get me a medal or at least a low blood
“Saddle?” he continued.
“Leather,” I said, “the B67.”
“ Pretty good saddle,” the doctor said, “after you’ve broken it in.”
What? How would he know? He was a doctor and I,
I was a cyclist.
“Got one on my Brompton,” the Doctor said.
What did he want? A medal.
The real subtext to this consultation was the book I’d been
reading, ‘It’s Not About The Bike,’ by Lance Armstrong.
For those who don’t know, Mr Armstrong is the drug disgraced anti-hero of American cycling. But when I read the book he was a hero to pumped up race cyclists everywhere. Prior to this I’d read ‘Full Tilt’
by Dervla Murphy, about an Irish woman who’d cycled to
India with a revolver strapped to her leg. I’d figured that
Dervla was a woman with balls and if Dervla was a woman
with balls then Lance Armstrong had to be ballsier, a cyclist
with balls and balls. If anything would inspire me to cycle
to India it would be this book.
But Lance Armstrong’s narrative launched straight into his
battle with testicular cancer. By the time I’d got to chapter
three I’d put it back on the shelf. It wasn’t that he wasn’t
heroic. It was that I wasn’t.
No matter how nonchalant I was pretending to be to
myself, to my friends, to my girlfriend, the prospect of
cycling to India was terrifying. And this introspection, this
thinking, took seat in that part of me most closely allied to
the bike and to my sense of masculine, competitive, pride.
What, I began to worry, if this pain was something more
serious? What if, like Lance Armstrong, it would end up
with x-rays and scans and bikes gathering dust in the yard?
One doctor’s appointment and an ultrasound scan later,
I left reassured but still with my nagging ache. Looking
back now I realise this pain was an admixture of worry
and the minor wounds of urban riding. Pot holes, kerbs,
cobblestones, roadworks, emergency stops, the stuttering
patter of city life holding me back from the big adventure.
Eventually it rained on my leather saddle and this softened it
up enough for the first thousand miles. After that it was bliss.
When songwriter Paul Simon penned the tune ‘Slip Sliding
Away’ he was actually referring to the legendary smoothness
of a well turned saddle. The ischial tuberosities of the hip
bone roll into the indentations of leather like snooker balls in
sockets. The weight is borne by the tuberosities and not by
the flabby bits of bum that sit with them. They are so loosely
borne that they roll in and out of the sockets leaving the bum
to slide happily over shiny leather. “The nearer your destination
the more you’re slip sliding away,” Mr Simon says. The groin,
heaven praise, is spared.
Much like some actors never mention Macbeth without
spitting over their shoulder, there are some long distance
cyclists who are afraid to mention the word ‘groin’ or more
specifically ‘EDS’, “erectile dysfunction syndrome”. There
are a parade of sporty saddles that pander to this angst,
replete with midline cutaways sparing the sensitive soul. I
have yet to meet a cyclist who has admitted to EDS, on or
off a leather saddle, but maybe that’s the point. No one’s
ever going to tell you apart from old men too unabashed
to care. Before I cycled to India a bike shop owner in his
eighties cast his eye over my saddle.
“Ought to be careful…”
“Terrible problems when I was lad” He offered me the look
of doom. It turned out he had only ridden razor-seated
racers, in chamois leather shorts. At the end of our ride to
India I met a guy called Patrick on a beach. We were trying
to impress him with the scale of our adventures when he
let slip he’d been cycling around the globe for 15 years.
His secret? He leaned toward me, slightly away from my
girlfriend, as if she might be tainted by so mentioning it.
“Point your saddle down…” he said and tapped his nose.
I personally think all this talk of EDS is a bit apocryphal.
The brilliant cardiovascular work of cycling has to balance
out any losses from sitting in the saddle. The naysayers
from their couches are missing the point. A diet of TV
meals is inevitably going to end up more problematic
than a jaunt across the subcontinent on two wheels.
And the real crux of the issue here is the balls themselves.
A vocal sensitivity about potency belies the need to prove
it, and like all outdoor endeavours, cycling has its share
of testosterone nutters. Head down, bullet-like creatures
with no bells. France is full of them. It’s the most amazing
country for cycling. Less people, less cars, more tiny roads.
But it is very ballsy. We did meet a boy/girl French couple
on our travels, on a tandem made from two bikes welded
together. The bike would break in half and they’d happily
weld it back together and return to the road. But they were
the exception, not the rule. French cycling culture is all
about racing, not simply getting from A to B. And with the
world’s biggest cycling event beamed across the planet it’s
easy to see why. If Lance Armstrong could do it seven times
over then why can’t I, think a million Frenchmen aged
between fifteen and seventy five, with varying degrees of
Lycra-wrapped flab. But where are the women? Not on the
backroads of France, that’s for sure.
If Lycra-clad testosterone cycling goes far enough it actually
circles back on itself and becomes gay. In the Champagne
region of Northern France we came across a racing cyclist
in red hot-pants and what appeared to be a see-through
lacy blouse. He was out of the saddle waving his derrière
from left to right as he cycled very slowly along flat ground.
He was the campest rider we’d ever seen. He was being
followed by two giggling women as he went round and
round the village ring road. But the point here is the that
girls were in a Citroen 2CV and not on bikes.
The UK has its faults but there is an increasingly diverse mix of
cyclists and it was a pleasant surprise to come back from riding
through the Middle East and Asia (where there is an absolute
paucity of women on wheels) to find all genders and ages out
for a spin, hot-pant racers just part of the mix.
Back home after my long trip I ironically find myself
eyeing up those superlight racing bikes I had once been so
dismissive of, the net result of plodding for thousands of
miles on a fully laden touring bike.
I begin to have flights of fancy. “I could hop on that razor
thin saddle and get to Manchester in the time it takes to
make a mochaccino.” My girlfriend catches me with the
shiny bike catalogues in the garden, hiding them like
porn in the long grass. “It’s lighter than air” I say, flicking
my finger against a sliver of saddle that looks like it’s
made of fibreglass.
“Balls,” she says.
Here’s an article I wrote for Boneshaker Five – based on my experience of “Not Cycling” on a container ship through the Indian Ocean and Suez Canal.
On Not Cycling
I am on a container ship in the middle of the Persian
Gulf. It is March 2010; Civil war is ahead of me, earthquakes
behind and pirates in the middle. And yet I am pedalling,
pedalling for all I am worth on an exercise bike in the corner
of the ship’s recreation room. Through a porthole I can just
see the ocean and, owing to the up-down-side-to-side motion
of pedalling, it feels like this ocean is moving in jumps in time
to my own knock-kneed revolutions. In other words I am
powering a 75,000 tonne container ship as it chugs through
the Middle East. But in reverse. The exercise bike is pointing in
the opposite direction. And I can’t stop. I can’t stop pedalling.
For the past ten months my girlfriend and I have been
cycling across Europe and the Middle East to India from the
UK. We arrived in Bombay, cycled another 2000km and now
it’s time to go home. We are on a freighter ship packed with
the products of cheap labour, stacked like building blocks in
metal containers; plastic tat, frozen goods and foil wrapped
tea on its inexorable journey to our supermarkets. And then,
tucked away in the corner, there’s ‘Billy’ and ‘Bertle’ – our
battered touring bikes. We left Bombay in a flurry of ferries,
bribes, plastic bottles and masala curry and now find ourselves
on an air-conditioned tub with twenty crew and nowhere to
cycle and everywhere to go.
It’s hard to explain what it feels like to cycle eight hours
a day, five days a week for months and months and months.
It’s even harder to explain what it feels like when you stop.
What stopping most feels like is ‘not stopping’. This is where
the brain and the body have a major fall out. The brain goes
“Look mister, enough with the cycling. You are on a boat in
the middle of nowhere, read a book, eat a schnitzel, watch a
film, cut your toenails, trim that terrible hippy beard – but
just stop cycling.” Basically – chill out.
But the body is having none of it. “Listen mate,” it says,
“these muscles have been cycling continuously for the last
ten months. We don’t do stairs. We don’t really do chairs.
Certainly not chairs with backrests.”
And so I find myself circling the exercise bike. Or rather
it circles me. I can hear it whirring beneath the guttural diesel
turbines of the boat. And before I know it I’m on a shiny
plastic seat pedalling nowhere and everywhere at the same
time. I have become the air-conditioned hamster in a cage I
was trying to escape all those months ago. Is this really true
or am I just unwinding the spool I wound over all those
months? The word ‘unwind’ is wholly a verb, it hints that
stillness can be reached only by its opposite, that is ‘not
cycling’ by in fact ‘cycling.’
The further East we go the more time slips. A tinny tannoy
announces “All crew please note clocks go back half an hour” and
“All crew please note clocks go back an hour.”And, as if by magic,
all the ships clocks retreat by the same amount, connected by an
invisible network behind the plywood panelling. This only adds
to the sense of unspooling what has already been spooled, day
after day, mile after mile, click after click.
Our ‘real’ bikes, Billy (named after a goat) and Bertle
(named after a Bert), have been lashed by a Philippine sailor
to a metal pipe. They too travel backwards and riderless. The
sailor is bemused as I fuss over the pedals so they don’t lean
into each other’s spokes or chainset. Most if not all ‘ordinary
people’ (read ‘non-transcontinental cycling’) have been
bemused by this anxiety. When the bikes have not been cycled
(i.e. strapped into some other form of transport) I always find
myself in a demented shouting match with its owner.
In Bombay we had eight taxi drivers, four pushing from
the back, four pulling from the front, trying to ram our bikes
into the back of a cab. It’s difficult to be assertive when you’ve
had a forty hour train journey and landed in one of the most
populous cities on earth at midnight, but there goes the
derailleur twanging against the top of a taxi seat you’ve been
told definitively does not fold down.
In India bikes are just oxen – one-speed wonders that can
carry ten times their weight and get you places, not in style or
even much comfort, but they get you there. This is laudable
in a Western cycling culture where many bikes have become
fetishised like fashion items, the latest titanium stallion
gathering dust in a garage or whipped out on a Sunday for a hot
pant jaunt. In India a bike is just a bike and if something breaks
there’s always a hut round the corner to slot in a replacement
for the price of a cup of tea.
The downside of this is that our touring bikes, the friends
that have carried us 10,000 km, are treated with the same
workaday shove. “It’s only a bike,” think the eight bored taxi
drivers, “why is he shouting so much?” The back of Billy’s
mudguard breaks but the chainsets, remarkably, survive
unscathed. Indians love to fiddle with the gear levers, argue
over the role of pannier racks and, most often, squeeze the tyres
– the equivalent of a carpenter giving a piece of wood a knock
to see if it’s sound. But bikes, generally, are at the bottom of the
transport pile. Every night it was a battle to get them locked
inside or anywhere near our rooms. “They’re just bikes…” Yes
but they’re just our bikes.
In South India we had to give a ‘tip’ to a porter to load
Billy and Bertle safely into the luggage compartment of a train.
Half an hour later we see them on the opposite platform,
unlocked and leaning against a lamppost as a hundred other
passengers walk by. Billy and Bertle have been carried on ferries,
trains, taxis, cranes, boats and once in a fisherman’s canoe
(after a monsoon had washed the road away). But not once
have they been scorned as much as they have been on a British
train. Too many times I have had some franchised conductor
foulmouthing my bike and I for ‘holding up the service’ as if
bikes were somehow the new ‘leaves on the track’ of Network
Rail. Once I saw John Grimshaw, ex-head of Sustrans – the
UK’s sustainable transport network – being bullied off a
carriage by a stream of commuters as he tried to wobble his bike
onto the platform. Back in India, bikes may be at the bottom of
the transport ladder but at least they are accorded a rung in the
climb. Sometimes in Britain it feels as if they don’t deserve to be
there at all, as if a bike not being cycled is not a cycle at all, it is
Here I sit on my exercise bike ‘not cycling’, unwinding
to a more mundane existence, and what surprises me is just
how boring this ‘not cycling’ is. It reminds me that the actual
act of revolving your legs round and round is dull, dull, dull.
There is an endorphin hit, yes, but with nothing to see and no
handlebars to steer, what is there to do? I find myself revolving
my legs and flinging my hands in front of my chest in the
open-palmed gesture of a rapper in full flow. Here I am on a
boat in the middle of the Persian Gulf rapping to a ‘Safety First’
poster as my legs go round and round and round.
But the paradox is that this ‘not cycling’ makes me
realise what cycling actually is. It’s not about the muscles, the
kilometres, the kilojoules. It’s about the steering. It’s about
being in charge of your own destiny, the control that all other
transport systems try to wrestle away from you. More than that
it’s about seeing the world, really seeing the world. Not behind
a windscreen or a seatbelt or a porthole or a flying metal tube
but out in the big wide open. Fast enough to get places, slow
enough that people can reach out and touch your shirt, offer
you a “Salaam” or a “Namaste,” give you some fruit, ask you
to stay, argue about the cricket, give you a carton of cold milk,
discuss the weather, or just sit in the midday shade with you,
waiting for the heat to go.
Some may see cycling as a lonely occupation, man and
machine against the mountains. But it is supremely social: it
weaves into other peoples journeys, it opens up the world by
opening up individual worlds. It is in fact ‘microtourism,’
meeting other people face to face, an antidote to the armies
of mass tourism and their sausage factory experiences.
But before I get too righteous, too indignant, I must
remember I am sat on the plastic seat of an exercise bike on B
deck of CMA CGM Wagner, sweat dripping off my nose and
a bit of an ache in my right knee from too much ‘unwinding’.
‘Overuse,’ I think they call it.
There is a time and a place for cycling and ‘not cycling.’
Balance in all things. That’s what I should have learnt when
my Dad first took the stabilisers off and I went freewheeling
down the hill, my hands on the grips trying to wrestle control.